“You’re from an IIT, getting all this is easy for you”

It’s a common refrain I have heard. They say once you go to a particular institution, all doors open. The world is at your feet. 

If you have pedigree, you can have anything. 

Pedigree is a curious word. With origins from the Latin pedicru, it means the foot of a crane. The branching lines of a family tree (“genealogical table”) look like a crane’s foot. The descendants in the family tree were thus said to have “pedicru”.

High-quality ancestors meant you are of pedigree – of high quality. 

When this word that signalled high-quality ancestors of dogs, horses and people transitioned to the educational world is unknown. But the usage is telling. As you enter a college, the alumni of a particular institution are your ancestors. 

When your seniors asked you to call them your “baap/ma”, they were right in more ways than one.

This underscores an important truth – the quality of your institution is defined by the quality of your alumni. It is why new colleges with supposed “pedigree” tags take years to establish themselves. 

A New Starbucks is as good as an old one, but a New IIM is not. At its core, a Starbucks is known for how its coffee has been, but an IIM is known for who its alumni have been. 

“Pedigreed” alumni are rare, which is why they are prized. A straightforward way to make anything “pedigreed” is to make it hard to get. 

A 0.01% selection rate is an ideal candidate for creating a pedigreed institution. Notice that I didn’t say what you need to make difficult. Imagine a highly selective martial arts college. Many future kings graduate from that college. 400 years ago, that college would be at the pinnacle of the world. 

Today, martial arts is irrelevant, so the kings are made elsewhere. Pedigree is fluid in its definition over time.

The institution that is therefore churning out individuals with abilities that are prized today becomes a magnet. Older people want these individuals to work for them, younger people want to be these individuals. As long as there is a demonstrated high probability of becoming a king, the magnetism of the institution remains.

You can substitute being king for anything – being powerful, wealthy and/or famous. Whether or not they will become kings is an entirely different story. 

The reason is that skills needed to break into an institution are only a few of those required to succeed in life. Most selection criteria today over-index on technical skills – the ability to solve problems. Due to the size of our population, it is near impossible to select on soft skills – the ability to work with people. 

Factoring in the huge component of luck, few are actually destined for “true” success. Those trying to get into pedigree institutions are therefore actually playing a game of increasing their probability of success.

What this essentially ends up doing is it only raises the average expected outcome, it does not guarantee a successful outcome to everyone. 

A pedigreed institution is therefore not a ticket to Paradise, it is a coupon to buy a safety net. 

There is no doubt that pedigreed institutions open countless doors that are closed to most people. There is also no doubt that those making it to pedigreed institutions tend to be highly focused, resilient and hard working. 

But what you do out of the door is a complicated, long, game, with outcomes weakly correlated with what you did to get into the door.

You will therefore see that there are a lot of founders from pedigreed institutions that end up raising money initially. They had doors open. In the game of venture investing, which requires rapid decisions with imperfect information, pedigree serves as an important signal for credibility.

But if you look at the three largest unicorns in India, PayTm, BYJUs and OYO, 0 are pedigreed founders. 

You may say that I am cherry-picking, asking me to look at the larger universe of unicorns – there are so many pedigreed founders. But that only reinforces my point on the average expected outcome being better for pedigreed folks. 

Outsized success, which the bright-eyed pedigree craving student is chasing, is an outlier. You can’t engineer it.

Getting into a pedigreed institution is hard, but that is only the beginning of a journey. If you can’t have a seat at the table, build the table. If you can’t get into the door, break it. Never stop, be relentless. 

If you go back to one particular selective martial arts college, Dronacharya’s Academy was the pedigreed institution. Kings of the future were trained there. But who was the best archer of their time?

It wasn’t the Academy’s topper Arjun, it was the outsider Eklavya.