Cold Calling

When I got into colleges, I called a friend of mine from Mathcamp who was completing his first year at Harvard. I asked him for advice. What courses was he taking? What were his peers like? More than my experience visiting campuses, this correspondence painted a picture of collegiate life and informed my decision to attend Harvard. In addition, his recommendations about specific professors and textbooks enabled me to plan for freshman year.

When gearing up for a new experience, the first thing I often do is contact someone who has had that experience, someone who is in a position to help me prepare. For instance, if I want a job at Facebook, I will try to find someone who has worked there and who I can talk to about the company and the interview process. This is straightforward if I have a friend who worked there the summer before, but what if I don’t? Well, there’s a good chance that one of my friends knows someone who did. Or my computer science professor can put me in touch with a former student. The point is, if you can find someone’s name, you can ask for an introduction. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

If I only did things that I knew I would be good at, I never would have started swimming with the club team. I never would have taken an acting class. I never would have gone on a date. And I certainly never would have started a blog.

Trying new things and embarrassing ourselves as a consequence is so easy when we’re young. As a child, such “failures” are practically the status quo. In sixth grade, walking around the schoolyard during lunch, I came across a boy juggling. I had never juggled before, but I knew I wanted to learn. I approached him, and he began coaching me. It didn’t matter that I was standing in the middle of the playground dropping beanbags left and right. Over the subsequent months, I learned to juggle, first with two balls, then with three, then under the leg, then behind the back, and so on. 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 »

Learning Together

A friend recently said something that bothered me. And in some ways, it is depressing: all relationships end in break-up or marriage. Hell, a lot of marriages end in break-up. It makes romance seem futile. Yet in many relationships, there does come a point when the novelty has worn off and the nebulous idea of commitment is the only way forward. A lot of Harvard couples stall at this tipping point.

Why? We aren’t commitment-phobes. There are people here who spend more time planning Women In Business conferences than I would my wedding. If anything, we over-commit. What makes these Harvard relationships go kaput? What value do we place on these partners, who were lovers, roommates, pset buddies, best friends, all at once? Read the rest of this entry »

Being Honest

A friend sent me the following email.

There’s often a tension between honesty and politeness in our interactions… Under what circumstances is it okay to lie to people to make them feel better? Would you admit disliking somebody to his face? Would you criticize her even if you thought it would make her angry?

Similarly, there’s a tension between being “cool” and being honest. How much should you compromise your true self to fit in? For example, if admitting to being a “mathlete” could seriously jeopardize your social interactions, would you lie about it?

For the first question, usually it’s alright to tell a white lie. If you hate your sister’s new haircut, chances are there isn’t much that can be done about it, so go with making her feel good. The truth is great, and honesty a virtue, but only if it is simultaneously constructive. Read the rest of this entry »

Plagiarism and the Personality

Very little is new when it comes to social interaction. Your handshake, your humor, even your laugh, are probably culled from those around you. So why not make it completely explicit? The best way to gain social skills is to look to people who have them. Look, and then steal shamelessly. Don’t worry about being original, don’t worry about being creative; in fact, when you’re just starting out, chances are the things you think are unique (that crazy tall-tale, that special t-shirt), aren’t. When you’re comfortable with the rules and mores that govern how we interact, originality and creativity will follow.

My own starting point was a high school friend, two years my senior. He was a charismatic theater guy who won monologue competitions and took the lead role in all the school productions. Every day, I heard his voice over the intercom reading the morning announcements and cracking jokes. So I signed up to read the announcements along with him. During the months of October and February, we would arrive together in the school office, divide the messages about club meetings and sports games between us, and pass the telephone back and forth as we spoke into it, ushering in third period. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unconventional Value of an Athletic Education

The main lesson I learned from sports is aggression. (How to be comfortable naked in a crowded locker room is a close second.) I can’t run a 4:13 mile or deadlift the back end of a pickup truck, but I have played a number of sports over the years, and through them, I’ve gotten a glimpse into the value of an athletic education.

Health benefits aside, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Take basketball. Teamwork is not the primary takeaway. Aggression is. On the court, I learned to move assertively, to take up space, and to get in other people’s way. Sometimes you’re stuck guarding someone who’s got six inches and sixty pounds on you and sweats more than Dwayne Wade in a Gatorade commercial, but you still try to guard him. You still get up against him when he drives to the basket. Basketball is played with a generous dose of shoving, and I learned to take nothing personally. Read the rest of this entry »