‘Is a degree really important to become successful in life?’

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In the middle of 1993, I wrote my first competitive exam to enter an engineering college and arm myself for a degree. I got a Computer engineering seat in a wonderful college on the Arabian Sea and took a train to reach there. It was a long 2 day journey but luckily I met many others like me who were travelling to take admission in the same college. One of my co-passengers was Amit (name changed) who had topped his state entrance exam and had chosen Mechanical.

In 2013, 20 years after that day, I am at IIM Bangalore and Amit is in a software company. Both of us are doing nothing that connects with our degrees. So does that mean that degrees are not important? In the same batch, we had Arjun (name changed) who would sit for hours in the chemical lab and revel in that world. He is currently with a big petroleum company and probably applying everything from the degree that he acquired. So for every Amit, there is an Arjun. The world has enough room for both of them to grow and find their ways. And they both will do what they seek for their own lives. For Amit, it was Mechanical degree, and for Arjun it was Chemical.

I think we should take the question “Is a degree really important” to a different level. The question now becomes “is education really important”. The word educate means to learn, train and share knowledge. The only distinction between us and animals is that we can create, share and do things which is why we are high up in the food chain. We are intelligent. It’s a gift from nature and helps us progress in our lives. Instead of running in jungles and hunting for food, we live in societies and strive to live happily. And all of that is possible because we are educated. Education has given us amazing things – just look around you. People are chatting on mobile phones, fighting diseases and are now planning to travel in space. It also has a flip side but let’s not go there. Let’s stay with the moot question.

Now let me ask the question differently “what if you don’t get educated or don’t take up a degree?” Given today’s dynamics, where Steve Jobs proved that one didn’t need degrees to make the best products, I think we could say that degrees are really not important anymore. Though Steve Jobs didn’t have a degree but he was extremely skilled and educated. He would pore hours reading and doing things on his own. He was self-taught and Seeked his calling.

So my take is – Seek education. Seek skills that empower you to create and learn. And if that means, taking a degree, so be it. But one should look at a degree very differently today. It is NOT a guarantee for success anymore. It is just a step forward to this beautiful trajectory called Life. I always tell my students that life is like a pav bhaji – a goulash of many vegetables, spices and oodles of butter thrown together on a hot pan and savoured with those you love. A degree is just like a vegetable of this mix – e.g. an onion. It is extremely important to have it. I mean, life without onion is hard! But can one make a pav-bhaji without onions and live life? Hell yes! The entire Jain culture does it all the time. And their pav-bhaji is as good as any other pav –bhaji I have eaten. So a degree is just an ingredient to a better tasting life. How you use it is completely your prerogative and an opportunity that only you can figure for yourself.

To take my last point a little further, I want to tell you all a very simple story. There were two students in an engineering school. They both took admission together in electronics degree and were best friends. In a term, where they were studying Logic Design, the first friend said “this is useless. Who in the world would rig these LEDs in this circuit boards and measure voltages in today’s time? I want to work for a great company Chips Tech, who makes computer chips and settle in USA. They take only 1 or 2 from every campus and pay the best. So I am going to focus on getting better marks instead which will help me qualify for that job”. And he walked out of the lab to the library. The other friend was immersed in the circuit board. He measured every LED, took diligent notes of the readings on the voltmeter and observed that 1 out of 8 LEDs was defective. He went to the Prof and asked “can I take these defective LEDs?” The prof said “Why do you want them?” The student replied “because I want to know why they don’t work?” The Prof allowed him. After about a week, this student returned and asked the Prof, “Sir, do you know the company who makes them? I think I can help them reduce their defect rates. It’s a very simple problem”. The Prof did so and the student met the manager of that company, proposed the change in the manufacturing line and saved them lot of money.

2 years later, the campus placement started. Both the friends are preparing for their dream company – Chips Tech. It comes to campus and both friends get shortlisted. The first friend has better marks than the other. When the interview calls come, the second friend walks into the interview room and meets the same Manager who was in the LED company earlier. In the evening, the results come out. The only person who got the coveted job from that campus was the second friend – the one who spent hours learning about the LEDs, voltages and knew his calling. He now is designing the next generation micro processors and probably become the next Steve Jobs.

I think the world needs people who are not only qualified degree holders, but educated as well. Both friends had degrees. But one was more educated than the other. And that, I think, is what seeking one’s calling is all about.

Rakesh Godhwani

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Rakesh Godhwani is the author of ‘Seek: Finding your True Calling’.  The book is now available on Flipkart: http://bit.ly/1exfYGn

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4 thoughts on “‘Is a degree really important to become successful in life?’

  1. I agree with you. I think it is time we started giving more importance to practical education than mere degrees and traditional education. What have we really learnt in those classes in all those years? But the thing is, this will only work when the system respects the knowledge over degrees. Look around. So many engineers pass out every year from different fields, only to merge together in the software industry, which has nothing to do with their education. Why bother then? The education system, and also the scarcity of opportunities, has pushed generations to pursue what pays better and not what gives satisfaction.

  2. Very well written Mr. Rakesh. I know of so many people who have a degree and yet can’t perform. Its a degree learnt just for the sake of possessing one and get a job.

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