Advice on the First Day of School

There will be, I think, three "first" days of school for my master's program. The first first day was Friday, September 8th. The day I moved to Stanford and my first day of my Summer Graduate Student Institute course Leadership Labs. The third first day will be the first official day of the fall quarter, this Monday, September 25.

The second first day was today, Day One of the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Orientation. Today and tomorrow are basically introductions/overviews of campus organizations and services, academic program requirements, internship options, and a bunch of "get to know you" activities with our cohorts.

The day started with a presentation from Dan Schwartz, the Dean of the GSE. I wrote down four of his pieces of advice that I found particularly meaningful.

1. "Undergraduate experience is often orchestrated and going to college is often expected. Graduate experience is neither. Do not count on things being delivered." 

I love this -- for grad school and life. If you want something, go get it. Find a way to make it happen. Gary Vaynerchuk basically says basically the same thing: "Everything is your fault." That's a winning mindset: when you don't expect things from other people and you don't blame others for your failures. If I don't have an amazing experience, it will be my own fault.

Stanford Day 1.JPG

2. "Don't be endlessly urgent to win your belief." I need to work on this. Politics is adversarial. Learning should not be. The more open-minded my approach, the more I have to gain -- and the better I will be in my future work. Plus, as Dean Schwartz mentioned, nobody changes their mind in one conversation. Always play the long game.

3. There's a metaphor about Stanford that I've heard probably seven or eight times in the last two weeks. "Stanford is a candy store." What they mean is that walking down the sidewalk on any given day you might run into the chair of the California State Board of Education, or one of the most notable education researchers in the world, or President Obama's education advisor from his first campaign for the presidency. And that's just GSE-related people. There's also former cabinet secretaries and CEOs and politicians and startup founders and diplomats. Plus there are events, concerts, conferences, seminars, and book signings. It's exciting and overwhelming and amazing. It's also easy to get distracted. One example: Thomas Ehrlich sat at my lunch table today. He's a man who has had a distinguished career in higher education. He was also President at the University of Indiana while Bobby Knight was coach of the Hoosier basketball team. There are so many questions I want to ask him.

Dean Schwartz added an original follow up to the "candy store" line: "It is possible to get sick." I've got to figure out how to strike a balance between a) taking advantage of the unique opportunities at Stanford, and b) focusing on my program and capstone project. My plan right now is to see how long I can go without sacrificing either thing and make adjustments as I go along. Efficacy TBD.

4. My favorite piece of advice was about picking tomatoes. He told a story about how some engineers were trying to develop a tomato harvesting machine that could pick tomatoes without bruising them; farms would save a ton on labor costs if they could figure out how to do it. So these engineers tinkered and refined and they got a little better each time, but they never were quite able to build a machine that could consistently do the job right without damaging the produce. But, when some biologists were consulted about the problem, they figured out a solution: alter the genetics of the tomato to give it a thicker skin that's more resistant to bruising.

Without wading into the GMO debate, the point of the story is: "Don't presuppose the answer in the question," as he told us. It's the difference between "how do we build a machine that can harvest tomatoes without bruising them?" vs. "how can we harvest tomatoes without bruises?" Minor tweak, massively different outcome (and massively different allocation of resources).