The Aditya Birla Scholarship

I spent this evening attending this year’s Aditya Birla Scholarship awards function. Prior to that, there was a networking event for earlier winners of the scholarship, where among other things we interacted with Kumaramangalam Birla. Overall it was a fun evening, with lots of networking and some nostalgia, especially when they called out the names of this year’s award winners. My mind went back to that day in 2004, as I sat confident but tense, and almost jumped when I heard my named called out only to realize it was another Kart(h)ik!

You can read more about my experiences during that award ceremony here (my second ever blog post), but in this post I plan to talk about what the scholarship means to me. During the networking event today, one of the winners of the scholarship (from the first ever batch) talked about what the scholarship meant to him. As he spoke, I started mentally composing the speech I would have delivered had I been in his place. This blog post is an attempt to document that speech which I didn’t deliver.

People talk about the impact the scholarship has on your CV, and the bond that you form with the Birla group when you receive the scholarship. But for me, looking back from where I am now, the scholarship has primarily meant two things.

Back in the day, the scholarship covered most of my IIM tuition fee. When I’d joined IIM, my parents had told me that they wouldn’t fund my education, and I had taken a bank loan. However, the scholarship covered Rs. 2.5 lakh out of the Rs. 3 lakh I needed for my tuition fee, and the loan that I had taken for the remaining amount was cleared within a couple of months after I worked.

My first job turned out to be a horror story. It was six years before my ADHD would be discovered, but I was in this job where I was to put in long hours under extremely high pressure, and deliver results at 100% accuracy. I wilted, but refused to give up and pushed myself harder, and I’m not sure if I actually burnt out or only came close to it. But it is a fact that one rainy Mumbai morning, I literally ran away from my job, purchasing a one-way ticket to Bangalore and refusing to take calls from my colleagues until my parents told me that my behaviour wasn’t appropriate.

While my parents were broadly supportive, the absence of liabilities made the decision to quit easier. Of course I still had the task of finding myself another job, but I knew I would pull through fine even if I didn’t find another job for another six months (of course, I had saved some money from my internship at an investment bank, but the lack of liabilities really helped). The Aditya Birla Group, by funding my business school education, played an important role in my being free or financial obligations, and being able to chart out my own path in terms of my career.

My six-year career has seen several lows, aided in no small amount by my ADHD and depression, both of which weren’t diagnosed till the beginning of this year. I got into this vicious cycle of low confidence and low performance, and frequently got myself to believe that I was good for nothing, that I had become useless, and that I should just take some stupid steady job so that I could at least pay the bills.

During some of these low moments, my mind would go back to that day in September 2004 when I (at the end of the day) felt at the top of the world, having been awarded the Birla scholarship. I would then reason, that if I was capable of convincing a panel consisting of N. Ram, N K Singh and Wajahat Habibullah to recommend me for the Aditya Birla scholarship, there was nothing that was really beyond me. Memories of my interview and the events of the day I got the scholarship would make me believe in myself, and get me going again. Of course on several occasions, this “going again” didn’t last too long, but on other occasions it sustained. I credit the Aditya Birla scholarship for having given me the confidence to pull myself back up during the times when I’ve been low.

These are not the only benefits of the scholarship, of course. The scholarship has helped build a relationship with the Aditya Birla group. In the short run, when I won the scholarship, it helped me consolidate my reputation on campus. And last but not the least, it was a major catalyst in reviving a friendship which had gone awry thanks to some of my earlier indiscretions. Most important, though, was the financial security that scholarship offered, which made potentially tough decisions easier, and the confidence it offered me which has carried me through tough times.

 

High Performance Schooling

At the outset I want to mention that I mean no disrespect for my schoolmates or teachers from Sri Aurobindo Memorial School, where I spent twelve mostly wonderful years. It is just a thought as to whether it would have helped me later on in life had I been shifted out of there when I was in say primary school into what I would call as a “high performance school”.  Also, apologies at the outset if I were to sound boastful in this post. Unfortunately, there is no other way to get the point across.

Right from primary school, like say when I was in first standard, I was what can be described as a “high performer”. Yes, I was always first or second in class in terms of marks, but that is not so much of the issue here – there were a lot of people who did nearly as well and my marks were not so much of a differentiator. I’m talking more about being almost always significantly ahead of class.

