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Friday, 5 December 2014

LRB remembers his PGP1 struggles ...

In 1966 LRB was 18 years old and a 2nd year PGP student at IIM-Ahmedabad. An assignment for a  course on inter-personal relations required him to write a detailed biographical sketch and carry out a self-analysis. Remarkably, this hand-written, 20+ page document has survived almost 50 years and gives us a remarkable glimpse into how LRB's early years. Below, we present an edited extract from the document that describes his experience as a PGP-1 student at IIM-A. LRB describes his struggles with the IIM-A environment and curriculum, the resulting crisis of confidence, and the transformation that he went through. The extract has been edited for clarity and grammar. 

I arrived at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad with my friend from Jodhpur University on the 6th of July 1965. I still had 23 more days to go before I was 17 years old. I came here with lots of hopes, fears and uncertainties in my mind about the future, but also a lot of confidence. I had done well in my college final examinations, despite not having studied much. I felt confident about facing the IIM-A environment.

As soon as I entered, however, everything began to change. All the people around me were older, more sophisticated, and smartly dressed. I was completely lost. I had had a similar experience at the time of entering college - but this was more severe. At college, at least communication was no problem. I could talk to people in Hindi, but here everybody was talking in English and I could not even speak English correctly and fluently.1 I had only studied 'General English' as a subject during school and two years of college. I had never written my other papers in English and occasions to speak in English had been very rare. My friend, who was 23 years old, came from an English-medium school and he could manage in this environment. But he was to stay in a different flat2 than me, and I was completely lost. 

The orientation programme created more fears in my mind than it cleared. The first week of classes frustrated me even more. I could not even finish the first reading of cases and assigned readings during that time. I did not know what was happening. People were participating in class, but I couldn't open my mouth even once during the first month. Some of the courses were heavy in mathematics. Mathematics has never been my favorite subject, and here it brought me to the brink of collapse.

Many people were thinking of leaving the course and the dropouts had already started. I gave a thought to this idea and immediately rejected it. I had come here on my own, absolutely on my own - in fact against my family's and relation's wishes. I couldn't go back and say that IIM-A is too difficult for me to go through. I wrote back home to say that I wouldn't come back unless I was thrown out. By the end of two months, the rate of dropouts had increased. Our first set of grades had come back,  bringing another wave of shocks. My father came down to Ahmedabad and so did my friend's father. I told my father not to bother about me. I wouldn't leave IIM-A. I would like to fight with all this.

About 20 days later, after another shock wave of grades had hit us, my friend left the institute. He was very frustrated. His arrival at his home in Jodhpur created trouble in my family and my aunty3 advised me by telegram to come home if I was not comfortable. But I had decided to face all this. By this time my flat mates and I had come closer and could share this frustration. But all of them had adjusted themselves better than what I had done. 

I started working very hard by cutting into my sleeping time. Reading and grasping new subjects  written in English (a foreign language to me) was a tough job for me. I couldn't follow some of the professor's accents. But my tutor realized my plight and supported me. He used to call me and help me in everything, encourage me and give me special opportunities in class to talk. This coupled with my hard work (I have never worked so hard in my life) gave me a boost of confidence. I was improving and trying to fall in the 'satisfactory' category. I did my best and I could see that I was improving steeply. The class also had an image of me as someone who was trying to improve his position and they would give me a privileged response in class to encourage me. The first term passed in this struggle for existence. My self image, confidence and identity had been shattered badly, but I had started repairing them. Meanwhile, I could only hope to keep my head above water.

IIM-A students (LRB is 2nd from left) crowding around Louis Kahn, the celebrated architect, and Prof. Ravi Mathai.

I returned from the term holidays to continue the struggle. One classmate of mine (who was at the time one of the topmost students) congratulated me for securing an A grade in Marketing - the only A of the class. I thought they were joking and felt really bad that people were pulling my leg and laughing at my plight. Some more people started talking about it at the tea table and later on I came to know that I had really got an 'A'. My other grades also were quite good. My confidence was again rebuilt overnight. I started on second term subjects with a lot of enthusiasm, working late in the nights in solving cases. I used to participate in class everyday. My image was improved amongst my class mates.

About a month after the second term had started, however, I fell sick4. I had to be out of touch with studies for more than 35 days. I again became skeptical about my existence at IIM-A. The thought of whether or not I would be able to recover the study time I was losing kept eating my mind all the time. But all the instructors were impressed by me and were very sympathetic after I came back. They gave me all the help required and I was soon able to cope with the class. Now I was amongst above average students. My performance in the last term was very encouraging. I secured second rank in the institute missing first by one grade point.5

But another thing happened during the final term of the first year. Summer placement activities had started and everybody was hunting for jobs. It so happened that I was called for interviews for almost every job I applied, but I was not selected. Major influencing factor for the decisions against me was my exceptionally young age. Everybody said: you are too young. I was very frustrated by this and started cursing myself for starting my studies early, coming to IIM-A etc. I was confident about my abilities and I also cursed employers for not recognizing my abilities and colouring their attitude with mere chronological age. Eventually, I accepted a summer project in south India for which selection was made by resume. 

