No one is interested in your story unless you make it big in life. Your life becomes an inspiration only when you become somebody. Someone significant. Someone influential. Someone rich; and not just intellectually.
When I was in high school, I often encountered a complaint from my classmates that I think, talk and act like an old man. They thought it would offend me. Little did they know that I took that as a compliment. Make no mistake, it wasn’t because I immersed myself into Kafka and Freud and Nietzsche. I hadn’t heard of them yet. It was because I grew up in abject poverty, that made me realize life was not all bed of roses for people like us. The privileged plucked the roses away, leaving behind the thorns for the deprived.
Lack of material wealth is difficult to cope with. Yet, lack, is what made me. It matured me quite early on. Exactly 15 years back, I passed out of school. And since more than 15 years, I’ve been teaching. Then, to try and make a living somehow. Eventually, the means to make ends meet became my passion, and with time, I chose that as my profession.
The reason why I began with a glimpse of my origins is that almost every student asks me, how do toppers top? What makes them different from one who apparently spends hours with books, yet is unable to fair as excellently as he/she expects? The answer, to my experience and understanding, lies a lot in that lack I was talking about.
Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean individuals born with silver (or more expensive) spoons in their mouth haven’t got a shot at catapulting towards their zenith. A lot of them do. What I mean is, in spite of having all the material luxury available, a self-devised minimalist lifestyle helps the most. This is so important, that I haven’t even mentioned about how one should ideally study to crack any examination with flying colours. Because in order to study with complete concentration, the distractions must first be removed. And that is going to be VERY difficult, but VERY rewarding.
I started out by teaching middle school children when I myself was in high school. With time, I developed an extreme affinity towards understanding how mathematics helps us understand every rule that governs the Universe. And once while reading a book in my college library, I came across a statement by Professor Paul Halmos that became the driving factor behind all my approaches to the subject, “The only way to learn Mathematics is to do Mathematics.”
Over all these years, I have been teaching students for Boards, engineering examinations, Olympiads, CAT, SAT, GRE, GATE, govt. job entrance exams etc, and I still can’t say that I’ve gathered sufficient knowledge. Because every time the pride of knowing Mathematics inflates my academic ego, a new problem is posed to me either by someone else or by my own self, and then I start delving deeper into it to find an elegant solution. And the process reiterates perpetually.
I remember my first ‘achievement’ professionally was in 2007, when I was still in college, and two of my students who I trained for a couple of years, cracked the WBJEE with three-digit ranks. While pursuing formal education, I kept teaching students, came across new problems, and I remained excited more with the opportunity to learn something new before I could teach them. The excitement never died down and very much exists still today. Not once did I think about how and why the successful students were successful; I was using the same process for everyone. Then where lies the difference?
Being a teacher professionally, later in schools, some management colleges, and gradually in the JEE and GATE coaching industry, I realized it was my responsibility to be able to answer that question. So, I tried to figure out what it was. Were they all poor? Mostly not. I turned out to be a somewhat expensive teacher with time (say what you will but a man’s gotta eat and as Sir Joker said, when you’re good at something, never do it for free; not a very noble thought for a teacher I agree, but there’s not much to gain from a poor man’s philosophy anyway), so almost all of my students were from well to do families. And then I found out, all of them had, have, and will continue to have one thing in common.
Not just determination.
Not just ambition.
Not just a burning desire to succeed.
Not just hard or smart working tendencies.
Undivided attention due to lack of distractions imposed upon by themselves.
In the innumerable ‘tips and tricks to crack any exam’ in which you’ll find thousands of blogs and articles all over the internet, seldom does this point appear. They’ll tell you all about how you should join this institute (of course paid articles) and enlighten you about ‘10 must read books to immediately qualify in JEE’ etc, and how one should work hard and spend studying for 36 hours in one day and other impractical suggestions. They’ll borrow motivational one-liners from respected authors shamelessly without giving them due credit, but not point out the most practical way to actually pass any exam with flying colours. How to concentrate.
You are reading this on your smartphone (with a poker face). Quite a few notifications might have already appeared by now. Think about it, when you sit down to study, to write a solution, to make a project, to learn something, you need to be able to think clearly with unbroken attention. Does that really happen? How long can you sit continuously with a book? You may blame the authors for making a book boring or you blame your parents for giving you a smartphone early on, but face it, it’s you who could have taken responsibility and controlled the phone, not the other way round. The phone controls you. The tablet, laptop, TV, they control you.
They don’t? Then you’re already halfway there towards your goal, without having even touched one book yet. Because concentration is what is necessary to be successful. Everything else follows. Want to work hard? Concentrate. Want to work smart? Think. Want to relearn something taught by a teacher in the previous class? Find time and get into a much-needed self-study session. If you can train your mind to completely focus into something you’re doing irrespective of your surroundings, if nothing has the capability to distract you, then you have reached a dangerous level of self-control and confidence.
And that, my friend, is what you have to train yourself into. You may buy every content available out there and remain under the false impression that your work is done. You may attend classes for 18 consecutive hours all day and before going to bed, tell yourself that you’ve done a lot today. But if you are not using those books with excellent focus, if you lost touch for even a minute during those ‘boring’ lectures, you are still not there.
Mastering anything takes practice. Developing a habit requires consistency. As you move through the different phases of life, you’ll learn about many skills that’ll help you upgrade. With time, you’ll get to know the intrinsic detail behind why a certain principle works, and why some have exceptions. And with a concrete understanding of those basics shall you be able to grow. It takes time. Be patient, but don’t slow down.
