Posts Tagged ‘understanding society and self’

What does it mean to “save the world”?

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Almost always, “save the world” initiatives are aimed somewhere far from the developed world. Whatever you want to call it: the third world, or some developing nation; we regard it as THE area that needs saving: warring factions in Syria, censorship in China, extortion in Mexico, hunger in Ghana, rape in India, and corruption in Russia. These are real and serious problems in the world and we’re right to seek ways to improve the greater good of people there.

But the developed world is full of many of its own problems, often orthogonal to those of the less developed world:

  • Diabetes and cancer are the diseases of developed world, and throw us into an inefficient healthcare system that’s incentivised to be expensive and bankrupt patients.
  • Our food system isn’t helping – the most convenient and least expensive food tends to very processed. Moreover, information on healthful eating is muddled by vested interests.
  • Many people find themselves in unnatural settings for daily work, where they spend most of their waking hours: long and stressful commutes, uninspiring work, hierarchical and restrictive work structures that cause the same angst and disorders as hierarchical regimes, and a lack of sunlight, fresh air, and movement. This “life” causes many physical and mental ailments including obesity and a widespread reduction in well being.
  • A consumerist mindset occupies our minds, ceaselessly telling us we need more to be happy, adding clutter to our lives and waste in our landfills.
  • We find ourselves endlessly busy and distant (physically and mentally) from things that bring true happiness: sleep, family, friends, love, community, and general relaxing and reflection.

The crux of this is that people in the developed world might not be very happy in their day to day lives. By some measures we might be less happy than those living in the developing world

These problems are nothing compared to warfare and hunger, but it’s critical that we make strides to address these issues. For one, most of world is becoming more developed. They crave to be more modern. They want to be more technologically advanced and be a part of the greater world economy. They want success and prosperity and growth. And they rightfully should. But as the developing world inherits our advancement, they inherit our problems. And these would be new problems for them – the next five billion – and big problems for the planet as a whole. So if we’re to “save the world”, let’s go after the problems in front of us, and not just the ones half a world away.



My background

Human social and societal behavior

  • A strong personal and professional research interest
  • I’ve worked with faculty at Stony Brook University in developing a theory of evolution of religion, which reached into in-group / out-group behavior and a theory of culture. While this work is yet to be published, it is referenced in the book “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe: Human Evolution, Behavior, History, and Your Future”.
  • I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate and graduate (classroom and online) course on Social Coercion Theory

Physical fitness

  • I’m a former practitioner of Kyokushin karate and served as an instructor for 5 years
  • I presently practice capoeira, an afro-brazilian martial art and have done so for the past 7 years
  • I’m an avid roller blader, as a daily commuter and as a safety marshall (5 years) for the inline skating community
  • I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing

Healthcare

  • I’ve volunteered at St. Francis and Bellevue Hospitals
  • I was trained and certified as a NYS EMT and briefly volunteered with the Glen Oaks Volunteer Ambulance Corps
  • I was a pre-med student in a college and applied to medical schools, but decided against the career

Food

  • A strong personal interest and I do a lot of reading, research, and personal experimenting

Our education system – is it about learning?

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.

Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.

When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.

A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.

There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.

There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.

For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.

A few examples of education being transformed:
Khan Academy
TED-Ed
Skill Share

Learning from ‘Bahia Time’

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Here in New York, the way we use our time is, in a word, busy. We constantly have events that we’re rushing to attend. Likewise, we’re expected to be accessible 24/7 for the last minute changes or updates. A week and a half ago, I was in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, one of the most laid back places on the planet. The way they saw time was the complete opposite. The rather slow and relaxed pace of like was something to experience first hand – it was a very good thing that I knew of it beforehand so that I could leave my NYC habits at home and enjoy the experience in Bahia.

What I found most interesting was how “Bahia time” infiltrated every aspect of what one would go through in a day. Here’s a handful of experiences that illustrate the phenomenon:

  • I usually woke up whenever, without any alarms. There’s no rush. I would have something to eat eventually and prepare to leave the apartment – again, eventually.
  • There would be some event I’d like to go to. It might start on time. Or it might not. Or it could be outright cancelled (I didn’t experience any cancellations myself, but I hear that it does happen and it’s not a big deal).
  • I wait for the buses somewhere between a few minutes and an hour. There wasn’t a schedule or even published maps of the bus routes.
  • After an event, my friends and I would go for dinner. In one instance, we had to hit up a second place to eat after we learned that the chef had gone home, after we placed our orders. At another dinner, we spent quite a bit of time talking, and many of the locals were laughing and singing together.
  • There was a store I wanted to check out, but it happened to be closed at the time I went – again, there’s no schedule.

