Last year was an incredible one: with lots of travel (spending the better part of the year in Hong Kong and London for Enterproid), many new friends, and really great headway on my personal project, which I’m excited to announce soon. I can happily say I’ve accomplished every goal I set out for last year except to sketch regularly. For now I’m putting that one to rest. For 2013 my goals are to:
- At the same time become less attached to technology. This year I begun to observe the sabbath again – in my own way – taking Saturdays to break away from my computer and focus on different and higher level thought. Doing so has been really great, and I plan to take as many opportunities as possible this year to unplug.
- Read more fiction. At the beginning of last year I read two fiction novels, something I had not done for fun in perhaps a decade. I’ve found it’s a great way to open my mind (outside of the startup/tech world). I plan to get back to reading for at least an hour every night before I fall asleep – and to the point above, use that book as a replacement for my nightly twitter and blog reading on my iPhone.
- Give unquestionably (of my time, money, and compassion). After witnessing a friend give some money to a series of homeless people we passed on the streets of New York, I asked him how he could possibly expect to give to everyone who asks. His response was that if they are needy enough to ask, who am I to question whether they are worthy to receive? He’s absolutely right. Since then I’ve adopted a similar approach and will work hard to expand that to things outside the realm of money as well.
- Cycle. I recently bought a bicycle and it’s totally changed the way I experience the city. It’s a 5-6 mile ride each way to work, and it’s not only a lot of fun and great exercise, but also a great time to think (at least outside of Manhattan!). When the weather gets a bit warmer I really want to take advantage of my bicycle on the weekends to explore a bit father outside of the city.
- Eat healthier. I’ve gotten a lot better at this but can continue to improve: eating less junk food and more healthy snacks throughout the day like bananas and nuts, not eating/snacking so late in the evening when I’m up working on something, and trying to stick to more greens and proteins and less processed foods, carbs, and sugars. Perhaps I’ll even learn how to cook. Maybe.
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Imagine being able to create anything you want, using only your mind as a tool.
Just about everything that utilizes electricity – from space ships, to washing machines, to the Internet – is dependent upon, and has been built using, some sort of computer program. And if you can learn how to read and write them, the world around you changes from something you experience, to something you can create.
Anyone who can write a simple list of instructions can write a program, as that’s all programming is: writing a precise set of instructions for a machine that cannot intuit anything. Knowledge of mathematics is definitely not necessary. In fact, I can’t think of a pre-requisite skill you’d need beyond basic knowledge of how to operate a computer (if you can turn it on and open an application, you’re probably fine).
If I was starting again from scratch here’s what I’d do:
- Start by learning the Python programming language. It’s a beautifully simple language that’s really easy to learn, and just as powerful as any other language. I’d recommend taking the CS101 course on Udacity (it’s free and wonderful), then reading through the Python language reference to see all the cool stuff you can do with it, and then taking CS253 to learn about building things for the web. It really doesn’t matter what language you start with; what matters is that there are no obstacles that get in the way of jumping right in (Python comes pre-installed on your Mac), and that you have a good set of materials that are both well made and interesting.
- Learn how to use your computer’s command line. It feels very primitive when you start – typing ‘cd’ and the name of a folder is a command to move you into that folder – but knowing how to use it is extremely handy if you ever want to run your applications, or install and work with stuff other people have created. Also, it’s kind of fun to interact with your computer on such a deep level! (On macs, the command line is accessed via the ‘terminal’ app, which by default uses an interface called ‘BASH’ – the Bourne-Again SHell). You can google around for ‘bash commands’ and material about VIM - the command line’s built-in text-editor – to learn the basics, or just read the reference.
- Understand how the Internet works, and learn HTML and CSS. HTML is a ‘markup language' that tells web browsers (like Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer) how to format content that's published on the Internet. To specify that a block of text is a paragraph, you would surround your text in '<p>' tags, which tell the browser to present that text as a paragraph. Then you would use CSS – a language for styling web pages that you've formatted in HTML – to tell the browser that paragraphs should be bold and use the Times New Roman typeface.
- Learn about databases (a popular one being MySQL). Databases are how information is stored online and offline, and they have their own simple language that allows you to interact with them (to store, retrieve, and delete data). Google uses databases to store their index of the Internet, Amazon uses them to store their catalogs of products, and Facebook uses them to store information about their users. A command to pull a user’s data from a database might look something like this: SELECT * FROM users WHERE first_name = Justin AND last_name = Wohlstadter.
Programming is a craft, just like woodworking. While it takes years to become a master craftsman, it doesn’t take long at all to figure out how to use nails and wood to make something simple and useable. If you give it a shot, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can create real things, and just how incredibly fulfilling that experience is.
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I’ve always enjoyed breaking rules.
I received poor grades throughout most of my early schooling, not because I couldn’t do the assignments, but because I didn’t really care. And this disregard for the authoritarian nature of school affected my extracurricular activates as well: in eighth grade I vividly remember being suspended (and almost arrested) for climbing on the roof of the school building with some friends one night – during a school board meeting. And in ninth or tenth grade I believe I became the first student in my high school to get kicked out of prayer indefinitely. The list goes on.
In retrospect, despite all the hair-pulling, yelling, and fighting with my parents, teachers, and others, it was all well worthwhile. Pushing boundaries, often pretty successfully, gave me a perspective and confidence that most other kids my age didn’t have.
