I still remember the blue coloured poster on the wall of my ninth grade teacher’s office.  The innocuous query, “Are you smart?” continues to taunt me. I had been a class topper most of my life and a lot of people saw me as a bright, diligent young boy. But smart ? Probably not.

It was during the final years of my engineering studies that it dawned on me – rote learning and great scores will only take me so far. Let me admit this: I was more immersed in the theoretical world and never indulged in anything practical. Never helped my dad to fit the fan upon the ceiling; didn’t play much sports – though I have spent many hours watching cricket and tennis. I didn’t have a hobby as such and kept myself to academics most of the time. I didn’t grow up to be an introvert but turned out to be socially awkward. I still had a bunch of mates but couldn’t confidently claim many of them as friends.

A classmate and I were chosen to make a trip to Bangalore to invite software companies to our college for recruitment. His uncle’s family was gracious to host me for a couple of days. I still remember cutting a sorry figure as I made a mess of their sofa by spilling coffee on it. We hired an auto rickshaw for the day and for the first time I saw the (fare) meter at work. One of the first duties of a passenger was to turn the flag (handle) upside down – the bell inside gives a ting, signalling the commencement of the ride.

My friend asked me if I would do the honours. I blinked. I still wanted to give it a try but was fumbling along – rotating it more than once. By then the driver turned around to give me a stern look. As he firmed up the fare handle in its place, my friend wondered out loud “Man, I can’t believe you don’t have any common sense”.

I survived the lab classes and practical tests – mainly on my reputation as a rank student. Almost. An internship stint at the R&D lab of a yarn company exposed me. The project chief was explaining the design of the yarn quality monitoring system to everyone. It involved writing software – which appealed to me more than the yarn sensors and motors connected. At one point, he signalled to me “can you please bring in that motor?” pointing me to the far end of the room. As I was turning around lifting the feather light equipment, I heard a huge roar of laughter from everyone. Except from the chief who was red by then – his hopes of ever finishing the project perhaps evaporated as he realized he is dealing with a useless guy who missed the real electric motor for a plastic replica. (I redeemed myself by writing a clever piece of C program that simulated results visually better than the actual yarn quality.)

I eventually got a job offer while still finishing the final year. Felt ecstatic, and also had a few sleepless nights. I now had to deal with the real world where my rank and marks would cease to buoy me up.

My real learning occurred in the first job. (It warrants a dedicated blog series). Meeting people, being in a corporate environment – and moving to a new city were fun. The actual work though was dreadful. I guess the HR guys went by merit, as I found myself assigned to the team working on a contemporary technology (it was 1999 and I’m talking about web technologies). But I struggled to cope up with the basics that everyone else seemed to absorb super quick. The training session on socket programming for instance was a real drag. Turns out they were not referring to the (physical) socket that I had in my mind. Later, when a fellow team member logged off from his yahoo email account and closed the Internet Explorer window to give me my turn in that shared PC, I yelled back at him, “Man, you didn’t have to close the internet. Now, I do I get inside the internet?”. He couldn’t mask the irritation in his voice as he tried to verify if I was indeed part of the team developing internet applications.

Feeling stupid, I resorted to the only thing I knew. Books. And, some websites too. Also, Google was coming along nicely at the time. Howstuffworks.com was a revelation. I no longer had to ask weird questions in front of others. Scores of self help books filled my shelves too, as I tried to become more social and confident.

I feel I have come a long way compared to those early years. It is ironical though, that my path towards attaining some level of practical knowledge of the world, is paved by a lot of reading. The book “Zen and the art of Motor cycle maintenance” is a case in point. A misleading title – this classic is an essence of modern day philosophy.

And philosophy doesn’t help fix even simple things at home – like changing batteries in the heating appliance or replacing the punctured tyre. But hey, youtube is a saviour.

Recently, I had the challenge of having to fit curtains for the windows of our new home. The quote from the blinds designer was exorbitant and I ended up doing it myself – measuring, buying tools, hanging the rods in the correct angles etc. While the do-it-yourself kits of Ikea did help, the real motivation was my wife teasing me, “You studied engineering, right ?”