Students Under Pressure


It’s an abstract concept, right? But what happens when you give kids the tools to start defining the world around them through metrics… and they build their own “concrete” definitions of “excellence.” Answer: they sometimes start to define their lives around their “concrete definitions” of what it means to be excellent.

Why is this a problem?

When you have a concrete goal, something you have decided is fact and determines whether or not you succeed… it’s hard to accept failure without blaming yourself. A number of my brightest classmates at Yale struggled with this.  The reasoning went as follows:

1) I have failed. Why have I failed?

2) I was not working hard enough. It is my fault.

Why do we accept the fault? Because then, it might be something we can fix. If it is something within ourselves, we can fix it and do better next time.

Sometimes, this can be sort of reasonable. Maybe you really didn’t study enough for that exam, because you are overcommitted and need to adjust your time/commitments accordingly. Or, maybe you need to SLEEP to retain information and maintain basic cognitive functions, as Professor Matthew Walker (UC Berkeley) reminded the audience at the Smithsonian Future is Here conference this past weekend.

But it gets scary when we see interviews with high school students in Silicon Valley, where suicide rates are increasing at an alarming rate, come out with quotes like this:

“I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough. It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.” At Gunn, she says, “we don’t have any time for fun now, so we’ll get into a good college and make money, so we can be happy in the future.”

What happens when we build a generation so fixated on the future that we lose our sense of presence now?

Confession: I was definitely one of these students in college. Everything was broken into 15 minute chunks and scheduled so far in advance, that if someone asked me to meet for coffee I would usually offer them three time slots a week from that day. Yes, I got everything done. I checked a lot of boxes. I am proud of what I accomplished… but at what cost? Constant anxiety. “Am I doing enough?” Being constantly over-caffeinated. I remembering judging my peers who slept more than 4 hours a night (…which is completely absurd, since they probably performed better and made more rational decisions that I could given how little I slept).

A friend of mine drives me nuts by being hard to reach sometimes, but this is because he is exceptionally good at being present. When he is talking to you, his phone is far away and he is not thinking about emails he forgot to respond to/people he needs to connect with. He is there with you and only you, in that environment, seeing and taking it in with you.

It’s sad to me that this is unique. He is one of a small handful of people I know who do this. But it reminds me the value of living in the present and taking in what is right in front of me.

What if we start defining excellence in the present? What if we define it in abstract terms that aren’t tied to timelines and hard lines and “it’s my fault..”

Most importantly, how do we return a fluid sense of “excellence” to our next generations of students… before it’s too late?

Yale Tech Conference: Yale Looks To Boost Entrepreneurial Community

Yesterday, Yale Tech kicked off its first New York City based conference. The first Yale Tech event was a sold out 200 person conference in San Francisco with attendees coming all the way from Shanghai for the event. Yesterday was another nearly sold out event with ~100 people. Not bad for a school known for investing heavily in arts and humanities… and struggling with some of its science programs/attracting students interested in the sciences. [I should add that Yale is making a concentrated effort to reach out to STEM students and improve its programs.]

The content throughout the day was very strong. The morning kicked off with speakers from Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and Yale’s Computer Science Department, urging alumni to be more involved with some of the great projects happening on campus. One of the speakers pointed out that students (and alumni, myself included) frequently complain that Yale does not offer many programs that focus on “real world applications.” I know, at least for me, this was an issue when I was working through proposal for my thesis and looking for faculty support/editors to advise my work.

What started with HackYale‘s efforts to improve access to hard skills for our student body is now happening on a larger university level (we hope). HackYale started in 2012 as an effort by students (Will Gaybrick YLS’12, Bay Gross YC’13 and Miles Grimshaw YC’13) to introduce a programming curriculum into Yale’s offerings. The students working in the program originally taught programming skills to their classmates for free, but as the program grew, Yale started to pay student teachers for their time. Yesterday at Yale Tech, Gaybrick was speaking on a panel about investing (he is now a partner at Thrive Capital) and he added that more students had signed up for HackYale in the first two weeks than had graduated from the Computer Science Department in several years. In 2015, Yale and it’s alumni have decided to step in and make further improvements.

Yale’s Computer Science Department is also underfunded and staffed compared to many of the other schools within our network. Luckily, the university is making some efforts to grow this department and offer more immediately applicable programming courses for students. Alumni support for this move appeared during the conference under #YaleTech.

