Waiting For Superman

Did you like going to school ? Ok, you don’t have to answer that. When I was young, school was the daily routine that happened whether I liked it or not and, for all intentions, I hated it. There were exceptionally few days when I would wake up in the morning and felt good about going to school. I liked that school put me and my friends in one place allowing us to have fun during short recesses but the fact that those few moments of enjoyment were interrupted by almost hour-long, mind numbing classes meant that the fun vs mind numbing-ness ratio was a negative million.The point of learning was lost and it was more like memorizing enough context-free statements to pass the exam with minimum marks so that one only gets mild to medium scolding from one’s parents. Sometime between standing on the bench for talking during the class and kneeling on the floor for not completing homework (again!) the basic goal of going to school became moot. I did not see that the time spent in the classroom were the hours to learn how to learn for the rest of my life.

As it is always the case, the adults were totally responsible for this. Studying was not fun and as a kid there was no reason to spend time on anything that is not fun. Very quickly, me and my friends along with many of my classmates worked out this simple equation: School equals Not Fun, and Not Fun equals Hate It and therefore, School equals Hate It. (You probably noticed already that the equation is flawed since I am equating items of different units, School being a place and Fun/Hate being emotion, but like I said earlier, I was a terrible student.)

I was a terrible student, but I did not drop out because –  this is actually the main reason – my parents would have killed me. Not metaphorically, but quite literally. For me, like many students in India, parents were the reason we went to school, stayed in school and finished school. But the story is different for lots of under privileged kids who came from poor and uneducated parents who work for meager wages everyday, those who did not see the value of a complete school education, those who didn’t have the impetus to keep their children in school. As much as the parents are to be blamed for taking their children out of the schools, the schools themselves must also bear responsibility for not motivating the students enough, for not using proper teaching techniques to reach the students and make sure they understand what they are taught instead of just focusing ont he exams. This is not the case of children failing the schools, but it is the school, its teachers and its administrators who fail the students by not paying attention to the kids’ needs.

The documentary ‘Waiting For Superman‘, which follows the lives of three kids at different rungs in the education ladder – early education and middle school shows the exact plight prevailing in the American public school system. The kids along with their parents are stuck with the limited choice of public schools that are available to them and these schools are what the administrators call “Dropout Factories” meaning a big percentage of students who go to these schools do not go to a four-year college and in many cases do not graduate school at all. This causes a huge drag in the local neighborhood, since without a college level education upward mobility is almost impossible. Not surprisingly these dropout factories are at the center of some of the poorest neighborhoods, but alarmingly enough, such schools are prevalent in almost every county in the US of A. The parents can’t afford to send their children to private schools, and are aware that the available public schools do nothing but destroy their kids chances of having a good education. Filling the gap are the relatively new establishments called Public Charter Schools which like public schools offer free education but is not bound by same rules as public schools, which allows the administrators to try different things to teach the students better, reward good teachers and mor importantly punish bad teachers. As you might expect in such schools, the demand is way more than the supply, resulting in a lottery which determines if a student can get into these much sought after schools. The title refers to the kids’ and the parents’ predicament as they wait for the bolt of lightning to decide their future.

The documentary makes an excellent case for strong administrators who can challenge and bring down the status quo. We have arrived at this stage not by chance, but through years of deliberate choices where the decisions did not take into account the lives and future of the school children which has a dramatic effect on the future of the country itself. Although the charter schools are not a cure-all, they point a direction that leads to a better education system that focuses on real learning for the children and expanding their minds for the challenging future they will eventually face.

Here is the full documentary Waiting For Superman in YouTube

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Success vs Character

“Wow, you are not a manager yet? How come ?”

There was no way for me to miss the tone of indignation, and even a tinge of  mockery, in my colleague’s voice when he asked me this. I was lost for words for a few moments, primarily because it was unexpected. I had just stopped by his desk to say ‘hi’, since he and I have been working on different projects at different locations for more than two years and on that day he had come to my office building for a cross-project meeting. I made a mild-recovery of sorts and uttered something like ‘enjoying coding’ and ‘not a manager kind of person’ and then quickly changed the subject to the ongoing Olympics event since it is a sure way to not talk about personal stuff. It is remarkable how easy it is to divert people’s attention by mentioning useless trivia about sports, of any kind.