These examples encompass the uncertainty aspects of a relaxed culture. From a busy New Yorker’s perspective, it sounds awfully terrible. How can anything get done? I myself like to make the most of my time, and most certainly would not want to live this way (though it was fine for the purpose of vacation and experimentation*).

Given all this, I still found a great value in Bahia time – no one there seemed to mind. That is, no one was ever in a rush. No one was stressed about waiting for something or someone. People really took their time doing things. For example, when I was late to an event, no one that was already there was upset, not even close. In fact, they were happy to see me. It was astounding to see this pervade the culture. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, a couple popular phrases were “relax” and “be happy, you’re in Bahia” (translated), said with a relaxed smile.

Now I’m not saying that we should just throw away our sense of time and be forever patient with everything and everyone. This might be a nice way to live if we were immortal, but many of us would prefer to get more done and do more things. Still, there’s much we can learn from this. We put ourselves under a great amount of stress in our always rushed, busy culture. “What if I’m late?” “Why isn’t she here yet?” “Don’t you know I have ten other things to do today?” This isn’t good for us. This isn’t good for anyone. There’s little happiness coming from this – and if you can’t be happy, what’s the point of living?

Although I’m not 100% sure, I believe there’s a happy medium between the get-it-done but stressful NYC time and the relaxed but uncertain Bahia time. Would it not be incredible to have certainty and accomplishment in one’s daily life while also doing so happily and with little unnecessary stress? I don’t have a precise answer yet, but I believe I’m onto something. Even before my trip to Bahia, I’d been deliberately making progress to become more relaxed and laid back over a few years (enough that coworkers were surprised to learn that I was a native New Yorker and not some hippie from California). The experience in Bahia has strengthened my resolved in being more relaxed and provided me insights to apply it more broadly.

Here’s a few thoughts to infuse the best of both worlds: We shouldn’t make a big deal over timing, especially lateness in ourselves and others – assuming that it’s not a common occurrence. We should attempt to be as timely as possible, leaving some buffers if necessary. Once in a while, stuff comes up or plans go awry. Assuming that this isn’t a frequent occurrence, neither side (the late person and the waiting person) should be stressed about the situation. We should also do our best to not blow up plans at the last minute. Ironically, planned events seemed to fare well in Bahia because it wasn’t feasible to change them – it seemed that not many folks had cell phones. Hence, people stuck to their word when they said that they’d be somewhere. While there was no guarantee of them being on time, we can do much better to hold up plans.

It’s helpful to have ways to make use of potential waiting time. I always keep a few articles, essays, or videos synced to my app phone in case I run into unexpected dead time. I’ll even keep a book with me if the waiting time is probable. There’s a great value in keeping around audiobooks. I use them while driving and listening to them while being stuck in traffic makes for a surprisingly relaxed situation – I almost forget that I’m trapped in a mess of cars.

I wish I could write up a more organized and flushed out post for these ideas, but there’s so much more to think about and experiment with. Still, between the extremes of how time is valued, between New York City and Bahia, there’s much good to pull from each. From the NYC side, it’s about filling those minutes with interesting things – taking into account for unplanned moments. From the Bahia side, it’s about not getting worked up when the unexpected happens.

* Note that this experience was not stressful for me because:

  • I was on vacation and let myself relax and not worry about things
  • a goal of the trip was to get me out of my comfort zone
  • I had a strong interest in experiencing first-hand how a culture lives its daily life in stark contrast to my own

How I Came to Embrace Reading and Became a Smarter Person

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Note: I refer mostly to the reading of non-fiction books in this post

“I love to read!” These are some words that every school teacher and parent would be enthralled to hear from their kids. And our teachers and parents work so hard to get us to read, telling us that it is essential to our success. Yet, through multiple metrics, like the repeated statistics that kids aren’t meeting reading standards or that adults do very little reading in general, there’s a clear disconnect between the the desire and the reality. I’m not sure what the perfect solution is to get people more interested in reading, but as someone who has gone from non-reader to a voracious reader, I share some experiences that provide light on the matter.

For most of my life, I didn’t like reading because iit was something I did only in school or had forced upon me by authority figures. It felt like something that was work and it was neither fun nor something that I chose to do. In most cases, I found the literary works uninteresting. But for school, I was required to read it and then participate in class discussions (and by discussions, I mean the desperate teacher prodding us students to guess the bazillion hidden intents made by the author). I found the whole exercise pointless and didn’t see how it connected to real life matters. I’m sure many of my classmates shared this sentiment. And we marched on through our school lives, reading only when we had to, associating it as some necessary and boring activity that required a lot of effort yet yielded little legitimate value.

