If you had asked my mother, she would say it was because I overlooked one question in the Chemistry paper.
If you asked my teachers in biology they would say, “What’s the big deal? He was studying maths, physics and chemistry all day. If someone studies so much, All India fourth is just about ok. He should have paid more attention to his biology.” If I ever dared to reply that I got through the national medical exams with an under 150 rank, the reply would be “Board exams, board exams, that’s what counts. Entrance exams are so coarse… so professional.”
My wife and sister, who are practically a fan club, would explain, “He can do anything he sets his mind to. But wish he set his mind more to family life also.”
My father’s opinion would be summarised as, “Fourth is not that bad, but I wish he did some groundbreaking research in a PhD. Once he has gotten this startup insanity out of his system by building up his company to some good valuation, whatever satisfies him, I wish he takes some years off and does a good, innovative PhD. He’s only 44, he can still do research.”
But the explanation is much simpler.
First, the easier question… Why wasn’t it better than four? The answer is what everyone keeps telling all students all the time. The competition is too smart, too focused and too hard working. We now have 27 years of after the fact data, so you can see what the competition has been up to. #1 at my JEE was someone who won India’s first gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad and wrote the paper on consistent hashing, the principle behind the founding of Akamai. #2 is someone who built multiple products that provide tens of billions of revenue at several Silicon Valley stalwarts. #5 won the President’s and the Director’s gold medal in his undergrad, meaning he was tops in both academics and all-round achievement, and is now deputy-governer at India’s central bank. #15 was best PhD at Stanford and a serial entrepreneur with 3 exits under his belt already. A close friend, whose sub-100 rank I don’t exactly remember, has built a 10 billion company transforming his field and is now building another one. And these are the people whose academics actually laid a foundation for later achievement. There are several who went into an unrelated field and emerged at the top.
Now, the harder question and the one with the interesting bit. Why was it as good as four? My father had gone to IIT Kharagpur himself, so the institute and the exam were familiar and approachable. I thought I would do ok. However, it takes an unlocking of something in the mind to aim really high in any field. That happened two years before the exam. I was a student in Bhopal, where people did not even know what the IITs were, let alone aiming to have a good rank. However, on the first day of class XI, a friend rushed in shouting, “B. has come 1st in the JEE.” B was a neighbor of his, someone well known for being studious and clearly destined to do very well, but #1 is a big deal. So, when the class saw that a Bhopali lad had come #1, all of us dialled up our ambitions.
So this post is really about the power of role models, about how familiar, similar people achieving unfamiliarly large goals can help you aim for equal and larger goals.
Vinod Gupta made the case to a generation of IITians that they could make a billion dollar company in the USA without having a starting pool of family wealth. Kanwal Rekhi made the case they could do that without having an MBA, or even being the typical sales personality. Murthy and Nilekani made the case that you could make the billion from the US market with an Indian company and an Indian company making good money did not have to come from Mumbai. Bikhchandani and Oberoi at Naukri showed that you could make it from the Indian market, an argument that the Bansals would multiply 10x. But Naukri also made another point that even Silicon Valley could come to only a decade later… click and mortar— business was business, and technology was just a tool. You didn’t need to be limited to websites and the offline world was fair game. It took the development of the iPhone before offline and online came together in Uber in the valley.
Role models are important and can cause a thousand flowers to bloom, from which will arise slightly different role models for a slightly different audience.
So, my submission to those starting out is… be innovative but you will certainly have it easier going if you go to an area where people like you, with your hometowns, your surnames, your skin colour, your heights, your accents are succeeding. If you go there, meet those people, familiarise yourself with them — it will bring everything closer to reality.
And my submission to those who started out earlier is… if you were foolhardy enough to go to an area where people like you have not gone before, and end up making it, please make time when young people like you come visiting. All the people I have named and not named above are very generous with their time, and many go out of the way to meet youngsters who are on their track. But none of them have written down their stories. I wish they do. It is easy to think that you are too busy, or writing about yourself would be too self-indulgent or that you may roil the waters or that memoirs should be written only after careers are over. But this is a fast-evolving world and stories are most useful around when they happen. I really wish all of these guys and several more like them, but slightly different, wrote about themselves.