Friday, March 9, 2012

The difficulty of being good at Harvard - Part I - Brain

For the lack of creativity of making up an original title, I will borrow the title of Gurucharan Das's book. These are times I wonder if anything is ever original. Especially when I reflect on how our brain is influenced by the multitude of information and experiences we all go through. And as somebody who believes in Darwinism and consciousness in general, imagine the kind of evolution it has gone through before you got endowed with what you have. I will try and focus on challenges of being a Harvard jock for now though - intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. If someone is reading this, let me emphasize that I am a prisoner of my own past. This is only a colored reflection of how I view my experience at Harvard till date and in no way a judgement on how things are, at the most venerable institution of the world. 

How smart is smart enough? It is definitely one of the most, if not the THE most intellectually stimulating places that you could imagine. So much so that your brain simply does not have the ability to filter the inundation sometimes. When you are not worried about Hamiltonian or sub game perfect Nash equilibria or DGE models or probit/logit/tobit, you have the luxury of choosing between seminars, noteworthy speakers, discussion forums, study groups or random discussions with like minded friends. More often than not in the last 8 months, I never had the difficulty of having the luxury of such a choice. I literally picked up old pieces when I started working out the pre-read course work in June last year. I had to dust myself above my shoulders and start exercising some dormant parts of my brain. When I am not lost in the details of lectures, case workshops, problem sets and exams, I wonder like now what my objective function is! If it is to maximize learning, have I been free enough to learn without being trapped? Without being trapped by own ideologies, by my own delusions, by my own biases about countries, cultures and people. Almost everybody I have ran into at Harvard Kennedy School live mostly in their heads. It might be one of the highest IQ average surroundings I might ever get to be at. Having said that, I wonder how smart is smart enough? Having been a teacher myself, I have thought of learning as levels rather than absolute. Why do I care so much about my grades when I know that it is all a part of a learning curve. When I know that it measures a snapshot of my understanding at a certain point on the curve. Why I do not focus on moving to the next level instead relegating my self worth to a few letters? And more importantly, when nobody other than your imaginary competition only cares about them. Truly enjoying every moment of learning and being on the steep part of the curve has been the biggest challenge at Harvard. It has not been helped by an conventional culture of teaching and testing. There has not been a class so far where I have unconditionally enjoyed. Don't get me wrong. The professors here are exceptionally knowledgeable. But it is a classic supply-demand mismatch. What I get supplied is not stirring me enough? Or I am not demanding enough of what I really want from each course? Being an idealist and romantic that I am, I am still searching for that professor who is inspiring day in and day out. Whom you start thinking of when you get out of bed. Whose thoughts linger on when you eat your meals, brush your teeth or walk the yard. Maybe, I am a graduate student stuck with the delusion of wanting to be swayed by the power of a great teacher. I am not sure if any of my kids even remotely felt the same way about me?

Confucius said, " I hear I know, I see I remember, I do I understand". The noise to signal ratio is no different here than any other place. One of my commitments for ahead is to change that and do more by myself with what I hear and what I see. Hopefully, at the end of it I will be able to reach the Bloom's higher level of synthesis. And what I synthesize will be of practical utility!! Will move on to the challenges of the heart in the next reflection.

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