His question lingered in my mind long after I came  back to my desk and moved on to other work things. I hadn’t really thought about that subject too much – of course I have thought about getting a leadership position, but not from the perspective of “why haven’t I become a (some leadership title) yet ?” – and I realized that, in my mind, it was rapidly morphing from a ‘mildly annoying question’ into a ‘deeply troubling question’ category. I sensed crisis looming in the horizon and, as always, it was time to seek guidance from the all-knowing oracle of our modern time: Google.

I google searched “How to become a leader“, “How to become a successful leader“, “Top leadership habits” and a few more phrases that closely matched each other in meaning until I found a satisfactory answer at the top of the first search results page. I read that and then read about 15 more articles similar to that, all laying out, always in bulleted/numbered fashion, the sure ways to become a leader at work. Here are the top three points, ranked by their frequency of appearance, in numbered format.

1. Listen more than you speak
2. Praise good work in public/review bad work in private
3. Think independently and be selfless (time, resources, guidance, etc)

They all seem good and admirable traits for everyone to develop – after all these are not only great attributes for just business people but really all people. But when I recall the familiar annual ‘360 Performance Review’ questionnaire, it never asked people to rate their peers on these criteria. It always had things like :

Rate the employee’s performance in following work instructions well and executing them:

  • Does not meet expectations
  • Consistently does not meet expectations
  • Meets expectations
  • Consistently meets expectations
  • Exceeds expectations

As you can see questions similar to this do not point to good character traits, but more towards measuring how obedient an ‘employee‘ is or how well they can be controlled. Since the feedback from these performance reviews correlate directly towards people’s promotions, salary changes and, to a large extent, quality of future work, it does not seem like having great character traits are enough to get promoted to the next level. One might be well liked and respected by their colleagues but to become a leader and get ahead, it seems, one needs a different set of skills that are geared towards success.

This got me all confused. The answers from a diverse sources on the Internets do not match the reality on the ground, at least in one instance. Does this mean I can become a leader without great character ? Instead of enduring the long, often emotional process of character building which involves embracing failures and doubt, by following the business script for climbing the corporate ladder, it seems, one could attain success. Compared to ‘embracing failure and doubt‘, sticking to a script seems much more comfortable. If this is the case, is there really a need for a great character ?

This was going to need some independent analysis and thinking (By which I mean sitting in my chair, thinking/talking to myself and arriving at a conclusion which, almost always, was obvious to begin with). I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down and started thinking. Here is what I concluded:

Success and Character are not apples and apples.

Let me clarify.
Success is relative to the activity/domain and in life it is measured differently: at school(grades, distinction), work (title, salary), family (age, security, resources), social circle (looks, culture, status, money, interests). To achieve success, depending on the kind, there seems to be a commonly agreed set of contracts that can be followed.

Things like respect and love are more elementary, because people, at their core, are elementary. People in all walks of life use the same basic character traits to measure others and use that measure to decide who to trust, respect and ultimately love. These are abstract character traits, which dictate our true behavior, and can be developed and honed over the course of our lifetimes. They would make us more charismatic, honest, kind and compassionate. This is character building and is usually a fuzzy process.

Success is not always the result of great character, but a great character will always lead to a happier, more meaningful life which, at a philosophical level, is a significant measure of success. Success alone might get you the main chair at an all important business meeting, but an impeccable character will result in people fighting to give you their kidney when you need a transplant.

A shorter, easy-to-remember way to put it would be:
Success is subjective. Character is universal.

Am I wildly wrong here ?

