'Achievement is not linked to marks': IIT-Madras director, V Kamakoti on his journey from scoring poorly in his entrance test to becoming JEE chairperson
- 4th Sep 2023
The Indian Express
"Life extends beyond academics. Just realising this can help us guide our children to be emotionally strong and positive. Strength and positivity are essential for our country, if we are to stop our valuable children from falling prey to disappointments caused by perceived failures" writes V Kamakoti, director IIT Madras.
There is nothing called "failure". Wise people through the ages have said so. The honourable former President of India, Bharat Ratna Dr APJ Abdul Kalam said, "FAIL = First Attempt In Learning."
No individual can embody Dr Kalam's definition more aptly than myself. As a
young JEE aspirant in 1985, I scored a single-digit mark out of 100 in Chemistry.
That particular day of the examination was unfavourable to me. And yet, decades
later, I became the JEE Chairman, thereby proving that achievement is not linked to
scores, marks and grades.
For a youngster faced with the frustration of unexpected or unfavourable results,
failure may appear real and larger than life. This frustration often arises because of
unrealistic expectations and the mismatch between their capabilities or aptitudes
and the field they are thrust into. Dealing with this frustration requires a drastic
change in perspective, both by the student and by us, their caretakers.
How "failure" is perceived by us is shaped by what the activity means to us. If we
are engaged in something we enjoy and encounter a roadblock, we perceive it as an
opportunity to improve. I love music. When I play the violin in front of an audience
and miss a note, I diligently work towards perfecting my fingering and bowing.
However, when we are forced to do something that we do not enjoy and perform
sub-par, the perceived failure becomes a burden, amplifying our frustration and
negativity towards the experience.
It is important for us as parents to understand this. Our children can handle
adversities better if they are interested in and excited about their activities.
Oftentimes, parents have a vision for their children, well-meant no doubt, but
visions that may not align with the interests of the children themselves. Enrolling
children in rigorous coaching centres comes to mind. For children with personal
ambitions and aspirations to get into premier institutions, these coaching centres
can be of tremendous value. But is the parent sending the child to these institutes
because it is their vision for their children and not the aptitude of the children
I'm not suggesting that parents should not guide their children. Our culture is built
on the hierarchy of Mata-Pita-Guru-Deivam - the mother, the father, the teacher
and then God, and parental support is pivotal in helping children navigate the
complexities of growing up. The most valuable lesson we can teach our children is
that success and significance are possible in all walks of life through passion,
perseverance and the will to see things through. Any other guidance we provide to
our children must necessarily take into account the child's ambitions, aptitudes,
As parents, we must realise that life is not all about engineering and medicine. The
modern world offers abundant opportunities across various domains for our
children and youth. Yes, the IITs are exceptional education institutions, but they are
not the only educational institutions that provide quality education to the Indian
youth. I recently had the privilege of attending the 'Champions of Chennai' awards
event, where the awardees, intelligent and hardworking youngsters, were not all
Another aspect that warrants introspection is this. No good can result from
comparing children. Each child is unique, and such comparisons can have
detrimental effects, particularly at an age in which children seek parental approval
and encouragement. It is important for both parents and children to understand
that marks, ranks and scores in any exam are numerical representations and do not
reflect the overall intelligence of the student. While diligent effort is undoubtedly
necessary for success, fixating on numbers can lead to undue stress. There have
been cases where students' emotions shift unexpectedly and suddenly from
happiness to sadness due to excessive pressure, sometimes resulting in unfortunate
and tragic outcomes.
There is also much pressure on children to pursue certain fields such as computer
science, and yet, no discipline is inferior to another. Remarkable contributions to
society have been made by people from all disciplines. The largest revenue-earning
department through Industry Consultancy and Sponsored Research at IIT Madras is
Ocean Engineering. As we become the first country to land on the South Pole of the
Moon, can we ignore the contributions of aerospace engineers? Could the world
have survived COVID-19 without the vaccines developed by biological scientists?
The challenges that the child faces may not always be due to academic reasons. No
family is without problems, and the child may be affected by issues within the
family, like conflicts and financial issues. It is the responsibility of the adults to
manage issues in a way that does not seriously damage the child's emotional state.
Interpersonal relationships can also be difficult to manage at that age. Being there
for children during tough times is crucial. When schools and colleges express
concerns about a student's well-being, parents should respond immediately. Staying connected and offering unwavering emotional support can help children overcome
academic and personal challenges.
My personal observation over more than two decades as a teacher is that a kid who
is raised in a joint family is more emotionally stable than one who has been isolated
from the extended family. The support and affection of grandparents and extended
relatives can foster positivity in children. Although nuclear families have become
the norm in recent times, children must be encouraged to communicate actively
with grandparents and other relatives.
Life extends beyond academics. Just realising this can help us guide our children to
be emotionally strong and positive. Strength and positivity are essential for our
country if we are to stop our valuable children from falling prey to
disappointments caused by perceived failures.
Happiness is a collective responsibility.
(The author is the Director at IIT Madras)