It’s the start of a new decade (unless you want to be pedantic about when decades begin), and what better time than this, to look back at the 2010s, a decade when I stepped into adulthood, got a couple of degrees, and began my career. I’ve broken it into chunks delineated by the aforementioned academic and professional milestones.
2009-2010: The Entrance Exam Gauntlet
Although the decade began in 2010, I want to include 2009 here as well, because that was a crucial time in my life. Crucial, because 2009 was when I began taking the steps towards who I am today.
Of course, at the time it felt like walking barefoot on a gravel path to no destination or jumping headlong into a dark maelstrom of confusion, but I digress.
Some background- I was a teenage kid in Junior College, in the “science stream”, working towards the end goal of a degree in engineering and a career in the tech industry. I was just one among thousands, lakhs, even millions of kids in their late teens, going through the meat grinder, or the sugarcane juice machine if you will.
This two-year period is one of the most mind-numbing periods of the aforementioned teenagers’ lives. All you’re expected to do is pore over textbooks, the only thing anyone ever asks you about is how your studies are going. It usually feels like you’re being pushed through a current having no control over where you are heading- most of the time you do these things because that’s the ordained way of things, the only realistic and practical way of ensuring financial stability in the future. Whether that is right or wrong is another matter- on the one hand, the kids themselves aren’t allowed to explore what they want to do in life, but on the other hand, securing financial independence allows for a better standard of living.
At the end of this period, lies the final challenge- a gauntlet of entrance examinations, the culmination of every academic effort in life up until that point.
Of course, I ran the gauntlet, along with scores of other teenagers and to cut a long story short, let’s just say I managed to earn admission into an engineering college.
Physically and mentally, I was a hormone-addled teenager. Emotionally, the situation was like a bandaid being slowly ripped off- the realization that there was no “set for life”, that there was no “it’ll be easier after you just do this one thing”. An understanding that from then onwards, I would only have more work and less time, that there was no real respite from the “rat race” as everyone likes to call it. You may come out of the meat grinder that is life as a junior college or higher secondary student a fine, stringy, homogeneous paste of a human being, but the real change is the one that lives forever in your brain.
Until very recently, I used to look down upon this time as being one of the worst and most traumatic times of my life, but being ten years(!) removed from it, I can sift through the mud and gravel and cherish the nuggets of gold: the friends I made during those times. Friends who are there for me to this day. The traumatic and stressful times may have served to forge the friendship well enough to see me through the decade and beyond.
2010-2014: Engineering College
A large chunk of the past decade was spent in securing a higher education. Engineering College was a highly regimented affair but a lot of things stand out to me even still. First and foremost, is life as a student at Mumbai University. The university was trying new things at the time, changing things about the way exams are conducted, and to say that they sprung a few surprises on us would be an understatement. I’m grateful for that experience though- it taught us to deal with unforeseen situations in a way that would have taken us decades to learn otherwise.
Another major thing I did at Engineering College was becoming the co-editor of the college magazine, and the co-organizer of literary events. Experience organizing events was a stressful but rewarding experience that involved dealing with bureaucracy, getting the word out, and getting people to attend, among other things.
However, the key thing I always take away from my years in College was how they shaped my tastes. This was the time when I began listening to music for long stretches, whether it be the long walks to and from college, or just long walks around my neighborhood to clear my head, I began forming the habit of listening to whole albums rather than just a song or two to pass the time.
This was also the time I began writing things for the sake of it, writing that wasn’t just for an examination. Shout out to “The Collegian World” and another website that was a football blog whose name I don’t remember- they were my first forays into writing about things that interest me.
Feelings wise, I started to get a grip on my emotions by maintaining a journal. I still believed that feelings had meanings in and of themselves- I kept thinking about what I felt like over and over again and kept coming back to the same spot. The listless and mostly routine life probably kept me in the mindset of doing the same thing over and over again and somehow brute-forcing my way into a breakthrough.
As far as friends go, I think I made some good ones. This was the time I began understanding that the older I get, the less dense the ties of friendship would get. At least in college, it was a lot more of “we’re all in this together” and less of “but what can you do for me, though?”
All in all, I’d describe my days in Engineering College as rowing a makeshift raft, traveling to islands of activity on a mostly still, yet unpredictable ocean. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
2014-2016: Grad School
As the decade rolled on, my overall life experience kept going up. It all reached a crescendo between the years 2014 and 2016 when I entered grad school in an attempt to get a Master’s degree. I took an elective called “Human-Computer Interaction” in my final semester in college, and I liked it enough to spend another 2 years making that my Master’s degree specialization.
Studying in grad school was so different from whatever I was subjected to up until that point- the weekly assignments were intense, but there was a degree of “freedom within the framework” that I wasn’t able to fully exercise up until that point. There were rubrics, of course, but there was also a degree of autonomy which made me apprehensive at first but was something I learned to love as time went on.
I also lived with roommates in an alien country and culture half a world away from where I was born. A lot of the real learning stemmed from this experience. The first of which was being extracted from a sheltered, privileged existence, and being forced into a kind of semi-autonomy, or controlled autonomy. Just enough autonomy to learn basic things like taking care of myself, while still being largely financially dependent on my parents.
While my friends in college gave me a feeling of camaraderie; the people I met at grad school were a lot less interested in any form of “stick-together-ness”. Most of the students in my class were older than me and were a lot more jaded due to their experiences in the corporate machine. They often chose to keep their professional and personal lives separate, and were unwilling to let me, a bright-eyed fresh out of college kid with “naive” notions of companionship, into their lives in any earnest way.
