Academics and the Principle of Marginality

When we sit back to analyze our academic results we often list out a variety of reasons for our performance. These typically include: motivation or the lack of it, focus or the lack of it, the teaching standards and the difficulty of a subject.

But I believe it all comes down to arguably the most important theorem in economics: The Principle of Marginality. It states a particular activity should be chosen such that it yields the highest utility(profit) upon each additional unit of effort(cost) as compared to other activities.  This fundamental principle lies at the heart of many government policies and multi million dollar deals.

To illustrate this principle, consider the following example taken from the book Why Markets Fail? by John Cassidy. A Robinson Crusoe figure is stranded on an island and wonders how he should devote his time and energy to maximize his well being.  Should he spend more time on hunting or fishing, on building a shelter or making clothes? The answer is that he should spend his time in such a way that the additional benefit yielded by another hour devoted to any one of them is the same. If it is easier to catch a fish than hunt for a deer, he should head for the shore. If the roof is leaking in rain, he should repair the roof.

But how is all this related to academics you might think.

We all know that the academic grades are directly linked with the time you spend studying. However the study time needed to obtain a particular mark need not be the same of all since some may be able to study faster than others. But fast learners are no different than slow learners as far as the end results are concerned.  So for a particular student, the more number of hours spent studying results in higher grades and the point at which he stops studying decides his grades.

So when does he stop studying? He stops studying when he finds another activity which would give him a higher utility( read pleasure or satisfaction) for an additional unit of time spent on it. Toppers find no such activity and for them, academics would always yield the highest return and thats the reason for their  straight A’s. While some might be content with a few B’s  and instead of trying to convert them into A’s they would spend the extra time to relax as it would give them a higher utility.

The point is that whatever grades you obtain; the condition of marginality is satisfied as always.

Why this kolaveri?

We all have faced kolaveri moments in our lives due to certain people. Moments when we feel a rage building inside ourselves. Moments which leave us scrambling to hide our faces. Moments when we feel there is no use trying to explain things to them. Moments when we just pity them.

Well, this blog aims to share some of  my kolaveri moments. Though these kolaveri moments were experienced with different people, for simplicity’s sake, I am describing these moments keeping in mind a fictional Auntyji, her husband Uncleji and their three children: Bade Bhaiyya, Chinku and Little Tina. While most of these kolaveri moments are true, some are cooked up for the sake of continuity of these conversations.

Me: Auntyji, please take these sweets. I am happy to inform that I have got admission into NIT Trichy where I will be pursuing engineering.

Auntyji: Thats nice Beta. But why are you going to Tiroochi?  I hear only about students coming to Chennai to study engineering from all over India.

Me: *head slam* But Auntyji, NIT is among the top institutes……(stops me)

Auntyji: Its ok beta, you should study what you want. Besides, whatever happens is for one’s good. So, dont get disheartened if u didnt get admission here. Oh, did I tell you about Chinku? He is in his final year at the prestigious Champulal college. Nearby only. Comes home daily. Studies well, only 3 arrears but now all clear.

Me: *bang**bang**bang* Oh, thats nice aunty.

Auntyji: Yes, we are very lucky. He can come home daily and enjoy. I feel sorry for you dear, you have to go to Tiroochi. Very hot climate. And hostel life would be tough, adjusting with local tamilians and all. But anyway you will come out tougher.

Me: (Oh for goddamn sake,atleast pronounce it correctly. Its Trichy not Tiroochi) Thank you aunty.

Little Tina comes running in.

LT: V bhaiya, you are going to live separately and study? How come? Bade Bhaiya and Chinku all studied in home only at Champulal college. Why dont you join there V Bhaiya?

Auntyji interrupts

Auntyji(whispering): Ssshh Tina, don’t be so rude. Now wish him all the best.

LT: Sorry V Bhaiya. All the best. Hey, what will you be studying in Tiroochi Bhaiya? Hey firstly where is Tiroochi Bhaiya?
Brings out a globe and asks me to locate it.

Me: *blank* Engineering. TRICHY is close from here.

LT: Yaaaay, engineering.Is it computers? My brothers who always do geeky stuff with computers. Will u teach me computer after engineering bhaiya?

Me: No no Tina. I will be studying Instrumentation engineering.

LT: Oh wow. It about making musical instruments isnt it? I love music bhaiya. I am also going to become instrument engineer like you. And I am not very intelligent like my brothers to work on computers.

Auntyji: See Tina, now you can ask bhaiya to make violin for your music class. You wanted new violin no?

Me: (Why did I even come here?)

Part 2:

Auntyji: Hello, V beta. So thin and dark you have become. You must be suffering there. Here have some peda. Whats that beta?

Me: Its my android phone aunty.

Auntyji: Nice…but I don’t understand beta, this android and iphone and all. What is the difference between them and Nokia- DoubleX DoubleY. Both are used to call and send message and even my phone has camera also and snake game too.

Me: *bang* These phones are different in sense that they have different operating systems blah, apps blah, customizability blah…

Auntyji: I don’t understand these engineering terms beta….Anyway leave it.

A few days later when I am trying to unravel a tight shoe lace knot when uncleji stops by and removes the knot in a jiffy.

Uncleji: What is this V? U are engineering student and u don’t know how to tie shoe laces.

Next time, when I fumble in trying to screw a loose nut of my table fan, uncleji stops by and does it in a jiffy.

Uncleji: You and all an engineering student.

Me: (Yeah right, I study Digital Signal Processing and Control systems. How in the world is studying engineering related to these situations)* smiles like a dork* Thank u uncleji.

