Are you a genius?

What is genius and are you a genius? The former is easier to answer than the latter. Silicon Valley, Athens, Vienna, Kolkata, Edinburgh, Hangzhou and Florence are all considered to be places of genius at some point in human history. Is genius a personal trait or is it cultural?

Eric Weiner tries to answer all these questions in his new book “The Geography of Genius”. Buy it here: The Geography of Genius. In summary, genius is very much the product of culture. You get the geniuses you deserve, it has been said. Whatever is valued in a society thrives in that society. Silicon Valley values entrepreneurship and sure it gets but how did it start valuing entrepreneurship in the first place?

Genius
We met Eric at Google in January and he answered several of these questions. For starters, a place like Silicon Valley is initiated by several small steps.

If we look at Silicon Valley’s history, several names come to mind- Leland Stanford, Terman, Shockley and the Traitorous Eight. Leland Stanford established Stanford in the memory of his son who had died at 15. Terman started the practical education movement and tried the first cross-pollination of Stanford and industry (encouraging H & P to stat HP from a garage). Shockley came back to his hometown Palo Alto to be close to his ailing Mom starting Shockley Semiconductors. The traitorous eight were recruited by Shockley but later started companies like Fairchild Semiconductors and Intel, pushing Silicon Valley to the forefront of technology.That attracted more talent to the Valley and the Valley kept growing in the positive feedback loop. So, genius is the product of culture.

But genius needs expertise and the capacity and grit to create expertise is a mixture of genetic, psychological and cultural phenomenon. A fine balance of hardships and opportunities helps in shaping the geniuses. All luxury creates complacence and “only” hardships  with no security breaks confidence.

For the final question of whether you are a genius or not- unfortunately, it is not for you to decide. Genius is reserved for the society which based on good or bad judgement anoints this title to some of its members. Usually, the criteria are impact, timelessness and novelty of the work! Go figure!!!

So, what if you decided one day that you want to be a genius. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Build Expertise: Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers suggests a 10,000 hour rule. If you put 10,000 hours in any activity, you will undoubtedly be an expert. You don’t need to necessarily spend 10,000 hours but getting great at doing something is important if you are eyeing that envious title.
  • Create and Deliver Products and Services: Keeping the skill and expertise to yourself is not going to help influence the opinion of the society about your genius. You have to share it with the world to be acknowledged as a genius. Imagine, Einstein not writing all those publications or Edison not writing all those patents.
  • Create impact: Just creating and delivering random products and services is not going to fit the bill. You need to create an impact on the society.
  • On a lighter note, die early: Posthumously getting acknowledged has higher probability than in your lifetime.
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Slavery of the 21st Century and its Education

This is one of the most important posts I have ever written in my life and it means a lot to me. This is about the slavery of the 21st century. It’s the most overlooked problem on this planet because no one wants to be associated with it. I am talking about human trafficking, especially of children. (Please join me spreading awareness about this topic so that our children are safe)

We live in a modern world where seemingly women have equal rights with men. But what does history tell and what do the economically poor neighborhoods tell us?  Women and children are at a lot of risk. Yes, the conditions are far better than the sex slavery of the past but it is far from ideal. And this is not only a problem of the “third world” countries. It’s a problem here in the United States. 300,000 girls of average age 12-13 are at a risk of trafficking every year in the United States. What could be the reason? The biggest ones are- poverty, lack of parental education about this topic and obviously lack of awareness among teachers, children and society in general. The chart below shows how lack of education and trafficking are positively correlated.

