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Positive feedback loop, Darwin and the IITs

June 13, 2020

Being an engineer by profession, I have often battled with the fear of not hailing from an IIT. I cannot lie that no matter how many IITians I meet, I will never stop being self-conscious and intimidated by them. The lingering thought here is that I will never be able to be as successful or technically proficient as someone who studied at a prestigious and highly regarded institute like an IIT. Upon introspection, I have come to the conclusion that Darwin and the theory of natural selection might just be able to explain what I am feeling and ultimately why IITians are a distinguished subset of engineers in India.

The success of the IITs is not because of its teachers or research prowess, which is evident in the fact that the IITs never rank high in global University rankings. Any institute held in high regard by large enough number of people, will end up attracting the smartest minds. The invariant here is that most students in a country of India’s size want to study in the IITs. Because of the sheer competition for the very limited number of seats at the IITs, by virtue of the merit-based selection examinations (akin to natural selection in Darwin’s theory of evolution), only the smartest people end up in the IITs. If suddenly, by some divine intervention, all of Indian students stopped thinking of the IITs as the holy grail of undergraduate studies, then I would be very surprised if the best engineers in the country are still IITians. It is not the teachings at IIT that make great engineers, it is a direct correlation to the smartest people ending up in the IITs in the first place. Once a conglomerate of really smart people are formed at the IITs, there is no stopping, they practically shoot themselves into success. By passing the barrier to entry, the very few that get through, they have already proven to the world that they are better than the rest, what happens inside the gates of the IITs is immaterial.

This influences the companies that are looking to recruit engineers as well. Since the institute is perceived highly by the common people, because of competition for the few seats and the merit-based selection exams, only the best people end up there, so the probability of recruiting smart people is much higher at the IITs, so more and more companies look to recruit at the IITs, causing more interest in the IITs among aspiring engineers. The feedback loop reinforces the superiority of the IITs. It doesn’t even have to be an IIT, anything that is perceived as “good” by enough people will eventually attract enough “good people” to actually make the thing “good”.

In hindsight, there is perhaps no reason to be intimidated by people from the IITs or to think that one is not technically as proficient as someone from an IIT because not being from an IIT doesn’t necessarily demerit one. But it would be naive and remiss to think that those who have out-raced millions to get into the IITs are not among the distinguished subset of engineers in India.