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LinkedIn Bios Are Not The Whole Story
Public domain bios, such as on LinkedIn or a company web site, can be very misleading. If you looked at my LinkedIn bio, for example, you might come away feeling a sense of logical progression and evolution. You might also think “here is a person who has made measured and informed choices and decisions.”
You’d be totally wrong.
Some careers do have a logical progression. But mine has been Tarzan-like, swinging from vine to vine. There have been leaps of faith and luck (good or bad) in it that a public bio entirely leaves out.
Here I want to drill into one transition that reads a certain way, but hides a much more complicated reality.
The defining decision of my life was choosing to come to the United States from India for an undergraduate education.
You can easily piece this together from my LinkedIn bio, if you look at the dates and location for my high school and university. But that leaves out what a leap into the dark this decision was.
Briefly, this is how I got to that point in the summer of 1985. Since I lacked any real talents, all I could do was focus on my academics. Note: I did win a bronze medal in an inter-school javelin competition; memory fails as to whether there were more than three competitors…
Anyhow, for me the academic treadmill involved applying to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). “Applying” is not the right word, for the treadmill only really involved swotting like mad for the “joint entrance examination”, or JEE.
If you were not at top form on the days the JEE was held, you were SOL. Plus you could be at top form and still get squeezed out by the pitiful acceptance rate (~1% in that era, I think).
I needed a backup plan. That backup plan was applying to US colleges.
Remember that at this time there was no such thing as the Internet, so just getting information was an inefficient process reliant on snail mail and schlepping to the US embassy. I applied to five fairly randomly chosen ones, with the help of my father and my sister.
Well, I was in for a surprise. Not only did I “get into IIT” (as the expression goes), I got a high rank. The rank was and is the sole determinant of the choices you have, and this rank gave me my degree program of choice (electrical engineering at IIT Delhi).
For someone like me, who came from a military family (albeit one that valued intellectual achievement), who didn’t have the pathways afforded by being the scion of a family business, who wasn’t a student at one of the more famed high schools in India — the IIT opportunity was nearly impossible to say no to.
I knew the IIT treadmill really well. My five closest friends in high school had all been on the IIT plan (four of them went there after high school).
I knew virtually nothing about US colleges. I was the only person in my close peer group to apply to US colleges, and I’d never visited one. This was not my world.
I was also 16, so it is fair to say I didn’t know my ass from my elbow (things have not changed much since in this respect).
In the end I chose the US, because I wanted adventure more than anything else, and Penn had a really nice brochure which radiated adventure. Remember that this was pre-Internet — no beautiful virtual tours!
That was the reason. A great brochure. Really.
This was the most important decision of my life. I did minimal “diligence” in arriving at it. I have never regretted it.
I am process-driven about a lot of things, but every significant career transition in my life has had a high dosage of randomness. My choices have often been very arbitrary.
I can’t say this has led to good/bad luck; whether mine is a good/bad career; or a good/bad life. As I’ve written elsewhere, “call no man happy until he be dead” — the final accounting will come when I am gone. But over the years, I’ve become more at peace with embracing the uncertainty of an intuitive decision or random outcome.
The quote by Foucault in my Twitter header, which I drone about constantly as my frequent readers will know, basically says that a true history is much less inevitable than it might seem after the fact.
A carefully written bio is a personal history, and as with all histories, the myriad chances and forks-in-the-road that make up real life are pared away and organized to present a clean narrative arc.
So don’t rely on those LinkedIn bios, including mine.