Category Archives: Education

Tenacity and Intellect, the Perfect Combo

For the longest time, I believed that people were either smart or not smart. Either you could easily figure out how to do something or it just wasn’t meant for you. Now, to some extent, that’s true, as some people find certain things easier than others naturally. But one of the things I’ve come to appreciate in life today is that intellect only gets you so far – it’s tenacity that gets you the other however many miles you need to go. But everyone can get there as long you try hard enough.

It has been interesting getting to know my friend better over the last year as he has been preparing for a major exam for graduate school. The amount of focused studying, both self-study and via outside tutors, he put into the exam, showed me how even for a very smart person, the amount of practice required to get a great score takes a lot of work. In fact, even after taking the exam once and scoring very well, but apparently not quite as high as he wanted, he went back to the books, studied even harder, and walked away with one of the best scores you can get on his second try.

Most of my anxiety stems from not knowing how to handle being challenged. When I was a young child, I loved math, doing multiplication workbooks over dinners out waiting for the food to be served in first grade and probably kindergarten. I loved it when it came easy. Then it got harder and I gave up too quickly. My father would get frustrated at me for not understanding things fast enough. I grew distracted and antsy and sad that I couldn’t just get everything as easily as I once did. I gave up way too soon. I gave up because I figured most things in school were irrelevant to my life.

Fast forward X # of years and – I’m still that person who gives up too easily. Who freaks out over every minor imperfection. I’ve never actually witnessed the work it takes to succeed at the highest levels of intellectual performance. And for everyone, even the most intelligent people out there, it takes work. But it’s the work, and the efficiency of that work, that defines their intellect. Focus (to keep attention on one problem until it is solved, even if it has multiple steps), creativity (the ability to think outside the box for answers to problems that are trick questions or don’t have obvious answers), processing power (how fast do you compute?) and memory (how well do you store and receive information) and determination (how quickly do you give up when it gets hard?) are the five core tenants of intellect, IMO. As a person with ADHD I struggle with all except creativity. Every person can become smart is they can fix those four tenants of themselves. Not everyone will be Einstein but we can all get good scores on exams, or be loved by our colleagues for the work we produce, if we try hard enough.

I’m thankful for being able to get to know this friend better over the past year, as his refusal to give up on what he wants, and ultimately walking away with a major victory en-route to the prize, has shown me the truth about being the best person you can be. In 2015, I want to be the best person I can be. I feel inspired. And I know this is going to be a trying but great year.

 

Game of Thrones: An Allegory of America’s Class Warfare

downloadOne of the best shows on TV today – Game of Thrones – is successful not only due to its typical onslaught of T&A HBO is known for (which is has plenty of, mind you), it’s because the show itself is an allegory of the age-old problem with societal inequality. Specifically, Game of Thrones walks the fine line between showing different families and individuals at war for wealth and power in a fantasy world, and one where us modern folks can relate by looking at what we’d sacrifice for the success and longevity of our own families.

I’m not the only one who sees the underlying commentary of humanity as a whole in the series, and beyond all the humping there’s a warning for us all: as long as wealth remains within families, there will always be conflict and violence. Peace is not possible, even for the peaceful.

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Fantasizing About Graduate School

It’s time. For almost nine years I’ve been in the workforce, far away from academia, exploring a multitude of careers and learning more about myself while saving nearly $300k. What I’ve learned is that in order to be happy, I must have a day job that satisfies much of my fundamental needs:

  1. Enables me to be a SOCIAL, collaborative creature, interacting with the same people on a regular basis, over the course of multiple projects.
  2. Enables me to work on PROJECTS as opposed to ongoing, never-ending, headache-inducing programs. I need a sense of completion. My brain requires the structured chunking of time in order to be most productive and content.
  3. Enables me to APPLY CREATIVITY. I do not want to live a life where creativity is the end goal. The creativity should be a means to accomplish a very clear problem that has been identified via patterns or an examination of problems that are likely to arise in the near-term future. Continue reading

The 30-Something and the Maybe MBA

Since graduating from college nearly a decade ago (holy hell), my career trajectory has been anything but expected or planned. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to continually move up the ladder despite some setbacks, and one can say that fortune comes with tenacity, grit, and the irony of lack of belief in oneself to forge ahead without any sense of entitlement getting in the way.

