Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Mindsets

I'm a prof. Mine is a funny business.

In theory, profs are supposed to teach. What does that really mean? Some people think that teaching is about imparting knowledge. Others talk about teaching critical thinking.

Personally, I look at my job a little differently. I think it's about helping people (students).

I think teaching is about helping students lead better lives, helping them figure out what the heck they ought to be doing with their lives (though I often fail in this department because it sometimes takes longer than the window during which I'm teaching the students) and last but not least, to help them achieve their full potential.

This is all very general and unfortunately has little to do with CS.

Notice that I didn't say "helping students succeed" above. The reason is that it's hard to define "success". Some would equate success with wealth; others might have other view. Few would argue with "leading better lives". :-)

So now here's the problem: if I'm supposed to help my students succeed, then I better an idea about what it takes to succeed. Even a moron can tell you that nature and nurture both play a part, so a "nature vs nurture" discussion won't be helpful.

I guess I am fortunate to have met quite a few people in my life thus far, many of whom I would consider to be "successful" people. While I am not actively looking at wealth, most of them also turn out to be relatively wealthy, or I predict will soon be quite wealthy.

If people haven't seen this clip, Richard St. John's 8 secrets of success, they should. In any case, the point of this clip is that one obvious approach to understand what leads to success is to "study" successful people.

That's pretty much what I did.

More specifically, I tried to figure out the key difference between the sample set of "successful" people and the "other" folks (I hesitate to call them "unsuccessful").

What I found is that it's a zoo out there. Among the successful people, there are folks who are highly qualified and went to the top Ivy League schools. There are also some who don't have much of an education.

The one common thing that I have observed however is that they typically have what I would describe as a "winning mindset":

  1. They believe in something. Sometimes God. Sometimes other things. Mostly things bigger than themselves.

  2. They like themselves. I don't mean that they are narcissists who look in the mirror everyday thinking "I'm so smart. I'm so good looking..." Nope. These folks accept themselves for who they are, warts and all.

  3. They accept personal responsibility. Singaporeans like to blame Government, blame father, blame mother, blame anyone and everyone except themselves when things go wrong. It's always the system is wrong, because there's streaming, too focussed on grades.

    Bill Gates apparently said "life is unfair get used to it". People need to quit complaining and actively take action to improve their own lots in life.

  4. They have a Can-Do spirit. Truthfully, there are very few things that cannot be done in Singapore. More often than not, Singaporeans fail even before they start because in their infinite wisdom they have already decided it would fail in their heads --- and many a times, it's because the understanding is flawed.

  5. They seek continual growth. Success does require a certain amount of effort and hard work even for the truly gifted. Being gifted only means you put in less than the rest to get to the same place. Doesn't mean that you can put in no effort.

  6. They don't carry baggage. This is related to the first point about liking themselves. Some folks have this need to prove themselves. That's a no-no.

    Some people will say that actually, this need to "prove oneself" might help some people succeed.... well, there's some truth to this, but I think the Star Wars analogy is appropriate. These urges to "prove oneself" is a Dark Side power. Sure, some people might succeed from the apparent drive that stems from these urges, but it's likely to lead to other problems eventually like arrogance and stuff.

    Think the Force. Yoda? The little green man? We want balance. Those who have such issues please acknowledge and go deal with your baggage. Unfortunately, this is really harder than I make it sound. However, people please try.

In CS3216, I try to do achieve three goals:

1. Teach stuff. Actually, I don't really teach lah. The way we try to nail this is to design good assignments to have students teach themselves and each other. I also try to get real experts in stuff I something about but not a whole lot to give a more *authentic* perspective on what I think matters.

2. Teach thinking. This happens at the project meetings. Every project is different and basically, I try to walk through how to approach the projects as problems with the students.

3. Reinforce/Fix Mindsets. This is most ambitious, but I also think the truly important and transformative one. I mentioned this briefly earlier this evening to a group of students and someone asked, "So what's your conversion rate?"

I felt like a website for about 2 seconds and then I said,"30%?". Truthfully, I humtum one. I actually don't know for sure. Maybe I'm just generating leads?

Not everything in life that has value or meaning can be captured with a KPI/web metric. :-)

1 comment:

  1. Many students who go to University think that it is all about passing a set of modules with decent grades and that's it. What they fail to see is that University is also (if not, mostly) about learning how to learn and I think that your focus on "teaching how to think" is very much in line with that.

    As the days go by, I realize that I am not enrolled in a CS class, but a class that tries to emulate reality and about living in reality.