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What I’ve Learned From Failing The IAS Exam 4 Times

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Every year lakhs of people take the Civil Services exam and only a handful make it to the list. The competition is cut-throat. Successful people get the red carpet treatment-interviews, seminars, workshops. They serve as a source of inspiration for everyone. Tales of people who overcome extraordinary adversity to make it to the top are widely circulated. While we must celebrate success, it is also important to spare a thought for those who don’t make the cut. My relentless pursuit of the exam, despite the setbacks, has put me in a strange position where I find myself as the poster child of failure amongst near and dear ones. I have involuntarily acquired a new reputation for being a pro at failure. I am hoping it’s temporary! I think it is important to talk about failure and not feel embarrassed about it. Here is a glimpse at my civil services journey, coming to terms with failure and a few thoughts on how best to handle it.

Taking the civil services exam has been a personal ambition for me. I quit my job for the exam and dived headlong into it. For the entire duration of my journey, I have worked quite hard and made sincere attempts. The first time that I did not get through, it was okay. It did not feel too bad. I told myself that I had a lot more to read. Besides, not many people crack it in the first attempt. I also consoled myself saying that at least I cracked prelims. The second time around, it felt horrible. Failure struck hard. I could not figure out why I did not do well in certain areas. I was struggling with borderline depression and occasional suicidal thoughts. At this point, your friends are still rooting for you. By the time you are taking the third attempt, you are already sort of addicted to the exam. You don’t want to lose the fight. You are salvaging your pride.  You get customary wishes right before the exams. In your heart of hearts, you are still hoping that things might turn around. In all fairness that is how it goes for many.

By the time you are writing your fourth attempt, you are not even sure why you are writing the exam. Surviving an occasional failure is easy for most, but surviving back to back failure can break down the toughest of people. You just want to make sure that you do not have any regrets later. You are scared of catching up with the real world outside and trying to postpone it. The wishes dry up. Only your closest bunch of friends are checking on you. Your relatives have already given up on you and are advocating marriage as redemption and social security. Your life has become confined to your room. You have consulted a hundred astrologers and you have been considering changing your name as per numerology. You lose your sense of time and by the time you are done with your fourth attempt, it’s been five years in the outside world. Five long long years!! Half a decade! National elections are again round the corner. People have gotten married, travelled the world and got promoted. Some may have even popped babies. Your bank balance is negligible. After being out of the job market for 5 years, it is not going to be easy to go back to a job. It is a difficult situation. Pondering over all that is wrong with the Civil Services examination won’t help. You have to get yourself together. No one else can do it for you.

  1. You have to tell yourself that it is okay to fail. There is no other way. There is too much emphasis on success in our society. But failure is as much a part of life as is success. Sadly there is no focus on real-life coping mechanisms in our school curriculum.
  2. Don’t take your failure personally. Don’t let one exam decide the course of your life. Don’t let it be a measure of your merit or your potential. Abandon any self-limiting belief at the earliest. Hold on to your self-confidence.
  3. People make tough decisions all the time. Sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t. Don’t be too harsh on yourself. Be proud of yourself that you had the courage to pursue something that mattered to you.
  4. Self-motivate. Browsing through failure quotes can help you put the gloomy days behind you. This is my personal favourite-‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing but in rising every time we fall”-Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  5. Spend time with family. In the hardest of times, it is family that we fall back upon. Nothing is as reassuring and comforting than to have family around.
  6. Go on a vacation. Nothing lightens up a heavy heart like a bright blue ocean on a sunny day! It need not be exotic (given your dire financial condition). Even a simple one will do the magic. Throw in some coconut water for faster recovery!!
  7. Work out. Any form of physical activity is good for the body and takes the mind off negative thoughts. It also lowers stress levels.
  8. Do reflect on what should have been done better to ace the exam. Learning from failure minimizes heart-ache. The lessons learnt are deep and will last you a lifetime. The weaknesses are something that you must work upon and overcome.
  9. Practice gratitude. While you may prefer yelling at God for having failed you, it’s important to remember that there are many things that you should be thankful for. All is not lost. Take a walk outside to see how cruel life can be.
  10. Do not compare your condition to that of anyone else (although you may be tempted to).  It will make you feel downright miserable.  Don’t hold grudges against them for their happiness or feel jealous. You have to live your own life. Successes and failures included. Don’t compromise on your moral values in hard times. You are made of tougher substance.
  11. Don’t dwell too much on your past achievements. Make your peace with what life is offering you at the moment while keeping a sharp eye for fresh opportunities. Don’t stop putting in your 100%.
  12. You could try Vipasanna meditation. It may just work for you. Who knows. It seems to be working for Rahul Gandhi! Cheer up!! Life is beautiful. Time to catch up on all the movies and binge watch serials.
  13. Consider medical help if things get too difficult to handle.
  14. Patience. Patience. Patience. Time heals everything.  It really does. You will remember this as a little misadventure when you are 60. It will not matter much.
  15. Eventually, everything falls into place but you need to make the first move-start applying for jobs, clearing out all the stuff. Time to move on!

Best Wishes.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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