How to Succeed in College

June 6, 2008

Benjamin Franklin said it best when he wrote, “Well done is better than well said.” I maintain an open mind, but I have a few beliefs that are unshakable:

  • The human intellect has yet to reach its highest potential.
  • Free capitalism is vital to a free world.
  • Americans don’t read enough.
  • Great effort produces great results.

Today I’m going to focus on that last principle. Let’s repeat it — great effort produces great results. Granted, some people succeed by family connections, brown-nosing, and deception, but the vast majority of successful people are hard workers. And the earlier we begin working hard, the sooner we achieve success. Warren Buffet became an entrepreneur in high school; Donald Trump became a teenage leader at the New York Military Academy. If I could, I would list all the examples of this formula:

Effort x Youth = Success

Of course, success has no age limits. But young people have more energy, more opportunity to develop, and more choices ahead of them. There are countless ways to achieve success throughout college (grades, extracurriculars, jobs, etc.), but how do we achieve any of that? Let’s take a look:

  1. Understand the college ethos. All colleges and professors are different, but you will find one universal truth in every college – the student is responsible for their own destiny. In high school, teachers use more of the “spoon feeding” method of teaching; college professors prefer the laissez-faire style. Professors will tell you about an assignment during the first day of class and never mention it again until the due date. You’re in college now – you’re an adult. If you fail a test or miss an assignment deadline, it isn’t your professor’s fault. My #1 rule for college and beyond – from day one, you must accept full responsibility for your life. What you do now will affect your job prospect’s after graduation; it will determine your internship opportunities and – in the end – your career. Consider the consequences for your actions; you can no longer blame your parents, teachers, or friends. If you screw up, it’s your fault. Consequently, you get full credit for your successes.
  2. Push past your boundaries. Most college students take 15 credits, rely on their parents for tuition payments, and work part-time (if at all). I said earlier that the human capacity for intellect has yet to reach its fullest potential – this is the greatest example of that belief. When did five classes become enough to fill up a student’s schedule? There is no reason you can’t take 18+ credits. It adds a few hours of work per week, sure; but after four years of taking extra courses, you can graduate at least a semester early. If you throw in some winter and summer courses, you can easily get your diploma in three years. And it isn’t that hard! We come now to my second rule – if you aren’t busy, you aren’t succeeding. I’m not telling you to study on Saturday nights and give up your social life, but anyone can squeeze in a few extra hours a week. Take an extra class or get a part-time job. Do something to improve yourself! You only have four years to experience the relative freedom that college provides – take this opportunity to do original research, to learn under renowned professors, and to figure out what you want to do in life. Remember, great effort produces great results.
  3. Break through the bureaucracy. You will discover that colleges, business, and governments are set up as bureaucracies. This organizational structure is ineffective by nature and generally impersonal to the average consumer (you, the student). It’s your duty to break through the stifling inefficiencies of the bureaucracy to get what you want. One of my personal heroes is Randy Pausch – if you aren’t one of the six million people who have watched his “Last Lecture,” stop what you’re doing and watch it now. Disregarding Mr. Pausch’s personal story of pancreatic cancer, he has the most incisive and accurate saying that I have ever heard: “The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.” If you want to take a class but haven’t met the Junior Standing requirement, ask the professor for permission. If you want an internship to count for college credit, show up at your Registrar’s office and articulately argue how it applies to your major. Nothing makes educators happier than seeing motivated students. Be one, and break through the walls that are put up to keep out the other people.
  4. Don’t be afraid to be the “that guy”. The college community has a disturbing philosophy – too many students stay quiet in class because they fear the scorn of their fellow students. Yes, asking questions makes classes last longer, but you’re paying $20,000 for that class. Why are you trying to cut it short? My first economics professor was fascinating by this – in his words, “students are the only customers who hope to be ripped off.” Get your money’s worth! Questions inspire thought, which inspires debate. People learn more by debating, discussing, and arguing than by listening to a lecture. If you don’t understand a particular concept, speak up! If you still don’t understand it, follow your professor back to his office. Your professors should know you; they get paid to teach you, and you have every right to visit them during office hours. Ask questions and delve deeper into the subject at hand. This is how you demonstrate your passion for your major. You have access to brilliant minds; your professors have dedicated their lives to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Use this opportunity to learn as much as possible.
  5. Stay healthy. I’m not telling you to go vegan or run a marathon during finals week, but you cannot succeed if you aren’t healthy. Avoid the freshman 15 and exercise regularly. Try to exercise at least four times a week – your campus should have a gym, some tennis courts, a pool, and a running track. There are no limits to what you can do; make sure you do something you enjoy, or else you won’t stick to it. I bike, play tennis, and run; I’m gearing up for a triathlon in the fall, and I routinely play competitive sports (football, basketball, rugby, etc.) with my friends. In addition to exercise, try not to poison your body with your diet. Colleges have a gravitational pool for sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. Go ahead and enjoy yourself, but remember that your health habits now will stay with you forever. Start to acquire good habits now and you’ll be set for life.
  6. Constantly multi-task. Remember when I said that the human intellect was still underdeveloped? This is how you fight that. The modern world can’t tolerate inefficiency – let’s utilize this philosophy to better ourselves. Download lectures to your iPod and listen to them when you hit the treadmill. If your professor has wandered off onto irrelevant rabbit trails during a lecture, do homework for another class. The professor can’t see what you’re writing – he can’t tell if it’s Business Law notes or an essay for Western Literature. If you have an assigned book to read, carry is with you at all times – when you get a spare 30 seconds, crack it open and read the next paragraph. You can easily power your way through a book by using this principle, and it will take up little extra time. Fill your dead and dull time with other tasks and see your efficiency improve exponentially.
  7. Appreciate your life. I can’t stress enough that college is a unique opportunity that you will never get back. You have health, freedom, and the opportunity to create memories. Have fun, but always remember your goals. You should have no reason to complain, and you should never be miserable. Always remember that billions of people will never get the chance to go to college; you’re there, and you have a golden opportunity to make something of your life and do something good for the world. I don’t want to say that you owe it to yourself or to the world – it’s your life and you can do whatever you want. But do you want to be 70 years old and realize that you wasted amazing opportunities to do tremendous things? I certainly don’t.

