Transitioning into the university life

March 29, 2018

There are very few people who can give young people precise, practical and inspirational advice. Dr Amrita Dass is one of them. She is the Founder-Director of the Institute for Career Studies, (ICS International), Lucknow, India.

I recently watched her in a 2.5 minute TV interview where she gave some profound advice to youngsters who are completing their final school exams and getting ready to enter college/university.

In an attempt to get answers to some of the top-of-mind questions that youth have on this topic, I interviewed her. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

1. How can one make the best of his/her university life?

Dr Amrita Dass: Students need to bring together capability, copability and responsibility. Capability is enhanced if the undergraduate courses they have chosen resonate with their aptitudes and interests. Self-discipline, effective time management wherein students prioritise the ‘musts, shoulds and coulds’, maintaining good relations, leisure activities, a nutritious diet and a positive attitude are the essential building blocks of copability. Responsibility encompasses meeting all your commitments to the best of your ability, being dependable and accountable for your actions.
Moreover, during under grad studies, students should explore possibilities of internships as this will give them valuable insights into the world of work and develop the essential employability skills. The Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales (AIESEC) is a global organisation with a strong presence in colleges and universities that provides such opportunities.

2. If you don’t like the course you get the admission in, what can you do?

Dr Amrita Dass: There could be many reasons for not liking the course you have got into. You may find that the teaching is not up to the mark, or the classes are not held regularly or the overall environment is not conducive and you are finding it difficult to adjust or you are in a city, far away from home and homesick.
Remember that you are not the only one facing such problems which I would describe as “teething problems” and therefore temporary. Become an intrinsically motivated learner by reading reference books, researching and doing project work. Make new friends, participate in extra-curricular activities by joining a society/club in your college and seek avenues that will tap your potential to the fullest. I believe that “when the road gets tough, the tough get going”!

However, if the course is one that you had not really explored and you discover that it does not gel with you, then the earlier you opt out in favour of the right course at the right campus, the better!

3. If one does not get admission in the desired course, is it OK to take a gap year? If yes, how to make the best of the gap year?

Dr Amrita Dass: Please avoid taking up any course that you are offered randomly as this will not tap your potential to the fullest. A gap year is advisable if you are not sure about what course you wish to pursue or have not managed to get the course of your choice at a leading campus.
There are many ways to make your gap year a meaningful and enriching one. You could, for example, pursue some interesting free online courses delivered by eminent faculty through coursera.org. Alongside, you could take master classes to hone your talent in art and design, music, dance, acting, culinary arts or sports etc. A gap year could also be utilised for community service which is a huge learning experience and also adds value to your application to top universities, or internships to provide insights about careers you are exploring.

Before I close, I want to share what Dr Dass had told me years ago, “If you have good communication skills and a positive attitude, no one can stop you from achieving your career goals”. This has remained a mantra of life for me. I would like my young friends to work on improving their communications skills and developing a positive attitude.

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Five ideas to help you “Do it Daily”

February 26, 2018

Want to lose weight? Exercise regularly; Want to learn a language, study every day; Want to get good marks, study every day; Want to master a skill, practice daily.

‘Do it daily’ is the advice we keep receiving. The issue is how to do something daily. We start and give up after a few days. I would propose the following five ideas:

Set small goals
My French teacher had a very practical suggestion. She asked me to spend just five minutes every day to revise what she had taught. It worked! When I was setting myself one hour to study every day, it was not working out. But finding five minutes was easy, even if it was just before going to bed. To my surprise, I ended up studying more than five minutes daily, sometimes even an hour or more.

Don’t Make Comparisons
It is natural for us to make comparisons with peers. However, people are different. Some learn something quickly than others but it does not mean that others can’t learn. It is better to have targets for your own progress rather than comparing your progress with others.

Give up making excuses
Most of the times, we give up doing what we want to do daily on small pretexts. For example, no walk if it is raining; no study if there is a festival; and no music practice if there are guest coming over. Doing something daily means actually finding time to do it every day, without fail. The only liberty we can take is to adjust the time, if something else comes up.

Reward yourself
Reward yourself when you achieve your small goals. For example, If I could do it daily for 30 days, I will have dinner at my favourite restaurant or go to movie with friends. These are social activities we do regularly anyway but linking them with a personal sense to achievement will act as another motivation.

