Jumping over the lazy dog

or, taking the bull by the horns.

The Gladwellian Trilogy

No, this is not a proposed script for The Big Bang Theory. It’s actually a book review.  Technically, a series of book reviews.  Three book reviews, to be precise.

It started with an evening  in a small Starbucks in DC’s Chinatown.  I was visiting a few architecture classmates (and a journalist) and as we huddled together in a booth by the window, hoping the hot chocolate would fend off the December chill, the conversation turned to Malcolm Gladwell‘s Outliers, and whether or not architecture, or any profession, was something for which an individual could display a talent at a young age.  We were swapping stories of our first memories of design, or what drew us to the field, and realized that we all had a very diverse range of interests in our youth – any of which could have become “the right profession” for us to pursue.  That is, in retrospect it is easy to say that architecture is the field for which I’m destined, but it’s really quite circumstantial. I could just as easily have been destined to become a concert pianist, had my parents enlisted me in lessons a few years earlier (or had I chosen to practice more!).

As I wandered the library a few weeks ago, that conversation popped into my mind and wouldn’t go away.  So I abandoned my reading list for a while and have consumed not one, but all three of his books in the last two weeks.

While Gladwell presents several interesting anecdotes and propositions, I was more struck by the similarities between the books – the norms, rather than the outliers, as it were.  Here are three things, both good and bad, that I felt the books had in common.

  1. Subjects. After reading Sway, I became quite fascinated by writings on psychology and sociology, and Gladwell was able to both quench my thirst and pique further interest.  The three books, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, all address various facets of human behavior, from the subconcious instant-decision-making mechanisms with which we are all equipped to the way being part of a group changes our willingness to act.  What makes it interesting, of course, is that while these topics have obviously been studied before (Gladwell cites primary sources throughout his texts), the general public wouldn’t have been exposed to them – unless you’ve been reading Psychology Today on a regular basis.
  2. Accessibility. More than the fact that writing about these topics makes them available for general consumption, the way in which Gladwell addresses these subjects makes them accessible to just about anyone.  He uses advanced vocabulary, sure – I even found a couple of GRE words as I was perusing the texts – but he presents the research without too much jargon.  In fact, he’s quite successful at introducing a vocabulary of his own (“connectors, mavens and salesmen” in The Tipping Point, for example) without becoming Heideggerian.  And by stating his sources in his books, he allows those readers interested in pursuing the topics further the opportunity to consult the primary texts.
  3. Rhetoric and summary.  The opposite side of Gladwell’s “accessible writing style” coin is that he can seem a bit condescending.  By beginning every chapter with a summary of the previous section, followed by a leading question that he then proceeds to answer, I felt like a child being led by the hand through the discoveries Gladwell made during his research.  Okay, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of using the rhetorical question in my research writing as well, but a rhetorical question every few pages (for 900+ pages!) is quite a bit.  And, really, I’ve been reading the book – I know what you just said – stop treating me like a third grader.  If I wanted a pop quiz on the book’s plot every chapter, I’d take the Accelerated Reader test!

As for the books themselves – I think I enjoyed Blink the most, as it addressed both the pros and cons to subconscious snap-judgements in a variety of settings without loitering too long around a particular example.  Both The Tipping Point and Outliers got a bit redundant after a while. Gladwell provides plenty of case studies in the latter, for example, but after a while his presentation gets boring: tell me the “success by hardwork” story for Person X, followed by the “what really happened” story that relates Person X’s success to the circumstances surrounding their upbringing.

To be honest, while I enjoyed the books for their content, I think the authors of Sway were able to present similar research in a more compelling, engaging manner. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I suggest you read that one first – and then Gladwell’s trilogy if you’ve got time.

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Filed under: Read all about it, , , , , , , ,

GRE-at fun!

PHD Comics takes on the GRE

PHD Comics takes on the GRE

Okay, most people wouldn’t describe studying for or taking the GRE as being fun, and I’m usually one of those people. But my experience with the GRE was surprisingly just that. Yes, the test was difficult, and yes, I even found myself slumped over a set of math problems softly repeating, “Just kill me now.” But I’d have to say, my overall experience was a positive one. I thought I’d share my process and the resources I came upon, as well as what strategies worked and didn’t work for me, in case any of my readers are planning on taking the test soon. Not that I’m the go-to person for GRE review, but I think every bit of advice helps when you’re getting stressed over a big test!

