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Dealing with peer pressure

“I want to join XYZ classes, BECAUSE my friends also go there”

Man is a social animal. Therefore, he is always trying to belong. Countries, states, villages, homes – any social unit- looks to highlight some common aspects that can give us the comfort of familiarity, and a sense of belonging.

In the youthful days, such associations are derived from housing complexes, clubs, schools and colleges. In fact, to a large extent, our career choices also stem out of our peers’ choices and information base. This is great in a world where the future is well-defined, roles are stable and there is relatively less life-altering disruption in the course of one’s working lifetime.

Looking around, it is hard to imagine that too many of these conditions would be met in the workplace of future. The productive life of an average human being has increased, but the average life of a job has shortened considerably. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and other developments have made change the only constant. Therefore, it is also important to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to planning for your career and customizing it to suit your own strengths and interests.

In this context, using peer influence to mold your educational and career choices is not a great idea. You shall end up mimicking everyone else and without sufficient differentiation, would not be able to amplify unique aspects of your personality and life. In fact, in the modern urban context, with single-child families and over-ambitious parents, peer influence takes the shape of peer pressure and tends to drive choices which are sub-optimal and inefficient. Choosing a class where everyone else is going or doing something which is ‘in vogue’ is a very shallow way of building your repertoire of skills. Worse, this may not be aligned with your personality and life-preferences and may eventually cause more misery than joy.

We suggest an alternative framework to make this decision - the Blue Ocean strategy is a management theory that one can easily apply to life to make some decisions like this. This strategy does not speak about out-performing the competition, but rather focuses on making it irrelevant by changing the metrics of evaluation. So no longer is it about the highest marks in class or the best standardized scores, but about bringing one’s entire life experience to the course. It is about highlighting things that make the applicant unique and the value (s)he brings to the institute. You take a contrarian approach and build your narrative inside-out –in a way which is unique to you and therefore upends the competition.

Let us take an example to understand this further. A student that we worked with had average grades and profile so as to speak – nothing to write home about by way of extra-curriculars, sports or social activities. During our knowledge-mining process, we could figure out that he had interesting hobbies. He had deep knowledge about perfumes and had studied the process of capturing ‘smells’ in detail. He specifically talked about capturing the ‘first smell of the rain’ from the perspective of making perfumes. Plus he was interested in ‘kitchen smells’ and had built a repertoire of nuanced knowledge-bits around natural, organic kitchen smells. Driven by his love for ‘smells’ we developed a narrative which was focused on smells and how he could potentially leverage that professionally. He was in the competition of one – no other person was competing with him in that particular space. He had no peers to influence the path that he would take (or not). Eventually, driven by his unique story, he got into top-notch luxury management programs in the world including SDA Bocconi, ESSEC and Columbia!

Peter Thiel has talked about the competition of one in his famous book Zero to One. You should obviate competition by building your own unique story. One way to go about it is through “value innovation” – instead of making compromises (either play or study) or mimicking others, find ways to bring your interests and your career choices together in a way which is uniquely yours.

Adapting this strategy to our career and education planning involves answering four key questions: First, do you have an inherent strength or interest that is likely to be valued in some domain? Second, have you trained (or potentially developed sufficient interest) to develop the skillset to make yourself more attractive to the stakeholders in the domain? Third, is the domain large enough to be able to support the career objectives you have? And finally, what institutes you need to target and the preparation needed to get admission and earn those degrees?

When you work to answer these 4 questions, it leads to a personalized career plan and helps actively counter peer pressure in terms of education and career choices.


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