Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedin the May 1st, 2012 issue of The Observer.
One of the absolutely worst quotes of all time is “college is the best years of your life.” Every college student on the planet rolls their eyes because it’s something the grown-up folk love to pass around like it’s phenomenal counsel. It’s just a terrible expression. Right off the bat, it indirectly reminds us that life doesn’t get any better after college. Immediately afterwards, it instantly puts us students in this emotional indebtedness, like we need to owe reverence towards an experience that we’ve yet to have.
As a graduating senior here at Notre Dame, rich with the experiences of our campus, it’s my duty to take the reigns of our forefathers and join the monotony of alumni banter. However, I refuse to tell you that college is the best years of your life. For your sake, I hope it’s not.
We can’t settle with this four-year experience as being the most dynamic, exciting periods of our lives, because it means our aggressive risk-taking and belligerent socializing meant nothing for our future. Our adult lives cannot become torpid shadows of our four-year lifestyle, where passions from college fade away by the rhythmic droning of mediocrity. We can’t settle for alumni dinners as our only reminder of a life in which we fully lived.
While college shouldn’t be the best years of our lives, it is arguably the most important years of our lives. It’s an environment that’s so unlike anything else in life. Here, we’re forced to understand everything about ourselves. We discover how we learn, the ways we think and the philosophies that make us tick. College is a place where, for the first time ever, we are truly accountable to ourselves. There are thousands of moments that each of us experience here — both beautiful and tragic — where success is measured not by the quality of the journey, but by actually having these experiences. To celebrate the gift of life, we must be willing to experience everything that comes with it.
There are so many things I’ve learned from my time here at Notre Dame. Instead of taking up more newspaper real estate, I’m going to share the top nine rules that I learned from college. It’s my sincere hope that these will help the most important years of your life become legendary.
Rule No. 1: Don’t be logical about your major. Follow your passions and pursue something that you love to do. The worst thing you can do with your parent’s hard-earned money is to invest it in something that you’re not passionate about because it looks employable. Don’t ever sacrifice intellectual satisfaction in the name of job uncertainty.
Rule No. 2: Don’t let schooling get in the way of your education. If I had listened to my professors, I’d be an A student and completely unhappy. Instead, I’ve learned far more than my courses have allowed and love life, because I spent time learning rather than mastering intricacies of an antiquating school system. You can’t teach how to be passionate in a class curriculum. Don’t expect to learn it there.
Rule No. 3: Manage your homework and your course load incredibly well. The amount of things you have on your plate will never subside, ever. Develop the tools now to tackle the things that get in the way of living.
Rule No. 4: Don’t waste all of your time partying. Don’t get me wrong; I love the rage. But, there’s far more to life than getting drunk when it’s accessible. Grab a camera, get on a bike and experience, even if it means doing it alone.
Rule No. 5: This comes from a Wall Street Journal Article (“10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won’t Tell You,” April 28): “Your parents don’t want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn’t always the same thing.” Despite what you’d like to believe, your parents might be purposefully limiting you. With so much risk in the world, can you blame them? To settle for a riskless, safe life is to settle for a life not lived.
Rule No. 6: Contrary to what we’re taught, the most powerful word in the dictionary is not yes, but rather, no. Focus is an unbelievably valuable commodity. To have the discipline and strength to turn down exciting opportunities is something that will make your life more fulfilling and less scattered.
Rule No. 7: Most of life’s problems can be solved with good sleep, waking up early and eating breakfast. The Denver Omelet is the gold standard of this lesson.
Rule # 8: Discover what it is that you live for. Everyone has it. If you haven’t found it, you haven’t tried hard enough to find it. And when you find it, you’ll know. Take time to find it, because nobody else will. Nor will they give you permission to do so.
Rule No. 9: Do crazy things and believe in something. When you’re 65 years old, you’re not going to care about how well you played the rules. What you’re going to care about is how you stood up for an idea, a movement, something that resonates with you and that you’re better because of it. One of the greatest things in the world is to truly own your own beliefs.
Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedin the April 3rd, 2012 issue of The Observer.
Over the past four years here at Notre Dame, I’ve found myself spread thinly between multiple classes and mastering none of them. I’d begin semesters compelled to genuinely dive deep into my curricula, but would become inundated with an intense workload impossible to champion. We’re urged to eliminate the distractions of our lives — the likes of socializing, extracurriculars, and the passions that make us who we are — in order to rebalance ourselves around academia. However, the biggest obstacle in the way of genuine learning is simply school itself.
