On Being an Entrepreneur: A Maker’s Manifesto

Below is an excerpt of an essay I wrote for Flyover Geeks. Read the whole thing here.

As the (very) unofficial higher-education reporter for Flyover Geeks, I’ve said a lot about college, what’s wrong with it, some of its good bits, and how it needs to change. The first piece I published here was about the dangers of corporatism, and the soul-sucking nature of “good jobs” in large companies. As a general rule, a minuscule proportion of complainers ever do something about what bothers them; whether their action is to a stand and fight to change a broken system, or leave such systems entirely, most just don’t. And that, more than anything else, depresses me.

FG Reader, whoever you are, this is not another sardonic article from Jason Rowley. Consider it a mini manifesto. I want you to reclaim yourself.

Doesn’t it seem a little irrational, this subsumption of personal happiness beneath… what, exactly? I challenge you, especially if you work a corporate job (which I’m not denigrating, I just think you could do better), to answer this question: why would you ever, ever do something for any extended period of time if, in the morning, you couldn’t upon waking leap from your bed and say, as Gary Vaynerchuk might suggest and say of each new day that you are going to CRUSH IT!!!! with four exclamation points?

Read the whole thing here.

On University of Chicago’s Biggest Lesson

I’ve long joked with my friends that the most valuable skill one can take away from a University of Chicago education is the ability to genuinely forget everything one learned during the course of that education.

I learned today that intelligence is alienating, that criticism and critical thinking is the surest way to lose friends, that it acts as a prophylactic measure against developing friendships and relationships. I learned that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a college as glorious, prestigious, and engaging as the University of Chicago, and that I will be spending much of my life with individuals who went to schools without the small group discussions, punctilious focus on writing and argumentative articulation, and peer-to-peer collaboration so celebrated at U of C. Rather, I will spend much time with the blessed majority who spent their college days in lecture halls, assiduously taking notes, knowing them cold, passing tests and writing papers. And drinking heavily on weekends.

I call this group the “blessed majority” in complete honesty, un-ironically. With any luck, they’ve gone through schooling with their world largely intact. Whatever stories students told themselves about what their worlds are remain true. They have not been exposed as fiction, because the blessed have not been forced to confront these personal fairy tales. Continue reading “On University of Chicago’s Biggest Lesson”

5 Einstein Quotes To Which I Owe My Current Sanity & Perspective

Albert Einstein, for reasons too numerous to go into here, is a personal hero of mine. “Avuncular” is a good word to describe him; he is the deadly-smart uncle with crazy hair we all want… that is, until one learns about his personal life. But, nonetheless, his public persona is one I respect immensely. His words, in their simplicity, their sagacity interpolated or genuine, are powerful. Here, I will post the quote, and under it I’ll give a one or two sentence explanation of my interpretation of it.

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“In order to form an immaculate member of a flock of sheep one must, above all, be a sheep.”

Einstein was never what one might call a “conformist”. Especially in the context of academia, his iconoclasm provided inspiration for my own dissidence since early high school. This quote, if I had to guess, might have been in reference to 4.0 GPA’s… but that’s just my best estimate.

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“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

Although I believe Einstein (and F. Scott Fitzgerald) cribbed this line from Mark Twain, I nonetheless say this quote–some agglomeration of Einstein, Twain, and Amory Blaine’s versions–to myself when the going gets tough at school. I have it written on an index card I keep thumb-tacked next to my door knob. I see it every day.

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“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”

I’m in the middle of breaking away from the majority of these prejudices… of which there are many.

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“…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”

This, of all Einstein’s quotes I will mention here, is the one that affects me most right now. I am torn between business and writing fiction and nonfiction, between international relations, systems theory and neurology, psychology, and cognitive science. Although I believe I am suited for the world of “innovation” (God, what an awfully hackneyed word) in the world of entrepreneurship, I know, at some deep, visceral level that the only way I would ever be truly happy would be to recluse myself from the harshness, the brutality, and (more often than not) the soul-crushing banality of day-to-day life to craft and curate worlds of my own: perfect recreations of the “real world”, where crushing denouement, its resultant ache plays synecdoche for realization.

