Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Solitude and Leadership, pt. 1

I'm writing this post on Saturday evening. I got back early in the afternoon from Caltech's Prefrosh Weekend, two days of panels and free food and crazy antics (crazier than one would expect from Caltech).

First thing I did once home and on wifi was check my email, naturally. What did I discover but a load of Lit homework I missed: read and take notes on an essay, then write a rhetorical precis identifying the author's main point.

I groaned. And then I clicked on the link to the essay and stopped groaning.

The essay: Solitude and Leadership, a lecture that William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point students. Please read it. This post will still be waiting for once you're done.


Deresiewicz's main points, as I identify them: conformity leads to stupidity and stagnation. Distraction leads the same way. You need to spend time alone, with thoughts or focused work, in order to discover who you are and what you stand for. And only with that self-knowledge can you trust yourself to do the right thing. And only if you choose the right path, even against criticism, can you be called a leader.


That essay hit me like a freight train. I actually did the homework because I wanted to think more about the ideas contained therein. Why?

As I keep on talking about, because it is the single largest thing that I must contend with right now, I am deciding between Caltech and Stanford. My parents really want me to go to Stanford, and I've gotten into arguments with them about it because what I need is to talk to someone who will help me evaluate objectively the pros and cons of each school, and my parents are unable to provide that because their bias toward Stanford is immense.

It is understandable: it's a great school and my dad had a wonderful experience there as a postdoc (for the record, I forgot to mention this at all in my application, so no, I'm not a legacy admit). Of course they have opinions and want to share them.

But, at the same time, I am 100% justified in wanting a fair, balanced sounding board for a decision that will shape the rest of my life.

Perhaps the above explains why Deresiewicz's essay hit me so hard. Other people's perspectives and information are certainly important. I don't have all the facts yet, and I need other people to help me collect them. But the opinions that others form based on those facts are useless. If I have the facts then I don't need the opinions.

Because this is my life. How I interpret the facts, how I weigh the pros and cons of each school, depends on what I want to get out of my education. This is a task too personal and too important for me to delegate to anyone, especially to people whose prior opinions will lead them to use a scale already weighted to one side.

As for me, I am still evenly split. After my visit, I really like Caltech, but I got no gut feeling that this is the place I belong. As a small school, Caltech presents distinct advantages and disadvantages. I can see myself going there and being successful and happy, but I can see myself being successful and happy at Stanford too. It all comes down to how things go at Admit Weekend, what new knowledge I gain about Stanford and its strengths and weaknesses.

When I say it all comes down to the data, I mean it. I don't want my parents' bias toward Stanford to influence me in either direction: rebellion is as reflexive and mindless as conformity. I just want to gather all the data I need, including the subjective data of my (and ONLY my) opinions of the schools, and then be alone to process it. And then decide, on my own, drawing my own conclusions based on what matters to me.

As Deresiewicz said,
The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

My decision will mean nothing unless it is truly mine.


I am getting mildly sick of hearing myself talk about my decision, so on Friday we'll play a game. Next week I'll probably get more into the leadership aspects of Deresiewicz's lecture, because that's a rich discussion I've neglected here.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Hunting

Look at the art of Mikhail Vruben.

Mikhail Vruben

Reading about random ethnicities is interesting. See: the Adyghe, or Circassians, originally of the North Caucasus.

Old Goss post on valuing yourself.

putting yourself down is cowardly. It’s a way of making yourself safe, of hurting yourself before anyone else hurts you. Although, again as I mentioned, it doesn’t actually work, does it? It doesn’t make you feel safe, just sort of sad.

So how do you value yourself? It’s difficult to change your mental state, but it’s easy to change your actions. And changing your actions changes your mental state. So you must act as though you are valuable. You must act as though you are the best friend you’ve known and loved since childhood. When your best friend is sad, what do you do? Tell her how wonderful she is. When your best friend is sick, you bring her soup. You listen to her, you care about her, you buy her presents on her birthday. You draw her bubble baths. (All right, maybe not. Think of yourself as a friend even better than your best friend. After all, you were there when you were born, you will be there when you die. Who is closer to you than you are?)