This semester, I found myself fed up with the typical tempo of an education system that is far too inefficient. Instead of business as usual, I sought to completely rework how I consume my education, becoming a test dummy in an experiment that would challenge how education is fostered. I believed that I could complete my entire academic semester in less than one month. And I succeeded.
Here’s how I did it:
Almost every class I’ve taken has been fundamentally rooted by textbook readings. That is, textbook chapters are the foundations of assignments and lesson plans, which then become the underpinnings of projects, papers and exams. Ipso facto, the textbook defines the class. I broke down all of the deliverables for each of my classes into their overarching categories — reading, assignments, projects, exam prep, etc. — and organized them together by category in order of their due date.
By prioritizing class deliverables according to how material is consumed, I could effectively complete a class in less than one week. I attacked each class one at a time, beginning with every reading assignment for that class and working my way to the next category. It would take about a day and a half to finish each category, and under a week to finish an entire semester’s worth of class deliverables. Then wash, rinse and repeat for the next classes.
The benefits of this kind of system are astronomical. By completing assignments in order — instead of highly scattered and intertwined around unrelated tasks throughout the year — we gain the benefits of contextual recall and focused learning. As most textbook chapters are built off one another, a clean read without stagnation makes for a more effective understanding of progressive concepts. Similar assignments call for similar actions, and consolidating them together reduces the total completion time by a major fraction. And instead of quickly forgetting material, this system actually reinforces content throughout each category, as well within class discussions, where content is no longer freshly new but reiterative.
It seems like all of this makes sense, but as you probably guessed, its execution is a nightmare. Classes have definitive due dates for deliverables, and there’s little time to fit a program like this into a normal schedule of classes. To complete a class in less than a week is to operate within a 12-hour workday that is simply impossible to maintain ordinarily. A student must make a major tradeoff between academic efficiency and punctual participation, and there’s no question that participation factors and submission deadlines dissuade many from even trying something like this.
So what did I do? I chose the classes with the smallest participation component attached to the final grade, with the fewest deadlines in the initial month, and with all deliverables and deadlines outlined for the semester. I then spent the first two weeks of school locked away in my room, working from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day for what was the most intensive academic session of my life. In that time, I had managed to complete a total of three classes for the entire semester, a feat that still amazes me.
After spending those two weeks knocking out half of my semester deliverables from sunup to sundown, I returned back to class and organized my assignments around class periods. I found that my time wasn’t scattered between three classes a night per usual; instead, I was able to devote my focus to the major projects and class assignments for my remaining classes. I was able to finish the rest of my assignments for the entire semester in less than a month.
What’s the ultimate takeaway of all of this? While I’m certainly not urging you to commit to this system, what I am suggesting is that we must become better consumers of our own education. I’ve completed my deliverables and prepared for exams and for the first time in my life, I’m also mastering it all. It’s a win-win scenario in which my schedule and academic enlightenment is infinitely more governable. But this luxury doesn’t come freely.
We can’t continue to blindly accept rules of a system where courses are engineered irrespective of how we learn. And if we wish to continue having faith in the university system, we can’t simply deprioritize everything else important in our lives en lieu of University demands. Instead, we must be willing to make tradeoffs and challenge our “that’s the way it is” attitude towards academia. Simply put, an education in which success comes at the expense of the passions and opportunities in our lives is simply no education at all.
Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedin the February 28th, 2012 issue of The Observer. This takes a change of pace from the traditionally tech-oriented posts, and focuses on my relationships with my parents with graduation ahead of me.
We get up on our feet, look ahead in front of us and take a giant leap forward in our lives. Slip on shoes, tie the laces, walk forward. It’s such a simple daily ritual that we don’t even think about it, but the ways in which we move in the world tell a compelling story of how we grow as people.
And grow I did. When my feet were small and bare, you once watched me sprint from room to room and trip and fall every few feet. What seems like seconds later, you watched as my feet kicked in excitement as you laced on my first pair of Power Ranger school shoes. Just a few moments later, you helped buckle my first pair of inline skates, knowing full well that I would come back with scrapes and bruises everywhere.
But let’s not kid ourselves here. The son that you recognize today throws on non-matching socks, shoves his feet into winter boots and moves into a full-on sprint through the quad to get to class on time. And yet, other days, you’ll find me stepping barefoot over empty beer cans, road signs that definitely weren’t stolen and other things that aren’t exactly scholarly.
