Should you send your kid to study abroad in the US after 12th std?

Last year, I asked this question on my Facebook page:

After 12th, should you send your kid to study abroad (US, UK, France) or should you have them do undergraduate studies in India and consider studies abroad only for post graduate studies? Assume that finances are not a major problem. Assume that the kid will go to a “good” or at least “above-average” college abroad. What do you think?

This question sparked off a great discussion where lots of people chimed in with their opinions and experiences. You should read the whole page, but for the lazy, I have captured some of the most interesting perspectives here.

Starting with my own opinion:

There is no question in my mind that most good/above-average colleges in developed countries will impart better education than good colleges in India. However, there is too much of a culture shock, too much freedom, too many distractions abroad, and a significant probability of the kid not being able to negotiate them all safely.

There is a small fraction of kids who are very mature, and very “sorted” in life at the age of 17, and know exactly what they want out of their education and their life – they should be allowed to (encouraged to?) go abroad after 12th. All others should wait until graduation.

Update: After reading the comments of a bunch of my friends, my own views have now changed, and I’m generally of the opinion that if you can afford it, and your kid can get into a decent school in the US, then going to the US is worth it.

Dhairya Dand disagreed with me:

without a wink – abroad.

  1. Since when did not being sorted out at 17 become a bad thing?
  2. A cultural shake up is precisely what a 17 year old needs to form his world views, why wait till 22?
  3. Grad life at 22-24 is focused, she/he has already committed to an area without being fully exposed to all the options one could have had in undergrad.

Rahul Gangwal pointed out:

i must say one thing here … once you are alone irrespective of age – the person does goes wild initially but matures 100 times more quickly than if he was at home

And Vaibhav Domkundwar came out strongly in favor of the US education system:

Based on my experience of landing at UC Berkeley right after my bachelors in India + interviewing/hiring 100s of freshers in Pune over last 10 yrs, I’d say kids are better off doing undergrad in the US and perhaps high school too. A lot depends on “how you learn” IMO. The undergrad kids, “on average”, at Berkeley were far superior in academic as well as non-academic than the international students from China and India.

Most importantly, I feel the perspective that you get in a (good) US university is far richer & wider than what you can in India, even now. Lastly, based on my experience in India over the last year, it feels like the change in the education system broadly is still short of what it needs to be.

Ankesh Kothari came up with a slightly altered suggestion:

sending your kid abroad as early as possible is a good idea. If you think he is not mature enough, then don’t send him to a 4 year college – send him for a semester long study abroad program. But the more different and varied experiences they get early on in life, the quicker they will find their center. The more hustling they have to do, the more confidence they will be later on in life.

And Ravindra Jaju pointed out that maybe as parents we worry too much about our kids getting “spoilt”:

If you want to focus on good education and holistic development, send them abroad. Kali might find them in this yug, but that’s already shaped by their initial 17 years at home. If you’d still like to keep a close watch on other aspects, keep them in India. Kali might still find them, though.

Sameer Nene was less diplomatic. He pointed out that maybe they need to get “spoilt”:

If possible, the kid should get to explore the culture on his/her own. This is important from a development standpoint – how to judge what right is or wrong or okay to do etc etc. You don’t want them to look at the world through your prism – they’ve already done that until they leave home.

Dhananjay Nene points out an interesting in-between possibility:

There are other intermediate choices as well eg. FLAME or Ashoka

This is absolutely right. These are Liberal Arts programmes, which give you almost as much flexibility as US colleges in choosing your field of study and what else you learn during your degree, focus on getting high quality faculty, and have modeled their teaching and evaluation systems around those in the US. You don’t get all the benefits of being in the US (e.g. exposure to a different culture, work ethic, students from all over the world, etc.), but still, for many students (parents), they provide a choice that is not as expensive as, and not as scary as going to the US.

In addition, Pune also has SSLA which might not be in the same league as FLAME and Ashoka, but is still pretty good in my opinion, and worth checking out if you can’t afford or get into the others.

There were a couple of interesting tangents that also got discussed:

Neeran Karnik asked:

how different is it from a small-town or rural kid going to one of the IITs in a big city?

This is actually sort of true. I do know relatives in villages who wouldn’t send their kid to Bombay for the same reasons that we might not send our kid to the US.

And Vijay Bodele wondered:

If Indian kids are not able to mature at 17, who’s fault it is?

This is an extremely interesting question, with lots of interesting possible answers. Maybe we’ll leave that for a future blog post.

Also, my friend Kathryn Chomsky from Spain jumped into the discussion to point out:

My 12 year old son just came back from a year abroad in Wisconsin (living with my parents and going to school). He absolutely loved it and has matured in many ways. Apart from improving his English, I think he is now truly bicultural and has so much more self-confindence and autonomy. In Spain classes tend to be overly theoretical and exams focus on memorizing loads of material. In the states he particpated in chess, Lego Mindstorm competitions, sports and learned how to do research and give formal presentations in class. We think it’s been a positive experience all around.

So, it appears that it’s not just Indians who have these issues.

So anyway, read the full post and all the comments, I’m sure you’ll find it worth your time.

Instead of goals, use systems that improve your chances of success

Recently, I read an interesting article in which a 20-year old Hunter S. Thompson gave life advice to his friend. In spite of his youth, the advice is pretty insightful.

The main question he tackled is, what should the goal of life be. How should one approach what one is supposed to do?

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

One important point he made was that he could not set the goals for somebody else, because the other person’s capabilities and experiences were totally different.

That’s a reasonable argument. And if that argument does seem reasonable to you, then it takes just one little step further to argue that a young you cannot / should not set goals for an older you. Because you’re experiences and capabilities are changing throughout your life:

Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

Thompsons solution was to focus on abilities and desires instead of focusing on goals:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal) he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life — the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

If this seems all a little vague and hand-wavy to you, the same advice is given by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, but he says it in a more concrete and digestable format:

In my new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, I talk about using systems instead of goals. For example, losing ten pounds is a goal (that most people can’t maintain), whereas learning to eat right is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.