It wasn’t until my third year of college – near the end of my formal education – that I saw a tiny light indicating otherwise. At the time, I was looking into ways to improve my eating habits and my exploration fueled my desire to learn about the machinery behind our food system. I picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Despite the elegance of Pollan’s words, it took me about four months to finish the book. This wasn’t a surprise considering that this was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read on my own accord. I wasn’t used to reading such a long work so it took an exorbitant amount of time and effort to get through it. However, the experience was very eye-opening – it revealed that reading such a work is enjoyable and a great way to learn.

Flash forward to now – four years later. I’ve probably polished off about seventy-five non-fiction books since. And my rate of reading has increased exponentially. That is, I read a handful of books when still in school, and even more after finishing school. And then it exploded – I feasted on books, reading one after another, or as more often the case, two or three in parallel. Despite that I began working full-time in 2011, I began to read even more, stuffing sessions into my commute and weekends. I’d become addicted.

So what happened? How did this transformation occur? The first and most significant factor was that reading allowed me to learn about the things I found interesting. And it became self-perpetuating – as I read more about things that interested me, I became interested in other things that the books discussed, and I ended up reading books on those topics. It was also self-fulfilling: because reading allowed me to delve into subjects I was passionate about (or became passionate about – the order is sometimes a blur), I became passionate about reading itself.

The second factor is that it became easier to read as I read more. The ability to read is much akin to training like an athlete or artist – it requires a lot of consistent practice and concentration – especially in the beginning when we’re prone to fumble around. The ease and grace comes after a lot of initial work. I sense that most people that don’t like to read, if not all, never get over this hurdle. They never get to a level where it’s easy to get into a reading groove and breeze through long or complex works with ease.

The third factor is that our school teachers and parents are correct – reading goes a long way to make us more intelligent, wise, and conscientious individuals – essential qualities to do well in our complex world. This is especially the case for non-fiction works. In my own experiences, I’ve found that I better understand the world and how it operates on a deep level because of all the explorations, research, and insights I’ve become exposed to from all the various perspectives of the authors. Likewise, this has bolstered my creative ability by providing more parts for my creative toolbox. Reading allows my experience in education to continue despite that I’m out of school. My formal studies involved the natural sciences and computer science, and I also had some informal study of the social sciences. But through reading, I’ve learned a great deal about psychology, economics, world problems, self improvement, social etiquette, business, history, media, and marketing. Here’s a handful of books that illustrate the breadth of knowledge out there:

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen –  an American student reveals the story of the Middle East youth through a blend of his firsthand experiences from exploring the Middle East and the history that has brought its cultures to the present state

The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo – the creator of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment dives into details of his study and the analogous Abu Gharib tortures to show how human morality can be altered almost completely given the right environment

Food Politics by Marion Nestle – this nutrition, food studies, and public health professor exposes the relationship between the food industry and our political system and how it produces the our food system – one that is geared for the industry at the expense of our health

Linchpin by Seth Godin – this marketing genius shows how the way we do work has shifted away from an industrial model to one that allows us to become indispensable individuals that do meaningful work

Each of these works explores something that affects us profoundly – it’s difficult to argue that any of them don’t explore areas that are relevant to our daily lives. This is why I so strongly believe that reading books is so important for us as individuals and as a society. Likewise, this is why I find reading to be so interesting. I love to read. Why not say it too?

Why I Ignore My Phone, and You Should Too

Monday, October 31st, 2011

As those who know me know, I’ve become pretty much impossible to get a hold of by nearly any means of instant communication. This might come as a shock, as it rides against the convention of our always on, always accessible culture. This isn’t a matter of disregard or a lack of consideration for others. It’s actually the opposite – by using these communication tools this way, I’m free to provide my full attention to the experience at hand, and the people I’m with.

We have so many technologies that allow us instant communication – phone calls, texting, emails, instant messages, and video chat. It’s not that I’ve stopped using them – in fact, I have access to all of them on my app-phone, a device that I almost always have with me. But I keep my phone on silent most of the time – it’s only allowed to get my attention when I’m expecting an important call or message. So for the most part, phone calls, text messages, and instant messages are used in a delayed response fashion (this goes doubly so for emails, where notifications are turned off altogether).

