Life as a Maven

“To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student.”
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 69

If I’m to be honest, I walk a fine line between helpful maven and irritating purveyor of factoids that only I could love. Since reading The Tipping Point, I’ve tried to ask myself the question, “Is what I’m about to share relevant/timely/helpful?” If I think yes, I make it available to people directly. If not, I’ve started sticking things in semi-public nooks of my blog as a way to remember what resonates most for me (like the time I found out that the word ‘lucifer’ meant match, so that the song “Pack Up Your Troubles” suddenly made a whole lot more sense).

I’ve realised that it’s probably fair to generalise nearly everyone in a PhD programme as a maven. We have a far higher tolerance for receiving, analysing, and digesting arcane information than other people — in fact, I think it’s what draws us to 5+ years of specialised study (not superior intelligence, but that’s another post). In HTC, we’re constantly looking up from our books with a gleam in our eye, unable to resist sharing that bizarre tid-bit from our research with our peers. I’m always squeaking with excitement both over my own findings and those of my friends. It’s one of those small things that make me immeasurably happy to be at MIT: the ability to be myself, unabashedly nerdy without restraint. (Unfortunately, it means I really need to remind myself to show restraint once I leave my little academic bubble at the end of each semester.) Interestingly, at his beautifully bizarre performance “Walkthrough” at the ICA in early March, artist Walid Ra’ad made the same observation using different language. He noted that art historians both know trends in particular kinds of art acquisition and enjoy sharing them (i.e. they’re mavens) but tend to only share these thoughts with their colleagues (i.e. they don’t necessarily have strengths as connectors or salespeople) so a mechanism that makes it possible for art historians to be consultants to art buyers would be lucrative and beneficial to all.

I do think that on many occasions I’ve been a maven who shared useful information with those around me — on conferences (in time for the friend concerned to submit an abstract for one that was right up her alley), on credit cards (I’ve recently become a Chase Sapphire Preferred convert, and a friend got the card after I raved about it), and on technology (I’ve shared my love of WordPress and Trello with QYL, and I’ve heard from more than one person who tried them out following my post).

A major area (and relevant to QYL) is that of education, particularly admissions to U.S. universities. Having been through the painful and complicated process of applying several times, I now find myself fielding innumerable questions (on application essays, interviews, funding, and how to choose universities) from friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, and friends of acquaintances every year. Despite the fact that people consistently seek me out each year, though, I haven’t found a way to turn what is essentially a volunteer activity into something more sustained or that pays — largely because I have no desire to be a full-time college counselor.

What I do, however, points to the things I care about. Undergrad at Princeton is, to date, the hardest thing I ever did in my life. MIT’s a cakewalk in comparison, largely because it simply requires the same skills that I had to learn from scratch at Princeton. I learned how to think for myself, not taking the words of Nobel Laureates as a given. I learned discipline, time management, and resilience. I learned to keep going, even when I was convinced I was failing. It was the best trial by fire I didn’t know I was going to be subjected to when I received my acceptance letter.

I’m also a big fan of the liberal arts. While I wish I’d been advised by someone who better understand my particular concerns and hang-ups as a Sri Lankan about the nature of ‘utility’ in picking courses, I learned to approach architecture in a far more interdisciplinary manner than if I’d read for an architecture degree at home. Admittedly, I wasn’t an architect at the end of it, but that was all right because in discovering myself I realised I didn’t want to be an architect at all. I wanted to get designers thinking about the ethics of shaping space.

Thirdly, I’ve received generous scholarships throughout my tertiary education. I applied aggressively for scholarships for my SMArchS (which is the only degree for which I didn’t get a full ride) and I’m almost done paying back an incredibly small loan I took out for it. It makes me deeply unhappy to hear people talking about the debt they accrued in the pursuit of education, and incredibly frustrated to hear people say they’re not going to apply to top-tier schools because of the cost. I applied to Princeton precisely because it offered scholarships for needy internationals, and made it very clear to MIT I couldn’t take up their SMArchS offer unless I received more than a small fraction of aid. While I’m not particularly good at assessing what I’m worth, I am very afraid of loans. I was assertive and tenacious simply because I could not afford the alternative to my demands.

I don’t see why others shouldn’t be able to get what I did — and honestly, I want them to. I’ve noticed that in discussions about the American education system, I’m frank about what’s great and what’s not, and what worked for me. I’m not interested in being a salesperson — I just want people to have access to as much of the most balanced information they can get their hands on before they make any decisions.

Thinking about what being a maven means for me has led to several realisations:

I started training to be an architectural historian precisely because I wanted to be helpful, I wanted to “solve other people’s problems by solving my own” (to quote Gladwell). I discovered Benedict Anderson my last year at Princeton and his laying out of how nationalism is constructed blew my mind. I want, very much, to share work like his (for example, historian Nira Wickramasinghe’s observations on national dress, and sociologist Tudor Silva’s study of the census in Sri Lanka) with the general populace because as Sri Lankans trying to move forward after a civil war, (I think) we all need our perceptions and assumption to be constantly challenged. This is a challenge though — I don’t want to be preachy (this is stuff that I think people should know, rather than stuff people want to know), and I’m also tripped up by my perfectionist tendencies. I want to be able to know the work intimately before I share it with others, and given that my days are spent doing other reading for classes, it means I keep putting off sharing. I’ve decided a solution is a blog: a way to get thoughts out and rehearse how I want to share things with people in a way that’s interesting, non-threatening, but provocative.

Secondly, this whole post articulates the connection between my academic and arts-related work: my love of being a life-long learner, and of being the kind of teacher who guides rather than dictates. I’m in constant pursuit of information that will enable me to be a better person, and I want others to have access to that information too. The quote at the top of the post so beautifully captures how I tick. So how do I apply this learning to Building Bridges? I’m not sure yet. I could do more research into education and the arts, and share my learnings with key people (like teachers, or the Ministry for Education, or people starting creative new education ventures) who would be interested in collaborating. I could plan for sustainability by incorporating more training-of-trainer programmes for interested volunteers. I could learn to be more of a salesperson by running mini-workshops and inviting people to get on board with my mission in various ways.

There are many things I could do, and my biggest obstacles appear to be self-doubt, and a need for perfection. I’ll have to constantly remind myself to iterate, to test, and to make mistakes.

(Incidentally, Sesame Street is a heck of a sticky show. I’ll never forget the day I watched the clip on the crayon-making factory — Richard Harvey’s Nifty Digits is a fabulous album — and the show also served as an early introduction to Madonna through it’s pun-filled “Cereal Girl” segment.)

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