Here is another example of a system, as opposed to a goal:

When I first started blogging, my future wife often asked about what my goal was. The blogging seemed to double my workload while promising a 5% higher income that didn’t make any real difference in my life. It seemed a silly use of time

And here is the full story of how this “system” helped him achieve success that wasn’t really part of any goal, and was probably not something that he had even considered:

Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicing on a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).

The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. I have my humorously self-deprecating voice, my angry voice, my thoughtful voice, my analytical voice, my half-crazy voice, my offensive voice, and so on. You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. Those articles weren’t big money-makers either, but it all fit within my system of public practice.

My writing for the Wall Street Journal, along with my public practice on this blog, attracted the attention of book publishers, and that attention turned into a book deal. And the book deal generated speaking requests that are embarrassingly lucrative. So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction.

Read both articles, you’ll like them:

Reasons for suicide: “I am alone” “I am a burden” “I am not afraid to die”

A long but interesting article on why the rate of suicide is increasing all over the world. My friend who is a psychiatrist called it “well written, with some really good insights”, so I assume that the points made in the article are worth keeping in mind.

Here are some of the more intriguing points:

Throughout the developed world, for example, self-harm is now the leading cause of death for people 15 to 49, surpassing all cancers and heart disease.


In 2010 worldwide deaths from suicide outnumbered deaths from war (17,670), natural disasters (196,018), and murder (456,268)


And this assumes we can even rely on the official data. Many researchers believe it’s a dramatic undercount, a function of fewer autopsies and more deaths by poison and pills, where intention is hard to detect.

And none of this is easy to explain:

If four out of five suicide attempts are by women, why are four out of five suicides by men? If big cities and beautiful architecture are magnets for suicide, why are natural wonders and public parks as well? Prostitutes, athletes, and bulimics have an above-average risk for suicide, but what else do they have in common? Why are African-American people relatively safe? And twins?

So Thomas Joiner is now trying to come up with a theory of suicide, which attempts to explain why people commit suicide. According to him, people will die by suicide when they have a desire for suicide and the ability to kill themselves. And the desire to die comes from loneliness (“I am alone”) and a perceived burdensomeness (“I am a burden”).

He calls the first “low belonging,” and it’s the most intuitive idea in his formula. Joiner argues that “the desire to die” begins with loneliness, a thwarted need for inclusion and connection. That explains why suicide rates rise by a third on the continuum from married to never been married. It also accords with the fact that divorced people suffer the greatest suicide risk, while twins have reduced risk and mothers of small children have close to the lowest risk. A mother of six has six times the protection of her childless counterpart, according to one study. She may die of work and worry, but not of self-harm.

And if you think that having lots of friends on Facebook helps, think again:

But Facebook doesn’t help. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are,” John Cacioppo, a professor at the University of Chicago and the world’s foremost expert on loneliness, told Marche. The opposite is also true: more face time, less loneliness.

The other condition for the desire to die is the feeling that you are a burden on your friends/family/others.

This explains why suicides rise with unemployment, and also with the number of days a person has been on bed rest. Just the experience of needing and receiving help from friends—rather than doing for oneself and others—can make a person pine for death. We’re a gregarious species, but also a gallant one, so fond of playing the savior that we’d rather die than switch roles with the saved. In this way suicide isn’t the ultimate act of selfishness or a bid for revenge, two of the more common cultural barbs. It’s closer to mistaken heroism.

The third condition is less intuitive. The “ability to kill yourself” really has to do with the fact that it’s hard to kill yourself. Joiner calls this condition “fearlessness.”

In this way, suicide isn’t about cowardice. It’s not painless or easy, like pulling the fire alarm to get out of math class. It takes “a kind of courage,” says Joiner, “a fearless endurance” that’s not laudable, but certainly not weak or impulsive. On the contrary, he says, suicide takes a slow habituation to pain, a numbness to violence. He points to that heightened suicide risk shared by athletes, doctors, prostitutes, and bulimics, among others—anybody with a history of tamping down the body’s instinct to scream, which goes a long way to unlocking the riddle of military suicides.

For the population at large, it might seem mildly reassuring at first. After all, most of us don’t fall into these categories. But Joiner believes there may be a side door to fearlessness: exposure to violence in media. Remember this debate? Well, it’s basically over. “The strength of the association between media violence and aggressive behavior,” the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2009, “is greater than the association between calcium intake and bone mass, lead ingestion and lower IQ, and condom nonuse and sexually acquired HIV infection, and is nearly as strong as the association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.”

So, here is my non-expert (possibly flawed(?)) conclusion: what could help with reducing suicidal tendencies and depression? Try to have more friends/family – the kind you meet in person regularly. This will not help when you’re already depressed; so you need to start now. And help other people – the more you help others, the more you’re helping yourself. And try to stay away from violence and pain in media and in real life.

Read the full article. (You can skim over the early parts which are focused on proving that the incidence of suicide is increasing, and go to the more interesting parts later on which give Thomas Joiner’s theory of why people commit suicide.)

Note: In the comments, Sandeep Gautam points out that Joiner’s theory seems to be more targeted towards developed nations, and does not account for the extreme financial hardships in developing countries which can drive people to suicide. He has a bunch of other interesting points to make. Read the full comment below.

And, by the way, if you’re in India and feeling emotionally distressed, or suicidal, and can’t think of anyone to share this with, call the Connecting India helpline at +91 9922001122, or 18002094353 (Toll-free). Or if you know someone else who is in this situation, give them this information. See Connecting India website for more details.