Category Archives: Leadership

Disillusionment with Authority is the Coming of Age Story of Our Time

As I wrap up my time in math grad school and start to look beyond, I’ve been reflecting on what led me to study math in the first place. It was the topic that captivated my mind, that I was the most proficient at, and which made me thirst to learn more. But that it even presented itself as an option for a career to me at all is one aspect I’d never really considered.

Only after I got to grad school did I realize that I had an image in my mind of academia that was rather different from what I found. I had imagined that everyone in academia was motivated by the desire to solve the big problems that the world faces, and they simply aimed at different time horizons for their solutions. There’s an underlying talk of work that is “20 years away”, “10 years away”, and academics rightly pride themselves in the fact that they have the freedom to think on those scales where businesses would shy away.

But what I found was that a large number of academics — and this isn’t even restricted to the math department — don’t even think in terms of providing solutions. Instead, there’s commonly a self-referential focus, an inward turn to do things to impress other academics, writing papers and building theory with only fellow academics in mind.

Part of my story, which I’ve touched on in many recent blog posts, is therefore one of disillusionment with this type of academic authority. Some of it comes from rising to the highest ranks and seeing what life is like at “the top” of whatever status hierarchy you find yourself in. In high school, I remember being somewhat disillusioned by my experience at a science summer camp in Australia that our Science Bowl team had won as a prize for winning the national competition. “This is it?” I remember wondering. “This is what I was striving after all of this time?”

I’ve gone through a similar type of evolution at MIT. To be clear, this isn’t the only mental malady one can experience at a place like MIT, or even the most common. I hear a lot about the impostor syndrome, where we think that we don’t belong in an institution because we’re not good enough. But such students still often believe in the fundamental goodness or effectiveness of their school, and only wish they could live up to it. The disillusionment I’m talking about is when they no longer believe that the institutions and authorities they’ve looked up to are actually praiseworthy anymore.

Disillusionment like this is surprisingly common today.

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Authority, Trump, and Me

Donald Trump officially accepted the Republican nomination tonight, proclaiming as usual that he alone is the solution to America’s ills. For those who have been paying attention to his campaign (and who hasn’t?), that can be a lot to take in, even if we’ve known it would happen for months. How did we get here again?

Back in the early days of the Republican presidential primary, after the primaries had started but before it was all clearly decided, journalists struggled to make sense of what Donald Trump’s “consituency” consisted of. The strongest correlate they were able to find was how these voters responded to authority. Basically, voters with a psychological predisposition to authoritarianism — measured (perhaps surprisingly) by attitudes on children’s obedience to parents — were much more likely to express support for Trump in the primary, beating out other correlates like a high school education level.

I too struggled for months to understand the appeal of Trump when no one I knew, even back in conservative parts of Colorado, supported him. But reflecting recently, I’ve been surprised to discover that when it comes to authoritarianism, I personally share that same disposition. I seem to naturally want to follow a strong man who seems to have all of the answers. But I’ve also been blessed with a range of experiences with this sort of authority that has taught me several important lessons that I’d like to share.

Just to be clear, I can’t really imagine myself supporting Trump. I also probably wouldn’t qualify as an authoritarian based on the four standard questions about parenting: I’d have noticed the connection and modulated my answers accordingly. But I do seem to have followed some leaders who seemed to have all of the answers, like many have concluded Trump does.

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If You Want to Speak Last, Speak Best

Previously in this leadership series: How Not to Delegate. My examples in this post are typically drawn from Christian leadership, but the message also applies more widely to other instances of collaborative leadership, group discussion, and public speaking.

Four months and seven years ago, I was a high school senior visiting colleges. Out of laziness, I had only applied to three, and was pretty set on attending Caltech. I came to Caltech’s Prefrosh Weekend mostly to solidify that decision and get to know the campus a bit better before I would arrive.

My host’s roommate found out that I was a Christian when I listed that I like to listen to Christian music on the interest sheet which they used to match us with hosts. He told me that he’d recently been attending a Friday night bible study and invited me to come along. Read more of this post

How Not To Lead, Part One: How Not to Delegate

Since high school, I’ve found myself taking on volunteer leadership positions in pretty much everything I’ve been involved in. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on leadership from those experiences from time to time. While I’m calling this post “Part One”, I don’t have future parts planned yet, so it’s a bit of an ambitious title.

Volunteer leadership, like many things in life, tends to be a bit of a convex problem: There’s a sweet spot in the middle, and there are a lot of different failure modes around the edges. Organizations vary in terms of where exactly that sweet spot is, so I don’t want to focus on that side of the problem. Instead, in this series, I’ll focus on the failure modes, how not to lead. Being aware of what the edges are will help you stay near the sweet spot as a leader.

(By contrast, for instance, some organizations seem to find a lot of value in the edges, by approaching problems in an unusual fashion to generate something new. Some of them can even ride roughshod over the failure modes that I mention because it’s more compelling to live on that edge. If there’s a large amount of competition and/or novelty in your field, this might be the case.)

This lesson in particular has to do with the failure modes around delegation, allowing or assigning other people to do tasks. Read more of this post