I used to get very peeved at this cynical and transactional approach to life. I just wasn’t used to it. Perhaps if I had more people close to my age and experience level, I would have had a different experience. I did learn to deal with it after a conversation with other people in similar situations. I realized I couldn’t continue being mad at them for wanting different things and going about things differently- their moral compasses were pointing in a different direction to mine, and their destinations were different even though they appeared to be the same at first glance. Grad school was just a stopping point along the way.
Despite how purely transactional my experiences with fellow students may have been, I’m glad my roommates were the polar opposite. You have to meet the right people at the right times as they say, and my roommates were exactly the sort of people I needed to experience to fully understand the gravity of my life situation at the time.
I shared a 2 bedroom apartment with a few people in my two-year tenure at Grad school. I experienced people from surprisingly different backgrounds despite usually being from around the same age and backgrounds. It was their lived experiences that I was able to learn a lot from. A lot of my roommates had lived through the struggles of finding a job and keeping it- whether it be dealing with corporate culture in the workplace, or being able to think on your feet as a traveling engineer tasked with solving a whole host of technical and people-centered issues; they had a lot of stories to tell.
It wasn’t just the stories, though- a lot of the things I learned were from simply observing their lifestyle. The urgency when it came to applying for jobs or internships. The waking up early every day to catch a bus and go to work as an intern just to get a foot in the door in the industry. The networking with colleagues and professors to ensure they knew about every opportunity. It was witnessing these everyday actions that spurred me on to act on my career, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
Otherwise, I continued getting better at dealing with my emotions through journaling, continued getting better at being more affable to people, and had just the right amount of challenges and struggles in life to grow as a person. The best years of my life so far.
2016-onwards: Employment and “The Routine”
At the end of my time at Grad school, I was fortunate enough to land a job opportunity to begin as soon as I graduated. There is a huge difference between life as a Master’s student and life as a professional. Life in Grad school was a mile a minute- a lot of things were happening at once, and the frequency of experiences and achievements was very high. Life as a professional, however, is a lot less eventful and varied. Not that that’s a bad thing- having a routine and an occupation is just a part of adulthood.
The thing with having a routine set in life is that a lot of the days just go by really quickly, and before you know it, you’ve been working for over three years. That’s just the thing isn’t it- the routine is just so all-consuming, that you don’t think about all the good things that have happened to you or the challenges you’ve faced. It’s all just one strong current that washes over the rocks and slowly grinds down all the facets until all you’re left with are smooth pebbles.
I am thinking about all the little things now, though. A lot of good things happened, albeit they weren’t landmarks of personal achievement. Met some good people. Formed some connections. Kept putting one foot ahead of the other, and just kept on walking. A lot of the time, that’s all I did, and that’s fine. If you keep looking for the big wave to surf, you miss the hundreds of gentle ones that barely tickle your feet.
That’s the major theme of this, the current period of my life. Mindfulness and gratitude. Being mindful of every small thing. Being grateful for everything I’ve received and earned up until this point. The concept of gratefulness is hard to fathom when you’re going through a rough patch in life when everything seems like it’s going against you. The funny thing about it is that beginning to fathom it is in and of itself a key step towards knowing that the bad times and bad mindsets are beginning to change.
I won’t mince my words about it- in 2019 I faced and overcame, some of the biggest challenges I have ever experienced. I learned a lot from them. I found out that I am a lot more resilient than I thought I was. That I am a lot more loved than I thought I was. That I wasn’t as lonely as I physically appeared to be.
I was able to find a group of people facing similar life situations and find support in our common challenges. I was able to make life more comfortable for myself, by moving into a nicer apartment and buying a car. For all these things, I am grateful. In fact, I am even grateful for the challenges I have faced. As the saying goes,
“Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
Lessons for 2020 and beyond
Looking at this past decade, I’ve learned some things by living through them over and over again. Most notably, that tough times don’t last, and that you shouldn’t miss out on being mindful of the small things that bring you joy while you search for that big surge of dopamine to hit you like how your brain reacted when you experienced eating icecream for the first time. Pure, unbridled joy is an amazing thing, no doubt. Remembering to note every small nice thing is sometimes what you need to do, though. They’re like little matchsticks you can keep in your back pocket. Sometimes a little spark is all you need when darkness envelopes you.
Another thing I’ve learned is that financial independence really gave me a place in society that makes all the struggles worth it- for me at least. A lot of people reminisce about old times and how it was simpler back then and always dream of going back to when they had fewer responsibilities. I don’t mind the responsibilities, at least at this point in life. The independence and sheer amount of agency that I have in life negate any of the desires to go back to a time where I had fewer responsibilities.
Also, I re-framed my mental image as someone’s idiot brother or someone’s disappointing son, or someone’s weird cousin. I was finally able to truly imbibe that fact that I’m loved by my family despite the mistakes I may have made, and that they’re truly proud of what I’ve achieved in life.
All in all, this decade was all about getting an education and a means of gainful employment. In achieving all those goals though, I lived through a whole host of different experiences. I grew as a person, into whoever I am today. I went from being a hormonally charged teenager to a pretty chill but somewhat impulsive adult. I went from being engulfed in emotions to learning to give them their time in the sun while also finding and dealing with the root cause. I went form taking friends and family for granted to understanding that the ties of blood and friendship are so much more important than chasing pieces of paper or numbers on a screen.
The 2010s were a decade where I really grew into my own. It was less of metamorphosis and more of a mundane transition, but sometimes the biggest changes are the ones you don’t outwardly see. Here’s to more growth and change in the years to come.