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Before I proceed, I want to instill a sense of gratitude in all the people who have complains about the petty problems they face in everyday life. Your problems are nowhere close to the problems of an enslaved child. Historically, years before regulations for women equality had come in, the situation was  abhorrent. From Ottoman Empire to any other empire, men conquered lands; killed other men, raped their women and enslaved them. Women had no sense of equality. Yes, there was always a queen for a king; along with the harem the king possessed, but one woman commanding most of the resources is hardly an example of any sort of equality, let aside women equality. Then things changed over time. Democracy took over monarchy in most countries. Government made regulations to protect women and children. This was most spectacularly done in Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Women claimed independence and joined the workforce. Women can now breath freedom, chase their dreams and not be subservient to men. How true is it? This only holds true where economies and democracies function appropriately. Places where this is not the norm, women and children fall back to their backward status. So, if you are a woman  or a child or a parent or a husband, and if you or your loved ones did not have to go through the horrors of human slavery and subservient treatment, have an immense sense of gratitude for what you have- a life of freedom.  I am the first one to be grateful.

Examples of such slavery can been everywhere in the world, from the Soviet countries to India to the United States. There are three main ways this happens and I want to educate all parents about it with examples.

  • The Lover/Pimp method: This is more common in western countries but not uncommon in the East. Groomers (lovers/pimps) target either girls of very conservative families (like Sikh girls in London) or girls with neglecting parents (usually poor but sometimes rich). They shower them with gifts, much needed attention (works beautifully with children from broken/neglected backgrounds and runaway children/orphans previously abused) and promises of future together. Then, once the girl is in the trap; based on the girl’s background; they either  blackmail her with her inappropriate pictures or directly coerce her into prostitution. You won’t believe that sometimes this happens even when the child is still living with her parents . This problem can be solved by educating the parents and children about this phenomena. Children should be taught to never engage in doing anything which they find inappropriate and uncomfortable. Parents should watch out for any signs of distress in their children and should emotionally engage with them in meaningful dialogue. Conservative families should not focus on honor and shame during such times and not hide such issues from law enforcement. Doing this only encourages these goons to continue their detestable trade.8575772227_487a5c52f8_o
  • The financial prosperity method: This is the most common in all neighborhoods of poverty and especially poor countries in general. Girls are given promises of a good future, with decent paying jobs, if they are ready to travel to other cities or even countries. These girls, with little hopes of any kind of dignified life in their poor neighborhoods; take the leap of faith to try out for a more prosperous future. Once they travel to a different place; either their passports are seized or they are truly captivated and coerced into prostitution.  Thailand and Ukraine are one of the biggest destinations for such crimes. The only way this problem can be solved is by educating all these women and children about the truth of this scam. 8597306878_9bffce8509_o
  • The plain old kidnapping: In United States, there is something called “Amber Alert”. Amber Alert is a system where everyone receives an alert on their cellphones when there is information about an ongoing kidnapping, with details like the suspect’s vehicle’s number plates and his/her description. It is named after a 9 year girl Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996. The case was never fully solved but it created more awareness about kidnapping problems. Safety of children is of utmost importance to us parents and we should do everything in our capacity to ensure it. Don’t send your teenage children to parties where they just know one or two people or such. Always have an adult supervise them if there is a strong need to go to a party at night. Teach them to avoid any kinds of drinks at a party where they are not supervised by an extremely trusted adult. Give them a tracker device so that their locations can be tracked.  Call this number (in United States) if trafficking is suspected 1 (888) 373-7888.8577206423_906002d50f_o

I request all the readers to stand up and fight against this epidemic. This is one problem where social media can be highly useful because this is a problem of lack of awareness. Let’s all stand up for human dignity and safety of our children. We will NOT tolerate slavery in the 21st century.

What can a value investor teach about life?

Recently I met two big icons of value investing at Stanford- Mohnish Pabrai and Guy Spier. I had read Guy Spier’s phenomenal book –The Education Of A Value Investor“(thanks to my friend Saurabh Madaan who had gifted me a copy).

Saurabh also invited me to meet the icons at Stanford. Both of them are exceptional personalities but very different from each other. Guy is more reserved and gives contextual answers. Mohnish is extremely outgoing, can put you on the spot and gives black and white answers.

