4 Reasons Why Parents Sometimes Don’t Support Their Kid’s Dreams

So I stumbled on to the blog of Ian Ybarra, who edited and marketed an awesome networking book I’ve read called Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. I read his blog post called “Why Would Parents Do Anything Else?“:

“I get so angry when people tell me stuff like “It’s always been my dream to go to art school and paint, but my parents think it’s silly because I’ve already got a bachelor’s degree in engineering. So I really should get a master’s in engineering.”

Why do parents recommend to their own children such boring stuff they think is safe?

(emphasis added)

I really liked Ian’s gung ho attitude about doing what you love, but he seemed genuinely confused about why parents wouldn’t support their kids. So I sent him an email:


I’ve read some stuff in your blog. I like it. I got linked by the entry on 10 questions. I totally agree with most of your ideas about entrepreneurship and taking big risks. But it seems you are a litle confused by why parents wouldn’t just support their kids’ wild dreams. So, having ex-traditionally Chinese parents, and observing a lot of people at Stanford with parents like this, I’d like to offer some insights.

1) Parents don’t get much of the reward, but absorb a lot of the risk.

Paul Graham has talked about this. What happens when you move to LA to make it big in Hollywood. Your parents don’t get to go to the parties, meet tons of new people, acting in small roles, etc. They do have to deal with the risk of a broke, run down, crying and worse, coked-out child coming home to mom and dad when things don’t work out. That risk is a lot lower when someone becomes a doctor or biomedical engineer

2) Losing Face

Failure isn’t just a problem of taking care of your child. Its also dealing with questions of “what is junior doing these days?” It’s embarassing to have to say “oh, he’s staying at home while he looks for a new job”. Sure, this is shallow, but it is a real factor.
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If It’s Worth Doing Well, It’s Worth Doing Fast

I like doing creative projects.  For example, making gymnastics videos, and putting books together.

However, I am also a busy guy.  I don’t have time to get involved in as many projects as I’d like to.  So one way to get more stuff done, is to shorten the amount of time you have to do it.

Like, shoot edit and produce a 5 minute film in 7 days.  That is the basis of Campus Movie Fest, the world’s largest student film festival, which I and some friends got together to enter.  My friends and I made a 5 minute documentary on the gymnastics team at Stanford called “Inside the Gymnastic Life”.  Out of 98 teams at Stanford who entered, 50 submitted films, and 16 of those films were shown after the filming was over at Memorial Auditorium.

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The Future of Science in America

This is an article I had originally written for a Seed Magazine science writing competition, but I missed the deadline.  Well, turns out it was almost done.  So I just wrapped it up and I’m putting it out here.

Science is more important in our lives than ever before. We use produces created from scientific discoveries every day. And scientific issues are always in the news. Our economy is driven largely by scientific businesses: biotech, information technology, energy. The rate of scientific development in America, and the world, has rocketed. The last few decades have seen unprecedented numbers of scientific and technological advances, and there is no sign it will be slowing down any time soon.

However, the future also shows some ominous signs. As a leader of scientific innovation, America is seeing great competition from India and China. Their children are more adept in math and science than ours (although that in itself is not difficult to achieve), and they graduate more PhDs in science and engineering than we do. Finally, the future will hold greate challenges, many of them created by the scientific and technological advances of the last century. Climate change, energy shortage, epidemics, terrorism. It is clear that science in all its forms will be critical to America’s future.

It seems to me that many of the troubles the scientific community faces (shortage of money, people, respect) could be solved through a simple, yet startling and possibly controversial idea.

We (the American public) need to treat science more like the military.

Now before you say anything, hear me out. Here’s why science needs to be treated more like the military. Read the first sentence of each of these next paragraphs normally, then read them again and substitute “the military” for “science”.

Serving in the military is akin to serving your country. We have established that science will be critical to America’s future. People need to understand that scientists aren’t simply conducting experiments to answer isoteric questions about the universe, (although some do), but they are doing work that is helping this country grow stronger. Don’t you think that that alone would give scientists much more respect?

You are not in the military forever. Science should also not be seen as a be all end all as a career. Many people have worked years as a scientists and then moved onto other fields: teaching comes to mind, but also business, writing and law or politics. Science should be seen as something that you can dedicate a few years to or a few decades to.

The military gives you skills for life. In the same way, people have to see that working in sciences gives you incredible skills – self-discipline, meticulousness, creativity, the ability to synthesize ideas, work in teams and work under pressure. These skills can translate over to many other fields. Time spent in science is worth spending.

The military can show you the world. Even if you don’t travel anywhere, science can show people a whole new world that is right under their eyes, or in every part of their lives. Science illuminates and reveals the mysteries of the universe.

