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September 24, 2009

“Secrets to Success” in Grad School

Filed under: Personal Development — Fei @ 5:30 pm


About two months ago, a friend of mine asked me my secrets to succeed in grad school, because she’s going to a top university for grad school (one of the big three). That really flattered me, coz I don’t really have any secret, and I don’t do well anyway…. (considering many of my colleagues are professors of distinguished universities, and/or are successful in business and become multi-millionaires.) Still, I wrote her a few emails regarding how I think of the topic (mainly from books… as many of you know.. I’m just a book worm :-))

With her permission, I’m copying some of our email correspondence (her identity removed), because I feel that what I told her is exactly what I should tell myself… over and over again. I should always remind myself of all these points…. regularly, frequently… sometimes it’s easier to tell others what to do than telling myself… I think the most interesting parts of the conversation are the “three circles” from “Good To Great”, and her elaboration on American confidence (she’s a white American).

In my response to her first email, I recommended the “three circles”:

I recommend a book called “Good To Great”. It’s a great book. I like it a lot. In the book, the author talked about three circles. One is what you are really passionate about. One is what you are born to do. And one is what makes economic sense. It is best to work in the intersection of the three circles. The key is “understand”. To understand your passion, to understand your strength, to understand the economic engine. If you understand your three circles and work in the intersection, your life will be brilliant. Oh well, I’m still in search of my three circles :p

In her response, I noticed that she was not a very confident person, which quite surprised me, because in my mind, Americans are in general confident. Oh well, at least that part she’s pretty much like me. I could feel that she was worried about grad school at that point (fortunately, she’s very happy about the school now). Going to grad school is a great change and challenge. I had a lot of doubts and issues at that time, and many people helped me at that point. So I feel good that I can pay back and help others. Then, I wrote an elaborated email to address her concerns, from my perspective.

WOW! You sound like a Chinese. Maybe I have stereotypes on Americans and Chinese. I always feel that Chinese are not that confident on themselves, while Americans are very confident on their capabilities, sometimes too confident. I was a typical Chinese and always felt that I was not good at this, not good at that etc. etc. which made me a quite pessimistic guy, which now I don’t think is good at all. I’m still not that confident on many things (it’s so deep in my subconscious mind), but consciously, I always try to encourage myself. You know, it is real hard, conscious mind only accounts for 10% of our brain, and subconscious mind accounts for 90%…. Anyways, that’s why I want to read some motivational books again and again, to change the attitude. I actually highly recommend one book for you. It is called “The magic of thinking big”. It’s so good that I planed to give talks on the findings of the book. I’ve already finished my slides and given some try round talks, but still not to a broader audience.

You heard of the book: the secret, or the law of attraction? Basically, the book says that you will get what you want. If you want success, you will get success. If you want failure, you will get failure. Whatever you want, you only need to think think think think really hard, and it will come to you automatically. It’s quite mythological, and it goes to some extremes, but it makes sense in some aspects.

Since you are born and raised in American culture, it’s natural that you have confidence inside you. You just need to uncover it. You have a Princeton degree, and it’s priceless, and you are NOT going to mess up <university>, it will be another shining diamond on your resume. Think about it, how many people can get both Princeton and <university> degrees? Not that many.

It’s really nice of you to think for your parents. The degree is expensive, and I know it. Instead of worrying this and worrying that, just make up your mind that you ARE going to excel at <university> and it will propel you to study harder. You can pay your parents back after you get your degree, maybe with interest. You can also work part time in libraries at <university>, just like what many Princeton students do at Princeton. But it’s not the your major concern. Your major concern now is your <university> degree.

I would agree with your parents that even though <university> may be expensive, it is the right choice. You will be emerged in a very prestigious culture that <another university> will never give you. Use me as an example, I had my undergraduate education at Peking University, which is one of the best universities in China, and I’m really proud of that.

