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 ?

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How Big is the Universe?

Not the most easiest question, is it?
Chris Anderson, the man behind one of the most powerful sources of intelligence and information, TED, raises that question along with the possible answers and their counter-points from the scientific community. Just the few minutes he spends opening our minds to the impossible vastness of the universe we know is enough to make you feel awe-struck by sheer possibilities, but he also throws in a bunch of other equally mind-boggling questions with no answer yet. It’s more than likely that the ultimate answers for these long explored mysteries may be revealed at a future TED conference so at least, we can thank Chris for giving us this incredible source of ideas and inspirations.

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Bad Mood Makes You Work Better

I am not making this up, I promise. A research done at the University Of New South Wales show that people with bad mood process information more critically leading to better (read:safer) decisions. Again, I am being serious here. This is from a completely serious study from a University in Australia (a common wealth country).
Don’t believe me? Here is a direct quote from the Telegraph of UK (the country that had all the common wealth)

“Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention to the external world,”

Consider this for a minute. One one hand you have ‘creativity, flexibility, cooperation” and on the other hand there is ‘attentive, careful thinking paying greater attention'(notice that attention comes in twice). If you were a CEO of a company, who would you hire? a person who is happy and creative or someone who is grumpy and attentive? I am going to go out on a limb and say that unless you are running General Motors or a fast food joint or the Postal Service you would want the happy person.
For the study, the researchers made participants get into sad or happy moods by making them watch movies and recall events from their lives that invoke sad or happy emotions. Then they were asked to judge the truth of urban myths and rumors. Those in a negative mood were less likely to believe these statements. Here is another memorable quote.

“Positive mood is not universally desirable: people in negative mood are less prone to judgmental errors, are more resistant to eyewitness distortions and are better at producing high-quality, effective persuasive messages”

Apparently, positive mood is not desirable in certain parts of the universe, especially in the ‘Australia’ part of the universe. I am not a science person – in that I am not made of science – but there is no way being sad can make you productive. I can understand fear – fear of failure is one of the leading, albeit bad, motivator for many people.

Even seeing past the fact that this study was done at a country which was a designated prison for the most uncivilized offenders of Her Majesty The Queen’s England, how does it make sense that an annoyed, grumpy and all around terrible person would do a better job compared to a happy and creative person? Even the bouncer dudes outside night clubs look pleasant; frightening but pleasant – for their size.
So, in an unprecedented move for our blog, I am calling this study bullshit!!

Oh, sorry. I mean ‘Bullshit, mate! crocky’.

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