Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Prove you're "smart"

 I don't remember signing up for it, but one of the emails I get is the Quora Digest--basically, people ask a question and the community responds, with the highest-voted answers rising to the top (at least, I think that's how it works). The first question in the email this morning caught my attention: 

What would you do if your interviewer says "Prove to me that you're smart." 

The top answer was a good one, because it looked at the question in terms of trying to understand what the interviewer might be trying to glean from such a question, and his assertion was that it's a test of ego and self-image: 

Consider these possible answers.

1. “I’m way smarter than my current co-workers. They’re always screwing up and causing me problems.”

2. “I don’t really think I’m that smart. But I work hard.”

3. “My standardized test scores, college and graduate studies, areas of research and past employment record are all consistent with a smart person.”

#1 is a red flag since the candidate is putting the blame for his problems on his co-workers. #2 indicates the candidate might have low self-esteem or has difficulties being objective about his performance (e.g. due to the Dunning-Kruger effect). #3 is the most objective answer, but it does come across as being a bit cold. A follow up like “I’ve always surrounded myself by intelligent, talented people in order to learn from them,” might warm it up a bit.

I don't think he's wrong here, but even #3 has its pitfalls--depending on the way an answer like that is delivered, it can come across as bragging or insecurity as you trot out your bona fides. 

I also don't think that there's a "right" answer here, and depending on the interviewer, they may well be looking for a particular answer (some might love answer #2 above, for instance, because they appreciate humility and hard work--and just as a side note, one of the sharpest bosses I've had would often preface statements with something self-deprecating about not being the smartest guy). So I'm sure it depends on the company you're interviewing with--and the extent to which the interviewer has an agenda (if they do). Because while I don't think there's a totally right or wrong answer, I'm sure some interviewers absolutely do think there's a right answer. 


Backing out of the meta-level and trying not to overthink this (he says before writing three long paragraphs), I was formulating my own answer in the shower this morning, and I guess it would be something like this:

When I was younger, in elementary school and even through high school, it just seemed obvious to me that I was smart. I got good grades, and they came relatively easily, and I did well on standardized tests and went off to a very good school. Getting there was the start, though, of reevaluating what smart was and whether I was "smart," because my peers were also people who had always been very smart! People who would blow me away with their insight or their ability to grasp some abstract idea or the clever ways they could think on their feet. The coursework was hard, and the first semester I got my first B in a long, long time.

All of this helped me realize a few different things: first was the idea of multiple intelligences--that there are lots of different domains one can be "smart" in, and pretty much no one is great at all of them. We have this common-sense idea of "smart" as generalized intelligence that's just, well, smart. But that's an incomplete picture. And the other thing I realized is summed up in a quote that I only heard much later: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. I realized that being "smart," whatever that meant, wasn't enough to be successful. The idea of "growth mindset" wasn't something I would encounter until decades later, but on an intuitive level, I grasped that "being smart" was not the be-all, end-all, and that I needed to put in as much time as it took in order to master the material. And I did! 

I also distinctly remember a conversation with a friend of mine, either freshman or sophomore year, and he was a really brilliant guy, but he said that his goal in a class was never an A, although he knew he was going to get an A. His goal in a class was to know the material so well that he could teach it to someone else. This was an important reframing for me because I absolutely was someone who thought that getting the A was a sign of my success, of my intelligence. But of course--especially in the decades-long era of grade inflation we live in--it's a very crude sign that can mean a lot of different things. His comment helped me--slowly, I must admit, not all in a flash of insight--to reframe the purpose of being a student not as jumping through certain hoops to get the treat at the end but as part of a process of mastery. 


For the purpose of the interview, it would probably be good now to circle back to the idea of multiple intelligences and talk about the things I'm good at and some of the areas I'm not as good at, but this post is already getting long, and that feels even more like bragging than any of the things I've already written that look, at least a little, like bragging. 


I imagine it's clear from my answer, but if I was an interviewer asking this kind of question, I think I would be most interested in the thought process of answering the question, and to the extent that I'm "looking for" a particular answer, it would be the ability to go deeper into the question, to think with nuance rather than just reaching for "proof" that someone is "smart." That is, show me how you think about the question, and demonstrate your intelligence in the process. 