Then I had my PhD. at Princeton University which we all know it’s prestigious level. Having attended the two universities, the people around me, the friends I make, are all different, and they in turn encourage me to do better. This is a positive feedback. If I went to a ordinary university in China, the odds that I would go abroad would be very slim, and life would be probably very different for me. However, it doesn’t mean that a graduate from a second tier school won’t do well. On the contrary ,some are doing exceptionally well. The inside strength, not the outside environment is the dominate factor. I don’t know how they did it and I can’t speak for them. But I do respect them a lot.

How to choose a University? For me, it’s mainly the culture. I like Princeton’s culture a lot. I believe <university>’s culture is equally good. I remember in one year’s reunion, the 40-year graduates did a survey and most of them were no longer working at the same major they got their degree, and over 50% of them did not even remember what their college major was. To me, school life is to be enjoyed, and it’s the culture of the school makes it unique.

Don’t be discouraged since nobody makes money in your area. One important aspect of schooling is to enjoy the culture. Just think about the 40-year graduate example. If it doesn’t work for you long term, just change major. No big deal. However, think cautiously when you do. I do really believe your major has a super bright future. Nobody makes money now (and I really suspect this) doesn’t mean you won’t make money. It doesn’t mean people won’t make money two years, five years down the road. For me, proliferating the findings from your major is the only way to sustain economic growth for mankind. Think how important it is.

Currently, people pollute the environment all over the world; people excessively focus on non-renewable energy such as gas, coal; people have formed the habit to waste everything. Those are big problems needed to be solved. Many people are aware of the issues now. Renewable energy is a really hot topic now a days, but was it hot ten years ago? Probably not. I’m sure people will aware of other environmental issues soon. And you have a real good start, because at that time, you will be an expert in the area.

Still, think about inter-disciplinary. Now a days many hard problems are solved by combining the wisdom from multiple areas. You have your niche, which is environment, you can talk to people in other areas and maybe you can find some BIG ideas. Just keep in mind, whatever you do, whenever you do things, always think: “is it efficient; is it effective; would it be better if….” You don’t need to figure out the solution.

Just identify the problem is one big thing. I’m actually very interested in talking to you to learn more about your area and probably we can sparkle some ideas together 🙂

It is common to have doubts sometimes. Maybe it’s because you are so into it that you lose the big picture. Maybe it’s because you tend to think from the same angle. A second opinion may be good sometimes. I actually have doubts all the time. I need people to remind me regularly.

The encouragement among friends are real important. I feel really honored that you ask me those questions. Hope my perspective can help you in some way. I’m also learning many things. My points may be incomplete or even wrong, so use with discretion. Maybe I will consult my problems with you someday :p


PS. sorry for my tongue if you find it too pushy. I hope you don’t mind.

And her response to the confidence part (other parts are omitted).

It was very interesting to me what you said about American stereotypes.  Maybe American culture rewards (and glamorizes) confidence more than humility and so from an early age here people learn that to be the “best” they must be confident in themselves, have confidence in their abilities, and be confident of success.  But, I think this is just the ideal, I think most people really aren’t that confident at all.  Especially younger women and girls.  There are a lot of problems in that regard in American culture.  Some Americans really are as confident as they seem, but I think for most people, it’s just a show.  They don’t feel as confident on the inside as they act on the outside.  But they know that’s how they have to act to get anywhere.  It takes a lot of energy!  I’m usually pretty good at displaying a lot of confidence for an interview or first impression, but then I have some difficulty maintaining it over the long term.
(That being said, not all Americans like overly confident people.  My Dad, for example, both my parents actually, are often suspicious of overly confident people because they think they are hustling people and putting on a show to trick them into something.)

I should indeed remind myself regularly……. and YOU, my friend, please remind me too….

P.S. my friend gave me more explanation on “American confidence”.

I just thought of something. It occurred to me that what I said about my parents not liking overly confident people might not be representative of the entire country, that might just be true of people in the Midwest or middle America. I’m not sure, I don’t know if there are also a lot of people on the coasts who share the same view or not. Anyway, I just wanted to disclose this possibility to you.

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