Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview: Self-educator Hoossam Malek

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Hoossam (Sam) Malek

Self-educator’s location: Baltimore, Maryland

Date: 4 March 2010

I met Sam Malek three summers ago, when the two of us were summer interns at Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, in Chicago. Sam has one of the most incredible minds I have ever encountered: his worldview is informed by a deep understanding of mathematics and economics as well as an insatiable curiosity and drive for growth, understanding, and academic and professional excellence.

The son of first-generation Syrian immigrants, Sam is proficient in Arabic, English and French. After earning a B.A. in Economics at Princeton, Sam spent a year working with the American Red Cross through AmeriCorps VISTA in West Baltimore City. He then worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, VA for three years while taking advanced courses in mathematics. He enrolled in the full-time M.B.A. program at the Chicago Booth School of Business and graduated towards the top of his class while also earning an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. He began a career as an emerging markets bond analyst at Lehman Brothers in the turbulent late summer of 2008, and has since moved on to another firm where he focuses on high-yield Middle Eastern bonds.

WAM: On Wide Awake Minds, I promote a vision of education as a lifelong process in which certificates and degrees are important thresholds or signposts, but not signals that we have become "educated" persons with no need of further intellectual growth. You are someone who has gone far beyond the requirements of your profession and continued to pursue new learning opportunities at every stage of your life.

SM: What you are saying about thresholds - that you don't just cross a threshold and then be done - is, I think, very important. Human beings, especially here in the United States, are sometimes encouraged (unfortunately) to see life as a series of doors that you go through for whatever reason. Even that - to stop and think about that and reassess it may be very uncomfortable for some people.

Why learn? Why have a job? We have to put food on the table, we need to exist. We need knowledge to do our work as human beings. God puts you on this planet, and if you're lucky you have health - but education is supposed to take us beyond that and help us thrive in a difficult world. We don’t just get an education to check it off the list, but to survive and thrive.

It's kind of like the saying: "The truth can set you free." Life can be pretty oppressive at times. But education can prepare us for that by giving us foresight, the ability to be proactive, the ability to manage our passions, and the ability to see clearly in spite of whatever is going on around us. We are sentient people, not just rational creatures that see everything clearly - education can help us channel our emotions and not be slaves to them.

For example, you and I both do some of our work remotely, over the Internet, and I sincerely believe that that's the future of a lot of labor markets. This idea of making a living without waking up and going to a physical office building will be very uncomfortable for a lot of people. But there are ways to make the prospect of an uncertain future and new work environments more manageable and exciting; some of these ways include being aware of the world, seeing things, reading things, knowing things - in short, education.

And some people seem to be driven to go beyond the basics of what they need to know. Earlier tonight I was reading a friend's blog - he is in the field of bioengineering, but he really wants to be a philosopher. His post was explaining to his readers what an "axiom" is. Not everyone wants to be that thoughtful about the world around them, but some people need to - for these people, learning itself is a powerful need.

WAM: What you said about your friend's blog is very interesting - do you see anything significant about the fact that he was using the format of a blog? For example, was he "working" as a philosopher or exploring his identity as a philosopher? Was he self-educating by clarifying his thoughts on an issue and distilling these thoughts into a blog post? Was he performing the function of an educator, teaching his readers about a topic important to him?

SM: Absolutely, his use of the blog format is very significant. He has 800 friends on Facebook and seems very Internet-savvy - not only can he test the waters as a philosopher or public intellectual, but he can try to create a market for his ideas and attract a readership for his views. If readers with limited time feel compelled to go to his blog and read his writing, then he may be on to something that he can use to build new opportunities.

One good thing about technology is that it creates these marketplaces of ideas - not just for testing ideas, but for communication. If you feel passionate about something, you can go online and talk about it with others. Passion and sincerity are contagious - people will sense them in your writing and respond. My friend is lucky because the invention of blogs and the Internet gave him the opportunity to experiment and branch out beyond the narrow function of his career.