Different strokes work for different folks, but these seven principles seem ubiquitous in most successful students, workers, and leaders. Read them, customize them to fit your needs, and run with them toward your ultimate goal – success. I’ll meet you at the finish line.


The Greatest Books of the Modern World

June 5, 2008

The classic journalist Edward P. Morgan once said, “A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

I’ve loved to read since I was a little kid. I tried to conquer War and Peace when I was eight years old; I failed, of course. When I was ten, I read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which has helped me quote the Shakespearean sonnets on dates. Beyond that, I’m not sure what it did for me. Over my high school career, I read over 400 books (nonfiction, fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical, philosophical, drama, theatrical, religious, romance, scientific, and anything else I could get my hands on). I even read two pages of a harlequin novel, but I quickly ended that foray into curiosity.

There is no denying that books are beneficial. Reading is a long lost art – I hate going into the library to see everyone on the computers and in the DVD aisle, but nobody walking through the bookshelves. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to read on paper than on a computer screen.

So for the aspiring literary enthusiast, what books should you read? The inner nerd in me wants to shout, “All of them!” But that’s not good advice, and it makes for a horrible blog post. Instead, I’m going to outline the Top 5 books that I think everyone should read, especially if you want to play an active role in the world. I will probably expand this to the Top 10, but let’s start with baby steps.