[Post: 315]
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The Best Beer in the World

Did you know that Trappist Beer is considered to be one of the best tasting beer in the entire world ? It is very rare to acquire but people who have tasted it swear by its deliciousness. Did you also know that Trappist beer gets its name from the monastery where it is brewed? That is right, the most awesome tasting beer in the market is actually made by Trappist monks in remote monasteries (or abbey as they call it) around the world. Westvleteren is consistently voted the best beer in the world and it brewed in an abbey near the border of France. Here is the interesting part, if you are already not blown away by now – you can’t just order the beer and have it delivered to you. You can’t just drive to their abbey and pay for the beer you want. You have to call them at specific times of the week and, if you are lucky, a monk will answer. Then you make the order, which comes with its own restrictions.  You have to give your license plate number and be available to come pick up your crate during the appointed time that weekend. You’re limited to one crate per person per car, maximum two per car. And, you can’t buy more than one crate during a 60-day period. You also have to agree not to resell the beer.

It used to be pretty easy to get this beer until recently when they added all these new restrictions due to increased demand. I know what you are thinking. Why are there so many restrictions ? Can they not just brew more ? Why don’t the monks simply increase production ? Well, turns out, they don’t want to. In fact, they really don’t need to. They don’t make the beers to make a profit, so to speak. The Trappist way of living in a monastery is that the abbey must be self-sufficient. So the monks can’t get grants or donations, but they have to make and sell things to make money which would be used to run the abbey. Some abbeys sell soups, some sell jams, but their beers are the most well-known. Although the consumption and with it the demand for their beers have skyrocketed, the monks refuse to brew more because they don’t need the extra cash. Whatever they were making by selling the beers before the increased demand was enough for them to run their abbey and they see no need to make more money by increasing production. Their main job is to serve God and selling beer was just a means for that and they have no plans to spend more time on it than it is sufficiently necessary.

As a result, what is usually used to explicitly increase demand, price and profit – limited production, restricted access and distribution – is used in the monks’ case to cut and curb the demand. This is design done in a particularly interesting and novel way to satisfy the needs of the producers rather than that of the consumers. This also shows how the same principles and ideas can be applied in different context in different ways to achieve a totally different outcome.

Did you like this subject? Did you find it interesting to learn about these odd rituals and behaviors that happen in some corner of the world and understand the reason and background to these rituals? Well, then you need to be listening to 99% Invisible –  a public radio podcast produced by Roman Mars available online for free. That’s right, stuff that I mentioned above and much more awesomeness like that is provided to you for free. All you need to do is subscribe and enjoy. You can do it here.

You can do more too. A kickstarter campaign is currently underway to raise funding for season 3 of the podcast. As of this writing, the total donation pledge has smoked the campaign target reaching almost double the amount. But If it can get 5000 backers then the Design Matters Institute will fund them an extra ten thousand dollars. Mr.Mars literally does this entire podcast from his home and he is able to produce amazing radio in public space. Just think of what he and his crack team can do with all this additional cash. So go to Kickstarter link here, and become a backer for this brilliant podcast. You can pledge how much ever you can –  as long as you  become a backer, you have done your part for the betterment of design geeks world-wide.

Click here to pledge.

In case you have already pledged for the show, I salute you, O’ Enlightened One.

[Post: 307 of 365] [Days Missed: way too many]

An Ideal Man’s Day

4 AM: The youthful man wakes up sharp at the strike of the hour every single day. While the rest of common population spends this and the next few hours in deep slumber, this young man leaps off his bed with an enthusiasm of a relay runner who was just handed the baton.

5 AM: The deep black, breathable sport shirt helps him keep cool while he exercises strenuously. His corporate and semi-professional gym is 20 minutes drive from our most ambitious man’s residence and at this hour it is filled with impressive looking men and women who see the beads of work-out sweat rolling down their necks as gold medals. Our main man has sporty tunes blasting in his ears while he performs picture perfect squats, presses and lifts with barbels weighing at least twice and/or up to four times his body weight. A number of women and a few men admire his chiseled body and impeccable technique.

6:30 AM: The hot shower after the invigorating workout delights our guy so much that he smiles as he lathers up his hardened torso. He could feel his post-workout protein drink getting absorbed by his muscles, hungry for energy and he looks forward for the hearty breakfast he was about to savor. It generally included one egg and a bowl of oatmeal cereal with blueberries.

