Average marks in school and college need not imply the end of the road for a student, especially in a milieu where the declaration of examination results leads to extreme despair in those who do not fare so well. Life is about far more than just getting great marks and a plum job. As one who was considered a so-called “high achiever” of whom a lot was always expected, I would like to explain my experiences as the product of an aspirational system where success is judged by your marks and by your visibility as a person who has made it.
I grew up in a middle-class milieu in Delhi where the dream was to land a prized job in the civil services or qualify as a doctor or engineer, or move to academic pursuits in the USA/UK. As it happened, I did well enough to land the college and the subject of my choice. I enjoyed my college life, participated in various extracurricular activities and, apart from a hiccup or two, acquired two degrees in my five years in the university. That I had done well academically meant that there were great expectations about me, among family and friends, and everyone assumed that I would easily be able to enter the hallowed portals of India’s civil services. This too I managed rather comfortably, apparently to no one’s great surprise.
It was after I was posted to a rural district completely removed from my earlier Delhi life that I realised that I was on my own! My performance in the civil services entrance examination initially got me some attention in bureaucratic circles in my state, but I very soon realised that, after a very short honeymoon, you are landed with many duties, with very little sympathy for your plight. I struggled with that bugbear of bureaucratic functioning in India -- the achievement of targets. Whenever I was not able to meet annual targets, whether for family planning cases (a euphemism for sterilisation), biogas plant construction, land revenue collection or small savings, I braced myself for the pained look on my Commissioner’s face, when he had to handle “under-performance” in my district. Realising the meaninglessness of many of these achievements, I probably never really put my heart and soul into reaching these annual targets. Matters were not helped by the bright, ambitious young men and women who were my colleagues and who seemed so fired by the zest to not just reach, but surpass, the magic numbers set for their districts.
It was only after I moved to a Secretariat posting in Delhi that I finally found my métier. My above average abilities in drafting notes in the English language, and my passion for the subject I was handling, saw a lot of responsibilities being entrusted to me. The excellent annual assessments by my bosses stood me in good stead in subsequent postings; it was then that the realisation dawned on me that you are only as good as your last assignment. Added to that was my deliberate decision to keep as low a profile as I could, within the requirements of my job description. Over the next fifteen years, I was fortunate to get a number of interesting assignments and have a warm and supportive relationship with my political and bureaucratic bosses. But what I really value is the love and affection I got from a large cross-section of people: the public I interacted with, my peers and those I worked with in my different postings across a wide geographical area. Reproachful remarks from my top bosses on my failure to achieve some targets did not unsettle me, secure as I was in my belief that I was pursuing more important goals impacting the lives of individuals rather than striving to achieve targets.
Today, more than a decade after I took early retirement from service, I am firmly of the view that there are far more important things in life than just your academic performance or even your rise up the bureaucratic ladder. As one nears the magical figure of three score and ten years in age, two things come to mind: firstly, you should try to excel in (and, more importantly, enjoy) whatever you do, without getting too tied up in planning where you want your career (or life) to take you and, secondly, the human relations you form in your years at work (including, most significantly, your family relationships) are far more important and rewarding than any material successes you may enjoy in your years on the job. Of course, those marks in school and college do matter, but only for a very limited period and to enable a climb up the next rung of the ladder. It is far more crucial to develop the awareness that one may be climbing up the wrong ladder, at the cost of relationships, contentment, and one’s own integrity. Remember, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs never finished college. Equally, remember all those brilliant classmates of yours, with bright futures beckoning them, who fizzled out in the University of Life and were never able to contribute meaningfully to the society of which they were a part and which had invested so much hope in them. So, by all means, participate in the marks race, but realise that it is ultimately a game where you win some and lose some. Winning over your own fears and insecurities is what will finally make you a complete human being.
The blogs of the author of this article, a retired IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre, can be viewed at www.vramani.com
(To receive our E-paper on WhatsApp daily, please click here. To receive it on Telegram, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)