Is Success Getting Into a Top University?

This article first appeared in the Hindu on October 18, 2021.

Being a career and college counselor means signing up for a lot of anxiety. We deal with anxious parents, students on a roller coaster of exams, grades, pressure and deadlines. Not to mention hormones. And then we have the performance anxiety of making it happen.

Can you get my kid into an Ivy League School?

I’m disappointed with my grades (96%). What colleges can I get through now?

I want to get into a top college!

Is XYZ an Ivy?

I work with multiple students who have been brought up to believe that getting into a Top 20 international college – or Ashoka University – is the definition of success. And given how poor these odds are, many of them have lost the ability to smile. As have the parents. There is a grim pressure hanging about them at all times – and almost everything they do, from who they make friends with and what they do for fun is dictated by the pressure.

You may buy in to this idea, too. Most of my friends with teenagers do.

But over the years, I have come to believe that success does not lie in a brand name – that of an alma mater or even an employer. For 17 years – roughly since I started working in career guidance – I have asked people what success means to them. I have addressed students, parents, teachers and business leaders and I have heard it all – Satisfaction. Money. Power. Fame. Helping others. Creating something new. And here is what I have learnt from these conversations – and books and TED Talks from people talking about success.

First, success is first a feeling of self-worth.

All your money and fame is worth nothing if you feel inadequate. And because this is so fundamental to success, we cannot let self-worth depend on something we don’t control – like having the most money (even if you are Jeff Bezos because Elon Musk may zoom into space before you anytime); or the brand name of a college we do or don’t get into; or the judgment of the other people since this is constantly changing. Self-worth must depend on owning our personal values, trusting our instincts and being our own best judges. And not having to prove that we are worthy to ourselves and others. 

What is means for aspiring students?

A successful student owns his or her goals. A successful student has a larger vision than the name of a college – a vision related to what they want to do in life. Because that is what engages them emotionally and intellectually. Not because they have something to prove. And college is a step along the way. Not the goal.

Second, success is having enough means – and money – to provide for everything important.

Education. Reasonable leisure. Social ritual. And medical expenses. But what does enough mean?

Enough is when you start enjoying your own money. Enough is the point when you can pamper yourself and feel genuinely happy after that. Enough is the point when you have the confidence to say, “I cannot afford this,” because you can afford something that makes you happy enough. Enough is the point when we begin to balance earning-oriented tasks with fun-oriented ones, earning as much as that allows.

Because we are not money-making machines, after all.

What is means for aspiring students? 

A successful student is one who can see the path to financial freedom and enoughness after college. This may involve some years of struggle – but they have the practical sense and financial wisdom to choose their struggles with their eyes open and their feet on the ground, ready to do what it takes to work through the struggle. And they own that path. 

Third, success is having the confidence to set goals that inspire you. 

This means standing up for yourself – and for all causes that mean something to you.

“I want to never have to stop myself from buying a car I love.”

“I want to make an app that allows everyone to learn music.”

“I want to run a company that employs more than 1000 people.”

“I want to provide computer education to the children of migrant labourers.”

Success means having goals that are motivated by self-worth and financial wisdom.

What is means for aspiring students? 

A successful student is one who has set academic goals and found dream colleges that take him or her towards their larger goals. And one who works passionately – even compulsively – to make these happen, making enabling choices like missing favourite TV shows and parties, talking to seniors and mentors to find out how to make it happen. Driven by passion and self-worth rather than the fear of failure – or the judgment of society.

Fourth, success is being open to failure. 

Because s**t happens. And because failure is an inevitable stage of any great endeavour. And because it is often as clear an indication of what course-correction is needed as any you could hope for. Or in simpler terms, because we can all do with a good whack on the head to set ourselves back on our path.

What is means for aspiring students?

A successful student is one who has more than one route to the goals they have set for themselves. And one who is willing to pick themselves up, lick their wounds and get going again.

Finally, success is being able to enjoy the moment. 

Enjoy the chat you are having with the checkout guy at the supermarket. Enjoy every bite of your lunch. Enjoy the music you listen to while you gym. Enjoy the breeze on your face on your way to school. Enjoy the time you spend with your family and friends. And yes, enjoy studying.

A successful student is one who chooses and owns their goals driven by self-worth and financial wisdom, makes a plan and enjoys every moment of it working the plan – some fun moments, some frustrating and some gruelling moments. Well, almost.

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