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Posts tagged ‘school’

The 3 best graduation speeches

Words can be ‘weapons’ of mass inspiration, especially when the right ones are found at the right moments, moments which tend to define the rest of our lives. The following three graduation speeches inspire me most as I prepare to undertake the journey that lies ahead.

One. Steve Jobs, the creator of Apple, to the Class of 2005 at Stanford.

Two. Chetan Bhagat, an IIT grad and the author of Five Point Someone, at Symbiosis (India) Convocation 2008.

Good Morning everyone and thank you for giving me this chance to speak to you. This day is about you. You, who have come to this college, leaving the comfort of your homes (or in some cases discomfort), to become something in your life. I am sure you are excited. There are few days in human life when one is truly elated. The first day in college is one of them. When you were getting ready today, you felt a tingling in your stomach. What would the auditorium be like, what would the teachers be like, who are my new classmates – there is so much to be curious about. I call this excitement, the spark within you that makes you feel truly alive today. Today I am going to talk about keeping the spark shining. Or to put it another way, how to be happy most, if not all the time.

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The Arabic Language

Arabic has long fascinated culture-seekers and artists from the west. The language is reminiscent of an ancient setting, and has a crude, poetic aura about it.

Despite all the unconventional stuff I fancy myself doing, I never thought I’d be learning Arabic someday! It’s an absolutely brilliant language, though the non-artist in me can barely do justice to the creative strokes of the Arabic alphabet. I learnt my first few today (alif, baa, wow…), together with some introductory greetings (sobah-ul-khair, masaa-un-nuur) so often heard and ignored in hindi movies.

Here are some interesting facts about the Arabic lingo:

  • Arabic is written and read from right to left. In fact, books and newspapers are binded on the right, unlike conventional reading material. Check out the front cover of my Arabic textbook and notice the right-binding.

  • All letters are connected when writing in Arabic. Unlike English, this does not vary by handwriting. For example, in print like this, the English letters are all disjointed. In Arabic, even in print, these letters are connected. There are a few exceptions, those that are not connected to other letters; my instructor calls these ‘selfish characters!’

  • Arabic characters / letters have different shapes, depending on where they occur in a word (beginning, middle or end). 
  • The Arabic script has 2 distinct layers of writing. The layer below comprises the consonants, and is topped by a layer of vowels. This layer of vowels, however, can be seen only in elementary textbooks and religious scriptures (Quran). It is eliminated in daily Arabic reading. Apparently, with continuous practice, people can easily identify words, even without the vowels (there are only 3 vowels in the Arabic language). It sort of holds true for English too I guess. I’m sure you’ve read one of those emails with words missing vowels and found them easy to decipher.
  • Like Hindi & Spanish, every object is either male or female in Arabic. 
  • Every letter in Arabic has the right to pronunciation. There are no silent letters.
  • Arabic closely relates to Sanskrit and Urdu, and has a whole bunch of Hindi-like words. It also loans vocabulary and sounds to Spanish, Malay, Turkish, Indonesian, Bengali and Hindi.

That’s about what I’ve gathered so far. One day into the lessons and I’m in love with the language already!

Is college education over-rated?

As a graduating student, I’m starting to question the purpose of a college education. Is a ‘degree’ really worth all the money, time and effort? Do we really learn what they think we do, does it really prepare us for the big, bad world? 

I doubt it. After 3 years in college and counting, I have started to doubt that I learnt anything ‘real’ at all in college. I’ve learnt so much more outside of classes and outside of college, and that is probably complimentary to growing older. So when I consider college in isolation, I’m not convinced it’s a value-add.

I found the following video on youtube. It’s so brilliantly made and clearly illustrates the point that I’m struggling to make.

Maybe it’s just me, but spending close to 3.5 years in such a grade-centric environment has almost killed my belief in education, staggered my creativity and made me reconsider any ambition for further education. It never occurred to me that in college, everyone will be running a politically correct race for grades, with all else shut out and sealed in a box. 

In fact, the closest I have come to being inspired in college is when my Advertising professor flashed a slide in his first class, with the following message:

“Good day. I rarely give A-pluses, and I rarely give Fs. However, if you work hard enough, either is possible. I, however, wouldn’t recommend you work that hard to get that A+. It really isn’t that important. Please, focus on the things that are really important. Spend energy on your other courses. Do your extra-curricular activities. Drink. Get your hangovers. Skip classes to squeeze in that Bangkok trip. Come late after breaks so that you don’t waste that cigarette. Do what you are supposed to do – enjoy your life as an undergraduate. And if I ever catch you attending my every class and giving that much effort such that I just have to give you an A+, son, you won the battle but you lost the fricking war.”

Apparently, my prof found the above on one of his ex-student’s blog, who praying that some day, some professor would start some class with such a brilliant message. I can’t exactly say that the rest of the course adhered to the words, but well, it was quite a start!

The pseudo-economist in me doesn’t like to sit still. Actually, the Signaling Model clearly supports my anti-college approach. It is well acknowledged that the returns to college education are definitely higher than those received by a high school graduate. However, economists are still testing if the differences arise due to a difference in productivity at the two levels or merely because of the signal that a college graduate has higher potential (even though his productivity might be equivalent to that of a high school grad). A signaling-styled college education can be proven by studying the returns to education (in a pure monetary sense) during the years spent in earning a college degree. For instance, if you are paid substantially higher for every year that you stay in college, chances are that a college stint is believed to be a productivity enhancer in a profession. Similarly, if a person who drops out of college midway is paid the same amount as a high school grad, it implies that college education is only a signal. 

The graph above demonstrates the ‘Sheep-Skin Effect.’ It is the bump in earnings which results from finishing college, or in this case, finishing e* years of education. This graph also shows that education is only a signal, and does not enhance productivity. A person who finishes college (e*) receives higher returns, than someone who maybe drops out at the beginning of his third year (just before e*). 