I do check on up on messages, but the interval varies immensely. If I’ve got some dead time while walking somewhere, or waiting for code to compile at work, or actually using my communication device to do some light reading, I’ll take a look and triage or reply to messages. But if I’m out doing stuff like skating around the city or spending time with friends, or if I’m in the middle of a coding spree at work, it could be hours before I check on messages.

Now this seems like quite a bit of inconvenience, for me in that I may miss important or urgent messages, and for others that are trying to reach me. But there’s two major points that ameliorate this concern. The first is that messages are hardly as urgent as they seem – many of them can be replied to later. Likewise, many seemingly urgent messages are artificially urgent, often due to a lack of foresight in planning. For many folks I interact with, this isn’t a problem [anymore] because they know to mention things to me early and not at the last minute if they wish to get a response. I find that this actually helps to make everyone’s plans more consistent.

The second and more outstanding point is that by ignoring my phone, I’m allowed to achieve flow, a mental state of intense focus, efficiency, and enjoyability. This is something we induced constantly in karate class, where we took the time to meditate at the beginning of every class. This served to put us in a mindset where nothing else mattered in the world outside of the dojo: any concern or problem was irrelevant and the training before us was the only thing we were to have in mind. In a pragmatic sense, this held very true, and this intense focus was necessary to push our minds and bodies to new levels. At the end of our training sessions, we meditated once more to  prep our minds to return to the real world. This tenet in karate to train only with an absolutely focused mind applies to most other aspects of life – when engaged work, play, learning, and with other people. I experience an enormous sense of liberation when I’m in such a state of mind – that there’s only one thing that I have concentrate on.

Fittingly, I feel most connected with the experience at hand when I’m disconnected from everything else – the benefits are incredible: At work, it permits me to engineer a solution to some complex and mentally demanding problem. When reading, it allows my mind to drift into that of the author, where our ideas mingle to form new ones. When writing, it means i can surface the months or years of experience and learning into a concise article, like this very one you’re reading.

Being inaccessible to others for the sake of the above examples seems to come off as a selfish act. But the application for flow applies when engaged with people because it imbues that one is completely accessible. At work, this means I can devote my full attention to answer a coworker’s question. When out roller blading, it means I can push my friends harder while minding the roads for hazards. When with friends and family, it means I can listen to their thoughts and ideas and make for a meaningful conversation. You can’t put a value on giving a person your full attention.

This manner of using [and ignoring] communication technology has come through a lot of mindful experimenting and observation. In the process, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even offended a few people. But I’ve come out with a strong sense of how to make the best of these tools, gaining the ways to connect using new technologies while keeping intact the more sacred connections of here and now. I suggest trying your own experiment with this. Evaluate how you use phone or emails. You might find a life more focused on the things that matter most.

The Quickening Generation Gaps – Can You Keep Up?

Monday, September 12th, 2011

“Kids these days, with their this and their that and the way they’re always doing that and this.” It’s a common mantra stated by the elders of the time – a fact of life for hundreds if not thousands of years. Who can blame them, though? It is often the case that the older folks making these remarks grew up in a world different than the one of the kids. Humans continue to advance – the kids will grow to adults and soon face a world vastly different than the one they’ve grown up in.

But something has changed in the last generation. The people that make these remarks now include individuals that are as young as 25 years. It’s outrageous how so many young adults are left totally perplexed about the behavior of people just 10 or 15 years younger than them. Again, who can blame them? We are in the midst of an incredible technological revolution – a consequence is that generation gaps are taking far less time.

Let this sink in – it’s a rather scary implication for anyone over the age of 20. It means that you’re already falling behind on technology. This is a bold claim and you can choose to accept it or deny it.

Most people fall into the latter, conforming to the pattern of dismissing what the youngins are doing. They’ll say that it’s stupid; that the kids addicted to some technology or another and not using it correctly; that things were better before all this complexity. In many respects,these claims may be right, but that isn’t the point. The kids foreshadow the future. They indadvertedly dictate how technologies evolve and be used.

If you’re in the former category and understand that what the young generations are doing is significant, you stand a chance at not becoming a dinosaur. There’s no guarantee though. Keeping up is no easy task considering the speed at which technology is advancing. Still, I offer a few hints:

Be open minded to the way you see people use technology – especially so if it’s in a manner that you find surprising. That goes double if it’s something that affects a large percentage of a generation. Try to understand the dynamics across the population. Be aware of how young people are not using technology – what have they found as inessential? Understand the viewpoint that the generation has. When a fourteen year old says that the iPad is better than a laptop because it does more, you get a world of insight.

