‘Follow your passion’. LOL.

About a decade ago, I was given three choices: Science, Commerce and Arts. A passive kid, I picked science. After all, it’s what everyone does.

Two years later, I found myself applying for colleges. Irritated that I had to think and choose again, I looked at the most popular options.

  1. Computer Science
  2. Electronics and Telecommunication
  3. Mechanical

Wonderful. I copied it onto my application form.

I knew nothing about computers, save for Age of Empires and FIFA. With little exposure to the outside world, I had a romanticised view of ‘passion’ and ‘brilliance’. If this failed, I could always excuse myself by saying: I was never interested in all this. A few months later, college.

Kalpana Deorekar was our computer teacher, and an angel. She did a fabulous job explaining a computer’s model to us. Her encouraging attitude towards problem solving and sincere involvement in correcting answers deeply impacted me. Now the computer seemed interesting, at least as much as playing lego.

On the other hand, we had our disinterested electronics teacher. She never raised or lowered her voice when speaking. I always felt sleep-starved when hearing her voice.

Still, I should have worked in electronics. I shouldn’t have failed in the very first semester. But there I was, in front of my father, giving him my report card. I expected a scolding, a few insults from him and a few comebacks from me.

He smiled instead.

“Just one?” he asked. I nodded cautiously, in case he was being sarcastic. But he was glad that I hadn’t flunked more. For the first time, my father congratulated me on my results. I felt strange, and soon, empowered.

I started taking responsibility, and with it: control. Having cleared electronics on the second attempt, I had three years to turn myself into an engineer. My summer vacations were spent learning about Java and getting programs to work. It was hard, and the console doesn’t break bad news nicely.

But within three months, I was at par with students who had a CS background. My teachers found my enthusiasm refreshing. In my fourth semester, one of my optional projects had some AI, and it managed to beat my computer graphics professor at tic-tac-toe.

My love for chess took fruit here. Being part of the CRCE chess team, I went to MIT Pune and got to witness an amazing show of sports talent from across India. I returned to college to win the bronze medal, having lost to our chess captain in the semi-finals. In hindsight, the loss was a good thing; it reminded me that competition was to be dealt with a cool head and that I should never underestimate my opponent’s competence. I would need a reminder soon…

In my third year, there was a project contest by IBM. It was here that I learnt the value of coding in an organized manner. My friend, Saurav, and I worked very hard to complete the project on time. We would stay back after college every day, for 2 to 4 hours, working on optional features.

Placement season began and That meant I could apply to companies. My father asked me to just enjoy the experience. Hackerrank and Toppr soon sent me their offers.

My last intra-college chess tournament was interesting. Each player gets 20 minutes in their time pool. Everyone believed I would win, and I let it get to my head. Before a match, I would strut around college. Storming into the room, I would annihilate my opponent within 2–3 minutes. They would barely hit the clock before I slammed it again. My fastest win took 13 seconds.

One of my opponents was a guy who I had beaten the previous year. Of course he must be scared. Look at him, his hands are shaking.

And…disaster. I lost my rook. My crush was watching this. How could I let this happen? I managed to then win it back, with an extra pawn to boot. Yes! I am winning! He then played a pawn ahead, threatening my queen. I was mentally blind. I was obsessed with the result. I took it.

The pawn was guarded by his rook.

I just lost a queen. For a pawn. Those of you who play chess know that this is the time to resign. I looked away, dejected. I wanted to overturn the board. You bastard, I just gave you a free pass. Furious, I looked up.

My opponent was shivering.

I turned around to see his clock reading 41/2 minutes. Mine still had 15 minutes left.

My hand flew, playing my move and smashing the clock. He played his and returned the smash. But speed was my territory. We threw moves at each other till he blundered, and I won a bishop in compensation.

I could feel his fear as he slowed down. This gave me more time to think and less for him in turn. 1 minute left, his legs were shaking, and I was still holding the fort.

30 seconds…everyone in the audience was leaning in to look into the board and our faces. I sensed it but didn’t register. Focus on the game, Sarthak.

The last 10 seconds were filled with the clock bouncing on the table as we slammed our moves into it. He was on the verge of winning when the clock’s flag fell.

There were cheers as we both covered our faces. I did so in relief. That year, I would go on to win Gold.

There are many lessons that I took from those games and my graduate course. True intellect is bereft of ego and is ever-willing to share. I learnt that hard work is more important than romanticized views of ‘passion’. ‘Passion’ is often an escape route, and what we achieve is determined not by an exam but by our continuous choices.

And I also learnt that teachers inspire us. In a profound way.

Thanks for reading!

Software Engineer @Vedantu, Former Intern @Hackerrank, GSoC @Wikimedia, Codeforces(Expert)

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