For example, in first standard, they taught us addition in school. I remember being taught to do something like “two in the mind, four in the hand” and then count out the two in order to add two and four. By that time, however, I had already learnt addition at home and was pretty good at it. When called to the front of the class to solve one such problem for everyone, I just shouted the answer and ran back to my seat. I remember the teacher saying in a subsequent class that she would give me a “big sum” (which was 3-digit addition), and I solved that too in a jiffy.

Again in first standard, there was a spelling test. In all earlier such tests, I had done exceedingly well, getting only one or two words wrong at the max. I think by then I had already begun to read bits and pieces of the Deccan Herald which my grandfather subscribed to (my parents subscribed to Kannada Prabha, and I could read that quite well, as well). I was bored of getting everything right in every test. So I started writing wrong spellings on purpose. It was the only way to entertain myself.

This kind of stuff continued throughout schooling. I remember reading my neighbour’s 9th standard math textbooks when I was in 7th standards. History lessons never interested me because my grandfather had told me all those stories and I remembered. On several occasions in middle and high school, I would know that what the teacher was teaching was wrong, but would be too bored to point that out to her because it would lead to a pointless argument (to my credit, I did try a few times, and it was very hard for the teachers to back down. After a while I simply stopped trying).

One offshoot of this being ahead of class was that I would be constantly bored in class, and I would identify this as a potential cause of some behavioural issues I faced as a child. Being the teacher’s pet and a general geek (I was the first guy in class to wear spectacles) meant that I was a popular target for bullying and practical jokes. I would take advantage of my size (I was comfortably the biggest kid in class) and would respond by beating up people. My parents spent most of my middle school listening to complaints from teachers about my being a bully and violent type!

As I grew older and learnt the merits of non-violence, I managed to overcome this, but the more damaging effect of always being ahead of class was that I was never challenged, and hence I never developed the habit of working hard, and when I tried to (when I went to IIT), it was too late. While I didn’t particularly top or “max” every test and exam in school, I sailed through fairly comfortably and never really had to do anything like work hard till I finished my 10th standard.

Then, I went to National Public School, which had a reasonably rigorous criterion for admission into 11th standard, so in some sense it was a “high performance centre”. But the problem there was what I call as the “11th standard free-rider teacher problem”, the cause of which is the IIT-JEE. Let me explain. In 11th standard, in a school such as NPS, most kids go for JEE coaching. Consequently, some teachers assume that all kids go to JEE coaching, and thus slacken their level of involvement and quality of teaching in the classroom. Those that are going for “tuition” don’t mind/notice this drop in quality. The rest do, but are too small a minority to affect things in class.

So yes, I did feel challenged in 11th standard. But then I took a (probably wise, in hindsight) decision to not care at all about the class tests and exams, and instead look long-term – towards success in the board exam and IIT-JEE. Working at my own pace, without really pushing myself too hard, I did rather well in both of them (after having been mostly in the bottom half of my class at NPS, of course, but I didn’t care about that). And then I went to IIT, which is where the troubles began.

IIT, thanks to its (then) selection criteria, is truly a “high performance centre”, in if not anything but in the quality of the students it takes in. There is also a sharp jump in the level of tuition compared to school. You are truly challenged and considerable work is called for in order to stay abreast in class. Being in Computer Science also means you are flooded with rather intensive programming assignments. It is difficult to do well unless you are really willing to work hard, and that is where I failed to cope. I had never put in anything close to that level of involvement. Suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool (in terms of working hard), I struggled, and the continuous nature of evaluation meant that there was no point in “focusing on big exams” here, like I had in high school. Every little exam and assignment contributed to your final CGPA. I graduated as the median of the class, and I’ve never recovered.

IIM wasn’t that hard compared to IIT, but again I didn’t work too hard in courses I didn’t get too interested in, and barely graduated in the top quartile, an under-achievement given my comfort levels in most subjects.  And my lack of ability to work hard doggedly has cost me much in my corporate career also. Some tasks that most people consider “routine” have turned out to be insanely hard for me, and in some places I haven’t been able to cope with the workload. I have a problem working long hours with concentration. I’m good at problem solving but lack that “sheer fight” which is sometimes necessary to push things through.

And now, looking back, I think it has to do with my primary education. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his “10000 hours” essay in The Outliers, working hard is also a talent. And my comfort levels in school meant that I never had to develop on that front. It was all too easy, and I never had to work hard then. And then when I actually had to, I have been inadequate.

