I was a science and a mathematics girl. Having seen my interest and capability in the sciences, my brother decided that I should compete to get into the IITs, the MIT of India, and become an engineer.
As I hail from a small town, which doesn’t offer many educational opportunities, my father took me to Kota, a city in the desert of Rajasthan, admitted me in one of the private institutions of the coaching-hub of India, and left me in that unknown town; I was fifteen years old and hadn’t stayed away from my parents for more than a few days.
At my first attempt at the entrance examination, I failed. At the secpond attempt, for which I dropped a year, I ranked seventy-eight (78) amongst half-a-million students.
It didn’t happen by chance. Though I was young, I knew what I had to do to achieve my goal. And it didn’t seem that hard at that time; I just had to crack the concepts, practice, and give exams.
As a child, I was better at ascertaining my capabilities and at believing in myself. I studied day and night. I solved as many questions as I could. I fixed my mistakes.
But those were just the implications of the primary goal. The primary goal was that the entrance exam’s science and mathematics syllabus was to be my second nature. I had to be so thorough that I could recall the concepts even if anyone woke me up at 3 in the night.
The most important was to hammer the primary goal in my head — while ignoring everything less significant.
While being away from home and having nobody to watch over me, I protected that objective, like a mother protects her young child. I rooted that goal in priorities and then watered them with my hard work and dedication, and along germinated the tree of my success.
I confirmed those principles during the later years of my adult life when I set and achieved a myriad of goals: working in a finance startup when I was inexperienced in the industry, training as a chef in an Italian restaurant and handling the dinner service on my own, getting into a big investment bank which hadn’t even let me sit in the campus placements, learning Spanish, teaching English as a second language without any teaching degree.
If I couldn’t achieve something, it was because I had undermined one or more of those fundamentals.
Those principles boosted my confidence so that I could pick up any task; I know how to walk the way, and I know that if I hold the finger of the process, it would take me to the goal. That is why I could choose writing and blogging as a profession; I had started from zero many times and had made big. So why not now?
I see people around me struggling with daily routines, physical health, working out, job switches, career change, relationships; they want to do a lot but find it hard to achieve their goals.
I observe patterns that won’t let them any closer to where they see themselves; People outside our self-universe can see us better, while we remain oblivious of ourselves.
Some say — I cannot do this. Some get disappointed by their mistakes, rather than seeing them as learning opportunities. Some approach the problem without even defining it. Some aren’t motivated enough. Some rest too long when they achieve a small milestone on the path to a bigger goal. Some focus only on the goals and not on the process; they hurry on the way, never enjoy the process, and delay themselves further.
But we all can do whatever we want to, and it is just a matter of planting the goal with the right priorities.
My principles are not only helpful to crack an exam, they are indispensable to achieve any goal. Edging thirty-one years of my life, I still follow them and stand proof that that fifteen-year-old girl wasn’t wrong.
Here they are.
1. Think about that one thing you want and think about it only —
Let that one thing infiltrate your being. If you focus on one thing and let everything else spill over— you could win the lottery of your goal. This game of focus ain’t easy, but then easy it is.
Thinking about one thing could make all the difference.
Also Read: An Open Letter to My Mind
2. To achieve, you have to believe — Billions of water drops coalesce to fill a small pond. Billions of things would come together to make one thing happen.
But — You. Have. To. Believe.
In the book The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg said that when researchers studied the alcoholics that were part of the Alcoholics Anonymous group and had been sober for decades, they found out that the alcoholics who believed that they could manage without alcohol through stressful periods stayed sober. The belief was the game changer.
Howard Schultz, the man behind Starbucks, said that his mother told him that she believed that Howard would do a lot of things— ‘You’re going to be the first person to go to college, you’re going to make us all proud.’ He learned to set goals and achieve them. She told him that he had what it takes to succeed, and he did.
I never doubted myself that I wouldn’t be able to crack IIT. Somewhere inside I knew that if I couldn’t, who could? I studied like a winner: someone who does what he or she has to do and doesn’t brood over the consequences.
