27/06/2015 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why The Media Needs To Tone Down Underdog Success Stories

In this Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010 photograph, students attend a class at a cram school in Kota, India. Every year, more than 450,000 students take the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) exam, hoping for entry to the hallowed public engineering institutes located across India. Slightly more than 13,000 passed in 2010, a 3 percent success rate. (AP Photo/Saurabh Das)

Seriously, it gave me a sledgehammer jolt when I read about the two brothers who cleared the recent IIT entrance exam against all odds. For many students in the same age bracket, along with awe and admiration, the news may have stirred some other emotions as well -- frustration, envy, jealousy or feelings of inferiority. The media is partly responsible for this, why and how I will tell you later.

Years ago when I was in the same phase of life, I didn't even dare to attempt the exam. I opted for its lesser cousin, then called simply JEE (Joint Engineering Entrance) exam and, miraculously, got a seat in the best government engineering college in my state, Assam. It is another story, however, that I quit soon as I was dead bored by the course. In hindsight, I cleared JEE then not because I loved the science subjects but because I was relatively good at solving numerical problems.

What is it then in these two boys that many other aspirants don't have? I have seen hundreds of students who toil day and night for the exam, but success still eludes them. My neighbour, for example, has sacrificed three good years of his youth for IIT JEE. This boy who loves cricket and fun activities barely saw the light of day in his endeavour, but unfortunately he couldn't make the cut.

"Their achievement is indeed inspiring and full kudos to them, but the media shouldn't overdo the underdog story."

So should your natural talents determine if you should go for this or that? At such a young age, it is not easy to know yourself fully enough to choose a trajectory that you know will give you both personal fulfillment and financial stability. More often, even the parents aren't sure what their kids want. Back then, I wanted to become a film director; but when I broached this topic with my father, he stared at me like I was an alien. I had to drop my idea then and there.

Then, is it about working smart? I don't know how to do it while studying, but as far as service in a company is concerned, let me share with you my experience.

In one of the quarter reviews in my last job in an MNC, I remember my manager say: "I know you work hard; even donkeys do that. Work smart instead." I had an insane desire to punch his face then, but waited patiently for an explanation, which never came. On paper and in motivational talks, "working smart" means working beyond your core job, thinking out-of-the-box ideas, finding innovative solutions to problems and all that jazz. However, in reality, all that I saw was smarts with a dark edge -- taking credit for something that you are not responsible for, drum-beating your work loud and fast, outdoing others by spreading rumours and bitching, playing unthinkable office politics, trying to be real cosy with your boss.

Anyway, I am sure there are many companies where integrity and performance alone are the benchmark for success. And where study is concerned, successful candidates and experts can explain the concept of "working smart" in clear and unambiguous terms.

What is the solution then? I say, the onus lies on the person who is on the threshold of choosing a career -- do online research, meet counsellors, investigate if your chosen field is viable. Oh, how I wish I had these luxuries back then in my small town!

Back to the boys now. Their achievement is indeed inspiring and full kudos to them, but the media shouldn't overdo the underdog story. The initial impression of their situation -- that they studied in a "rundown mud hut with a tarpaulin thatch", "never tasted paneer or had the luxury of a radio or a TV set" -- is bit overemphasised. The fact is, the boys were brilliant students and they were deservedly sponsored for IIT coaching in Lucknow and Hyderabad.

I remember, the media made a similar song and dance about J K Rowling's humble beginnings -- that she wrote the Harry Potter books in an Edinburgh café to escape her unheated flat, which she denied in an interview. All I can say is -- dear media, spare a thought for us, the less-fortunate Muggles!

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