Stay in Hostels

I recently did a weekend trip to Brussels and stayed in a hostel for the first time. It was a unique experience: much like backpacking, hosteling has in recent years entered the verbiage, connoting not only a particular type of accommodation, but a certain culture – twenty-something Lonely Planet types trying to transcend the mundane, bonding over late nights and early departures. In the past, for convenience’s sake, I’d always booked hotels (or not traveled at all), and certainly, hostels are short on that quality – with twenty bunks to a room, it can be hard to get a shower in edgewise. But I discovered that you meet people at hostels in a way that you simply can’t when you rack up Starwood points at the Hilton.

Especially for those traveling alone, hostels can mitigate the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign place, and they are immensely social. Minutes after my arrival, I was with several other guests, trying samurai sauce on Belgian fries and dodging cyclists. On a free walking tour the next morning, I met several girls from Iowa who were studying abroad in Valencia (in hostels, everyone is coming from somewhere cool and going somewhere cooler). When the tour ended, we continued sightseeing, eating croissants, and generally behaving like tourists. They were very welcoming, and a lot of fun, but maybe one of the best parts of traveling with strangers is that there’s no commitment of any sort, no expectation that you will continue to spend time together. So after dinner, I went back to the hostel, sat by myself, and learned about parametric architecture from a Brazilian exchange student. Read the rest of this entry »


The Importance of Good Girl Friends

This post is especially for girls in science, although the overall message is applicable to girls (and guys) in any field.

At Harvard, I studied math, statistics, and eventually computer science, all subjects with badly skewed gender ratios and a preponderance of ego. With the exception of my roommates, the majority of my closest friends were male – guys I’d met debugging race conditions, solving birthday problems, proving NP-completeness. This phenomenon was further compounded by my primary choice of extracurricular, The Salient, Harvard’s ever-beleaguered conservative newspaper, where the total female membership rose to two my senior year (the other being our publisher’s girlfriend).

Over winter break, I went to visit a girlfriend of mine who was spending the semester in Paris. She was living in a tiny apartment in the third arrondissement with views over Le Marais. We spent our mornings taking walks in the Tuileries, our evenings half-assing pilates exercises. We ate breakfast at midnight. We made fun of our exes. The fact that I could count my girlfriends on one hand had never really bothered me – I was brash and frank in a way that bordered on unladylike, and had plenty of male friends and string of long-term relationships – but for the first time, I wished that I had more of them. Read the rest of this entry »


One-Time Opportunities

I spent the evening attending a ceremony in which twenty-four juniors were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa (a club for people with high GPA’s, it’s the same as any other social club except they only ever meet to initiate new members). Anyway, there was a nice dinner and Daniel Gilbert gave a thought-provoking talk about the psychology of global warming. I got to chat with some bright, engaging juniors, most of whom were meeting each other for the first time. They talked about home and Homer and homotopy, and generally seemed to hit it off. But as the night ended and people trickled home, I realized that without explicit effort, most of them would probably never so much as break matzah together again.

Such one time opportunities are tricky to handle. In principle, they’re fantastic career-building romance-sparking events. In practice, they can be hard to take advantage of. Maybe you’re sitting at a table and you converse with three or four people throughout the evening. You make a connection, but there’s no context, and you don’t arrange anything for later. Since you hadn’t met each other before, chances are you won’t run into them much in the future. So how do you build on this? Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


More on Dating

The topic of dating receives a lot of attention. People write books on how to do it. Websites design algorithms for it. Billions of dollars a year (in the form of rose petals and dinner bills) are spent in pursuit of it. All of this is misguided. All of this builds on the idea that dating and flirting and romance are somehow different from our regular everyday interactions, that we can somehow learn to date without learning to interact.

Ren and I have written a bit about flirting and dating, but we’ve spent most of our time reflecting broadly on personal growth and on basic social skills (conversation, honesty, decision making). There is a reason for this. Dating and socializing are the same thing.

For starters, the skill sets are the same. It is difficult to imagine someone who is a chirpy date but a lethargic conversationalist, or a bold flirt but a timid roommate, or a lively stranger but a monotonous friend (admittedly, it is possible to be simultaneously cute and dull). Read the rest of this entry »


Summer Camp

PRISE, Harvard’s undergraduate science research program, is full of smart kids, grant money, and cutting edge experiments. But deep down it’s still summer camp. And summer camp has always been a time-warped, over-sexed, over-scheduled version of real life. So there’s the quiz bowl, the mandatory celebrity lectures, the repetitive dining hall back-and-forths, the awkward allusions to instances of PRISE-cest. Go forth and cross-pollinate!

Summer camp is often a fascinating social skills incubator. You’re forced to meet a hundred supposedly like-minded individuals, socialize with them, and walk away co-authors. If you don’t, you suffer the consequences, which may include sitting alone in the cafeteria or “not having a good time.” Both are fatal.

But seriously. I read an article in The New York Times that reported a recent spate of mothers bringing their 12-year olds in for leg and bikini waxes as preparation for summer camp. I saw it and thought, that’s bullshit. If they need any preparation, it’s this: Read the rest of this entry »


Just Friends

A friend of mine, newly in a relationship, posed this question: how do you maintain friendships with members of the opposite sex when you’ve left the realm of singledom?

A lot of times, the short answer I hear is, “You can’t.” Romantic relationships are tough enough as it is; there’s no shortage of potential stumbling blocks even before you add in the cute gym partner. Toning down the friendships that your significant other might see as a threat seems only considerate.

But I disagree with the view that relationships should be ascetic. Having a boyfriend might mean no more food fights at the Delphic and no more sleepovers with the convenient grad student, but it doesn’t mean you have to sit at home and plead the fifth. Turning into a wallflower is the least constructive thing you can do because it makes both of you less interesting. Read the rest of this entry »