Chart your own path to success

College and university students, researchers and professors studying together, school supplies and digital tablet: education and research concept

Though most students feel history is boring, it teaches us more about life than any other subjects. I would like to delve into history to look into some of the illustrious people of the past one or two centuries who have excelled in various fields and analyse how they did it without undergoing a formal educational training or without pursuing higher studies. This can help those students who often feel that they can carve out a good career without going through the drudgery of rigorous studies and scoring well in exams.

Let us look at a few characters who carved a space in the historical trajectory:

James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, was born to a master craftsman and got fascinated with his father’s tools since childhood, constructing things using his own ideas. He had delicate health and hence was not sent to school. At 17, he became an apprentice instrument maker and eventually opened a shop.

Michael Faraday, who contributed to the field of electromagnetism, gave up studies at 13 to become an apprentice to a bookseller where he eagerly read every scientific book and attended lectures of eminent scientists. He begged inventor Humphry Davy to employ him and went on to invent many electrical devices on his own.

Charles Babbage, who developed the concept of a digital programmable computer, had most of his education through private tutors. When he went to Cambridge University, he discovered that he knew mathematics better than his teachers. He became obsessed with the idea of inventing the machine that could do calculations faster than humans, and after years of efforts, he built the machine that employed the logarithmic table to compute polynomial equations accurate up to six digits.

Thomas Alva Edison was eccentric and self-taught. Since he was very argumentative, his teachers found it hard to discipline him and his mother took him out of school and taught him by herself. He became a voracious reader on subjects of his choice, and never accepted any statement without testing it out for himself, eventually winning more than a thousand patents in his lifetime.

The legendary Wright brothers were fascinated with a toy helicopter that rose up in the air with a rotor rotated by a tightly wound rubber band. Neither of them underwent much of schooling, and they set up a bicycle shop for a living. They spent years doing practical and simple experiments to master the art of aerodynamics, and created history on December 17, 1903, with their first flight.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was a lonely pioneer who was ignored and ridiculed for the greater part of his life. He had irregular attendance at school due to ill health, somehow managed to complete schooling, worked relentlessly, and built the technology for the first rockets which eventually led to space travel.

Of course, I need not explain the story of Bill Gates who walked out of Harvard University, or Dhirubhai Ambani who did not even complete his basic schooling.

Our own country has produced many such illustrious achievers in every field who neither studied much or excelled in academics.

Then there are examples of those who did study well but eventually became outstanding in other fields. Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google studied Metallurgical engineering. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 had graduated in Physics. Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft, holds a degree in Electrical engineering.

This brings us to the million dollar question: Is it possible for a student to succeed in a career without extensive formal education in that field? Can a student of today take the risk of dropping out from studies and hope to make a success in this competitive world?

Not likely

A detailed analysis of recent success stories shows that a very small percentage of people can hope to be achievers without much of formal education. But yes, formal education in any professional field from an outstanding institution can open doors of success in even unrelated fields. When Nitin Nohria, my junior in IIT Bombay who graduated in Chemical Engineering, became the Dean of Harvard’s B-school, the media asked him what he studied there that made him reach this pinnacle of achievement. He is reported to have replied, “Studying Chemical Engineering in IIT Bombay for five years taught me that I don’t want to be a Chemical Engineer.” Though the comment may sound very light-hearted, it highlights the fact that exposure to an institution of excellence, its ambience, committed teachers, promising peers and wide range of visitors and guest faculty can open the eyes of a deep- thinking student, and facilitate success in whatever he or she takes up.

Going through the rigours of any good professional degree, be it in engineering, medicine, law, management, communication, design or economics, gives an opportunity to students with a curious and exploratory mind to find their own path and attain success and satisfaction.

The bottom line is that nothing comes free of cost. I come across many students who are very passionate about becoming wildlife photographers, football players, musicians, game designers or YouTubers.

Extensive research

Initially, such students need to do extensive research in their area of interest and see how it can be converted into a long-term career. They should not get carried away by success stories of a few heroes who have made a fortune, but check out what the majority of those who entered these careers are doing. Speaking to people in the field (including those who are struggling or have given up) is very useful.

The next step would be to consult experts or trainers and get an unbiased opinion on the latent talent they possess and whether it can be further sharpened. It is not enough to be passionate about something, you should also have the skills required. Finally, one needs to take a call whether to acquire simultaneously a ‘safe’ degree as a stand-by while developing talent in the area of interest.

Alternatively one can go for a recognised university degree in most of the vocational and creative fields. There are good universities offering graduation in sports, music, dance, design, photography, media, game design etc. Opportunities and alternatives are many, but the ones who succeed in the long run are those who take balanced decisions and pursue their dreams with consistency and hard work.

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