Lessons from Bananagrams

Think of Bananagrams as a fun version of Scrabble. You fit letters together without a board, you have to use all the pieces, it’s a race. Here’s a common scenario. You have everything arranged neatly, and you are particularly pleased with yourself for spelling the word “stochastic.” Unfortunately, you have one remaining letter, a “Q” more often than not, that just won’t fit anywhere. So what do you do? The difficult truth is that, if you want to proceed, you have to undo your work. It requires a certain mental fortitude to tear down what you’ve built up, to sacrifice the progress you’ve made in the hopes of stumbling upon a better arrangement. But Bananagrams is a game of all or nothing and sometimes you have to make that sacrifice. I’ve seen player after player grow attached to their words, refuse to give them up, and lose as a consequence.

Life is a lot like Bananagrams. From your choice of partner to your choice of career, when you find yourself at a relative maximum, it is tempting to settle. It is difficult to take a step in what you know to be (locally) the wrong direction, even when you do so in pursuit of a better outcome down the road. Are we willing to leave someone, a boyfriend or girlfriend, whom we care about very much and whose company we enjoy, because we want to know what else is out there? Are we willing to trade guaranteed satisfaction for uncertainty? The answer is and should be highly dependent on where you are in life. But it is never easy. Read the rest of this entry »

Drinks Conversation

Last night, a friend and I were discussing the oft-hilarious results of non-science people talking about science: in particular, a newspaper article referring to the different sizes of infinity. “There are an infinite number of multiples of 3, and an infinite number of multiples of 9,” the article goes on to say, “but there are more multiples of 3.” My friend found this highly amusing.

At the time, I laughed along. We were at a party; it was drinks conversation. But the more I thought about it, the less shocking it seemed. The idea of countable and uncountable infinities is not exactly intuitive. The idea that there exists a one-to-one correspondence between the multiples of 3 and the multiples of 9, and somehow that means they’re the same size, is also not intuitive. There’s no reason to expect that someone without a math background would be able to get it right, just like there’s no reason to expect someone who’s never had sex to make love like a porn star (although there is reason to expect a newspaper to hire a competent fact-checker). Read the rest of this entry »

Have it Your Way

A classmate and close friend of mine was interviewing for a job at a Manhattan-based hedge fund. After making it through to the final round, she was abruptly informed that there were no openings left but that she should apply again next year. She was crestfallen. But where most other students would have thanked the company for the interview and accepted the rejection, she was indignant. She knew they had made a mistake, and she told them so. The company could try to hire other students who knew more about economics and finance, she explained, but those same students would never be able to solve math problems like she could. The HR representative relayed the message, and the company agreed to give her another interview, this time with one of the co-founders. He was blown away by her analytic ability, and she landed the job. By shamelessly advocating for herself, she got her way.

If you are in the market for dates or for jobs, you can’t sit around and wait for people to notice you because chances are they won’t. Be direct. Be blunt. Develop and articulate your preferences. As incredible as it may seem, my friend’s story wasn’t an isolated event. The year after that incident, I interviewed at a Bay Area tech company. I was asked some brain teasers and some algorithm questions, and at the time, I thought it went pretty well. I found out a couple days later that my interviewers felt differently; I was turned away. Surprised (though in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been), I somewhat ridiculously asked them to interview me again. To my delight, they agreed. The lesson is that it generally doesn’t hurt to ask, and if you do ask, you may be surprised by the results. Read the rest of this entry »

Judging Carefully

I took a computer science class a while back which involved some amount of audience participation. Naturally a few people dominated. The most conspicuous was a guy in pastel shorts and twice-conditioned hair who would always make comments like “that doesn’t work in the edge case.” He was clearly bright. And he clearly knew it. I thought he was a douche-bag.

At the end of the semester, we ended up on the T together to the airport. We formally introduced ourselves. Referring to our mutual class, he said “Not the best social scene. I probably sounded like an asshole.” I made some non-committal noise in response. But I appreciate self-awareness, and right then and there, I liked him a lot more.

The moment we meet people, we make instant judgements of their character, appearance, and coolness. This is neither avoidable nor undesirable, so long as we recognize that we need not stick to our initial judgements. It is acceptable, indeed expected, that your perception of a person evolve as you get to know him better. That he seemed like an asshole in the beginning doesn’t mean he actually is one; it also doesn’t obligate you to forever think so. Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from Empathy

The preponderance of etiquette handbooks and checklists give the impression that social grace is about memorizing rules. But this method is destined to fail. You’ll find yourself on a date and forget the “don’t interrupt others” rule because you’re too focused on the “chew with your mouth closed” rule. It’s much more productive to look at a situation from the bottom up. The “rules” of social interaction are complicated, but a serious effort to put yourself in the place of others will go a long way toward demystifying many of these seemingly unmotivated tenets. They even came up with a word for it; it’s called empathy.

But what exactly does it mean to empathize with someone?

It’s a tricky term. I’ve heard empathy defined as knowing other people’s fears and desires as our own (also as “when you feel other people’s pain in your body” courtesy of Yahoo Answers). But since this isn’t always possible, it’s best to start with ourselves. We know things about others because they are true about us. Read the rest of this entry »

Eligible Women

The lack of eligible females is a common refrain heard at Harvard (and everywhere else). Yet I look around and see plenty of girls who are beautiful, brilliant, and determined. Even assuming an overly-generous evaluation on my part, there still seems to be a major discrepancy between the supply of dateable girls and the male perception of that supply.

Some of that discrepancy can be chalked up to bitterness on the male end (as the women of Harvard will be quick to point out), but the result still seems surprising. If you’re a nerd, there’s no better place to find a girlfriend than a school where people enjoy debating the relative merits of Python and Ruby and the relative demerits of Livy and Cicero. Your chances for a meaningful emotional and intellectual connection should be higher. Your complaints, if any, should be over things like looks. Read the rest of this entry »

An Unpleasant Exchange

You’re chatting in the hallway between classes. In the circle are several acquaintances and a cute girl you’ve seen around but have yet to meet. You want to make a good impression. The conversation turns to last weekend’s escapades, and the guy on your left mentions how he beat you handily in basketball, or maybe you’re at Harvard, in which case he didn’t just “beat” you, he “wiped the floor” with you. Flustered, your mind races. So many things are wrong with his statement. Neither of you had been keeping score, though it was probably closer to a tie. Plus, the game was just for fun. You blurt out something to this effect, speaking quickly in an effort to get it all out before someone butts in and cuts you off. No one seems to care about your explanation. The guy laughs “whatever dude” while slapping you on the back a bit too aggressively.

Scenes like this are common; there is always someone to target and someone to impress. It’s tempting to argue that those who find themselves in confrontational situations do so at their own prerogative, that we could very well maintain a mental list of unpleasant people. But then we run the risk of passing up opportunities simply for fear of encountering one of them. If an asshole shows up in our group of friends, are we to find new friends? If we encounter one at the workplace, should we quit our job? Are we to limit ourselves to accommodate those we find distasteful? Even if we wanted to, given the pervasiveness of situations in which people feel the need to assert themselves, it isn’t feasible. Read the rest of this entry »