When I entered college for undergraduate, I was bombarded with people talking about interviews to get into clubs. It felt like a fairly big deal. After 5 years of graduating - I am reflecting again on how things have shaped me and other people I met.
I am writing this as a reflection on what kind of people clubs attract, and how they shape people, also in long term. Most of what immediate seniors will tell you as advice is going to be wrong, because the perspective on what it takes to live after college is missing.
This piece is intended to be useful for college students who are evaluating what clubs to engage in college.
In the first part of my reflection, I will share why you shouldn’t consider fest organising work seriously, and strongly consider starting your own thing (a reading club, making a product, working with hardware), and why clubs are made to feel important are really not.
Post my reflections, I share 3 more things:
I have at least learnt communication is not a skill, clarity of thought is. And if your ideas can be easy to disagree with, then it’s hard to speak about it in confidence. People who changed the world, obviously had some sort of soft skills that included bringing people together through their speech and persuasion. But many of them didn’t have the right accent, or grammar, or even poise to communicate, or “confidence” - which many of the clubs would focus on. They still ended up bending the reality of the listener.
People underestimate their abilities to pursue other people through clarity and guidance, and overestimate the effect of appearance of the speech.
I refer to this Indira Gandhi interview a lot. Under serious allegations of emergency, this would be a serious test to come up and talk like that.
This lecture by Robert Sapolsky - which teaches biology to people who haven’t read science demonstrates that he was able to construct a reality for people that they couldn’t because they didn’t have the tools to think through.
So think of 2 questions:
These are true tests of narration and storytelling - which cosmetic clubs will always fail to achieve because they’ll focus on the symptoms of clarity of thought. Which appear to be “confidence” or “looking in the eye”.
So (a) is more about believing in a reality and not being afraid to live it. And (b) is about constructing a reality for someone which they would find impossible to do without you.
There are 2 kinds of people here. One is the kind of person who only is there for signalling. It signals being part of a “smarter” group or in some other way a better group. The only issue is with the value of these signals, because they disappear after you exit the college - yet some people will still carry the feeling of being part of that group. And the world doesn’t care about the signals that they made grandiose in their heads.
In terms of skill-set, “managing people and situations” is a mis-used term to get people sold to do work that’s not very interesting but is painful.
A student founder becomes a good manager when they hire a senior executive and tell them that they are not good enough in their job despite having significantly more years of experience.
That’s one test that the construction of such clubs will fail to account for.
People also claim to develop “street smartness” - there’s some merit in people who get out of tricky new situations, but I am not sure a lot of it is about that.
Having said this, not all people would only look for signals, and also many will pretend to not care about signals. The other kind of person is someone who cares about outcomes for their colleges. They care about their friends and people around them to have a different kind of experience, and even feel happy being attributed for it. That's where they derive energy from. But this tribe of people is much lower.
My suggestion for people looking for signalling is to look for those that are “permanent” and “important”. Once you start thinking that way, you’ll realise any signals that come from “displaying” competency like awards, exam ranks, GPA, part of good clubs, or a first job have short lives and don’t scale across geography.
The good ones would be those that “used” competency for something useful to someone, where someone did something and many people appreciated it. Because in that case you’d have so many people talking good about it. For one they’d be group of people who found you useful. There would be team members who enjoyed working with you, and there would be some who’d admire you for doing the right thing.
As more other people talk good about it, it just becomes a powerful signal.
Can you imagine students intensely talking about someone because they topped their class? Unlikely. But you can imagine someone talking good if there’s someone helped their friends writing cover letters for internships. This will take way more time to pick up, and hence they last longer too. Something that build over short time is also likely to lose value quickly. Starting a company can feel one of the biggest signals because you have to keep dying for customers and making them feel important in the early days to really take off.
Sabeer Bhatia will always be well known for selling Hotmail to Yahoo for $400m. It’s more permanent and important than so many others. He has to do something much more important to be known for something else, and that can never be any award.
Side note on signalling:
Not that I am against the idea of “signalling” - I think they happen because people find it hard to evaluate people so they let someone else evaluate and assign a signal to them. For example, a gC funded student team is much more likely to succeed statistically than a non-gC one. If the world sees it again and again - it’ll become a signal to be part of gC. This happens because we select a very few teams and they partly grow after gC cohort.
I think creative activities help us exercise our biological capacities that are largely missed in a situation where there are so many advertisements nudging us to eat, watch, shop more. Expressing through an art form feels like a “latent” need everyone has but not all are able to indulge properly. Firstly, you need to learn the basics of it to get started. And learning is hard. A new language, instrument, a sport, a dance-form - are all really hard things. The easy thing is to utilise our leisure time in buying something.
Second, once you learn, it will be astounding that you will perform extremely complex activities involuntarily. A badminton player puts their hand at a specific height with a specific angle and a specific movement to make that killing shot - and this accounts for outside parameters like length of court, player positioning, receiving angle of the shuttle. If people spend time doing science studies to figure out how that happens, which comes so naturally to the artist, then something interesting is happening. Also equally (and maybe more) applies the aesthetics in moving your body in a dance, and creating an outcome that people would pay to watch, that economies are built around it.
