Humility, Grit, and Self Deprecation — MA110 @ IIT Delhi

Officially, the Silver Jubilee reunion for the IIT Delhi Class of ’95 ended on Saturday. But I wouldn’t get to go through the yearbook for the IIT Delhi Class of ’95 until Monday afternoon after a satisfying, delectable lunch of (leafy) Fenugreek cooked in a gram flour sauce seasoned with olive oil, mustard seeds and garlic — a Kumud Vaidya special — and hot chappatis, fresh off the stove. Ah, good old Maharashtrian comfort food. But I digress. The yearbook. Right. And to some “unforgettable moments at IITD”. I recounted some happy moments — football matches won, trips taken with mates, and general mischief and buffoonery that one might expect from, ahem, young adults. I was surprised to find out, that for some of my batch mates, MA110 was an unforgettable moment. Which made me realize, especially considering I’ve told this story multiple times to my son, Viplav, MA110 is right up there in my list of unforgettable moments at IIT Delhi too!

To understand why this was so, let’s rewind back to August/September 1991. Each course that we took at IIT Delhi had a code: 2 letters to indicate the subject and 3 numbers to indicate the course number within that subject, so MA110 was course number 110 in the Math (MA) department and CS101 was course number 101 in the Computer Science (CS) department. MA110 was, literally, the first course that we took at IIT Delhi — the syllabus was Advanced Calculus. At least. The operative word being Advanced. The recommended textbooks for the course were Calculus Volumes I and II by Piskunov and Advanced Engineering Mathematics by Kreyszig. The Piskunov books aren’t published anymore. As you might expect, examinations were a big part of our life at IIT Delhi; after all, how else would you grade students and show them their place in the world? MA110 had 5 exams over the course of the year: 2 quizzes worth 10 points each, 2 minor exams worth 20 points each and 1 major exam worth 40 points.

Before we go any further, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that all the 300 odd students in that freshman class had cleared the most difficult examination in the world and were all used to being in top 3 to 5 students in their respective classes from Kindergarten all the way through high school. Not exactly a group that’s used to failure. Especially, academic failure. So, the results of the first quiz came as a big surprise to everyone. And that’s an understatement. The average score was 5/10. I got a 3 — thanks, Bewad! Needless to say, there were a lot of wounded egos walking around campus that day.

But that’s not what made MA110 unforgettable. It was the first minor exam that really showed us our place in the world. It was, as if, the professors were not done heaping misery, doom, self-doubt, and an overall sense of inferiority on us — if enough is good, too much is better, right? The average score for the first minor was 1.5/20. I got a 0. Yes, a zero! 83 students (28%) flunked that class and had to repeat it. And, to add insult to injury and to — what seemed at the time — mess with our minds, the final grades were posted for everyone to see on the penultimate day of the major exams. 83 students walked into the major exams for CY110 after having been told that they had flunked their first course at IIT. Go figure. I have never been prouder of a C in my entire life as a student as I was of the C I got in MA110.

Looking back, there were a lot of things I learnt from the MA110 episode that, with the benefit of hindsight, introspection, and yes, old age, I have been able to put in the right perspective. The top of that list is Humility. Many Megabytes (maybe Gigabytes, even, if you include the videos) have been written on the subject of Humility and Leadership — the tl;dr of all the literature on the subject being that to be a good leader one should get comfortable with not being the smartest person in the room; in fact, a good leader surrounds themselves with smart(er) people, learns from them and then depends on them to do what they do best. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have interacted with some wickedly smart people during my time at IIT Delhi; in fact, some of them are really good friends and all of them were and continue to be extremely generous with their time to teach and help me grow. Often times, though, humility is perceived to be a weakness. What I learnt via MA110 was to be fierce and humble. Fierce humility, if you will, achieved through resilience and grit.

Grit. Best exemplified by VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in that test match. To fail fast and shake it off. To never relent and to not quit. Inspirational words that sound appropriate in retrospect. Back then, I was just determined to not flunk that class. And, I worked very hard to get that C. Later on in life, there would be many instances in my professional life when things didn’t necessarily turn out the way we wanted, but through resilience and grit, we figured out and achieved the best possible outcome (our own version of a C, if you will) given the circumstances.

And finally, I learnt the value of humor and being positive in life. In adversity. Coming out of the examination room after the first minor, Rohit asked me how I had done and I replied, “I didn’t get a single question right. I am going to get a zero”. “No way. I bet you 10 rupees that you won’t get a zero”, he shot back. Of course, I won the bet. Little did I know that what I was telling myself that day was, in the words of Tom Chavez, my friend, business partner, and hetero life mate, “You can’t change the past. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Focus on that.”

So, yeah. Thanks, MA110. Unforgettable!

Serial entrepreneur and technologist; Co-founder and General Partner, super{set} startup studio;