But wait, isn’t there a risk in following the thoughts of people less experienced in life? Yes, there is much to wary of. The young folks will make many mistakes due to their naivety. But there’s still a lot of value in their world view if for one reason: they are not colored by the past; they have no allegiance for what existed before them – they only see the future based on the technology of the present.

This doesn’t mean that the teenagers are off the hook though – because it’s now not uncommon to see a two-year old legitimately interacting with devices like iPhones. Can you imagine the technological savviness such individuals will have when they’re older? Can you imagine what the world will look like through their eyes? We’ve all got our work cut out for us if we wish to keep up with this. The next few years and decades will be either more interesting or massively confusing – and it hinges on whether you’ve kept up.

Embrace the World of Knowledge

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

I feel very fortunate to live in this ever evolving information age – that attaining knowledge has become so easy. There’s a story I love to share that really illuminates how amazing our time is. It is about encyclopedias.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’90s, I saw advertisements on TV for print encyclopedias. It was knowledge in a condensed form, but not condensed enough. It took up 3 bookshelves and cost quite a lot of money. In the late ’90s, when I was around twelve or thirteen years old, I had a personal computer in my house – something fairly rare among my peers. And with it, I had a CD with an encyclopedia on it. How amazing it was at this time, to have a boatload of knowledge in my home – I recall how awesome it was to look up information about the Hindenburg disaster, even watching video of the event itself.

Flash forward to today. There are three very interesting forces coming together. The first is the addition and organization of information. We have Wikipedia. We have YouTube. We have TED Talks. We have online video lectures. We have e-books. We have web access to newspapers archived into decades. We have Google to help us sort through all this. Nearly all of this is free. Almost none of this existed back in 1998. The second astonishing thing is the ease of access of this information in our modern world where high speed internet is common and, in metro areas, we have ubiquitous internet access between cell networks and wifi hotspots. The third is that the “computers” we use to access this information fit in our pockets. App phones are part of our daily carry. Tablets and netbooks are litter our travel bags and living rooms. There is little standing in the way to learning – neither time nor space.

I imagine the 14 year old version of me living today. He encounters something he’d like to know more about. So he pulls out his iPod Touch, connected to a free wifi hotspot, and finds what he’s looking for on Wikipedia. Then he finds a related video on YouTube. Then, when he gets home, he incorporates this knowledge into some project he’s working on. This kid, because he has such easy access to knowledge at an early age, has the potential to be smarter than anyone that has come before him.

In a sense, this principle applies to each of us, regardless of age. We are each presented the opportunity to become more knowledgeable today than anyone had just a few years ago. And as interesting as this world is today, I’m even more excited for what’s to come in the future. Imagine knowledge, in the pervasive and accessible form we have available now, multiplied across billions of individuals. Some amazing things are in store.

What’s Your Specialist Mind?

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

People’s brains are wired up in different ways. And while we like to think that we’re each unique in our own ways, there are actual patterns to the manners by which our minds are wired up and we see specific talents arise in individuals. A few examples include folks that can:

  • take apart and put together anything
  • play back music by ear
  • draw incredibly well
  • handle complex numbers in their heads
  • craft together anything
  • pick up languages with ease
  • be super coordinated in athletic activities
  • talk to anyone and pretty much get along with everybody

It seems that we’re genetically programmed to have a mind specialized in something or another and that this specialization is a more innate and natural ability. However, no mind can have it all – there’s always a tradeoff in ability. This should sound familiar – in a couple of  posts inspired by Temple Grandin’s TED Talk, I discussed how many specialist abilities, which I deemed technical abilities, come at the expense of natural social ability (this may very well relate to the autistic/asperger’s spectrum) and the technical talents can prove rather advantageous under certain situations. In the many months since reading Grandin’s book, Thinking in Pictures, I’ve noticed how her insights appear in scores of people. Particularly interesting are her classifications of specialist minds: the visual mind, the math/music (pattern) mind, and the verbal logic (language) mind (p. 28). These classifications are good but they are meant to describe autistic specialists rather than more normal people. Below are her classifications with my modified definitions*, based on what I’ve noticed of people of these minds.

Visual Mind

People with this type of mind think in pictures, like Temple Grandin, and are just very visual in general. They’re likely doodlers and tend to be artsy. Some can only visualize still images, though in great detail while others can effortlessly run full 3D virtual simulations in their heads. I’m confident that, at least in the case of the latter, they also have a strong spatial sense and are well coordinated in that regard.

Pattern Mind

Individuals with this mind find correlations between things and are very good at math. Much of what they see in the world is based on patterns and I would go as far to say that some may even think in mathematical terms. These folks are very good at putting together ideas and running logistical matters. Some of these individuals may also be very musically talented, or at least interested.

