We frequently hear stories about one-hit wonders, such as pop stars, sportsmen or writers who initially appeared to be promising and dropped off a cliff a few years later. These people were mentioned only in “What happened to them?” features. Whenever I think of my school days, I always wonder where a few of my mates might be right now. People who were so good at singing, dancing, sports, or even academics. Whether they are brilliant young scientists, brokers or consultants. Here, I’ll share two stories with you, nothing extravagant. Just two relatable stories of early success.
An academically above-average student cracked JEE and got into an IIT. His relatives, on account of his early success, put him on a pedestal he didn’t expect himself to be on. He was no longer the average town guy who used to run around. Now, he was an IITian, and he was meant to be treated as such. That led him to believe he was somehow superior. He began to act like a caricature of a confident, successful man, peppering his conversation with an air of snobbishness. His grades plummeted initially. It took a lot of failures henceforth, for him to get his grades in a reasonably good spectrum.
Another boy, a bookworm from his kindergarten days and a topper in his school, found himself short of the cutoff marks for cracking JEE. He felt as if the world had suddenly turned subtly against him despite all the coochy-cooings going on around. He was so used to being on an altar that he hardly remembered what the ground felt like. Expectations ran Everest-high. It became difficult even to crawl on Mother Earth. A small failure and already tongues started wagging on how he lacked the signs and symptoms of sustained prosperity. Always the golden boy, he had never failed before. He spiraled into depression. It took him a long time to gather his strength.
Early Success: Stifles Or Stimulates?
Here, we have two cases of students achieving early success in life. I’m not at all implying that getting admission into IIT or being academically strong in school is something bad or not worth striving for. It is not easy to hit the jackpot when you are young. But what the society expects of you after just a little initial tinge of early success is consuming, so much so that it can give you catastrophic delusions.
Your school days are a good barometer of your success, be it in academics or sports or extra-curricular activities. You taste success in at least one of these areas, and the trouble begins. You are immediately branded a super-guy, and your every move is watched, analyzed and very often criticized as well. So, there fades away your happiness, which should have followed your success.
A little bit of failure, some struggle – these experiences lay the foundation for success. They also provide the necessary fodder for learning to deal with rejection and failure.
“Was the singular pursuit of engineering what really mattered ( in cracking JEE )?” Many IITitans are asked by “non-IIT” friends. Many freshmen, if truthful, will reply that engineering was never their goal. Getting into an IIT was, and now that they’ve achieved it, they feel somewhat hollow because they feel they have scaled the mountain, and there isn’t anything else to accomplish. The worst thing? They can’t talk about their problems because it would seem like “a problem most people wished they had.”
In families or neighborhoods, comparisons are inevitable. You see someone your age or around, being so wildly successful (at least you are made to think so, even if they are not). You think ‘they just have it, they have something I don’t have.’ You think, ‘I’m so young, and already I’m doomed.’ This is where the social stigma of failure begins, so much so that you begin to always take the safest way possible to save yourself from adversity.
Becoming highly successful at too young an age is the result of a mixture of talent and good fortune. For most, talent is the major contributor. For a smaller number, luck contributes more. Here too, we have two categories of people: those who attribute their success purely to luck and suffer from imposter syndrome. They may continue along a successful path, but they are chronically anxious and never enjoy their success. At the other extreme, people with big egos who attribute their success entirely to their efforts don’t mature well and are ill-prepared to handle reversals of fortune. Broadly, both kinds of people have a vision in what should be called a ‘reality distortion field’.
So, who is most likely to build on and sustain early success? It’s the people who are humble enough to understand the positive aspects of their good fortune, but at the same time recognize the setbacks resulting from the lack of hard work.
Whenever you see a very successful person, you almost imagine that it was a foregone conclusion. That they’re a genius, that they were destined for great things. The missing piece here is always the failure and setbacks, far from being uncommon, are in many ways essential.
If you hit the jackpot and get early success, it’s worth keeping these things in mind.
Manage the passive aggressives: You will be the recipient (maybe a rather proud one) of some envious and nasty comments. Develop a thick skin and shrug them off. Do not become defensive or apologetic by making personally dismissive statements such as, “I was just lucky.”
Know who your friends are: Shed those friends who make mean comments or expect you to subsidize them. But cherish those who are truly happy for you. And be generous if you have more money than your friends do. Be sensitive to others’ difficulties. Friends still having a low academic standing may not appreciate hearing how extravagant your grades are if you keep drumming them down their ears.
Find mentors: Seek out emotionally-intelligent people who can advise you on how to handle difficult situations, from personal to professional. Admit when you are wrong. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
Attribute your success correctly: Understand the relative role of good fortune and skills. Don’t attribute everything to either luck or talent. If you suffer from the imposter syndrome, take inventory of your accomplishments and feel good about them. On the other hand, if you believe everything that has happened to you is purely the result of how amazing you are, take a look at how good fortune has thrown in its hand.
The Indian psyche wants the end of everything to be good, even the best sometimes. That’s why all our movies have a happy ending. Our mind wants the evening of life to be good and successful in its ‘Indian’ way. Success, in most natural cases, is built brick by brick, year by year, as you move along the trajectory of life. And there is no scope for sudden and early success in this formula, nor is there one for a too-early happiness.
Our youth ensures that hot blood flows through our veins. Many times, in the verve of this flow, we end up committing silly mistakes that are damaging. Yet they end up giving us life lessons. You can read about some of the life lessons that you need to learn before adulthood here.