I came to a bit of a startling revelation this Sunday as I was checking through my calendar for this week’s events:
I will spend more time this week going to lectures outside of the classroom than in them.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a week before in my life where I spend more time learning outside of school than inside it. That’s not to say that I haven’t had weeks where I’ve learned more outside of the classroom than inside it, or that I haven’t had weeks where I’ve learned more important (whatever that means) things outside of the classroom than inside it. But for the first time, I’ll be dedicating more of my time outside of my mandatory school schedule to learning.
Not that I should necessarily be surprised because it hasn’t happened before. As the speaker at tonight’s event opened with: “Things that have never happened before happen all the time!” (More on that in another post.)
I do however think it deserves reflection on for a moment, however brief. One of the purposes of college is to teach you to teach yourself. College is a buffer between the world of your parents and the world as your oyster. It’s a place to learn to take care of yourself and to grow up. It’s an incubator to develop the sort of citizens we want our society to have. We learn useful skills that we can use to survive and provide for our family and for society’s benefit. We learn how to interact with the people in charge and how to lead people looking for direction. We learn how to go shopping for ourselves and how to make friends and how to find a house to rent — you know, the skills that grown-ups should know. There are people there to help us out, but ultimately we are responsible for learning how to get the things done that we need done.
Life, inside and outside of college, is about active learning. Education in the real world doesn’t have mandatory attendance. Opportunities are there, there’s no question about that, but you need to be in charge of waking up in the morning and learning some new and exciting. You will not be tested, on paper and in an exam room. You will have problems, but not problem sets. You will have access to information, but no one will tell you what is important. College is about weeing us off the passive learning bottle we’ve grown up with. It’s about empowering us to take charge of our education.
Some people find this idea scary. It is a big responsibility to take control of your education for the rest of your life. I can see why people stay for an extra year or go back to grad school. But in the end, we can’t shirk this responsibility to make ourselves better, each and every day, by learning and growing. It may be a big responsibility, but it is not a difficult one. The most interesting and exciting things aren’t taught in a classroom anyway! If you’re reading this right now, you have the ability to access anything you could ever wish to learn. What’s stopping you?
If you in Ann Arbor, here are a few of the events I’ll be going to this week. Feel free to join me if you want a taste of some active learning:
- Steve Blank – Lectures on entrepreneurship and customer development – Tuesday at 11 am in 1200 EECS, at 1 pm in Pierpont East Room, and at 7 pm in Ross’ Blau Auditorium.
- Condoleezza Rice – “The Interface of Energy and Geopolitics” - Wednesday at 4 pm in Rackham Auditorium. Former Secretary of State
- Gary Johnson – 2012 presidential candidate – Thursday at 8 pm in the Michigan League Ballroom.
A quick challenge to all of my loyal readers: leave a quick comment with one new thing you will actively seek to learn this week, outside of the classroom. Studies show that people who write down their goals in a public place are much more likely to accomplish them than those who keep it inside themselves. Don’t think too hard about it — just scroll down and leave a reply!
I caught Tyson yesterday. It’s a documentary about the rise and fall of Mike Tyson, one of the youngest heavy weight champions of the world. And one of the most controversial and infamous sports figures in America during his time.
Tyson’s character is definitely up for judgement. Has he reformed? Is he telling us what he needs to in order to redeem himself in the public’s eyes? Even if he has turned his life around, can he ever make up for his actions in the past? Whatever your stance, Tyson emerges as a cunning and clever fighter in the film. What are some of the lessons we can take away from Tyson’s accomplishments, and from his life ultimately falling apart so spectacularly?
One of the highlights of the documentary to me was Tyson recounting his intense study of the past greats of boxing. Tyson was taken in by Cus D’Amato after going through a very rough childhood (he was arrested 38 times by the time he was 13 years old). Under Cus, Tyson studied intensely. Tyson describes Cus’ prolific library of boxing film, which enabled him to watch every major fight in history. Tyson studied film intensely for years and years as a child, trying to incorporate the best traits of each fighter’s styles. It took this intense dedication, hundreds and hundreds of hours of study over the years, to learn the game and become the best.
