The Final Hurdle
Winter had come.
Not just in Game of Thrones, but for every not-yet-placed final year MBA student across B-schools in India. The placement season was finally upon us – the lateral placements at least.
The lateral placement process is not without a touch of irony. Many (but not all) get into a B-school to get a chance or an option to switch to other areas of work. But in laterals, significant importance is given to one’s earlier job profile. So, on one hand, you end up getting interview shortlists for job profiles that are in a similar line of business, while on the other hand, you lose out on differing profiles – because, ironically, the recruiters don’t find your earlier job relevant to their work.
Jamshedpur gets a bit chilly during winters. On one such cold December evening, the door opened and Shrijan walked into his hostel room. Quite mechanically he switched on the lights, put his bag pack down and plonked down on the bed. A stickler for neatness, he ignored the creases his heavy landing had formed on the bed-sheet. For once, it didn’t matter. Nothing seemed to matter. The shortlist for the interviews of his dream company had been released, and he didn’t make it. Sure he didn’t get the shortlist for any of the five previous companies that had come to campus till then, but this one was different. The earlier ones didn’t offer any job profile that was of his particular interest. However, he knew about this profile since long back and had felt that it was perfect for him. That’s why this one was a kick in the guts. Everything seemed pointless to him now.
The mind is a funny thing in a convoluted way – It’s an abstract entity that has the cognizance of the fact that it can think about itself. There are times when it treats itself & its possessor as two different entities, especially when you are feeling sorry for yourself. It’s as if the mind feeds off this apologetic sentiment, making you feel even more remorseful. You can picture it as a sadistic bully who enjoys shaming you when you are already pinned to the ground.
The situation with Shrijan was no different. He was heading towards a swirl of negativity. He let his mind wander. Stopping it didn’t seem possible then, so he let his thoughts run free and allowed himself to get sucked deeper in regret. The chain of thoughts thus set off, where his mind started doubting his capability. What else should’ve been done by him to get the shortlist? Was his profile not good enough? But his academic performance was relatively exceptional, and he did have a lot of co-curricular and extra-curricular achievements – some fairly relevant to the role offered. Where did he go wrong then?
Forget it, Shrijan thought, it’s just one shortlist. But, how could he? He had worked over the past couple of years to build a suitable profile, keeping this job as his target. How could he forget the missed parties and skipped events, which he had given up to work on something that would earn him a relevant ‘CV Point’ for this? Sometimes bad things happen to people, he knew it, but one always writes it off thinking it won’t happen to me. Letting out a long sigh, he stretched his arms and legs out and lay back on the bed in a pose that resembled Da Vinci’s, Vitruvian Man. He closed his eyes and after a while got an impression of weightlessness.
He opened his eyes to see a clear blue sky. The shade of blue was mysteriously picturesque – a vivid shade of sky blue which was accentuated by the absence of clouds. The sun was relatively low on the horizon, even though it was close to noon, and the sunlight seemed oddly pleasant. He was still feeling weightless, and he realized why when he looked around. He seemed to be floating on water. Off in the distance, he could see a line of buildings just above the water level with some hills in the background. This scene, he realized, looked a lot like the one he had witnessed a couple of months back when he was floating in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Nice in France. Back then he had been swimming in the open water, close to an anchored boat which had taken him for a scuba dive. But, was he dreaming this right now? Or was this just a nostalgic flashback?
“Enjoying this, aren’t you?” interjected Shrijan’s mind.
Startled by his own mind, he replied sheepishly “Of course, just look around. What’s not worth enjoying here?!”
“Well before you forget, let me remind you that your shortlist count in the placements is zilch. Your dream company’s coming in a few days, and you are not even getting to present yourself to them. And here you are, enjoying the sun and the sea. I’d told you, the exchange program was a bad idea!” the mind-bullying had kicked off. Always trust your mind to get to extreme conclusions, Shrijan thought.
“What does exchange have anything to do with this?” Shrijan pleaded. “It was an incredible experience. It was about so many things beyond academics. It was about living – surviving – in an unknown place, among unknown people, who spoke an unknown language; full of uncertainties.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s the use of all that, if you can’t even get a job which you find interesting. Do you want to get stuck in a situation like your earlier job – routine work, where there’s nothing in it for you, just doing the same thing day in and day out!