First, I’d like to acknowledge the mistakes I made while studying:

  1. I took the test yesterday. Not that there’s anything special about yesterday, per say, but I really should have taken the test while I was still at school. That is, the summer or winter break during my sophomore or junior year, especially since I knew I wanted to go to graduate school anyway. Taking it this summer made it a bit challenging to review math concepts that I hadn’t seen in years. I’d still recommend doing it over a summer and taking at least a month to study (focused study) if you want your score to be above average, because I know I couldn’t have handled the pressures of school (studio, papers, Honors meetings) and the pressure of studying for a test during the semester.
  2. I focused on vocabulary building. This might seem counter-intuitive. I’m not saying don’t study vocabulary – by all means, improve your word database, especially if you aren’t familiar with the words on the “most commonly seen on the GRE” list (i.e. the “basic” advanced vocab words). But even though I learned some 200+ new words for this test, only 3 of them helped me (only 1 even showed up!). Learning the “tricks” to eliminating answer choices and studying root words might be a better strategy for the verbal section.
  3. I didn’t start reviewing for the essay section until the week before the exam. This didn’t actually wind up hurting me, because I got lucky. One of the essays turned out to be a sample prompt I had seen before, and the other was on a topic I felt comfortable writing about, but for those of you that hate writing essays – get a head start, because the time crunch can be really frustrating.

You might be wondering what I actually did right. Well, I think my good experience was a combination of luck and practice.

  1. I took 7 practice tests. I didn’t do the writing section, but I took 7 verbal and math practice sections and then made sure to go over the problems I missed. This allowed me to see my average score, and if I was making any progress.
  2. I used more than one book – each book gives a different approach to solving problems and tackling the skills needed for the exam. One type of approach might be better for you than another. I, for example, studied both a Kaplan book and a Peterson’s book, and found that the Peterson approach worked better for me, in general, though the Kaplan approach to essay writing was a closer match to my writing style. I also found a website, last minute, that really helped me review specific points; had I found it earlier, I’m sure my marks would have been even higher.
  3. I got lucky. Actually, when I was taking the math portion of the test, I thought I was anything but lucky. I am terrible at the logic problems, you know, the ones that say if x < y < 0, then which of the following is a positive even integer. I hate those. And I got a WHOLE LOT of those during my math section, so of course I walked out feeling terrible and certain that I had bombed the section. I even prayed that they’d give me another math section and that my first would’ve been an un-graded experimental section. Turns out, I did alright – I must have gotten some of those correct, and that I can only chalk up to luck.

Where’s the fun in all of this, you ask? It’s in your approach to the test. I am a terrible test-taker. I do better on essays and interviews than I ever do on multiple choice exams, so I was a bit scared of having to take a 2.5 hour multiple-choice test! But as I started reviewing, the pratice tests became a sort of game. I’m a competitive person, so I treated them as personal challenges – how many problems can I get right without guessing? It didn’t hurt that I love problem-solving: whether it’s putting the pieces of a floorplan together so they make sense, or working out a quantitative comparison, there’s a mini-thrill in getting it just right.

I received my verbal and math scores the moment I finished the test, and now I’m waiting on my essay marks. Having the test out of the way means I can focus on pulling together the rest of my application packages – the portfolios, the essays, the letters of recommendation. In the end, I think that stuff is much more challenging than a multiple-choice test, anyway!

Filed under: Close to home, , , , ,

Breaking News: 42 is NOT the answer.

The Real Pursuit of Happiness

The Real Pursuit of Happiness

The answer is…happiness. Or at least, that’s what I gather from reading The Alchemist.  If you recall, this was one of the books on my Summer Reading List.  It’s the second book I’ve read on that list, which means I’m not exactly going in order, but never fear, by the time I leave for France I’m sure to have finished them all.

This book was added to the list for two reasons.  Reason the first: someone had mentioned it last semester, I can’t remember when, or where, or who, or why, but the title had been floating around my head for a while.

Reason the second: the Beau and I were looking for things to do and we decided to read a book together over summer. Coincidentally, one of his friends had mentioned this book and so we thought we’d give it a go. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if he and I weren’t reading it together – there were plenty of other books that I had already purchased, waiting on my shelf, but I’m glad we picked this one because has it led to some of the best conversations I’ve had in a while.

