Stop sleepwalking through life

When I watched ‘Across the Universe’, the musical based on songs by the Beatles, one quote etched itself in my head: ‘It’s not what you do that defines who you are, rather, it’s who you are that defines what you do.”

I was recently assigned a reading assignment for a mechanical engineering graduate level class called ‘Vibrations’. The assignment was to read a book called ‘Stop Sleepwalking through Life’ by a professor at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Madras, Devdas Menon. Just to put things into perspective, I am a student at IIT Bombay currently doing an exchange semester at Rice University in Houston, so this assignment really took me by surprise, since this book spoke not a word about mechanical engineering. In fact, it was largely philosophical, questioning the very way in which life is lived, and whether engineering (or for that matter, any career) is what a student actually wants out of his life, or what is truly to be gained out of pursuing it. The more I read the book, the more it dawned upon me that this was exactly my train of thought. I couldn’t stop until it was over, because I was so glad to have found solid proof that I wasn’t thinking foolishly.

In the first few pages, the point is directly struck home by the author. Here are two paragraphs from page 3 and 4, which I believe summarize the essence of the book:

‘What happens when the big dreams get fulfilled? What happens when you become rich and famous? Will you attain an enduring state of fulfillment? Will you then be able to live happily ever after? Or, will there be something vital missing, something that you need to address now, when you are young and full of life? Is there not a deep truth in the saying of Jesus: “For what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

When I post these basic questions to the students, they feel uncomfortable – but usually not sufficiently to seriously question their direction in life. The majority are too heavily programmed; one cannot really blame them for their strong sense of insecurity, discomfort, and inability to address these questions. There appears to be too much at stake in the rat race of life, and it takes considerable courage, even just to pause and reflect, especially when one has travelled far and got ahead in the race. It becomes even more difficult, if not impossible, as one grows older. The dreams of our brightest and best students are ones that have been consciously and unconsciously ingrained in them by social conditioning, by their parents and teachers. Their dreams are but a direct reflection of the prevailing materialistic world view.’

If you have ever let your thoughts stray in this direction, I can guarantee that this book will be one of the best reads you have had, solely because it won’t take much for your thoughts to align with the author’s, and perhaps they would already be aligned.

The situation that is described in the above extract applies mainly to engineering students in India (particularly the premier institutes, the IITs). I’m not sure how much this applies to students across the world. Perhaps it wouldn’t as much as it does in India, but certainly to a significant extent it would I feel.