MOTIVATION: Rising like a Phoenix — “Failure” and CSE –
Megha Arora, Rank 108, CSE 2017
On the evening of the 3rd of June, I received a flurry of texts from friends and acquaintances who had written this year’s Civil Services Preliminary. “What the hell does UPSC expect from us?” was the common refrain. Soon, I checked out the question paper and I must admit that I was baffled. Partly that may have been because I stopped seriously studying for CSE ever since I got my interview call. I can, however, say with confidence (having written three preliminaries and having micro-analyzed atleast 6 preliminaries for preparation) that this year’s paper just takes the cake. There have been some candid confessions on the IFS what’sapp group about how the preliminary ‘gyaan’ that successful candidates have been going around preaching to aspirants may not have worked for this particular question paper. The 2018 paper was even more difficult and unpredictable than the 2017 preliminary where the General cut-off plummeted to 106.
I never quite understood how some people are so damn certain of clearing the preliminary. These candidates walk out of the examination hall taking full guarantee that they will write Mains. As I have already told you, I was never one of those blessed souls. Preliminary was the most arduous stage of the examination for me. In my third attempt, my singular focus was on earning the opportunity to write Mains 2017. And once I actually cleared the preliminary on 29th July, 2017, I knew that I had won nothing short of a lottery. I may never get the Mains access pass again so I went into do or diemode to get a good rank. I had no choice because the Foreign Service was too dear to me.
In this blog post, I will talk about my own tryst with failure before moving on to certain aspects of the emotional upheaval that is Civil Services Examination. Hopefully my experience will give you an insight into what successful candidates go through during preparation.
I still remember that moment in 2015 vividly — opening up the PDF uploaded on the UPSC website, hitting control-F and typing in my roll number and seeing not found on the screen. Hoping against hope, I frantically tried to find my roll number but to no avail. And then it hit me that I hadn’t qualified for the second time. I was so overwhelmed by the stark rejection of the moment that I just couldn’t process it. The darkness of failure is something that is so visceral and all-consuming in that moment that no amount of positivity can make you see the light. At that moment, nothing and nobody can really console you.
It took me a few months to crawl out of the darkness. I spent a couple of months confused and lost, trying hard to put up a brave face. I read random novels (Upmanyu Chatterjee’s English August, Ben Okri’s Dangerous Love, Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart to name a few), joined South Asia Terrorism Portal as a research scholar, stayed in touch with newspaper reading and applied to a couple of fellowships. I was feeling a gamut of emotions — anxiety, negativity, fear, guilt, regret, self-doubt, self-pity, jealousy. My brain lacked the processing ability to make sense of what I was experiencing. I was done dumping my negativity on my parents and so I met my family doctor for a few counselling sessions. And then I took the brave decision to take a break and not write the attempt in 2016.
I was advised by all well-wishers to not make this mistake, to simply brush the dirt off my shoulders and jump back into preparation. The common concern was that I’ll lose touch with UPSC and instead of building on my foundation, I might just take the exit option out of the examination. There were others who told me that I should do everything in my power to join the Service at a younger age because well, you know, promotions and positions. I was stupefied at these suggestions because I knew that I was not mentally and emotionally ready to sit at home full-time again and write another attempt. My heart and my mind was not in the exam, though I was still supremely loyal to the IFS dream. I desperately needed healing, perspective and some distance from the UPSC juggernaut to understand myself and become friends with myself again.
The great Sun Tzu writes in The Art of War —
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Thus began my process of genuine self-discovery. I took a gap year to solely understand myself and my enemy — the civil services examination. To understand myself, I traveled and wrote, lost a shit ton of weight and became healthier, meditated in the Himalayas with Tibetan monks and eventually joined the Young India Fellowship. To understand the enemy, I dropped all pre-conceived notions and hit the refresh button. I did some honest soul searching about what went wrong and why I missed the cut off by a whisker. I spoke to many people I knew from school who had written the IIT and AIIMS examinations with the sole purpose of understanding the psychology and rigour of competitive examinations. I memorized the syllabus by heart and watched every topper video I could find — making notes of all suggestions and tips. Putting my self-righteousness aside, I took advice from every person I could find. I consulted a few candidates who had cleared the examination and also spoke to some who had failed to qualify. Both perspectives were very important for me to figure out the bigger picture of this very complicated examination.
This much-needed focussed research work should have ideally been done way before I wrote my first attempt. However, like most first-attempters, I’ll say that I was a bit delusional about my own strengths and capabilities, reluctant to step out of my comfort zone, wholly ignorant about the Civil Services process and terrible at time management. After introspection, I came to the conclusion that I had been a bit too naive in assuming that I would sail through to success. My strategy had glaring gaps. There were many questions that I could have marked correctly in Prelims had I just consolidated my information through repeated and focussed revisions. Even if I had cracked the Preliminary, I was woefully underprepared for Mains. Once all of this came to light, the self-doubt faded away. In nothing short of an epiphany, I understood that my “failure” was not because I was a failure or an idiot or plain unlucky. I had “failed” because there were shortcomings in my own preparation. I just wasn’t competing at my full potential.