“You could have done so much more in those three months back here,” the mind continued. ”You could have worked on that live project, which you couldn’t because you were leaving for the exchange term. You could have gotten a decent position of responsibility in college, which you couldn’t because exchange students aren’t eligible for any. Hell, you could have won at least one case competition to show it off on your CV. Most of these things happened when you were gone for the exchange program. And now here you are, not sure whether your CV is good enough or whether the company didn’t find you fit for itself. Maybe, just maybe, if you’d done a couple of things differently, things would’ve been better off. Like…”
A knock on the door snapped Shrijan out of this scene. It took a while for him to get back to reality. He was still lying on the bed in his hostel room. He checked the time and realized he had dozed off for few minutes. There was another knock on the door, this time an impatient one. It was followed by some more knocks and slaps. Shrijan got up, somewhat reluctantly. He wanted to be alone, drowning in his self-created pool of dejection. He opened the door to find Anita standing outside his room.
“Hey, come on up! Everybody’s on EL-top,” Anita beamed referring to the terrace of Shrijan’s hostel.
Anita was a ‘Work while you work, play while you play’ person. This had been a lazy weekend for her – she had already earned a PPO (pre-placement offer, meaning she was hired even before the formal placement process had begun) from her Summer Internship company and the workload of assignments had not reached ‘actionable’ levels yet. She had the unofficial duty of making sure that everyone was present whenever the group hung out.
“Nah, I’ll pass. Not in a mood to party,” Shrijan replied. He precluded that it must be a party or something, as that was one of the usual party places on campus.
“We aren’t partying there. Just hanging out. I know about the shortlist, it’s okay – shit happens. Come on, you can do with some distraction right now.”
That argument was too good to be denied. “Fine,” Shrijan surrendered, still not fully convinced, but unable to think of anything better to do.
The silence of his room had blocked out the din of all the activities going on in the hostel. A couple of rooms down the passage, he could hear the speaker blaring out the Bollywood-Punjabi dance number of the season coupled with the sound of numerous feet dancing to the beat – signs of an indoor room-party. From another room, emerged the sound of the title theme of Game of Thrones; ‘Who the hell is watching Game of Thrones with such a delay!’ Shrijan wondered. As they walked past, he heard some drunk talk coming from the room next to him along with the peculiar smell of smoked joints. In the common room, some folks were playing table tennis as the periodic tick-tock sound of the bouncing plastic ball suggested. Just another ‘normal’ night in the hostel.
“How come we aren’t hanging out in Bhushi’s room tonight?” Shrijan asked as they made their way towards the elevator. Bhushan or Bhushi stayed a few rooms away from Shrijan. His room had become the default hangout place of their gang of six. He had a bean bag and lots of extra stuff to accommodate everyone at the same time, and being close to the staircase his room was easily accessible.
“I don’t know,” Anita replied. “I guess everyone wanted a change, get some fresh air, enjoy the cold, the moonlight, or whatever.”
The elevator door opened on the fourth floor and Shrijan and Anita walked out of it. They walked up the last flight of stairs which terminated in front of an ajar old wooden door. He pushed it open and walked on to the dimly lit terrace. He could hear the laughter of his friends coming from the far end on the left. There was a small steel ladder which led up to the top of a concrete water tank where they were sitting. He walked towards them and climbed on to the tank.
It was the topmost spot of the hostel and from there he could see the Eiffel Tower of Jamshedpur – the massive Tata Steel plant – right in front of him. This was a common joke that ran in their circle which Shrijan had started. The steel plant was like the Eiffel Tower – no matter where you go in Jamshedpur, you could always see some part of the huge plant and it looked incredibly daunting. Now if you have been to Paris you know of course that the Eiffel Tower can’t be seen from everywhere in Paris. Still, whenever you catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, it too looks surprisingly huge and intimidating.
The plant with its numerous orange floodlights gave an orange glow to the night sky. Grey smoke billowed from one of its chimneys while flames poured out from another. Red lights blinked in sync intermittently from three tall towers, marking their presence in the darkness. Shrijan had seen this picture countless times before, but each time, he saw it with the same awe. The plant seemed like a massive dragon-like creature, sitting there by itself, working round the clock doing its own thing.
