BY Sri Dhananjay Singh Yadav, Officer Trainee at Indian Foreign Service (2019-present)
Let me give my unpopular opinion: motivation is overrated.
Before you bring out the brickbats, consider this. Motivation is a fleeting feeling. It might come rushing in when you’re passing by Connaught Place in the morning and see that tricolour fluttering in the wind. It would be gone without any trace when you score 65 in that prelims mock the same evening. My point is: it’s hard to get up every day and feel motivated, in the literal sense of the word (no subah babool ki toh din tumhara is going to happen every day). My two cents: do not depend on motivation. To clear civil services exam, it would take a bare minimum 18-24 months, from the day you go all-in to the day you see your name in the pdf. That is if you do most things right, and the universe does everything right by you. If you get stuck in the chakravyuh that is the CSE, who knows if and when you ever come out it. I started off pretty “motivated” but found it incredibly hard to get up day after day and tell myself why I chose to do this. Eventually, I had to mould myself to see every day as a series of the task I need to complete rather than wonder why I should get out of bed.
What drives you
First thing that needs to be addressed is the nagging question: why am I doing this? You need to find your reasons. There are no right or wrong reasons, just reasons (jk tbh there are a few wrong ones). Be honest, lying to yourself doesn’t work.
- Are you doing this to serve the society?
- Are you doing this for the prestige it brings?
- Do you enjoy being in a position of power?
- Do you see yourself changing the world one day?
- Do you want to be validated in front of parents/friends/relatives?
- Do you think this job would satisfy you the most?
Before finalising your answer(s), know this: any of the above objectives can be achieved without ever investing years of your life in this exam (take the example of Afroz Shah). The time you will spend preparing and in the process of various stages of the exam are an investment, the opportunity cost of which is often realised when it’s too late.
Second is the uncertainty part of this process. You need to address the uncertainty before you decide to commit to this. You need to have plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D, plan E; you need to have exit plans in case you fail. Know this and let me be real here: just because you have decided to appear this exam (and may have left a great potential career elsewhere) doesn’t make you entitled to clear this exam. Most people come to take the exam thinking it is their destiny to be a civil servant because they have cherished this dream for x number of years. It is not your manifest destiny irrespective of how smart/hardworking you have been till now. Have a reasonable backup plan. If you let the uncertainty of the process weigh on you throughout your preparation, it is not going to end well.
You will also need to internalise the unpredictability of this exam. I couldn’t study at all the day CSE 2018 notification came out with lowest vacancies in a decade. Then sometime later it was reported how vacancies in Foreign Service have been reduced to 30. Murphy’s law (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong) will seem to apply every now and then, remember that everyone is in the same boat 🙂
Thirdly, and most interesting aspect of it all is luck. I am not going to say this from my greener-grass-side that luck has no role to play. I have been incredibly lucky with this exam. But out of all the people who blame the luck factor, only a chosen few truly deserve to. Prelims screens out 98% of people and all of them shouldn’t get to blame luck. Prelims are unpredictable for everyone who writes this exam, including those who eventually clear. Luck cannot be held responsible if you don’t follow a proper plan to improve your answer writing for mains. Interview boards can be tricky but only you know what and how you spoke inside that room. In the process of this exam, we only hear one side of the story: that of the candidate 🙂 So how do we deal with it? Practise. Do everything that you have to do on exam days many times beforehand. Hard work will make you luckier than others. It might seem with few candidates every year that they cleared because they “got lucky” (e.g., 4 months of prep before prelims). This cannot be farther from the truth. They simply have a better attitude towards the demands of the exam than others. Remember, this exam cannot be cleared by hoping for a miracle. You will need to study and sacrifice a lot in order for that elusive luck to be in your favour.
Discipline > Motivation
Once you have figured out what drives you, addressed the uncertainty, and accepted that luck might work against you, it’s time to inculcate the much needed discipline, rather than motivation:
- Embrace monotony: the most underrated aspect of preparation is embracing the monotony of your daily life. Preparing for the exam requires consistency in your efforts; day after day and week after week. Try to have a schedule for a week/fortnight ahead of you so that you do not derail your own preparation.
- Ensure dedication: A week of half-hearted studying is alright, a month of going off schedule is a roaring red flag. Kabhi kabhi cheating chalti hai, par uski aadat nahi padni chahiye. You can fool your friends and your parents for months, but you know in your heart how sincere you have been. That’s what will determine whether you will be successful at the end of it all or not.
- Remember your goal: Your life will become boring and uneventful while wonderful things will happen to your friends and acquaintances. Keep your chin up and remember your goal: clearing this exam. Everything else in life will have to wait. Shut out everyone and everything that can be an impediment. You can apologise easily after you get that rank 🙂
Dealing with self-doubt
However, despite all the heady phrases such as those written above and telling yourself every morning that you are a superstar, the feeling of self-doubt has a way of creeping in. It will come anytime – between your most euphoric and most vulnerable moments – and ask you what happens if you don’t make it. You will have no answer to offer. It is for times like these I ended up devising two fail-safe ways to get me out of any abyss I would myself in:
- For the vulnerable moments, I had the song Kun Faya Kun to listen to. The line that I would wait for every time I would listen was:
Mann ke mere ye bharam, kachche mere ye karam,
Leke chale hai kahaan, main toh jaanun hi na
Tu hai mujhmein samaya, kahaan leke mujhe aaya,
Main hun tujhmein samaya, tere peeche chala aaya
- For the dramatic moments (prelims/mains exam hall, right outside interview room), I had this couplet from Hilaire Belloc’s The Modern Traveller:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
It should be comforting to know that all of the candidates go through this cycle of highs and lows. What is important is to have a process in place to deal with the self-doubt. You should also keep some time in your study schedule every once a month to tackle head-on the demons inside your head.
Civil service exam doesn’t test only your knowledge, it also tests you.
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