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“If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.”

I needn’t say more.

A Quick Thought On Awesome

I want to find something awesome, you know, in the 19th century sense of the word ‘Awesome’. I’ve never really sat in awe of anything before. In finding what I find awesome, I will find what I want to do with my life.

I had a phone conversation with a friend of mine, Ted Gonder, about the end of autumn quarter, the inexcusable humanitarian atrocities perpetrated against students during finals week by the University of Chicago, and our plans for the Christmas holiday. Somewhere in there, conversation drifted to one of those very collegiate “what do you want to do when you grow up?” kind of exchanges. I am to a certain extent envious of Ted, because he knows, or at least has a ballpark estimate, of what he wants to do.

I don’t. I’m interested in approximately fifty bajillion things, ranging from 19th-20th century British and American history, astrophysics, cosmology, American literature old and new, psychology and cognition, and, for good measure, some finance, entrepreneurship, and not-for-profit work (because I like to pretend I’m a good person every once in awhile). I came to the following realization:

“I want to find something awesome, you know, in the 19th century, romantic sense of the word ‘Awesome’. I’ve never really sat in awe of anything before.  In finding what I find awesome, I will find what I want to do with my life.”

Unfortunately, for me, for now, I am not easily impressed by much. That will have to change.

A longer post, along The Halcyon Days’s vein of early summertime college apathy, is in the works.

Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

Me. Yeah, I said it. Facebook killed intelligent conversation. Occasionally though, intelligent people, like my friend and UNAI co-conspirator Patrick Ip, post a quote from another (ostensibly) intelligent person on their Facebook feeds (né “walls”), and somehow, without rhyme or reason, a torrent of responses issues forth.

I believe this is one of those conversations that people can have only in college… specifically, as undergraduates. It must have been the mounting pressure of final exams, because within a three-hour time frame, just over five-pages of single-spaced text was produced.

A big thank you goes out to Ted Gonder for providing a voice of reason over the discussion.

Names have been obfuscated to protect the innocent and/or quixotic.

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Patrick Ip ‎posted

“Never, ever, for the rest of your careers, hire someone who had a GPA of 4.0. Ever. Because the definition of a 4.0 is that this person buys the act; they don’t screw around. Tommy Jefferson, Al Hamilton, and Georgie Washington, they were screwing around. This was a dinky doo-dippy country and they said, let’s go after that George dude. Now that was not smart. If they had 4.0 grade point averages, they would not have started this revolution.” -Tom Peters Continue reading “Who Says Facebook Killed Smart Public Discourse?”

On College, Critical Thought, Cattle, and Baking

I’m not afraid of expressing my misgivings with the “education” I’m receiving at the #4 ranked institution in America. UChicago possesses a certain self-righteous rhetoric pertaining to its general, or Core, curriculum. Founded in the constructivist school of learning theory, the Core’s teaching methodology consists of reading “primary-source” text documents and leading students, like cattle through the slaughterhouse chute, to the captive bolt of stunning revelation. Unfortunately, unlike a slaughterhouse, where livestock are funneled one by one to their end through hard-walled chutes, the texts are deployed thematically and without guidance. This fosters “critical thinking” skills, enabling students to draw connections between sources toward a prevailing image—not theory—of the time.

In UChicago’s Civilization courses, students are given texts and encouraged to make assertions about overarching historical themes. Without the benefit of a critical, theoretical framework any assertions made skitter across the trite surface of the vast intellectual sea.

I approached my professor today and asked why there isn’t more structure in the class, why mention of larger theoretical frameworks is verboten, why whenever I try to probe deeper in class discussion she stares at me as she calls on another person. Why, when I “zoom in” argumentatively the natural inclination is to deflect and remove conversation to the rarefied atmosphere of platitude and placate me with a vaguely patronizing, “A poignant observation about the corporate nature of the Catholic church, but let’s shift the focus to how women are presented… B—, why don’t you go?” B— answers. “They are portrayed, as you say, ‘to be bad.'” Astute.

