Design by Siri Chandana
For our next TGG, we have Surya Suresh! Surya graduated in 2021 with an IDDD in Electrical Engineering and Data Science and is now employee #1 at GOAT Brand Labs. Hopping between conferences and case competitions, he reportedly spent more time outside insti than in it. He was a Spons core and a T5E Editor, and was known for spending more time in the HS and DOMS buildings than the Elec building. He also spent an inordinate amount of time in CCD sipping coffee and listening to Adele instead of going to class.
As I sat down to work on this piece in the wee hours of the night, I stumbled upon a curious problem that previous TGG authors probably never encountered: I remembered so little of my time at insti.
So little of the long nights spent worrying about the next day’s endsem, the time spent in CCD with my Spons team, the nerves before intern season, my meandering walks down Bonn Avenue, and the existential holes I frequently fell into during my time at insti. There were even things I didn’t remember enough about to worry about not remembering them. (How confusing is that!).
In the 17 months since I boarded that fateful last bus at GC, I have lost touch with most of my friends, robotically passed my courses, fortuitously cleared a competitive exam, started and stopped a podcast, rejected my PPO, moved to a new city, and begun a job as employee #1 at a startup. In addition, as I write this piece, I am currently in a black buck sanctuary in western Karnataka where I am paying to watch black bucks prance around (How ironic!).
In short, a lot has changed since March 14, 2020, and today, when I think about my time on campus, I resonate most with Andy’s quote from ‘The Office’ — “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” (There, I’ve accomplished my task of inserting an Office quote).
This piece is my effort to remember the good old days and along the way, just for tradition’s sake, I have managed to sprinkle some cliched fundaes too. (Feel free to ignore them — I ignored most of the fundaes I received in insti).
Owing to my Covid-addled memory, I have refrained from the usual TGG fare of a chronological walkthrough of my insti life. Instead, I have broken this piece into 5 sections— each one covering a key element of my insti life. I begin with the least important element.
Fought my way through college. Earned a duel degree.
Thus reads my yearbook quote, which I appropriated from a dear friend an hour before the deadline.
My lasting memory of my academic undertakings at insti would be me, in August 2021, frantically calling up the admin office to berate them for not mailing me my provisional degree. I was worried that I would have to repeat a year and their annoyingly calm responses only served to enrage me further. To understand how I found myself in such a sticky situation, I take you back to my first year in insti.
My second semester marked the beginning of my four-year long tussle with the electrical engineering department. I scored my first ‘0’ on a quiz, burnt half a dozen ICs in the lab, and began to have serious questions about my place in insti. My batchmates struggled with the curriculum as much as I did, but no one detested going to classes as much as me (or burnt as many ICs).
An ode to the folks who helped me get through school and college
My saving grace that semester was a course titled : ‘Introduction to European Philosophy’, taken by a wispy old professor who struggled with technology and had a strange accent. That wispy old professor turned out to be one of the greatest teachers I’d ever had, and in a matter of weeks, I had replaced my electrical engineering textbooks with Plato’s Republic.
Naturally, I cruised through the course, even receiving a scribbled footnote on my end-semester essay that read : Would you be kind enough to return this essay to me? I would like to share it with future students of the course. (I consider that footnote the highlight of my scholastic achievements to date)
That course ignited my love affair with insti’s humanities department, and later its management department, where I found a similarly kindly old professor, with whom I would go on to do my dual degree project. By May 2021, I had amassed a proud 100 credits in HS + DoMS.
I had managed to learn something in insti after all (just not what my parents had shelled their money for). That pride, of course, turned to worry in June, to panic in July, and to despondency in early August.
I did finally receive my provisional degree, but to the juniors out there, make sure you do one more course than the minimum number required to get your ‘engineering’ degree. It will save you several 2 a.m trips to the calculator.
On a serious note, it is easy to get overwhelmed by how complex most of engineering is or by the intellectual prowess of your batchmates, but neither is a good excuse to stop learning. There is something for everyone in insti and as cliche as it may sound, the rewards of putting fight for a course go far beyond that elusive S grade. It took me a while to appreciate this myself but now that I’ve started working, I do miss the immense flexibility that insti offers one to take a random course in an unrelated department just because it sounds ‘cool’. That cool course could be your path to starting Apple 2.0, and even if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter – do the course just because it sounds ‘cool’.
I went searching for friends; I found family
I’ve struggled to make friends all my life. By friends, I don’t mean the close acquaintance of course, the one you send the occasional meme to or the one you nod knowingly towards in a class, or even the one whose room you go to before a quiz just because you have slept through the semester.
Like any self-respecting engineer, I defined my problem statement, considered different root causes (except ones that made me insecure), pondered on different solutions, and decided that I needed to do a ‘PoR’ to make friends.
