I don’t read enough fiction, and my guess is that most people don’t either.

Fiction enables people to empathize with others, embrace new ideas, and envision the future. NASA credits science fiction as being the foundation for many of humanity’s biggest technological advances over the past several decades. The iPad seems to have been heavily influenced by Star Trek.

If enjoying fiction isn’t enough of a reason to pick up a good novel, reference Harvard Business Review or Berkeley Greater Good for more benefits of reading fiction.

Haruki Murakami is my favorite novelist at the moment, and I hope to read all of his books. I just finished The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and cannot give this work enough praise. Murakami has a way of weaving stories to bring you into his world.

In this novel he deals with Japan’s blackened image during World War II and the attempt of an elderly man to come to terms with the horrors of that War, love and its fleeting nature, a man’s solitude in Tokyo, and the attempt of a man to save his wife. Like many of his works they are hard to describe, they’re surreal and mysterious – something quite out of this world. Murakami fans will know what I mean.

To give you some insight into the works of Murakami, I have enclosed an excerpt from  The Wind Up Bird Chronicle which I found to be quite gripping. This takes place while the protagonist, Toru Okada, is in a strange town on business. It’s a dreary night, raining heavily, and he stops in a bar for a drink. The musician finishes his performance by shutting off the lights in the bar and lighting a single candle:

     “The reason that people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy, to break free of the narrow shell of the self and share their pain and joy with others. This is not an easy thing to do, of course. And so tonight, as a kind of experiment, I want you to experience a simpler, and more physical kind of empathy.”
     Everyone in the place was hushed now, all eyes fixed on the stage. Amid the silence, the man stared off into space, as if to insert a pause or to reach a state of mental concentration. Then, without a word, he held his left hand up over the lighted candle. Little by little, he brought the palm closer and closer to the flame. Someone in the audience made a sound like a sigh or a moan. You could see the tip of the flame burning the man’s palm. Someone in the audience made a sound like a sigh or a moan. You could almost hear the sizzle of the flesh. A woman released a hard little scream. Everyone else just watched in frozen horror. The man endured the pain. his face distorted in agony. What the hell was this? Why did he have to do such a stupid, senseless thing? I felt my mouth was going dry. After five or six seconds of this, he slowly removed his hand from the flame and set the dish with the candle in it on the floor. Then he clasped his hands together, the right and left palms pressed against each other.
     “As you have seen tonight, ladies and gentlemen, pain can actually burn a person’s flesh,” said the man. His voice sounded exactly as it had earlier: quiet, steady, cool. No trace of suffering remained on his face. Indeed, it had been replaced by a faint smile. “And the pain that must have been there, you have been able to feel as if it were your own. That is the power of empathy.”

Murakami, pg. 239

I hope this little taste of Murakami might encourage you to read one of his novels, and challenge your mind in new ways.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel

 

MTV Scratch

July 9, 2012 — Leave a comment

For the fifth week of the Breaker Project we were hosted by MTV Scratch for an ‘ideating’ session. According to their website,

“Scratch is a SWAT team that channels the reach, connection and creative force of Viacom in new ways to drive culture and commerce. Through consumer insights, consulting and award-winning creative, Scratch is engaging with our partners to transform industries and activate audiences.”

What does that actually mean? Scratch is part consultancy and part creative agency. They leverage the research, insights, and connection to culture within Viacom to help clients make an impact among their target makret.

Our brainstorming session was fantastic, it was led with the framework of ‘yes, and’. Meaning that as we talked about ideas the Scratchers forced us to dig deeper into each thought. This one day enabled us to take our weeks of research and boil them down to the beginnings of several potential firms.

The patterns of our research that emerged during this session were:

  • Our values for this project are not monetary, we seek people to make a time commitment to motivate change
  • Story is very important to us, and we seek a solution which will capture people’s attention

As a Breaker I cannot thank the Scratch team enough for helping us to refine our ideas. I look forward to hearing their feedback at our mid-project presentation next week!

(This post is cross-listed on the Breaker Blog)

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I recently came across a great report by the Economist Intelligence Unit – Fostering innovation-led clusters: A review of leading global practices.

This report focuses on what government can do to drive innovation within their economy, and how best they can work with the private sector. Below are some of my takeaways from the report:

  • Talent is the most important aspect of innovation – and government should focus on providing quality education
  • Governments are successful when they promote a culture of innovation
  • Specialized clusters work best, especially when they can compete
  • Accelerate the natural entrepreneurship model
  • Governments can realize success just by hosting networking events for corporate executives and government leaders – this is a low cost high reward initiative

 

One interesting focus of this report was “top-down or bottom-up”? Essentially the questions asked was are clusters better when they’re led by the government or led by the market? There are compelling arguments for both, from Silicon Valley (top-down) to Silicon Fen (bottom-up). Both areas feature world class universities, government funded research, and ample amounts of private financial capital. It seems to me that these clusters require much work between the public and private sectors.

