Saturday, 21 May 2022

How do I compete with people who are smarter than me?

I got the privilege to study at IIT Bombay’s Computer Science and Engineering Department for my undergrad. It is arguably the most competitive course in Engineering. All the top JEE rankers join the course and so, it becomes extremely competitive.

I secured an All India Rank of 33 in JEE Advanced 2013 - definitely a dream for many. But guess what, I wasn’t even eligible for American Express Internship because the cut-off was an All India Rank of 25. Not just that, I was not eligible for Aditya Birla Scholarship because they shortlist only the top 20 JEE rankers from each IIT. For IIT Bombay, this was an All India Rank of 22 because AIR 4 and AIR 9 went to IIT Delhi.

Can you imagine, that there are things that I was not even eligible for, after securing an All India Rank of 33 in the toughest Engineering Exam in India?

In my year, IIT Bombay CSE closed at AIR 59. Approximately 1.4 million (14 lakhs) students appeared for JEE Main of which some 150k (1.5 lakhs) appeared for JEE Advanced. Of this, only the top 59 rankers were eligible to join IIT Bombay, Computer Science and Engineering. That’s how competitive it is.

Every other person is a topper of their respective coaching - Bansal Classes? Yes. Resonance? Yes. Vibrant? Yes. Allen? Yes. You name the coaching institute and the topper is there at either IITB CSE or IITB Electrical. To make matters worse, in my year, during my freshman year, the Electrical Department’s grading was coupled with the CS Department's grading. The Electrical Engineering Department of IIT Bombay closed at an AIR of some 109. This means that if you are a student at IITB CSE, you are directly competing with almost 70% of the top 100 JEE rankers. That’s how brutal it is.

When I joined IIT Bombay in 2013, I faced a lot of challenges. From day one, I was under the pressure because of the extremely competitive environment. Some people won’t attend classes, you’d never see them studying, and still, they will top the class. Many knew programming from their school days. In the first year, many courses are related to Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics which are a part of the JEE syllabus and so, it was extremely difficult to manage given that the top JEE rankers were already the best at these subjects.

I worked hard. Really really hard. I spent countless hours studying. My strategy was fairly simple - to compete with the people who are smarter than me, I put in the extra hours. People studied for 4 hours. I studied for 8 hours. Many people called me “maggu” (someone who always studies), but I was clear about my strategy. Most importantly, I had that self-realization that I was not as smart as many of the students here. I also maintained consistency in my academics and did not leave anything for 1 day before the exam. I attended all the lectures, made notes, attended the tutorial sessions, and read books.

End result?

I was ranked 8th in the institute out of some 850+ students, with a CGPA of 9.86/10.0. For the exceptional performance, I was an Institute Academic Award recipient from IIT Bombay which was a cash prize of Rs. 2,000 and an achievement for life. I was also ranked 2nd in the Computer Science Department of IIT Bombay. Here is a copy of my grade-sheet:

Here is how you can interpret the grades:

  • AA = 10 out of 10
  • AB = 9 out of 10
  • PP = Pass (a non-credit course)
  • AP = 10 out of 10 and exceptional performance (top 2% in that course)

As you can see, I scored a 9 out of 10 in the Organic & Inorganic Chemistry and Biology Courses. In all other courses I scored an AA or an AP. As you can see, I have also scored an AP grade in 5 of the courses, which was the highest in our batch. I had never scored 100/100 in Mathematics in any exam in my life, not even in school or board exams. I scored a 100/100 in the Differential Equations course, which was the first-ever time in my life that I got a full score in maths.

I think what really helped me was that I kept working hard. I never worried about the competition. I just assessed the fact that people here are smarter than me and so I need to work hard. From there on, I didn’t look back and I made sure to spend double the hours that any other person is spending. I also utilized the weekends to spend time catching up on subjects where I was relatively weak. For instance, I found Linear Algebra to be quite difficult. So, over the weekends, I spent more time on it to understand concepts better and solve more problems.

Later during the third semester, we had the Data Structures and Algorithms course. It was one of the toughest courses that I have ever taken. Prof. Diwan is known to create question papers that have an extremely difficult set of problems. Throughout the semester, we had 4 exams in that course - 2 quizzes, 1 mid-sem, and 1 end-sem. Of the total 100 marks, I scored merely 27. Can you imagine? Just 27 out of 100. What’s worse was that the highest in the department was 81/100, exactly 3 times my score. I ended up getting a CC grade, which is 6 out of 10.

Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed and scoring so low was a major setback. I realized that if I don’t work on my Data Structures and Algorithms skills, I will struggle a lot later because almost all Software Engineering careers require a sound knowledge of that. I figured out that the course went a little fast and because of the excessive workload during the semester, I could not do justice to the course because I couldn’t give enough time to practicing problems. So, I decided that I will use the 3 months of the summer after my second year to spend time practicing a lot of problems and reading a lot of concepts.