  1. The World is Flat: A Short History of the 21st Century, by Thomas L. Friedman. Pulitzer prize recipient Thomas Friedman is the authority on globalization. From call centers in Bangalore, India, to executives in the United States, to the future of the global workforce, The World is Flat presents the fascinating tale of society’s progression from the 1900s into the 21st century. This book will either excite you for the future of the global economy or frighten you about job prospect’s for a spoiled American citizen. Either way, it provides an excellent introduction to the modern state of business. It should be required reading of anyone who is entering an international field of business.
  2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah. We’ve all heard about boy soldiers – prepubescent African boys who are used as killing machines in return for alcohol and drugs. In Ishmael Beah’s moving story, his village is massacred and he and his friends are forced to run for their lives. After a lengthy pursuit, he is captured by a squad of soldiers and indoctrinated to kill. He eventually escapes from this horrendous life, recovers from drug addiction, and visits New York City to testify before the United Nations about child soldiers. The writing is not polished, but it lends an air of authenticity to this harrowing tale. This is the best remedy for a western civilization that doesn’t care about the plight of the sub-Saharan citizen.
  3. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell. After reading his first book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, I was eager to pick up Malcolm Gladwell’s second book. By exploring the “stickiness” of various commodities like Hush Puppies and Sesame Street, he uses social theory to explain why some ideas take off and others die before they leave the hanger. For any entrepreneurs out there, this book will be a fascinating and worthwhile read. I would heartily recommend it for everyone, however, if only to change how people look at the world around them. If we can explain teenage smoking and books sales using the same theories, what aspects of society can’t we figure out?
  4. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser. If anyone ever tells you that writing skills are unimportant in today’s business world, don’t listen to another word they say. I work with some brilliant people and far too many of them cannot write a coherent email to save their life. It doesn’t matter how magnificent your idea is; if you can’t adequately articulate your vision, you will make no progress. William Zinsser used to teach nonfiction writing at Yale University and is an authority on the subject of journalism and general writing. His book is filled with elegant lessons in composition and even contains some humor. This book ranks up there with The Elements of Style.
  5. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, by Joseph Nye. While his other books are more in-depth and academic, Soft Power is an excellent primer to the idea of “attraction versus coercion.” Joseph Nye is the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and was an assistant secretary of defense in the 1990s. This book provides a general introduction to the new wave of political power, beyond the unilateral idea that bigger guns control little guns. I recommend this book for everyone interested in politics and international relations – if you are intrigued by the ideas in the book, then continue on to read his other two books, Understanding International Conflicts and The Paradox of American Power.
  6. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the world, we will never see success. These books are just the starting points – we need to use introductory books to pique our interests. Specialization is for insects – read about everything, learn about anything, and join the revolution of knowledge.

Why am I majoring in Economics?

June 4, 2008

I entered college with the goal to become a theoretical astrophysicist. Once I discovered that a PhD in mathematics and physics would steal my soul and social skills, I changed to a major in Political Science. I’m going to become the President one day, so why not?

But Political Science majors are a dime a dozen. Plus, it was hard to convince work that they should pay for me to study “Political Philosophy of the Ancient Greek Philosophers” and “Political Campaigns.” So then I stumbled upon Economics. I took “Principles of Macroecomonics” as an elective, and my professor made me fall in love with the subject. I enrolled in Microeconomics for the following semester, and now I am a bona fide Economics major.

So why is this the greatest major of all time? Let me tell you!

  1. Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, says it best: “Econ is the highest-paid of all the easy majors.” Alas, engineers and mathematicians get paid more than economics students, but they also have insane amounts of work to do to graduate. Do you hear of many engineering students with GPAs above 3.5? Probably not, because only soulless robots, geniuses, and people without social lives can pull it off. Econ majors, though, can still enjoy their weekends. I’m not saying it’s like the super-easy majors (communications, dance, and neurobiology), but it’s not impossible.
  2. Economics is cool. In the first night of my first course in economics, we talked about politics (the founding of American society), philosophy (of free will and logic), crime (theft and rape), drugs (the supply and demand of marijuana), education (the cost of college vs. the benefits of a degree), and a whole host of other topics. Economics deals with everything. I browsed the list of publications that my faculty has written, and the topics span almost every realm of academic inquiry. Economics relates to everything you hear on the news. Don’t believe me? Pick a random story and type it into Google with the word “economics” afterwards.
  3. People should understand economics, but they don’t. The United States is in a recession, but most Americas don’t know what exactly that means. We understand the concept that we’re paying more for less, but most of us don’t understand why. If you disagree, take a peek at this Harris Market Research study. It’s from 2005, but it shows that we know remarkably little about a subject that affects our daily lives.

