Let No One Tell You…


by Sujeet Gholap, alumnus. This post originally appeared in his blog here.

“Sir, pls tell me how you achieved so much. What is boring and normal to you will be inspiration for me pls guidance me…”

“Bhaiya, I am Marathi medium. Is IIT not for me then?”

“I’m feeling very bad that I did not study computer science in 11th and 12th…”

“Sir, pls tell me some inspiration. I want to be lyk u.”

I am sorry for not replying personally. If you find this post inspiring, and it shows you hope, gives you renewed enthusiasm to fight, courage to not give up, let me give you more good news: this is nothing. I know at least half a dozen friends of mine who have much more inspiring stories to tell, except that they don’t blog about it.

Anyway, here’s a story only for you. For you, and for my bestest buddy who’s been having a lot of confidence issues lately. (Yeah, that guy whose name starts with an ‘S’ and ends with a ‘T’)

You tell me about not having the right background. You tell me about not being fluent in English. You tell me how everyone around is so much smarter than you. You ask me whether it is too late now to learn programming. You know what? I’ve been there and gotten over it. If I could do it so can you! I’ll let the following examples do the rest of the talking.

There was a Maharashtra-wide competitive exam when I was in the 8th and 9th standards. After writing the exam in 8th standard, one of Pappa’s friends asked me how much I thought I will score. I told him: around 150 out of 200. He told Pappa, “Your son is overconfident. No one scores that much, but everyone says so after coming out of the exam hall.” Well, that stung. After all, he was an expert as far as that exam was concerned. I had two choices: either to accept that I couldn’t be that good or to take up the challenge and prove him wrong. Guess which one I chose?

Next year, I studied even harder. And you know what? I topped the exam! For the first time in the fifteen year history of that exam, the topper from the rural merit list had scored more than the topper from the urban merit list! I got to deliver a speech in front of, and share the stage with, T. N. Seshan, the person attributed to largely ending electoral malpractices in India. Let no one tell you your limits. Let no one tell you what you cannot do …

My proud moment in front Mr. Seshan
My proud moment in front of Mr. Seshan

After my 10th standard exam, I went to Hyderabad to prepare for this crazy exam they call Ramaiah-SAT. Forget Marathi, many there didn’t even speak Hindi. And me? I hadn’t ever spoken in English! Had no idea बल is force, त्वरण is acceleration and व्यतय is reciprocal. If inferiority complex were water, I would have surely made the whole world drown!

“What is this ‘gonna’, ‘gotta’ these guys talk about?” “Oh boy! These guys say ‘Sunday, Monday…’ instead of ‘रविवार, सोमवार…’! Yes, I can say all the seven names in a sequence, but when it comes to using them in a sentence, I always fumble and then randomly mumble.”

I had two choices: either I could stick to a group of Marathi students, keep talking in Marathi, always feeling afraid and shy of speaking in English, or I could try to make friends with other people, not be ashamed of the constant stream of mistakes I was bound to make and forge ahead.

About studies, again I had two choices: feel bad about how it was so unfortunate for me that I learnt the sciences and maths in my mother-tongue and how I will never be able to catch up, or tell myself that without such challenges life would be boring anyway. “Come on, carry a dictionary with you! It’s just a bunch of terminology! It’s not like you don’t know the English language as such!”

Guess which choices I made… Let no one tell you that your language defines your capabilities. Let no one tell you your background limits your possibilities…

At the end of 12th standard, there came an Astronomy Olympiad camp. There I met people who knew so many star names they could play अन्ताक्षरी with star names. I met people who casually threw around words like black hole, space-time curvature, black body radiation. While I was seeing a telescope for the first time, I saw others who had a telescope of their own. While I was having trouble pointing the telescope to a star, some were tracking aeroplanes with an equatorial-mount telescope!

I heard that there were at least five students in the camp who have already represented India in the International Olympiad. And they were going to select a five member team this year!

I could have easily given up and said, “Even if I try my best, there’s no way I’m going to outperform these guys.” I could’ve chosen to vent out my anger on “how the repeaters are robbing the newcomers of a chance”. I didn’t.

You know what? The feeling of “there’s so much to learn”, “I know nothing, and I want to know” was so overwhelming that once, in the middle of the night, I went to the teacher at camp and told him, on the verge of tears, “Sir, I don’t know the constellations properly, I keep on forgetting. I’m not good at handling the telescope. I want to learn. I want to be good at it. Please help me.” We took a telescope, went to the terrace and he taught me… putting aside his sleep.

It so happened that among the five previous internationalists (they were so good that obviously they were the top five students in the camp), two were sent in the IAO team, thus creating a room for two ‘newcomers’ in the IOAA team. (Yeah, there are two Astronomy Olympiads!) It was definitely luck, no doubt. But had I not put in efforts, had I not given it my best, I wouldn’t have even been in the position to avail the luck. It was life’s way of telling you, “try your hardest, I’ll see how I can make you lucky”. Let no one tell you that luck’s important. It is, but not if you give up way too early.