This I think applies to many activities that generate something valuable from almost nothing. Movies, dance, music, sports & games, or engineering something physical (like making a chair from raw wood).
I have also noticed that people who do this have more self-assurance. In bad times they don’t lose their value of sense so easily, because they always value themselves to a level that can’t be taken away from them.
I guess these clubs must help in placements too because you did difficult disciplined activities. Making anything rhythmic/ aesthetic that has importances is hard. And the person who gets everyone to do it together is also hard - getting college students to practise everyday at 7pm for 6 months deserves a special award. They miss all classes but not their practice.
I think an exception to these is debating societies. Because I don’t think it’s an aesthetic expression, and some who do debating also end up organising fests.
Another major issue with debates is that there’s not enough skin in the game with the position being taken. And if there’s no skin in the game, then people would spend less time worrying about the details of the debate since it doesn’t affect them. So this makes so many arguments sound awfully pretentious.
People also mistake debating as an activity not to discover, but to defeat. And that can teach the wrong thing - because defeating through logic to convince people to work on something doesn’t help. Because convincing people to work with you requires you to do the opposite of what you do in debating competitions: accept someone else’s viewpoint and think with them to arrive at an answer that makes the other person win. Maybe debating also activates your amygdala more, the part in the brain which triggers social anxiety, to trigger a losing effect when a difference in position is found.
There’s a counter view too, which I developed after meeting Rahul Seth, who attributes some of his important abilities to debating in college. Some batchmates of mine said Rahul Seth has been historically the best debater in BITS. He has a quality to investigate arguments by people which helps in knowing why something may not work.
I think debating also can teach you to get to the essence of “things”. People say things are complex even when they are not. They have a single important essence that people miss.
One of the debates I admired is of Chomsky and Foucault - the one that captures one important essence of conservatives & liberals.
I think the general pulse here is the frustration caused due to the gap between the promise of science / engineering that we were sold v/s what we are taught in college . It does shatter when we enter college because so many students end up going after “non-tech careers”, which btw is a weird way to categorise work.
I spent my undergrad life with mostly work in biology & physics, including working with fruit flies where I was giving them fruit bait to attract them to lay eggs on a tray, and then picking their 0.5 mm eggs to watch it under the microscope. Many people also don’t understand how exploring engineering and science are different on an input level.
When I was in UG I over-estimated the value of science. I thought, “if I can understand an electron, surely I can understand anything” - and to me the world is 99.999999999% nature minus humans - so surely that has to be more important than anything “social or managerial”. I was completely disconnected from science from 2019-2021 because I was pursuing an MBA because of chaotic (and yet predictable) reasons.
I felt wrong after admitted to an MBA program mostly because there’s no mention of natural world per se apart from a course on integrating technology with business. So business felt like business to extract value once something valuable is created. And there’s always be going to be much much higher competition because people want to take more than they give, and an extractive mindset is where most business analysis happen. But science if a pre-condition to this because to extract meaningfully means to create meaningfully. Before an iPhone advertisement there was transistors, metals, computers, lenses, and capacitors. And an engineering effort to make it useful to people before a marketeer is useful.
99.9999% of the world is still bloody nature, and it’s bloody because it’s hard to control and wants to kill you. If I leave you in jungle alone you won’t be able to survive for more than a week, and hence the greatest politics & war is with nature, and not with fellow human beings. If we all can understand, control, and manipulate nature to our advantage then we can also attain wealth, safety, security and greater quality of life.
Having this backdrop, technical exploration is the only challenging exploration in the world. Finding a business model and learning to manage people is far easier.
Since most people spend time in taking what’s created, and hence despite me being in a VC job I wish to also fund the most ambitious scientific projects.
I think it does represent a bit of independent thinking, but it also represents the person's (in)-ability to take boredom as a pain. Some people have low tolerance that they thrive in breaking the order to just not get bored. I think many students end up starting a film making club as a result of this. Especially in my era when YT was picking up and TVF was one of the only popular YT film channels for Indian students. Like this Rowdies video broke the internet when it came. It inspired so many to just make films.
At the end of my first year at IIM-A, I was trying to start a VC club to invest in our batchmates/ juniors. Mid-way through with proposals, pivoted to just doing it as a company to fund all students, and not just at own college. I think that also came from a bit of boredom.
What is clear though is, if something is joyous, tests your independent thinking, gets you along with friends: you should probably do it. These 3 things are rare to intersect.
And club is not the only thing you can do. But doing anything that people disapprove of is a sign of independent thinking and finding courage to go against the norms. Just being original doesn’t cut it, because it may not lead to anything material. And converting to material requires courage.