WAM: Right - it's not just about making money, but about finding yourself, finding your voice and an audience.

SM: Yes, and there is plenty of space for experimentation. Technology really matters a lot. For instance, Facebook really facilitates networking - it's an efficient way to connect one set of resources, human resources. I get ideas from Facebook by scrolling through what my friends are writing and discussing with each other. I've recently become interested in networking - have you ever studied network theory? The whole idea is that you can have normative ideas about what a "smart" or "efficient" network looks like. Basically, a smart network links as many people as possible who would not automatically have any connections; it also places a premium on building strong ties. I studied this at Chicago and really took it to heart; I started to think about how I can add value by connecting people I know who would not otherwise be connected. This is something that I am starting to have a lot of fun with - which is surprising, because I had thought of myself as an introvert, and I think at business school I was seen as a bit of a recluse. Using Facebook is a great way to strengthen your ties with others in an efficient way.

Another example of technology's importance is Wikipedia - it's the essence of what you are talking about in your work on self-education. It's one of the most valuable inventions of the past two decades – I’ve learned so much from it. I use it all the time. And I don’t sweat whether each thing I read on Wikipedia is fully accurate - when I turn to Wikipedia, it's because I want to get a quick grasp of a subject or idea, not because I am doing a complete, thorough research project.

You know the concept of marginal return in economics? Well, I don't turn to Wikipedia to read about subjects I have expertise in, unless it's to fill in a forgotten or hazy detail - I turn to Wikipedia when I am totally ignorant of something, and it's free and it takes a minute or two. The bang for your buck when you visit Wikipedia at that early stage of total ignorance is huge - suddenly, at no cost, you have a basic understanding of something you knew little or nothing about before. This has the potential to democratize learning; you don’t have to go to a university and pay tens of thousands of dollars to get an overview of a subject, you can just do some reading online.

WAM: So what value do universities add?

SM: They can and do add value, but I think they are trying to do too many things. You go to school to learn, to be instructed, to grow up - not to worship some professor doing famous research. I think the universities are trying to do too much, and the economics of it are getting all screwed up. There is a mismatch between what I invest in a college education and what I am getting.

One of the best educational experiences of my life was working at the Virginia Fed while taking math classes - the clear purpose of those classes was to learn math. But at universities, so many people are paying $40,000 a year and studying crazy things - I don't think it always makes sense. I'm not saying I don't think people should study the humanities or gender studies or whatever. But if a person is 18 years old and has declared that they are majoring in Near Eastern Studies - that is B.S., it doesn't make sense to me. You probably can't even write or do real independent thinking, and suddenly you've decided that you are going to be an expert on the Middle East? That you’ll commit at least two of your formative years to studying one small aspect of the world? University education should either be more general, or more specific to learning a marketable skill. You have the rest of your life to indulge in different topics but I am not so sure that should be the thrust of your college years.

I wish I could have taken time off before college to get some life experience - to go work and see why we do what we do. Take a kid who is 18 and gets into Harvard or Chicago or wherever, who doesn't really know anything about life - about relationships, about why we work - and you load him up with hundreds of courses and specialties to choose from. How could an 18-21 year old person really know what he wants to specialize in? And worse, half of these don’t even empower him to make a decent living. I'm sure he knows he's interested in that subject, but is that the same thing as wanting to become a specialist?

This is why many countries have service programs. The year I did with AmeriCorps after graduating from Princeton was very, very helpful for me - it really made up for a lot of the sheltering that took place in my life before that.

Some of my best educational experiences took place during my high school years - there is a certain honesty to the learning that takes place in those years. It's the honesty of studying things because you are interested in them and want to learn them, and you can learn a pretty decent range of stuff.

For me, the value of going to college at Princeton was exposure to things I had never thought about; but it was too much, too soon. If my undergraduate classes at Princeton could have been stretched out over the course of my life, they would have been much more useful.