If I have been able to get this message across, that concentration is key, then the next few steps towards success in any examination are cliché and innumerably been told by many successful students and teachers. Let me try to jot them down for you in my words.
- No absence ever from classes you take from individual teachers/coaching institutes for exam specific preparation. If you don’t learn something from these classes even after concentrating well, change.
- Be punctual for classes. It’s not to impress the teacher. It’s an excellent self-disciplinary practice which helps in the long run everywhere; being on time.
- Control your emotional upsurges. At this age, your mind and body are both curious, and very rightly so. You may have infatuations and crushes and that’s no crime at all, it’s a very normal feeling. BUT that MUST not adversely affect your academics. You like someone and wish to marry him/her someday? Excellent. Go ahead, study, crack exams, get certificates, get a great job or create your start-up, establish yourself, make yourself worthy, settle financially and then fix the date; send me an invitation. Establish yourself. Settle financially. Else, you’ll lose it all and end up writing sad poetry with bad grammar on local blogs with zero audience. That’s not what you want.
- Monitor yourself constantly and find time for self-study instead of running to multiple useless tuitions. Don’t wait for your teachers and parents to constantly run behind you and make your daily routine. Be self sufficient and start being responsible. That is actually a sign of your maturity, and will be highly appreciated by your well-wishers. Avoid tuitions for Board examinations as much as possible; they are subordinate and hence unnecessary for a JEE aspirant.
- Do not ignore your school syllabus. Simultaneously, do not judge yourself based on your school examination marks. Do you think we don’t know the pressure that you are undergoing? School, projects, JEE, KVPY, Olympiads, SAT, you are overburdened. Well, only if you think so. A lot of unaware parents and students panic when school exam results start to fall. Conflicts of syllabus shall happen always. Concentrate on learning the content rather than outperforming in your school exam. Had schools been doing their work properly, teachers like us would have continued to work in schools and not create separate institutes for parallel education. Once your curriculum is complete, go and ace those tests.
- If you feel that the coaching classes are too fast for you, go for experienced individual tutors. You got ten problems left and the next topic is already completed. Do not panic. Consult with your friends, find someone who can help you in person in small batches, and get back in track in no time. But remember, experienced teachers will always take your interview before they’ll let you join, so ensure that whatever you have learned, you have learned the basics well and not just mugged up.
- Never compare yourself with others. There are gifted students, and then there are lazy students. Both can be self-generated. Compare yourself today with who and what you were yesterday. You got no business pondering over Sharmaji’s beta, and neither do you need to allow your relative to do the same.
- Organize your class notes and browse through them regularly. In a hurry, we all tend to spoil our handwriting. Not to worry as long as it remains legible. After a class, go home, freshen up, and then go through what you had been taught on the same day. Never keep that browsing pending, however mentally exhausted you may feel. Remember, the mind is absolutely in our control. If needed, make some fair notes. Laziness doesn’t help.
- Maintain consistency in preparing all the subjects. If your strength lies exclusively in Physics, and you presume the other subjects may be ignored in parts, you are not entirely correct. One subject won’t take you anywhere (unless you are specifically preparing for single subject oriented competitives such as Olympiads or CMI/ISI entrances etc). And this brings me to the next point.
- Learn effective strategies and use them every time you sit for a test. Competitive exams have negative marking. To avoid falling into that trap, you must strategically attack every paper. Read the entire paper in the beginning, identify your strong points, attempt those questions first, boost your confidence, use your elevated mindset to attempt the others that you might solve, and let go of questions that seem too troubling. Don’t allow your ego to take over the best in you and force you to bring down your examination performance.
- Keep pursuing your interests. Play games. Watch movies. Listen to music. Play the guitar. Read a novel. Write poetry. Paint a picture. Take a photograph. Do everything that relaxes your mind. BUT IN MODERATION. That’s where the ultimate point again comes into play; concentration and focus. If you are smart enough, you’d know where to draw the line. Remember your ultimate objective, and work on it. That doesn’t mean you need to become unsocial. It means you need to learn to restrict some of your activities, all for the greater good.
- PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE! This simple yet effective phrase has been used so many times that it feels like I’m plagiarizing it. The more problems you solve, the better you get at it. Research is a different game altogether. But to crack any examination, an in-depth knowledge of a multitude of concepts and awareness about various problem types is extremely necessary and effective.
- Be a good human being with a good soul, and find your calling. Everything that we achieve in life becomes pointless if we ultimately don’t find any meaning behind our existence. You can earn a lot of money. But if that doesn’t make you content, then money was never the problem. I personally have realized that if you remove all ill from your mind, it gets de-cluttered, you can start looking at things from a clearer perspective, and it becomes much easier for you to identify your true calling. And that’s exactly what I teach all my students…
Find out your passion, hone your skills in it until you become unbeatable in your immediate vicinity, figure out a way to get paid for it, and then you’ll never have to work for a single day in your life; because you’d be doing what you love to do.
I was told by a coaching institute teacher in my earlier days, that I won’t ever be able to be a great teacher given my humble beginnings as a school teacher and lack of enough experience. When he was telling me this in a room filled with my new colleagues, I couldn’t help but notice a quote by William Arthur Ward framed ironically on one of the walls there, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
I always knew what my calling was. Have you figured it out yet? Don’t worry. Every expert was once a beginner. We all are bound to make mistakes, and that’s exactly why pencils and erasers are great friends. Keep at it. Stay motivated. Stay hungry for knowledge. And one fine dawn you’ll find yourself content with your life, typing away your experiences in your field to help your future generation grow and be happy.
– The Professor