Wednesday, April 24, 2013

the Wang family secret of raising a kid

Recently I was talking to a friend Az, who is debating whether to ever have kids.  He likes the idea of having kids, but doesn't want to give up his freedom for 18 years.

American society places such high pressure on parents to spend face-time and money on their kid!  To wit:
  • the parent and the child must spend many hours per day together, or else the parent feels guilty
  • it is essential to get the child into the most hyped preschool and then private school and prep school
  • must buy expensive brain-enhancing toys and games 
  • must minimize usage of babysitters and nannies
Using these metrics, my parents scored 0 out of 4.  They were very busy being immigrants and working multiple jobs simultaneously.  My mom had a sandwich-making job by day and janitor job by night.  I was a latchkey kid.  I went to an average public school in a state ranked #49 out of 50 US states for education.  I was often foisted onto cheap babysitters.  Yet I turned out fine, by most parental standards.  I graduated Caltech at 18 and have led some cool engineering work projects at Minted and Google and am a cheerful person.  How'd that happen?

Because... those American expectations are not the most important!  My parents did these other things:
  • taught my brother and me to read when we turned two
  • taught us multiplication and division at age five, algebra at age seven, calculus at age ten
  • as a result, we felt competent and enjoyed learning
  • we became self-motivated and my parents never had to nag us.  We made our own decisions regarding education, which made us self-reliant
Some people hear this and reply, "You can't teach every kid to read at age two!"  I disagree.  I think people just give up too early.  I watched my mom teach my brother.  On the first day, she spent two hours teaching him to read two chinese words.  She did it patiently, with encouragement and hugs and laughter, so he was having fun.  There was zero sign of progress for over an hour.  Toward the end, it seemed that he could distinguish between the two words at a slightly-higher-than-random frequency, but he also could've just been guessing.

The next day, he had forgotten everything.  My mom started over.  After an hour, it seemed like he could say the right word 70% of the time.

The next day, he forgot everything again.  It took an hour to get back to the same state.

All of these sessions were loving and joyous, so my brother enjoyed them.

It took about five days of teaching for one to two hours per day before my brother learned to read four words.  90% of parents would have given up.  That's why 90% of kids cannot read at age two.

By age four, we read chinese books like "1001 Arabian Nights" and "365 Bedtime Stories to Read to Your Child".  We spent many hours per day reading.

The same goes for math.  I went to first grade in China.  Every single student in my class was required to memorize the multiplication table.  So, everyone did it.  If you expect it, and you are patient, every kid can do it.  In America, there is no expectation that a five-year-old memorize the multiplication table, so very few of them can do it.

My mom likes to say, "If you do the work to teach your kids things when they are young, they learn to love learning and you don't have to do any more work."

As a result, I find it shocking when parents actually have to sit down with their kids in the evening and nag them to do their homework.  My parents didn't even know what subjects I was taking in junior high.  They'd look at my end-of-semester report card and say, "You took geology?  Was that your choice or the school's choice?"

Now I've told you the Wang family secret!  Actually, my mom's last name is Su, so it's the Wang and Su family secrets.   I fully intend to violate most of the American expectations I listed above.  The biggest reason that I've worked and accumulated money is to hire nannies.  I'm going to hire as many nannies as possible, with zero guilt.  I'm also going to teach my kid to read when they turn two.

My imaginary future-child.  Not pictured: three nannies taking turns watching over this kid.

Also, if it turns out to be unworkable, and I never get my kid to read at age two or to love learning, I'm not going to sweat it!  Why must the kid be successful?  Why not just be content with a happy kid?

I will be bothered if I have an emo kid though, who doesn't like hugging.  That is my nightmare as a potential parent.

My fear. Please don't let this happen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How I Became More Assertive

As a child and teenager, I was not assertive.  I rarely said no to people.  Sometimes people made sexist jokes in my presence, and I was very bothered but too timid to speak out against it.  Watching them get away with the offensive comments gave me a sick feeling in my stomach.  As a teenager, occasionally young men would keep touching my shoulder or squeezing me many times in an hour, and it made me uncomfortable but I didn't know how to stop it.

Now I am very assertive.  Some friends might say too much so.  Anyway, I would like to share how I personally achieved this, for the young people who are struggling with their own journey of becoming assertive.

When I was 20, I decided that I would become more assertive.  It was important to me.  But I was so unused to speaking up for myself that it often took several days for me to even realize that someone had made me uncomfortable.  It was too big a leap to go from where I was to being able to speak up for myself immediately on the spot.   So, the pact I made to myself was that when I realized that my boundaries were violated, I would email the person and tell them, even if the realization came several days after the fact.

This was so immensely awkward.

There were many email exchanges like this:

Me: On Saturday, when you made that joke about how Flight Simulator programmers are slackers because we all got two weeks of vacation after we shipped our product, it really bothered me.  We're not slackers.  We work very hard.  I'm really annoyed.

Friend: Wait.  You didn't say anything at the time.  In fact, we kept talking for another hour and you were laughing and having a great time.  Even the next day, you sent me a happy article.  Now you're telling me that it bothered you?