Find someone who pushes you
We all know people who are our true well-wishers, and can give good advice. Share your goal with one of them. He/she will keep reminding you of the goal and help you overcome challenges that come in the way. Moreover, this will also enhance your accountability towards your commitment.

Everything is difficultly before it is easy. With consistent effort and perseverance, we make incremental progress. Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest violists, once said, “I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.”
This is the best way to emphasize upon the importance of doing something daily if we want to excel at it.


Help people achieve their goals

January 30, 2018

Four years ago, I had written a post “Lessons from living legends.” It was incredible how some of the living legends had shared lessons from their hugely successful life.

“Our achievements are due to the support of people around us,” was a great reminder by the noble laureate Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. Who would not agree with this? Indeed, there are people around us who help us throughout. We need to remember them and be thankful to them.

However just being thankful is not enough. The bigger question is: how can we pay them back? In most cases we can’t pay them back. The only way is to help others achieve their goals and let this cycle of goodness continue.

How can we help others achieve their goals? Here are five ideas:

Look beyond your own goal: This is the first requirement. While it is good to be focussed on our own goal, we must look beyond. There are people around us who have a dream as well. Only by being perceptive of that, shall we start thinking of what can we do to help them.
Be approachable: Most people will not seek help or even ask for an advice, if they don’t find us approachable. They may open up only if they find us responsive and trustworthy. We need to demonstrate our approachability by responding to phone calls, emails and messages no matter who they are coming from. At times we pay less attention to the calls coming from people who actually need us.
Inspire people: Most people need just an inspiration. A reassurance that there is nothing wrong with them if it is taking time to achieve what they are striving for. A few words of advice and motivation from us can rejuvenate them to strive harder. Reminding people of their strengths and a “do-not-give up” advice will go a long way.
Share what you can: All of us have something to offer – skills, experience and ideas – which can mean a lot to others. It could be teaching a neighbourhood kid who may drop out of school if his grades do not improve. It could be reviewing someone’s project work and giving some advice or helping someone prepare for a job interview etc. In most cases, this does not take much from us.
Look around and identify a few who might need your help: Finally, it is a matter of actually being proactive and identifying those whom we can help rather than waiting for them to approach us. It could be a child, a co- worker, a friend/family member or just a migrant or a refugee who is struggling to settle down in a new environment.

These are just a few ideas to reflect upon in the first post of the year. Wishing all a very successful and peaceful 2018!


Staying positive till the end

December 28, 2017

What would you do if you were to visit a person in his last moments?

A person very close to me was critically ill. Doctors had given up hopes. He knew that he had just a few days to live.

Several ideas crossed my mind as I drove to visit him – What kind of mindset will he be in? What am I going to talk to him about? Do I give him hope when there was none? I was sad, nervous and tense.

He saw me enter the room and smiled as warmly as he used to do always. He talked the way he used to do earlier with no mention of his illness. It was only after having the regular normal conversation that we came to the talk about his condition. As I held his hands and said, “we are all praying for you,” I enquired what did he say to his family members. He informed me that he called all of them together and said, “Every body has to go one day. I am going a few days earlier than you.”

He survived a few days more than what the doctors had predicted but then passed away. At his funeral, his words —Every body has to go one day. I am going a few days earlier than you — kept on in playing my mind.

What a positive attitude towards death!

Lord Budhdha presents it well, “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.”


How should you present your initiative to the boss?

November 19, 2017

A young colleague, who was working on an idea to move forward, recently asked me, “how do I present my initiative to my boss”? She had been trying but was a bit frustrated to see it not moving forward.

Several Initiatives get killed at the stage of an idea. Why? Not because they are not good but because they are either not presented in the right way or not presented at the right time.

According to Victor Hugo, Initiative means “doing the right thing without being told.”

This simple definition points out towards the real challenge. When you propose to do something you have not been told to do, risks are many: fear of failure, someone may block the work, you might get more work etc. Yet, taking Initiative is the right thing to do. It makes you different from others; and most of the bosses appreciate it even if they may not approve all initiatives presented to them.

