Sweep the Dojo

I’ve recently begun a (slow, but steady) campaign of personal development, by reading books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Outliers, and blogs like Study Hacks and You Are Not So Smart. Believe it or not, I’ve actually begun to learn some things, and develop a philosophy about how to be successful in life.1 As I gain insight I’m going to try to write about it here from time to time, and we’ll see how it goes.

It could be said that there are two major components to becoming successful: (1) being skilled in what you do, and (2) external factors, such as birth date, upbringing, and cultural legacy. There are books like So Good They Can't Ignore You which focus entirely on (1), and at the other extreme books like Outliers which focus on (2). Some of these external factors are pure luck, but others are keys to success which anyone might learn, regardless of their IQ. These are advantages that can be cultivated, but how? My new quest is to discover techniques that will give me these sorts of advantages: both advantages of skill, and advantages of circumstance.

Advantage Number One

My first post in this vein discusses something which fits into both categories: the necessity of being outgoing. A key component of learning a new skill and getting better at it is to have good feedback on how you're doing. Often this comes in the form of a coach or a mentor who can help guide you and give you opportunities to learn. A coach or a trainer not only gives you immediate feedback, but also guides you toward mastery by giving you challenging tasks. Tasks that push the limit of your ability and immediate feedback are two central components of deliberate practice.2 So one big question is, how do I learn from others? How can I convince someone to be my mentor? This leads us to conclude that to learn from others, you must be sociable.3

So that is how being social can help you develop your skills. But what about those external factors I mentioned? Well, being social is tightly wrapped up in those ideas, too. I'm sure you have already heard people emphasize the importance of networking to career building. "It's not what you know, it's who you know," the saying goes. Most of Gladwell's Outliers focuses on those less tangible factors for success. As he says in the introduction to his book:

... the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.

The whole premise of Outliers is that we cannot begin to understand a person's path to success until we start thinking in terms of community—in terms of "the people we surround ourselves with." I believe being a friendly, helpful person can contribute just as much to our career as learning from others. It means you might be able to use your connections to find out about great opportunities and solicit great recommendations. Being friends with kind, thoughtful people has a good influence on myself and my character. Likewise, I believe being friends with successful people predisposes me to success.

The Reluctant Extrovert

A friend of mine recently read Quiet, and was distressed by the value our society places on extroverts and the massive potential of introverts that goes untapped as a result. Chapter 4 in Outliers bears a similar lesson: those who are taught from an early age to speak up and get what they want tend to be more successful.

Quiet seems to posit that this “Extrovert Ideal” has developed or gotten much worse in recent years than ever before, but I am inclined to believe that this has always been the case. Most undiscovered talents probably stay undiscovered. After all, we would never have had A Confederacy of Dunces if John Kennedy Toole's mother wasn't a persuasive woman. How many other great Southern writers have we missed out on? Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius has shown us that pure ability does not often lead to success, as Terman himself was forced to conclude that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”

This is tragic, though to some extent it is not unreasonable. The introvert will not have the help of others. He will have to make his way alone. And as it is phrased in Outliers, “no one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.” Perhaps someday we will develop systems to help those who cannot help themselves, but for now we will have to learn to become reluctant extroverts. We will have to learn to market ourselves and reach out to others. So how do we begin?

On Scott Young’s blog, Get More From Life, there is a very nice post on networking which implores us to Be High Value and Be Generous as a first step in our networking strategy. To receive help from others, we must first be helpful ourselves. That involves developing skills, and then being generous with those skills.

You may ask, however, how can I develop my skills without someone to help me? And how can I possibly help someone who is leaps and bounds ahead of me? There are many times when it seems that we have nothing of value to offer to our mentors. Isn’t this a chicken-or-egg problem? Well, I recently heard a great piece of advice, a personal motto of sorts...

Sweep the Dojo

What does it mean? It means that if we admire a great master of martial arts, and we wish to learn from them, it is true that we cannot offer to spar with them. We cannot offer to help them teach other martial arts students. But we can always offer to sweep the dojo.

There is always some way for us to help everyone, if we dig deep enough, no matter how small. If there is a professor in another university whose work you are trying to understand, perhaps you can offer to be their copy editor in return for the privilege of gaining early access to their publications. If there is a clever entrepreneur you want as your mentor, maybe you can start by managing some of the tedious details of running a business that they don't have time for.

As you do menial work for them, you can observe them, get to know them, and begin to learn tidbits from them, while studying on your own in your free time. If they are worth having as a mentor, they will recognize your efforts and begin to give you more opportunities to learn.

If they already have a graduate student or a secretary or whatnot to help them in that area, they will at least appreciate the effort and will already be much more open to your communications than they would have otherwise. Who knows, they may agree to help you anyway.

