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Friday, November 25, 2011

Am I Good Enough?

As far as I can remember, I have never felt like I needed to prove myself academically until now. I was lucky enough to be a nerd since kindergarten. I would plead my mother to give me math homework so that I wouldn't have to go to bed. The kid who'd get scolded for reading her book secretly at night when she should be sleeping. I was also lucky to be in schools where, although nerds were not necessarily liked by everyone, we were not bullied. Yay all-girl schools. I did incredibly well on all national exams, ranking among the top 10 students in the country several times, studying at the top national school and earning straight As for my A-levels. I got easily accepted to all universities I applied to, which was quite expected from my entourage. I was just known to be this hard working kid. The truth is I slacked off a lot until the month before the final exam (worth 100%) where I would successfully cram hard core. Homework and term tests were not worth any credit. I believe this system makes students lazier.


In university, however, everything counts! I hated having to actually care about my grade in assignments. I quickly realized that there are people far smarter than me, more experienced than me, more passionate than me in every corner. It's incredible the amount of talent around U of T's campus. Success stories keep amazing me every day. I do admit that a few bad experiences and having two passions has distracted me from academia for most of my 2nd and 3rd year. By then, I had lost most of my academic self-confidence, feeling like I'd just never be good enough. Still haven't failed any course, but I've come close enough to feel what it's like. It's not a good feeling but I wasn't the only one. My friends were not too far so I didn't feel that bad about it.

After a one-year internship, I've finally gotten a deeper understanding of a particular language. So far, I had only dabbled in various languages but wasn't very proficient at any due to the limited exposure in class. In my spare time, I was far more interested in building a fan base and creating music than learning more about other technologies. But come my last year of school, important decisions impose themselves. What do I do next? Where do I wanna work? What value can I bring to a company? For the first time ever, the feeling of inadequacy is very real and constantly shadowing my thoughts. What if I'm not good enough? What if people actually think I'm really dumb? Do I have my place in this game? Can I be a good researcher? Can I be a good entrepreneur? Can I even be a good employee?

The fact that my internship has gone well (I'm still working there part-time) is encouraging and makes me think that maybe I'm just being a bit paranoid. Times of transition are full of uncertainty, it's hard to know where you stand. The fear makes me more prone to having a "fixed" mindset (I'm just not good at this) instead of a "growth" mindset (I don't know much about this but I'm confident I can do well if I work at it). I suppose anyone is scared of rejection to some degree. But I really feel like it's the first time when I've had to ever prove myself academically and I'm scared that I slacked off too much in those math courses to succeed. But I also know that, judging from my past experiences, I perform best when under pressure to prove something. So maybe this is all going to work out.

At the end of the day, I'm trying to remind myself of how big obstacles have been my best motivators to
1. become a songwriter at 14
2.. create a music club at school (at 17) and pull off a show with a cast of 22 in front of a sold out venue of 700 people
3. change subjects "erratically" and still doing great on the final exam even though I missed two trimesters
4. get the attention of a local label, which gave me enough credibility to launch my own EP
5. put together a CD release in 2 weeks and collect MUR 10650 for charity (giving 50% of revenue)
6. recover from open heart surgery without letting scars bother me

In each of those situations, people told me "you don't know how to do that" or "you won't be able to pull it off", "it's too risky", "you're too late", "you're too ambitious and unrealistic", "you'll never get noticed", "you should hide your scar", "there's not enough time".  People just wanted to prevent me from being disappointed. Instead, I was even more adamant on pursuing whatever I had set my mind to. I was not discouraged but pumped. I was ready to prove them wrong. I strongly believed in something and I went for it. Along the way, I suppose some people saw my vision and became supporters who played a key role in my success. Looking back, I smile and say to myself.. We pulled it off! We actually did even when no one believed in us. Maybe this is another case where public opinion will turn out to bring out the best in me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

optimism

In times of transition, things can get depressing and the end of the tunnel is just a myth. People and things seem to be shooting you down from all directions. In those times, it's wonderful to find that much needed optimism from unexpected people and things. You don't always get what you need from who/what you want. But remember that it doesn't mean you can't get what you need at all. Be open to change.
And for god's sake that's the worst time to make pessimistic friends. Keep the ones you have but don't make new ones unless you've got self destructive tendencies lol.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Machine Learning is blowing my mind away!