I would go on, but the law of diminishing marginal utility says I should stop here. There are plenty of other reasons to study Economics (not even as a major – just take a course or two). Read Freakonomics, The Logic of Life, The Wordly Philosophers, The Wealth of Nations (if you want a good, long read), or the Communist Manifesto. Go learn something.

4 Days of Work and 35 Hours a Week?

June 3, 2008

I enjoy driving. Ever since I was a 16-year-old kid with a freshly-printed driver’s license, I’ve enjoyed the feeling behind the wheel. But as much as I love it, I’m intrigued by an idea that’s gaining some momentum throughout the country.

The Workplace Prof Blog quoted a story from Financial Week about shortened workweeks. Instead of working five 8-hour days, commuters are increasingly working four days a week. Of course, their days are 10 hours long, but they save 20% on gas every week. As a student and a renter who spends over two and a half hours in a car every day, I love this idea. If I could, I would dump my girlfriend and marry this idea. Heck, I’ll work 13.5 hour days and come in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!

Or we could go European and shrink our workweek in general. Alas, the blissful days of the 35-hour French workweek and the daily Spanish siestas after lunch are coming to a sad close. According to the Wall Street Journal, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is drafting legislation that would get rid of the legal limit of 35 hours for a workweek. French unions are up in arms, but French conservatives are pushing the idea.

Nicolas Sarkozy – President, Union for Popular Movement Member, and Slavedriver

My thoughts? I like to work. I like to work more than I like to drive, even. And while I don’t enjoying staying until midnight on a Friday night to accomplish an emergency task, there’s an odd beauty in overtime. I give major props to the investment bankers and corporate lawyers who spend over 100 hours in the office every week – they are more dedicated employees than I. Plus, they make about eight times my salary.

So go right ahead, Mr. Sarkozy. As long as you let them work four days a week.

Savings? Huzzah for the Penny-Pinchers!

June 2, 2008

I’m under 25. Statistically, I should be swamped with debt. I also shouldn’t have any savings. I have far too many friends my age who live paycheck to paycheck, but not because they make low wages. The term paycheck to paycheck is actually a misnomer. They’re really living bill to bill, because they save enough money to cover the next rent payment, cell phone bill, or tank of gas. After that, they consider their paycheck to be free game! Dinners and dates, movies and music – they have the money until next month’s bills.

They don’t understand that they will be royally screwed if they lose their job tomorrow, or if they’re injured and can no longer work. Why don’t we save any of our money? The Workplace Prof Blog cites a new report from the EBRI that gives us a scary number – retirees will need between $196,000 to $390,000 is savings just to cover health care. Then consider a house, food, transportation, utilities, and all those pleasures of our golden years.

I’m going to be honest: I’m terrified about retirement. I’ll probably work until I die, but I’m still saving for it now. Then again, I’ve had a retirement account since I was 16, so I was never fiscally normal for my age.

Ah, Greed is the American Way

June 2, 2008

In the blog Fistful of Talent, the author discusses the complications of finalizing a recruitment deal when the new employee wants a better offer. The lady mentioned in the post wanted the company to cover her BMW payments and executive office rent – in total, some $16,200.

Who has the cajones to ask for over sixteen grand, in addition to what (I can only assume) was an impressive salary? I have friends who work 50-60 hours a week and earn less than that. But if anyone has a job offer for me that includes rent and car payments, let me know and I’ll jump all over it.

I’m still working to develop my esoteric experience at work, but I can’t wait for the day when I’m a widely-sought SME and can demand an extra $16,000. “Because I’m worth it.”

I want to move to Venezuela

May 31, 2008

Take a look at this recent chart from the Energy Information Association:

I hate gas prices as much as the next guy (a tiny two-door coup should not cost $40 to fill up!), but thank God I don’t live in Germany. If you can’t see, it costs an average of $11.49 for a gallon of gas in Germany. In fact, gas all over Europe is more than twice as expensive as that of the United States. Southeast Asia varies (it’s $4.16 in India, but less than $3 in China and Indonesia).