 


  1. Developing a philosophy and actually living it are two different things, but hey, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
  2. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of deliberate practice, I recommend you start as I did, by reading this blog post, followed by this one.
  3. You must either be sociable, or you must have the money to spend on professional classes. But if you are to be a lifelong learner, you can't just keep paying for classes your whole life. Better to find mentors and partners.

Making Terrorism Rare

Following the events of the Boston Marathon bombing, I would like to bring everyone's attention to the fact that terrorism in the United States is so rare that this has become national news, and by extension, international news. Three people were killed in the bombing.

Was the bomb that killed fifteen people in Syria a week ago international news? No. Was the bomb that killed seven people in Afghanistan two days ago international news? Nope. Or how about the one that killed nine the week before that? This is because these are common occurrences.

I'm not saying you should feel bad about it or something. I'm just saying to remember, terrorism in the United States of America is extremely rare. Many folks, upon hearing this assertion, will say that we should be thankful we live in such a safe country and that we should care more about the situation in other countries. Yes, one of the takeaways from this is that we might relate better to foreigners when we consider how different their situation is. But I want us to think even beyond that.

I want you to wonder, "Hey, yeah, what does set us apart? Why is terrorism so rare here?" Certainly terrorism is easy, no? I could find instructions online and have a small bomb within weeks. So why don't I? Why doesn't this happen every day?

I also want us to wonder, "Hang on... if terrorism is so damn rare, why do I have to walk in my socks like an idiot at airport security?" What is this really doing? Is it making me safer?

I want us to be asking really critical questions about why terrorism is rare, and I want that to lead us to ways to make it more rare. Where should we be investing our resources? What kind of security is the most effective?1 And can these strategies be exported to our brethren in other countries, where violence is much more common?

I don't have all the answers; I only have the right questions.

 


  1. I think a good start is by putting our reliance in good old-fashioned police work, instead of new technologies. And I think it's important for us to realize that as a group, terrorists are dumb, and they make dumb mistakes.

Write a Winning Statement of Purpose

If you are applying to graduate school, you probably already know the four major points you are expected to cover in your statement of purpose:1

  • Your specific area of academic interest (research topic you want to work on or scientific question you want to answer).
  • How your past education and other experiences have prepared you to be successful in the graduate program.
  • What you hope to achieve in the graduate program.
  • Why that particular school is the best place for you to pursue your interests.

Here, then, are the more subtle elements of writing a winning personal statement. These are the boxes the reviewer is looking to tick:

  • Good communications skills (esp. writing skills) — Whether you're in liberal arts or science, grad school will have you writing a whole lot. A lot of science majors underestimate how much these skills will help their application. Plus, there's a good chance you'll be expected to teach at some point, so if you have any prior teaching or tutoring experience you should mention it.
  • Hard working and motivated — You can't just say you're "self-motivated" like every other boob writes on their resumé. You have to offer an anecdote or evidence that demonstrates your motivation. For me, this was an anecdote about the DARPA Grand Challenge where we lost due to our reliance on GPS sensors. This motivated me to want to solve the problem of robot navigation without GPS.
  • Understanding of the field — If you don't have this, spend a week reading whitepapers and Wikipedia articles. This will give you enough keywords to let you talk conversationally in terms that an insider will recognize. It will make a big difference. Google Scholar and CiteCeerX are your friends.
  • Reasonable expectations about what you will achieve — Don't tell them you're hell bent on being the next President of the United States. That's childish and unrealistic. Present a balanced perspective that shows ambition, optimism, and hopefulness, but also restraint.
  • A focus on research — This will differ from field to field, but in most fields what they really want to hear about is research. Like teaching, if you have any research experience it should feature prominently in your essay. In addition to the research you've already done, they'll want to hear about the research you plan to do in grad school. Show that your plans are focused by being specific, but also show that you are open to other possibilities. Ideally, you should already know the scientific question you want to answer. If you don't know this, then you should be able to present some ideas to show that you're already thinking about problems (though this is less important for an MS). If you haven't done any research at all, you're in serious trouble unless you have impeccable grades to make up for it. So dig deep. Find anything that remotely resembles research. You need to prove to them that you can do research on your own, without guidance.
  • Finally: How are you going to stand out?? — How are you going to stand out in the admissions officer's mind?? What will they call you to remember you by? "Oh, that's the librarian who's interested in accessibility of information," or "that's the guy who went backpacking in Europe," or "the guy who competed in the DARPA Grand Challenge." This doesn't have to be something academic. It just has to be the one thing that is really, truly unique, interesting, and memorable about your essay. It doesn't even have to be a significant moment in your life. It just has to be something that the mind of the reviewer can latch onto, something so they will still remember and identify you after reading hundreds of essays just like yours (no problem, right?).