It makes me wonder if it might have made some sense for me to have been shifted to some sort of “high performance” school when I was found to be much ahead of class in primary school. Again, there would have been a problem in identification since being ahead of class is not necessarily correlated with performance in exams, but assuming I had been thus “identified”, what if I had been sent to say a special school where I had been challenged even as a kid? Where I never felt “oh this teacher doesn’t know anything, so no use listening to her” or “I know this is the wrong answer but I know this is what the examiner demands so I’ll write this”? Where I had been pushed to work hard in a meaningful fashion? I don’t know if I would’ve still been good at entrance exams and gone to the colleges I went to, but I have a sneaking feeling I would have been able to cope with life much better in that case. What do you think?

Indoctrination methods

I’m suddenly reminded of some “competitions” I took part in back when I was in school, which in hindsight seem like indoctrination methods. The basic structure of the competition is this. An organization announces an inter-school competition – either a quiz or an essay writing contest, or even a debate. These weren’t “normal” quiz/debate/essay competitions, though. All of these had a pre-requisite, and that was reading a certain book that was prescribed and marketed by these organizations. I don’t know if one had to pay for these books – if I remember right, they were given away “free” once you paid the nominal fee to register for these competitions.

It was an easy way to indoctrinate over-enthusiastic kids, or kids of over-enthusiastic parents, who wanted to win every competition in town, and gather as many “bullet points” as one could (though this was far before anyone really thought of careers and the like). All you had to do was to announce a competition, with the promise of a certificate and nominal prize, and thousands of kids would sign up, and do anything in their capacity to win the contest.

I remember two such competitions well. One was organized by the Ramana Maharshi Ashram, where we had to mug a book about him, and then had to write an essay. I remember the topics well. It was something of the kind of “my thoughts after reading about the life of Bhagavan (sic) Ramana”. I don’t remember reading the book too well (I’d forgotten to collect it, I now remember) and wrote some random stuff. I didn’t come close to winning that.

The other was by ISKCON, and this included both a quiz and an essay, if I remember right. Again we had to mug a standard-issue ISKCON book. I remember less of this than I did of the Ramana Maharshi thing (I don’t know why), and again I didn’t do too well, and that hurt my pride as that was around the time when I used to be pretty good at quizzing (and still didn’t know to distinguish between a good and bad quiz, and not worry much about my performance in the latter).

Organizations like ISKCON or the Ramana Maharshi Ashram are incentivized to get more “followers”, and one way of gaining followers is to feed impressionable young minds of material that shows the organization in positive light. And then make them undertake activities that hammer in that message. In that sense, events such as these that tap in on students competitive spirits are a big win for these organization. It’s an easy way to reach a large unsuspecting audience, and even a “small” conversion rate is enough to drive “membership” signficantly.

On a similar note, I remember Gaurav Sabnis writing about debates that the VHP used to organize in Pune in a similar sort of effort. The only difference there was that there you didn’t need to mug any boooks.

Why You Should Not Do An Undergrad in Computer Science at IIT Madras

I did my undergrad in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras. My parents wanted me to study Electrical Engineering, but I had liked programming back in school, and my JEE rank “normally” “implied” Computer Science and Engineering. So I just went with the flow and joined the course. In the short term, I liked some subjects, so I was happy with my decision. Moreover there was a certain aura associated with CS students back in IITM, and I was happy to be a part of it. In the medium term too, the computer science degree did open doors to a few jobs, and I’m happy for that. And I still didn’t regret my decision.

Now, a full seven years after I graduated with my Bachelors, I’m not so sure. I think I should’ve gone for a “lighter” course, but then no one told me. So the thing with a B.Tech. in Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Madras is that it is extremely assignment incentive. Computer Science is that kind of a subject, there is very little you can learn in the classroom. The best way to learn stuff is by actually doing stuff, and “lab” is cheap (all you need is a bunch of computers) so most courses are filled with assignments. Probably from the fourth semester onwards, you spend most of your time doing assignments. Yes, you do end up getting good grades on an average, but you would’ve worked for it. And there’s no choice.