The End

P.S- Kindly pardon the pathetic use of the English Language in some places. It has been done to represent the situation realistically.

When luck becomes a problem

The dictionary defines luck as good fortune or adversity brought by chance and not through one’s own actions.   Luck can be experienced in two different situations.

Situations where we do not have control over the outcome such as winning a lottery or losing a game of dice or suffering an accident etc and situations where we can control the outcome.

It is in the latter situations that luck can have an adverse impact on our minds.

Consider two students A and B who prepare for an exam. A studies exactly half of the portions while B studies the other half. In the exam it is found that the questions largely pertain to the domain which A prepared for. So, A scores much higher marks than B though both studied exactly the same amount.  Naturally, both would believe that luck was the reason for their outcomes considering both of them knew each other’s preparation levels.

The unlucky B would ask himself why he wasn’t as lucky as A and that he might continue his same practices hoping that luck would favor him the next time, like it did for A. Chances are that he would again likely be unable to meet his aim of a high score.

Meanwhile, A would no doubt feel elated at his performance in the exam. However, he fails to realize that it defeats the larger purpose of mastering the subject. Furthermore, he might continue the same practices for the next exam and could suffer the same fate as B did.

Let’s take another example of a batsman who plays reckless shots but ends up scoring a century due to sheer luck. Dropped catches, balls narrowly missing the stumps and missed run out chances all would have played a part in his century. The next batsman gets inspired by watching him and plays his first rash stroke the first ball he faces and gets out due to a fluke catch. Here also luck had  affected the outcomes.

The first batsman might continue to play the same way in the next match and would get out soon while the latter would also continue to play the same way hoping that luck would favor him the next time with no guarantee of success.

These examples illustrate the dependence on luck in situations where we have control over the outcome.

Instead of attributing one’s success or failure due to luck isn’t it better to avoid the dependence on luck and instead concentrate on preparing for all possible difficulties which may arise in the situations thereby guaranteeing success always ?  For you never know when luck can help you.

Does ‘failure’ really exist?

What exactly is ‘failure’? Most dictionaries define failure as the lack of success. We define success. It is a goal which we wish to achieve. It could be getting a centum in the math exam or following a strict diet. So, when we do not achieve these self-defined goals, we say that we have failed in our task.

Let us take the examples of two students ‘A’ and ‘B’. Both are appearing for the same exam with different aims and different levels of preparation.

Lets say that ‘B’ is aiming to pass. He  has studied 40 percent of the syllabus and has practiced all possible types of questions related to that portion to make sure that he doesn’t face a new problem related to that 40 percent of the syllabus in the exam. In the end he scores 40, the number required to pass. ‘A’ believes that he has studied everything and is aiming for a perfect score. ‘A’ has practiced like ‘B’ covering almost the entire syllabus but he is not as comfortable with one chapter which leads to the loss of 3 marks. So although ‘A’ might take solace from being the topper, he has failed in his goal which was to score 100, while B has succeeded in achieving his goal of passing.

Clearly, ‘B’ has made sure that he would not fail while ‘A’ had jeopardized his chances of getting a perfect score by not preparing as hard on one chapter as he did for the others.

Before setting out to achieve our goals we often believe that we have met the prerequisite conditions to achieve it but may later end up failing. This is because those prerequisite conditions are set by us. Have we really included the solutions to all possible difficulties in it like the student ‘B’? If we haven’t done so we mostly end up ‘ failing’.( I say ‘mostly’ because you never know when lady luck can hit you )

So if we have met all those prerequisite conditions where is the question of failure?  If we make every single adjustment and be prepared for all the difficulties which may arise during our quest to achieve that goal, we will never fail. But if we have not met those prerequisite conditions, then is it fair to expect to succeed? Shouldn’t the student ‘A’ be expecting to score 97 instead of 100?

What I’m trying to say is that ‘Failure’ is a type of perception. It arises when there is a mismatch  between our definition of success and our level of preparation. For when we have not prepared ourselves entirely, we may not succeed as we haven’t achieved the goal set by us, but we do achieve something which is proportional to our level of preparation. If the student ‘A’ had aims of scoring 97, he would have succeeded as his definition of success and his level of preparation would have matched.

So when a person believes that he has ‘failed’, it actually means that he has succeeded with some other definition of success and not the one he wished for.

(P.S- This is a very complex philosophical post where I have tried my best to express my belief. You may not understand this post or disagree with me. In any case, please do leave a comment. )

Is ‘Talent’ overrated?

Many tend to agree that a ‘talented’ person is one who generates extraordinary results on his initial attempts at something: whether it is the budding cricketer who plays beautiful strokes which would make Sachin Tendulkar proud, or the young singer whom everyone believes is the next Micheal Jackson.

But is ‘talent’ really required to succeed?

We often complain of many ‘talented’ people who have not really lived up to their ‘talents’. I am one such person according to my parents, as they believe that my grades are not worthy of my ‘talent’. On the other hand, there are people like Rahul Dravid whom we didn’t consider to be ‘talented’ but have gone on to achieve great things solely due to their perseverance and hard work.

Whether the ‘talented’ people consistently display their ‘talents’ is far more important than just their ability to perform brilliant things.

So it all comes down to practice since consistent performance requires perseverance and not ‘talent’. Being ‘talented’ may help to achieve success in a slightly shorter time. But not being ‘talented’ will never be an obstacle in achieving success.

As the saying goes, “Practice makes a man perfect!”