Language Mind

These are people of the word. They can easily pick up new languages and writing comes naturally to them. Unsurprisingly, they’re avid readers and seem very broadly interested in things like history and world matters.

Economic Mind

(This one isn’t part of Grandin’s original classifications so I’m not sure if it deserves its own category as it might fold into the pattern mind)

These individuals are hyper-rational and extremely good at evaluating cost-benefit scenarios with no involvement of emotions. They read and understand the fine print and are extremely difficult to dupe. Instead, they’re very good at taking advantage of any system to their benefit. Accountant-type folks fall into this category. Maybe lawyers too.

Mixed Specialties

While I described these minds as separate entities, it doesn’t have to be the case. There are people that have combinations of these types of minds and it may be the more prevalent case among specialist minds. For example, it appears that a combination of the visual and pattern minds make for some incredible engineering skills. The pattern mind allows one to put different things together while the visual mind allows one to see this in his head. This works well since much engineering requires one to build something virtually before doing so physically.

Social Mind

(not “specialist” but still special)

Grandin describes the other types of minds as specialist minds because they represent a more technical sophistication and because they seem less prevalent in the population. Still, I believe there’s much to like in having the social mind – and it’s likely a reason why it has evolved to become so prevalent. Individuals with this type of mind can naturally get along with others and are social butterflies. They thrive on interaction with others and are always up to head to the parties and clubs. They naturally understand social etiquette and are the ones that can help maintain social order with that human touch.

So yes, we are unique, but unique in particular ways that predict a medley of traits and abilities. Our minds are incredible technologies and it’s essential to understand the special power contained in each of our minds. With that, we can not only grow to embrace our talents and minimize the tradeoffs, but also understand the abilities in those all around us. More on that soon.

* In some ways, these mind classifications are somewhat arbitrary. The components of these specialist minds can be broken up and folded together in different ways. In fact, such classifications, such as the theory of multiple intelligences, have been discussed for decades. Still, I feel the organization provided by Grandin does a very good job of handling the correlations between different subspecialties.

Slaves to Our Genes

Monday, March 7th, 2011

In biology class, I learned about genes – that they serve as tools to help us reproduce. This idea seems simple enough, except that it’s backwards. It turns out that we’re the tools that our genes use to help themselves reproduce. Let this sink in for a moment. We are programmed by our genetic information, very much like the software of our computers, to have complex behavior that ultimately helps these genes reproduce. For one thing, this means we are much less in control of our actions than we’d like to think. This also means that we often exhibit quirky behavior that only makes sense in light of the evolutionary context that the behavior developed in.

While we are conscious creatures, there’s an arsenal of unconscious mechanisms at work, and they color our behavior in profound ways. I have a few posts forthcoming that explore this topic in detail. Each will cover an aspect of our behavior. Although the discussion will generalize explanations of behavior to everyone, please note that I refer to the evolved mechanisms contained in all of our genetic information and potentially exhibited in our behavior. Some of what I’ll discuss will offend our ethical sense (which in itself is one of the topics) so please bear in mind that the discussion is about the the programming from our selfish genes and not a reflection of any individual’s conscious sense.

Being aware of our programming allows us to do something about it. We don’t have to be slaves to our genes.

How I Landed the Dream Job

Monday, January 17th, 2011

As you may know, I’d been looking for work for a while and recently started at Google. Many friends are astounded by this news and are so happy that I landed the dream job. Likewise, I know many folks that are looking for work so I’d like to share the things that helped me get to where I am now.

Unconventional {Methods, Companies, People}

Much of what I discuss here is unconventional and even backwards seeming. Bear in mind that consistency is important: while the process below is unconventional, so too are the companies I targeted and the kind of person I am. What I did would not work for most potential jobs. Likewise, these methods may not work for many people. Let’s get a few definitions straight for the purposes of this article: the dream job resides at an unconventional company (and the world would be better off if we had more of these). This is the sort of company that offers much freedom (like work hours, working conditions, and projects), a nurturing environment (one that promotes learning, growth, and little bureaucracy), and solid compensation (salary, benefits, perks). By the same token, this job expects incredible work out of their employees: solving hairy (but interesting) problems, using creativity and thought to make significant decisions, and taking responsibility for getting stuff done and done well. I consider it more than a fair tradeoff. (Note: the dream job is not something that is easy where you can just cruise around on your managerial chair, raking in the dough.)  I feel it takes an unconventional person to take on this role (I could be wrong, but the description that follows won’t suit everyone). These are the sort of people that are go-getters. They’re the ones that like challenges and may take on difficult work (like in school) for fun. They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They’re troublemakers for sure, but they also make the impossible a reality. They’re the ones that want to do work that matters. If this applies to you, then read on.

