How things sometimes turn out

This is a story about David, a good friend of mine from university days.

David was an unsmiling, straightforward, lonesome, and very candid person. From day one, it was obvious that his interests did not lie in physics (his domain of specialization). He didn’t have a knack for physics, math or computers. His knowledge of English was scarce. The results of his exams varied from mediocre to average. He neither tried to excel nor allowed himself to fail the courses he took. He floated…during four years of undergrad studies.

He finally obtained his bachelors in physics. After these four years, he had no knowledge, experience or aspiration in any particular field including physics. He didn’t want to continue in physics, but the alternative of serving two years in the army compelled him otherwise. He continued his studies on graduate level. In the meantime, he became restless. He wanted to quit the country and take a job in some place calm where he could drive trucks. “Me, the road and nothing else” he used to say. He preferred solitude.

Seeing many young people going to America, David decided to take his chances. One day he informed me that he found a “great opportunity to go to the US.” It was the American green card lottery. He read that there is a good chance of winning the lottery and getting a green card. He got very enthused and optimistic. He applied for it and some time after, surprisingly for everyone, he received a notification that he passed the first stage of selection. The second stage of the lottery was to take place in Moscow, Russia. David’s family was not financially stable, but he managed to scrap together ticket money, borrowing from friends and family. When he came back from Moscow, he announced that he had a good chance of obtaining the green card. There was a big change in David. A joking, superstitious and overly confident David seemed completely unrelated to the formerly grave, isolated life-hater he once was.

After two years and a Masters degree, David left his family – he was 24 then – and took off to America in search of good career path and money.

Months passed. I got an email that he settled with a Russian girl and undertook a long chain of short-lived temporary jobs on gas stations, cafés and trade centers. He didn’t sound happy or content. He was surviving. He wrote he spared some money and sent it to his family. No mention of trucks.

More months passed. Another email. He enrolled in a PhD programme in physics. What? Why? He said: “They pay well to doctoral students, and I don’t have to do crappy stuff.” He was in desperate need to bone up his computer skills in order to advance in his studies. He needed to learn computers from scratch, which he didn’t feel like doing. He managed to buy some time from his supervisor. However after six months or so, he quit. His supervisor finally understood that David would not be able to complete his studies. In addition, a sad incident, a quarrel with his Russian girlfriend who fabricated some false evidence, resulted in David’s incarceration in a local prison for a week. He didn’t have money; he was in prison; his family was not aware; few friends were aware and bailed him out. Shortly after, he was put into prison for three weeks, again based on false witnessing. After jail, he wouldn’t be able to find a job in that state because of his criminal record.

Three weeks later, he was out of prison. He had no money and no job. He managed to borrow enough money for a return ticket to Armenia. Four years passed since he left. What changed? David now spoke English fluently. He brought back with him no money, no promises for a job, no valuable knowledge, but many memories of unpleasant experiences, glimmers of which could be seen in his shadowy and grave expression of face.

He was 28… I met him when he was back few weeks prior to my visit. We had a drink and a long conversation. He was looking for a job; he needed a fresh start…

My first big failure

After few stories about historic, technological and strategic failures, time is perhaps ripe for a personal story – my story.

I am originally from Armenia.

A year before my last high school year, I was in a school where I was actively participating in “Applied Economics” program introduced by Junior Achievement – a program designed for high school kids to acquaint themselves with various aspects of micro and macroeconomics. After completion of the program, there was a country-wide competition in applied economics and nearly 1000 pre-selected participants from all high schools across the country took part in it. I came 19th in this competition, and by virtue of being among the first thirty, we were offered one-week long, all-paid holidays in one of resorts in Armenia. This was a week full of economics-related games, stock exchange simulations, and constant interactions with most famous businessmen and bankers of the country. This was when I decided I would become an economist. Next year, however, I was forced to change school and spent my last high school year at a phys-math school.

I wound up in the physics – mathematics school # 1, the best and most prestigious high school in the country specialized in physics and mathematics. I spent my last high school year at this school. This was 1996. Post-Soviet era started few years before, but corruption and nepotism were ubiquitous. Demand for economists, lawyers and doctors soared, and universities reflected well that tendency. The only possibility to enter in an economics department in any of state universities at that time was to obtain maximum scores from three exams: English, Armenian, math.

My family and friends advised against wasting my choices and applying for another department – my father was especially insisting that I apply for physics department, cherishing hopes that I would follow in his steps (he is a nuclear physicist) after graduation. When time came to apply for undergraduate studies, I was still completely in love with economics (especially macro) and without hesitation specified three of my preferences (out of four possible) in one or another of economics or related departments. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. I was living in my own world and couldn’t care less on advises and hints of those who loved me and who had more life experience.

I made my decision and no one was able to make me change my mind. I went for exams. Examination committees were where loads of money circulation was happening. “Give me this much and your kid is guaranteed to get that score” was unwritten policy but was so widely known and followed as if it were legal. No one questioned, no one demanded justice. Corruption chain could be traced all the way to the top, including Ministry of Education. Besides one of subjects, mathematics, examination committees for other subjects were only giving high scores to those who paid or those with connections to committee members. I (and my parents) didn’t have enough money or connections.

Knowing well in advance these initial conditions, I still went for it. I did pass all exams and scored maximum in only one: mathematics. For the other two, English and Armenian, my work was scored worse than it was worth, predictably. Appealing to both committees provided no results. My total score from three required exams fell short by 2 or 3 (out of 20) from minimum pass score for all three departments that I applied for. This was one of the most painful times for me. I felt doomed not least because all young men above 16 not accepted to any university were automatically subject for conscription to the army. Armenian army however is (still) a place many readily pay loads of money to avoid. It is a waste of life for two years without guarantee that health and mental states of a person would be normal after the service (indeed, quite few return with different ailments and mental problems).

Luckily for me however, my fourth (and last) option specified in the application form was physics department. I put physics department as my last choice for exactly such a reason, but I hoped not to be in need of this option. If nothing else worked, I thought, I would at least have a high probability of not being drifted to the army but doing physics instead. After failing for the first three options, I came to the fourth (cheers Murphy): I was accepted to the physics department at Yerevan State University.

I forgot to mention that I could have gotten into the same physics department without any exam but by a simple interview due to a special agreement between my (physics – mathematics) high school and the university.

What I could have achieved by a simple 15-min effortless interview I achieved after passing four exams during one month (the three plus the physics exam), spending money, lot of nerves and countless unaccountable-for time and efforts.

Even when I started studying physics – not being “eligible” for the army – I felt horrible. I started my university days with gloomy expression of face and dark spirits. I really didn’t want to do physics. My future, as I saw and envisioned then, was anywhere but in physics. My perspective changed ever since.

Am I in physics now? No. But I did continue studying physics, which I later realized was more beneficial for me in terms of mentality and attitude than actual knowledge, on graduate and post-graduate levels.