The Absentee’s Guide to Visitas

Were it not for recent shootings in Boston, yesterday would have marked the start to Harvard’s annual Visitas, a smorgasbord of events meant to titillate those prospective students not already titillated by the “Intro to Congress” cheating scandal, the faculty email scandal, and HUDS chicken francaise. While it’s unfortunate that the weekend has now been canceled, we can fill you in on some of the details. Prefrosh — what you missed!

The relevant point is that we have everything Yale has, plus science. Perhaps this matters little to you; perhaps you intend to curl up with Plutarch and Wittgenstein. But had you been my prefrosh, I would have advised that you at least sit in on a computer science lecture, maybe a class on abstraction with Greg Morrisett or an algorithms course with Michael Mitzenmacher. So many people realize junior or senior year that they should have studied computer science that it’s best to get the jolt early. Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking Ahead

The two of us were jogging past the MIT chapel today, so we dropped in to catch the tail end of the service. The priest was talking about sinning. The upshot was that rather than trying to fight temptation, we should simply avoid it. For instance, alcoholics probably shouldn’t go to bars. People in long distance relationships shouldn’t go to stoplight parties. A friend of mine who has the bad habit of ordering the most expensive entree on the menu, saves money by eating exclusively at Dunkin’ Donuts.

This is good advice, and it comes up over and over. A recent TED talk mentioned that people are overly-optimistic about their capacity for self-control in the future. If an individual is asked whether he would rather have a banana or a chocolate tomorrow, he will probably opt for the banana. But when tomorrow comes and he has to make the decision, he chooses the chocolate. The same is true in the context of saving money. We think we will save, but we don’t. The speaker’s solution then, was to get people to commit ahead of time to saving future income. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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 »

Making Decisions

What if you simply don’t care one way or the other? Mission Impossible versus Sherlock Holmes doesn’t matter to you as long as you get to spend time with your friends. You like both Indian food and Italian food, so you’d truly prefer to go wherever your date wants to go. This is all perfectly reasonable, so why should you have to make the decision? The answer is that it makes life simper for the rest of us, and it keeps the activity flowing along. If you have a definite idea about what to do, all we have to do is agree.

Ok, but given that you (and your friends) don’t have a strong preference, what basis do you have to differentiate between the options? You don’t, but you also don’t need one. In these situations, your best bet is simply choosing one at random. Choose one, but be flexible. Suggest frozen yogurt followed by Bananagrams back at your place. If it turns out that people want to play Mafia instead, great, you deserve credit for getting the ball rolling in the first place. Instead of placing the burden of providing entertainment on your companions, you are being fun. Contrast calling a friend and asking “What are you doing tonight?” with calling and saying “I’m going skinny dipping, want to come?” Read the rest of this entry »

Socializing as a Habit

My idea of an enjoyable flight involves a lively conversation with the cute girl sitting next to me. So when she sat down, I said hello. Turns out she’s a runner from New Zealand who is going home for the first time in several years. I’m learning about how teenage pregnancy is all the rage in her homeland and how the cattle there are fed grass instead of corn. But that’s enough chatting… back to my book on theoretical neuroscience.

We’ve been taught that life is about making trade-offs. Parties, hanging out, and conversation all take time, as do homework, the gym, and sleep.

But in fact, there is a way around this. Going to parties may be the best way to meet people (you get to chat in a fun environment among many mutual friends), but that takes all of Saturday night and eats into Sunday morning. The trick is to take the little things and make them social. More generally, if we transform socializing from an activity to a habit and we adopt a social attitude toward our daily routine, everyday life becomes more purposeful and more fun. Read the rest of this entry »