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What can these guys teach you about life? Plenty is the answer. A lot of answers can be found in Guy’s book. Although, I have not completely read Mohnish’s book “The Dhandho Investor”, what I have read so far tells me that he has a compelling story to tell, starting with the Patel Motel Syndrome.

Since I have read “The Education of a Value Investor”, I urge every professional to read it to figure out what is important in work and life. You might be able to figure those out yourself but as we know, it’s better to learn from someone else’s burning experience than burning yourself. I will leave the gist of the book out so that you read the book instead of reading the gist 🙂

College Prep High Schools in Bay Area

Some parents asked me to list a few private college prep high schools in bay area. Here are some:

  • Bellarmine, San Jose
  • Harker, San Jose
  • St. Francis, Mountain View
  • Mitty, San Jose
  • Saint Lawrence Academy, Santa Clara
  • BASIS, San Jose
  • Oakwood High School, Morgan Hill

To help get into these High Schools, there are high school placement preparation agencies like SASO- HSPT.

Of course, there are popular public high schools like Cupertino High or Lynbrook High.

Middle College

Various schools now offer this program called Middle College. Middle College is like taking high school and entry level college classes at a local community college. So, you won’t have to go to a high school in your 11th and 12th grade. You would rather go to a community college. What are the advantages? Since you are going to a college, you can knock off more college level classes in your 11th and 12th grade.

Credits from Middle School To High School

There were some interesting discussions on a forum asking if kids can take credits in middle school which can waive some requirements in high school. I am pasting those discussions below for the benefit of parents and students.

(1)Parents,

I have recently learned that kids can do things in middle school (things like advanced math, music, foreign language etc) which would get them credits in high school.

I wanted to know more details around how these things work and what type of credits are generally available, so I called up the counselor at my middle school.

The counselor was not willing to talk about it as these are considered “out of school” activities. So I called up the high school counselor and she would not help as my child was not in her school.

So I am reaching out to our parent community to learn about the options that are available to a middle school student if he wants to take advantage of them.

Appreciate your help.

(2)

I have heard of very  few instances of a middle school student getting high school credits and none have been at a traditional public school.

This really doesn’t match the school funding model.

I have heard of it in private schools when a student was gifted beyond the skill set of teachers at the school.

My nephew did start taking music classes at a community college when he was 11,  theoretically those credits will be there for him later to add to his college classes but he probably won’t chose to do this.

If I wanted to try this and I was fortunate enough to live in an area where the middle school and high school were in the same district,  I contact the district office.

(3)

Hi all,

I have two high school student in Los Gatos High School district (Freshman and Senior).  Here is what I can tell you:

Math: If a student takes Algebra 1 equivalent in 8th grade, it carries over as a “credit” to high school. Essentially the student has covered that requirement for HS graduation and will be eligible for Geometry.

Languages: If the student takes a language 7th and 8th grade AND passes a test at the end of 8th grade leading into HS transition, they can count the two years as Spanish1, French1, etc and progress to Spanish2, French2 in high school.

That is all.  AP classes in high school are a different matter entirely.  Students can take AP classes for weighted grades, with or without opting in for the College Board standardized AP exam at the end of second semester. If students opt to take the AP exam, and meet the minimum score equivalent for their target college of choice (usually 4 or 5 of 5), they will carry over a college equivelent credit for that course.  The other appeal to AP courses is grade “weighting,” but there are benefits and risks to that strategy as well, so in the end it is most important that students opt for AP courses for the right reasons — based on their own interests, motivation, and commitment, not their parents’ goals.

(4)

Hi,

>> Math: If a student takes Algebra 1 equivalent in 8th grade, it carries over as a “credit” to high school.

>> Languages: If the student takes a language 7th and 8th grade AND passes a test at the end of 8th grade

Yes, the above two are valid even in Fremont High Schools. Only that the school has started to become a little more stricter in terms of accepting the credentials. Previously, students would pass some Spanish prelim course from universities such as Ohlone etc., but then the school authorities started to become stricter in accepting such courses.