Here are three suggestions:

Timing is the key:
Even the best of the ideas discussed at a time when the boss is too busy, rushing for a meeting, stressed with something, or just having a bad mood will not receive a good response. You know your boss’s personality and working style. Handle carefully and find the best time and manner to approach him/her.

Pre-test the idea:
You should certainly have a plan on how will the initiative be implemented. Yet, present the idea first in such a way that you are also seeking inputs and suggestions to make it work. Managers are more likely to approve when their ideas are included in the plan. They want to call the shots! Emphasise why is the initiative in the interest of the organization, linking it with the organizational goals missions or priorities.

Don’t become too pushy: Remember, bosses don’t like to be bossed around. So, don’t be too pushy. Give them time to think and respond. You can certainly do the follow up in a gentle way.

Finally, remember that taking an initiative is also an opportunity for you to learn new things and new skills, which leads to your own growth and success. Ralph Waldo Emreson sums it up well, “Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”


Do you know what stresses you?

October 30, 2017

I am one of those who can’t watch a “live soccer penalty shootout” in a big game. It is too stressful. I wonder if it stresses the spectators so much (some even get a heart attack and die!), how stressful it must be for the players. There are studies to show that it is the stress, not skills or fatigue of the game that causes players to make mistakes like kicking the ball outside the goal post.

In today’s fast-paced life, everyone seems to be stressed. Workers may find work to be stressful; whereas for many not having work is the biggest cause for stress. Tensions in family and strained relationships cause stress to many; whereas some attribute stress to their loneliness. Age is no bar. Children, adults and old persons all suffer from stress.

Doctors say a bit of stress is good as it pushes us to perform better by keeping us alert. But when does it cross the goodness bar and becomes harmful is not known. Chronic stress can actually affect all aspects of our life: emotions, behaviours, thinking ability, as well as physical health. The World Health Organization says stress has become a ‘world wide epidemic’.

Experts agree that eating a healthy diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep can go a long way to managing stress. But the problem is that stress goes unnoticed for a long time. We spend our life amidst worries, anxieties, and tensions not realizing that if they continue for too long, they stress us.

We need to reflect for a moment and find out what triggers stress in us. It may be different for different people. In my case, when my ‘things-to-do’ list gets too long, I get stressed. And tasks which have remained pending for long keep adding to my stress. I feel relieved when I find time to finally do some of the pending tasks. After completion of each pending task I ask myself —couldn’t have I done it earlier?— the answer, invariably, is ‘yes’. Even though I believe in ‘DO it NOW’ attitude, there are times I don’t do it myself. By writing about it as a stress management technique, I am reminding myself, as much as I am reminding others.


Who is smarter? You or your phone?

September 30, 2017

Sad but true. A few years ago, a teenager from Anhui, one of China’s poorest provinces, sold his kidney to buy an I-Phone. This tragic incident was recalled by Dr Jack Linchuan Qiu, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong speaking at our office recently.

There are over 2.6 billion smartphone subscriptions globally, likely to go up to 6.1 billion by 2020. What is concerning is that fact that on an average people spend over 4 hours a day on their smartphones. Dr Qiu feels world’s addiction to iPhones and other smartphones/devices has created a generation of iSlaves. His recent book “Good Bye I Slave” is on this topic.

For me, Smart phone usage is a behavioural issue that needs attention. Much has been written about its adverse effects on health (not just on adults but children as well) productivity and relationships.

How can you know if you are a smart phone-addict? You are if do one or more of the following:
– You look at your phone first thing in the morning when you get up.
– You take the phone with you to the toilet.
– You check your messages or speak on the phone while having meals.

It may not be difficult to change these habits. If you do that, it will be a good beginning. It is also not a good idea to be on a large number of social networks and groups such as WhatsApp. You end up being flooded with messages and most of them are useless forwarded messages that keep doing the rounds.

The biggest problem, however, is that excessive use of smartphone does not allow us to enjoy our present moment or focus on the person we are with. I had written in one of my earlier posts about make the-best- of -now attitude. Indeed, the most important person is the one we are with, in a given moment. So, don’t let your phone snatch away that moment from you. Switch it off from time to time. It is a smart thing to do! This alone will decide who is smarter: you or your phone.