Tyson’s philosophy in the ring is simply amazing. Far from being in an out of control rage, Tyson was immensely calculating. Describing the psychological aspects of the game, he describes the need to win the spiritual game before even stepping into the ring. He would be deathly afraid leading up to the fight, but by the time he made it from the locker room to the ring he knew that he could not lose. He saw himself as a god ruling the entire building. He would keep his eyes, unblinking, on his opponent looking for the slightest hesitation, the slightest kink in armor. Once he had that, he had you, and whether it was a matter of seconds or a matter of rounds, you were going to be on the mat.
Toward the end of his career, Tyson no longer had the heart for the game. In the interview after his final bout, and in his recent documentary, Mike says he knew he was only “boxing for a paycheck” and that his heart was no longer in it. He had become just like the opponents he beat so easily before: boxing for the wrong reasons. He should have learned the lesson from his prior successes, that your willpower can’t be at anything less than 100%, or else you’re nothing. And in a way, he did know that it was over. Whatever your thoughts on the reckless life he lived, inside or outside of the ring, seeing someone who knows he is defeated before the bell rings is a tragic sight. But even so, he had no choice but to get in the ring.
I’m a big fan of cooking. Nothing quite compares to the fusion of art project and science experiment that is cooking. The act of cooking brings out some of the best things about us, and yet apart from the professional chefs among us, we never seem to put much thought into the process.
There are a few necessary ingredients for our cooking mindset that are vital to our success in the kitchen. I’m not talking about the techniques we need to master, the equipment we need to have on hand, or the ingredients we purchase. I’m talking about how we approach the process of cooking itself.
- Improvisation is crucial. Sometimes things go sideways in the kitchen. You start a recipe only to find that you’re missing a key ingredient halfway through the process. You burn one side of that chicken breast. Or more people show up to dinner than you were expecting. The measure of a great chef isn’t his ability to do well under ideal conditions, but to bounce back from adversity when things get crazy.
- Experimentation drives learning. No other laboratory is quite as accessible to tinkering as the kitchen. We learn in the kitchen by playing around with stuff. We might follow a recipe or set of instructions at first, but we quickly veer into the realm of unknown. We think a pinch of salt might make the dish taste better, so we add it. We take a new technique we’ve learned and try to apply it to an ingredient, just to see how it will come out. The best chefs know that only through repetition and continuous experimentation will they achieve mastery.
- Repetition leads to understanding. At the same point, experimentation is not simply about rote repetition. Experimentation drives understanding. Most of us will never understand all the chemical intricacies among reactions in our pots and pans, but after some practice even a novice chef can explain why things went wrong. This deeper understanding allows us to create smarter experiments, in turn teaching us even more about our craft.
- Cooperation yields the best results. Whether you’re working at a five star restaurant with an entire line of cooks, or cooking at home with your family or friends, cooperation is key to success. When working together in harmony a group of cooks can prepare a meal that tastes better, takes less time to produce, and induces less stress on everyone involved. Each individual cook places her stamp on the final meal, but it is only through teamwork that the meal is finished at all.
What would your studies, your business, or your relationships look like if they took place not in their usual environment, and under your usual mindset, but instead in the mindset of the kitchen?
(Quick shout out to Dan Hassing: for getting on my case at Rick’s the other night to write a new blog post. And another one to Katy: for being so damn wonderful!)
This past weekend I took part in my first ever Startup Weekend. This is one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever been a part of.
Starting at 7 pm on Friday, 100+ entrepreneurs and entrepreneur-wannabes, ranging from local business owners to programmers to college kids, joined forces. The weekend started with pitches: describe a problem and your solution in 90 seconds.
Each person got two votes to select their favorite ideas. (My idea, unfortunately, did not move on. More on that later.) After 20 minutes of lobbying for votes, the top 10 ideas were selected, and teams assembled.
I chose to work on an idea that we would later name Chefsperience. The idea was to deliver uncooked meals to people too busy to go grocery shopping. For $30 we would send you three meals, with all the right ingredients and spices, along with an easy to follow (and, I might add, quite beautiful) recipe book that would walk you through each step to cook this meal. I had a great time going out to buy supplies to make Pad Thai, cooking it, taking pictures, and making a recipe book for our customers.
We ended the weekend with a 5 minute pitch before some entrepreneurs and VCs. The Chefsperience team came away with the prize for Most Creative Idea (a coffee thermos) and managed to place 4th in terms of overall points. A great weekend, and one I would do again in a heartbeat.