For Math, skipping Pre-Algebra in grade 7 is possible if the students pass a placement test as they enter the Middle school (grade 7), and they directly get into Algebra-1. And then they take Geometry in Grade 8, and Algebra-II in grade 9 and so on.

Thanks,

(5)

The kids in HS usually take more than the required number of credits. I have attached the Lynbrook requirements.  (If you need a better scan, ping me or possibly available online).

Notice that the Lynbrook requires 22 classes. Almost all kids I know,  take at least 6 classes per year. That is 24 classes. Most take 7 classes when they can.

Also, notice that the language requirements: UC has 2, 3 preferred. As Amit and others mentions below if a child takes language in 7th and 8th grade, it is counted as 1 year of HS. In math, one can easily be 1 yr ahead. Some kids challenge the classes and get even more ahead. I know kids who took Math classes in summer  (there is some school permission or some process involved) and challenged  and passed the class at the beg of the year and moved on to next class. This puts them 2 years or more.

My daughter’s experience:

My daughter had a lot of “extra credits” with such adv classes in MS and AP credits.  When she joined USC, they examined her results and waived her from many fundamental classes like bio, chem, language etc. One way is that if you get 5 in AP placement test, then you get a waiver. I am sure each college has its own rules.  However, this is what happened: My daughter is now taking the language and biology classes (even though it  is not required for Under Grad) because it is a requirement for some branches of further study such as medical.

LHS requirments (2)

(6)

Is this skipping of classes applicable to private high schools as well ?

I will have to get my 7th grader to start taking extra language courses now. We have Spanish as a part of the extended care offering but don’t know as yet how structured it is or will the kids be able to get credit for it in high school.

Advanced Placement (AP) classes

Advanced Placement (AP) is a buzzword among high school kids and their parents. This article is an effort to understand what it means and how can you benefit from it.

Advancement Placement Classes are college entry level classes which can be taken during High School. Why would you want to do that? There are lots of benefits. Listed below are some:

APClass

  • Making a major choice early-When you get to take a college level class early, you get to decide whether you like a certain area or not early. For eg. if you always wanted to be a Psychologist and you took the AP Psychology class and hated it, you will understand it better if you truly enjoy Psychology or not.
  • Increasing your High School GPA- AP Classes are graded on the scale of 5 and High School GPA is on the scale of 4. Hence, if you get an “A” or “5” in an AP class, that increases your GPA and if you are straight As High School student, your GPA will turn out to be greater than 4 on the scale of 4.
  • College admissions- An AP Class on your transcript informs the admissions panel at colleges that you are serious about college and hence made the extra effort of trying out college level classes in high school.
  • Advanced Placement itself- AP means that when you enter college, you will be given preference for intermediate/advanced classes of the subject whose AP exam you have already passed. The preference is needed because college classes have limited student intake and not everyone who wants to take a certain class, gets to take that class.
  • Saving money- High School (if public) is free while college (public and private) is expensive. So, if you knock off some of your college credits in High School, you save money paying for college.

So, how would you proceed about AP?

  • Try to take classes in summer after 9th/10th grade etc. so that you can knock off some other classes in place of which you will take an AP class in Spring or Fall Semester of High School.
  • Take the AP class in the regular school year.
  • At the end of the AP class, you take the standard AP exam through College Board, offered in your High School itself.
  • Once you pass the class, the grade appears on your High School transcript.
  • Here is the link to understand what colleges accept:

Hope this information was helpful!

What is PSAT and who should take it?

It’s important to know about the different tests out there because they offer opportunities in some form or other. Take the example of PSAT. Not many people know about it but it is a very useful test for college bound kids.