Since high school, my disdain for rules and authority has taken an interesting turn: it has evolved into a profound appreciation. It’s not that I respect authority any more than I used to – much to the contrary –, but I’ve come to realize that having a deep understanding of rules makes breaking them so much more enjoyable. In graphic design, understanding how to construct a grid, and subsequently break it, is both deeply satisfying and generally creates a much greater communicative effect. In writing, closely following. And then breaking. Grammatical rules can lead to a beautiful amplification of your point.
So be obedient and learn the rules. If for no other reason than to better break them.
I strongly believe that today, business school – even at the best institutions – is a complete waste of time and money for anyone with a bit of self-motivation. It’s not that the material is totally useless – though it has changed little in the past 100 years and is now largely available for free online –, but relative to the significant cost it’s just not worth it.
Here are some of the common arguments for business school:
- It’s a great networking opportunity. Yes, if you attend a prestigious business school you will meet and bond with lots of other people interested in business who managed to get high scores on their entrance exams. Sweet! But there are plenty of other great ways to meet amazing people (who didn’t just pass a test and write a good essay). They include: joining a group / club or similar in an area that you’re interested in, going to local events, cold-emailing / tweeting / messaging people you admire to ask if you can take them out for a coffee, etc. I don’t believe the GMAT – or any standardized test for that matter – is at all a good indicator of intelligence or future probability of success. And it is definitely not an indicator that someone will be fun to hang out with. A majority of the most incredible people I’ve met have come from just being involved with the startup community.
- I want to learn from the best professors. Read their books. Most of the professors at these schools – especially the best ones – have published their insights long ago. Ever heard of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen? How about anything by Michael Porter? Google any famous b-school professor and you’ll find most everything you need.
- I want to learn finance, excel, [fill in the blank]. Read a book, use Investopedia, or some other online resource. It’s much cheaper, you can go at your own pace, and most of the classes in business school will just have you read them anyway.
- The ‘case method’ teaches you about tons of businesses in a short period of time. I’m sorry, but reading and discussing a situation is no where close to actually learning about these situations, businesses, and industries, and how to make decisions in a constantly-shifting, pressure-filled environment. The only way to do that is by actually doing it. If you want exposure to a lot of different business models or sectors, start or join a company that will give you that level of exposure. Also, do you really think that a former CEO, when being interviewed for a b-school case, is going to tell the interviewer the real reason he made the decision to sell the company was because he was cheating on his wife and he wanted to bury the returns offshore before the divorce?
- It’s a signal for my current / future employer. Why not try to accomplish something that actually proves you’re intelligent / competent / hard-working, etc? If you’re in sales, show how amazing you are by selling! If you’re an engineer or designer, make something beautiful and post it online for all to see. Putting an ‘MBA’ on your resume is a poor replacement for accomplishment.
- I want to change jobs. This is the most acceptable reason in my mind, but do you really need to spend that kind of money for a certificate and a job fair? Why not spend the time learning about the space, attending local events you care about, and reaching out to people at companies you’re interested to grab a coffee and chat. If they’re not interested in you, try making yourself interesting by learning everything you can about the space and publishing your thoughts on what you’ve learned online (in a blog, on Twitter, on Facebook, etc).
- I want to learn from / work with bright people (my classmates). This, I respect.If you’re not already at a company where this is possible, consider changing jobs. There are many incredible startups hiring right now. If you think a masters program is the best / easiest way to do this though, consider doing a program where a) you’re learning real skills, and b) you’re collaborating with people very different from yourself, who really bring unique / new ideas to the table. If I ever do another degree, it will probably be at a design school where I get to actually make stuff and learn things from others that I can’t simply by reading an article online or in conversation with a friend.
- It’s free (my company is paying for it / I have a scholarship). If you have a scholarship with no strings attached, great. But be sure to consider whether this is the best way to spend the next year or two of your life. If your company is paying, there are generally pretty significant strings attached (a commitment to work for them for the next few years). Be careful about this. It may sound great, but I think the gain is tiny relative to what you’re giving up in personal freedom.
- It’s fun! I can think of many better ways to spend that kind of money on a fun experience. Why not travel? Or pay someone incredible to apprentice under them for some period of time?
To be clear, I’m not stating that business school is inherently evil, I just think people should be more aware of what they’re getting for the time and money spent. And I think there are definitely better ways to spend both.
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Juventas Fugit is designed and written by Justin Wohlstadter, who, when not writing in the third person, can be found in a coffee shop talking about startups, thinking about the future of education, and generally procrastinating something important.
- Passions: startups that positively affect the world, education innovation, good design, learning, and meeting those with an equally insatiable curiosity.
- Play: building new ways for people to connect and explore knowledge at Wayfinder.
- Previously: was director of product design at Enterproid (acquired by Google). Before that I built the early-stage venture arm of Penny Black and co-founded BOLDstart Ventures, where I was lucky enough to invest in some awesome startups including Rapportive (acquired by Linkedin), Blaze (acquired by Akamai), GoInstant (acquired by Salesforce), Klout (acquired by Lithium), Enterproid (acquired by Google), IndieGoGo and many more. And before all of this I was involved in a bunch of other crazy, less successful startup ventures involving fire extinguishers, measuring philanthropic impact, and creative spaces.
- Pedantry: most of the important stuff I taught myself or learned from friends, but I’m fortunate to have also (barely received) degrees from Harvard and Oxford. At Oxford I wrote my dissertation on how internet innovation will disrupt access to higher education.
- Procrastination: can be found on Twitter, Linkedin, AngelList and other web spaces, and be reached via email at my first name at this domain.