As I prepare myself for a year in Sri Lanka, I have been researching their innovation community. There is not much on the web, as this nation is still at the early stages of economic development. Private companies, such as Microsoft  are hosting innovation competitions.  Microsoft’s Software for the 21st Century competition has invested $1.5mm over the past four years in Sri Lanka to raise their national standard of education. This is a long term strategic bet on Sri Lanka as a knowledge center.

While the Government, through the National Science Foundation and its Universities, are providing grants to encourage local innovation.

I’m quite excited to get  on the ground and learn more about whats going on in this quickly developing economy.

Economic development should not just be seen as a way to increase monetary wealth. It is a tool to foster political and social stability. A recent paper by the Council on Foreign Relations argues this. I haven’t read the full paper yet, but there is a great synopsis from the author on HBR’s Blog. Creating these innovation clusters should not just be a matter of national economic policy for individual countries, but a matter of foreign policy for all developed nations.

 

I was recently forwarded the 2012 Texas Republican Platform from a former Professor of mine at Fordham, and I was a little taken aback by what they were advocating for education:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Think about this for a moment, a political party is opposing ‘critical thinking skills’ because they believe this to undermine parental authority. This position on education is mind boggling. Aside from the grave threat of children questioning their parents, what are the other negative consequences of critical thinking?

America has some of the best universities in the world, namely because they foster critical thinking, and they attract the best students in the world. It is the skills in critical thinking which have enabled our graduates to solve complex problems. Some may take this for granted, as I did until I spent two semesters at the University of  International Business and Economics (对外经贸大学) in Beijing.

One of the starkest differences between my courses at UIBE and Fordham was that many Professors in Chinese Universities read out of textbooks for an entire class – verbatim. In China rote learning is the highest priority, memorizing facts is considered more valuable than a true understanding of the material. My counterparts in China could run circles around me rattling off facts, but when I tired to have a discussion of the material they were at a loss.

There’s a reason that Xi Jinping, likely the next President of China, sent his daughter to Harvard under a pseudonym.

Critical thinking is the backbone of our economy, and most economists will agree that education is the best way to grow and economy’s long run GDP potential. I hope that the Republican Party of Texas will reconsider their stance on this issue, because their economy has greatly benefited from critical thinking. It’s critical thinking skills which enabled Michael Dell to found Dell Computers from his dorm at the University of Texas at Austin.

Why any politician would try to end the teaching of critical thinking skills is beyond me.

It’s amazing how I’ve forgotten my learning. I don’t know what I didn’t know, which makes teaching much harder – be it English or otherwise.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon when training others at work. I expect it will be much harder teaching English overseas, because I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that I was learning as I came to speak English.

I try to be conscious of this, but how does it effect the education system? Is this something teachers are taught to deal with?

It’s something organizations should give some thought to, as they bring new members on their team.

The week long orientation for Fulbright ETAs to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia provided me with an overview of what the next year of my life will look like. For those of you unfamiliar with the program you can reference the transcript of Secretary Clinton’s welcome address to the Fulbright Program:

Every year 8,000 scholarly exchanges are made between 155 countries and America. There is a network of 300,000 Fulbrights, since the program’s inception.

When I accepted my grant I knew only that I’d be moving to Sri Lanka for nine months of my life to teach English. This orientation went a long way to reassuring me about this chapter of my life. Ambassador Ronald McMullen opened the orientation with his nine keys to preparing for life in a new country:

  1. Language – learning a few key phrases can go a long way towards gaining acceptance
  2. Incumbent – when going into a new office move around furniture to give people a visual reminder of the change
  3. Books – read one novel about the country and one guidebook
  4. Music – music is universal, learning some of the most popular songs in the country you’re traveling too will help you adjust
  5. Maps – getting a sense of where in the world you’re going is hugely invaluable
  6. Food – make sure to prep your stomach to the challenges which may be ahead
  7. Security – let the local Embassy know where you’ll be, so they can alert you to any potential developments
  8. School – learn about the local schools, the universities people attend
  9. Sports – sports are universal, but you should learn the local sports (be it curling, cricket, or soccer)

 

The rest of the conference was split between networking with Fulbright Alumni and the Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission and sessions preparing us to teach English.

Most of the Fulbrighters were told where in the country they would be placed. While I have yet to find out my physical location, however I did find out that I’ve been placed with Sarvodaya – the largest NGO in Sri Lanka.

It was a pleasure meeting my counterparts who will be teaching in countries across the world. In general, they were among the most thoughtful and worldly people I’ve ever met. I had a great time getting to know them over the course of a week, and I look forward to seeing some of them in Nepal for the Fulbright ETA conference in November.

