“You know when you think what you wanted to do might not be what you wanted but you’re doing it anyway because you still try to convince yourself that this is it,” revealed a former student. “That’s how life after graduation is treating me.” Long conversations with her and several former students after graduation exposed a provocative insight: a ‘broken system’ isn’t the reason why most young, talented and educated Pakistanis can’t pursue their professional and personal dreams. It’s self-doubt, forcefully checked by social expectations, that punctures the ambitions of the brightest minds in the country.
When we’re university students, life follows a certain pattern. We start the semester relaxed and spend most our time going out with friends. We start paying attention to classes close to the mid-terms and realise we need to cram before the finals if we want to score a respectable grade. We’re confident we can succeed because we’ve always studied last minute and have sufficiently invested in half-nerdy friends we can call to pull a nighter just in time (always easier if you happen to be a girl). Similarly, we’ve settled comfortably into a group of friends. Yes, we fight at times because someone forgot to invite a friend to a plan and he or she feels like it was a conspiracy by the group to cut them off. Some people are better off than others on the social pecking order but we all know our place in the world and are comfortable with it. Unfortunately, this pattern shatters — almost instantly — the day we graduate. And we’re completely unprepared for what comes next, despite four years of ‘higher’ education.
When we leave university and pick up our first job — or enter ‘real life’ as my mom likes to call it — we feel like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding truck on a highway. Anything and everything that was familiar to us is taken away from us. In university, we got grades for our performance at regular intervals (quizzes, mid-terms, finals) but there are no grades in real life so we struggle to evaluate how we’re doing, objectively. In the absence of grades at regular intervals, we begin to doubt ourselves. Am I good enough for my first job? Will I fail and make a fool of myself in front of the whole world? Similarly, our social life is upended. We’ve moved out of a comfortable group of friends who we hung out with 24/7 and are now the new kid in the office. We meet our friends only on the weekends. What sort of life is this? ‘I’m so not a nine-to-five type of person, I can’t do this for long,’ we argue with our friends over coffee plans on the weekend. ‘I don’t know how my father used to have the energy to take me out to play cricket after work; I’m just so exhausted after office that I want to sleep, eat and watch TV.’
Eventually, we adapt physically to our new routines but mentally, we unknowingly cling onto the idea of somehow creating a university like pattern of grades to help us understand how we’re doing in life. In the absence of an external figure giving us grades objectively, we fill the vacuum by developing grades relative to our peers and our friends. From ‘all my friends have completed their Masters from the US or got a job in Dubai, while I just married my college boyfriend or am still stuck in my job in Karachi’ to ‘I didn’t want to get married before I turned 30 but all my friends decided to get married early and I’d feel like a loser getting married last in the group,’ these grades on an artificial bell curve force us to self-doubt, even when we don’t need to doubt our ability.
Eventually, a prolonged period of self-doubt can lead to a feeling of emptiness. This cycle can only be broken when we stop assigning ourselves grades versus our peers and start grading ourselves versus the objectives we’ve set for our life. This takes an irrational amount of self-confidence in a society that can celebrate a student who gets the most A’s in his O Levels class but detest a girl who won a Nobel Peace Prize at the same age. This society rewards conformity — appreciating trend followers, not trend setters. A real revolution would see us challenging this conformity with an irrational amount of self-confidence.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2014.