Some other cool ideas from the weekend:
- lrn2text (1st place): a phone app for parents that locks their child’s phone after 20 text messages, until the kid can answer a homework question correctly.
- Drunk or Child: people submit stories from when they were children, or from when they were drunk and did childish things . Users can vote to see which it actually was.
- FoodCircles (2nd place): users sign up to have lunch with like-minded strangers. Restaurants bid on the group’s business with discounts off their meal.
- Cofound.org: a site to connect people interested in founding companies. Think Match.com for entrepreneurs.
- KidneyFriend: a social network site/support group for dialysis patients.
Some really cool companies — here’s to hoping that they all become wildly successful!
I just finished watching the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary The Birth of Big Air. I didn’t really know much about the film going into it, but seriously enjoyed watching it.
The Birth of Big Air is the story of Mat Hoffman, possibly the best BMX biker to ever live. Hoffman entered his first BMX competition at the age of 15. Mat was a force to be reckoned with, going higher and doing better stunts than riders twice his age. Wikipedia credits him with inventing over 100 tricks. He was the first rider to land a 900 degree spin in competition. But most importantly, Mat pushed the envelope for the sport in his pursuit of “big air”.
Tony Hawk provides a great perspective in ESPN’s documentary on Hoffman. While most riders were seeking incremental process (“Let’s go from a 10 foot ramp to an 11 foot ramp!”), Hawk tells the story of how Hoffman sought an evolutionary leap. In his backyard in Oklahoma, Hoffman constructed a 24 foot quarter pipe to launch himself, literally, to new heights. To even get up the ramp, Hoffman was towed down a rickety plywood runway by a friend’s motorcycle. The end result was breath-taking.
Hoffman is not the guy to follow the invisible rules that govern the lives of everyday mortals. When he needed a better bike, and all the sponsors and bike companies were going out of business in the 1990′s, Hoffman started his own bike company and spent the whole summer touring, putting on four shows a day for months on end. And when best friends told him that a 24 foot ramp couldn’t be done, it pushed him to prove them wrong.
While many observers, and especially doctors, might say Hoffman is crazy to push himself to these limits, there is no denying that Mat is living out his dream. By ignoring the limits other people placed on themselves, Hoffman redefined the sport and showed the world what was really possible.
How are you showing the world what is really possible?
In an hour’s time, Dr. Peterson gave a brief overview of positive psychology, the scientific study of what makes a life fulfilling. By sifting through student submissions, Dr. Peterson broke down the question of “What Makes Life Worth Living?” into four basic responses: Work, Love, Service, and Play.
Research shows that these four categories are reoccurring themes in the lives of happy people. To be happy, we need to be engaged by some sort of meaningful work. We need a social network of people with whom we can bond. We need to give some portion of our wealth and time in service of others. And we need a healthy dose of pleasure and play.
The biggest learning moment for me was Dr. Peterson’s point that all Good Days have something in common. It is easy to tell whether I’ve just had a Good Day, but I’ve never really thought about what makes a Good Day. Luckily, some psychologists have an answer for us:
The Three C’s of a Good Day
- Choice (“Autonomy”) – our actions are chosen by us
- Competence – we perceive that we’re doing a good job on our work
- Connection (“Relatedness”) – we are connected to others and feel a sense of belonging
How can we go about fulfilling these needs in our lives?
The first step is recognizing the importance of these needs. It can be easy to find a scapegoat for our bad day (traffic jam, annoying coworker, etc.) but without addressing these basic needs we cannot be happy.
Only after we become aware of our needs can we go about seeking solutions. If we are lacking in autonomy, we should ask for more responsibility or look for jobs with greater freedom. If we lack competence, maybe some new learning is in order. If we are feeling isolated, we should go out of our way to reconnect with a loved one, or to make a new friend entirely (the most productive employees have a best friend at work).
I want to talk today a bit about fear.
