Sunday, June 15, 2014

The dilemma of choice

A write up based on personal reflections.

In the year 1994, my father was transferred from a small town to a somewhat larger city a few hours away. Work being work, we had all decided to move with him. I was starting eighth grade, and my small school from the small town did not offer computer science as a subject then. But the bigger school that I was joining taught computer science as a compulsory subject from the sixth grade. Needless to say, my parents were worried.

When I joined the eighth grade, I started with collecting all the class notes, homework, and assignments worth two years. That was the first time I had ever typed on a computer. With the number of subjects we study in school, and the amount of things we learn, catching up on two years’ worth of learning was going to be a lot for me. I was neither terribly excited, nor discouraged. I just knew that I had to catch up. There was no other way out.

I put in a lot of hard work. Other than learning everything taught about Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) in school, the computer guy working in my father’s office recommended that I should join coaching classes. So I spent a hot summer going for computer classes in Link Road at 10 am four days a week during my 1.5 month long summer vacation. I got more exposure to the subject, more practice with working on a computer, and learnt about floppy discs and flow charts and binary code conversions. My performance in the first school exam was bad. I did not fail, but scored in the low sixties. By my next exam, I had moved up to the late eighties. Everyone was happy and relieved. At home, everyone saw it as a difficult situation that was overcome using hard work and interventions, a disaster prevented in due time. No one really saw it as a gateway to a wonderful career of possibilities.

I had enjoyed learning everything about computer science that year. When I moved to the ninth grade, we had to make a choice of taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father never interfered in what I should study, or how much I should study. My mother didn’t do it either. But in this particular case, she decided that I should study home science. She said that she would be able to help me with the subject, and since the ICSE (10th boards) would be my first important exam, I should do everything to get maximum marks, no matter what I decide to study. My ICSE performance would determine whether or not I was able to get into a good college and study science.

Had this happened now, I would have politely told her, no thank you, please let me decide things for myself. But 20 years back, I did not have much perspective in life. I am not sure what I was thinking back then, and I was not even a lazy student who wanted to score good marks using short cuts. I now realize that my mother’s motivation to push me to study home science was well-meant, but solely based on the fear that what if I don’t do well studying computer science, since I have missed out on two years’ worth of knowledge. My improving grades in school did not convince her enough. I was not too sure about what I wanted, and somewhere down the line, her fear might have rubbed off on me. For much to everyone’s surprise, I opted for home science.

Although we talk about all subjects being equally important, we usually have a pre-conceived notion of their hierarchical importance. In India, science is valued more than the humanities, and an engineering degree is valued more than a pure science degree. Let’s face it. No society is free of biases or stereotypes. These biases are mostly governed by our future usefulness to the society when we seek jobs, or even making ourselves more marketable in the marriage industry. I have a lot of female friends who got a master degree because that would upgrade their status from getting an engineer husband to getting an IIT-graduate working in the US. We don’t live in an ideal world. So back in school, we had a trend too. The hierarchical choices of subjects based on the brightness of the students were computer science, economics, and home science respectively. And much to everyone’s surprise, I chose home science. My mother must have considered offering coconuts to the local deity that day.

Honestly, I did not know what I wanted to study. I liked studying everything. I was doing well in school. But my mother’s fear somehow became more real than my own confidence in acing a subject. At age 14, I was being asked to make a decision which I was told would affect my career for the rest of my life. And I did not want to make mistakes. So the decision was clear.

Did I enjoy studying home science? I sure did. I learnt about cleaning, stain removal, first aid, and safety measures. For my practical classes, I was expected to polish metal, arrange flowers, and bake. My mother mostly helped me in those projects. I have enough reasons to believe now that she influenced me so that she could do half my assignments on my behalf, for her enjoyment. Force and motion and atoms and molecules, she did not understand so much.

My teachers were surprised about my decision. And so were my friends. I used to hang out with the “computer science” gang of students, and when the bell rang for class, they would often forget and wonder why I was not coming with them to the computer lab. I never had any associations about studying a “less challenging” subject. I was scoring in the nineties, getting help from my mother, and was enjoying hanging out with a new set of friends. I even passed the ICSE with flying colors, scoring in the higher nineties, and easily got admitted to the science stream after the tenth grade. For ISC (11th and 12th grades), my new school in Calcutta (we had moved once again) only had a choice between biology or computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics being compulsory for all science students. It became even easier to make my choice. Students who wanted to be doctors opted for biology, and the future engineers chose computer science. I didn’t know what I wanted to become, but biology was my default choice.