This semester I'm taking CSC411 (Intro to Machine Learning & Data Mining). This is by far the coolest course I've ever taken. I can see so many potential applications for it, and the ones that exist already are really exciting. These techniques are the foundation of intelligent systems, so no wonder it's this cool. (Now you're thinking "damn i never knew she was that nerdy". oh yeah.)

U of T researcher uses an artificial neural network (ANN) to do face recognition on an app and allow users to try out makeup on their face before buying! The Toronto Star wrote an article about it.
http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/article/1078393--math-geek-becomes-beauty-maven-with-virtual-makeover-app

Patrick Meier and a bunch of people in Boston created this mapping site. It has helped save lives of thousands after earthquakes in Haiti, and is now often used by official sources to locate people who need help in crises. Their algorithm intelligently filters incoming sms/twitter feeds that volunteers verify/translate in real-time. Not exactly sure what they use, but he mentioned clusters at the Q&A :) After watching this presentation I wanted to jump up and down to celebrate humanity lol. If you lost faith in mankind, watch this! Incredible how people came together.




Complementing my existing interest in human-computer interaction, machine learning and data mining seem to be an area in which I might spend quite some time exploring after graduation. I can't wait for CSC401 (natural language computing) next semester! Passion revived.

Yes, I'm still a geek :)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reinforce or Reinvent

"What got you here won't get you there" - Dr Marshall Goldsmith



In the light of changing environments, entities can do one of two things. Reinforce who they are, or reinvent themselves. Which is more appropriate depends on a lot of things. It applies to individuals, organizations, artists...To see how it applies in software development, see this article.

Tomorrow I'm going to a Mauritian student event. I haven't attended their events for the past 3 years because I was usually too swamped with school work. It's probably also because I did not choose my inner circle to be primarily Mauritian, although it could easily have been. This is not to say that I do not appreciate them. They are a truly amazing bunch. Mauritians have the reputation of finding a way to figure it out, no matter what :)

The main reason why I hang out mostly with non-Mauritians is because I came here to experience different cultures and mindsets. If I spend all my time with people who have the same background, I will keep thinking that the way I perceive everything is "the normal way" and assume I know about other cultures just from what I can observe. But there's so much more that you can only pick up through constant interaction with people. I suppose I wanted to reinvent my perception of the world because there is no point in reinforcing lacking frameworks.

The same applies for organizations. The team I currently work on once had bad management and a not-so-good reputation in the organization. However, a change in leadership revived the team with ambition, focus on efficiency, initiative, and high standard expectations. Now, it seems like we are one of the most reputable teams in the organization. We are known for our fast turnover and quality of work. Speaking to some of the members, I can tell that they are constantly looking for ways to improve things. Our mantra is something along the lines of "great work is followed by more great work". I love it and I truly respect all these employees who work overtime of their own will to make things happen. Who would have thought federal government teams could be so productive? The team reinvented itself into something great and it's just awesome to be part of it.

Now that the team has established effective and efficient processes to ensure maximum productivity, I suppose that, going forward, we will be reinforcing more than reinventing for a bit. However, sooner or later, things change and call for reinvention again. This could be, for example, implementing AI techniques. It might seem far-fetched now, but now only lasts the blink of an eye.

In U2's documentary "From the Sky Down" (TIFF 2011), Bono said "You have to reinvent yourself. But in between, you have nothing". When I think about it, it sounds like a big risk. But it proved to be important to them in order to succeed again. Starting from scratch was part of what made them better. Pink started out as an R'N'B artist. Then she reinvented herself with a more rock-sounding album. I thought it was a weird shift at the time, but I loved both albums. Her latest "reinvention" was to align her skills as a gymnast and performer during her live shows. She blew everyone away at the grammys and has since earned much deserved respect worldwide.

I guess the lesson here is that, while reinforcement is good for a certain amount of time, one day, we will know and feel that we can't continue down that path. "What got you here won't get you there" . The arguably easy way is to ignore it and just keep reinforcing and "adding bandaids" as my team would call it. But there are clear indications that it is worth all our while to learn to change and adapt. Reinventing ourselves can be scary but so all the most rewarding things in life. Buying a house, falling in love, investing in stocks, starting your own business, letting your kids grow up.. So why not? Would you choose guaranteed failure over potiential hard-earned success? I know I wouldn't. Status quo is my long term enemy.