Do you see where this is going? I think that science needs to be taken more seriously and made more accessible, the way the military is. Now how are we going to do this? My three step program.

1) A massive public awareness campaign. This is going to cost a good amount of money, but I think it is worth it. I’m talking splashy, sexy, bold television spots, celebrity endorsements, billboards, weblogs, bracelets, the whole 9 yards. This is a total change in the perception of science so it needs to really get out there.  The military is pretty good at this.  (Army of One.  Navy – accelerate your life.  The few, the proud, the Marines).

2) A change in the way we train and deploy scientists. This requires coordination between education, government and businesses. I see young people enrolling in a Science Corps boot camp, serving time (maybe a 2 year commitment at a lab on a certain assignment) and they’d be on the way to a PhD.  They could also go down to Reserve, where they could be called to duty for a few weeks out of a year.

3) Get more scientists and Science Corps members into government, so that our country will be lead by people who understand what is going on.  As we have established, science is going to become more advanced and become more interconnected with society.  Policy makers need to have a grip on the issues.  Also, the Science Corps program will fail without having members in government positions.  Think about how many politicians have military backgrounds. With science-educated leaders in place, America will be in a better position to lead the world.  Hopefully in a safe and ethical manner.

A New Model for Public Policy

I was just talking to someone who is majoring in International Relations. He told me that IR was a very customizable major that allowed people to focus on different areas, like economics or public policy, “which is basically a lot of history” he said. I wanted to know what he meant by that.

“Well, when you study Public Policy, you study the history of different policies. So you end up learning what worked and what didn’t.”

Somehow, this isn’t enough for me. I like history, don’t get me wrong. I think it is important to study the past, but I think we can do better when it comes to public policy. I want to create something like Pandora.

“We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.”

With this system in place, Pandora is able to play music that you like, even if it is an artist you have never heard of. With each song and artist broken down into bits and pieces, you find yourself enjoying brand new music you normally would not have listened to. And you can refine its system by telling it what songs you like, and what songs you don’t.

So what I want to do is create a model like this for the public policy, within international relations. Break down countries into “genes” and use them to predict optimal public policy decisions. The genes would include:

  • Population
  • Style of government
  • Religion
  • Strength of science and technological development
  • Economic system
  • Media influence

This is a really short list.  But having a set of these “genes” for any give time period, we could start feeding it different scenarios and having it predict the best policy.  Best would be defined as maximizing certain areas like “GNP” or “International Stability”.  By testing historical cases, we could refine the system so that it would get better and better at predicting what a certain course of action would lead to.

Sure, this would leave out a lot of things.  Freak accidents.  Data unaccounted for by the program.  But once those things happened, we could incorporate it into the system and make it even better.  I think that with the advances in evolutionary algorithms, this program could rapidly improve itself to a point where it could be of use to decision makers.

Because what do people who decide public policy really do?  They take in as much information as they can and try to determine what is the best course of action.  I don’t this is implausible at all.  And I think it would make governments much more open about their real objectives, because people could see what the maximizers were.  Open flow of information make democracies better.

So yeah, a CS major and an IR major need to get together and make it happen.

So What Are Going To Do With Your Biology Degree?

Now that I am a junior, I think more people ask me about what I want to do with my life.  It starts off usually with

Me: “I’m majoring in Bio”

Them: “Oh, are you pre-med?”

Me: “No.  I don’t want to be a doctor”

Them: “So then research?”

Me: “Well, I’m not really interested in straight up research, although I might do grad school”\

Them: “What do you want to do then?”

Me: “Well, I want to save the world.”

Them: “Haha, that’s cool….(what the hell is wrong with this kid?) … so what are you going to do after college?”

Me: “I don’t know.  I’m keeping my options open.”

I have a great deal of clarity about what I want to accomplish in my life.  But I am not clear to how I’m going to accomplish it.  Which means, I am open to a lot of different things.  Here’s my Life Goal, if you will.

To ensure the long-term survival and flourishing of humanity.

I want humanity to behave in a way that is going to work for the long run.  And I want people to not just surive, but thrive.  I want people to experience eudaimon, which is Greek for “Human Flourishing”.  That means I want people:

  • To be educated
  • To be out of poverty
  • To be able to improve their own lives
  • To care for one another
  • To think for themselves

I want to die knowing that I have put humanity on the path to acheiving these objectives.  I will spend live working towards these things.  I don’t know how I’m going to do it right now, but I know the dots will connect when I look back. This is basically what Steve Jobs said in at Stanford’s 2005 Graduation Speech.

So at this point, I’m much more sure about the next 50 years than the next 5.  Weird huh?