The journey of our lives has taken all of us to so many different places. But this journey is mixed with just as many somber realities as it is with happy memoirs, a balance of life that you know all too well. If you look closely, the dress shoes in my closet are faintly marked with tears, having borne the weight of a boy who inexplicably found himself walking to a friend’s funeral just a year ago. Those same dress shoes are scuffed up in frustration and doubt, abraded by truths of life that a son discovers when taking giant leaps and landing on rejection.
The journey of our lives leads us through both dark ditches and lighted highways, where the end result is a well-worn yet well-prepared set of feet. And good, bad or indifferent, these feet are growing much bigger, moving much faster and strolling much farther away than for what you’re ready. In just a few months, my shoes will be laced by a black graduation gown and will take slow, confident strides towards a podium right before leaping into the air. What seem to be only minutes later, all of the shoes that I own will be thrown into cheap cardboard boxes with the words “New home” etched on it, adorned with a shipping address unfamiliar.
You’ll soon find me strolling around in a strange new city not known for its safe neighborhoods, walking with coworkers whose names you’ll never quite remember. And you’ll meet a pair of Stilettos that seem to match perfectly with my shoes, with one of the heels gracefully lifted up in the air during a kiss in true Hollywood fashion. The pitter-patter of my Power Ranger shoes running at you seems but a distant memory, a moment in time that is all-too-quickly replaced by a stroll that is confident, collected and accompanied.
The truth of the matter is that everything is about to be very different for all of us. These are the realities of life, where the words “graduation,” “career” and “dating” are concepts that suddenly have real weight to them. There will be moments when you won’t be able to be there in ways you once were, when most of life’s problems were solved with a mother’s touch, a soothing voice and a giant hug.
But no matter how different post-graduation life may be, there is one reality that will always stay the same: How we choose to handle life is very much like how we handle our shoes. We can choose to run away in times of trepidation, trip on ourselves in the process and move forward with clumsy, limited strides. Or, we can lace up those shoes, tie them tightly and walk forward with confidence. Even though we may still trip and fall anyway, it isn’t the shoes themselves that define the journey; it’s the other pairs of shoes that walk alongside us, pick us up and make the journey something worth treading.
Luckily for me, there has always been a pair of shoes walking next to me the entire time. No matter how many times I’ve fallen, there has always been one person who was right there to pick me up and dust me off. And no matter how difficult the upcoming path will be, there will always be one person to whom I’ll look for help. Even though our individual paths will soon diverge faster than you wish, with one of them far more exciting than the other, I will forever look to my side and feel solace that your pair will be right next to mine.
Each day, we get up on our feet, look ahead in front of us and take a giant leap forward in our lives.
And leap I will.
Thank you for always being there for me. I couldn’t have made it this far without you.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 7th, 2011 issue of The Observer.
We may have been fooled by one of our generation’s biggest scams. In fact, not only do we blindly accept it, but most of us will be working our way out of debt for a decade because of it. It’s a system that penalizes creativity, scatters our focus thinly between unrelated errands and unashamedly conditions us to believe that a few people can tell us how smart we are.
The scam I’m talking about is college. On the surface, college inhales untrained minds and churns out well-respected mid-level managers, galvanized by proud relatives and anticipative parents looking to reshape adequate parenting into something employable. The stuff of dreams. But the reality is that college might be a waste of time and energy. And what’s worse is that we idealize this experience as the final frontier for a better, happier, more creative life.
Rest assured I absolutely love Notre Dame. I love my curriculum, I enjoy my major and I adore my professors. But I absolutely hate, abhor and despise school.
For the past four years of our lives, we’ve lived in a system where genuine learning takes a back seat and most of our energies are spent figuring out what efforts yield the best grades. We spend each weekday traveling to multiple classes, sitting in lectures, reading unrelated textbooks and then we complete assignments and prepare for exams in scattered bursts. Students can barely remember what last month’s tests were on, but can accurately tell you what words teachers circle when awarding A’s or if exams are built around practice tests for courses taken two semesters ago. Somewhere in between, we sleep, eat, make friends, do resume-boosting extracurriculars, figure out who we are and try to have fun. Instead of a four-year experience where we master our majors, what we get is 48 months of moderately-managed cramming split between heavy drinking and applying for stepping-stone internships. College isn’t so much a learning environment as it is a highly-fragmented to-do list.