As of now, economists believe the productivity : signaling ratio of education to be 66 : 33. Personally, I believe it’s more skewed toward the latter.

So yeah, since big bucks were never my focus, I’m not so proud of becoming a college graduate soon, after all.

Game theory lessons in life

In yesterday’s class of game theory, I learnt one of life’s most important lessons, proven mathematically. It is a generalization of the Shooting Game to life and business, and I’ll try to keep it as non-technical as possible. 

If you’re not already familiar with the term, game theory is a subset of economics that assesses the behavior of people in situations where the result (outcome) of their actions (strategies) is influenced by the actions of other people (players). The most widely known example of a game is the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Shooting Game is a zero sum game, implying that co-ordination is never possible. When one player wins, the other always loses. The game takes place as follows:

Each player has a pistol loaded with only one bullet. They stand 10 steps apart and walk towards each other, at the same pace, one step at a time. After each step, they can choose to fire their one bullet at the other player. The probability of an accurate shot increases with each step, as the players get closer to the other player. After k steps, it is k/5. So the probability of hitting increases from 0.2 to 1 over 5 steps.

The payoffs: 1 if you kill the other guy and you stay alive; -1 if you get killed and the other guy stays alive. 0 if both are killed simultaneously.”

The shooting game is solved backward, from step 5, evaluating the dominant strategies of the players at each step, using the payoff matrix at each step. Without getting into a detailed game theory solution, here’s what the players must do, given the above. (On some level, it’s kind of intuitive too.)

Equilibrium outcome: Actual play of the game will result in both players shooting at step 3.

The full equilibrium strategy for either player: Do not shoot on steps 1 and 2, no matter what.  At any step, if the other player has shot and missed while you have yet to shoot, then wait until step 5 to shoot (complete accuracy). If you arrive at step 3 (or later) and the other player has not yet shot, then shoot at once.”

The idea is, you must be as accurate as possible, yet still have the chance to take a shot (not die). The game can be generalized to business competition, like the launch of a new product.

The more realistic version though, is one in which the skill sets of the 2 players differ. Let’s say the probability of an accurate shot varies with each player. For one, it is k/5, and for the other, square root of k/5. The latter being the weaker player, must always shoot first, reason being, it’s his best option and he has nothing to lose.


When skills differ among players, notice that the origin is where the gap in skills is the narrowest. Therefore, it makes most sense for the weaker player to shoot right at the start of the game.

The same can be applied to weaker players in real life – weaker in terms of assets, with less at stake in terms of reputation, responsibilities, opportunity costs and the worst case scenarios. For instance if you are right at the bottom, at work or in a race, your best strategy is to take risks and try to change things drastically. In the worst case, you’ll fail and stay at the bottom, losing nothing. In the best case, you’ll rise! If, on the other hand, you’re already leading or are very near the top, it makes sense for you to continue with things that have proven to work and avoid risks, because if you try and fail, you will slip all the way to the bottom. Best case, you’ll remain where you already are!

The game was in execution in the last season of the Amazing Race too. The challenge was to find a clue on one of 7 islands. The second team which was right behind the first, followed the first. It was a logical decision, they had everything to lose, being almost at the top. One of the other teams though, consisting of a couple of soccer moms, was far behind. At the bottom already, with not much at stake, they decided to take the off-beat path to an island different from the one taken by the first too. Best case, they’d win. Worst case, they’d stay at the same position. Game theory at its best. And guess what, they won indeed, and managed to stick around longer in the amazing race!

Lesson for life: Take risks now, challenge conventions now, experiment now. The older you become, the more responsibilities you take on, the more you have at stake to risk. If you want to do something different, if you want to try something new, the time is now. Go for it!

The end is nearing

This is HUGE, bigger than huge. I am graduating in exactly 2 months, 17 days. It might seem like an exaggeration, but things always look commonplace when they happen to other people. I wonder if other people have felt the same way about finishing college – overwhelmed. 

It struck me recently when I happened to run my degree progress report:

So there it is. I am going to be a graduate in less than 3 months. And it is huge.

7 shots: Mr Team Player

Although I’m not a fan of typical ‘team-building’ discourses that we read so often in management books and online, I found Randy Pausch’s tips for working successfully in groups rather appealing:

1) Meet people properly: It all starts with the introduction. Exchange contact information. Make sure you can pronounce everyone’s names [especially if you’re working in a diverse cultural group. I still can’t pronounce the names of some of my teammates-turned-friends because I never asked in our first meeting!].

2) Find things you have in common: You can almost always find something in common with another person, and from there,it’s much easier to address issues when you have differences. Sports cut across boundaries of race and wealth [absolutely!]. And if nothing else, we all have the weather in common.

3) Try for optimal meeting conditions: Make sure no one is hungry, cold or tired. Meet over a meal if you can; food softens a meeting [unless you’re a vegetarian and the others aren’t. Then food just hardens it more]. That’s why they do “lunch” in Hollywood.

4) Let everyone talk: Don’t finish someone’s sentences. And talking faster or louder doesn’t make your ideas any better.

5) Check egos at the door: When you discuss ideas, label them and write them down. The label should be descriptive of the idea, not the originator: “the bridge story” not “Jane’s story”. 

6) Praise each other: Find something nice to say, even if it’s a stretch. The worst ideas can have silver linings if you look hard enough.

7) Phrase alternatives as questions: Instead of “I think we should do A, not B,” try “what if we did A, instead of B?” That allows people to offers comments rather than defend one choice.

I found these in his book, The Last Lecture. An awesome, inspiring, moving read. I’m almost done reading it and almost tempted to read it again. It’s a keep sake. I’m writing a review for it soon.


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