You should know, before I go any further, that while reading this book I was also reading The 4-Hour Workweek. These two books might seem dissimilar at first, but I found myself nodding in agreement to points made in both books.  Reading one book influenced my perceptions of the other, certainly, but I believe that the two have a fundamental commonality: they want the reader to really, seriously consider the choices the have made and continue to make, the reasons for these choices and whether or not their choices bring them happiness.  Not contentment, but happiness.

Contentment is laziness.  It is a passive status that is nothing but a muted substitute for real happiness.  At the end of my edition of The Alchemist, an interview with the author shares his thoughts on living in stagnancy.  He says:

Once someone asked me, “What do you want to be your epitaph?” [on your tombstone].  So I said, “Paul Coelho died while he was alive.”  The person said, “Why this epitaph? Everybody dies when he or she is alive.”  I said, “No, this is not true.” The same pattern repeating and over again, you are not alive anymore.

To die alive is to take risks.  To pay your price.  To do something that sometimes scares you but you should do because you may like or may not like.

To live, then, is to actively pursue Something.  I believe that happiness is this Something we all want to pursue, but we are reluctant to take the risks Coelho cites, since contentment is an easier (albeit paler) achievement.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, a book seemingly about get-rich-quick schemes, Ferriss recognizes that while money is important, it is only important in that it allows you to spend your time in the pursuit of happiness.  That is, money itself will not make you happy, but having money can allow you to pursue that which will make you happy, or at the very least, make it easier to pursue that happiness.  Even Santiago had to recover the gold stolen from him in order to make it to the pyramids and achieve his Personal Legend.

Which brings me to the biggest question the two books ask: what will make you  happy?  What is your Personal Legend? Another blogger has written an interesting post on the role of the Personal Legend in the book and in her own life.  In reading The Alchemist, it’s impossible not to think of your own history, to search out any Kings of Salem you may have met, any magical stones you might have overlooked.  I spent a great portion of my junior year as an undergraduate questioning whether I was in the right field, pursuing the right goals, whether architecture would make me happy.

It’s not as though any lightbulbs illuminated above my head after reading these two books, but an affirmation of my current position in life and the routes I was pursuing slowly crept over me.  I used to worry that the goals I was setting up for myself were not my goals at all, but were aspirations impressed upon me by society and my own stubbornness to not veer from a path once it was selected.  I decided I wanted to be an architect when I was 13 – how could I have possibly known that’s the route that would make me happy?  And then I realized, having been on the path for eight years, not once has it made me unhappy.  I am never complacent, because architecture places continually places challenges in front of me.  In that way, I am never content, but forever in the pursuit of happiness.  Every moment is an opportunity to make a choice, to decide to take the risks that will get me through my Personal Legend.

And most importantly, I’ve realized that the path of a Personal Legend is never straight.  It is not the prescribed life: no white picket fence and 2.5 kids for me.  Taking risks: exploring Europe by myself for three weeks, transplanting myself to another country for seven months, eating my own cooking.  A meandering path that will lead me to those people meant to help me on my way.  I have only to recognize them when we meet.

Filed under: Close to home, Read all about it, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The search is over!

A while ago I made a post about the trials and tribulations of long-distance apartment-hunting, or as I fondly referred to it, LDAH.  Turns out, all it took was sheer luck.

My aunt and uncle recently (I say recently, but it was probably more than two years ago) moved to a small town in southern India called Coonoor.  Their neighbors include the usual assortment of monkeys, wild buffalo, and tea fields, but also, surprisingly, an art community and a couple of Francophones. And that’s how I finally found accommodation in Paris: I’ll be renting a room from my (beware: long winded explaination ahead) mom’s sister’s husband’s French friend’s mother.  Whew!

My 12m2 room is in the 5e arrondissement, which is wonderful on many accounts.

  1. It’s the oldest part of the city, as it was built by the Romans waaaaaay back in the day but then overhauled over time, which means a quick walk around my quartier has me gazing upon a veritable history of architecture, from the Panthéon (completed in 1789) to the Institue du Monde Arab (a Jean Nouvel building, completed in 1987).
  2. It’s where the learning’s at, pardon my butchering of the English language. The Sorbonne calls the 5e home.  Hopefully, that means there will be all kinds of wide-eyed French undergraduates looking to learn a bit of English on the side, and more than willing to fork over the 15€ per hour I’ve been told I can charge.
  3. It’s on the banks of the Seine itself.  Which means nice long walks along the river front, thoughtfully nibbling on a pain au chocolat as I ponder the mystical effects of Rive Gauche on the intellectual growth of Paris.  Ooh là là.