PSAT

 

Kids take this test in their 11th grade. The scores are used for the following:

  • Scholarship screening of National Merit Scholarship Program.
  • Recognition of Outstanding Hispanic/Latino students- offered by College Board.
  • National Scholarship Service- college preparation guidance for African American kids.
  • Telluride Seminar Scholarships- scholarships for gifted 11th grade kids.
  • Feedback on SAT preparedness and a study plan- since the pattern is same as SAT.
  • Feedback on strengths and weaknesses for SAT- you receive a personalized analysis.
  • AP Success Potential- you know if you can do well in Advanced Placement classes (I will write about AP later).
  • Online College Planning Starting Guide.
  • College Connection- financial aid information.

Kids can test twice, by taking the test once in 10th grade and once in the 11th.

Happy PSATing!!

 

Should I go to graduate school?

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Graduate School is not for everyone! PhD is like a short term marriage with your advisor. MS is like a two year contract which reads- “yes, you could have been making a lot of money right now, but for now, bear with the student loan and negative cash flow”.

Then why go to graduate school and is it for you?

I was lucky enough to go to graduate school with full fellowship for my first year and was funded as a  teaching assistant in the following. I had enrolled myself in a PhD program but graduated with a Masters. Going to graduate school was one of the finest decisions of my life. I learnt a lot of technical skills (I got an MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering) and life skills (believe me, life is much tougher than undergrad). Here is how you could decide whether you should go for graduate school:

  • Glamour: don’t go to a graduate school just because you fancy to see yourself as a Doctor of Philosophy. For starters, you won’t be a real doctor and more importantly motivation will dry off soon if your basic premise was glamour.
  • Depth: do you like to get into depth of things? Or do you prefer to know about a lot of things but don’t like to get too deep into a topic. Graduate School means a lot of deep diving. So, go for it only if you have the temperament for deep diving.
  • Expertise: if you want to become a subject matter expert in a certain area, graduate school is a very meaningful path.
  • Research: if you are interested in research, you MUST go to graduate school. That’s the single most prominent path for research in America.
  • Duration and patience: getting a Masters can take anywhere between 1 and 3 years and getting a PhD after a bachelors can take from 4-10 years.

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  • Finances: there are a lot of things to remember here. If you were fortunate like me, you will have full scholarship and you will be even paid a monthly stipend to take care of your living expenses. For a PhD program, it is very common to be fully funded. (fully funded would mean tuition and living expenses taken care of).  Not all Masters programs offer full funding. So, if you did not get fully-funded for a Masters program, you will have to analyze the return on investment in your Masters program. Usually, having a Masters helps you in getting a higher pay on graduation. But, you will be paying for tuition and living expenses and won’t be earning either. Of course, there should be job opportunities in your desired area of expertise in the first place. If there are jobs in the area, the decision is easier for people making less money in their jobs currently. For eg. all other things being equal, it is easier for an engineer working in India to decide to get a Masters over an engineer working in the US. An engineer working in the US might be already making a good salary hence her financial incentives will be lower to take a loan and get a Masters. An engineer in India does not have as much cash flow to lose on and hence she might decide to take a loan, get a Masters, get a job in the US and repay the loan back. Since I assumed all other things are equal; this includes the savings; which I assume are zero for both. It is not a surprise that you see a huge international student population in graduate schools.
  • Immigration: Graduate school is a path of immigration to the US as well. If you want to work in the US, you are more likely to get a job if you got your degree from here.  Since an undergraduate education in the US is extremely expensive, a lot of students get their undergraduate degrees in their home countries and come to the US for their graduate degrees. Post graduate school, they can work on OPT (F1-visa) and eventually H1B visa.
  • Necessity: in some fields like medicine and law, graduate school is almost necessary.
  • Switching careers: I think this is a very important reason for going to graduate school.  Often times, the only way you can switch careers is by going to graduate school. Eg. music major  moving to management by getting an MBA.
  • Career jump: this is the obvious one. If getting a graduate degree helps you jump ahead in your career by helping you get promoted to a role which you desire and which you will enjoy, it might be well worth it.

These bullet points might make it easier for you to decide if you should go to graduate school.

