LEARNING LESSONS It is worth reflecting on the fact that many of us find what is meaningful only after years of wandering

Anna University is a hub of activity these days. With engineering counselling on, parents and students gathered here endure every emotion possible — anxiety, fear, hope, joy and, in several cases, heartbreak. What unites them, however, is the notion that the decision made here is perhaps the most important of their lives.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Exactly nine years ago, I was in the same state of mind – waiting outside Gujarat University in Ahmedabad. I had, after a brief flirtation with B.Sc. (Chemistry), finally given in to the promise of a plush job in an IT firm and joined an engineering college. While unsure about a lot of things, I was quite certain of what I was not good at — which was mathematics — and today I hear the same sentiment being echoed as every third engineering aspirant tells me that he is looking for a course “with the least mathematics.”

During my engineering days, I had approached a veteran professor in the neighbourhood who taught integral calculus. He absolutely hated solved examples in textbooks and would either clip them or tear them off. After teaching a basic concept, he would give me a sum and tell me: “Think. Don’t recall.” It would get worse when he would ask me to write a software programme based on the sum’s logic.

I would keep staring at the sums for hours, angry at losing time that could’ve gainfully been spent in memorising the problems. Then, as even now, it is not difficult to score well in engineering. All you need is a stack of old question papers, good internal marks and a set of solved illustrations. Good handwriting and a bit of practice take you the extra mile.

Looking back, I realise the professor was ahead of his time. The hatred he exuded for solved problems and guides can now be seen in the eyes of exasperated technical heads of companies who struggle to get graduates to unlearn four years of education before they can be reliably trusted with projects. I learned the lesson the hard way – slogging it out to clear tests, while others had a blissful time in the magnificent training centre of an IT major in Mysore.

The old professor’s advice came handy as I realised that aptitude scores over rote in the IT industry: you have to know how to apply a concept in order to crack logic puzzles. Most of my experiences over the next couple of years underlined the fact that it is this method of learning and working that is most valued in a workplace. The method enables one to beat the pressure of deadlines and the rapidly evolving demands of the industry.

Now, I also know that I was wrong nine years ago – that decision was not the most important career choice of my life. As countless engineers diversify into related or, sometimes, totally unconnected professions (as I did), it is also worth reflecting on the fact that many of us find what is meaningful only after years of wandering.

There are times when I feel like going up to students who have not got their desired ECE seat and tell them that there is life beyond engineering college. Just because you invest four years there does not mean you cannot submit to your true calling sometime down the road. But there is always a greater joy in figuring that out for oneself. It took me six years — four in college and two as an engineer — to find journalism. For a few lucky ones, this self-discovery can be just easier and faster.

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Teaching & LearningSeptember 24, 2010

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