The Unexpected Virtue of Being Stubborn


-Spandan Madan

Yes, the title has been picked from the movie Birdman, and If you haven’t seen that movie yet, I think you’d be spending your time much better watching that movie than reading this article. But those of you who have seen it, you’d probably relate well to what it means to be a compulsive dreamer and to have borderline impractical ambitions. No, this will not be another banal article motivating you to reach out and pursue your dreams.

I believe Facebook alone is enough for that. Instead, I will be talking to you about how to do so. So in principle, I’m saying I’ll be talking to you about “How to dream big”. Ambitious aim? I guess I just practice what I preach.

I’m Spandan Madan, and I joined the Department of Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology for a dual degree in 2010. Over the past six years, I’ve spent time in varied settings – multiple research labs at IIT, JNU, University of Southern California, University of Pennsylvania, a tech startup, an NGO, a medical diagnostic lab, and more. I’ve been working at the interface of biology and computer science for about 2.5 years now, and have been a part of a number of research and applied projects in this time. Music is a big part of my life, and I can play a bit of the guitar. I’m a bigtime foodie, and you’ll probably run in to me at Café Qahwa at SDA at almost any time of the day. I’m now applying for graduate school in the field of computational biology.

What do Stay hungry stay foolish, Steve jobs’ Stanford commencement speech and the lyrics of “The eye of the tiger” have in common? They make you want to be passionate, want to work towards a goal, even pull another all-nighter if you’re like me. Problem is, more often than not we don’t really know what our goals are. Enter fear of failure. I can guarantee that most people reading this article constantly battle the fear of not relating with the “geniuses”, thinking that great things came to that one senior because he was always a “stud”. Or because some people just magically know what they want from life. That fear of failure creeps in on all of us. And it is this fear that will keep you from dreaming big.

In late 2013, I was applying to summer research programs for 2014, and historically, most people from my department apply for the prestigious Khorana Scholarship Program. I decided not to. I had been to the University of Southern California in the summer of 2012, and I knew that research in 2 months can not really be fruitful. Some things just take time. So I talked to my parents and told them I wanted to miss a semester, not sit for placements, and extend my degree. Thankfully they were very supportive. I was able to secure a position as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania for an extended period of a summer and a semester. IIT was very helpful, though the visa office, not so much. With the paperwork sorted and spirits high, I was there in Pennsylvania, ready to begin working on computational biology. Problem? I had never really coded before, so much for computational. But, I did learn it all on the job, and went on to continue that project as my MTP at IIT, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. Such is the nature of exploration. Do not fear to go beyond what you already know, the more you explore, the more you’ll realize that it is perfectly OK to not know things before hand. As Kobi Yamada puts it – “Sometimes you just have to take the leap, and build your wings on the way down”.

Find what interests you. Search high and low for it. Find 20 interests and explore them all and find that one single thing that you love you the most. If I had never explored enough, I would have never known that I derive maximum pleasure out of applying mathematics to solving problems in biology, listening to Pink Floyd, sipping on a cup of coffee. And there’s no way I was going to find that out had I fallen in line with my batch mates. To dream big, you must dream foolish, and be ready to fail. So don’t fear you’ll fail, because you will anyway. Don’t get fixated on something shiny because everyone else seems to want it (read placements), but most of all, in IIT’s colloquial lingo – don’t think that the “machau” things come only to the “studs”. It’s okay to not be good enough. Know it, and make sure you don’t remain like that. Spend a couple of months, and you’ll see you’ve started to pick up the jargon. Spend a year and you’ll see you’ve started to understand that jargon. Another year and you’ll be making jargon for other, envious people. Be stubborn if you love doing something. That is the only way to dream big, i.e. the only way to dream.

While at Penn, the youngest member in my lab was 35, and there were no undergrads in the whole of my workplace. I made friends outside college, but it was tough to keep focused and lead an ascetic life with all the excitement back home building up with the placement semester beginning. This is also when you start doubting your decision of not sitting for placements. You can never connect the dots looking forward. Now that I look back, there couldn’t have been a better decision. It led me to finding my goals in life, and most importantly, understanding the dynamic nature of this construct, the importance of constantly exploring. I now feel much more confident that I can solve any problem, it is only a matter of time and effort as long as it interests me. When you work for your passion, suddenly one day, nothing else matters – not what the person sitting next to you in class thinks of you, not your professors and not even your best friend. My best friend is a consultant at BCG, and we both couldn’t respect each other’s career paths any lesser.

So explore around be and be positively stubborn about following your interests. Start a startup, work with an NGO, go for research, drop a semester, study policy, prepare for civil services, do whatever you want. Just do it. Because if you ever hear the thought “if only I had followed my heart” ricocheting in your head, it is going to hurt a lot. And that, is the only thing worth fearing, in my humble opinion.

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