That’s how I ended up in ‘Shaastra Spons’ as a Vol, where I was made to do the most mind-numbing work imaginable (To this day, I don’t do a good job tying posters). However, in the process of doing said mind-numbing work, I found a group of people who laughed at the same lame jokes that I laughed at, suffered through the same academic ordeals that I suffered through, and dreamt the same dreams that I dreamt. I didn’t know it then but I had found my family in insti and there was no looking back.
There’s such a big deal made out of PoRs, with the hype videos, long applications (I’m guilty too), trash talk, and assurances about ‘peaks’, that you forget what it’s essentially about — Making friends who’ll have your back as you trudge through the sometimes treacherous road that insti and life is.
My work in Spons was not particularly challenging. As a coord, I spent my time executing ambitious publi ideas only to watch them fall embarrassingly short of our goals. As a supercoord, I bombed at getting sponsors (which is the entire JD) and as a core, I’m proud of what my team achieved, but most of what I did was shout orders, manage emotions (badly) and have circular conversations at CCD. Doesn’t sound particularly gratifying, does it? But it was. So gratifying in fact that I wrote a whole article about my tenure as a core, which I shall surreptitiously insert here.
The co-core who kept me sane
It took me a while to realize this , but the work I did in Spons was never really what made the experience special. It was the people I did it with and the memories that mattered. To this day, whenever I take the time out to reflect about my insti life, my first memories are always from Shaastra and Spons, and to this day whenever I need a patient ear to listen to all my (many) troubles, I inevitably go back to the same people who made my time in insti so memorable. Like I said at the start, I went searching for friends and found family instead. And over the years, it was for the family that I stayed.
Beyond the bubble
Insti teaches you a lot of things. What it doesn’t teach you, however, is how you should react when a friend passes out hours before the finals of a case competition, or how you should definitely panic when you misplace your passport in China, or the appropriate response when an Argentinian colleague offers you a cup of funny smelling coffee. Of course, it also doesn’t train you to answer the most important question of all — If left with no other option, should you order Durian Pizza? (PS : Durian is a South Asian fruit whose aroma is comparable to smelly gym socks)
TLDR — Insti teaches you a lot. The world teaches you a lot more.
My ventures beyond insti were mostly accidental in nature but they always ended up being transformative experiences. It started at the end of my freshman year when I accidentally found myself participating in a fin-tech product innovation competition with a team of four final-year students. In a matter of months, I went from knowing nothing about fin-tech to building a blockchain product to solve the credit woes of Indian MSMEs.
We went on to win a healthy amount of prize money, but the recognition aside, the journey taught me two lessons. Firstly, that hardwork and hustle can make up for age and experience, and secondly, that leadership can come from the unlikeliest of places.
To the younger students out there, don’t let age or experience get in the way of your ambitions. You may be right in believing that you don’t know enough, but that is hardly a barrier if you can work harder than everyone else.
One of the perks of venturing outside insti is that you start using words like hustle and you become very quotable while putting gyaan. But there are other perks too – attendance waivers during quiz week, the opportunity to work with HUL (I haven’t gotten over the fact that they don’t hire electrical engineers), the occasional free Macbook that lasts a few years before it suffers water-damage, and an IG worthy social life (if that’s your thing, I mostly ended up in deserted museums and galleries). But perhaps the greatest perk of all is the people you get to meet along the way and how they force you to take a hard look at yourself.
You have a very limited set of people to observe and learn from in insti. Their ideas become your ideas, their ambitions become your ambitions, and their choices become your choices. Go beyond the gates of insti, and you’ll meet a Nigerian entrepreneur who grew up on the streets, a Dutch accountant building a SaaS startup, and a Bangladeshi engineer who’s a fervent believer in communism. Insti imposes artificial barriers on your thoughts and ambitions; the world throws the floodgates open.
The most diverse room I’ve ever been in
Alongside my successes, I had my fair share of embarrassing failures too. In the latter part of my sophomore year, a couple of seniors and I headed to Singapore for the finals of a case competition. There, we went on to bomb the seemingly simple task of making pretty PPTs in such spectacular fashion that the four of us refused to utter a word to each other on the flight home. However, even in such instances, I inevitably returned back to insti with important lessons to carry forward, a compilation of which I would title – The dangers of fermented grape juice and other stories.
Of lemmings and their career conundrums
Every time I go into an interview, be it for a job or for a college admission, I inevitably get asked one question.
“Surya, you seem to have done far too many different things over the past few years. Did you have a rationale while doing so or were you merely confused?”
I, of course, have a convincing answer prepared for this question but the no-bullshit answer is that I was confused. As a freshman, the subject that most interested me was finance, partially because of the time I spent managing my mom’s demat account as a teenager, and partially because Chetan Bhagat’s new release at the time glorified investment banking (It was more the latter than the former). I eagerly pursued my interest in finance but it came to a premature end post my first internship which I found dull and monotonous (There was some expectation mismatch which I blame Mr Bhagat for).