Please, professor, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you. I am sure you too are frustrated with the somewhat constrained nature of the course, with its “learning objectives” and whatnot. You and I could carp on and on about our shared frustrations at the lowest-common-denominator level of intellectual rigor prerequisite of a Core class, that this like all of ’em are rendered passable even for say, um… the more desultory among us, to be nice about it. I imagine we’d cackle together, laughing at our self-conceptions of our inflated noetic badassery… In some alternate reality, professor, we might be afforded this opportunity, but instead you smiled wistfully, squinting, and said:

“We are trying to teach you how to think. Imagine it this way: we could give you all the instructions for baking a cake, or we could give you the required ingredients and you do it for yourself. We want to empower you, so you can bake that cake.”

There are a couple of sticky issues to address. This statement predetermines that cakes are the goal, and necessarily means that someone measured out the ingredients for a cake, laid them out, and assumed that some unsuspecting person would come along, see the spread, and ineluctably conclude that a cake is in order. Punishment is meted out to those who bake biscuits or cookies or transcend the whole category of baked-goods altogether and instead mix water, sugar, yeast and some flour to distill alcohol, which might be then flavored with vanilla or whatever flavor was intended for the cake.
Those who bake cakes, no matter how lumpy, soupy, squishy, or dense, are commended for baking a cake; because we’re all good postmodern cognitive relativists here, we can’t criticize the craftsmanship of the cake. Cake soup is but an interpretation of cake, and all interpretations, due to their subjective nature, are inherently valid… provided, of course, that they are interpretations of cake. Biscuits and grain alcohol, no matter how well-executed are not cake: you, hapless baker or distiller, fail the test.

It isn’t the biscuit-maker’s fault he didn’t bake a cake when he was given ingredients and told to make the most of them. Without instruction, he can neither be held accountable for his product or the quality thereof. I understand that given an infinite number of tries, some random, novice baker will execute one hell of a cake, but given finite ingredients and some hinting, winking burlesque show of the pinnacle of the cake form, a novice is still a novice.

The best bakers trained with the best bakers. At the kernel level, it disturbs me that undergraduates are doomed to hapless experimentation to autogenously construct the properties of a given set of flour, eggs, sugar, water, etc. and condemned for looking in a cookbook to ascertain some method by which they might come together, some technique: an artistry. That two years of my four are spent in classes teaching me to cherrypick quotes to support baseless, absurd theses, how to render and construe and augment the absurdity of said theses, how “context” “frames” “the lens” of the “text,” how to disbelieve everything, how to laugh at claims of absolute truth—at base, how to intimate, interpolate, and extrapolate bothers me. We are taught to stir and pour when we are smart enough to bake. The details can be figured out along the way, and with the help of a skilled, involved instructor.

En masse we students are funneled toward one moment, a bolt to order the brain, but our handlers failed in one capacity. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal-welfare and autism advocate, intuited that animals being led to slaughter know “what’s up,” they knew viscerally what lay around the next turn. At some basic level, they were aware of the machine’s cogs’ turning.

I demand the same sort of recognition by our professors for all UChicago students. We know what the curriculum is trying to do, and this self-consciousness hinders its ultimate transformative goals. Because of Grandin’s work, meat processing facilities now implement long, undulating passageways through which cows blithely wander to their doom. They don’t need cattle prods. If I were unaware that just around the bend lay frustration, emptiness, and disappointment at the waste of my academic journey, I’d be less recalcitrant. I too would walk blithely. I’d be bovine. I am. But for now you’ll take me kicking and screaming, rhetorically of course.

MAT > (ACT = SAT)!

For the readers of this blog that know me personally, the following sentence will elicit a “Jason would do something like this,” response. Faced with the prospect of a 7-hour overnight flight from Toronto to London, I did what any logical individual might do; the previous day, I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble and picked up a book of “Extremely Challenging Vocabulary for the GRE” and a test-prep book for one of the most notoriously difficult standardized tests in existence: the Miller Analogies Test.