But then again, that's also just one particular form of intelligence, isn't it?

Monday, December 14, 2020

A Little College Story

It's always fun to rehash old college stories. Some of them might even be true. 

I had a Zoom call yesterday with several of my college choir friends. One of our friends was, somewhat tongue in cheek, explaining that he'd discovered that the covid vaccine is not injected into your body at -70 degrees or whatever, that despite all the concern for preserving it in transit, it's able to stay at room temp for a few days (I guess), and that's how it's injected. So commented that the vaccine is basically like McDonald's hamburgers--they arrive at the store frozen, but then they sit around at room temp for a few days and they're... fine. 

At which point it was brought up that I'm the McDonald's expert, having worked there for a couple years in my much younger days. And it was also recalled that one of the skills I had taken away from that job was the ability to craft perfect soft serve ice cream cones of virtually any height. Six to ten inches was probably the norm that I would make in the college dining hall.

Which brought up the story I referenced earlier. Our college choir rehearsed at noon every day, so a bunch of us would eat lunch together more or less every day after rehearsals. One particular day, one of our other choir friends (not on the Zoom call) did his not-particularly-unusual shenanigans of sticking his finger in some of my food as he asked "Are you gonna eat that?" 

Short answer: no, I was not.

When I finished my meal, though, I went back for an ice cream cone and came back with this perfect tower of soft serve, which I smashed onto Mr. Are-You-Gonna-Eat-That's head. 

I might say "allegedly" because I have no memory of doing this. Which isn't to say I didn't, especially since my friend telling the story cited it as one of her favorite moments in college. But that does seem like something you'd remember, doesn't it? Memory's a funny thing though, and I'm well aware of how fallible it is. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Deck the Halls

After Thanksgiving, we committed to decorating for Christmas, and compared to previous years, we went bigger on decorating the outside of our house. 

We hung up our garlands, surprised ourselves with how well the suction cups held up the wreaths, and even built trees:

Here's my lovely wife building the last tree with a tomato cage, a garland, and lights:
It looks nice lit up, too:
We also put up electric candles inside the windows to look like they're in all of the wreaths, though the above picture only has them in the downstairs windows.

Finally, we added a whole bunch of snow to really get in the spirit of the season: 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Saturday Book Notes 12/12/20

 A week later, several books are still being read, while another that wasn't even on the list has been started and finished. So it goes. 

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

Listened to the audiobook this week. This is a prequel to the justly-famous The Pillars of the Earth, a novel that was good enough that my grad school musicology professor offered extra credit to anyone who read it. Just a side note, but extra credit is a bullshit idea that should die a quick death, especially when it involves something unrelated to the course content. Even when it is related, why is the teacher giving "extra credit" and what does that really mean? And by extra credit here, I do not mean the opportunity to revise or to retest. That's fine. That's part of the learning process, because it's more important that a student masters the material than whether he or she learned it quickly. 

Ken Follett's historical novels are really enjoyable, even if they do have something very formulaic about them. You're going to have clear good guys vs. bad guys, the good guys are going to go through absolute hell at the hands of their enemies, but goodness and justice will more or less win out in the end, even if that victory is costly and difficult to achieve. The plot will involve twists and turns of clever political machinations on both sides, and it all occurs against a richly researched backdrop that brings that historic era to life. They're not great literature, but they're pretty great reads. 

Also read

Finished up A Court of Thorns and Roses, which was about what I said it was last week. It was fine. Making progress on The Baron of Magister Valley, quite enjoying it. No progress on The Bonehunters.

Up Next

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff on audiobook

How about you? What's on your reading list right now? 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Looking to the Future

The last nine months have been such a big disruption to our daily life, and I think we all know at this point that we may never be "back to normal" -- more likely, we'll have a new normal. I don't have any particular insight into the future, but I've thought about it a bit and listened to a lot of smart people talk about it. Some of these are big trends and some are more personal:

1) Work From Home: I know that my own company--which considers itself a tech company!--was previously reluctant to green-light work from home as a normal thing, but everything they've been saying is how employees have continued to be just as productive over the last nine months. I think a lot of companies where WFH is possible will have discovered this, meaning that this trend will get a big boost from the pandemic.

