When I was a kid, my mum used to always emphasize the importance of having very sharp antennae that would constantly twitch and twirl, acting as a powerful radar, and continuously process and integrate all the interactions happening around me. Back then, I didn't have the slightest clue what she was talking about.
It is a pretty well-accepted fact among Waterloo engineers that the numbers appearing on our transcripts don't really mean much in the way of anything. I mean, they do mean something, but if I don't know what they mean, I may as well assume they don't mean anything. I guess garbage is garbage regardless of whether it is well understood or not.
This essay then attempts to answer the all-powerful question: "so if marks don't mean much in the way of anything, what else does?" Most people would answer technical competence. My conjecture is that technical competence can only take you so far in any field that involves thought. Okay Rajesh, I can sort of see your point, but if even technical competence can't take you there, what else can? This is the question I would like to answer in this essay.
My response is simple and to-the-point.
Over the past five years, I have been working very hard to develop what has recently been popularized as the so-called higher-order skills. They're skills that you are very unlikely to learn in school. In fact, our schooling system's flawed grading system actually tends to diminish your skills in some of these areas, let alone help you hone them. When I graduate out of university, these are the skills I'd like to put down on my CV. Not so much chemistry, thermodynamics, electro-magnetics or vector calculus. Simply because these are the skills that actually matter in the real world and on the workplace. These are the skills employers seek, and these are the skills that would give you a competitive edge if you were to engage in any kind of startup activity.
- Problem solving
Over the last five years, I have spent an incredible amount of effort in improving my reading, writing, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation. Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. The by-product of all the reading is a fairly decent vocabulary. My friends try to learn new vocabulary SAT style by memorizing words from index cards, or by subscribing to Dictionary.com's "word of the day" feature. I used to do that too in Grade 11. Until I discovered what a bad idea it was since I was learning the meaning of the words completely out of context. I was conjuring up entirely new meanings for these words. My essays were quite terrible back then. I look at some of my essays from Grade 10 and 11 now and cringe. I found I was better off just reading more. The new words simply seeped into my lexicon gradually.
I'm also trying to get better at approaching any new person and speak with him or her like I've known him or her for several years. I used to be so scared of approaching new people at one point. Now I can make conversation with even the most random person on the street or on the subway. It's a great strategy if you get easily bored walking or commuting alone.
I wrote in a previous entry that the truly analytical mind is the daring dolphin that looks for the treasure chest at the bottom of the sea. I'm only one step away from achieving my goals in this regard. My goal is to be able to take any object, idea, design, or process, then to analyze it as completely as I can, and then be able to put the results of my analysis in an aggregated form (say, a table), or be able to form a pros-and-cons chart out of it.
I like playing logic puzzles and games, because I feel they help sharpen how analytical my mind can get.
Writing, I believe, is a great way to synthesize. Writing on the web especially, since it's so fast, easy, and free. There is nothing that excites me more than having synthesized something of merit. I love creating new stuff, ideas, processes, algorithms, whatever they may be. Or at least improving old ones. That would also count as synthesis, would it not?
I love taking initiative. Especially when there isn't anyone else in the vicinity taking it. And especially when there isn't anyone else in the vicinity who is capable of taking it. Nothing inspires me more than firing up a process and then allowing it to take its own course.
Curiosity kills the cat as the proverb goes, but really, half my actual learning about the world comes about as a product of my curiosity mixed with a pinch of creativity. I have found that curiosity is generally good. It makes me read more and more. I am trying to be more and more curious about things than ever before. The more curious you are, the more you tend to probe the world around you; the more you probe, the better you understand; the better you understand, the higher your belief that you actually "get it".
It is quite saddening that the way things are taught at school only serves to lower one's curiosity levels. School very unfortunately encourages shallow thinking because of our flawed grading system. The challenge is to be able to sit through twelve years of elementary, middle and high-school, and four years of university and still be able to maintain a curious outlook on life.
I have always been known to be the person who shunned responsibility. That's because I've never actually known how to deal with it. This is the kind of thing they don't teach you at school. You sort of gradually accept more and more responsibility, and over time, you'll begin to realize it's not actually as hard as they make it sound. Over time, I've been learning to take responsibility for my own actions. That's the least I can do.
Many many years ago, back in July 2002, I read Dale Carnegie's famed book "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living". In one section, Dale puts down that one of the most effective ways of dealing with unnecessary worry is to focus on something else totally unrelated. The rationale behind this is that the human brain can only concentrate on one idea at any given moment in time. Try it. Try focusing on an image of the Eiffel Tower and an image of what you had for dinner last night together.