And, while the education experience is up to students, the actual practices and learning points reinforced are completely out of our hands. We can learn all we want, but GPA is the end-all on how well we understand material and, subsequently, prepare around it. How we learn must conform around a pre-determined, intentionally limiting structure and someone must tell us exactly how well we know the material before moving on. I have zero say in just how much I “get” something because my success is evaluated around a rigid grading rubric cemented in 2006. And it’s retention, not comprehension, that’s evaluated on a percentage scale, like I’m some sort of battery with an exact percentage of knowledge accumulated. I can read multiple books about a subject, but if I didn’t remember the exact name of the cat involved in American court case from 1799 about property taxes for an exam, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t master the material. It’s the Pavlov’s Dog psychology experiment, where students are conditioned to memorize bolded words and last paragraphs of assignments in order to prove material competence to someone else.
Of course, it’s easy to be sarcastic about college. It’s such a multifaceted institution that any pissed-off student can list off arguments against it. We may not remember all of the details from every lesson plan, but we are retaining far more than we’d like to believe. College is a place where students experience different subjects, build terabytes of genuine knowledge and discover academic passions. We mature socially and emotionally, thanks to the countless roommate, dining hall and inter-class social situations that occur at any particular moment. To throw away the value of a college degree is to disregard the thousands of subtle skills and philosophies that transformed the high school graduate we no longer recognize in ourselves.
But these benefits cannot completely justify a system where creativity and genuine learning isn’t properly rewarded. And in the real world, its creativity and independent thinking that separates the Steve Jobs, the Alexander Flemmings and the Adam Smiths from the rest of the pack and actually drive the world forward. Unfortunately for us, college has no objective way to reward our out-of-classroom learning, and more often than not, punishes us for pursuing it. Every day, we face a complex trade-off between the major philosophies of how we consume our education. And each time we choose to master an exam rather than a concept, we slowly subdue our inner brilliance in lieu of a well-prepared recall of class deliverables. But, the more we commit ourselves to college, the more stimuli we must manage, and it’s not easy to write off a cram session in the name of true learning when you’re scoring A’s and making parents proud.
Is college really a scam? Most likely, no. But, if we entered college with the intention of leaving as creative leaders, we shouldn’t be so quick to take our practices and ranking accolades to heart. Maybe, just maybe, the college system isn’t as perfect as we’d like to believe. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve been learning the entirely wrong lessons.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published (and heavily over-edited) in the November 16th, 2011 issue of The Observer.
One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I found myself checking my iPhone every 20 minutes, searching for articles on Twitter that could captivate me while I waited for my brain to turn off. As I thumbed through Twitter, I stumbled across an “Economist” article that pissed me off and made me laugh at the same time.
That Tuesday morning, a random blogger called my social and intellectual being into question. An article titled “Researchers are looking seriously at #Twitter” headlined across my iPhone, a 45-character phrase that reiterates what uncomfortably-nostalgic old people and self-dubbed Neo-Luddists think about them MyFacebooks and addicting Internets. I retweeted the post and began reading through the article. Skimming the article, phrases like “Twitter is degrading the English language” and “Our ease with some words is being diluted” were illuminated in front of me, and I sat there laughing and doubting it all. I skimmed to the bottom, scrolled to the top to reread the byline and then began reading the article for the first time.
As a student of the Y-Generation and an active inhabitant of the Twittersphere, in principle I am a dynamite representative of Twitter users whose reading and writing habits are adversely compromised. I found dozens of articles and blogs that talk about how Twitter — the social network that lets you write messages with up to 140 characters — is corroding our syntax and vocabulary with record acceleration. With Twitter’s 140-character limit, users are called to write in compressed sentences and adopt unique language conventions, and somehow because of this, our language is quickly and noticeably worsening. This all sounds like it comes right out of the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” where the protagonist’s intelligence increases but then quickly deteriorates; all the while, the reader watches these changes take place in the form of the main character’s increasing, but then quickly deteriorating, writing quality.
One of the first noticeable things about Twitter is the sentence structure and word quality behind each post. “The Economist” article began by commenting that modern language “is being eroded” due to “a world of truncated sentences, sound bites and Twitter.” Because of that 140-character limit, many authors claim that sentences are shorter and words are less complex. Think eliminating colorful adjectives and adverbs, multi-syllable words and non-staccatic sentences in order to free up precious authorship space. “The Economist” source claims that how we express ourselves and use words is being diluted: the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.