The conference hosted a series of industry leaders, including Henry Blodget [CEO and Co-Founder of Business Insider], Jennifer Fleiss [CEO, Rent-The-Runway], Kevin Delaney [Editor-in-Chief, Quartz] and Eddie Hartman [Co-Founder & Chief Product Officer, LegalZoom]. I have to applaud the content and conference director, Victor Wong, for getting nearly 50/50 male to female speakers for the event. I know from my own work at TED and formerly at TEDxYale that this is hard to do. [For many reasons, as June Cohen explained at TEDGlobal 2013]. The speakers were all very candid and shared valuable insight from their respective industries. During the course of the day, we covered everything from data driven sizing recommendations for high end women’s fashion to war stories from investing and mergers and acquisitions.

It was good to see the conversations go beyond technology and programming into other fields, like journalism, legal support, and finance. I think the conference staff did a wonderful job presenting many different projects coming out of the Entrepreneurial Community at Yale, which is not an easy task. The audience was equally diverse — I spent time talking to alumni now working in local and city government, architects, engineers, developers, professors, digital designers, teachers, and writers. It is promising to see alumni from so many different backgrounds coming together to support Yale Tech’s efforts. Overall, the conference sends an important message to current students about other options out there beyond the jobs and recruiters that actively chase recent grads. The alumni encouraged students to be creative and look for new opportunities. As we all know, I think this is a really important message to share with students.

I’ll be following Yale Tech’s growth in NYC and abroad… can’t wait for more.

Cyber Security and Privacy: Can You Buy Your Name Back?

Imagine opening up a webpage and seeing a carbon copy of you [your name, SSN, location, photos, friends, etc. on a social media site (like Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn… even craigslist or Yelp)] that you didn’t create. It wasn’t a hack by your friends. It wasn’t set up by a parent or your career advisor… but by someone who has never met or even talked to you.

It might be really really difficult to recover and/or remove what was posted “by you” through that imposing webpage. Your friends and colleagues might not believe you when you explain that you did not post that unsavory blogpost or poorly worded and inaccurate tweet.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading intensively about Cyber Security and organized crime. Originally, it was so I would be prepared to respond to a panel for a conference I attended at MIT last weekend. But it extends much deeper than that now. I am much more conscious of aspects of my online presence and vulnerabilities in passwords/access than I was previously. [Not to mention the real concerns I had earlier this week when a glitch in one of the plugins I used for a wordpress platform shut down the site until someone from IT could login and fix it from the back. I assumed the website had been hacked.]

In Marc Goodman‘s “Future Crime: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It” he offers the example of Innovative Marketing as an organized criminal operation that made millions offering “Security software” while exposing computers to further malware and data mining operations through virus downloads. The firm grew rapidly and presented a professional front — employees were on LinkedIn, they were paid well, major companies were using the software… but it was not what it appeared to be. Employees who knew what they were building claimed it was, just a job, it paid well, etc. etc. [Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?]

The Pew Research Center published an article recently presenting their claims that Americans have not changed their online behavior/data sharing despite increased discussions about cyber security and the ways that companies like Facebook package and sell their data. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how much it will cost to buy back my privacy one day, and whether or not the case in the EU against Google will one day mean better privacy options for the US. Do we have the “right to be forgotten?”

In these discussions, we realize how vulnerable we are. The motives for hackers are sometimes as basic as “I was bored” and sometimes as complicated as “I was protecting justice.” What does justice mean, when the internet is a neutral zone, ungoverned by the laws we abide as physical citizens? Who decides those rules? I was asked recently if I thought it was “tyrannical” for organizations like Anonymous and other “online vigilante groups” to police the DarkNet. I think the question in itself exposes how out of our legal most policy researchers and makers are. Does “Tyranny” within a space as vast and diverse as the internet make any sense as a concept?

When I asked my accountant about how banks handle identity theft… the recovery process is clearly very complicated and really, you might be on your own with that one. In some ways, the internet feels like the wild west. For those of us who have been lucky to live in societies where social “rules” are generally followed and behavior is somewhat predictable, this can be as scary as the dramatized concept of the “Wild West.” For those who grew up in Chaos… this probably feels familiar.

I am thinking a lot about privacy as a commodity right now. Whether or not we will be able to “buy it back.” What “identity” means on the internet, especially hiring programs encourage entry level employees and recent college grads to build clear brands for themselves online. It’s an interesting question.

If nothing else, I am convinced that I need to spend more time working with Python than I have been in the last few weeks. It seems we are now obligated to be at least semi-literate in code to know what software programs are realistic, which ones are scams, and which ones are downright dangerous.