If anyone insults her, you stand up for her. You never put her down or allow anyone else to do so. If she puts herself down, you tell her to stop. You tell her you won’t tolerate such behavior.

And you would be honest with your best friend. If the dress really was ugly, you would tell her, you wouldn’t let her wear it, you would take her shopping for another. You would certainly not stand there and insult her! You would tell her the truth and help her become the person she wants and deserves to be.
Surreal illustrations by Andrew Ferez. This one is my absolute favorite:

While I was in Hawaii I saw an exhibit of Herb Kane paintings. I rather loved this one:
Peleleu War Canoe
Herb Kane

How to Remember Things:

  • Become interested in what you're learning.
  • Find a way to leverage your visual memory.
  • Create a mental memory tree.
  • Associate what you're trying to learn with what you already know.
  • Write out items to be memorized over and over and over.
  • When reading for retention, summarize each paragraph in the margin.
  • Do most of your studying in the afternoon.
  • Get adequate sleep to consolidate and retain memories.
  • To decrease the risk of dementia:
    • Exercise your body.
    • Exercise your mind.

Hey, Federalist Papers. I had an ambition of reading all of them but ended up only going for summaries of the essentials.

While researching Ubermadchen ver. 1.0, I read up on the Biedermeier period. I like the "clean lines and utilitarian postures" of the furniture, while seeking something a bit more...disruptive, engaging, in the art.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

New Recruits

I'd rather not be that one boring senior who keeps on being nostalgic all the time, but everything going on seems to point through the future toward the past, or through the past toward the future. In robotics I spent about half an hour this afternoon explaining what the programming team does to a new recruit, an awesome trombone sophomore who knows zilch about coding but is eager to learn.

As I talked through the robot control system (which programming team wired), I could see his eyes glazing over. When I talked through the field control system, same phenomenon. This is a very bright kid, but getting thrown an existing system all at once is really, really overwhelming.

And I get that feeling. At the beginning of the year, I looked at the programming leads and thought that with people with that much experience around, I'd be able to contribute absolutely nothing to the team. But luckily, these enlightened fellows implemented the policy that they wouldn't touch the code, that they'd just advise, and let us learn through doing.

I remember thinking that this was my lucky break. I also remember thinking that I was about to screw up really badly and lose my reputation and be marked as a failure and a quitter. Because that's what school trains "smart kids" to do: to play it safe. Not to take challenges. To guard their reputations for faultlessness, because universe forbid you take risks and fail on your way to learning a new skill.

But what kind of way to live is that? When given a huge, looming challenge, the solution that had never led to internal peace is to run away. Whereas getting in there and fighting and making mistakes and getting embarrassed at least are transient shames.

These days, everything I do loops back to the decision I have to make about which university to attend. Caltech v. Stanford. My preference oscillates by the hour, and I need to talk it out with myself, so of course I'm putting it on the internet.

The notorious difficulty of Caltech is the hugest point in its favor: I remember reading in some forum that hiring managers at engineering companies note that Caltech grads are "complete geniuses" and that the core curriculum at Caltech is the equivalent of a mathematician's major requirements at other schools. That the difficulty of being a Caltech undergrad outweighs the difficulty of running a startup.

Whereas my sister, who as a Cal engineering student works regularly with grad students who went to Stanford for undergrad, reports that the consensus is that Stanford engineers are entitled wimps. That Stanford engineering is far, far less rigorous than Caltech's.

But Stanford has a lot going for it as well (I am known for understatement). Broad v. deep. The alumni network is far vaster, they have my first choice major (civil engineering) with several research labs that align very well with my interests, and the focus is upon practical application to real-world problems.

Even the school mottoes reflect this difference. Caltech: the truth will make you free. Stanford: the wind of freedom blows. Power (I equate freedom with power, perhaps simplistically) through discovery/knowledge v. power/choice as a force for change in the world.