At 30, I look at the last ten years of my career and think, wow, there’s a true story there, one which wasn’t at all expected. There’s logic to the journey – basically, despite initially enrolling in school for theatrical design I quickly found my talent for the written word far surpassed my ability to sew in a straight line. Four rough years of college later, in a bit of a clinical depression funk, I realized that I was not meant to do entry-level work. My bosses realized that as well, and at first, not in the happy smiley everything worked out sort of way. But as I got my footing I also managed to have this crazy career in marketing. I found out that many college graduates, even those who could whip up fancy spreadsheets like no one’s business, had no idea how to write a damn sentence that someone else would want to read. My writing became my M.O.

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Seriously Serious About Grad School

I’ve put off going to grad school until my 30s because I wanted to wait until I was ready to make the commitment. Given my interests are so varied it has been difficult to determine what exactly I should pursue in further education, especially as I’ve moved up the corporate ladder and, without an advanced degree, started to make a six-figure salary. So right now it isn’t about the money. I don’t expect to make more by earning a graduate degree. What I expect is that I will open all those doors that are tightly shut on my face right now that I desperately want to open.

For the past 10 years, I’ve wanted to go to graduate school for human computer interaction or interaction design. While my ultimate goal is to become a VP of Product, I’d rather approach this from the more scientific and design side over the business side. I know people who clearly are the right type of people to get an MBA, which was, until recently, another option I was seriously considering. But as much as I’d love to better understand how a business works, I have no aspirations to be in charge of business operations at a company. If I ever want to be in charge of a business it will be in a very tiny startup that I founded and I learn more about how to manage this type of business by spending my time in actual early-stage startups. So I think this is the right decision.

My goal is to somehow score well enough on the GRE to get into a graduate program in fall 2014. I think this is ideal timing too because at this point I will have been in my current role for over 4 years (if I can make it that long) and I don’t think anyone would hold it against me for wanting to shift career paths. I still have a few goals to accomplish in my job today, such as working closing with a colleague on a project where I am getting some product management experience, figuring out how to iterate on our website so I fully understand a/b testing aligned to generating quality leads, and honing my semi-executive presence over the silly person I really am.

But it feels good to have a goal again. I could easily just keep plowing along as I’m doing today, and finding jobs in marketing/pr, but this would never make me happy. I value my experience in this field, as I think it’s always good in product to have a solid understanding of not only your customers but also how the overall market would respond to your story. I wouldn’t give up this experience for the world, even though had I gone to grad school 5 years ago I might already be in a senior product role by now. It has taken me a long time to accept that life is not a race and there really is no destination for the journey. There are many things that come up along the way that you don’t expect and the best you can do is let life teach you its lessons while doing some soul searching in determining what makes you happy.

I’m pretty clear on what makes me happy — building a product with crazy good user experience from the ground up with a team of people who care about the experience as much as I do, but who bring their own unique ideas to the table so we can collaboratively kick ass. I like to build products that help people, whether that be improve efficiency, make it easier to learn new things, or help people lead healthier lives. I could see doing my graduate thesis around education and social user experiences, possibly somehow tied to wearable technologies.

I’m fascinated by the future of mobile devices — while google googles are terrible from a design perspective — the future is a connected one, where we measure so much more than we do today about our daily lives. I’d be very interested in designing learning experiences for children with ADHD which are designed to capture a short attention span and help these students memorize information. Some tie in with psychology, learning, and computer interaction. This is my passion and this is what I’m going to do. I have no idea how I’ll make a career out of it, as I don’t want to end up in the R&D wing of some giant corporation slaving away at projects that never see the light of day — maybe I’ll have to start my own educational technologies business. Who knows. But it all sounds extremely exciting, compared to spending the next 30 years begging reporters to give my company a smudge of virtual ink.

The real challenge, the biggest challenge, perhaps the ONLY challenge, is getting a high score on the GRE. I don’t know for sure if I could get into my top program choice, but there are a lot of good HCI/Interaction masters programs out there and I’m very confident with my experience in technology, even on the business side, I’ll be able to get into a good program as long as I can achieve reasonably high scores on the GRE. Easier said than done. Despite being a writer and philosopher of sorts, I’m a terrible academic. Studying has never been my forte. So I need to somehow come up with a way to motivate myself to learn and retain knowledge. It’s crazy how I’ve never really learned anything in my life past basic verbal skills and arithmetic. Or, I should say, I’ve never been taught anything. I always figure things out for myself. It’s pretty crazy looking back on my education and realizing that I never let myself actually be taught anything. The good thing about graduate school is that I’d be taught about things I’m very interested in, and a lot of it is about teaching yourself and doing your own projects/research, which is how I learn.