Borrowing one of the most hackneyed openings in any speechwriter’s repertoire,
the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Wikipedia says fear is a “distressing emotion aroused by a perceived threat”. If you’ll forgive the unoriginality for a moment, there is value in opening our conversation with a definition: we can’t have control over fear unless we know what it is, and how it works.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration…
Fear is distressing. It is not something we seek or want. Fear is the little-death that, once planted in our mind, spreads and grows, seemingly without bounds. When we are afriad we become anxious; our hearts start to thud inside our chest, we can’t think clearly. We have all experienced this state and know exactly what it feels like.
But that’s not quite the fear I’m talking about. We have this one version of fear when we’re in danger, when the perceived threat is very real. During a car accident or while being mugged for example. Fear in these cases is logical — our bodies are getting ready to act, and to act quickly if need be.
Another type is a more common, day-to-day fear. This is when we realize that we’re anxious or nervous about something, but know deep down that we’re not really in any physical danger.The fear of getting up and presenting before an audience. Or of taking a test. But that’s not quite the fear I’m after either.
A further subset of the day-to-day fear of non-dangerous situations is an illogical fear of the unknown. This is the fear we have of talking to someone on the bus. Or of moving to a new city.
We experience this fear when situations are too complex for us to make exact predictions about the outcomes of our actions. We don’t necessarily fear the drive home from work, because we’ve done it a million times and we can visualize the exact route home in our mind. Even when driving somewhere we’ve never been, we can predict with reasonable accuracy how the trip will play out, at least as far the variables we care about (trip length, route taken, mileage or gas consumption, and so on). And we have a pretty reasonable picture in our minds of the different scenarios likely to occur. Maybe the gas is low and we need to make a detour to the gas station. Or there is no traffic and we breeze on through. Or maybe we get a flat tire, or there is an accident on the road. The truth is that anything could happen on our hypothetical car trip, but through experience and exploring the mental model we have of Car Trip, we don’t have to worry about utterly crazy things happening to us 99% of the time.
For some reason, probably evolutionary in nature, we are not good at predicting likely outcomes when we have this specific fear of the unknown. We fear striking up a conservation with someone because we don’t have a picture in our mind or a mental model to explain exactly what will happen and where the conversation will go. In this case, the variables we care about are harder to measure and juggle in our minds. We think to ourselves: anything could happen during that conversation.
“Anything could happen.” I’m sure that specific phrase sends chills down some people’s spines. As soon as we realize that “anything can happen” fear takes a hold things start spiraling out of control. Fear distorts our thoughts, and we go from not really having a handle on where the conversation will go, to having even less of a clue. “Maybe it will be awkward. Maybe we will get into a confrontation on the bus in front of everyone else. Maybe the guy will be a serial killer and track me down and dump my body in a river. Maybe, Maybe, Maybe.”
How do we stop this cycle from spinning out of control?
The key thing to focus on is changing the way we choose to think. Anything could happen during our conversation with this stranger, just as anything could happen on our previously discussed car trip. But, just as only a limited number of scenarios will probably occur during our car trip, only a limited number of scenarios will likely occur during our conversation. Probability wise, you are in far more danger for being on the bus itself than any realistic outcome of the conversation. What’s more, the benefits of potentially meeting a life-long friend on the bus far outweigh the worst case scenario of running into a stranger that doesn’t want to talk and having an awkward moment. Our thinking needs to shift from “Anything can happen!” to “What is the worst that could actually happen?”
But, more than just knowing how to tackle the situation, we need to train ourselves to recognize fear. When the idea to start a conservation with a stranger first pops in our mind, we may dismiss it with any number of excuses. All of those excuses boil down to one: being afraid. Once you realize that fear itself is stopping you, and oh by the way that you’re not in any real danger here, it all seems sort of silly. “I wanted to strike up a conversation, but I was scared (just like a little girl).”
It is important to be thinking about this type of fear, and all the things that it unconsciously keeps up from achieving. We all have things that we want to do. There is no reason we should hold ourselves back on account of fear. Make an effort to be in tune with your thoughts and the way you’re thinking. If you feel yourself start to make excuses, think about what the reason for those excuses is.
The good part of this whole process is that things get easier. Just as the effects of fear can be a paralyzing downward spiral, overcoming fear is a process that builds upon itself. Ever time you realize that fear is holding you back, but choose to act anyway, you have won another battle. The more and more you force yourself to recognize irrational fear and acting anyway, the easier it becomes to do next time. All it takes is a first step.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
- Frank Herbert’s Dune