Do I want to be an intense wizard living upon a rock in the stormy sea, or do I want to be a knight-errant magician traveling in more congenial climes doing good deeds directly?

When I phrase it like that, I realize that I want to be the sorcerer that travels around casually saving lives. In other words, I want both.

I do not seek to exaggerate, so I won't say that this is the worst feeling I've ever felt, but I will say that it hurts to realize, after they've rejected you (not even waitlisted), how perfect your dream school would have been. Just read these stereotypes:

Stanford has the laid-back, social folks.
Not me.

Caltech has the hardcore science nerds.
An incomplete picture, though somewhat closer. But wait for it:

MIT has the hacker engineers.
Dagger through the heart. Ever since I started reading Paul Graham essays I've identified "hacker" as one of my aspirational self-images. And I want to be an engineer. I realize that I have no right whatsoever to complain about my admissions results, so I'll spend no more time crying about MIT (to my relief, I actually didn't ever cry about the rejection), but...MIT. //aight, done now.

I seem to have strayed from the original point of this post. New recruits. Huge challenges that are best gone at tooth and nail. Ah, yes.

This is a liminal moment (or month, or year) for me. I look toward my past and see people who stand where I once stood, and I feel qualified in advising them, in offering my experiences as a guide. Then I look toward the future and see infinity, see challenges that I do not know if I can overcome, see difficult problems that I want to solve but for which I don't have the right practical or mental tools...yet. Either way I look I get vertigo, which is why much of the time I just buzz out and think about proximate challenges, like prom or AP testing.

I am recruiting others, and I am being recruited. I say "it's doable and you will be fine" and I do not hear myself, and I know I cannot necessarily choose "wrong" but I still want to choose right.


I realize that I haven't written about writing or creativity in a few weeks. Real life is somewhat too real right now, and I'm finding it harder to escape into the wilds of my mind. But I shall do my best.

Friday, April 11, 2014

How to Ask Someone to Prom

The Coward's Edition. + introspection later on in the post


  1. Write the proposal on a sheet of paper. If you prefer, disguise it by writing it in equations.
  2. Hand it to your target.
  3. Run away.
  4. Wait nervously for the response. If it is yes:
  5. Hug your date (!).
  6. Begin to grin like a dork.
  7. Do not stop.


Senioritis is starting to kick in. I've spent more hours this week talking/thinking about prom than studying for my four AP tests. To be fair to me, only one (chem) counts at either of the schools I'm considering. On the other hand, I don't like to do things poorly, so I'd better get on the studying wagon again.

But prom. Senior prom. I know it's been played up way too much in every single high school movie ever, and I still find myself getting hyped up about it, acting very out of character. For example: when in my life have I ever proposed going shoe shopping? Yet, guess what I'll be doing this weekend?

//Downside of borrowing your older sister's gorgeous navy blue dress: if she is taller than you, that means that you will have to get--urk--four inch heels. Luckily, your Eagle Scout date is too nice to laugh at you even if you are not the epitome of grace.

This situation--nearing the end of high school, planning for senior prom--has made me introspective. And I am considering the extent to which my high school experience has differed from the stereotypical version portrayed in movies and such. No drugs, alcohol, crazy parties, boyfriends, horrible fallings-out with friends. What I've had instead: band, band, stress over tests, quieter and still painful driftings-away from friends, band, loneliness, impostor syndrome, half a crush in freshman year, robotics, falling in love with math again.

Do I regret anything? There are the usual academic regrets--why didn't I start working on my own projects earlier? Why didn't I start learning programming in freshman year? Why didn't I at least try to self-studying Physics C?

But--and I am taking a hit to my pride admitting this--I do have social regrets as well. I regret the way I clung limpet-like to my elementary and middle school best friends, because I know now that I wouldn't have been good for them, and we would have drifted apart anyway. I regret letting other friendships fall by the wayside. I regret not pushing myself out of my comfort zone, because even now I am ill at ease in social situations. I regret not getting my driver's license earlier. I regret not trying harder to get a job last summer, pushing through the failures.

