Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Choices - Teach for India

This post appears after months of procrastination. Time has passed and various thoughts have come and gone. Some have stuck around and matured. This will probably prevent this post from being a tirade or mocking and critical of people with a certain mind-set.

For the past few months, I have been asked repeatedly about my motivations for joining Teach for India(TFI). Some people have been more disturbed and surprised than others. Some have stated their presumptions for my choice without hearing my response. Questions have been raised on the purpose of my education at IIT. It might have been understandable to some extent if the concern was about not pursuing an engineering job, which is supposed to be my prime proficiency after 5 years. However, the angst is about not earning as much money as I possibly can. Apparently, for a lot of people, the objective of getting into IIT is to earn truckloads of money later. To borrow a phrase from Liam Neeson’s character in 'Taken', apparently, bank balance is the scale used for dick measuring.

Any such basic interaction with Boring Lamesauce(BL) goes like this:
BL: What are you doing after IIT?
Me: Joining Teach for India. (Further explanation required sometimes) It’s a NGO and I’ll be joining as a teacher.

BL: OH! Accha! (Surprised, curious look) So, What after TFI?
Me: I don’t know. Dekhte hain (Let’s see).

BL: Plans for MBA and all huh?
*Presumption* - This guy is deviating from the 'right' path because he believes that by going off and doing this for 2 years, he can fall back into the right path better!

Me: ehn. (Shaking head dismissively) No intention to do MBA as of now. Sometimes followed by a short monologue that I find a MBA pointless, leaving BL confounded.
*Thought* - I feel that most people want to hear that I aim to get into Harvard, ISB or other such prestigious B-school. Some are so disturbed that they ask repeatedly about what are the TFI fellow’s statistics of getting B-school admits. Why would someone do this? Sometimes, I just feel like saying – yes, I am in it for the Harvard and McKinsey – so as to put them out of their misery of having their beliefs shaken. To be fair, TFI does its fair share of marketing its ties with Harvard, Mckinsey and ISB. Again, that's something that I am not really a fan of.

BL: Ah! I didn’t think that you were into social service. It’s great that you have chosen to serve the nation.
Me: *rolling eyes and sighing* I am not really into social service. It just sounds like a really cool job.
BL gives up on this conversation. Win!

On a serious note, I was actually considering studying something further in Europe but, on introspection, I realized that my motivations were probably not what they should be and seemed like extending adolescence further. After that, I decided to join TFI instead of the 'regular' jobs. So why am I doing TFI? This wonderful post by Ankita, an Indicorps member from Florida working in slums in Chandigarh, gives words to a lot of my thoughts.
I feel downright uncomfortable when family and friends (and sometimes strangers) praise me for the sacrifices I'm making this year.

One pertinent question taking only the current lifestyle into account is, what am I really giving up in these other jobs?
A chance to spend all 5 days in a cubicle in front of a computer? Making PowerPoints all day so that I can have more money to spend without any care? Bitching about my work with my colleagues and friends while getting drunk on a Saturday night in an upscale bar? I am not really a fan of that lifestyle. A lot of people are and they are welcome to that choice. It’s not for me. I don't imagine my 20s to be spent that way.

I honestly think I have picked up the coolest job on campus. Fine, I may not be getting as much money as I could have in trade for my prestigious degree and blown-up resume. TFI may not be the most comfortable, but then, that’s something that comes with adventure. I may not earn a lot, but then I’ll learn to budget and live off a modest salary in a city like Mumbai. Instead of insulating myself from certain socio-economic strata of society, I would be interacting with them and learning many things in the process. I will be emotionally invested in my work as it's almost impossible to be uninvolved with kids.

I do have certain objectives in mind too as I take it up. It's just that mine are different. I hope that, in the time to come, I will be able to agree, at least to some degree, with Ankita and this.

Throughout the day I get to learn. I learn how to form relationships with people from all strata of society. I learn how to cook food... I learn the boundaries of my patience, and the depth of my love. ... others tell me that my efforts are misguided, ridiculous and extreme. They say I can do service without living simply, or challenging my needs. ..The truth is, in my everyday life here, I don't feel like I've lost anything. When I really want something, I have it and enjoy. But the wanting is much less, and the enjoying is much more

"I have learnt to be more humble, more accepting of differences and diversity, learnt to offer respect to people, their views, opinions and ideas more than before. Though I have had these values in varying levels (mostly acquired from my Mother and from other life experiences), I am discovering a new level of humility, integrity, Empathy, sense of possibility, resourcefulness, teamwork, critical thinking and reflection at Teach For India."

I look forward to the intensity of the experience; to the personal transformation of becoming more patient, loving and forgiving; to learning to appreciate what my parents do for me every day and hopefully, provide a positive contribution to the lives of children I am given responsibility for.

Really, I am very comfortable with not knowing right now what my whole life has in store. I don’t feel the need to plan for the next 5-6 years of my life or have a fixed goal or path. I somehow like the adventure and lack of surety. I like the fact that I can roam for 4 days in Paris without a map or a plan and have the time of my life. As my friends and authorities (like the Police) all over the world can testify, I have a penchant for landing up in situations that I am ill-prepared for. Resourcefulness and luck have so far managed to carry me through without severe damages and plenty of stories to tell. Same is the case with this. It might be a 'less safe' choice but then, what’s the fun in being safe. TFI might be everything that I ever wanted or it might be unlike anything that I imagine or want it to be. But then, does everything in life turn out the way we think them to? I don’t have much to lose in these two years at 22.

Jeff Bezos, in his speech, asks:

- Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

- Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

- Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

- Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

- Will you bluff it out when you're wrong, or will you apologize?

- Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

- Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

- Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

At whichever point I want to look back at my life, I hope that my responses are leaning towards the second part of these questions. As he says towards the end, I want to build myself a great story which I can tell myself. Will my character dictate the plot or am I supposed to just fit into the plot assumed for me? Well, we are our choices. This is mine.

P.S: If you have strong feelings of pity, benevolence, admiration or righteousness, you are most welcome to contribute to my traveler fund. As a symbol of gratitude, I promise to regale you with my stories if you so desire. :) Speaking from past experiences, they are quite something.