While wanting a life that is more than adequate, it is imperative to understand that merely putting in the minimum effort required will not suffice.

There’s a new catchphrase in town, and I’m sure most of you know about it, even if you haven’t actually heard about it. It’s what characterises most work through college —and, let’s face it, through life. Human beings seem to have developed an uncanny talent to estimate what’s needed to do a particular task to a certain minimum level of satisfaction, along with the ability to measure out just that amount of skill/energy/intelligence needed to fulfil that estimation. Think about it. It’s evident in the way we build our city roads (municipalities hastily throw gravel and tar over potholes in a measure to last one monsoon, or one election cycle, as the case may be), run our public institutions, and unfortunately, work towards our degrees.

At the end of every semester, I am faced with the unenviable task of reading and critically assessing a fairly large number of papers. Some of these may be creative work, and others are critical essays or research projects. This year, I discovered the driving force behind a majority of these papers. My discovery was corroborated quite unintentionally by a student, in the course of a conversation. The strategy? Figuring out, to a ‘T’, the Minimum Effort Required! Quite early in any degree programme, the smart students are able to discern the delicate equation that makes up the MER formula, and then measure it out quite effectively at the end of each semester, to manage reasonably good grades. The not-so-smart follows their lead, and unfortunately finds out a little too late that the formula doesn’t work in quite the same way for everyone.

The fortunate few who have mastered the MER formula actually have acquired this ability over years, perhaps coupled with the advantage of an extremely privileged schooling and exposure to plenty of learning opportunities. The MER is actually significantly higher for most others, and they tend to find out the hard way — when the grades they get are much lower than expected.

But what really bothers me is how deeply this attitude has permeated higher education in all but a few institutions. People complain of our ‘chalta hai’ attitude in other areas of life, but where it causes the most damage, and most invisibly, is in education. When studying for an examination, students tend to pick and choose bits that are most likely to feature in the question paper — rather than studying to learn the subject. When writing a term paper, the idea is to second guess the teacher and do just that amount of work that will lead to the grade desired, rather than to explore a topic and gain some insight into it. It’s all about ‘how can I manage this task?’ rather than ‘what can I learn from it?’

Of course, when faced with an assignment, it is extremely important to take stock of what is needed in order to complete it — in terms of time, intellectual input, research, and just physical effort. But this estimation is usually done keeping in mind what is needed to do the job well, not just adequately. You will probably get ‘adequate’ grades and occasionally even good ones, when you apply the MER but you need to think about whether this is really what you want, not just from your course, but from the process of learning.

The more serious fallout of getting used to the MER way of doing things, is that it could become the pattern in other areas of life and work as well, and this could mean everything from how we deal with our careers to how we manage relationships. Most of us want a life that is more than ‘adequate’ — so why would we settle for effort that is anything less?

And as for me, faced with grading a pile of papers that clearly show MER, I’m sorely tempted to treat them the same way!


Traffic lights and crosswalks June 16, 2013