College admissions decoded: the path to formal education demystified

College education is still very relevant if you choose the right major and the right schools. A lot of preparation is warranted for college admissions. Here is what you need to do if you want to get your undergraduate (Bachelors, Associates) degree in the US. An article can be written separately on each of these steps but for now, manage with just this one

  • Major selection: Let’s say you are a senior in high school and you exactly know what sort of work you want to do in your life, then you can pick a major easily. For eg. If you want to design computer chips, go for Electrical and Computer Engineering; if you want to get a degree in acting, go for Bachelors in Theater. But if you don’t know your desires yet, you can skip this step for now.
  • Shortlisting colleges: There are thousands of colleges in the US. You should pick the ones which fit your bill. There are several parameters you should look at- quality of the program for your intended major, employment opportunities post-graduation, entrepreneurship culture on campus, cost and scholarship opportunities. If you don’t strongly feel for a major yet, look for colleges with overall good undergraduate programs along with the other aforementioned parameters. You don’t need to declare your major until the end of sophomore year in most of the US colleges. Once selected, you can also change it at least once in some colleges. You might ask where to look for information and the answer is that there are several websites which cater to this market- “College Board”, “US News” and “FastWeb” to name a few.

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  • College Application: First thing you would want to find out would be the application deadlines for your desired colleges. Let’s say you want to start in fall (Aug/Sept) of 2015, the colleges will have their deadlines anywhere between November 1st 2014 and July 31st It’s more likely that the deadlines will be between December 15th 2014 and April 15th 2015 but early and late deadline colleges are not entirely unheard of. Please find out the specific requirements of college application from each college’s website but they will more or less follow this template- General Information, SAT scores, Letters of Recommendation, Transcripts, Resume, Essay, specific requirements for your major(if any), TOEFL (or other English proficiency tests) for international students.
  • General Information: This is the easy one. You list your professional details and the different schools and colleges you have attended.
  • SATs: One of the criteria for college admissions is the SAT score. SAT is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a test on English, Math and Writing. You can find the test syllabus and sample tests on SAT’s website (google it). You take this computer based test and send your scores to your colleges of interest. Please take this test ahead of time so that scores are available at your desired colleges before the college application deadline.
  • Letters of Recommendation: This will give you shivers. You have to go back to the teachers whom you probably disregarded at some point in time and ask them to write letters recommending you for the college programs. Please be careful about whom you choose because in most cases you don’t end up seeing what they write. Please pick an ex-manager or a teacher who really was impressed with your capabilities and work. In most cases, each college application needs two or three such letters.
  • Transcripts: Fortunately or unfortunately, research has shown that high school GPA is the strongest predictor of college completion and success in the US. So, colleges want to see your transcripts and yes, they want to see a lot of A’s. Please order official transcripts from your schools to be directly sent to colleges, before the deadline.
  • Resume: Please prepare a one page resume enlisting all your scholastic and extra-curricular credentials. Remember, colleges are also looking for diverse, well-rounded individuals. So, if you have volunteering hours under your belt, that’s a brownie point for you. If you are a star athlete, that’s the whole brownie for you. Colleges look for both types- they like the focused ones (excelling in one particular field, eg. brilliant musician, teenage inventor) and the well-rounded ones (with diverse experiences and good academics).
  • Essay: I think this to be a very important piece in the application puzzle. Here is your chance to tell who you are and why do you want to go to college. Start with your personality. Tell them about your short term goals and long term goals. Tell them what you have done so far to achieve those goals. Tell them how college will help you achieve those goals. And tell them how their college can help you achieve your goals.
  • Specific requirements: Always check if your desired college or major has some specific requirements. For eg. Bachelors in Theater program at UCLA needs foreign language proficiency (Spanish, French or German). Some majors need Subject SATs.
  • English Proficiency: This is for international students from countries where the mother tongue is not English. Most colleges need you to take TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language), so make sure you take these and send the scores before the application deadline.

I will elaborate on some of these steps in my future posts but you got your framework, right? So, tie your shoe laces and get ready to tread the busy path of college applications.