Monday, July 23, 2012

The other side of 3 idiots- Part 2

(Continued from Part 1. This might not make much sense unless you have at least glanced at Part 1!)

3. Most people are not ready to put in the amount of effort it takes to excel, in whatever field they choose to do so.
While it is true that some of our talents are innate aka genetic, a lot of it is the amount of time you put in (Check out "Outliers" by Gladwell on this!) Whether you want to be the artist or the tennis player or the entrepreneur, you are not going to get there with no work. Movie directors often make it look like everyone who starts a new company succeeds and every guy who wants to write is eventually published. (If it's a Tamizh movie, probably in the course of one song (Must watch Thamizh Padam's take on this :D)) But the reality is that most people score badly or end up in BPOs not because they were super-geniuses forced to make money, but because they did not care to put in the hours of effort needed to excel. So, if they suddenly quit and become a photographer, they will probably do as badly. (Or worse, because photography doesn't pay well!). As somebody said "When people talk of an overnight success, they forget the million sleepless nights of work that made it". People forget that even so-called geniuses had to work hard, skip lunches, not attend parties, have pathetic private lives, not watch TV, not sleep for days together and exercise immense self-control to get where they were.

The reason many people tell you to follow the system is because it works, and without having to do any of this. Even a person with almost zero understanding of atomic physics and differential equations who will not spend his nights reading IEEE papers can be trained to write Perl Scripts and to test Linux kernels. No, I'm not saying software is dumb or something. Just that most of the software that people write is simple, involves incremental changes over existing code, and someone can be trained to write it. Which is obvious, because how could an entire nation of youngsters be super good at something extraordinarily difficult? The same is true of most other industrial work. Anyway, the point is that when movies/articles talk about following your passion, they conveniently forget that it involves a lot of hard work that most people are not ready to put in, and a lot of sacrifices that people are not ready to make.
I repeat, it is NOT easy to excel.

And guess what,
4. Most people don't give a damn as long as they can pay the bills and be respected.
What do the majority of people want? To win a Nobel after killing themselves with work or a house and a car, a nice spouse with 2 kids and respect from society? It's not hard to find the answer. Look around you and think about how many people ARE killing themselves with work and how many are trying to survive average jobs? Doesn't that say something? It is not that someone would reject an Oscar or a Nobel or a Pulitzer if they were given one. It is that they do not particularly need it to feel happy, and are not ready to screw up their lives in search of an elusive (and mirage-like) dream. Which makes sense.

In that context, it is way easier to take a standard education, standard job and go through the routine conveyor belt of life. For all the hype about taking the off-beaten path, it is thorny, and you will probably be too hurt before you reach anywhere on it. I find it almost dumb to criticize the system simply because most people who do it, do so because others do it. It shows that you do not understand why the system works and have not thought enough to realize that it is not as easy as it appears. And all the debate about the Indian education not emphasizing on choosing your own path etc. ignores the economic side of the equation so much that it is annoying. If your parents took a housing loan and an education loan to get you where you were, instead of vacationing in Hawaii, why is it wrong for them to expect that you will make SOME money? They are just trying to ensure that you don't have to go through the hardships that they had to. Ya, I hate being forced into anything, but I at least understand why the previous generation wants job security over random jumping between professions.

You might probably be thinking that I'm trying to bring in the economic aspect to much. "Life is not all money and not everyone is  like you say. People do want to follow their dreams". Which brings me to my last point.
5. Most people who claim that you should follow your dreams do not do so in real life.
I suspect most people wouldn't agree with this either. Anyway, a simple example. Almost everybody I know liked 3 idiots. And almost everybody I know (of approximately my age) claims that "one should follow their dreams". But guess what. 90% of the aforementioned people are in some big corp slaving away or enrolled in MBA degrees. In fact, the people who most vehemently oppose (1)-(4) are the ones who say "What to do, yaar? One must pay the bills". All i want to ask is- if that's what you think, why don't you say it? Why do you want to preach to the world that it's good to die for your passion and then go make money yourself? But that's not just it. There is a self-righteous way people criticize the Indian education system and societal pressure- almost as if they did not have a choice to simply walk out of society and take an independent stand. People who go on the off-beaten track have to pay the price of ostracism and excruciating labor. If you really think that's what you want, just go do it. There is no point in claiming that the system screwed you. If you did not want to become the Java expert, you could simply have chosen an arts degree and earned 3-4k a month. Having a readymade path for people is an optimization. You could choose to explore, but don't glorify exploring while blaming the system and don't ignore the fact that the system has made things very easy for you. 