WAM: Earlier, you used the economic concept of marginal return to talk about a non-economic issue - namely, the value of consulting Wikipedia for answers to our questions. I wanted to ask you about your ability to draw on your knowledge of economics, math, and finance and use that knowledge to solve problems and inform your understanding of the world around you. Your academic knowledge seems to be very "real" and active to you - you seem to perceive a lot of connections between the work you did in school and the problems you think about today.

SM: That question made me think of a writing professor at Princeton who assigns essays with tight constraints. Constraints, even if they are artificial, can force the brain to be more disciplined about what it is doing. They can make us better thinkers. So I do have a tendency to impose constraints on my thinking - to think within the discipline of economics.

And some of economics really does seem to be useful to me. Economics provides me with heuristics, quick ways to explain what I mean - for instance, you understood what I was talking about when I discussed Wikipedia in terms of marginal returns. Economics has also informed the way I live my life: I try to get quick wins from very diverse experiences. On Wednesday night, for example, I am going to a networking event in Baltimore City. I won't know a soul there - it could be a little intimidating and difficult. But I know that I am early on in the curve because it is a difficult experience. You know the cliché, "get outside of your comfort zone"; when you feel fear, you should also get a sense of opportunity. The fear lets you know that you are confronting a new experience, an experience that is more likely to be valuable to you because it is new. It's kind of like the network theory idea: there are gaps in your network that prevent it from being as efficient and high-value as it can be, and you are most likely to fill those gaps by meeting some entirely new people - and that might involve some feelings of fear.

I guess I am using technical concepts to talk about these things - possibly I am overeducated and it's just easier for me to talk in these terms. But I encountered these ideas in the classroom because they have stood the test of time.

WAM: Most people encounter plenty of ideas that have stood the test of time in the classroom, but these ideas do not seem to gain the same hold on most people's minds as they have on yours. We all encounter at least some of these ideas, but you have made them your own - you have made them part of your worldview, part of the way you perceive and make sense of the world. How can educators bring these ideas alive for their students - and how can self-educators bring these ideas alive for themselves?

SM: Earlier in our conversation, you talked about the importance of getting students to "buy in" to the learning experience. It's easier to get that buy-in or commitment when the value of something is self-evident - and a lot of what makes the value of something evident is more experience. There's something about experience that makes you more convinced by ideas, because ideas help you explain and make sense of your experience. As a student you haven't experienced a lot - even someone in 12th grade really hasn't experienced a lot of the adult world that these ideas help to explain.

I would suggest that teachers not push a student beyond the capacity of what's reasonable unless the student has a certain amount of drive or interest in a subject. Trust and personal relationships can also be a big factor - if a student trusts you as a person and an authority figure, he is more likely to listen to you when you tell him something is important. When I was in high school, the one subject I struggled with was science. Science didn't really enter my world - I don't see the world of science as clearly as I see other academic worlds, and its value and relevance was never as obvious to me. Now, as a highly educated person, I see science's value and am ready for it - but back then it wasn't personal enough. It's kind of a hard subject to self-educate on, but I bought a couple of books, and I love to go down to the American Museum of Natural History and hear others talk about it.

Childhood experiences are very important. I come from an immigrant household - I grew up seeing how my parents interacted with other adults and reacted to the nightly news. My parents are from Syria; I remember watching my dad's reaction to Peter Jennings on the nightly news and not really knowing why he would get riled up about some of the things Jennings said - that piqued my curiosity and desire to explore. It's no accident that I am a bond analyst studying Middle Eastern bonds; it's no accident that I was on a business trip to Saudi Arabia last month or got an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. These interests don't happen by accident.

Different people have very different backgrounds. But teachers have to assume that there has got to be something in the makeup of who their students are that they could speak to or draw on - there have to be ways to connect the things you are trying to teach to students' lives.

WAM: Thank you, Sam, for your time and for the good work you do.

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