Many people who think on their own, but are unable to create a path around it, feel a bit of cognitive dissonance - which feels like not feeling yourself. One way to reduce the dissonance is to ignore their version of truth, and internalise other people’s version of truth. And the other way is do something new that’s outside of norms - and that’s going to offend the appeal of the general people. And that hurts too. Being unaccepted in a group. But not following your ideas will also hurt in much deeper ways, which is more long-term. There’s pain either way and the long-term one will compound to the point that you’ll completely lose yourself.
Deviating social norms looks like throwing a blob of paint on a beautiful painting to ruin its aesthetics. So people who deviate the path, also ruin the aesthetics created through the order of a system - fundamentally because it questions the world view others hold tightly, and without deliberation. That’s hard to deal with so they’ll resist you. Many times people confuse this with jealousy, where it's just finding it hard to frequently construct & deconstruct a world view.
As part of student investing, we subtly tinker on how the student spent time apart from the standard curriculum, one of the things that stands out to us - if someone tested their independent ideas which could have been possibly ridiculed. If that happens, we atleast know that this person can go through the pain of being ambitious when people don’t believe in them.
I met Shashank, co-founder of Razorpay to learn about his college life. He’d started SDS labs where they collated JEE ranks on a portal for everyone in India to see. Managed a group of 20 people, and SDS labs is still an aspiration group in his college.
I also spoke with Samay, who started Greyorange robotics, and they’d started a robotics club that ran for more than 10 years winning global competitions.
When we met Aadit from Zepto, he had built a carpooling app for students in high school.
Pixxel founders were part of the recently famous BITS Hyperloop team that went to LA for their exhibition.
Kshitij (co-founder of Pixxel)
“Have always had a low opinion of them, but if I have to look back I am most fond of the time I spent with NSS, not the colleagues but the students.
I have deep respect for technical clubs that are actually technical. It is difficult to consider Hyperloop India as a club, but it completely changed my thought process and gave me a very cool peer group.”
Sameer (Investor at Tiger Global)
“Robotics and quizzing club were the most fun.
At least for me, college club really about finding people with similar interests, specially if those interests are niche (would put these as completely separate from “career” clubs)”
Pranav (ex-associate at gradCapital, MBA 2+2 admit to Yale post UG/ gC)
“I was the head of the finance club, that was what gave me the most joy. Being able to create a vision for the club and seeing it come to life during the tenure and finding people who align with that vision was very fulfilling.”
Rajas (Economics masters in Duke and works with a bank)
“It’s like finding your tribe around a shared interest. It’s a way of meeting people who you can have common interests as you and then hanging out and developing those interests further.
I really liked the literature club, made good friends there and they introduced me to new movies and books. I mostly identified with the quiz club, though was never officially part of it.
I’d say “club” itself gave me little joy. It helped me find friends with some common interests. Most of the joy I got was hanging out with these friends and exploring these interests, rather than the club activities.
A fest organising club helped make me friends along the way”
Raghav (co-founder from gC ‘23 cohort)
“College clubs are important for meeting people who I'd never meet otherwise
I liked the Finance Club the most. I met super cool people there. The one I found the most joy was Shaastra Evolve - the team feels was the maximum in the entire campus.”
Akshay (co-founder at Stimuler, gC ‘22 cohort)
“Clubs for me is a place for people sharing love for a common activity to gather together, interact & share stories all while pursuing their interest in the activity.
Most joy would definitely be a lit club for me, mostly because of people there who created a comfort-space esque for me where you can have fun everytime you go there while pursuing literature . I went there almost everyday in my 1st year
In terms of the club that probably helped me the most - Business club. Why? Because the smartest folks of the college were there. So, most of the interactions actually led to learning something new. And that worked as a motivation to just go there
Fun fact - me, my co-founder interacted first time at Lit”
Rahul Seth (Army, Investor with Antler)
“Debating helped me the most, helped me develop a way of thinking. But debating most likely. Backstage was a social class biz. I did only one play with edc. MUN never joined the society. Quit Baja after one sem. Mess sec was quite fun tbh.”
I went to colleges that were pretty old (established at least 50 years back). Which meant it had running clubs, perceptions that went across through years and decades. For so many new universities, and smaller ones, most of it may not apply. Especially when a club & culture is building, it will take its own life that may not look like here.
Which also means other colleges that are old may have a different inherited culture - but I have noticed a lot of clubs share similar patterns, so there’s strong resemblance still with some exceptions.
I also understand that in India, colleges stratify students directly through “merit” but we all know it can be indirect stratification through other social / economic markers. For instance, someone who can’t afford JEE coaching may get less likelihood of clearing it.
A new recent phenomena is also increasing fees which is selecting people who are wealthier, and the is changing the average social interaction in college.
There’s also stratification in college based on languages people speak. The ones who speak English in a more western way stratify themselves from others through deliberate intention, and local languages follow the lead.
Lastly, I don’t believe in categories, because people are different as per their will-power and the decisions they take differently - but I believe in culture and the force it can have. If you’d want to be a certain way, the best way is to be in the culture that supports that way and the worst way is that it doesn't. Hence, my remark is on the forces that clubs represent and not individual inherent traits.