Needless to say, I’m very excited about this plan. It does put a huge damper on my $50k per year savings goals, and any trace hope of early retirement, but I don’t really want to retire early, I love working, and I’m miserable when I wake up in the morning with nothing meaningful to do. I need to work on that as well (doing nothing is ok) but ultimately right now I know I need to set myself up for a career that is going to fulfill me not just for a few years, but for the remainder of my professional career. Design-thinking product management, especially in the area of learning technologies and connected devices, is most definitely it.

Obama’s Student Loan Debt Repayment Program

According to the Washington Post, total outstanding student debt has passed $1 trillion, more than the nation’s credit card debt, and average indebtedness for students is rising. While I’ve often written about whether college is beneficial in modern society (where some of the most successful and wealthiest entrepreneurs are college drop outs), for many there is proven long-term fiscal value of a degree. But not everyone can afford to pay outright for skyrocketing tuition costs.

  • Public four-year colleges charge, on average, $7,605 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students. The average surcharge for full-time out-of-state students at these institutions is $11,990.
  • Private nonprofit four-year colleges charge, on average, $27,293 per year in tuition and fees.
  • Public two-year colleges charge, on average, $2,713 per year in tuition and fees.

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10 Reasons Why a Theatre BFA is a Smart Move

For all the reasons why “getting a liberal arts degree” is a “waste of money” (I’ve heard them all), here are 10 reasons why getting a bachelors in theatre arts is actually a smart thing to do, in terms of your career.

1. Improvisation Skills are Golden in your Professional Life
When it comes down to it, everything in life is sales — regardless of your job. First, you have to sell yourself to get the job. Then, you have to sell your ideas to move up in your career. Improv teaches you to never say “no” in a situation, and instead to say “yes, and…” and think on your feet. It’s a hugely important skill in all aspects of business.

2. Direct Actors and You Can Manage Anything
Actors tend to be among the most difficult people to work with — with egos, I’ve found, only comparable to top-level execs. By managing actors (as a director, or even assistant), you learn how to placate their egos while still getting what you want. If you can accomplish this, you’ve learned 80% of skills needed to be a good manager.

3. You’ll Learn How to Budget Wisely
Unless you’re producing Spiderman on Broadway (and even then) you’ll have a limited budget to work with, all while having to create or source costumes, set pieces, lighting and more. By working with a tight budget for a project, you’ll learn how to prioritize where to put the money, and explain why you are making these choices.

4. There’s Never Enough Time, and That’s OK
Theatre people know that from the first read through of a script to opening night is never enough time. There are always freak outs during “hell week” (the week before opening) yet somehow every time things fall together and the show opens. By going through this process a couple of times, you learn to trust how things fall together as long as you have a team that’s committed to getting something done, regardless of your time or resources.

5. You are Your Brand, Write Your Professional Character
More than ever, your professional trajectory is largely tied to your personal brand. What is that brand? It’s a combination of a few things — your schooling and resume, but also the story you present to the world through social networks and events. As a theatre major, you’ll learn plenty about character development, and how to build believable identities as a playwright and/or actor.

6. You’ll Feel at Home in Front of a Crowd
Business leaders are often skilled presenters. They have charisma (or know how to fake it) and can transfix an audience with their presence. As a theater major, you’ll have lots of time to hone your “on stage” skills, so you’ll be ready for any career that requires you to make presentations.

7. A Theater Degree is More Practical than Most Liberal Arts Degrees
The argument against liberal arts degrees is that they’re not practical. If you major in English, you may read a lot, research and write papers, but chances are you won’t be working in a collaborative environment on larger projects (unless you seek out those opportunities.) Theater is inherently a project-based degree, and a collaborative one at that. You will be forced to work with other people to build something. That gives you a lot to talk about at job interviews, even if you haven’t had a lot of other professional experiences.

8. Theatre Teaches You How to Become an Expert at Everything
When preparing for a role, directing a play, writing a play, or researching for design, you’re fast learning a lot about subjects you’ve often never heard of before. This forces you to become a quick study — perhaps a Jack of All Trades, Master of None — but you’re certainly able to pick up enough information on any topic quickly enough instead of worrying about being a super-expert before discussing a topic.

9.  Don’t Underestimate the Value of Creativity
Theatre majors are required to be creative on a daily basis. In the modern business world, thinking outside the box is often a necessity to solve the challenges that are present in many industries today. While strict academics may struggle to brainstorm and come up with a lot of options for how to attack a given situation, a theatre major is likely able to use their experience of thinking on their feet to offer new insights that others could not.

