Saturday, June 23, 2012

Being Entrepreneurial, Daily

This is an excerpt from an article that I wrote for The Fifth Estate, the official student news body of IIT Madras, and which will also appear in IIT Madras's Annual Magazine, to be released during Convocation 2012. The full-version of this article will be published by the end of July 2012; stay tuned for that. It has been almost a year at Stanford in this vibrant Silicon Valley, and I have so many stories and experiences to share. This is just the beginning.

People often ask me what this entrepreneurial spirit is all about, something that, we have all heard, is unique to Stanford and the Silicon Valley. "Being entrepreneurial doesn't just mean starting companies”, says Chris McCann, co-founder of StartupDigest, “It’s really a life philosophy and culture. The normal people I know are doing the same thing they were a year ago, complain about their bosses, don’t have anything to do when they are bored, and just lead general less interesting lives. But the incredible entrepreneurs I know have interesting hobbies, are excited by the future, learn about completely random topics, and have exciting things going on all the time in their lives."

That's the spirit of this place - exciting things going on all the time. In the 9 months that I have been here, I have learned tennis and squash, picked up playing the keyboard, taken lessons in social ballroom dancing and hip hop, improved as a swimmer, helped organize talks by public figures, cooked a variety of Indian dishes, made a lot of new friends, and interacted with a bunch of leaders, entrepreneurs and celebrities, in addition to doing the usual research, courses and assignments. Every day I wake up, I try to indulge myself in something new, try to make my day memorable, so that at the end of it, I can go to bed satisfied, with a smile on my face.

And this is something that I would love to see everyone doing - indulging in something new, every day. I realized it only recently, but believe me, life’s too short to get stuck with a boring routine. If you think you’ve got stuck in your lives, get yourself out of the rut. Pick up a new pastime. Or make a new friend. Or visit a new place. Or play a new sport. Or learn a new topic. Or try out a new gadget. So that when people ask you “What’s up?”, you have a different answer to give them, every single time.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why Study?

This is an article that I recently wrote for my school juniors, to be published in a souvenir that my school (De Paul School, Berhampur, Odisha) is bringing out on the occasion of its Silver Jubilee. You are requested to think from the perspective of a high school student (Class 9-10) while reading this article.

I happened to come across a TEDx talk by Simon Sinek, the author best known for developing The Golden Circle and popularizing the concept of Why, that inspired me to write this article. Simon narrated this interesting story:
All of us know the Wright Brothers - the men credited with inventing and building the world's first successful airplane. But most of us do not know Samuel Pierpont Langley. In the late 19th/early 20th century, when building a powered flight was a hot topic of research and development, Samuel Pierpont Langley had everything of what we assume is the recipe for success. He had money; he was given $50000 by the War Department to design a powered airplane (that would have been more than 24 lakhs Indian Rupees today; this ofcourse was sometime around 1900). He had a seat at Harvard and the Smithsonian institution, and had access to the best infrastructure and facilities available during those times. He hired the best minds and the best talent that money could find to work for him. The New York Times used to follow him around everywhere, and everyone was looking up to him to make this 'flying machine'. Then how come we have never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley?

A few hundred miles away were the Wright Brothers - Orville and Wilbur. They had none of what Langley had. They had no money; they paid for their dreams from the earnings from their bicycle shop. Not a single person in their team had college education, not even Orville or Wilbur. The New York Times followed them nowhere. But they were driven by a cause - a belief that if they could figure out this flying machine, it will change the course of the world. Samuel Pierpont Langley was different; he wanted to be rich, he wanted to be famous. The people in Langley's team worked for the result - the riches. Those with Wright Brothers worked for the cause - the belief. And eventually, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers took flight. And for proof that Langley was motivated by the wrong things, here's the most shocking fact - the day the Wright Brothers took flight, Langley quit! He could have said, “That's an amazing discovery, guys! Now let's improve upon this technology.” But he didn't. He wasn't first, he didn't get famous, so he quit! Despite having the money, the infrastructure, the resources, Langley couldn't be successful.
This made me realize that we, as students, are often motivated by the wrong things, just like Langley. We often make the mistake of pursuing the result; we study because we want to score 100%, we want to win the first prize, we want to be the topper wherever we go. And we go mad in our pursuit of the result. We resort to rote learning. We follow the herd to attend all kinds of tuitions. We do whatever it takes to reach the top. And as a result, in this crazy world of competition, we don't find a breathing space to actually enjoy our studies.

The real fun of education lies in appreciating its significance and learning its practical uses (and by practical use, I don't mean scoring marks in exams). Every subject that we learn in the classroom has something useful to teach us, something that aids us in understanding this world and this universe better, something that makes us a more capable person. We need to realize and appreciate this "something", only then can we understand the significance of what we are learning, and only then can we love our subjects and have the right motivation to study them.

How often do we bother to figure out the importance of what we learn in classrooms? We study History - the ancient age, the medieval period, the modern world; but how many of us can answer why we study all of that? Just because it's part of the curriculum? Nah, that can't be the only reason! We study Chemistry - we balance chemical equations, we write oxidation and reduction reactions, we study properties of compounds - but why? Do we know if those things really matter in this world? We study Mathematics - we learn set theory, we solve quadratic equations, we multiply matrices - but do we really know how and where these things can be of any use in life? If not, then why are we studying them in the first place? Just because our parents send us to school and our teachers give us homework? Is that our only motivation?

