Posted on July 27, 2013

Career Goals and Stress

Last week, my five-year-old granddaughter, who is a regular evening visitor to our place, stepped in and the first thing she uttered was, “Nani, I have an interview in my new school this Saturday.” “If I do well”, she continued with a somber countenance, “They will put me in First grade in August. And if I don’t, then I will go to Kindergarten.” Her interview was still three days away and she quietly began to practice writing sentences all by herself so she could prove her mettle in the interview. I was amazed to see how our tiny girl is already big enough to set her goals.” The following day, she informed me, “You know why my Mommy pulled me out of Montessori? And then probably understanding my ignorance on this subject, she went on to enlighten me, “Because I know much more than the other kids of my class know.” Indeed, I am impressed with her realization of her potential at this tender age (our own kids gained this understanding in their late teenage years, whereas our generation took a couple of decades to figure it all out). At the same time, I am also afraid if this early awareness would not soon translate into academic stress. We are still awaiting the outcome of her interview and hope that she realizes her first academic goal.

Currently, my niece back in India is taking her 12th board exams, and she is so stressed out that she doesn’t like anyone to call her even to wish her good luck on her exams. Her objective is to score at least 95+ in her board exam so she can compete for the most prestigious colleges in Delhi where the cut off percentage is almost close to 100. Her target score of 100 marks in English actually took me by surprise. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me, “Masi, did you award 100 % marks to any student when you evaluated 12th grade English Board papers in India?” I told her that even the most outstanding students scored between 90-98 percent during my time in India. However, this information did not seem to dissuade her from lowering her goal. In India, the month of March seems to be the most stressful month for 10th and 12th class students and their parents. In fact, since the beginning of this academic year, the only subject of conversation in my phone calls to my sister is her 12th grader’s tuitions, tests, board exams, and admissions in the prospective colleges. It appears as if board exam results and college admissions are almost like matters of life and death for the ambitious kids in Indian educational institutions. The students and their parents’ stress is accentuated by the fact that almost 50% of the college seats are reserved for students belonging to the scheduled castes, tribes, and other backward classes.

Back here, when I see my grown professionally accomplished children working all seven days a week without any ‘need’ of a weekend or a break, I tell them good-humoredly, “Even God rested on Sunday after creating this world….. Even the President of America takes a vacation. Don’t you guys need any break?” And they assure me, “Mom, we will go on a long vacation after we achieve our goals…” and then, after a brief pause, they add, “And that’s a long, long way to go.” I am sorry, but I don’t get this.

The story extends beyond my home. As Admission Consultant to Business School aspirants, I closely observe this career stress day in and out in the applicants I work with. The most common query of almost 90% of the applicants when they send me their resume for profile evaluation is, “What are my chances of getting into the top 20 B-schools?” They want me to predict their chances of admission without even putting together a strong application package. Despite having a progressive professional career, they aspire to move ahead and need an MBA degree to help them realize their dreams. I truly appreciate their motivation and ambition. However, the extremely grueling and demanding jobs that make them work 14-16 hours a day hardly leave any time for them to work on their applications. I have worked with many applicants based in India who get back home after work at 10:00 or 11:00 pm and then work through the night on their essays. Often times, after working round the clock continuously for 3-4 days, they end up getting exhausted and sick at a time when the pressure of meeting the application deadline already weighs heavily on their minds. This situation obviously adds to their as well as my stress levels.

Thus, I have observed that in this time and era, academic and career stress has gripped the people of all age groups to such an extent that it has become a way of life. It is good as well as bad. I understand that setting high career goals is essentially a key to progress in life and career, and some amount of anxiety is required to accomplish those objectives. However, it is also true that excessive anxiety and stress takes a heavy toll on our mental and physical health. While we should always be motivated to aim high and strive to climb the ladders of success, we also need to sometimes pause for a while and reflect– ‘Are we setting realistic goals for ourselves?’ ‘Is this what we call happiness in life? ‘Are we not sacrificing simple pleasures of life in pursuit of higher position, huge salary packages, higher bank balances, and more property, etc.?’

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Disclaimer: This article is an expression of my observations, experiences, and opinions.

Note: This article was first published in Valley India Times of April, 2013