Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Safety Nets

Back on the net! Here come all the blogs, starting with a thought I've been having:

I've got a lot of safety nets, right? Safety net 1 is my savings: if something bad happens, I can throw money at it until it goes away. Safety net 2 is also monetary, I guess: my job. Or, if I'm unemployed, like now, it's my ability to get a job. Tangled with that is safety net 3: people I know professionally who might know someone who knows someone who could help me get a job. I guess you could say my "network". Failing all that, there's safety net 4: my skills and resume. I could get a job writing software at any old place. And if all these fail, I have a lot of family and friends, who could probably help me out for a time if I really needed it.

So I was reading "Revolution 2020" by Chetan Bhagat. I guess he's a popular paperback author. The writing wasn't great, but as a window to parts of India, it was fascinating. He describes the life of Gopal, an average guy from Varanasi whose family has some problems. Gopal's mother died years ago, his father inherited some land but his uncle tried to legally wrangle it away, and his father is even having health problems too. So Gopal's father puts his hope in Gopal becoming an engineer.

There are two national exams for engineering schools: the AIEEE (to get into NIT, the National Institute of Technology), and IIT-JEE (to get into the world-famous India Institute of Technology). IIT is more prestigious, but even NIT is tough. After the one-shot exam, all >1 million aspiring engineering students are ranked, and if you get in the top 30k, you can get into NIT. So 3% "pass".

Gopal's rank is about 50k. So his father uses the last of his savings to send Gopal to a coaching school in Kota, where Gopal spends the next year studying, so he can take the one-shot exams again. This is like year-long full-time SAT classes, but more pressure. You have to get yourself into the top 3% of students; 97% of you are guaranteed to fail. Furthermore, there are varying levels of quality and prestige among the coaching schools, so the schools have entrance exams. There are even coaching classes for those.

Why go through all this? Because he has no safety nets. If he doesn't pass these exams, which 97% of students must fail, he's got no chance! At one point, he jokes about running through his options: exile to the mountains or a hard life of manual labor. (spoiler alert: he finds option 3, a life of shady business, and later has a moral crisis because of it. I said it's not a great book.)

Now, the safety nets come with a slight cost, while traveling: to quote Pulp, when I'm "lying in bed at night, watching roaches climb the walls, I can call my daddy and he can stop it all", and as a result, I can't really relate to most people. I can't understand why (for example) it'd be reasonable to keep trudging through a job you dislike, because I haven't felt the icy stomach flops from falling through all the safety nets. But nor do I desire to; having the essentials taken care of allows you to focus on the "better things" in life, whatever your definition of "better things" is.

And so I guess there is the crux of it. If you were looking for a Thanksgiving post, here it is. (it's not late, it's just, time zones, y'know?) I'm thankful for my safety nets. And traveling through India, a land of few safety nets, has made me more so.


  1. "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Thoreau, not Mr. T. He'd have said, "Don't give me none of that jibba jabba, get to work." I've often thought about old Henry David, for I believe he is right. Those who love their work are truly lucky. Some who can do only one thing in life, eg Jim Thome, are blessed to have found it. Most pursue what they can do well enough to carve out a living for a life to which they have become accustomed, for better or worse. The safety nets analogy is interesting. I think you create your own safety nets, wherever you are, don't you? Of course, in USA you have many more options.

  2. No, I don't believe at all that you create your own safety nets! That's the point: I'm lucky to have them. And I'm not even talking about loving your work here; I'm talking about how many things would have to go wrong for me to have trouble making ends meet.

    "Most pursue what they can do well enough to carve out a living for a life to which they have become accustomed, for better or worse"- this is true in America. We take it for granted.

    If I'd been in India, I would have had to have been in the top 3% of my class so many times in order to make it this far. I've been in the top 3% a lot of times, but I probably wasn't one of the best 3% at CMU, or one of the best 3% of interviewees. And maybe I'd have a poor injured father (like Gopal in the story) or a widowed mother or someone I had to take care of, and if I fail at any point, not only am I out in the street, but so is he/she!

    (side note: one Indian student just got hired by Facebook, and it was in the news here.)

    Finally, I certainly didn't create the "family and friends" safety net. I mean, there's just this huge net of people that, if I were in really hard times, could help me get up to a reasonable job and standard of living, and I got all those people just by being born in the right place at the right time. (ps. thanks!)