Many also claim that the Twitter conventions are destroying the subtleties of human conversation. The use of hashtags (#) was initially employed in Twitter to denote a “Trending Topic” which, when first placed before unspaced words, “helps Twitter and its users understand what is happening in the world.” Right now, #HottestPeopleOnTwitter and #ILoveHipHop are two Trending Topics which, in theory, should help you understand what’s happening in the world. And, not only are hashtags wildly used, but the hashtagging convention has evolved as a means through which people preface jokes online. This most likely makes absolutely zero sense to anyone over 25 or for someone not on Twitter (#SorryImNotSorry). But using a “#” followed by unspaced words has somehow become a way users make jokes or express sarcasm, much the same way that different vocal pitches may denote different expressions.
Sentence minimalism comes not just in the form of collapsed words and smaller sentence sizes, but as SMS slang and shorthand notation. The condensing of Laughing Out Loud, writing of “RT” (to denote another Twitter user’s quote) and emoticons in and of themselves are just a few examples of conventions that are supposedly destroying conversations outside of the World Wide Web. Combined with a heavy use of bulleted text, our language theoretically should be in shambles.
LOL. As an avid Twitter user, this all strikes me as fear grounded by sci-fi novels (1984 FTW) or among those afraid of the #RebeccaBlackEffect. To RT @mat from Gizmodo, “new technologies change the way we think and interact” but does not mean that we’ve “lost something as a society.” To think that GenY is in risk of becoming 1 sentence, 2 syllble writers who use “#s” to make funny jokes gives 0 credit to any of us users.
Even worse is the idea that Twitter norms are moving into offline convo, like Twitter styles may replace real dilog: (http://nyti.ms/vJa8sW). Thinking that tech affects our grammar, social skills, or even sleep cycle for that matter is fiction only Flowers For Algernon could rival. To ignore words that are > than 2 syllbles or limit a sentence to < than 140 char long is to ignore the complex beauty of language itself. The bottom line: Twitter may constrain language, but we will *never* let a service downgrade language richness & define our use of wording. That’s a #failwhale in and of itself, and would be caught well be4 it started to affect what big words we select or how we compact writings.
Editor’s note: This article was originally publishedin the November 1st, 2011 issue of The Observer.
Welcome to the Groupon Economy. We’ve entered a new age where coupon-clipping grandmas of the world live in harmony with 20-something-year-olds. Labeled by “Forbes Magazine” as the fastest growing company ever, Groupon merges internet retail with brick-and-mortar stores, providing cost-conscious customers staggering discounts for everyday products and services.
But, to a handful of wary merchants, this is too good to be true. Originally hailed as the savior of small business, Groupon represents a machine that could cause the death of small business itself. And the “et tu Brute” of it all is that we’ve seen this story before: The fundamental mechanics behind the Groupon business model share a striking similarity to those of the subprime mortgage industry. To make sure we’re on the same page, that’s not good.
Groupon’s business model is nothing short of fascinating. Groupon is a daily deals site that sells heavily-discounted gift certificates for a variety of businesses. Millions of users receive emails about Daily Deals, which feature products or services at significant discounts. Users opt in for these deals, and once a threshold is reached, “the deal is on.” Thanks to the committed buying power of large groups, Groupon is able to offer discounts between 50 and 90 percent.
Why would any merchant offer their products at unrecoverable low prices? Advertising. In theory, these heavy discounts lure in an untapped, price-sensitive market. The name of the game is to target on-the-fence consumers, get them into the store and ultimately convert this to repeat sales. This is especially beneficial for struggling local businesses, where immediate cash needs and a desire for new customers are high on their lists.
The business model is touted as a “win-win-win.” Customers reap the benefits of insane bargains, businesses reap the benefits of repeat business and Groupon, all the while, gets a piece of the action. Unfortunately, it’s a model that’s severely flawed. Let’s see why:
The average Groupon is 50 percent off of a normally-marked item. Right off the bat, any business just eliminated half its revenue. From there, Groupon pockets half of those sales just for just being Groupon, so what looks like 50 percent is actually only 25 percent for the retailer. Take this to the next level: Groupon pays a third of sales after five days, waits a month to pay 1/3 more and then waits another month before paying the last 1/3. An item that normally goes for $50 ultimately returns under $13 dollars for any given business, spread unevenly over a quarter of a year. Long story short: Businesses working with Groupon are being sold an advertising campaign that resembles a very, very expensive loan. With a Groupon, the business is given a small amount of cash over three months from the coupon sales from Groupon and in exchange, businesses must sell customers tremendously undercut products.
