The guys over at 37signals have an interesting way of deciding what new features to include in their software. They don’t track feature requests, at least not formally. They look at feature requests from customers, and then they delete them. If they keep getting the same requests over and over again, then it sticks in their minds, they think about it more often than requests that are not frequently submitted, and this is how they know which new features they should look at incorporating. They literally incorporate whatever is top of mind.
Since I started preparing to apply to business PhD programs, I’ve asked for a advice from many people, and certain patterns have emerged in the responses. One of those has been with respect to what kind of person should get a PhD and do research, and which kind of person should not, and it is that the person who will do well, or at least has the potential to do well, at research, is someone who has an inquisitive mind, or someone who enjoys learning for the sake of learning.
As I’ve heard this come up more and more from those I talk to and the material I read on the topic, I’ve thought about whether that’s me, or whether I have to force myself to think it’s me to justify this career choice.
Yesterday (at least it was “yesterday” when I started writing this post last week), I attended a GenX Capital luncheon here in Utah and listened to Greg Warnock speak on…well, it would be hard to give his presentation an accurate title. It had to do with valuations of startups and when to invest in startups. There was a lot of talk about risk and such. Now, I am not looking for investors for my startup. I don’t think I ever will. I’m also not looking to invest in any startups (other than my own), and don’t think I will anytime soon. Nonetheless, the presentation was fascinating to me. It wasn’t just that Greg knows what he’s talking about due to experience and so he has a way of making what can be a complex topic seem simple, nor was it that he has a way of making this topic interesting. It was just…interesting. I don’t know why, it just was.
Am I just “making” things interesting, so that I can tell myself I have an inquisitive mind, a hunger for learning, and therefore I’m a prime candidate for a PhD? We can’t rule out the potential for bias, so let’s look at some experiences from before the possibility of a PhD was ever on the horizon. Here is a sampling:
1. 4th grade. My friend David Nehdar and I “started” a surfwear clothing company. Well, we didn’t really start anything. We had a business plan, of sorts. Nothing written down, but we talked about starting this business. We had a name–Aquamount (essentially a descriptive term for the Quiksilver logo, which was one of our favorite companies, along with Maui and Sons which hasn’t stood the test of time quite like Quiksilver). We designed logos. We talked about making shirts, shorts, etc. We did this all during school, not because it was an assignment (it wasn’t), but because it was interesting and fun.
2. 6th grade. I read encyclopedias. Well, I read in encyclopedias, not entire encyclopedias. And it wasn’t exactly by choice–I got kicked out of my music class and had to sit by myself in the cafeteria and write reports on great composers. But mostly I ended up looking through the encyclopedias and reading random stuff that was interesting to me. It’s one of my best memories of elementary school, and I probably learned more that year, reading on my own, than during all my other classes during the previous five years.
3. Reading. I’ve been a voracious reader since I learned how to read. The librarians at my local library knew me by name when I was a little kid. I read my first “big” book when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade (Rifles for Watie, which was the biggest book I could find in our school library (352 pages). I think I read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy the next year. Granted, nowadays you’ve got 2nd graders reading the entire Harry Potter series, but when I was a kid none of my peers read books over 100 pages, if they read books at all. My first year of college I read a stack of books three feet high–twice. That was just for fun, not part of my studies.
What I read has changed over time, and you could make the case I read when I was younger for entertainment more than enlightenment, but I believe when you see someone who reads a lot, it’s a sign that they enjoy learning for the sake of learning.
3a. Aside from reading generally, I think it’s interesting to analyze what I’ve read and what I’ve found to be most interesting. I remember being particularly fascinated by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, mostly the part about the guy who predicted what would happen in society over the next few hundred years or whatever it was (I read the series 20 years ago–don’t expect me to remember names or many details!). There was something about being able to analyze large groups of people to the point where you could predict what they would do as a group that was quite intriguing to me.
This interest became more clear to me when I read the two Freakonomics books, and was further honed by reading books by the economist Milton Friedman. I love trying to understand why people do what they do, how they respond to incentives, and essentially “what works” when it comes to life in general. I love how the Freakonomics guys analyze data and do research to tease out interesting “facts”.
I’ve also become a huge fan of Clayton Christensen’s work. I eat up books like The Innovator’s Dilemma/Solution, The Innovator’s Prescription, etc. I like that the books are not just the author’s pontifications, but almost entirely data-driven.
4. Video. I used to watch normal movies. Now I watch documentaries. I’m not terribly interested in entertainment, not that I don’t enjoy it, it’s just that there’s limited time and good heavens if I’m going to sit down for two hours I better get something out of it. In practice this means I don’t watch much of anything, but when I do, I prefer to watch documentaries more than anything else because I’m thirsty for knowledge and documentaries give me more of that than the latest sci-fi or action movie.
5. Observation. I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant. Maybe it’s because I’ve lacked self-confidence and am just looking for justification for my non-participation in various activities, but I really do enjoy observing people, what they do, and asking why they do what they do. This has led to problems in my business because at times I think I’ve been more interested in experimenting and observing the results than I have been at succeeding.
6. Experimentation. Don’t tell the BYU campus police, but I’ve been experimenting with the Tanner building parking lot. You see, when I go down to BYU to visit the professors with whom I’m doing research, I have two choices for parking; 1) the guest parking, which is a half mile walk away, or 2) Tanner building parking, which is restricted to graduate students and employees of the school, but which is 30 feet from the front doors. In the past six months I’ve parked in the Tanner building parking 10-15 times, and I haven’t gotten a ticket yet. This contrasts sharply with my experience as a student, when I also used to park in this lot, and I got multiple tickets.
This may seem trivial, but it’s an example of the constant state of my mind. I look at everything I do as mini-experiments, mini-research projects, if you will.
Now, is any of the above a silver bullet that says “Yes! Joshua Steimle is the perfect candidate for a PhD program at Stanford in business strategy!” Of course not. In fact, for all I know, some of these may point to the potential for me being exactly the kind of student a Stanford or Harvard doesn’t want. These practices certainly didn’t help my grades when I was in school before, although I think I’ve matured a little in the past 10 years and am more inclined to focus on the task at hand.
But what if I wasn’t interested in learning? What if I didn’t like reading? What if didn’t enjoy books written by economists or top researchers? What if I never asked “why”? What if I never saw everyday experiences as potential mini-research projects? While the above behaviors and characteristics may not point to me being the ideal candidate for the program I want at the school of my choice, it seems to me a lack of the same would point towards me being better suited for something else entirely.Liked it? Share it!