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A picture from the Fulbright dinner cruise – June 21, 2012

Qualified to Teach?

June 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

For the past week I’ve been going through orientation for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program. This orientation has brought together 64 recent college graduates who will be traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Central Asia (Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Bangladesh, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan).

There is a wide variety of students here, but very few of the ETAs have teaching experience (or were even teaching majors).

For the past three days we have been receiving instruction in teaching English as a foreign language. Throughout this program I’ve asked myself what qualifies me to teach English in Sri Lanka? I majored in finance at Fordham, not teaching. But the State Department saw something in me that made them believe I’m qualified to represent America and teach abroad.

Yesterday is came across a great NPR article on teaching qualifications. It turns out that Einstein would not be able to teach Physics in high school – as he was not a certified teacher.

At Fordham some of my best professors were those who didn’t have a doctorate degree, but had a great deal of real world experience. Charlie O’Donnell is a great example of this, his class fundamentally changed my career outlook. He is not an academic, and doesn’t have a masters or PhD, but he’s an incredibly effective teacher. This is because he’s teaching about something he is truly passionate about – the NYC Tech Community.

I wonder how our country would change if professionals were allowed to teach at the high school level. My guess is that we could get some really talented individuals into our schools.

I’m not an expert in education, but I believe this is a conversation we need to have.

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Productive Uses

June 6, 2012 — Leave a comment

As a Breaker I had the privilege of  hearing five visionaries speak about Civil Engagement and society last week at TED’s offices in NYC. It was an amazing night, and has laid the foundation for what I expect will be an amazing project.

One of the visionaries, Clay Shirky, told us something that blew me away:

  •  Wikipedia, the largest online reference tool, took 100 million hours of human thought to build and update
  • Americans spend 200 billion hours a year watching television

Think about that for a moment, Wikipedia is paramount to the amount of time we watch commercials on the weekend. There is an enormous amount of intellectual capacity which is not utilized every year. My background in economics leads me to think about this huge inefficiency in our economy, and I wonder what improvements could be made to our world if people turned off their televisions.

I’m not asking you to swear off television, but I urge you to consider your motives the next time you sit down to watch a sitcom. Is there a project you can’t seem to make time for? A loved one you don’t get to see as often as you’d like?

Seth Godin

June 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

Seth Godin is an artist, linchpin, and tribe leader. He embraces the minority, and believes that by connecting those on the fringe you can leverage the web to make an impact.

Godin has written 11 books, Godin is an advocate of publishing often, shipping a product and getting it out there. He has given away many of his books, and this has built him quite a following. He is one of the people responsible for getting Amazon into the publishing business.

He is an entrepreneur, and the founder of Squidoo (check out it’s wikipedia page).

One of his free prizes is the Ship It Journal, his guide to completing a project. Seth believes in giving gifts; not just because its built him a massive following, but because he enjoys the act.

Seth doesn’t watch TV, he strives to cut out all of the time wasting activities that people engage in.

I had the great fortune of attending his Pick Yourself event a few weeks ago. Seth encourages individual actions, and trying to make an impact. He’s a fantastic public speaker, and a visionary.

His event was centered around ripping out all of those reasons you give for not producing. Seth is an advocate of failing, often and early. If you’re not failing you have no chance of creating something remarkable.

I recently finished his book, Linchpin. Seth defines a Linchpin as someone who is indispensable, here is one set of ways to be a Linchpin:

  1. Providing a unique interface between members of an organization
  2. Delivering unique creativity
  3. Managing a situation or organization of great complexity
  4. Leading customers
  5. Inspiring staff
  6. Providing deep domain knowledge
  7. Possessing a unique talent

Seth’s major goal is to inspire people to take a risk, and embrace their own uniqueness. Don’t take the safe job, because those safe jobs are disappearing. Today computers allow for white collar jobs can be mechanized and erased just as easily as factory jobs were destroyed over the past century.

My father is one of my greatest sources of inspiration, so it’s only fitting that my first post on my new blog be about him.

At the age of 13 my Dad posed as his brother to work as a dishwasher at a local restaurant/bar. He worked his way up to eventually own that restaurant. There qa a falling out among partners there, and he went through bankruptcy. Though he didn’t let that hold him back, he went out and purchased a new restaurant, The Cambridge Inn, and he’s been there for the past 16 years.

Three months ago he called and told me a local bagel shoppe was up for sale, and he had put a bid in. I asked him what he knew about bagels, he laughed and said, “I can run a restaurant, and I’ll learn how to make a bagel.”

The night before the first day of business he went in at 1am, he was too excited to sleep. He’s been working long hours, working to get the business moving smoothly. I haven’t seen him this happy or energized in years. I’m really proud of him, and wish him the best of luck at the new shop!

If you’re in Monroe NJ stop into the Camelot Bagel Shoppe!