And worst of all, the goal that makes it worth it for businesses — to target new repeatable sales — lacks any substance. The benefits should come in the form of a larger loyal market, but the reality is that Groupon buyers aren’t actually any of those promised loyal consumers. Instead, Groupon purchasers represent a price-sensitive, bargain hunting demographic with little to zero expressed loyalty in Groupon businesses, outside of that initial discount.
The idea that merchants have been biting off more than they can chew with Groupon isn’t new; we’ve seen stories the likes of Jessie Burke’s of Posie’s Bakery & Cafe, where “it has been the single worst decision [she has] ever made as a business owner thus far.” Very recently, Huffington Post reported a waffle company that is now charging $450 each for waffles by appointment in order to recoup Groupon losses.
This is all clear, but there’s something bigger here. Step back and take a deeper look into the mechanics. A keen look into the Groupon model reveals cash flow mechanics that parallel the subprime mortgage industry. Replace “business” with “mortgage-bearers,” “Groupon consumer” with “subprime mortgage investor” and “Groupon” with “security issuer” and it suddenly becomes an analogy for debt securities considering how cash flows between parties. Take a pen and paper and actually trace the money flow for both Groupon and MBS issuances. Hundreds of customers prepay for redeemable coupons through Groupon, who holds onto the cash and distributes it to hundreds of merchants on their time and effort. This is all similar to the timing and ownership of cash flows in the mortgage industry.
How does the Groupon ecosystem crumble? It all comes down to the weakest link, which in this case is the struggling local businesses that are resorting to advertisements. What happens if merchants go out of business because of the Groupon due to ill-timed cash flow mechanics? What happens if they anticipate this bankruptcy and refuse Groupons halfway through? In both instances, buyers flock to Groupon to make a claim against their purchase, because businesses won’t honor the coupons, or simply cannot because of insolvency. Because Groupon constantly needs cash to finance new Groupons, rebating these customers would upset a truly vicarious cash flow balancing act. Slowly but surely, a machine too big to fail can suffer from the same incremental micro-events that occurred during the housing crisis, collapsing Groupon and bankrupting thousands of small businesses whose Groupon account receivables well exceed their almost-nonexistent cash balances.
Rational people would never submit to this. But thousands of struggling businesses are doing so in record droves. You can’t fault them. Millions of consumers are buying Groupons because they’re worth it, building unprecedented buzz that small business owners have zero reason to question.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October 12th, 2011 issue of The Observer.
Each and every one of us is given a pen, a very long notebook, and one enduring mission: to write the story of our lives. Each of us is given a genuinely unbiased opportunity to ink the direction of the main character. We take this process for granted, that we can wait a few chapters before beginning to write the story that we wanted for ourselves since the beginning, a story about powerful journeys, bold choices, or a path all alone save for you. We’ll look at today but settle for tomorrow, scheduling a future full of experiencing real moments that our gut has quietly demanded for a very long time. Just carry around a pen, and it’ll be fine. Tomorrow will be perfect.
Last Wednesday on October 5th, 2011, the story of Steve Jobs became complete with its own ending. The conclusion is a cliffhanger in its own right, abruptly bookmarking the space between the nonstop stream of words of the first half of the book and the hundreds of empty pages of the second half.
Of all of the stories and textbooks that I have read or studied, the novella of Steve Jobs is the most highlighted, tabbed, scribbled-upon, and reread work that I own in my collection. I have posters in my room and diagrams on my computer about Apple or about Steve Jobs, illustrations that talk to the techniques that he employed throughout his life. I have studied the ways that he gained the grip of the world, held in so precociously, and molded it into a beautiful milieu that is marked by technologies and ergonomics well-blended.
Out of it all, if there was something that I’ve captured from this material, the story of Steve Jobs’ life can be summarized, surprisingly, by one simple theme: a man’s unique understanding of his story’s definitive ending. What I captured from it all is that Steve Jobs fully understood that life was but two guaranteed moments – life and death – and that those moments were separated from each other by the chapters that he chose to write. He understood that his pages were capable of indefinite possibilities, but that the pages must always be bound between the main character’s first breath and last exhale.
There’s a very famous YouTube video of Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement address (one that received a record 8 million views in one day last week) that captures the beauty behind a potentially-melancholic outlook on life:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Because of his early stroke with cancer – a moment that would ultimately come full-circle and take his life – Steve Jobs quickly understood how valuable a life is. Perhaps it was to create a legacy; perhaps it’s to prove something to his biological parents (Steve Jobs was adopted); but most likely, perhaps Steve Jobs understood how important it was to own himself and maximize his creative attributes as best as possible. He propelled himself completely and wholly forward into everything he worked with, and because of this, our world has changed, and people like me write things like this because we realize just how big of a loss this is.