Me: Yes, that is accurate.

Friend: This is really awkward!  Why are you telling me three days later!  Anyway I didn't mean to insult you.  I was just envious because we only got one day vacation on Microsoft Office.

Me: Thanks.

There were numerous exchanges like this.  Many were far more awkward.  The most awkward one was when I had a happy group outing and then emailed one person 24 hours later:
"Yesterday you made a joke at my expense that really bothered me.  [details of the joke]  I just want you to know that I should've told you to go fuck yourself."

That person never replied.  They probably forwarded the email to others in the outing with a subject such as "Niniane is really weird".

But overall the plan worked!  At first it took me three days to realize that I was bothered by something.  Over a period of months, this became two days, one day, then just a few hours.  After more than a year, I was able to realize in the moment when I was bothered, and speak up about it.  Now it has been over a decade, and I am so accustomed to being assertive that I take it for granted as part of myself.

This has been so helpful in life, work, love, friendships.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Iron Lady

I happen to be in the middle of watching "The Iron Lady", a film where Meryl Streep plays Margaret Thatcher. I started yesterday, and today her passing is all over the news.

I like the proposal scene, where she gives the Terms and Conditions of her acceptance.

From IMDB:
Young Denis Thatcher: Margaret, will you marry me?

Young Denis Thatcher: [pause -Margaret stares at him] Well?

Young Margaret Thatcher: [pause -Margaret is still staring, Dennis kisses her hand] Yes. Yes!

Young Denis Thatcher: [Margaret starts to cry from happiness, Dennis leans in for a kiss, but she suddenly pulls back] What?

Young Margaret Thatcher: I love you so much but, I will never be one of those women, Dennis. Who stays silent and pretty on the arm of her husband. Or remote and alone in the kitchen -doing the washing up, for that matter.

Young Denis Thatcher: [Interrupts] I'm going to help with that...

Young Margaret Thatcher: No. One's life must matter, Dennis. Beyond all the cooking and the cleaning and the children. One's life must mean more than that. I cannot die washing up a teacup! I mean it, Dennis. Say you understand.

Young Denis Thatcher: That's why I want to marry you, my dear.
I also like when they go to the opera, and he gives her a little pink fake mouse.

Later, when she's running for office, the members of parliament who served as her campaign managers are very encouraging!

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Liz Lemon, and how to get more female leaders in technology

Once I asked Kai-fu Lee whether he agreed that sexism is more rampant in Chinese professional settings, and what he thought would be the way to fix it.

He said that making sexist comments is still socially acceptable to a greater degree in China. The way to reduce sexism in society is to make those jokes socially unacceptable. At first, people only curb what they say on the outside, and they still think the same sexist thoughts on the inside. But gradually, over time, the mental attitudes change also.

I really agreed with this. If you make an overtly sexist joke in the US, most people will shift uncomfortably and won't find it funny. After this happens a few times, people become trained to stop making those jokes.  Altering how people talk, even when joking, is the first step to substantial societal change.

Recently a journalist asked me what I think is the best way to encourage women into senior positions in the field of technology. I said the most effective step would be to have female leaders who are compelling Hollywood characters on television and film. I'd like to see fully fleshed-out characters of female executives.

Once people get used to respecting the fictional characters, thinking about them, even using them as a role model, it will speed up the societal shift in thinking.

Liz Lemon from 30 Rock is a great example of a female leader on a modern television show. She is complex, lovable, and extremely competent. I would enjoy working with her or for her. If we could get some characters like her in the field of technology, I think that would do a lot.

By comparison, the Star Trek female captain on Voyager was highly irritating. Most people disliked her. She was night and day from the respectable and intriguing character of Jean-Luc Picard, or Captain Sisko on Deep Space Nine. Looking at this picture, I just realized the two bald captains were the best ones. I'm sure that advanced the cause of the bald anti-discrimination movement!

i imagined the two hills as hobbit hills

Talking over dinner to my friend Top, who I have known for 15 years.

Me: "I got into an argument with X over email.  It was stressful.  [more details about the argument]"

Top: "In these situations, I aim to re-iterate what our common goals are.  There are probably a lot more goals you share in common, than goals that conflict with each other."

Me: "True.  I did spend part of the email validating her goals.  But that was the third paragraph, after I spent two long paragraphs expounding on my goals.  Also the third paragraph was much shorter.  I probably should have opened with the third paragraph."

Top: "When we're each standing on a hill, and you want me to go over to your hill, the best way is to come walk over to me, and then say, 'Hey, let's walk together to my hill.'"


Top: "If you just stand on your hill and shout, 'Hey!  Come over here!', that doesn't work.  I don't want to hear you yelling at me.  I'm very comfortable here on my hill.  But if you come over to me, now I know that you see what my hill is about.  And you can see what your hill looks like from the perspective of standing on my hill.  So now I'm much more willing to walk with you to see your hill."

Me: "Wow, that is really well-stated."