Are you being peer pressured?



Did you choose the right course? Are you sure? Well, a lot of my school friends, who chose to study political science and history, didn’t. A whole lot of ‘maths types’ who chose to study engineering, didn’t. And many of those who entered medicine hoping to find a cure for cancer didn’t.

For a long time I’ve been wondering why. A lot of research has gone into how students choose their careers. The latest is Be As Careful Of The Company You Keep As Of The Books You Read: Peer Effects In Education And On The Labour Market. The overwhelming conclusions of this paper — while peers help in choosing a subject, they can end up drawing attention away from your strengths; this, in turn, can impact not only your marks in the immediate term and wages in the medium term, but job satisfaction in the long term:

Results show that, indeed, one is more likely to choose a major when many of her peers make the same choice. We also provide evidence on skills mismatch in terms of entry wages and occupation. We find that peers can divert students from majors in which they have a relative ability advantage, with adverse consequences on academic performance, entry wages and job satisfaction.

Researched by Giacomo DeGiorgi of Stanford University, Michele Pellizzari of Bocconi University (Italy) and Silvia Redaelli of World Bank, this paper is timely — and more for parents than for children, who worry about how their children would face the world if they are not armed with the right brands of schools, colleges and subjects.

I knew one who moved his child out of a neighbourhood school — where his child was very happy — into one that apparently has a high “brand recall” to help create a network of rich and powerful fellow students for his child. I asked him how many of his high and mighty friends helped him in his job. He made some noises justifying the decision and once the music rose, he refilled his glass and stared into it.

Meanwhile, the idea of having no future unless you wear the protective and aggressive armour of B. Tech or MBA or any other set of aspirational alphabets has died. It has been replaced by ‘do what you enjoy doing’, giving our children a freedom that no other generation before them has enjoyed. When a child — and why restrict it to a child, even older people — enters a zone of his driving interest, there is very little that can stand before that child. There is only one way for him: to excel and enjoy the journey of excellence.

Me? As I wrote in my previous post, I just wasn’t upto studies, period. But luckily, I was able to choose right. When I say that, I do so on the basis of my major subject (economics) continuing to capture my imagination, professionally as well as personally. Not management or accountancy, but economics. Not the application of the subject to accumulate great wealth — that, sadly, still eludes me — but to discover the world through it.

Passing out after two failures I realise I was lucky — I couldn’t study, get the marks or even walk past the entrance guarded heavily by Gods like Adam Smith (1723-90), Karl Marx (1818-83), John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) or their angels like Paul Samuelson, Joseph Alois Schumpeter, Amartya Sen. But it gave me a training, provided me a window through which to view the world. And I’m happy to report that even though my marks are pathetic, I can laugh at them and on hindsight, my peer-led obsession of them.

Choose any subject today, and there’s a high probability of a fair to good livelihood waiting at the end of it. While on the subject of making decisions on subjects that are free from the taint of financial security, let me also say that every subject, every field has enough depth in it for a child to be able to discover and explore the world — and make space for himself in it. Peter F. Drucker, who was throwing thought-provoking and perspective-changing ideas till the end of his life, eight days before he turned 96, would study a new subject every three years:

Every three or four years I pick a new subject. It may be Japanese art; it may be economics. Three years of study are by no means enough to master a subject, but they are enough to understand it. So for more than 60 years I have kept on studying one subject at a time. That not only has given me a substantial fund of knowledge, it has also forced me to be open to new disciplines and new approaches and new methods – for every one of the subjects I have studied makes different assumptions and employs a different methodology.

In the new economy based on knowledge, in which India is an active participant and driver, Drucker’s strategy would be invaluable. I suppose we need to stop seeing disciplines and fields of education simply as a means to a employment or income (which they will always be) and explore the broader philosophy and delight of education as biggest redeemer of the spirit. In that paradigm of tomorrow, there is no place for peers or pressures; there is only self-actualisation, self-redemption…and joy.

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