Tell yourself that you can do it, and you would.
Also Read: Manipulating Your Consciousness
3. Don’t follow or wait for anyone, lead your own path —
Start. If people have to come, they would.
When Forrest Gump ran, thousands of people ran behind him. He stopped, they stopped. Do you think Gump had a more difficult time as he was the initiator? No. The rest had a more difficult time as they were the followers.
Before the tests, students would find me and would want to study with me or delay studying and instead eat Maggie noodles. But I studied, cracked the coaching center tests, and then enjoyed the noodles.
Define your own path. Run ahead. Else people would stop midway and you would wonder whom to follow.
4. Don’t circle around the problem, deal with it head-on —
I knew that I had to solve a lot of questions in a certain amount of time during the final examination. So, I solved problems with a stopwatch, daily.
Deal with the main problem head-on. If you have to write, take a pen and paper and write. Don’t log on the internet and read ten articles on writing. If you want to open a store, get on the street and find out which market has a demand and a scope for competition. Don’t find MBA alumni for tips on business development, instead talk to some shopkeepers on that street.
Don’t circle the problem. You are scared but circling around would add to the fear, not aide the process. Sooner or later you would have to face the most difficult task on the path.
I timed my problem solving and solved all the problems on which I could lay my hands. Could the children who were scared to solve problems under a time constraint even in the absence of test pressure compete with me in examinations?
5. Practice until you bleed — “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” Hemingway said. I promise you that when I was fifteen years old, I didn’t even know that Hemingway existed. But I knew I had to bleed. That there was no other way.
I used to practice the mathematics problems until I had disassembled and assembled the concepts thoroughly. None of the complex questions of the final mathematics exam perplexed me. In the examination hall, amidst the sweaty students with furrowed brows, devouring the test, I felt at home.
Tony Dungy, the football coach who revived the team that hadn’t won even a single match on the West coast for sixteen years into a team that won the Super Bowl, told Charles Duhigg, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.” He made the football team members practice their moves until they became second nature.
If you do anything enough number of times, you wouldn’t have to think about doing it; you would just do it, like blinking your eye or walking or running. Practice so that the skill becomes an extension of yourself.
None of the students could compete with me unless they practiced more than I did. And the ones who practiced more ranked higher. Innate talent and capabilities matter but less than we think.
6. Turn your back to excuses — Explaining why you couldn’t do it to yourself or to others is like requesting the station master to let you sit on the train though it has long left the station. What can he or anyone else do?
Instead of excusing yourself, turn up. Justifying why you didn’t or couldn’t do something clears your conscience, but you cannot avoid even the tiniest part of the process. Sooner or later, you would have to do it, so why not now?
If there was a power cut, I lit candles and studied. If your Motorola phone has hung and you cannot send an email, send it from your Dell laptop. Even the deadly Grim Reaper does his job himself, you have to, too.
Jump over the obstacles, don’t hide in their shadow.
7. Don’t let your mistakes pull you back — They are supposed to push you further.
Do not let your capabilities be defined by how much you can do right now. The questions that I couldn’t solve were my challenges. They did not deter me; they encouraged me to learn more. And sometimes those challenging questions helped me score higher than others.
International chess master and a Tai Chi Push Hands world champion, Josh Waitzkin wrote in his book The Art of Learning that one should avoid falling into the downward spirals of mistakes. Once you have made a mistake, it is done. Learn from its nuisances and move on.
Understanding your mistakes is, at least, as important as learning something new. By fixing our mistakes, we place ourselves ahead than the rest.
Also Read: 30 Life Lessons I Learned in My 20’s
8. Don’t fall for the distractions — A friend is calling. You are missing home. You don’t feel like working today. The weather is romantic. This is the surround sound; it always stays with us.