During the second year summer, I was interning at TU Braunschweig. It was a research internship and I totally did not like it. To top it up, I had plans of spending time improving my Data Structures and Algorithms skills during this period. So I didn’t really focus on the research internship and spent almost all my time practicing problems on SPOJ, Topcoder, Codechef, and Codeforces. My flatmate during the internship was a batchmate of mine from IIT Bombay. He was an ACM-ICPC World Finalist. It often took me 5 hours to come up with a solution to a problem which he was able to get in just 5 minutes, without picking up a pen and paper. You can imagine the kind of pressure I was under because of this major gap.

I consistently worked hard and did not give up. I was clear that I don’t want to go into research and rather would want to get a fantastic internship during the third year summer. So, I needed to prepare for that now else I will face huge challenges during the internship hiring season in the 5th semester.

It turned out to be a great decision and I got an offer from Tower Research Capital, arguably the best domestic internship offer across all IITs. Further, I got selected at Rubrik (US Office) for an internship worth a stipend of $8000 per month - the highest paying internship offer. The Rubrik and the Tower Research interviews were some of the most difficult interviews involving most of the questions around Data Structures and Algorithms. Because I had practiced a lot during the summer, I was able to solve almost all the questions easily.

Some of you might think that I was already at a benefit because of my being a part of IIT Bombay, CSE. Yes, that’s correct. But the point here to note is that during the campus internship and placement season, I was competing with other people who were all from IIT Bombay, CSE and so, I really didn’t have an unfair advantage over them. In fact, I had a disadvantage given that many of them were way smarter than me.

Fast forward to today (2022), I am the Founder of Cogno AI, where I lead a team of over 150 people, crores in revenue, and ~100 customers. My co-founder (now my wife) and I bootstrapped Cogno to this stage, owning about 97% of the company. Cogno was acquired in a multi-million dollar deal by Exotel. I still work hard. I have figured out the template to win over smart people - put in double the hours of effort.

Many people ask me - do you not get bored of working hard? I think I enjoy winning. I enjoy the work that I am doing and so, I am quite happy with the work and do not get bored. Some people enjoy traveling. Others enjoy cooking. Someone enjoys reading. I enjoy working hard - that’s how it is for me. I am proud of myself and the work I am doing. My parents and family members are proud of me and my achievements and so, I think that all of my hard work has paid off quite well. The best part is that I am merely 26 years old and totally financially free. So, I have a lot of time to enjoy and compensate for the sacrifices that I made so far because of spending that extra time on academics.

So, to all those who are depressed by seeing those smart people around you - beat them with your hard work. Remember - Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

Set high goals for yourself and work on them. Do whatever it takes to work on them. Sacrifice everything that doesn’t align with your goal. Friends and Partying can always happen later. If you work hard during your 20s, you’d be set for the rest of your life. Enjoy in your 20s and you’d struggle for the rest of your life. It is easier to correct the course of a rocket when it is on the land than when it is already 10,000 kms away from its planned trajectory. The earlier, the better.

All the best!


Some of my other posts:

42 comments:

  1. I've been reading your answers on quora since 2018 and I can't tell you how much they've helped me. thank you very much Aman bhaiya.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and I wish you all the best.

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  2. Harsh Mangalam21 May 2022 at 11:00

    People become busy when they succeed. I am grateful that you wrote this.

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    1. Thanks a lot Harsh. Do check some other posts:

      https://www.amangoel.in/2019/07/how-are-people-earning-55lpa24-lpa-at.html

      https://www.amangoel.in/2019/07/how-do-i-build-strong-resume.html

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  3. Even I believe that hard work is more powerful than the luck factor.My whole life till now I have to work really hard in order to make things work and I am still doing hard work.

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  4. Really inspiring, Aman Bhaiya! Thank you for this detailed blog, it's a source of motivation.

