Today we are going to talk about the two most important things students need to be aware of throughout their careers – Competition and Opportunity.

As students we are no strangers to competition in our lives and in our careers. We learn at home and at school to face competition through exams as well as through sports.

Competition is good, as long as it is within limits. Let me explain with an example. The IIT JEE exams have been the cornerstones of great education in India. Any and every science student wants to attempt the exam and clear it and so the preparation starts sometime in 9th std or before. The number of applicants for IIT JEE is likely to touch 15 lakhs in the next 2 years, 15 lakh students competing for about 5000 seats. Thats a selectivity of about 0.3%, which is what i call insane competition. Even a loss of 1 mark will probably take an applicant down by 200 ranks. So who can crack these kind of exams. Either those who are plain brilliant or those who study 24 hours a day perfecting their speed, problem solving skills and accuracy to robotic precision. In which group would you want to be? I would say neither. I dont want to suffer a burnout before i start my career ! Gone are the days when JEE was an exam for the mind, today its an exam for speed and accuracy, which seems meaningless!

To explain opportunity in the context of competition, let me give another example of a large tree full of ripe mangoes. The lowest hanging branches with mangoes would be the target of extreme competition due to ease of access. However as you move up the tree the competition for mangoes decreases with height and the ones at the top have no takers because of perceived risk of getting them.

So what does this example have anything to do with opportunity? Let me explain. For every student completing school, the concept of competition is a given, especially in India. There is competition to get into a good college, get good marks and get a good job. It never stops. This competition is like the lowest hanging fruit. So everyone wants to compete for IIT which is like a low hanging fruit which is easy to apply for but almost impossible to get, the same way that the lowest hanging fruit looks easy to attempt but difficult to get because everyone rushes for it. However the mangoes on the highest branch are like “sour grapes”. No one wants them because they believe they cant get those mangoes.

So whats an opportunity. Now lets say instead of IIT you decide to join a different engineering college in Mechanical Engineering. Though you are no longer part of the IIT “Rat Race” you still want to do as well as IITans. So you decide to go for a masters degree after completing engineering. Now the same rat race continues for the best universities abroad, whether it is MIT, Harvard, Stanford or Caltech. But this time you take a different route. You are interested in Mechanical Design and want to do a masters in this field. So you start looking for colleges in US and Europe whose faculty are well known and reputed in the field of Mechanical Design in the industry and have published several journals. You shortlist many colleges with great faculty but not anywhere in the top of universal rankings. You write personally to the professors at these universities citing your interest, mentioning your achievements in the field (even if they are not very significant) and your future aspirations. Now you have actually created an opportunity for yourself. An opportunity is a scenario where a person has a unique advantage which others do not have. In this case you dont have competitors, probably a few others who have also written to the university. But because you have created your own opportunity your chances of getting into this college is very good.

The same holds good in the job market. Today most applicants find themselves in a sea of competition for every job. There are atleast 1000 applications for every job, just like a low hanging fruit. It is almost impossible to stand apart however good your profile is. So how do you create an opportunity?

Think of it this way. A job requirement is published a couple of months after the company department decides that they need a person to fill a role. So if you are proactive you can shortlist all the big, medium and small companies in your area of interest and contact the head of department (not HR) introducing yourself, your profile and your aspirations in context of the company in an email. You can get the email through a creative search. Many companies look at such profiles and even if they dont see a perfect fit or dont have an open requirement, will call the applicant for an interview to gauge potential. And if you do well they will create a new role for capable employees. It has worked for me. In this case you have no competition because you created an opportunity.

By preparing yourself for the fruit on the highest branch of the tree you have eliminated competition by creating opportunity that only you can grab.

Remember that though competition makes one stronger, a successful career is all about smartly identifying and creating opportunities to minimise competition.

Opportunities are all about perception. Some see them as a risk and some see them as an opportunity. If you are prepared to take some risk then you will have no competition and half the battle is won!