7 AM: He had always enjoyed thumping rock music while speeding on the highway and today is no different. He is going just a tad over the official speed limit and his car is gliding on the highway as smooth as a feather and he could feel every boom of the bass and shrill of the treble drench his skin like the ocean’s blue waves. Without realizing, as always, he is mouthing the lyrics of the song.

7:30 AM: He had the office dress neatly pressed and so fitting, many in the office thought he had all of his clothes custom-made with an old-school tailor. He has his regular spring on his feet as he strolls past cubes with admiring and sometimes envying pairs of eyes and settles into his desk chair.

5 PM: He always gave a little more than what was expected. It was not a conscious move by him, but simply a habit. For some reason, he could not settle for less and demanded more of himself. This meant, the usual 8 hour work day was an exception for him. He took one 30 minute lunch break, usually with a colleague discussing tasks related to work and a 15 minute break late afternoon to socialize with some of his nearby cube mates. Sometimes, he had worked through the lunch break and had to chow down his food at his desk later when he realized he was terribly hungry, but there was never a known instance where he did not deliver more than what was expected of him. He was always on time and never made a mistake. As a personal policy, he kept professional and personal life separate, wich meant that his work day ended at 5, on the dot.

6 PM: Our high spirited man has a quest of learning as no other and, once he came home from work, he consumed his daily dose of quality information in the form of Books (fiction and non-fiction), online blogs about psychology, technology, politics and pop culture, and podcasts. His selections tend to be eclectic by common consensus, but to him they just exist as a means to fill himself with delightful and curious bits of information.

8 PM: He has a tendency to read and listen to these high sources of world knowledge so intensely that he would often forget his appetite which usually results in him quickly cooking a dinner with minimum fuzz and ingredients that are high in significant dietary values. Dinner is always accompanied by jazz music and in some cases, a glass of quality wine.

9 PM: The other side of his voracious intake of information is to process and produce them into his own works of writing. Our main man spends the final waking hour of his utilitarian and, evidently, impressive day pouring his thoughts into an online blog where he often picks either of the two subjects: writing about something he found interesting online or from one of his podcasts, in which case the content of his writing tends to be partly or entirely based on that original source. The second of his subject of choice, chosen only when the first one fails to materialize on any given day at 9 PM, is to write about his personal habits or observations he has made about himself. His writing, in this case, tends to be about the failings of his own behavior and more often than not, they tend to repeat and at regular intervals.

10 PM: Our young and entrepreneurial man’s day always ends when the clock strikes ten at night and falling asleep is not an effort for him. In rare cases, he spends a few minutes lying on his bed, thinking about his day and could not help himself but think, quite self-assuredly, how great his life was. He could see his satisfied life lay in front of him with every milestone carved and decorated with expensive artwork. When he does fall asleep, his dreams are serene and fulfilling. If someone asked him, he would say that he never regretted anything, for he was always right and progressing and by association, his decisions and actions where impacting and celebrated.
He is content of his life for he knows he is headed for greatness and he knows it will be simple because all he has to do is wake up at 4 AM and go to the gym and everything else will follow.

By common consensus, he is an ideal man.

Author’s note: This is me paraphrasing my friends M and S as they narrated the day’s schedule of an imaginary man of the most interesting and impressive kind. Although I have added a few details to sprinkle some flavor to his story, all credits and concerns towards his character, talents, skills and convictions should rest with his original makers, M and S.

[Post: 301 of 365] [Days Missed: a few more than a dignified man would care to admit]

The Opposite of Loneliness

Tomorrow, I’ll be getting on a plane and begin a week of something that is the completely opposite of what I do everyday. Here in Phoenix, time travels in terms of activities; not the kind of things that come to your mind when you hear the word activities. I speak to people outside and they say they indulge in activities like going to a bar or going to the mall or going to the movies. See, my activities include, sleeping, reading a book, listening to music and podcasts and playing video games. Occasionally, I cook something and then sometimes I talk to people over the phone and in case you had not noticed it yet, all of my activities exclude the need to get out of my apartment. My common list of activities also exclude any real need for other people, which sort of explains why the phone calls I make are too far and few in between. I head out to work and then come back to my lair and stay in. Like I said earlier, I will be getting on a plane tomorrow and heading to Denver. At Denver, over the next week, I will be surrounded by people. People who are close to me and, here, I will be staying in for work and then I will head out. The opposite of what I do everyday.