But look at Caracas, Venezuela. $0.12! Zero dollars and twelve cents! I could have abstained from that Starbucks espresso yesterday and bought thirty gallons of gas. And I’d have to become a socialist and improve my Spanish, but those are minor issues.

Goodbye to the American Dream

May 31, 2008

In John Truslow Adams’ 1931 book The Epic of America, he describes the American dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”

According to a recent survey by the Marlin Company, though, the fabled American Dream is considered unreachable by 52% of American workers. This statistic obviously depends on a person’s individual interpretation of the term American Dream, but I’m still disappointed by the pessimism in our working class. Perhaps I’m merely deluding myself with dreams of great success. My father told me that he hope I would be more successful than he was, and I work toward that goal.

I am not an aristocrat. My only major piece of property is my car with 100,000 miles. So why do I look at the future with optimism when over half of my workforce colleagues have given up?

UPDATE: I was skimming today’s posts on the EconLog Blog and I found an entry on Rational Optimism. It referenced a new blog entitled “The Rational Optimist.” The author has only written an initial welcome essay, but his ideas look interesting and promising. Most notably, he agrees with my aforementioned philosophy:

“…pessimism and happiness are ultimately at odds. The satisfactions of smug gloominess are thin gruel compared to the hearty nourishment of a positive, cheerful outlook. And without hope, why even get out of bed in the morning?”

A Caramel Macchiato with a Shot of Efficiency

May 31, 2008

I don’t drink coffee. In fact, I haven’t touched caffeine since 2006. I had a lot of work to do today, though, and I was exhausted this morning. I could barely keep my eyes open, which isn’t good when I’m talking to my boss. So I decided to break my anti-caffeination streak and visit the Starbucks that we conveniently keep in our cafeteria. I had no idea what to get, but I just wanted to wake up.

Starbucks is Evil and Beautiful

Why is ordering coffee such a formidable activity? I’ve soloed in a plane, jumped out of a helicopter, met the former President of the United States, but I’m always nervous when I walk up to the barista. Does Starbucks purposefully complicate the menu to trick us into spending more money? I still don’t know which is the biggest – a venti, a tall, or a grande.

Regardless, I asked for “the smallest possible size.” Because I’m a caramel aficionado, I ordered the Caramel Macchiato (whatever that second word means). I drank it at my desk, and something magical happened. Those dimethylxanthines kicked into my bloodstream and my productivity shot through the roof. I usually have small piles of stuff to do on my desk – by the end of the day my desk was clear, I had done half of next week’s tasks, and I volunteered to help my coworker landscape her lawn.

I remember now why I went off caffeine in the first place – addiction sucks. But without that annoying caffeine tolerance, today rocked.

Who doesn’t want to go to college?

May 29, 2008

Let me explain my day to you. I get into work at about 5:45 every morning; I do this to avoid the beltway traffic during rush hour, and it also gets me out by 3:00 so I can get to class. Between 5:45 and 7:00, the office is quiet and I can get a lot of work accomplished. This morning, though, my boss came in at 6:30 with a story.

First off, my boss rocks. He’s unarguably one of the best managers I’ve ever worked under and I would follow him to the Fifth Circle of Professional Hell. He’s also an incredible father – his kids take international trips during the summer, never have to worry about money, and get nice cars for their 16th birthday.

So this morning he tells us the story of his eldest daughter. Apparently, she doesn’t want to go to college. He is willing to cover every cent of tuition (regardless of where she goes) and has told her that she just has to worry about “passing her classes and having fun.” So why is she balking at the idea of a fully-funded college education?

I’ve worked full-time since I was a teenager, so I don’t understand why anyone would turn that offer down. She’s an intelligent, straight-A student, but she doesn’t see the value of a degree. I swear, kids confuse me.

I told my boss that he should apply her college fund toward my tuition payments, but he declined.