It's not everyday you get to meet world leaders of such a high nuisance value! :P
It’s not everyday you get to meet world leaders of such a high nuisance value!

When I started with my undergraduate studies in Computer Science, if I knew any less, I would have known stuff in the negative! At the same time, I was intimidated by people around me. Some talked about how they studied this awesome thing called ‘the ICSE syllabus’ and wrote programs in Java using BlueJ. That was already too many magic words in a sentence for me. I was in a state where program meant “a planned series of future events, items, or performances.”

Here, here, I’ll let you in on a secret: “Things sound so much more difficult and hard to master when you know zilch. More importantly, people show off. Obviously, they don’t know that.” For my inferiority complex, it has been a recurring theme. Just like I feel insecure, others do too. But some of them are clever! They have figured out how to get rid of that feeling. They show off! (I know the effectiveness of the technique because I am a religious practitioner.) The thing they do not realize is that by doing so, they might be making some people feel worse about themselves. Now that you know it, welcome to the club!

“I automated my mess registration,” someone will tell you. What they mean is they wrote a for loop which keeps on sending the same POST request to the mess registration website again and again. The worst thing you could do is read people’s resumes. Even the owner of the resume would feel a bit inferior if they didn’t know they were just looking at their own resume!

Here’s another fact: those who have really achieved something awesome will be the opposite: “I wrote a bunch of scripts to scrape the links on the web and tried to see if they tell anything about each others’ importance” would have been the description of the much revered PageRank! The key is to not get bogged down by how much others around you (appear to) know.

So, as I was saying, I started off with zero knowledge about programming. Hell, I didn’t even know how to type! But there was one thing: a burning desire to excel. You know what? When it came to internship at Facebook, it wasn’t necessarily the people I always thought of as “programming gods”, people who had a head-start that got selected. Let no one tell you that having a head-start matters.

With some luck, even you can get a picture with Zuck!
With some luck, even you can get a picture with Zuck!

There’s this friend of mine, who is going to join Google, Mountain View office. He’s representing India this year in ACM ICPC, the world’s most prestigious programming contest. Do you know what a pathetic pathetic school he went to? See that!

Next time you complain about “not good school”, “bad teachers”, “Marathi medium” think of my friend, think of me. We did it. You definitely can!

Now, now, did I make that sound too easy? This post’s a failure then. See, there’s no magic, there’s no formula, no tricks. When you were busy playing candy crush on the back bench, I was paying my undivided attention to what the professor was teaching. When you were busy texting ‘lol’s and ‘omg’s, my friend was taking coding challenges on topcoder. When you were crying and complaining about your pathetic school, bad teachers, bad English, I was using that same rage to fuel my desire to compete. When you went out for that movie which you anyway knew wasn’t very good, my friend spent time reading about graph algorithms and dynamic programming techniques. And you ask me for tricks. Tough luck bro, there are none.

Use these examples to remind yourself that if someone as lame as Sujeet managed to get into (Ramaiah/IIT/Google/Stanford, you choose), you definitely can. All you’ve got to do is stop feeling sorry for yourself and tackle the challenges head-on! And yeah, that definitely does not involve “give me some advice bro”.

Anyway, here’s some practical advice:

  1. Mistakes are good. People will (and why shouldn’t they? If no one does, I will) make fun of your English and your grammar. Use that to better yourself. No shame in asking what something means. No shame in asking how to phrase a particular thing. No shame in asking for grammar rules.
  2. For technical topics, Wikipedia’s the place to go. Want to know some specific programming stuff? Go to stackoverflow. Want good programming tutorials? Google’s your friend. Not me.
  3. Remember that friend of yours who knew game theory so well and made you feel like an ignorant fool? No shame in asking him to teach you the basic concepts! If you aren’t learning from your friends, time to make more!
  4. The “cool dude — doesn’t pay attention in class — still scores full” picture is total nonsense. There definitely are a few, but you and I aren’t among them. So listen to what is being taught in the class. Don’t understand something? Ask! Chances are that your classmates didn’t understand either. Just that they don’t give a damn, while you do.

And remember, we’re in this together. Persistence. Perseverance. Thirst for knowledge. Curiosity. Not your past. Not your background. Not who you were.

What matters is who you want to be.

Let’s say, we finally succeeded in not giving a damn what ‘people’ tell us. Something’s still there — what about the person you love more than anything else in the world? What if they tell you that you are a loser? What if they say, “I don’t have any confidence in you”? Hurts, doesn’t it? Damn well it hurts! Hurts more than a thousand red hot needles burning holes through your very own being! The only person you really ever cared about, dismissing you …

Here’s what you gotta do: look them straight in the eyes, tell them, calmly and nice, “you don’t know me”. Because, believe me, they really don’t know you. No one does.

Doesn’t work? Break that damn mirror! Go write in your diary/on your blog about how awesome you are and how the guy in the mirror is mistaken.

Let nobody tell you that you are a loser. Not anybody. Not the guy in the mirror.


Sujeet Gholap (BT/CS/2013) is an alumnus of IIT Madras. He is currently pursuing a post graduate degree in Computer Science at Stanford University.

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