Although it feels terrible, loneliness is not a grave situation to be in, since, from my observation, it simply allows one to do things undisturbed. Frankly, to be occupied with something completely while being fully aware that one won’t be interrupted – I find it to be nurturing. But then there is a different kind of loneliness, which is surely grave in its manifestation. I read an essay called On Loneliness: Art, Life, and Fucking Human Beings that gave an in-depth and slightly unsettling account of things that people do when they find themselves enveloped with isolation. These are not the kind of separation from the population that one enjoys in a library, but the kind of loneliness that arises inevitably out of a sequence of certain life choices. The essay focuses on 5 books that deal with some aspect of this subject and at the very beginning – this is what got my attention in the first place – has a reference from David Foster Wallace. Here is a quote from that essay.

There are days when it seems to me that what it is to be a fucking human being is to be lonely; to be in this state of deep sadness and estrangement, and to know that there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful.

The books listed in the essay deal with a range of emotions that people go through when they experience terrible isolation and they also focus on the coping mechanisms that they devise which are fascinating and seem to make them even more vulnerable. There is the book about Jeff Ragsdale, who felt so lonely, that he stuck up a few fliers with his phone number in New York City asking other people to call him to just talk about anything. Think about that for a second. Most of us consider our time to be too precious to even talk to people in our own lives and Jeff asked total strangers to call him up anytime of the day to just talk. As crazy it seems, it is also comforting to know, that he got so many calls and texts and emails that he was able to print a book about it. There is also this book about an author, Miranda July, who after getting stuck in a writer’s block, started interviewing random people she found on newspaper ads. Her story about how even though she found them fascinating they also made her feel creeped out, wanting to forcefully get away from them.
These real stories may seem like a drab on life as we expect it, lets face it it is not what is shown in any TV shows or movies, but for anyone who is willing to look beyond the average person or the normal adult life, these are examples of how people manage to pass the hour and days, weeks and years, one at a time. They simply find curious and creepy ways to make themselves vulnerable to get some degree of human contact which everyone craves for to a certain degree. This seems to be a universal aspiration at a primal level-to exist and to be known by others, to be really understood who they are. As often as it is the case, George Orwell was right when he said,

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

[Post: 300 of 365] [Days Missed: does it matter?]

Three Short Documentaries from PBS for Your Sunday

Stumbled on to an awesome YouTube Channel today, featuring great short documentaries produced by PBS. These are five to seven snappy videos that show a significant aspect of every day things involving anything from art to entertainment, from books to video games. That last one is a favorite pastime of mine, so obviously that made it into the list of videos I really liked.

One of best things about PBS documentaries is the ‘indie’ feeling they assume from the beginning to the end. There is rarely a sense of grand, over arching corporate presence in their productions and that, coupled with their thoughtful selection of topics and experts in that topic who voice their astute opinions, make these mini-documentaries a great tool for learning and understanding a little of the things we see everyday. A great example is this one about Product Design.

This one is certainly a primer to the power of internet in today’s world and how it is almost impossible to guess the magnitude of its impact on our future. This mini-doc gives a brilliant primer on Kickstarter and open source Creative Commons project which, by the way, is a must know for anyone who works on the internet.

You can stay up to date with the latest mini-documentaries from PBS by subscribing to their YouTube channel.

[Post: 287 of 365] [Days Missed: 103]
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Measuring The Universe

Start the work week right with more knowledge. Ever wondered how scientists measure how far the stars and planets and galaxies are from earth? Although it would be amazing to create a really long tape measure and attach it to a space shuttle, it is not the most efficient way to measure the celestial objects in our ever-expanding universe. So how do they do it ?

via BrainPickings

[Post: 285 of 365] [Days Missed: 98]
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