What have I learned from all of this? Our time is limited. Each day must be penned as a story of living a life that I own, instead of a life wasted away in the form of someone else’s moments, while I wait for the perfect day to start writing. We each have an extremely strong inner voice that’s louder and more passionate than we’ve ever realized, shouting about what’s right or wrong with political dogma, theological creeds, sociological norms, or even technological inefficiencies. Perhaps the most important lesson for me is not about just listening to your internal voice. Instead, the most important lesson that I’ve learned is that I must have the courage to follow my internal voice every single day. It’s an unbelievably difficult thing to do day in and day out. But by understanding that I truly have nothing to lose, I understand that doing nothing simply translates as a wasted page in what could be a tremendous story of my life.
Steve Jobs wrote his life story as if the next page was the conclusion. Steve Jobs followed his heart, and because of it, a generation of people eagerly listened and followed along. To Steve, tomorrow could have been the last day that he had on Earth to create something exceptional. And so, every day, he destroyed the boundaries of creativity and innovation, in an effort to maximize what could potentially be his last day on Earth.
Unfortunately, last week, he was right.
Each and every one of us is given one pen, one very long notebook, and one enduring mission: to write the story of our lives.
What will you write about today?
Since the birth of the Internet (fathered by Al Gore), many a person has sought to capitalize upon the web’s infinite potential. Many have succeeded, but countless more have failed, succumbing to the economic difficulties that arise from a market that completely and wholly disrupts how we receive information.
Even up to this day, the Internet is still an extremely difficult place to make money. Sure, there are quite successful businesses, the likes of Googles, Facebooks, and as I just discovered from a short list of dot-com bubble survivors, stamps.com. But the fact is that banner advertisement revenues only sustain companies so far, freemium models have a notoriously low revenue conversion rate, and despite Average Joe’s wallet stacked neatly next to his computer, it’s still dental surgery to generate a sale from him. Look at you now, with your smartphone in your pocket lying next to a neatly-stacked row of Benjamins in your wallet. On any given day, we’ll take a trip to our friendly Wal-mart and smack down $18.00 on a NERF dart gun (a gloriously true story for me) as if impulse buys are going out of style, but we’ll be concrete resistant to spending less than four quarters on a smartphone app that’ll let us find coupons for dart guns. We treat spending money on the Internet in the same exact manner that we treat talking to telemarketers.
Despite the difficulties that businesses have experienced from making money from what former Senator Ted Stevens dubbed “A Series of Tubes”, there is one smidgen of hope that I’d love to share. This example lies smack-dab in the heart of social media, a large submarket of the Internet that still struggles to earn genuine revenue. And most impressively, the face of this beautiful financial machine that I’m about to share is represented by a picture of Elmo smoking weed.
Backstory. Very recently, Netflix made a very real decision about how it will handle the future of its movie streaming and DVD shipment businesses. CEO Reed Hastings took a step to separate the steaming and DVD services from each other, making a motion to navigate the company towards what he perceives as the future, and preventing a sputtering service (DVD shipments) from slowing him down. The important thing to gather here is that from this point forward, Netflix will carry forward with the streaming arm of the service, and the newly-created company Qwikster will continue providing DVDs via mail to users.
Editor’s note: This article was written on October 3rd, 2011 about Netflix splitting into Qwikster. A mere 6 days after writing this, Netflix announced it will no longer pursue this opportunity.
Uh oh! Netflix made one huge mistake out of it all. One of the most important things for companies to consider is how social media will affect their brand. And one of the most important things for companies to do before announcing branding decisions is to snag social media assets ahead of time, before some clever person comes along, picks up their Twitter user name for example, and demands a boatload of cash for it. Or even worse, if some random kid had it all along.
But that’s exactly what happened. Jason Castillo, the owner of the Twitter handle “@Qwikster”, went to bed one night with a handful of friends, and woke up in the morning with thousands of followers and messages in his Twitter inbox. Little did he know that mega-corp Netflix decided to spin off a brand new company and give it the name of his beloved Twitter account. I saw this a day ago and followed Jason on Twitter (follow me at @marc_rosa) when he was at 1,000 followers, because his posts are hilarious and against everything Netflix would want to stand for. As of right now at the time of me writing this, Jason’s at a staggering 11,592 followers.