On a related note, a lot of people think that the Indian education system sucks. There is some truth to it, but saying that "I am as bad as I am because the system didn't try hard enough" is lame! If you did not understand the stuff taught in your school, you had the option of reading up more. Yes, it was the system's responsibility to make it interesting enough. But, if it didn't, don't blame the system, for your not having the interest or the determination to learn better. There are enough people I know who are products of the same system and who have an excellent understanding of what they learned. So, if it was anybody's fault, it was yours.
Another thing. People often see the western system of education and think it is awesome etc. I agree it is awesome that they have good teachers, good facilities and emphasize on learning by doing. But I really think that all the lack of exams, lenient correcting, not emphasizing on marks, stunts your brain. In fact, if you see the average intelligence of the American public, you would be stunned. Besides, life is not easy or fair or nice to you. So having a rigorous education system is a good way to prepare children for future challenges.

Anyway, bottomline is that- when blaming the system or giving career advice, try not to have double standards.. And try to understand why the "system" exists in the first place. And ya, when apprecdiating a movie like 3 idiots, draw the line on where the concept makes sense and where it is just a naive simplification. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The other side of 3 idiots

After that post on education which got either too much praise or too much criticism, I'm back with another post I have long wanted to write, but didn't. Thanks again, to Lightning strikes everyday. He has written a post on 3 idiots, and it covers a lot of the stuff I wanted to write about. I strongly recommend you read his post before continuing. There is probably quite some overlap between the two, though I hope I have added my 2 cents to it.

So, among the many people who loved 3 idiots, I was one. (I admit I didn't like some of the cheap humor, but I liked the general idea.) I have always believed (and hopefully will continue to believe) that one must follow one's dreams in life. You get only one life and all that. And that is why I liked the movie. But like the post by LSE says, there are too many catches in that scenario. This post is about the other side of the coin.

1. Most people don't have a dream/passion or don't know what their passion is. -This should be obvious, but sadly isn't. Most people who conclude that software engineering is their passion in life, are lying to you or lying to themselves. Seriously, how can an entire nation fantasize about Java coding? 
But that's not the bad part. Remember the time when you had just finished your 12th and were trying to decide what to do. Did you know that programming was your passion? Rather, did you know that behavioral ecology wasn't? What about population genomics? Most of the people I know went through a phase of having to decide though they had no clue what they wanted. In fact, they didn't even know what options they had. They did not particularly like anything too much- Science was ok, math was not bad, history was horrible; or vice-versa. And luckily for them, the choice was already made. You could give your exams and like a slot machine, almost magically you would get the answer of what to do, based on your ranks. It was convenient.
While one half of the population doesn't know what it wants, there are a few people who want too many things. Like me. And some of my best friends. I want to learn everything, know everything, be a writer, singer, electrical engineer, biotechnologist, astronomer, traveler, economist, teacher, social worker, wealthy CEO, critic, politician, all rolled into one. Which is physically impossible. It is just that I enjoy too many things in life, especially associated with learning and achieving. Point is, it is hard for someone like that to decide what their passion is. So what do you do? You could try each of them and realize at 65 that you never found out. Or you could simply follow whatever appears to be your best one. Thing is the 3-idiots-philosophy simply doesn't cover this aspect.

Now, at this point, some of you are probably saying- "No, I am not in either group. I'm really passionate about painting (or music, or cinematography or whatever), but was forced into engineering." There are 2 angles to this. One angle is that-
2.  Most people are not talented in a way as to become super-excellent at something.
Most people who talk about following your dreams assume that you are good (if not exceptional) at whatever you are dreaming about. Which is not always true. In fact, it is not true 90% of the time. My dream could be to become a Hollywood actress but I probably speak in the worst monotone, have pathetic facial expressions and do not have a figure to speak of. Same with being the artist or whatever else. 
Think about it. How many artists are there in this world? How many became popular? Same with writers, scientists, actors, cricketers. It's simply because most things in this world follow a normal distribution. There are too few people who are exceptional or who completely suck. Most people are average. So, if something is your dream, and you are average at it, but you are average at software too, but the latter ensures you have a house and food and can survive on your own, which is the better choice? No, I'm not giving an answer to that, but the point is that this is not an easy decision to make. What if you are good at something that is not your passion? Movies like "3 idiots" and all related writing quite simplistically romanticize suffering for your passion. They make it sound like it is the system's fault that YOU ended up being a software engineer and not the awesome wildlife photographer who is featured on Nat Geo. It isn't anybody's fault but yours. Anyway, point is that not everybody who likes economics will become an Amartya Sen and not everyone who wants to be a hero becomes a Hrithik Roshan. Life is simply not that simple.
Also, it is not easy to excel. (To be continued...)