The thing with an Undergrad is that you are clueless. You have no clue what you’re interested in, what kind of a career you want to pursue, what excites you and the stuff. Yes, you have some information from school, from talking to seniors and stuff, but still it’s very difficult to KNOW when you are seventeen as to what you want to do in life. From this perspective, it is important for your to keep your options as open as they can be.

Unfortunately most universities in India don’t allow you to switch streams midway through your undergrad (most colleges are siloed into “arts” or “engineering” or “medicine” and the like). IIT Madras, in fact, is better in that respect since it allows you to choose a “minor” stream of study and courses in pure sciences and the humanities. But still, it is impossible for you to change your stream midway. So how do you signal to the market that you are actually interested in something else?

One way is by doing projects in areas that you think you are really interested in. Projects serve two purposes – first they allow you to do real work in the chosen field, and find out for yourself if it interests you. And if it does interest you, you have an automatic resume bullet point to pursue your career on that axis. Course-related projects are fine but since they’re forced, you have no way out, and they will be especially unpleasant if you happen to not like the course.

So why is CS@IITM a problem? Because it is so hectic, it doesn’t give you the time to pursue your other interests. It doesn’t offer you the kind of time that you need to study and take on projects in other subjects (yeah, it still offers you the 3 + 1 months of vacation per year, when you can do whatever you want, but then in the latter stages you’re so occupied with internships and course projects you’re better off having time during the term). So if you, like me, find out midway through the course that you would rather do something else, there is that much less time for you to explore around, study, and do projects in other subjects.

And there is no downside to joining a less hectic course. How hectic a course inherently is only sets a baseline. If you were to like the course, no one stops you from doing additional projects in the same subject. That way you get to do more of what you like, and get additional bullet points. All for the good, right?

After I graduated, IIT Madras reduced its credit requirement by one-twelfth. I don’t know how effective that has been in reducing the inherent workload of students but it’s a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, if you are going to get into college now, make sure you get into a less hectic course so that the cost of making a mistake in selection is not high.

Hottie or cutie?

So if you’re in the “market” (which I got out of close to two years back), it is possible that you might not be able to decide whether to give more importance to a girl’s “hotness” or “cuteness”. If you think about it, though they both contribute to the girl’s general beauty and physical attractiveness, they are orthogonal concepts. So should you go for the hottie or the cutie?

Based on careful analysis, which has been approved by the very hot wife, I hereby declare that given this dilemma, you should go for the hottie. The reason is simple. Cuteness has everything to do with one’s genes, and little else. You look cute because your parents decided to pass on a set of “good features” to you. It says nothing at all about you, or the kind of person you are. It’s possible with respect to cuteness that one came up with the proverb “appearances are deceptive”.

Hotness, on the other hand, has very little with the “gifts” that you’ve been given by your parents, and everything about how you carry yourself. You appear hot to people not because of the way you look (or the way your “features” are, to use an aunty-ish term), but because of the way you put them to good use. If you’re able to fashion an attractive version of yourself simply by the way you speak and act, you must be very attractive indeed!

So. Dear Bachelors. Take my word. And go for the hottie. And Dear Cuties. This means the bar for you has been set higher. You must carry yourself so well that people can see beyond your inherent cuteness and recognize your hotness.

PS: you might argue that cute long-term-gene-propagating partner => cute kids. But hot long-term-gene-propagating-partner => excellent trainer for kids to make them hot. Extend the argument in this post, and you know what’s better for you and your genes

Mutter Paneer for Breakfast!!

So when our newly-recruited cook told us last week that she knows how to cook North Indian dishes, and when we bought Paneer and Frozen Peas at the supermarket yesterday, I assumed that we’ll be having Mutter Paneer for dinner tonight. The cook comes in around 6am, a little after I leave for the gym, so it’s usually the wife’s responsibility to tell her what to make.

And so I return from the gym and find out to my horror that we’re going to have Mutter Paneer for breakfast instead! I mean, who has mutter paneer for breakfast? Or even, who has chapati for breakfast? Isn’t it a dinner item? Well, that’s been one of the longest standing disputes the wife and I have had ever since we started living together.

She comes from a family of rice-eaters (she’s technically Gult, I’ve told you right?), without anyone in her immediate ancestry suffering from any lifestyle disease (heart/diabetes/cholestrol/etc.). And so, they’ve been used to having rice for meals. Rice for lunch, and rice for dinner. And occasionally chapati for breakfast.

