Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Importance and Value of Self-Esteem, Being Exceptional and Questions

A (i) Washington Post article and a (ii) blog post from Overcoming Bias, caught my attention this week.

About (i):

Several pieces of valuable wisdom from the Washington Post Q&A session with Bill Raduchel, a former Assistant Dean of Admissions from Harvard and Radcliffe:

Q. So here is a question every parent might ask. Other than high SAT scores and straight A’s, what does it take to get admitted to Harvard? 
The challenge at a really selective college like Harvard is finding people who can still find self-esteem in that competitive environment. If you are not the best at anything, life in that environment is not a lot of fun. And every admissions officer who is there a long time, more than a few years, probably had a case or two where he or she pushed someone into the class, only to have it turn out in tears.
You learn to look for what we called “translatability.” Do something where you were the best. A kid who got straight A’s and was going to get B’s wasn’t going to work if academic success is how they get self-esteem. So you had to look for people who could come into a very competitive environment, who could still find self-esteem and who in some way, shape or form was still the best at something. 
What's interesting about Raduchel's take on self-esteem is that he's objectively stating that the candidate doesn't necessarily need to have perfect grades - only a way of still finding self-esteem "in some way, shape or form", while "still being the best at something".

Self-esteem is thus deemed to be critical.

The message is clear: intrinsic knowledge about self-worth, in a way that can be duly represented and appreciated by external environments, feeds on itself and, will most likely organically perpetuate.

The trick is, backing up the fact.

Mastering a subject will feed morale and confidence - and Harvard makes a selection based on that specific premise; putting together a class that makes for an interesting academic macrodynamic.

A unique collective yet individualized investment for the future.

Bill Raduchel says that Harvard kids have to be at least "that" intelligent.
How do you figure that out? 
It was never the answers they gave. It was the questions they asked. The questions give a much better clue to how a person thinks. Answers can be learned, can be rote. But it’s the questions.  
Right on, Raduchel.

Which is why knowledge absorbers and digesters I call Human Calculators and Theory Experts tend to end up as drudges in laboratory basement or corporate minions in cubicle farms. They might not mind it, but that's beyond this particular discussion.

Asking questions, and asking brave ones show smarts beyond books, and showcase uncommon character traits, like survivability and grit.

I know how to calculate any number's square root. What can you do?
What was it like serving on the admissions committee? 
It’s incredibly competitive. If you take the job seriously, it’s really stressful, because at the end you realize you are affecting lives. You are making choices that are intrinsically very hard to do. You want to learn about how to work with people, how to evaluate people, how to make great decisions. 
It was a committee process. Your peers had to vote to let anybody in. If you didn’t get along with your peers, you didn’t get many people into the class. We all had candidates. Some private schools sent large numbers of kids. 
What you are looking for is trying to put together the best class for the college. That doesn’t mean the brightest. You always had conflicts between kids who are very smart but were not otherwise exceptional and kids who were exceptional but not quite as smart. 
The data showed kids who did something else but were smart and not exceptionally smart always did better in life and in grades. The cynics would say the reason was course selection. 
Not exactly sure what the words "smart" and "exceptional" mean here. 

While the meaning of both words in this context is not 100% clear, the overlying message is. The idea of a candidate making up for above-average intelligence through exceptional talent in other areas, when compared with those that can only count on their superior intelligence, resonates with the current popular opinion that success is not completely correlated with a rising IQ, after crossing a score of 120 (ballpark figure). 

What do you say? 
If you have a good and solid group of friends, college comes down to having the right dozen people around you. And if you find them and prod them on the success, you will do fine. The trick is to go find that group of people. 
The kids who were smart but exceptional, they look in the mirror and look at themselves and say, I’m in charge. And they act accordingly. 
Kids who look in the mirror and they see Mom and Dad and the teacher and say to themselves, “What do they want me to do?” — it’s a very different feeling. That’s what you are trying to sort for. Have you figured out how to take control of your own life?
Taking control. Defining a destiny. Blasting out fortune-based luck and replacing it with proactive measures. Eliminating intellectual self-defeat and competitive insecurity. Control through shaping fluctuating environments. Structured advance.

About (ii):

Robin Hanson's take on Bill Raduchel's post:

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer. 
Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer. 
Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions. Instead of asking “How can we get world peace?” you might ask “What most goes wrong when the United Nations intervenes?” or “Why do citizens on the losing sides of wars support them?” And hearing about your interesting sub-questions might just make my day. That is why I, like the Harvard admissions dean above, will be especially eager to hear that you’ve been thinking about interesting questions.
What Hanson is suggesting takes work.

And sometimes people don't like to think. Because their brains hurt.

Well, toughen up, and start asking the right questions.

You'll end up getting better answers anyway.

Can I ask another question?


  1. You frame the issue as being about bravery and effort. I suspect it is more about insight. Without insight, being brave and trying hard won't get you far.

    1. Very true. Misguided bravery and effort produce next to nothing. Or nothing valuable at least.

      I'd like to think that goes without saying.

      Insight is what it takes to ask "the right questions."

      What about the wrong insight? Like the one that is biased by our emotions? By fear, for example?