Firstly, I’d like to say that “failure” is way too big a word to thrust on a human being in a system that is all about who can score more marks. In prelims, the competition is too close. There are thousands of candidates sitting right below the cut-off. And so, my humble submission to all candidates who didn’t make the cut is that —
You didn’t fail.
You just didn’t qualify this particular year with this particular question paper and set of candidates.
Secondly, who is this “society” that we give so much power to? Some randos we knew in the past? Relatives? Uncles and aunties? Our embarrassment and sense of humiliation may be our own self-creation rather than something objective that is coming from society.
Yes, it’s slightly annoying when people you don’t even know ask you, “beta, kya kar rahe ho?” That question is perhaps the most terrifying one of all for UPSC aspirants. But to be fair, there is nothing wrong with the question. Uncles and aunties aren’t asking you about your profession with a malicious intent to provoke you or shut you down. They are just curious because in our social set up, what other kids are doing is a barometer of what their own kids should or should not be doing. Human nature. And that’s something I slowly learnt to take in a more comical and amusing spirit. My standard reply was — “I’m figuring out things.” And I said that with a big, proud smile on my face. There is absolutely NO shame in taking time off, stepping out of the rat race and taking a shot at your dream!
There is much to be said about the fear of failure and humiliation killing off our dreams. My own personal philosophy in life is to not let noise distract me from my goals. Societal pressure, log kya kahenge, bessati ho jaayegi — etc is ultimately just self-created noise in your own mind distracting you from what is truly important. The reason that we succumb to this thought pattern is because usually our sense of validation comes from the outside. We rely on labels, tags, appreciation from our teachers and friends to fill the void and make us more sure of ourselves.
In a talk Gary Vaynerchuck did with high school kids, he spoke on self-awareness. And it really struck a chord with me.
I’m a big fan of just eating reality. I’m just a fan of it, you know? Like the reality was that I had my dad, but I didn’t, because he worked every hour and I never saw him. He missed every game. Now it was better than him leaving or dying but I just never saw him. I could have done what other kids of workaholic parents did and dwelled. Or not. Look, I’m not going to shortchange the extremities of the things people have to deal with. But the hardcore reality is that the universe doesn’t give a f***. If I could give everybody a drug, it would be optimism. I don’t know how to teach self-awareness but I know it is THE game. It is the most important thing. Once you know who you are, it manifests into self-esteem. You just don’t give a f*** about what that guy says or any girl says. You just don’t care. It’s crazy when you get there. It’s like you’re living life in the matrix. You’re just doing your thing. That’s what I want for everybody. Because then you’re set. Peer pressure is out. You’re just not getting dragged into anything you don’t want to be doing.
Forget society. Your sense of validation should come primarily from your own self — plain and simple. When you are clear about who you are and what you stand for, you can develop a wise perspective on all sorts of problems that you encounter. You can see failure truly for what it is — a transitory, fleeting experience and a natural phase in your own spiritual and emotional growth. Failure is not this morbid dead-end. It’s just human evolution.
These are certain things that helped me deal with failure in a positive way and I hope they help you too.
- It’s okay to mourn the death of the attempt. You need the time to process what has happened so take some time off. It’s okay to let everything out of your system by crying, journaling, eating ice-cream and watching netflix, going for a massage — whatever it is that works for you.
- Be radically honest with yourself. What went wrong? How could you have optimised your marks? How could you have been more efficient and focussed? Were there distractions in your way? Did you panic on the day of the examination? Introspect and try to understand your enemy and your own self. Divert your energy into futuristic action and not thought.
- Take a break if you have run out of fuel and need a distance from the rat race. Nothing in life is more important than your own happiness and mental health.
- Seek out support. If you don’t want to talk to your parents or friends, talk to a professional.
- Just see the kind of candidates who clear the examination every year. Are they better than you? I don’t think so. They just refused to accept defeat by being tenacious and positive. Understand ways in which you can be happier, more emotionally intelligent and patient.
- Have a plan B or work part-time if that gives you peace of mind and helps your perform better on examination day.
Before I sign off, I want to share something that is very close to my heart. Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address gave me much joy during my preparation days. There is such a beautiful and profound message in his address. I highly encourage you to read it, internalise it and try to apply it in your own life.
Full text of the address:
On connecting the dots:
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
On failure as an illuminating experience:
I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.
On what is important in life:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Not clearing civils does come as a psychological shock to the best of us. Not for a moment would I want to romanticise failure. There is a sadness to it that is real. However, I have come to realise that sometimes we may be operating on a short-term horizon while the universe may be ushering us towards a different, better direction. Like Jobs says, sometimes the dots only connect in retrospect. If it weren’t for my failure, so much of the goodness that makes me who I am would have not come into my life. Tushita, meditation, my mentor, YIF, my best friends, courses and faculty from YIF — nothing and nobody would have happened.
Also, I understand now that failure is a very ennobling experience spiritually because it makes one highly self-resilient and self-aware, if one takes it in the right spirit. It sweeps away all hubris and sense of entitlement. It helps one discard all the superfluous mental junk. It makes a person more compassionate and empathetic.
It’s a strange thing to say but my struggles and scars have shaped me so much more than my rank. And I’m immensely grateful to my failed attempts.
So yes, the dots do connect.
And I’m certain that the dots will connect for you too.
Thank you so much for reading. And all the very best!