I went to the south in the summer all alone for this project. I was traveling such a long distance alone for the first time. My aunty sent me with a heavy heart. I joined the company and started work on a project about which we had not learned anything during the first year. But, I decided to do a good job for the company anyway. I had taken some books and notes along and started the work. I could get information help from colleagues by my nice behavior with them. I became a good listener and let others talk and feel satisfied. I did a very good job on the project in my opinion and also in the opinion of the company. They indirectly indicated to me that they would be interested in me for long-term employment. This fact gave me a lot of satisfaction and removed all the frustrations of my experience at the selection stage. I entered the second year at IIM-A with terrific confidence and the learnings from this summer project.

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Editor's notes: 

1. Mr. Madan Mohanka, who was LRB's batch mate at IIM-A, remembers how Prof. VL Mote helped them get over their problems with spoken English. He lent them a tape recorder and advised them to record their own conversations in English, play them back to themselves. He said that it made a big difference. 

2. The IIM-A campus was still under construction in those days and from July 1964 to March 1966, PGP students lived in flats that the institute had rented from the Gujarat Housing Board. They were located a couple of kilometers from the campus. In the middle of March, 1966 they moved to the campus, but not to the dorms, which were being used as faculty and administrative offices. The students, instead, lived in houses built for faculty. 


3. LRB's biological mother passed away when he was a baby. He was brought up by his widowed aunt - Smt. Tej Kanwar Bhandari, or Baiji as she is known in the family. LRB was very close to her and she would eventually adopt him formally. 

4. We have little information about LRB's extended illness. One story comes from his batch mate, the late Mr. Bipin Bhatt, who remembered that LRB suffered a head injury as a result of a prank. This remains to be verified. In a curious co-incidence, LRB spent some time during this illness convalescing at the campus dispensary, which was, at the time, located in what would become house no. 316, LRB's home from 1976 to 1988. 

5. This remarkable turnaround would have a deep impact on LRB's mindset and his beliefs about the factors that determine success. In another section of the 20-page document, he speaks about how it helped him overcome a common belief he had imbibed from his friends and peers at university (and to some extent, also at IIM-A): the idea that if you are intelligent, you do not need to work hard. Indeed, he speaks of how people who worked hard were seen in a negative light in his peer group at Jodhpur University and at IIM-A because it implied that they were not very intelligent. At university, this peer culture influenced him and he took his studies lightly - relying on his natural intelligence to get him through. His struggle-filled experience at IIM-A, however, drove home the value of hard work and to appreciate the value of improving over time. He began to hold the view that your natural ability might influence your choice of career, but eventually, your success will depend on your sincerity and willingness to work really hard. In modern psychology, this would be referred to as a shift from a 'fixed mindset' to a 'growth mindset' and for LRB, was at the heart of his transformation. Three years later, he would call IIM-A his 'break' in life. 

6 comments:

  1. Vijay Parthasarathy5 December 2014 at 18:09

    Fascinating. Absolutely great read.

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  2. Apoorva thanks gor putting this up. I can't forget the dark day of the aircrash and the gloom all over the campus. I stayed with Labdhi in New York 1975 my first visit to USA. Mire in course of time.

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    1. Thanks, Prof. Rao. Look forward to hearing the story of your association with LRB.

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  3. Pradip Khandwalla13 December 2014 at 17:04

    Labdhi was very bright and his tragic death was a blow to IIMA and management academics in India. Two weaknesses that keep out many talented persons from IIMA - command of English and facility with math - need to be tackled if IIMA is to get the best talent in the country. Facility in English is indispensable but does math have to have such a decisive weight in admission and continuation in PGP? In all my years as a board member at over a dozen corporates and as a consultant to numerous organizations, I have never found any stress on mathematical ability. How are we going to get creative students from the arts and the humanities if we put up this huge math barrier? Teach people rigorous logical thinking by all means. But math? I wonder. Pradip Khandwalla

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    1. Dear Professor Khandwala,

      I respectfully disagree with both your points.

      For starters English is NOT indispensable. Our country is now run by a PM for whom English is at best a third language after Gujarati and Hindi. Do CEOs of Japanese companies speak English, no they don't. It is ONLY in India that we cling on to the British and feel elated at our abilities English to the point where some of our elite are almost ashamed of being Indians or Hindi or Tamil speaking.

      Second, mathematics provides analytical rigor where as competence in languages usually provides emotional and verbal fire power.

      One of the reasons why many major banks went almost bankrupt in 2007-2008 was due to the fact that their senior management had no clue whatsoever of the complex financial instruments sitting on their balance sheets in hundreds of billions of dollars. Without mathematical capability these CEOs were unable to understand the risks on the balance sheets of their imploding banks.

      I came to IIMA from an Arts background - BA (Honors) in Economics from St Stephen's College. However, the subjects that I most enjoyed at IIMA were in the Computer Science domain. I still have very fond memories of being amongst the first students at IIMA ever to get his hands on the PCs which had just come in during 1986.

      Having studied at Columbia University after IIMA and having worked all over the world with major banks my humble view is that a healthy dose of both quantitative and communication skills are ESSENTIAL to be a successful investment banker or a CEO or an entrepreneur and I am grateful that IIMA did give me both doses in adequate amounts.

      The key is to be able to articulate complex mathematics or advanced quantitative analysis in an easy to comprehend manner.

      By the way, I loved your book on Organization Behavior and fondly remember your soft spoken words when I once visited your office which you humorously described "as the ruins amidst which you work".

      Best wishes,

      Rajat

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  4. Brilliant! the essence of working hard

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Please leave us a comment. If you knew LRB and would like to share your memories, please get in touch with us - editor@labdhibhandari.org

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