“Look who’s finally here,” exclaimed Rajan. “I had a feeling you wouldn’t turn up.” Rajan was the person who did almost everything he could get his hands on – tennis, table tennis, chess, writing, gaming. You name anything and he would be up and ready to get involved in the activity. Because of this, he would always have some interesting story to tell. He was quite the storyteller. Those days he was into horse riding.
“Well I didn’t want to, but I could use a break right now,” Shrijan replied.
“Yeah man, these shortlists suck. How the hell do they do it!” said Jaskaran. “Actually this whole placement thing sucks. Hey, you know what,” he paused for the dramatic effect, “this whole MBA system sucks!” The rebel in him was back in action. There is always one person with a revolutionary, anti-establishment ideology in any group. Among them, it was Jaskaran. He would latch on to any opportunity to get this topic going. However, Shrijan couldn’t help but agree with his thoughts about the shortlists.
The shortlisting process – It’s a sad reality of MBA placements. Whenever any shortlist is released, almost everyone does his or her own form of investigation to find a pattern. That’s the human tendency. But it rarely leads to any fruition. One may try to apply as many models to any company’s shortlist, one may try to identify the pattern of candidate profiles that are shortlisted, but ultimately all you get to hear are conjectures drawn from arbitrary assumptions and some wild conspiracy theories.
Jenna intervened, “Oh don’t start with the ‘How-MBA-system-is-bad’ talk all over again.” She was the only HRM person stuck with a bunch of BM folks – HRM (Human Resource Management) and BM (Business Management) being the two management courses conducted in XLRI. “Regardless of whatever you say,” Jenna continued her rebuttal, “over these two years you do get to develop some skills and sharpen your competencies across various functions. Just because you don’t try to make the most of the opportunity don’t blame the system. It has flaws of course, like the importance that’s still given to your schooling and graduation, but it’s not completely rubbish.” Jenna would sometimes take things a bit too seriously, but she was generally cheerful. She was the exact opposite of Jaskaran, one could say.
“Spoken like a true HR!” Shrijan commented and they all burst out laughing.
And so the night went on. Some juicy gossip, some interesting stories; some jokes, some crazy college talk; some curses hurled at a wide array of people and things – the pain-in-the-ass professor of an elective, the stubborn guide in someone’s summer internship, the free riding group member of a group assignment, the absence of a commercial airport in Jamshedpur, and the list went on.
After a couple of hours, Shrijan finally came down. The thought of the shortlist returned to his mind. The break had been helpful in distracting him from the shortlist’s disappointment. Now he felt that it was time to move on. He entered his room and walked up to the small 1’ x 2’ mirror on the wall opposite his bed. He looked at his solemn reflection in the mirror and gave a long, hard stare to the face in the mirror. He counted down from three – three, two, one… and suddenly cracked a big wide toothy grin while looking into the mirror. Breaking into a smile like this used to clear his mind and somehow used to invigorate him. Once he took the decision to move on, this was his way of getting out of any foul mood. It was simple alright, but it took a lot of effort and time to get himself to a point where he is ready to let go of the negativity – which the mind doesn’t want to let go of so easily.
He went back to what Jenna had mentioned earlier. ‘Make the most of the opportunity,’ he recited. He had indeed tried to make the most of what MBA had offered to him. He just had to make sure that it is communicated properly – through his CV and his answers in the interview.
He started writing down all the valuable experiences he had had, in bullet points. He then focused on each experience and tried to extract something significant from it. After exhausting all of his memories he looked at the things he had written down – yes, he had covered pretty much everything. Next he took out his laptop and opened his CV. There was no major change needed he felt, so he just focused on the words and the language. His CV wasn’t necessarily the only reason why he didn’t get shortlisted, but if there was any time when the CV could be improved further, it was now.