The trick to enjoying our subjects lies in finding the right motivation. And nothing can be a better motivation than a reason to love our subjects. It might be a tad unfortunate that we get to choose to study the subjects of our choice only after Class 10 or beyond, which means that until Class 10, we are constrained to study the subjects and topics that are prescribed for us by someone else, whether we like them or not. But with the good belief that our curriculum has been designed by wise and experienced people to impart us all-round education, we must find the right motivation to study within these constraints. Whenever we study a topic or a chapter, we must try to figure out its practical significance, or its conceptual elegance, or any other good reason to love the subject, and that will help us in enjoying our studies - and that, my dear friends, will automatically spur us to do well.

So the next time you attend any class, make sure you know why you're studying whatever you're studying. When your teacher asks you to write an official letter in a Language class, know that the exercise is to make you improve your letter-writing skills, as you'll be required to write a lot of important letters (emails) in your professional career. When your teacher explains you the world regions in a Geography class, know that it is to make you appreciate the differences in culture, landscape, social life and other aspects that exist among the different regions, so that you can comfortably interact and collaborate with people of different nationalities later on in your professional life if and when the need arises. When your teacher explains Total Internal Reflection in a Physics class, know that the phenomenon is something that forms the backbone of optical fibers and the internet, and is something without which you couldn't have checked your emails or used Facebook or chatted online with friends. When your teacher makes you study something which you really don't know why you should be studying, dare to ask, because unless you know it, you can't love the chapter, you can't have the right motivation to study. Studying just because you need to score good marks is like pursuing the result, like Samuel Pierpont Langley did; studying for the love of the subjects is like pursuing the cause, like the Wright Brothers did - the choice is yours.

I am reminded of these lines by Robert Frost that I had learnt in the holy premises of De Paul in Class 8 (way back in 2001-02), and which, I must admit, have had an indelible impact on the way I have looked at life and work ever since.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future's sakes.
(Two Tramps in Mud Time, st. 9)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How Not To Be A Bad Teacher

I aspire to become a teacher sometime later in my career. I have already had the privilege of taking several classes* in a formal classroom setting and I must say, it feels good to face the other direction of the class; it feels special!

I have attended more than 2500 hours of classes at IIT Madras alone and in the process, I have realized that certain practices of teachers turn off students easily and therefore be best avoided. And this article is about a few of them.

Note that I have intentionally not titled the article How To Be a Good Teacher, because that is an entirely different topic and something that I don't have the experience yet to write about. But the first step to be a good teacher is to not be a bad teacher. And here's how.

When I become a teacher, I would strongly try to follow these points myself, and therefore, I have listed them out in the form of strict instructions to myself. The readers are requested to view them as mere suggestions and make appropriate use of them.
  1. Don't arrive late for your class. Be present at the scheduled start-time. An occasional delay is acceptable, but on a regular basis, any delay more than 2 minutes reflects very badly on your professional ethics.

  2. Don't humiliate students in classroom, especially if they arrive late to your class. The late-comer might have arrived after breaking his alarm clock that didn't ring at the right time or after puncturing his cycle on the way or after not getting a piece of (so-called) dosa in mess despite standing in the queue for 15 minutes - don't make him feel worse by humiliating him as soon as he enters the class.

  3. Don't come unprepared. You may have been teaching the same course for the last 10 years, you might have taught the same topics just a week ago, but do spend some time to prepare every time before coming to a class. You may spend anything between 2 minutes to 2 hours or more, depending on your level of comfort with the topic, structure, content and style of presentation, but never walk into a class hoping for stuff to come out of your mouth all by itself.

  4. Don't dish out petty rules and regulations. Asking students to switch off cellphones in class is okay, but asking them to stop using cellphones in life is definitely not okay! Don't thrust too many regulations and restrictions on the students. Don't make stupid rules on how they should enter the room, how they should sit, how they should wink or how they should breathe in air. Maintain your sanity, give them their space.

  5. Don't make a mess on the board. Be neat with your handwriting, be clear with your notations. Use the board well. Don't make spelling mistakes. And for God's sake, please don't spell the title of your course wrong!

  6. Don't harp on attendance. Your institute may have attendance regulations for students, and as an ethical/law-abiding teacher, you may have no option but to take attendance every class, but never use attendance as a crutch for making students attend your class. If your teaching is not a reason good enough, then your classes don't deserve to be attended anyway.

  7. Don't bluff. You are not God; you are not omniscient. It is never a shame to say, "I'm not sure of this right now" or "I'll think about it and get back to you in the next class". Never bluff to hide your ignorance; the next-gen students don't take long to figure it out!

  8. Don't throw high sounding jargon. You know the subject better than the others in the classroom and that is exactly the reason you are there as a teacher; don’t try to prove it. Think at the level of the class while introducing new terms and concepts. Don't show off; don't be rude.

  9. Don't talk to the walls. Your students sit right in front of you; look at them while you're explaining. Be interactive; don't deliver a monologue. Don't sound monotonous too; modulate your voice well. And please don't talk facing the board.

  10. Don't stretch your class beyond the scheduled end-time. You may take a couple of minutes more to wind up the last topic you were discussing, but every extra minute beyond that will reduce your popularity by half. And never try to take advantage of your students' respect for you by asking questions like "Can I take 5 more minutes?"; they will always nod their heads in approval just to save you from humiliation (Can you imagine how you would feel if all students answer a unanimous "No" and walk out of the classroom?).
*2 as Summer Research Fellow at IISc, Bangalore (Summer 2010) + 5 as Teaching Assistant for EE6110: Digital Modulation and Coding at IIT Madras (Fall 2010) + 3 as Teaching Assistant of EE6170: Introduction to Wireless and Cellular Communications (Spring 2011). Kudos to the concept of Teaching Assistantship for Dual Degree students at IITs!

(This article of mine will appear in The Last Bencher, a book of memories of the Class of 2011 brought out by IITM's Alumni Affairs Office.)