Consisting of 120 multiple-choice analogies in a number of different fields, from mathematics and philosophy to art and history to natural- and physical sciences to “nonsemantic” curveballs (Moor : _____ :: Room : Pin; Nip. Moor is Room spelled backward = Nip w/r/t Pin) to be completed in 60 minutes. Only 100 of the 120 questions are actually scored (20 are “experimental” beta-tests), and test-takers aren’t aware of which ones are not counted. Through a scoring mechanism in place since the 1990s, the test is scored out of 800, with the median being 400. Having no “Experimental” versus “Active” listed alongside answers, I used the old scoring method of using the “Raw Score”, which is out of 100 with a 50=median, modified such that Raw Score = (Total Score / Number of Tests Taken) * (100/120).

To up the ante even further, I decided it might make a neat experiment to measure my performance over a multiple-test marathon. So, in one brain-aching four hour session I worked through 480 analogies and was left with almost 40 minutes to spare. After dinner, a cup of coffee, and watching half of a BBC documentary I tallied my correct answers and scored myself.

Any performance on the exam above two standard deviations from the median is just a number. This is also my opinion of IQ. After a certain point, it’s just a pissing contest. What does it say about me that I asserted Keats : India :: Conrad : Congo but wasn’t able to see that Nip so clearly corresponds to Pin? What value is knowing Aristotle : Alexander :: Martin : Hannah?

This summer, my goal was to undergo the process of “overclocking” my brain. I moved farther out on the rarefaction curve that is mastery of obscure vocabulary. I learned the meanings of “Noesis” and “Sybarite” and realized I’m a combination of the two: the latter whose vice and extravagance is the former. Without the high levels of cortisol that inhibit the development of long-term memory during the academic year, I consumed, processed, and found meaning within well over a dozen books and countless more articles and blog posts, all in the quietude of humming conditioned air on hot summer’s days—not in the pre-finals adrenaline-fueled overstuffing. A post-finals brain, like another overstuffed organ, foie gras, seeks nothing more than to sear and brown on a skillet.

I did not “learn” much this summer. There was little information that presented itself as novel; my focus was instead to draw connections between the disparate subjects that form the body of what I can claim to know.

The MAT is not as viscously difficult as it’s made out to be. About 20% of the facts are beyond the ken of a bright high school student. There aren’t any questions involving terribly exotic vocabulary, or extremely obscure historical figures; any person who passed a rigorous broad-based college preparatory curriculum will find themselves fully “prepared” for the MAT. The test’s difficulty arises from having to recognize a general rule in the given Set 1 and extrapolate the rule through the “known” variable of Set 2 to complete the analogy. It’s harder than it sounds, despite being incredibly intuitive. Most children are drilled on analogies through elementary school, but the pedagogical focus shifts toward convincingly interpolating “meaning” into an extrapolated Theme or Thesis which may or may not actually exist within the single work being analyzed.

Through retrograding my thought processes to that simple “find and apply the rule” mantra instilled in young students prepping for state-mandated performance testing, I came upon an insight I’d never expected: that the MAT succeeds where the ACT/SAT Industrial Complex fails spectacularly; here is a test both of how much one knows and how well one can apply a priori knowledge to solve a problem. It’s about the Critical Thinking Abilities that ACT/SAT so ardently insist they test for, except, unlike the current standards in Standardized Testing, one cannot “game” the MAT. There are no nifty tricks for regurgitating reflexively what’s presented in the Critical Reading sections, there is no uniform pool of 1500 words from which vocabulary questions are drawn, nor are there cutesy conflations of popular culture and vague references to characters from The Classics and really pitiful attempts at wit and social commentary to boost one’s twenty-five minute long essay. There is no Critical Response on the MAT: it doesn’t mess around.

There are no perfect scores to happily report in tittering high school parents’ newsletters. “That’s real swell, Mrs. ____, that Timmy got a 36 on his ACT, and I’m real’ sure East Coast University will be better for his presence, but…” thousands of really well-prepared kids get perfect scores on the ACT. A raw score of 61 (I believe) qualifies Timmy for Mensa. Mensa claims to accept those in the rightmost 5% of the Gaussian curve. A raw score of 98-99 qualifies Timmy for the Mega Society, a high IQ society for which roughly 1 in 1 million people qualify. It is theoretically impossible to score 100s consistently (n > 5). If one scores 33-35 consistently on the ACT, the 36 might have just been a fluke.

