I don’t recall a time more stressful than when I was in my 10+2. I had not done really well in my class X exams. It was not a surprise anyway. I had done well in some, and fumbled in some subjects, barely managing a respectable score. This episode was an eye-opener. I decided to move on from a boisterous, overconfident, and arrogant kid to a more mellow, academic, and serious person. I changed my school, picked up subjects that were interesting to me (think Geography instead of Biology), and basically changed my whole circle of friends. It was my way of isolating myself from my past failures and making a new start. 

As many of you know, there is this tremendous pressure on kids of this age to clear some of the top entrance exams. I was clear I did not want to do medicine, so I figured I might as well try my hands at an engineering degree. There was also this burden of expectations from my family. My cousins had done really well in their careers and I expected to follow in their footsteps. Ironically, my parents did not pressure me into anything. I had established these tall ambitions for myself — crack IIT or you are a failure. 

Now looking back, I realize it was all talk and no substance. I had huge ambitions, but I wasn’t really making an effort. The first year flew by and I managed to make little progress. My final exam score for class XI was a mere 46%. It was terrible! I remember piling up my desk with books from all sorts of publishers. I used to go to many tuitions. I bunked my college classes.  But I never really sat down and studied. Being around books gave me the comfort of doing something while actually not doing anything. I used to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to study but fell asleep on the table. I was roused by a nice scolding from my mom! Those were how my days looked like then.

The second year too was flying by. I had changed many tutors, bought even more books, and spent many sleepless nights agonizing over my progress. One day, my mom took me aside and questioned me about my board exam readiness. After a long conversation, we realized that I should focus my attention on my boards and apply that knowledge to other entrance exams. IIT could wait, my boards won’t. With renewed clarity, I started my preparations. I picked up one book from each subject (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) and started internalizing them. For three months (Dec, Jan, and Feb), I would pick up a topic, crack it and make notes for revision. The next day, I would wake up and revise it, so that I retain the material. I slept at a reasonable time and woke up not too early. I was rested, alert, and had a single objective in mind. With a single-minded effort, I kept on mastering one topic after the other.

March rolled around, and the exams began. The test days were spread across March, with a few days of gaps in between. I had all my notes and revised them multiple times. The day before the exams, all I had to do was engage with the material that eluded me or I was not very confident at (which were not many). The exams were predictable, mainly because I had prepared so well. Needless to say, I aced them all. The entrance exams rolled soon after. I gave them all I could. I was not expecting a top rank, but I was satisfied because I had given them all I could.

Eventually, after a long and agonizing wait, the results were out. It was the summer of 2003, and the internet was only available in cafes. I remember waiting in one of these cafes with my sister (for moral support). The results rolled in at around midday. I checked my scores, noted them, and went home. There’s this weird way of calculating percentages, that my mom, who used to be a professor, was well aware of. She calculated my percentage, and it was a nice round 94%. It took a while to sink in. I had basically topped my class. In fact, we realized that I was among the top 25 in the state and that no one in my college has ever scored this much.  It was a relief, after all the disasters that had happened earlier. Everyone was proud and happy. I was happy. 

The entrance exams were a different story, though. I managed to get into a decent engineering college, but not the one that I had aspired for. This was okay. I more or less got what I wanted from the whole ordeal. You might think this is the end of the story. But not really. I was a more confident and hardworking person after that. I had come to the realization that things don’t just happen, one can make them happen. That hard work pays, and consistency pays even more. And that single-minded effort is something that all should practice. While the world hails multi-tasking, I live by the philosophy of doing one thing at a time and doing it well.

This was just a small story, albeit an important one in my life. But for everyone struggling out there, trying to make it happen, I have three suggestions. First, pick one thing that you want to do better. Second, master it, and third, repeat the process. It can be anything – studies, mastering a new skill, a new sport, or even exercising. Little things add up and eventually, you won’t be able to believe how you accomplished all this. J.K. Rowling may have written millions of words but must have started with one word.  Usain Bolt may have run thousands of miles but, for sure, started with a first step. You get the idea. 

So, start today, and keep at it. Eventually, you will master it. As they say, there really is no shortcut to success.