On balance, though, I think I've come out of high school all right. We still have two months left, so my opinion may change, but I've made some good friends, I've learned a lot, I've finished two novels (second draft of The Utopia Project and Orsolya), and...well, even if I did it in the most chicken way possible, I asked someone to prom. And yes, I am still grinning like a dork about it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Initial Descent

Mako Shark
My last six weeks of high school have begun.

Spring Break wasn't enough of a break for me, since Thursday through Saturday I was at the Silicon Valley Regionals for the FIRST Robotics Challenge, or FRC. The rest of the month likewise refuses a normal schedule, since this week standardized testing for the middleclassmen is rupturing the schedule, while the next two weeks after that I'll be gone for admitted students' weekends. And then there's Prom (a good friend said yes to me yesterday, so hurrah!).

Then AP testing...and then, essentially, I am free. One last summer, and then college starts and I'm thrown back into the never-ending cycle of work, only for higher stakes now.

With my entire future distracting me, it's no wonder that my creative work has fallen by the wayside. But I can't let that happen: I need to fight against the senioritis I feel encroaching, and make sure that I continue to write, to create.

I find it more difficult to concentrate when I have loose ends hanging, so one of my priorities is to get all my ducks in a row. But I'll need to learn how to work in the midst of chaos, so, since I didn't get a chance to conduct system maintenance during Spring Break, here is a plan to carry me through the next month.

In every organization in which I take part, prepare for the transition to the next generation. Robotics: heavy recruiting must happen, and in programming we're making resources lists for the new kids. Band: I want the Teal Knight to have an awesome staff, so I'm going to make sure that certain people run for band staff, and if any of the assistant drum major candidates take the initiative and ask me for help, then I'll help. Volunteer club: since I'm going to be gone a lot this month, it'll force the underclassmen to take on more leadership roles.

Study for AP tests by reading notes and following in-class study programs. The only AP test I'm taking this year that will get me any credit is AP Chem; in fact, I'm considering getting a refund on the gov test since that was a semester ago. I still do want to take the stats and econ tests, because I have finals to study for in those classes anyway and--look, see how high school conditions us?--taking tests for which I've prepared is a good feeling.

Attend PFW and Admit Weekend with an aim to drinking in everything about the schools' cultures and opportunities. I know I can't pick wrong, necessarily--that is, no matter which school I go to, I'll be able to do what I want in the future if I work hard and take the opportunities that come. So I need to pay attention to my gut and, though I try to minimize my subjective tendencies, how I feel on campus.

Keep my grades up. I've come too far to screw up now.

Write Ubermadchen, following the timeline I created. Finally, finally I am at the point where I can get down to the business of writing, and though I've already gotten stuck a few times (domestic scenes don't seem to be my forte) I am still exploring this world, and I never thought this would be easy anyway. I just have to keep on finding ways to make the story interesting and engaging and something I enjoy doing.

Write indulgence pieces. Principally, the black dragon story I discussed last month, though I could also see myself going back to the pure fantasy world of GW.

Read. Fiction, nonfiction, everything. That's one of my perennial "could be doing better" items: reading more. I need to stop getting distracted by friends' Tumblrs, because that kind of ooh-shiny mental state isn't good for my creative work. Aim to read at least two books a week--it's not as though I have a ton of homework to take up my time anymore.

I know I get irritable and irrational when I am unable to create, so I must get better at carving out time to sink into my personal creative projects, for the sake of my mental health. It's easy to float along the surface of things, but it's better for me if I challenge myself. So deep I must go, deep into the dark waters of the mind, wandering those varied landscapes grotesque and fascinating.

High school is going to end in less than two months, but, if I'm lucky, my creative practice is going to last the rest of my life. I need to take care of it.