2) Remote learning: it's not as good as in-person learning, but presumably we're getting better at it. In any case, snow days may well be a thing of the past now that schools have figured out they can switch back and forth. Or, at the very least, schools may well substitute remote learning for tacking on stupid days in June. 

3) Grocery and food delivery: I'm wondering if these delivery services are going to go back to pre-pandemic levels or if we've gotten used to it? For a while there, we were really loving Instacart's grocery delivery services: with kids and 2 working parents, it is really nice to have the groceries just show up at our door, and we were willing to pay a bit of a premium for the convenience. However, one of our Costco deliveries accidentally gave us the receipt and we realized that not only were we not getting the benefit of cash-back from our Executive Membership (which we knew about), but the prices were also higher on most or all of the items. We decided we could buy our own groceries at that point, but we did appreciate the convenience. 

4) Connection with neighbors: It's not like we're hanging out with our neighbors in the current environment, but I think that stay-at-home orders have made us all just a bit more desperate for actual human contact, which in turn has us saying hello and having more frequent (albeit brief) conversations with neighbors when we're out for a walk or whatever. Granted, we've only lived in our neighborhood for a couple years, so we had a lot of room to get to know our neighbors, but it seemed to accelerate over these past months. 

5) Connection with old friends: As people were discovering Zoom for work and connecting with family, it also occurred to us to reconnect with old friends. I've got a group of guy friends from college (and the first few years out of college) that has stayed pretty cohesive in the last 20 years, with some number of us typically getting together once every year or so, but back in March or April we started a weekly Zoom call that some number of us have joined every week, Another group of my college friends has also been getting together every few weeks to catch up. Just speaking for myself, again with kids and both of us working, our social life outside of family was nearly non-existent pre-Covid, and so this has been great both in terms of my social life in general and in deepening these long-standing friendships. I wish we could all get together in person, this is still better than we were doing before.

6) Political Polarization: unfortunately, it doesn't seem like this is getting better any time soon. When we can't even agree on basic facts--never mind the political solutions to them--it's hard to see how this gets any better. Trump has been an accelerant for this, but it seems pretty clear than even his electoral defeat isn't going to dial this back. At all. And, broadly speaking, it seems like one of the most dangerous problems we have in our country, because it makes everything else harder to solve. 

7) Gratitude and Appreciation: I hated to end on a low note, and I'm hopeful that our new normal will include many of the things that we loved about our old normal, and I would expect that we will all appreciate those things much more. It's easy to take something like Thanksgiving for granted, or even to be a little bit tired of the yearly ritual... until you can't do it anymore. It's easy to take for granted simple things like having family or friends over for dinner or going out to a concert... until you can't do it anymore. 

What about you? What do you think we'll carry forward, return to, or do differently? 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Working From Home

In early March, at the same time my girls' school went to remote learning, my workplace went remote. I thought it was great at the time, and for the most part my enthusiasm is undimmed 9 months later. 

I had actually asked to work from home before that (I started working for the company in September of 2019 and probably first asked around December or January). But my manager at the time felt that working from home was a privilege that needed to be earned. I'm a software developer, so the work certainly could be done from home. In fact, everyone on the team that I worked on worked from somewhere other than my location, so my only interaction with them was email or Skype. This was even true of my manager. 

So I was glad to have the opportunity to work from home when it became mandatory. It was also good timing, since we'd discovered that my mom was in the early stages of dementia and she came to live with us. Caring for her would have been a lot harder if my wife and I were going to work every day! 

But, of course, working from home is a lot different when the whole family's home than it is when just one person is working from home. My wife saw a meme the other day: "2020 is the year we realized we had too many children." While we're not ready to give any of ours up for adoption, it's definitely true that all of us being confined together these last months hasn't been easy. Children are a lot more managable when they spend all day at school and you spend all day at work and then you see each other in the evening, put them to bed, and see them again in the morning. As opposed to never not seeing them. 

From September until Thanksgiving, my wife and girls were back at school, so a couple of those months it was just me and Mom home during the day, and then after she moved into assisted living,it's just been me. 