Twenty years ago, my mother had influenced my decision with the best of her intentions that I score maximum marks in the exams. So the short-term interests were served. But did it serve me long time? I am afraid not. For most of the things I learnt in those two years studying home science, I do not apply in my life anymore. I don’t arrange flowers, I use a washing machine to remove stains, and I learnt all my cooking after moving to the US. There is nothing I need for my home that I cannot Google and find out. I know my acids from my bases for home remedies, and what I don’t know, the internet knows. So I need nothing that I learnt then.

However, this decision permanently steered me away from a whole new world of possibilities, and closed the door to studying computer science. I could have grown up to become a computer scientist. I could have been working at the Mountain View office of Google. I could be writing codes and inventing languages for a living. I could be a computer science professor by now. I could be doing many things right now that I am not solely because I was never exposed to this field. In the purpose of serving the short-term interests of better grades, my long-term interests were screwed. Now that did not prevent me from moving to the US, getting a PhD or working as a researcher. But something that could be did not become, because I did not know any better. And it is a universally recognized fact that a degree in computer science increases your probability of getting a better paid job, having many more opportunities of employment, rubbing shoulders with some really smart people, and never having to worry about visa issues. I am not saying that I cannot learn whatever programming I need to learn now to get my job done. But it is too late for me to know how my life would be different if I had studied computer science as a subject in school.

I often tend to reflect on my life experiences to understand what could be done better. And from this incident, I have learnt that closing our heart and mind to learning something just because it may not serve our short term interests is wrong. You don’t take that structural equation modeling (SEM) class in graduate school because it is tough, and is not a requirement to graduate. However, will taking that course make you more marketable when you look for a job in future? Will it give you skills that your peers will not have? Will it open the doors to exploring newer research possibilities? The aim of learning something cannot be either good grades or graduating on time. But that perspective, that wisdom, I have gained at this age.

If life ever had an undo button, I know that right now, we would be back to 1995, sitting in the living room. I would tell my parents that I am graduating to the ninth grade soon, and will need to choose between taking computer science, economics, or home science. My father would look up from reading the newspaper and tell me that I should do what I think is the best. My mother would tell me that I should study home science so that she can help me with it. And I would smile, letting her know that I have decided to study computer science, and ask her not to be afraid about me failing.



CYNOSURE said...

Life, at many times, is very weird..!!

Ritu Raj said...

All of us feel the need to have that undo button at some point in our lives. I made a similar choice once between MS and MBA, choosing the later. Now i am trying to undo it a bit by learning some new coding language.

Do let us know if you find that undo button.

Cheers and keep posting

Gazal said...

I hope to read a post in a few years time when you'll say-If life had a undo button, I still wouldn't use it, because everything that happened let me here where I am today and there is nowhere else I'd rather be.
It takes time, took me about 2 years to not wish for that undo button but it happened.
Best wishes

sunshine said...

Cynosure, it sure is!

Ritu Raj, I know that the undo button does not exist. I am looking for a clean slate instead.

Gazal, what changed in those 2 years? I am curious.

Pooh said...

I completely agree with Gazal and can relate. I think it is a good thing that there is no undo button else how would we learn from our mistakes or be cautious about not repeating them? I am a programmer, i write code and most of the time i am happy doing what i do. But 3 years back i was incredibly confused, i thought i was stuck in the wrong profession and even joined a masters program in business management to change fields. After a few months on the program, i realised i hated it and actually prefer programming. It was the corporate environment that i had a problem with. So i dropped out, caused a mini scandal, returned from the us, went back to programming but started working on my own. To this day, my parents are praying that i stop wasting my life and get a job (for them, working for myself on my own is not a job). But i am happy, i feel happy doing what i do. It is the entire saga and the amount of time, money and effort wasted that led me to realise what i really like. If there was an undo button i think i would have simply continued being unhappy and exploring more unsuitable options without trying to understand what was bothering me.

Gazal said...

I picked the pieces up and started rebuilding :)What did not kill me made me stronger and helped me discover myself and the fate I was dreading wasn't that bad after all. When you have nothing to lose, you face the world with a strength that is hard to come by in ordinary circumstances. When you start from the bottom you can only go up. Cliches but they all turned out to be true

CoolAnony said...

It's not too can still learn computer science...if you can make time for it...thanks to MOOCs -,,,, etc.. I have signed up for social psychology in Coursera, and it's very the way I'm a Linux system engineer by profession.