Rajesh Kumar

Things to say, things to think

Waterloo's Message

23 Jun 2010

Every city sends a message says Paul Graham, but what message does Waterloo send? Does it even send a message at all? How subtle is this message if there exists one? A lot of people here seem to think the message Waterloo sends is to be creative, innovative, and ambitious. But I think there might be more to it than meets the eye.

From the years 2005-2010, I went to a school of about 25,000 students in the city of Waterloo known as the University of Waterloo. I spent 10 semesters there amounting to roughly 40 months or 3.3 years. A decent amount of time one would agree. What's more important is that I lived there between the ages of 18 and 23. These are some of the most important years for anyone who believes they have the juice to achieve what they want.

I know Waterloo has changed me in many different subtle ways. My friend Mark knows I've changed in many different subtle ways. He asked me 6 questions in 2005 back in high school, and then he asked me the exact same 6 questions when we met again in 2010. And all but one answer had changed.

Part of the reason why I've changed so much is because of my interactions with the people who go to school at Waterloo. And that's because what's admired most at Waterloo is very different from what's admired most in any other city like say Vancouver for example.

Waterloo's message, at least within the confines of the University's walls, is this: Learn to deal with shit thrown at you from all directions. And be able to do it all at the same time with minimal resources. Get a whole bunch of random crap thrown at you, and then learn to deal with it by figuring it all out one thing at a time. In fact, if Waterloo had but only one skill to teach its engineers, it would be the art and skill of "figuring things out" as quickly as possible.

A lot of my friends in engineering did this everyday: they skipped all lectures, and then figured out strange, complex concepts as efficiently as possible the night before the exam. We live in an age of information overload, where the time to "figure things out" or "deal with the unknown" is shrinking down to zero — fast. The people who can figure things out the quickest are therefore the most admired.

The beauty in all of this is that what's admired most at Waterloo turns out to be a skill that helps you develop even more skills. The skill of "figuring things out" is so useful that you can actually use it to develop almost any other skill that is usually admired in other cities and other universities. And people at Waterloo often do just that to ensure they don't forget that skill since the best way to perfect a skill is to be constantly using it.

This is perhaps why it might seem like Waterloo undergrads are creative, innovative, and ambitious. They're merely figuring things out fast. And once they're out of things to figure out, they move on to other harder things, or still better, they invent novel, unfamiliar situations which allow them to figure out even bigger and better things. All the while, the crux of the motivation comes from the desire to want to constantly practice the skill of figuring things out real fast since that's what's most admired around here. To these people, it aches to be in familiar environments because there isn't anything to figure out: everything is as it should be already.

What all of this eventually leads to is an extremely "scrappy" culture where no matter what problems were encountered, Waterloo grads and undergrads find a way to solve them. This idea is so profound and so ingrained that it happens almost without thinking. In theory this idea sounds really good, but in order to get the execution details right, you'd need at least 3-4 years of experience doing this day after day, night after night. And that's the experience Waterloo gives you.

When I toured Europe with four other engineers for two months, one of the phrases that kept coming up was: "we'll figure it out". At first it seemed like my lazy engineering friends were fishing for excuses to procrastinate decision making. But later I realized that unlike other people, when these Waterloo engineers said they'd figure it out, they actually meant it. These guys had been playing the "figuring things out" game for so long that they had actually become experts at it. They had overcome the "fear of the unknown" over years of accumulated confidence and experience, and had now begun to actively embrace it.

That's part of the reason why Waterloo engineers are perceived, perhaps as a side effect, to be so entrepreneurial and innovative. A good number of nascent ventures involve a whole bunch of "figuring out" stuff that we've never had to deal with before. How do I register my business? How do I get funding? How do I patent my technology? How do I make sure I'm not sued by some other company? How do I make this gyroscope do what I want? How do I make this piece of hardware run faster? And the list goes on. If you weren't pro at figuring stuff out, you'd never be able to overcome the activation energy needed to actually start a business.

I think what's more important than the message Waterloo sends is all the messages it doesn't send. Academic intelligence fortunately doesn't seem to matter as much around here. Physical attractiveness and good sense of fashion matter so little that having them may actually work against you. Snobbishness may raise a few heads, but it doesn't seem to take you very far.

But if you're the ultimate "go to" guy whenever someone's lost about something, then your admiration level shoots up like a rocket. And that is the message Waterloo constantly sends to its pupils. You want to be the guy who can figure stuff out quickly, irrespective of complexity.

We're not Oxford. We're not Cambridge. We're not Harvard, and we're certainly not MIT. We are Waterloo.

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