In my second year, my interest pivoted to consulting and this sent me on an adventure to collect ‘peaks’. During this process, I sat for insti interns, which was without doubt, one of my most nerve-wracking few weeks on campus. With an irrational confidence (read: arrogance), I applied to only two companies, one of which continues to be infamous for its capricious selection process. Fortunately, I did manage to get both offers, through a mix of luck, storytelling (read: bullshitting) skills and charm, the last of which I seem to possess only in an interview room.
However, intern season left an indelible mark on me in more ways than one. I was certain that I would never again voluntarily repeat the experience. It brought out the worst in me and my peers and there was too much luck involved, not to mention a demand-supply gap that would have economists licking their lips. Intern season was also when I discovered that the institute was teeming not with humans, but with lemmings (me definitely being one of them)
Note : According to pop culture, lemmings are rodents that commit mass suicides every migratory season owing to herd behavior. Essentially, they all run behind one another, jump off a cliff, drop into the water and… it doesn’t end well.
Back to my story. I spent a wonderful, if hectic ten weeks at ITC and finished my internship secure in the knowledge that I would return there to begin my career. With two years to go and no peaks to chase, the world was finally my oyster (read: rabbit hole). In the months that followed, I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering where exactly it was that I was going in life. (That’s what having a lot of time on your hands does to you). Soon enough, working at ITC and jumping through the hoops of its ancient bureaucracy didn’t seem like a compelling choice. Given the time on my hands, I began to wonder…
It was mid-2020 and India’s startup story was just being written. Everything about the space appealed to me — The eternal optimism, the people, the ambition to change the world and the dream of achieving moonshot outcomes. It was the perfect destination except for the fact that joining a startup (or starting one) seemed like career suicide.
So, in typical ‘insecure overachiever’ fashion, I decided to hedge my bets by purchasing some costly insurance in the form of an MBA admit, and that is what I spent the rest of 2020 doing. Purchasing insurance came naturally to me, and after a long drawn out process, I ended up with an IIMA admit that I promptly deferred in favor of committing ‘career suicide’.
Today, as I write this, I find myself working as a ‘swiss-army-knife’ at an early stage startup, something I never imagined I would be doing when I entered insti. Hell, I never imagined I would be doing this even a year ago. On that note, I have only two closing pieces of ‘gyaan’. Firstly, that career paths are even more non-linear than you or I can imagine and given that, don’t spend too much time breaking your head over them. Talk to people, get fundaes, and introspect, but don’t get paralyzed into inaction. Take the plunge and make the best of where the rabbit hole takes you.
Secondly, and more importantly, don’t be a lemming unless you can swim.
When you least expect it, the great adventure finds you
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with following the herd. In fact, most times, there is very good reason to follow the herd. But while doing so, just make sure you don’t drown in the cauldron of collective wisdom. Be the lemming that survives or don’t be one.
The end of the beginning (and this piece)
For a person who claimed that he didn’t remember much of his time at insti, I do seem to have written quite a bit. In the interest of your sanity, I’ll keep this last section short.
During the pandemic, a friend and I started a podcast to save ourselves from crippling loneliness. On the podcast, we spent most of our time quizzing far more accomplished guests on their career and life decisions. We inevitably ended these episodes with the same question — “If you could go back in time, what would you tell your 18 year old self?” (A while ago, I made a 2 min compilation of the most insightful answers we heard on the show and you can find it here)
Most of our guests chuckled when they heard the question and then proceeded to give us some of the best gyaan we’d ever received. There were some who advised us to live in the moment and others who advised us to keep hustling. Some who wished they’d spent more time with their friends and others who wished they’d spent more time networking. Some told us to believe in ourselves and others warned us not to get too cocky. Every answer was different and yet, every answer was relevant.
Tells you a lot about how every person operates from a different context, doesn’t it?; something we often forget during our time on campus.
Most of us spend our insti lives looking at the next person and wondering what it is they have that we don’t. To the right, we find someone with a ‘better’ intern. To the left, we find someone who’s crazy good at culturals. To the front, we find someone with the social life of our dreams and to the back, we find someone who’s spent their summers gallivanting across Europe. In the process, besides the pain in the neck from all the turning around, we inevitably end up feeling tiny and insignificant.
I’m not here to tell you not to feel tiny and insignificant. What I am here to tell you is that while you’re feeling tiny and insignificant, you would do well to remember two things.
Firstly, that everyone is approaching insti life with a different set of priorities and what matters to you probably doesn’t matter as much to the person next to you. Secondly, while you’re feeling insecure, remember that insti is probably the best time to feel like your life is not sorted, because it really doesn’t have to be.
After all, insti is just the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end.
PS : I found my degree lying around in a post office box. An unceremonious end if there ever was one. To make things worse, there’s no mention of HS or DoMS in it.
PPS : Durian Pizza is brilliant. Atleast for people like me who like pineapple on their pizzas.
Editor’s Note: All views expressed are of the author. You can also read the other articles from the TGG series here.