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  5. Finally, someone has written this about hardwork and competition. I'm fed up of reading the monotonous articles of not competing with people, self competition, be happy and blah blah. I'm an NITian, goes without saying that I worked my a** off to get there and that too without any proper guidance and self-study as my parents couldn't afford it. I only knew one thing that people who are getting guidance are way smarter than me, so I'll have to work harder to secure my rank. And as a result, I got CSE in a prestigious institute. Same as yours, my DSA also got fast forwarded and I struggled a lot to pick things up. I was even struggling to adjust in the college environment as I was living far from family for the very first time. I was also at fault in not picking things fast as I had a person in life who always pulled me down, never understood my worth and capabilities. Fast forward, I left the person or we better say sacrificed the person for my career but it was end of my 3rd year and I was shattered, I kept crying in the four walls of my room and couldn't do better in placements and got into a service based firm. People judged me badly without understanding my situation. I even listened comments, "college me kuch bhi nhi pdha kya? Kya kr rhi thi college me, Amazon to mil jati atleast" (Didn't you study anything in college? What were you doing in college, atleast you could have bagged Amazon offer). The persons who passed this to me were obviously associated with big tech giant and little did they know, I was talking to them only to get that inspiration and not be sent back to depression from where I had pulled myself. I again worked harder even in weekends and working from 9-7 as I knew DSA will play a major role here. As a result, I got into a big product based firm with a decent package, I'm earning a 6 digit salary, living with family and having the time of my life. And I know one thing, we need to keep that competitior alive within us if we don't want to settle for less. It's easy to say that you are from IIT/NIT, you are privileged but people should know the back stories because it took us years to get where we stand.
    I know it might be a very ordinary story but just couldn't help myself but write this after reading the article.
    Thank you Aman bhaiya, it was a fantastic read.

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    1. Very happy to hear your story. You've made your family and yourself proud of your work. Keep it up and all the best!

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  6. Your Journey is quite inspiring❤. I could see how your consistency and hard work made you lead your journey. I wonder which Atomic Habits (I am certainly not talking about the book😅) did you acquire during this journey that you appreciate till today?

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    1. That might in itself be a topic for a blogpost. Let me write it some day.

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    2. Thanks🙏

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    3. Yes bhaiya. U r an inspiration

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  7. You have a great blog, why don't you convert this into a newsletter? We would love to have such beautiful insider stories in our inbox every week or so.

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    Replies
    1. Sure, here you go: http://eepurl.com/hTsgdn

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    2. Yeahhhh!!!Thanks

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  8. Wonderful wonderful article as expected and as always.

    However bhaiya one thing on which I wanted more of your detailed analysis was "I never cared about the competition."
    How come you never worried/cared about it? I get panicked when I start to think stuff like "I'm nowhere near him, no point in competing against him, I'll be humiliated if i do so"

    Please can you share how the heck did you ignore the competition? I do realise that worrying about it will only worsen the condition but still I'm unable to help it.

    Any help? Thanks a lot

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    1. I did care about the competition. What I didn't worry about is how smarter the competition was as compared to me. Basically, I didn't focus on the negative thoughts of "Oh that person is smarter than me, my life is a waste" but rather focused on "Oh that person is smarter than me, but I can beat him with my hard work".

      You see the differences in the approach?

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  9. This changed my whole perspective towards IITs and IIT students, Great effort lad! .

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  10. This is a very inspirational post, really motivating us to work hard beyond our limits, but I have question: do you feel burn out at sometimes?? Running out of energy and completely drained out? How do you handle those situations??

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    1. No, I don't feel that. I enjoy my work :)

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  11. Instead of giving double the time on 1 thing, why can't we spend time on "becoming smart" ? No, I am not complaining about the hardwork, I am just saying that if you become smart enough, you could do 2 different things in the same amount of time rather than doing 1 thing in that time.

    Sharpening the axe is more important than cutting more trees with it. What's your say?

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    1. This seems to be an open ended debatable topic. So, would avoid commenting on that :)

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    2. Could you please write a blog post along the lines of this discussion.
      I genuinely want to know your approach.

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  12. Harshit Jaiswal22 May 2022 at 12:34

    I have been following you from 2015, when I got to know about your struggle and hard work during your JEE preparation. Now, seeing you rise day by day always motivated me to work hard. But, that motivation doesn't last long.

    After reading this blog, I am sure about what hard work can do and how competitive the world is. Thanks for sharing your experience so that people like me gets an idea about how competitive world is around!

    Keep Sharing your Experiences. Wish you all the Luck and Blessings for your entire life. May your upcoming journey comes with lots of happiness, enjoyment, excitement and never ending learning.

    Thanks a lot. Waiting for your another life experience. <3

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  13. I have known you since Quora days and kept reading your answers about hard work and consistency. This is a very insightful and inspiring answer for everyone. 'Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard". This is pure gold. And Congratulations for your wedding. Best wishes. :)

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  14. One of the best inspiring story....

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  15. Good to see you writing helpful blogs....I really loved your answers on quora when quota was actually pretty good.

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  16. I have read this the day u posted and got very motivated , Earlier I was also studying only 4-5 hrs per day but since one month's after reading this I have studied for 12+ hrs regularly and now I am in a position that I can't believe of! Thank you very much bhaiya for sharing this,lots of LOVE❤️

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  17. Thanks Sir for a detailed article

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  18. Love to work with such a hardworking and motivating persons

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  19. How to contact you sir

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    Replies
    1. You can post your query here and I will revert.

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  20. This was really an eye-opener for me. I am currently a 1st year student at NITK.There are people way smarter than me here, Kinda felt like a wakeup call. Thanks !

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