Dear Shrey and Ayush,
This year is a big one. I know, I know. Too much pressure already. You don’t need me to remind you of that. You know it from your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and teachers. Oh – and from all the coaching classes you have been attending for years while keeping your (and your parents’) lives on hold. JEE in all its complications and variations, which I can no longer keep track of, is staring you in your face.
But I am here to tell you that JEE isn’t the reason that this year is a big one. The real reason is what happens after that, whatever be the result. It is the adulthood and all the freedom and responsibilities, all the euphoria and heartbreaks it brings. But first, let’s get JEE and its results out of the way.
Here is the real shocker. It doesn’t matter which way the results go, life is not going to be easier after that. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Even if you do well and get into an institute and course of your choice, life is going to be far more hectic and competitive than it has ever been. There will be many more exams – of the academic kind and of life itself – many more scary possibilities of failures. On the other hand, if you don’t do well then you would think that you are starting your career from a position of disadvantage. But that’s not the actual problem because there is a silver lining. It’s a pretty thick lining too. And it is something like this: there isn’t just one way to success and happiness in the world. There isn’t even just one definition of success. You can have your own definition of success and you can follow your own path towards it. You can even decide that success doesn’t matter in the first place. The real tough part is that you will have to figure it out for yourself. And this you will have to do even if you start with a great JEE rank.
So, all the best. Do well by all means. It’s never going to hurt. But let’s talk about what happens after that.
A disclaimer here. It is tempting to want to tell you all; to pour all my experiences of the extra eighteen years I have over you into your heads at once, so that you have a head start in life. But what this experience has also taught me is that it is impossible. Nobody lives somebody else’s life. So, I must remind myself (and perhaps your parents too) that you will live life at your own pace, you will have your own existential questions and you will answer them in your own ways. Everything I say here is just one of the many possibilities. Treat every advice I give you as a part of a toolkit. You may decide to use or not use a tool from that kit based on your judgment of its suitability. With that being clear, now I can proceed to the crux of this letter.
The best and the worst thing about adulthood is that your decisions will have to, increasingly, be your own. There are, perhaps, only a limited number of career, personal, spiritual and moral options available to all of us. But by combining them in our own ways, and most importantly by infusing our own selves into it, each of us creates a unique life for ourselves. This life is not independent of the rest of the world. So the life you have known till now, the lessons you have learnt till now, your parents and your family will continue affecting, shaping and supporting your decisions. But the other influences will be larger as will your own conscious role. It will no longer be enough to listen to those who are supposed to know better. The world changes fast these days. Soon enough, you will find yourself in territories your parents have never chartered, nor others whom you have grown up looking up to. Their experiences and choices may not be suitable for you. You will find yourself facing questions you can’t bring back home to be answered. Your life will have aspects that your loved ones will not understand. You will have to find new people to look up to and new people to solve your problems with, and the ways you have learnt till now may or may not be helpful.
The world from here on will be as narrow or as wide as you have stomach for. When you meet people who are different from you, you may dismiss them as irrelevant. You may be awed by them and try to emulate them. Or you may find the differences unbearable, even contemptible. I suggest not to adopt any of these attitudes blindly. I suggest openness. I also suggest caution and patience. Not everyone who is different from you is worthy of awe or contempt. True to the old wisdom, not everything that glitters is gold. At other times, something that challenges your existing ideas of right and wrong, of good and bad, and changes those ideas may be the best thing to happen to you in your life. At yet other times, there are simply different ways of being – without any of them necessarily being better or worse than the other. Don’t feel the need to assign positions for every way of life based on some kind of prestige hierarchy. Learn to live with the differences. Learn to enjoy them, cherish them, even. Change your opinions, reject the stereotypes you have in your heads. You don’t have to feel guilty about changing. Just know why you are doing so. You will have opportunities to break down your older biases and expand your horizons. You will also have access to temptations that are best avoided. When you encounter something different and don’t know at first how to react to it, start by respecting it, not by rejecting or condemning it. Then take your time to understand, then decide.
When you are struggling with decision-making and when you don’t know whether doing something means being open to experiences or succumbing to temptations, remember this golden rule about taking decisions. The right decision for you is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. Most of the time, the consequences not worthy of being lived with are not difficult to know if you apply your cool mind to the question.
If I have made it sound too complicated and tough by now, don’t worry. It’s not like there isn’t any help available. Reach out for help. There is no shame in asking for help. If friends, seniors, counselors, family members don’t work, reach out to me.
Now some specifics.
Wherever you land, but especially if you land in a good place after school, you will hear this new golden truth (and it may come as a surprise in the beginning). That grades and academic performance don’t matter in life. Like a lot of things you will hear from now on, it is simultaneously right and wrong. Good grades are never going to hurt you. At the same time, closing yourself to every other life experience while trying to chase that perfect 10/10 can close too many doors for you. The right decision, as I said earlier, is the one whose consequences you are willing to live with. One rule of thumb is this. If you are not putting in your time and effort in academics, be very clear about what exactly you are doing with the time and effort saved. Is it something productive? Is it something that is teaching you important life skills? If so, pursue it by all means. If, on the other hand, that time is being spent in just being cool, perhaps you will not be happy with the consequences. Bad grades with nothing else to recommend you are not a good thing in life.
The question of what to do with your life may haunt you more often than you like. The answers may not be obvious, easy or immediately available. When that happens, remember not to descend into nothingness. Remember to hold on to something that advances your learning. Attend classes regularly, if you can think of nothing else. Or do something else. Just keep learning. Always work on polishing at least one life skill that can sustain you in the worst of the times. Then you will do well in the best of the times. Life skills can be unconventional. Even spending time on video games can help you learn some, especially if you are also figuring out game design and development in the process (great career!) or finding your way into professional circles (unconventional, but great career if it works for you!).
It will be easy to succumb to the hectic activities around you. But make time for things that are important. Make time for reading, for traveling, for trying out new experiences, for keeping in touch with your family. Make time for whatever is important to you. Because remember this. When something is on priority, you make time for it. Not having time means it was not your priority. So don’t fool yourself with the excuse of not having time.
And do you still need some more academic advice? I will give you some before it starts sounding uncool. Unless you find yourself falling into the category of those geniuses who know everything already, the easiest way to get through the academic system, even in the toughest and the most competitive of places, is to attend classes. After that you can use all the time you have for whatever else you want.
And now, I will rein in the temptation I had referred to earlier. I will not try to tell you all. Rabindranath Tagore had said in his book Gora:
To offer instruction on any question before it has really arisen in the mind is like giving food before one is hungry – it spoils the appetite and leads to indigestion.
So, I will stop now. Reach out when you are hungry. Reach out when you have questions.
Happy new year and all the best.