Think Long Term

Pretty much everything I cover here involves a long term approach. I can almost guarantee that you won’t find any instant results. This entire process took about one year for me – but it was well worth it and my success would have been impossible if I didn’t invest in building for the future at the cost of the present. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t work out. Keep pressing on – your efforts will compound and at some point you’ll pass the tipping point.

Some Good Reading and Great Ideas

It seems I’m not alone in these unconventional thoughts. Desire for meaningful work has grown in the past few years. Seth Godin, marketing genius and someone who has his head on straight regarding good work, has discussed this for at least a year. His book, Linchpin, chronicles his thoughts and offers unconventional advice to practically do work that matters. Many of the strategies below were inspired or solidified by what he says. I highly advise checking it out, along with his blog, which is filled with succinct yet insightful posts.

Know Yourself

What is it that moves you? What is it that drives you to get up every morning? Knowing what you care for gives you a strong foundation for every part of your work and approach to finding work. It’s surprising how elusive it can be to determine what exactly this is. Having been involved in so many disciplines myself, I was especially unclear on this. I had so much in my head, but it was a jumbled mess. So I began organizing it, in the form of a blog. As I discussed in detail in my previous post, this helped immensely. The blog also helped to establish other attractive traits: from exhibiting my unique thoughts and insights to showing communication skills. A blog presents a great opportunity to show what you can do as I discuss below.

Show What You Can Do

A common error is to spend a lot of time polishing a resumé and not on much else. While having an acceptable resumé is important, it rarely makes someone stand out (resumés actually serve to weed out applicants more than anything else). Instead, focus on showing off your work and abilities in a tangible, visible, and lively way: through a portfolio. Unconventional people, without a doubt, have an arsenal of work, past and present, that they can show off. These don’t have to be anything outrageous or complicated – most of the larger projects on my own portfolio are from my university courses. Conversely, a portfolio is an opportunity to show off your original style and personality.

Learn at Every Moment

We’re surrounded by information – way more than we ever possibly consume. The upshot is that there’s more opportunity to learn than ever before. Will you take advantage? Or will you spend your time watching tv and playing video games? In 2010, I read more than 30 books, most of which were non-fiction. I watched many TED Talks. There’s no doubt that these things drastically improved my understanding of the world. Likewise, I invested much time in broadening my technical knowledge, whether it was learning the tried and true (through computer science algorithms video lectures) or the new hotness (iPhone development and jQuery). These were things I started doing long before I seriously considered delving into the tech world – I understood that the knowledge would prove useful in some regard.

Do Interesting Things

Perhaps you find a lot of what I mentioned above less than exciting. That’s fine; there should be space for fun – there’s plenty that’s also “productive”. Over the past five years, I took up two forms of martial arts (Kyokushin karate and capoeira) and joined the NYC inline skating community. What did it cost me? A great deal of time and effort, along with some money. What did I gain? Enjoyment, discipline, good friends, good health, and character. People like to be around (and work with) interesting people. You have nothing to lose by taking on some interesting hobbies and it’s another thing to make you stand out.

Try Different Things (and accept that some things won’t work out)

In one of my earliest blog posts, I discussed how it takes many bad ideas to come up with good ideas. This process applies well to finding the right calling and job. Don’t be afraid to try different and interesting things. There’s a good chance that some things won’t come to fruition. Don’t let that discourage you. One – you never know what might work out to an incredible project or experience. And two – just about anything can be a learning experience. Over the course of last year, I had several projects that didn’t pan out. It seemed that I’d wasted time and energy. But I can’t say that I didn’t learn anything. Likewise, I did manage to add a few pieces to my portfolio and also had solid things to discuss at job interviews.

Tell a Story

Another critical error is to skimp on the cover letter (or not have one at all). I followed the generic advice on cover letters and found that this pretty much didn’t work. So I tried something unconventional (naturally). I told my story. I was honest and real and personal. Go ahead and read the one I sent to Google. It teems with something that can’t be quantified. The meat of it (the second and third paragraphs) don’t even pertain to the position! And I actually copied this section nearly word for word in cover letters for other places I applied to. Note that these words couldn’t be “copied” by anyone else. It stood out as unique to me – no one else shares my story. I conveyed competence, curiosity, and leadership skills in a subtle way (which is often more convincing than a direct approach). This cover letter was the tipping point for me. This is when I started getting callbacks and interviews. The cover letter is a legitimate chance to wow someone; don’t throw it away.