One last tip: Try to write your essay so that it still reads the same if a reviewer reads only the first sentence of each paragraph—sometimes this is all they will have time to read! (In case you didn't notice, that is how I've written this post!)

Finally, you should read the following books. Whereas I've only tried to give you the overall themes you should strike upon, these books will give you the in-depth view. Try to find them at your local library.

 


  1. Taken from this page in UBC's well-written FAQ for applicants.

Recursive Programming Aphorisms

  • Premature optimization is the root of all evil is the root of all evil.
  • Go To Statement Considered Harmful Considered Harmful
  • You Ain't Gonna Need You Ain't Gonna Need It (YAGN-YAGNI)
  • No code is faster than no code.
  • Why Why Functional Programming Matters Matters (via Reginald Braithwaite)
  • Another level of indirection solves most problems in computer science, except the problem of indirection. (via Matt Might)

Have another one to add? Email me!

Don't Become a Scientist?

Becoming a scientist is scary. In fact, it may not even be worth it.

Now that I am applying to graduate school, I've been reading about what to expect. I've been reading a lot. Books about essay writing, books about the application process, books about being a scientist, memoirs, essays, student blogs, professor blogs, and forum postings (whew!). And you know what I've found out? Becoming a scientist is possibly the economically worst decision a person can ever make.

I'll try to condense the main idea of what I've read, and link you to more reading if you're interested. These "facts" are largely anecdotal, but the opinion is held by many, so I believe there's something to it.

The TL;DR

To summarize, a person who studies science as an undergraduate can follow two paths: industry/engineering or academia/research. Under one path, they begin earning good wages right away, and always have good job security and a fair amount of free time. By comparison, the researcher puts their life on hold for 15 years, working twice as hard, with no free time and no good wage until they're 40. And they almost never earn as much as an engineer.

More Detail

To further explain, a person bent on doing research for a living will need to stay in school until age 30 to 34. They'll be required to work post-docs for the following 3 to 5 years at paltry wages (much less than the wage required for happiness). When they do finally land permanent jobs, they're around 40 years old, earning the same wage that their engineering peers have been earning since they were 25. They won't have control over where they live, because their jobs are limited to universities or research labs and are extremely competitive. So it's no wonder that Philip Greenspun asserts that "Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States."

Just for the purpose of a rough estimate, let's assume that there are about 3.7 million 30-year-olds in the U.S. (based on birth rates in the early 80s). This is round about the age of the average PhD graduate. If there are about 69,000 PhD graduates every year, this means you already have to be in the top 2% to get that far.

So, in the top 2% of your generation, your timeline looks like this:

  • age 22–28: earn your PhD, subsisting on perhaps $20k–$30k per year.
  • age 28–32: work as a post-doc for $30k–$50k
  • age 32–38: (<50% chance) work as assistant professor at $50k–$65k
  • age 38–??: (<20% chance) achieve tenure and earn ~$85k as associate professor
  • age ??: (<15% chance) achieve full professor, maybe earn ~$100k

So the very cream of the crop, the 0.3% (the top 15% of the top 2%), just barely manage to crest the 6-figure mark. And this doesn't happen until they're nearly 50. Until they're 38, they will be living below the level required for happiness (which is ~$60k).

Meanwhile, their other friends who graduated in the top of their undergraduate science programs, but who did not pursue graduate degrees, look like this:

  • age 22–26: work as technician or engineer earning $65k–$75k
  • age 26–30: maybe get married, maybe travel a bit, get exciting new job at $80k
  • age 30–35: move where they like, start a family, or pursue hobbies
  • age 35–??: probably become a senior engineer or manager at $100k–$125k

Some Choice Scare-Quotes

"Adjusted for IQ, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the United States." —Philip Greenspun

"I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs." —Jonathan Katz

"Eventually, you will probably be squeezed out of science entirely. You can get a fine job as a computer programmer, but why not do this at 22, rather than putting up with a decade of misery in the scientific job market first?" —Jonathan Katz

"Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse." —Jonathan Katz

"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it." — Albert Einstein

"A man of science may earn great distinction, but not bread." — Thomas Henry Huxley

Further Reading

There have been many who warn of the dangers of a career in science. Prof. Jonathan Katz implores, "Don't Become a Scientist!" Engineer Philip Greenspun posits that women don't enter science because they know what a terrible idea it is. Of course, these are scare pieces, and there are some counter-arguments. But it is widely agreed that the U.S. trains far more PhDs than there are jobs available. This Quora question has some great opinions and links to further information.

Some of these warnings do make exceptions for my own field of computer science, where research is booming, so maybe it won't be so bad for me. But it does give me pause.