I remember hanging out with my best friend on one of those rare rainy mornings in the sultry desert-town of Kota. After some time, she went home, and I started studying. Then she returned and asked me to accompany her to the bank, but I had started studying by then. She wanted to continue the merriment, but no-one could move me when I was doing something important. Who knows, but this might have made all the difference.
Block the noise; listen to the main tune. Figure out the activities that add value and focus on them.
Also Read: 15 Things We Care Too Much About
9. Break-off the chains of group melancholy —
Homo sapiens rule the earth because they could form groups and believe in joint causes. These causes could be positive and inspirational, or they could just hail procrastination.
Students, workers, families, associations get together and do nothing sometimes. The one who is bored tries to envelopes the other with his boredom and disappointment, because then the primary culprit would feel better about having a company. I have also enticed my friend to leave work and accompany me.
Group causes are reassuring. When we see others doing or thinking the same, we also believe the same —this is proven by psychology.
Break off from procrastination huddles. Get up and get going. Everyone’s life is different; others might not have the same goal, so even though they are procrastinating, they might be moving towards their goal. But what about you?
When priorities are different, so should be the paths.
10. Look for questions, before you fumble for answers — In class, I avoided embarrassing conversations by sitting silent and by not asking what I didn’t understand. Later, I struggled to find someone who could explain the concept to me.
What was the point of acting like Einstein and wasting time and energy when I eventually admitted that I hadn’t understood?
As long as you have not understood or defined anything completely, ask questions, from yourself and from other people. If you avoid the questions now, you would have to tackle them later. And that picture wouldn’t be rosy, my friend.
11. Build Keystone habits, let them flow like blood in your veins —
Keystone habits help other good habits to flourish.
Charles Duhigg concluded in his book The Power of Habit, “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns and new structures. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”
Paul O’Neill, CEO of the aluminum company Alcoa, established safety as the primary priority of each employee. By the time Paul retired, the company’s income was five times of what it was when he had started, and Alcoa had become the safest company to work for.
To promote safety, Paul had ensured that the machines worked impeccably, the processes were followed well, and the workers adhered to the system. The habit of ensuring safety infiltrated through all the levels of production and shipping and thus transformed everything.
We don’t have to do everything right, but we have to find certain key priorities and focus on them. They would then influence everything that we do.
Making your bed in the morning would help you stay organized at work. Keeping your kitchen counter clean would help you arrange your desktop folders — the idea and practice of having a clean kitchen would influence you to practice that behavior elsewhere, without you even noticing it.
Keystone habits spill over everything else in your life and change the way you think.
I had engrained all the principles that I listed above as keystone habits, and I let them shape my life.
12. Don’t succumb to willpower, let it succumb to you — To do everything that I said above, you would need a lot of willpower. I needed it, too. I don’t know what motivated me, whether the grit of proving myself or doing what I had left my family for or thinking that there was no other option apart from succeeding, but I rotated on the axis of willpower, day and night.
Charles Duhigg wrote, “Dozens of researches show that willpower is the most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent. And the best way to strengthen willpower is to make it into a habit. Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard — but that’s because they’ve made it automatic.”
After reading this book, I understood that I had practiced the habit of willpower, that’s why it came naturally.
How would you build willpower? Scientists have agreed that willpower is a learnable skill, like learning addition or English grammar. Start by asserting willpower in tiny things and in tiny amounts. You want to lose weight, avoid toast in breakfast. You want to read more, start by reading half an hour every day. You want to strengthen your relationship, go out for at least one date on a weekday. This assertion of willpower would slowly change how you think and act.
Without you even noticing, willpower would become a keystone habit and would stand by you even when you pursue larger goals.
Remember, there is no switch to success. You need to work for it. But then there is nothing sweeter than the hard-earned rewards.
Which of these ideas did you like the best? Would love to hear from you.
*Note: The Amazon link to the book mentioned in this post is an affiliate link; if you choose to click through and buy the book, I will earn a little bit at no extra cost to you. It is entirely up to you if you decide to make the purchase.