10. You Can Always “Fall Back on Broadway”
For many theatre majors, a career in theatre – or a related field such as the entertainment industry – is not just a fantasy. Many of the people I went to school with are successfully working on stage and off in the industry. Making a living as an actor IS really tough, but there are plenty of jobs in design, stage management, production, and the business side of theatre. In reality a theatre degree is a lot more of a business degree than most liberal arts majors.

 

Personal Finance Should Be Taught in High School

President Obama, watching over years of personal finance deterioration due to Americans largely not understanding how to manage their finances, has declared April Financial Literacy Month.

Americans’ ability to build a secure future for themselves and their families requires the navigation of an increasingly complex financial system.  As we recover from the worst economic crisis in generations, it is more important than ever to be knowledgeable about the consequences of our financial decisions.  During National Financial Literacy Month, we recommit to improving financial literacy and ensuring all Americans have access to trustworthy financial services and products. — President Obama

It’s all well and good that Obama has declared April Financial Literacy Month, but that isn’t going to go a long way in educating teens and 20 somethings about how to mange their money. Thank goodness for the Internet, and personal finance bloggers. While news articles on retirement investing are generally targeted at 40-60 somethings, the news content on the web teaching about personal finance to those of us in our 20s in slim. Without the personal finance blogs I found in my early 20s, I would have never opened up a Roth IRA, a separate investing account, or bothered to explore my investment options outside of CDs. Retirement hadn’t even crossed my mind. Continue reading

Should Everyone Go to College?

My alma mater, a private midwest college with a strong arts program, recently announced that it is raising tuition to $30k a year. While this is quite high, other private schools in the area also announced tuition hikes… The University of Chicago raised tuition to 4% to $55,416 for 2011-2012 and beyond.

At least the students at The University of Chicago have high odds to earn back their extremely high tuition fee… but what about the others of us who are not Ivy League material? Is it worth it to pay $100k – $250k for a college degree?

We were raised to think YES, but some are now arguing the opposite. In The Atlantic, Professor X returns to further on his original controversial article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: University education for everyone is a destructive myth.” Professor X is a professor at a “college of last resort,” he calls it. In 2008, he wrote:

“I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over.

What actually happens is that nothing happens. I feel no pressure from the colleges in either direction. My department chairpersons, on those rare occasions when I see them, are friendly, even warm. They don’t mention all those students who have failed my courses, and I don’t bring them up. There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.”

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Dilemma: Grad School vs. Work

Some say a graduate degree (in the right subject) can improve your future potential earnings. But I wonder if taking 2-3 years out of my career right now would actually equal more money in the long term.

Assuming I’d be missing out on an earning potential of $100k per year (let’s call that $60k after tax) and I go to school for 2 years. That’s -$120k plus -$50k per year on school and other costs So In the course of two years I’d be out $220k, give or take.

Let’s say I manage to save half of the money I earn, or $30k a year, $60k total. In 30 years at 5% annual compound interest rate, by the time I’m 60 I’d have $259,316 just from that $60k. Ok, that’s not too impressive — in theory I could make a lot more with a grad degree such as an MBA, which is one potential route.) But I’d also be $100k in debt. Ok, so how does that really add up…

Sans Grad School,
Investing $30k per year for next 30 years:
$2,222,481 by age 57

With Grad School,
assuming -$30k savings lost per year in school
plus $100k in student loans
Income increase to $150k / year, $90k after tax
Savings start 2 years later @ 29
Can save $50k / year after loan repayments
3,066,135.60, by age 57 – 259,316 in lost investment earnings

BUT — it’s really hard to say if that’s actually true. That’s assuming a lot of other variables that are unknown. Namely, it’s quite possible for my income to go up WITHOUT a graduate degree, and for my income to go down WITH one. Over the long run I believe a graduate degree would make my yearly income a bit more predictable (but not by much) and give me opportunities to pursue better paying jobs, but that doesn’t mean I will want to take them. But the two years I am in school may be two years I could have spent at a startup that ends up having a successful exit, and thus the grad school would never be able to equal the fiscal value of those lost years (not to mention the experience may be professionally just as valuable, at least in getting a job, as the degree.)

So the truth is the choice of grad school shouldn’t be about money. Clearly if I get a graduate degree and use it to find a better paying job over the long term it could mean a larger retirement nestegg. But it’s not a certain to say the least, and right now the experience and opportunities outside of graduate study are.