Nouvels IMA buildings apertures dont work, but theyre still beautiful!

Nouvel's IMA building's apertures don't work, but they're still beautiful!

The room itself is not a shabby deal:

  1. It’s a 12m2 room *with* a private bath! As opposed to a 9m2 room, which is what I would be paying an arm and a leg for otherwise.  Don’t get me wrong, this room I’m renting is going to stretch my budget, but the extra cubic feet of air I’m getting is quite worth it.
  2. One (hyphenated) word: rez-de-chaussée. No flights of stairs up which I must drag my suitcases.  Sweet.
  3. Apparently, it comes with a view to the courtyard.  As my readings in last semester’s Design Theory and Research class taught me, nothing better than a view to nature to perk up the drooping soul.
  4. Did I mention my room comes with a piano? No excuses now, I’ve got to practice with all that free time I’ll have. Hmm…and maybe get some beginner piano students?

The only downside I’m currently forseeing is the length of my commute.  It’s going to be at least an hour from door to door, since the RER E line that I’m supposed to take to Roissy-en-Brie is in Rive Droite, which means I have to take another 20 minute metro ride to connect to the E and a 30 min ride to get to Roissy-en-Brie…but I did an hour commute (Reston to Georgetown) all last summer, and at least this way I can catch up on some more reading.

I’m not sure how much CAF will refund me for this place, but any money I get back will be a blessing, so it’s not something I’m counting on (i.e. I’m pretty much resigned to the fact that I’ll have to find a way to make extra cash to make ends meet).

Still to do on the to-do-before-I-leave-for-France list: figure out how cellphones work in Europe, get more info on Bank of America’s international plans, have my birth certificate translated to French, gather teaching materials, and apply for design jobs in Paris.  At least I won’t be homeless when I get there!

Filed under: All things French, , , , , , , , ,

Go West, young [wo]man…

No, I’m not here to debate the origin of this quotation, but rather to start a new list! For a few weeks now I’ve been talking to my friend (here come a slew of nicknames), Dinosaur, about joining him on an epic roadtrip across the US.  He’s actually already completed two cross-country roadtrips, but this is the first trip where I will be accompanying him.  We will be joined by my very good friend Eero (who is, in fact, neither Finnish nor male) and possibly Dino, Jr. (aka Dinosaur’s brother, who I do not know very well and so will most likely get a more appropriate nickname post-roadtrip).

Look at that natural light!

Look at that natural light!

We’re starting in Seattle, since that’s where Dinosaur is working this summer.  What makes this even more fantastic is that my brother is currently in Seattle, also working for the summer, so I’m going to be arriving a few days early to hang out with the little guy (not so litte – he’s taller than me, though that’s not saying much, since I’m only five-oh) and to, get this, see a Barcelona game!  And I’m sure I’ll also be visiting sights around the city, including the Seattle Public Library (which sounds like a strange place to visit until I tell you I have a thing for REM Koolhaas and used SPL as a case study in my thesis…) and the usual Pike Place Market/Starbucks-y stuff before we head back  home.

Dinosaur suggested a trip down through California and across Nevada, hitting up places in the SW, which I’m very excited about because the furthest west I’ve been is Chicago, and that was when I was probably eight or nine. I’ve booked my ticket and we (Eero and I) leave Roanoke at the break of day on August 4th.  Here’s a running list of cool things I’d like to see on our roadtrip back to Blacksburg.  They’re a bit scattered, and I doubt we’ll be able to hit all of them, but even a handful would make my week!  And feel free to leave suggestions, we’re happy to take them!

  1. Seattle
  2. Sequoia National Forest
  3. San Francisco
  4. Sonoma Valley
  5. Las Vegas
  6. Sedona
  7. Grand Canyon National Park + Skywalk
  8. The Thing
  9. Santa Fe
  10. The Alamo
  11. Austin
  12. New Orleans
  13. The World’s Largest Chair
  14. A Bunch of Small Buildings
  15. A Really Big Peanut
  16. Savannah
  17. Biltmore Estates

Filed under: Around the world, , , , , , , , , ,