Its 3 AM and I just woke up in sweats, panting and gasping from a nightmare. I know that I am going to have a bitch of a migraine for the next two days. I had dreamt that I failed IITJEE again and that I would have to drop everything in my life right now and go back to high school tuitions to prepare for the exam again. The feeling is suffocating. This happens quite often and I always wake up at the same spot in my thoughts; the point where I am trying to reason with myself that IITJEE was a while ago and that I should not have to retake it now. I am 26; IITJEE was about 10 years ago. I wake up at least once a month to an unfinished thought in which I fear failing this exam and hence failing my parents, my friends and my well-wishers. It’s difficult to relate to this unless you have gone through the same thing.
For those unfamiliar with IITJEE, It is one of the toughest exams in the world. It’s the engineering entrance exam in India that a large number of kids devote their entire lives to prepare for. All this just to get into universities (The IITs) for their bachelor degrees. When I was growing up IITs were considered the pinnacle of success in India. I was led to believe that if you got into these prestigious universities you were going to be successful for the rest of your life. I had to wake up at 4AM every day and get ready for math and science tuitions from age 11 (maybe earlier still). My day ended in more tuitions after school work. All this to prepare me for more tuitions that would finally prepare me for the exam of exams, IITJEE. Ages 14 through 17, I spent travelling 4 hours every Saturday and Sunday just for more tuitions. I had no time to play. I didn’t pick up any sports. I had no hobbies. I was socially inept, horrible at talking to girls and loathed kids that did not have to struggle.
As a kid I hated studying, exams and tuitions. I did not enjoy ages 11 through 18. I was burdened and mortally terrified by the amount of money my parents had spent on my education. My mom even resigned from a job she loved dearly just so she could help me with my studies. The social pressure of IITJEEs kept growing. In real life, I took the exam twice and failed miserably. I was just not cut out for it. I lost my friends, withdrew into myself and I think I became socially awkward. In all my nightmares there is an inevitable part with my parents crying, because I believe I had failed them(This was all in my head). All this because Indian education systems are extremely competitive. It scars you for life. You develop a constant ‘Fear of Failure’ for the rest of your life.
For those of you who are feeling pity for me right now, please stop. Things get much better. Every time I wake up struggling and sweating from one of my ‘Fear of Failure’ nightmares, my dog ‘Dobby’ is nudging me with his nose on my chin, tail wagging, patiently waiting for me to wake up so he can lick my face all over and calm me down. I think I should see a doctor about this but my dog makes me so happy that I forget all about it. The irony of it is that ‘Dobby’ came into my life due to my ‘Fear of Failure’. Let me explain.
After failing IITJEEs twice and embarrassing my parents enough, I became determined to make them proud someday. I had seen a newspaper ad of this small university in India ‘SRM’ that claimed to eventually launch a satellite into space. I was fascinated by it. It took a lot of hard work to get into SRM and into the satellite team, a group of incredibly smart students. By age 22 I had helped launch ‘SRMSAT’ into space. My first spacecraft. I had friends again, some of them very close who still remain like a family to me. But I felt I had to do more. At University of Michigan, I helped build technology that flew into more space crafts like Strato balloons and the CADRE satellite through the Michigan Exploration Laboratory. By Age 24 I had multiple spacecraft like projects under my belt. I still had panic attacks especially towards the end of projects where I woke up fearing I was going to fail miserably again. I started noticing a pattern. I liked solving challenging problems in order to prove to myself that I was not afraid to fail.
After college the biggest problem I wanted to solve was repay my parents for all they had done for me. I had taken on massive student loans. My next project was a smartly designed investment strategy that got me through ups and downs and I could successfully repay my loans by age 25 and even buy a house! By age 26 I was working on complicated software that runs powerful engines across the world. I had also taken on the biggest challenge of all; I was raising a 7 week old puppy into a beautiful, well trained dog all by myself.
Everything is a project to me. I have come to realize that, there is a compulsive need in me to take on one project after another just to prove to myself that I cannot be put down by nightmares from one exam, a long long time ago. I have also recognized that it was never my parent’s pressure. (who I must say are the kindest, most caring and encouraging people ever) It was all in my head! IITJEE traumatized me, it gave me the fear of failure and I thank my stars every day for it. It prepared me!
I feel there a lot of people who may have gone through this and will relate to it. Written By Sashwat Mahapatra.