My first encounter with rejection happened when I was 14 years old. I had just completed my tenth grade and life seemed an open canvas where I could freely paint my desires and do whatever I wanted to. Little did I know my real schooling was about to begin.
In India, formal education is given an immense amount of attention in the family. The degrees which you possess, the schools that you attend and the grades that you get are seen as indicators which determine your chances of success or failure in life.
The IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) are a premier group of schools which offer engineering degrees which are highly valued throughout the world. They are one of the hardest institutions to get into with one of the toughest entrance exams in the world. Students who finish their class 12 appear for this entrance exam commonly called JEE (Joint Entrance Exam)
And because the exam is so hard, there are special coaching centres which promise extensive training to students in all the required subjects so that the students are prepped to ace the IIT entrance exams. One such coaching centre in the city of Bangalore was BASE where most parents hoped their kids would get in.
Not surprisingly, BASE had its own entrance exam! Thousands of aspiring 15- year olds and their equally ambitious parents ensured that the BASE exam date was prominently highlighted on their calendars.
When my dad first told me about the BASE entrance, I thought I could easily ace it. After all I had pretty decent grades in school and even managed to top my school exams once or twice.
“How hard could a few multiple choice questions on science and math be?” I thought to myself.
On the day of the exam, I was amazed at the number of kids who turned up at the venue. Everyone seemed to be carrying books containing previous question papers and were religiously scanning their formulae and notes. And here I was coolly laughing at them with a pen in my pocket and chewing gum instead of preparing.
And then it began. At 9:30 a.m. sharp! Lightning struck me pretty quickly after that.
I can’t seem to recall if it was a two or three hour test. My mind has pretty much erased the painful bits. All I remember now is within 15 minutes of seeing the questions, I was pretty sure the only way I could get in was if the goddess of luck and the god of gambling both decided to hedge their bets on me.
There were questions on gravity, probability and oscillations. Pendulums, weights and water seemed to be the theme of the test as many questions contained these phrases. I felt like Archimedes himself!
Minus the water-tub, brains and the Eureka moment. In short, naked and dumb!
So I used my imagination and luck and answered all the questions. I thought “Heck, I should get some of them right” and started with the ones I knew. These were about 5 % of the questions. For the rest, I relied on the tried and tested method of choosing the options: All of the above, None of the above and the longest explanation answers.
By the end of it I was thinking maybe, just maybe I can bag the last spot left in the center.
So I went home cheerfully and told my parents I had a pretty good chance at clearing it. They were of course happy and optimistic as parents are when their kids show over-confidence and excess positivity. They probably thought their doofus boy had it all figured out and was well on his way to becoming the next rocket scientist!
The results came in through post and was probably lying in our mailbox for a few days as we had all gone on a family vacation to our native village. We came back Saturday morning and dad left for his half-day of office.
I went down to play with my apartment buddies and on the way back peeked in the mailbox to find an envelope with BASE written on it. I was both nervous and anxious as I quickly took it to my room and opened it in hurry.
That was the number which stared at me. I didn’t understand it at first. I thought they were referring to my roll number. But after staring at it dumbly for a few minutes I realized it was my rank. Not only had I got a rank which looked like a train number from the Indian Railways, it was probably a couple of ranks better than the person who forgot to show up for the test.
That was when I realized the questions had negative marking! In my enthusiasm to succeed through sheer will power, I had forgotten a fundamental principle of math. If you add a smaller positive number to a larger negative number, the result is still a negative bloody number! I must have answered so many questions wrong that whatever little marks I got by answering the ones I knew were eaten up by the wrong ones.
My dad was mightily disappointed and probably lost his appetite for a week. But being the eternal optimist that he was, he calculated that some kids might not want to go to BASE and there might be some seats left over. Of course some seats did get left over but they went to the kids who scored ranks in the early 600’s.
The rejection hit me hard.
For probably the first time in my life, I faced severe self-doubt and struggled to come to terms with the fact that there were thousands of kids my age who were better than me. My self-esteem was at an all-time low and for the next few months I just trudged along with my life as if it were a bad dream.
I got into a local pre-university college which had many people attending BASE as they juggled regular school and coaching classes. For them regular coursework seemed too easy as they were much ahead compared to the rest of us thanks to the advanced coaching they received.
So as I struggled with understanding calculus and organic chemistry, the college library became a place of solace for me. It wasn’t crowded as it consisted of dusty shelves and a musty odour but it gave me a chance to be with people and stories from books I loved so I didn’t really mind.
For a teenager struggling with rejection and shaky self-worth, fiction can be a comforting friend.
One day, in the middle of my 11th grade, I was browsing through the library after classes. I stumbled onto a book called Swami Vivekananda – Collected Works Vol. I
I had heard a little about the heroic monk and his inspiring journey of uplifting people back in the days before India achieved freedom. So I borrowed it for a week and started reading it at home that evening.
For the next few days, day and night merged into a series of forgettable moments as I plunged into the book with the fervour of a madman. The speeches of Swami Vivekananda were electrifying and inspiring. They beckoned to the hero within each soul as he urged everyone to ‘Arise, Awake and stop not till the Goal is reached!’
I could imagine him standing in front of the rejected masses of Indians back in his days roaring
“My countrymen should have nerves of steel, muscles of iron, and minds like thunderbolt!”
The book shook my being completely and made me realize what a self-pitying idiot I had turned into!
The possibility of making something of myself through my own genius and not having to depend on others for assessing my worth gave me immense strength. I realized that the more I tried to fit myself into the patterns of other people’s expectations, the more miserable I would become.
Rejection in this case had made me turn to what I had always loved to do. It set me on a path where I read more, imagined stories and fueled the hunger to acquire more wisdom through deep introspection.
Had I not been rejected, I would have desperately tried to fit in with the others and would have probably never ventured into the college library. All the literature on physics and advanced chemistry would have not given my soul the nourishment it desperately needed to blossom and evolve.
Over To You
Rejection is something we have all faced at different points in our life. I have faced it many, many times and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult. The key to handling rejection, however is your attitude towards it. Rejection if handled properly can provide a sense of direction and a renewed purpose which might drastically alter the direction of your life.
Rejection taught me an important lesson which I will always be thankful for. To never let a momentary setback get in the way of a larger vision. To not let fear and ridicule rule me, but rather stare rejection in the face and move ahead confidently past it.
As Swami Vivekananda brilliantly put it, “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”
So, how has your experience been with rejection? What has it taught you? Would love to hear from you.