It was almost dawn by the time he had finished this exercise of writing the experiences and reworking his CV. Satisfied by the end product of his efforts, he finally decided to get some sleep. The sky had brightened enough to mark the beginning of the Sunday morning. But alas! Sunday is no holiday in MBA. There were a couple of classes scheduled for the day, but luckily for Shrijan, they weren’t before late evening. For the second time in the past few hours, he plonked down on his bed – but this time not out of dejection.
Shrijan was alone in the room, sitting behind a wooden table facing a huge TV screen which had a webcam on top. On the screen was a serious looking person in his mid-thirties, sitting in what looked like a conference room. Shrijan was appearing for the recruitment process of one of the most coveted companies on campus. The company had agreed to open an additional role for the first time, and to Shrijan’s delight, it offered a vibrant mix of opportunities that too in a field of his interest.
“What’s your most significant achievement in life?” asked the person on the VC call.
Shrijan had cleared all the technical rounds before this. This was expected to be the final round where they drilled deep into your persona. Such behavioral questions reminded him of Slumdog Millionaire. Similar to the movie, the answer to every behavioral question stems from some earlier experience in one’s life. It’s like going through a file cabinet containing all your life experiences to fish out a particular incident which is best suited for the question asked: that one time when you had to do something that fell in the ethically grey area. Or the time when you had to convince (rather fight) everyone else in your team to try out your idea (which they eventually did or didn’t). Or one of the many times when you failed in achieving an objective that you had set. It’s not only about what happened and what you did, it’s also about how you tell all this to the interviewer.
Shrijan was particularly well prepared for these questions, as he had spent that night walking through his whole ‘cabinet of experiences.’ So much so, that he could touch upon almost every facet of his personality in his responses, which he wanted to highlight. Even his student exchange experience had come in handy when he was probed on it by the interviewer. The interview had gone pretty smoothly with few hiccups. But this question made him pause and think.
Whatever his answer was, it remained between him and the interviewer. Probably the interviewer would forget it within a few days – it was just another answer by a very good candidate. More than the achievement, it was Shrijan’s way of communicating which he had liked. As for Shrijan, he might not give the same answer to this question if asked again. He could never single out one thing that he thought was his most significant achievement. It was all interlinked – like dominoes – one achievement had led to the other. A few hours later the results were declared and Shrijan was one of the only two selected by the company. The most critical hurdle in MBA had been crossed! After climbing up the steep slope for two years, the summit had been reached. Now, he could sit down and enjoy the view.
“MBA mein koi kisi ka sagaa nahi hota.” Shrijan spoke into the mic. “Of course I am not saying this just because of a game of UNO cards, in which I was slaughtered mercilessly by my ‘friends’ many times over.” The empathetic people in the audience laughed. The crowd was a sea of black due to the convocation robes that most of them were wearing. The remaining colorful people consisted of proud parents and siblings and in some rare cases even girlfriends/boyfriends or spouses. “And I am not saying this in a bad way,” he continued. “It’s something we all experienced – when we all had to deal with a plethora of problems which were incomparable to anyone else’s. Even though your friends play a huge role in supporting you and getting you through, this statement still holds. If you look closely, everyone has their own baggage. You might call it cold-hearted but it’s irrational to expect that people will help you out by going out of the way, when they themselves are reeling under a pile of troubles. Sure, some will lend you a helping hand even in this condition, but in the end you have to fight your own battles.
“At the end of the day, I am grateful that I always found people around me who supported me when the chips were down. What makes MBA survivable is having such a group of people with you. Today, we walk out of this college gate with countless memories and experiences that will always come in handy for us. It is said MBA is an experience of a lifetime. It has been so for me, and I am sure it has been the same for all of you. I wish you all the best for the future.”
A few hours later, the convocation frenzy had died down. Shrijan switched off the lights of his hostel room for one last time. A rickshaw was waiting outside the main gate with all his luggage, ready to take him to the railway station. He walked out through the main gate and looked back. Through the flood of emotions and collage of memories, he remembered that one cold December night when he was feeling miserable and lost. In hindsight, it looked simple. All that was needed was to snap out of the dejection mode and get going. No experience goes waste eventually, he realized. Each experience is a story, a piece of the puzzle, a pixel in the picture; completing the book of life slowly. And now, a new chapter of Shrijan’s life was about to begin…
*This is a fictional story