So multi-tasking is, in consequence, a myth. Most people who try to do two different things at the same time—which I believe is a physical impossibility—end up doing a pretty bad job of both as compared to how well they might have done if they did it sequentially. This phenomenon can be observed quite easily with people who own blackberries. Or with people who try to order coffee and a donut at Tim Hortons while simultaneously sending text messages to their friend.
What I mean by multi-tasking is constantly switching back and forth two (or possibly more) activities. I have always been able to do this without much difficulty or overhead; what I want is to be able to switch back and forth with a much higher frequency. If the frequency is high enough, it appears to others as though you are doing two things in parallel and therefore simultaneously. The less relevance there is between the tasks, the more the overhead. The inverse is also true.
Of course, I don't want to multi-task for the sole purpose of multi-tasking, just like I don't want to make money for the sake of making money. I want to multi-task because I have a need to. I find that it's hard to justify multi-tasking unless I'm faced with more tasks than I actually have time for. So where I could usually accommodate 5 courses a term, I would push that up to 7 courses for example. The ability to juggle multiple tasks at the same time is critical to success, at least at the university level.
Many people I meet on a day-to-day basis have a very misconceived notion of what leadership actually means. Especially here at Waterloo where good leadership seems to mean you know how to plan events, arrange funding, involve people (presumably followers), budget resources, schedule activities, solve other people's problems without upsetting anyone, minimize resentment, be friendly, pose as overly out-going, enthusiastic, facetious and exuberant even though they cringe when faced with a tough situation themselves, provide advice that can be found almost anywhere on the Internet these days, delegate tasks but not actually know any detail about the task itself, have power to make decisions but not actually be there to face the full repercussions of said decisions, be "involved", volunteer for free only to gladly accept a 10k leadership scholarship later, tell people they're wrong, but tell it to them in such a nice and tamed-down manner so as to leave said people in a more confused state than ever before and with virtually no motivation to fix their wrong-doings, and sugar-coat it to the point where ants get diabetes.
It is a sad reality that this is the kind of stereotypes people have about good leadership. And so when people attain even a small subset of these stereotypical behaviours, they get the sensation that they automatically belong to the set and proceed to call themselves good leaders.
Our society unfortunately accepts that it is always "better" to be a leader than a follower in the same manner and to the same extent as it accepts that it is "better" to be an extrovert than an introvert. I don't strictly believe I need to lead a group of people towards a stated goal to demonstrate leadership. I don't even strictly believe I need to set a good example for my followers in order to demonstrate leadership. If I can inspire even one person, motivate and convince him or her to genuinely see my point-of-view, I would call that good leadership. The term "leadership", as I define it, is not to be confused with being a good leader, but rather a good sportsman. Good leadership calls for encouragement. It calls for fostering principles in others that wouldn't otherwise be there. It calls for honing skills in others that wouldn't otherwise be developed.
Teamwork is great because it forces me to shut up. I talk a lot less in a room full of others who are also trying to talk at the same time. Listening is a great asset during those shady times of group meetings since everyone else is busy thinking of what they should say next and when they can best say it. The number of communication channels increases quadratically with the number of people in the room, and so keeping my mouth shut in a meeting of say just six people reduces the number of communication channels by a good one-and-a-half times, which is almost a 33% increase in the signal-to-noise ratio of a group meeting.
I love problem solving. I always have. Not the actual answer that comes out of it, but the process. The process of dissecting the problem, analyzing every facet, forming patterns, drawing connections, understanding the impact, and then finally posing a decent solution. But it doesn't stop there: The next step is optimizing the decent solution to make it agreeable to all, or at least to as many as possible.
My favorite category of problems have always been the socio-technical type. These are technical problems, but with an associated social element of uncertainty. Great and most prominent examples are the stock market, traffic and pollution. One can come up with technical solutions to traffic (eg. traffic lights and sign-boards), but getting people to actually follow them is the social element. For example, if we understood group behaviour, we would understand that traffic control does not imply that we need to stop everyone on the road from breaking the rules; we simply prevent the first couple of people from breaking the rules — everyone else will automatically comply.
I have nearly tripled my reading and writing quantity over the last five years. I find that this has improved my creativity quite significantly. Creativity, at least for me, means being able to see the same thing in different lights at different times. Or even better, at the same time. Doing more math has certainly helped me in this regard. Mathematics is an art-form to those who've done it. And art inspires creativity.
At first, it might come across as being so blatantly obvious to the point of seeming silly, but I also find that getting a good 8 hours of sleep at night and waking up naturally each morning and not to a loud and annoying alarm clock helps me be more creative. And that too through a longer period of the day.
So I guess I finally clued in to what my mum had been trying to tell me all along about having sharp antennae. The antennae had only been a metaphor all along. But an undeniably powerful one.