I remember this being the case in my family, too, when I was a small kid, but things changed sometime in the 90s. My parents were both plump by then, and for a variety of other reasons, we switched to having oil-free chapatis (phulkas) for dinner. And now that chapati had become a dinner item, it automatically stopped being a breakfast item, and so for breakfast we restricted ourselves to the “traditional stuff” like dosa, akki rotti, uppit, avalakki, etc. (I hate homemade idlis so that was never a part of the menu). And for dinner, apart from chapati, we also started having ragi mudde (ragi balls, made world famous all over India by former PM HD Deve Gowda).

And so the battle begins. She, who has grown up always eating chapati for breakfast, and never for dinner. And I, having been looking at chapati as solely a dinner item for the last twenty years. Ok, chapati and onion-potato palya for breakfast is acceptable. But Mutter Paneer for breakfast? You gotta be kidding me!

Anyways, the Mutter Paneer was good, and I did need a high-calorie meal after the gym session, so this cribbing here is more for the sake of cribbing rather than a genuine crib. Also, it is possible that it’s healthier to reserve the high-density food for breakfast, and have something light for dinner (I admit mutter paneer for dinner isn’t that good for health). But mutter paneer for breakfast and then rasam rice for dinner?

I’m sorry but I’m not a big fan of rasam. I find it too low-density and not filling enough. And in order to fill myself I need to eat a lot of rice, and eating a lot of rice at night makes me sometimes feel gross as soon as I get up the next morning.

Ok I’ll stop cribbing now. And I guess I’m a CHoM.

Libertarianism and rejection of authority

Ok so this is yet another of those self-reflective posts, where I try and rationalize why I’m the way I am. And in the process concoct a fancy theory.

I’m part of this secret society most of whose members are libertarian. I must in fact credit this society from changing my ideology from one that was broadly conservative to broadly libertarian (notice that my economic ideology hasn’t changed, only the social bit has). One thing common among most members of this society is that they are the kind of people who don’t bow to authority. They can be described as confrontationalist, or maverick,  or non-conformist. And most of them are libertarian.

I must mention that for purposes of this post, I define libertarianism as a “belief in free markets and free minds”.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes that one of the things that makes people religious is the tendency to listen to “superiors”, “elders”, etc. He argues that this is consistent with natural selection – that back in those days where we were a “hunting ape”, if we were the type that didn’t listen to our parents, there was a greater danger that we’d fall off trees or got eaten up by lions. So us human beings are “naturally conditioned” to listen to “elders”, “superiors”, etc. Effectively, we are conditioned to take orders. Dawkins talks about how this makes us religious, but that is not relevant here.

So we grow up having this “elderly authority” at home. The “elderly authority” commands us and guides us and gives instructions, and in return provides us protection from the outside world. Soon we grow up, and don’t need that protection any more, so we don’t need to take instructions any more (if you look at taking instructions from parents as the “cost” of the protection they offer you). But then we are conditioned to taking instructions, and being controlled, and it is tough for most of us to outgrow this conditioning.

And so some people look to “society” to provide the instructions, and control you, and tell you what to do and what not to do. They end up as conservatives. Some other people, look to the government (remember that today’s “government” is a replacement for yesterday’s “king”, who was supposed to be “divine”) for instructions and control. They end up being “liberals” (quotes because traditionally liberals supported free markets; it’s only recently they’ve taken a socialist turn). It is quite interesting that a lot of “liberal” people, who profess their rejection of authority, think it is ok for the government to tell them who to do business with, and at what price.

And then there are these really masochistic people who look to both “society” and “government” to put controls on you. Think Swadeshi Jagran Manch and similar institutions.

And so what about people who actually reject the need to have a “protector” once they grow up? They don’t want to take instructions from anyone, and in return they are willing to forego protection – apart from asking from the government protection in terms of defence, foreign policy and upholding of law. Given that very few people reject authority (Dawkins’ concept), it’s very few people that end up as libertarians.

PS: Is it a coincidence that so many very good libertarian bloggers (Caplan, Tabarrok, Hanson, Cowen) are at the little-known George Mason University, and not at one of the “top-ranked” universities?

PS2: I think large corporations are not free-market in any sense. Leave aside crony capitalism. Corporations, by definition, are internally deeply socialist. I guess I’ll save that for another post.