Why marks do not matter — in the long run

A recent newspaper article by a highly successful author on why average marks in school need not imply the end of the road for a student set me thinking, especially at this time of the year, when the declaration of results leads to extreme despair in those who do not fare so well, leading even to the ultimate tragedy of taking one’s own life. The author advised his young, probably apprehensive readers to take it in their stride and realise that life was about far more than just getting great marks and a plum job. Fair enough advice, as it went, except that I want to present the perspective from the other side, of a so-called “high achiever” of whom a lot was always expected and what it meant for him as he dealt with the later years of his life. Yes sir, I am talking about yours truly, a product of an aspirational system where success was judged by your marks and by your visibility as a person who has made it, who is an object of envy for others.
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. Competition was tough even then for the best colleges and the most highly valued jobs. As it happened, I did more than well enough to land the college and the subject of my choice. I enjoyed my college life, participated in various extra-curricular 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 the realisation hit home — buster, you are on your own! My performance in the civil services entrance examination initially got me some attention in the Indian Administrative Service circles in my state, but I very soon realised that you are in the position of the Indian bahu (daughter-in-law): 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. Whatever I did, I was often not able to meet annual targets, whether for family planning cases (a euphemism for sterilisation), biogas plant construction, land revenue collection or small savings. 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. I soon got inured to the pained look on my Commissioner’s face, when, after reviewing the success of four other districts, he had to handle under-performance in my district. Slowly, I reconciled myself to the apparent truth that I was not one of the dashing, dynamic officers that senior officers in the service would laud.
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. These gave me a level of comfort and confidence that enabled me to withstand such criticism as came my way. When the failure to reach revenue targets in my administrative division led to reproachful remarks from my top boss (and even a mild rebuke from the then Chief Minister), I was secure in my belief that I was pursuing more important goals impacting the lives the lives of individuals rather than striving to achieve revenue targets.
Today, five years after I took early retirement from service, I realise that there are far more important things in life than just your academic performance or even your rise up the bureaucratic ladder. As you near the sixth decade of your life and look back on the last forty years or so of life, 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 to 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.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in irony, personal development. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s