In an almost comically competitive world of college applications, where standard outperformance of peer cohorts is the standard to which applicants are measured, might it be time to cut through the “Critical Thinking Testing Paradigm” currently in place and put ridiculously high ACT/SAT scores into perspective? Is it so difficult for people to realize that this high performance can be attributed to pricey prep courses that exclude the disadvantaged, or to amphetamines bought on the sly, or to plain dumb luck, as much as to possession of actual critical thinking skills? Will I be surprised to hear someday of an applicant to an undergraduate program submitting a score report for an exam relevant to graduate school? No.

One important consideration regards the fragile self-esteems of America’s young people, the ones enrolled in enrichment activities since the age of three, ones told by Tech Bubble-millionaire parents that they can achieve what they want to achieve. We can imagine a scene in a kitchen involving a mailed MAT score report: “But Momma, how will I ever get into college with a 61/100? I mean, that’s, like, a D-.”

Are you too smart for college?

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper.

Over the course of the past week, as I begin to say good byes and good lucks to my friends graduating from the University of Chicago, I’ve been doing some thinking. Why am I going through the process of “getting a college education?” Which I suppose can be rephrased as “what is a ‘college education,’ what’s so important about it, and why do I have to pay so much for one when all I’m doing is writing papers and reading books?” This quickly degenerates into an eggheaded discussion about what, ontologically, “education” is: I am not here to have that discussion, nor do I want to have it. Ever again.

What I believe the value of a “college education” to be is the following: the formalistic academic environment provided by our nations’ colleges and universities provides its young people with the framework–the papers, the reading assignments, the problem sets, etc.–to undertake the rather formidable task of consuming and digesting giant quantities of information as the clep prep, and, hopefully, be able to articulate it come the time for an exam or term paper. It is assumed by unwitting and idealistic faculty that “critical thinking” skills, among others, are picked up along the way. However, and I am not the first to say it, the internet and its attendant social networks and carefully hidden pockets of clandestine information have fundamentally changed the way that my classmates and I undertake the learning process; to wit, it is easier to get academic work “out of the way” without much intellectual effort in order to develop other projects. In short, we’ve hacked college. Most of us “get it done,” not for its own sake–”to learn and to grow”–but to GTFO, so to speak, and, as one of my fellow economics major friends so eloquently put it, “make shit-tons of money.”

If there is one thing that this year has taught me, it is the two flavors of motivation: does one pursue a goal as a means to some other end or as an end in itself? I, personally, have been straddling both sides of this duality, but as of late firmly decided that I only get to “do” college once, and thus I will devote myself as fully to the academic portion of it as possible. However, it seems that the pedagogical focus of the “modern college experience”–building a social network and padding a resume–is, effectively and convincingly, the cynosure among business-minded students–even at the ferociously eggheaded UChicago.

Consider the following conjecture: If you are the entrepreneurial type, the type who wants to get out there and get something started, or if you believe that academia is holding you back from what you want to do, take it from someone who’s read way too much in his life: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx won’t make you successful. They will, however, help you find significance in your accomplishments. If you’re the retrospective type, one that cerebrates post hoc, you’ll be able to educate yourself later not because society is telling you to, but because you can approach that process with the same zeal with which you approach your current projects. If you have all of these great world-changing ideas, the wherewithal to see them through to execution and are willing to forego the short-term social cache of a college degree, then find an experienced mentor or two, build your network, and get cracking.

Parents often counter their college-bound teens’ assertions that many of today’s most prosperous companies were started by college drop-outs with the fact that their founders were smart enough to get into college in the first place. Bill Gates was also smart enough to realize that if he didn’t start Microsoft, somebody else would.

I’m not making any claims to being too smart for college. I enjoy academic life, and I want the social validation of a degree. I am, in fact, too cowardly to take the plunge into starting my projects in earnest now; few are willing to make that leap, and that’s the point. That said, I am currently researching options for a gap year.