Go Above and Beyond

Going the extra mile is effort; most people don’t bother doing more than the requirement when it comes to applying for work. Hence, there’s a big opportunity for those willing to put in a little more (also an easy way to stand out). What I covered so far (like the portfolio, blog, and cover letter) are a part of this. Is there room for more? I think so. I snuck in some unconventional material (see above) in my LinkedIn profile. I’m sure that this is a turn-off for many hiring organizations – probably the very type of companies I wouldn’t want to be a part of anyway. Conversely, this can grab the attention of organizations in which you’d have a good cultural fit with. Strikingly enough, a recruiter from Google reached out to me after seeing my LinkedIn profile. The potential cultural fit “visible” in my profile did play a role in this. There’s a thousand other ways to go. At a job fair, I snuck in a general version of my cover letter with my resumé. One company I interviewed at told me that this made a profound impact.
With Google, I pressed harder. I knew they wanted references at some point, so I included them with my resumé and cover letter. Not just names and phone numbers, but also a photo of each of my references, a short description of their incredible work, and a description of my work with each of them. Even more: I included a picture of myself in my home workspace (which I felt matched their culture very well). I have no idea if this helped, but considering that I got the job, I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

Prep, Practice, and Be Real

Know the companies you’re applying to inside and out. For technical positions, know your stuff and be ready. I spent a few solid weeks going over computer science stuff after receiving contact from a Google recruiter. I was sure to practice writing code by hand. Let your potential future employer know how important this is for you and how deeply you’ve prepared. I asked my Google recruiters on what to expect so that I could prep. On the interview day, I brought my own whiteboard markers (it helped immensely to have thin, functioning markers considering the amount of code I wrote that day) and was unashamed in telling my interviewers of this (at least one of them seemed impressed at my “unusual level of preparedness”). I learned from my progress – every interview with a company inadvertently served as practice for following interviews (the Google one was the last one I had so at that point I was pretty comfortable). Lastly, it helps to get along with those you meet. If you’re the interesting, knowledgeable, and capable person you claim to be (according to the unconventional advice above), then you should have little trouble connecting on interview days.

Don’t Be Shy to Ask for Help

Too many of us have this idea in our heads that we have to make it on our own – that we must prove ourselves this way. Not only is this a terrible way to approach things, it’s also potentially damaging. I’ve had support from so many people in the years it took me to figure out direction in life. My parents unconditionally gave me a home, meals, gas money, and trusted my judgement. Two professors I worked with fought bureaucracy to help me get some pocket money in exchange for helping them on their university course. They also allowed me to be a part of their own organization. Another two professors, in technical disciplines, offered their advice in career matters (one of which truly understood my creative nature and helped to shape my portfolio). All of them offered fruitful discussion without imposing judgement. Friends provided great emotional support (and sometimes covered my tab so I could come hang out with them). A mentor like friend helped me meet more folks in the tech world and offered his wisdom in looking for work. There’s no question that all this support went a long way. I was sure to take whatever help I could get, while giving back as much as I could – I still have unpaid debts to many of them; I’ll be sure to reconcile these in time.

Odds, Ends, and Some Final Thoughts

I haven’t really mentioned resumés. I don’t consider them as important as the other factors I discussed. Likewise, there’s plenty of good advice around for resumés. I’ll mention a couple of things: Avoid buzzwords and don’t blast your resumé. If you’re gonna go for real, meaningful work, then go all out. You won’t be able to apply to as many places, but your success rate will be higher, and it’ll be with interesting organizations. Quality over quantity.

Another thing to mention is that having a good academic record helps, especially if you don’t have much experience. I’ve had many classmates consider me silly for really pushing for solid work in every one of my courses. This is a testament to show that it did make a difference: my GPA and transcript was looked over during my job application process.

A little bit of luck always helps out. I was fortunate that interesting companies were hiring and that I wasn’t blown away in some important interviews. Still. you can make your own luck by being prepared – tip the scales in your favor.

Overall, I was determined to not compromise and not sell out. I was fortunate enough to have support so that I could stand by these principles. Not everyone has this option and I don’t hold it against anyone that’s trapped in this position.

I hope you enjoyed the story I shared above. Likewise, I hope you find some of the ideas helpful. There’s no right way to go about landing the dream job, but I’m sure there are plenty of wrong ways. There are other great ideas to consider still. I didn’t follow every one of them but I did find a path that worked for me. No matter what the process, expect it to take great effort and time – it’ll be worth it.