Anyway, here are things I appreciate about working from home:

1) no commute! While there is something kind of nice about the alone time you get in the car, I don't really miss commuting a half hour each way through Cleveland traffic. We hardly spend money on gas and it really minimizes the opportunities to get into fender-benders (which happened to me once during the 7 months I was commuting

2) Along with 1), I don't have to get up so early, or if I do more of that time can be "me time." Over the summer I could get up and go for a run or walk. Even now, having to get the girls up and going for school, it's still better than having to do all that and commute to work. 

3) Exercise during the day. With the commute and kids in school, I was never able to go to the gym, except occasionally on weekends (rarely). Now I fit in "micro workouts" during the day. I've put together a small home gym setup, and I can just do a set between meetings or whatever, spread out throughout the day. So instead of having to set aside an hour or more to work out, I'm getting exercise in every day without really even noticing it, in terms of the time it takes.

4) Not packing a lunch: I go to the fridge and there it is

5) No guilt over leaving the dog(s) alone all day, because they're not alone. 

6) Easy to slip in some light housework between meetings: throw in a load of laundry, fold during a meeting; throw dishes in the dishwasher or pick a few things up. In the office, I'd be going for a walk, either inside or outside, to get up and stretch. At home, I can get up and stretch by getting a little something done. 

7) Packages don't sit on the porch all day, at the mercy of porch pirates. 

And the things that I actually do miss:

1) My work friends, and playing ping pong with the same on our lunch break

2) Someone else making and paying for the coffee

3) My little Funko Pop Freddie Mercury that I got for Christmas last year--he got stranded at the office! 

4) Every so often going out for lunch. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Sex Education

 My wife and I recently finished watching the two seasons of Sex Education on Netflix Such a good show (assuming that really frank sexual talk and sexual humor aren't a turn-off for you). Funny and moving, the writing is smart and the acting performances are excellent. 

There's a lot one could write about, when it comes to this show, but the thing that's on my mind right now is the way they're handling relationships. It's a pretty standard formula in film and tv to have love triangles (and usually just one). I love the way that Sex Education plays with that formula and expands it. 


For instance, at the heart of the show for a good bit of the series so far is Otis's apparent love triangle with Ola and Maeve. Who will he choose?? But of course, Maeve is in her own love triangle, dating Jackson but eventually realizing how much she likes Otis. Not to mention her new neighbor, Isaac, by the end of season two. And then before Otis chooses, Ola realizes she's attracted to Lily. So she, too, has a triangle set up. 

Watching the show unfold, my wife and I talked about it in fairly standard terms: "Team Maeve" or "Team Ola," or for Eric "Team Adam" and "Team Rahim." And those are by no means invalid ways of looking at the relationships. 

But one of the things that's set up through all this is the sense that, even though we have the appearance of all these love triangles, they certainly don't work out the way they do in the movies! It seems like every time one of the characters makes a choice between the two other points of their triangle, everything gets complicated. Otis chooses to stick with Ola instead of breaking up with her for Maeve... just as Ola realizes she doesn't love him and wants to be with Lily (who immediately rejects her advances! But she's already broken things off with Otis anyway! D'oh!). But Otis has already told Maeve he can't see her anymore! Noooo! 

Granted, by the end of season 2 we've reached some equilibrium states: Ola and Lily do get together; Eric chooses Adam. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of our star-crossed lovers just remained star-crossed. I mean, it does feel a bit like Otis and Maeve will end up together, despite Isaac's dastardly attempts to thwart their reunion, but I wouldn't even be surprised if they don't. The writers seem more than happy to avoid pat endings and give us more complicated outcomes, and I'm totally here for it.

And just a side note: I loved how we get what would be a resolution in most other shows, where Otis realizes he's been a dick to Jakob, and apologizes and tells him that he's welcome to date his mom, and it is a nice moment. In most shows, that would be the lead-in to them getting back together. But we know it's not going to provide that resolution, at least not as things stand, because Otis isn't the real problem in the relationship between Jakob and Jean--it's Jean. Jakob was absolutely right when he said that she isn't ready for the kind of relationship he wants. And, of course, we can expect her pregnancy to further complicate things. 

Anyway, overall point being that I love the way that it's less about one or two characters' relationship than it is a whole ecosystem of relationships (including important friendships), and I love the way that it doesn't shy away from complexity and ambiguity and the real texture of relationships.