What’s the take-away from all of this? This dude stands to make a ton of money from owning his Twitter account. I can’t even describe how valuable his Twitter account is to Netflix/Qwikster, even if valuable in this case translates to just $10,000.00. Qwikster is going to want to own the Twitter handle @Qwikster instead of something untaken like @Qwiks592838zz, for the same exact reasons someone would want to buy www.toast.com instead of www.ILikeBreadHeatedByRedHotIronRods.com. Brand is everything, especially to goliath companies like Netflix or Qwikster. With tens of millions of customers, having that domain name or, yes, the exact name of your brand on Twitter translates to professionalism and competency to consumers; not having these assets, or worse, confusing customers with a soccer-playing kid named Jason represented by a picture of Elmo smoking a blunt translates to some serious negative effects.
The best part about all of this is that Jason Castillo recognizes this money-making opportunity. He’s even expressed it himself on Twitter many times, oftentimes right after tweets like “I’m about to go play soccer n I got stug by a f$&ken bee.” Here’s one of many tweets that demonstrates to me the clarity and precision in which he wishes to operate: “Man so much to plan so much deal so much negotiation n I want a plan when I still have part of it n stiL be making bank”.
The signs show that the planets are aligning for this to happen too: Twitter has a clear policy against selling Twitter handles, and will shut down anyone who shows signs of doing so. Quite coincidentally, Jason Castillo quietly removed every single Tweet about selling his account, replaced his profile picture, and is resorting to posts about making tacos.
Innovative and promising companies have lost billions of dollars from the Internet. But, there are people like Jason all over the world who stand to make tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands of dollars – from the very same Internet. In this case, Netflix made a premature press release decision, and Jason stands to benefit tremendously because the company’s new name is now aired publically. While the venturing Internet entrepreneur that you are may one day completely fail at generating a dime for a reasonably useful service, rest assured that a man with a picture of Elmo smoking weed may get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from Netflix for a Twitter account that took him 3 minutes to set up.
With that, I’ll leave you with a quote from Jason, out of the mouth of a soon-to-be wealthy individual produced with the exact asset that will determine his wealth: “I just got scared I went into the shower turned on the water n then stuff started falling I was lik omg wtf lol”.
Update: Since Netflix is no longer pursuing the split, Netflix buying the Qwikster handle no longer seems realistic. However, while this exact scenario may not play out completely, it serves as a shining representation of various individual-corporate relationships thanks in part to social media.
Jump Right In: Departure (Part 3 of 3)
This is the third installment of a three-part series titled “Jump Right In,” a story that captures the thoughts of Cannonball Project, Inc.’s co-founder and former CEO before and during its launch. Click here to navigate back to the first installment.
Up to right now, I’ve brought you along to roughly the first week in July of 2011, just 5 months into this whole journey. I’d like to bring you back in time one year to show you the events that led up to my departure from Cannonball, so you can understand everything in its complexity.
This part of my journey recounts possibly the most humbling, emotionally-gripping, directionless moments that I have ever experienced in my life.
Since I began working with start-up companies – beginning with my first real experience in early 2010 when I took over DormDrinks.com, a Notre Dame start-up company – I’ve shared an unbelievably complex relationship with my parents. It’s clear and it’s obvious from this writing so far: I’m a goal-driven person who refuses to quit. To me, I was doing what I was driven within to do: to create and build and do the extraordinary. But, what’s also clear and also obvious is that I was drifting away from my parents and losing the core of our relationship. To my parents, I was an older depiction of a once-joyful child, continuously caught up by extracurriculars and unnecessary internal loci.
From June to August in 2010, the entire summer just a year ago, I was away from my parents doing anything and everything, much like a year later with Cannonball. I was in Chicago interning for a week in June, and then in Switzerland studying abroad in July, and then immediately back in Chicago to continue interning. In Chicago, I spent my 9-to-5 time working with the firm and the 6:30 to 11 pm time dedicated solely to DormDrinks. I allocated zero leisure time for myself, and even less time connecting with my family. The second that my Chicago internship expired, I took a train to Notre Dame and set up DormDrinks at an incubator facility just outside campus, and worked there until school began in August 2010. The takeaway: I never stopped moving.
What I interpreted as living an extraordinary life with obvious academic and social gains, my parents interpreted as living a scattered, faintly-nascent life with little signs of academic follow-through. We fought constantly.
As my junior year progressed, my parents’ sentiments only became worse. With the acquisition of DormDrinks’ first company vehicle in September 2010, followed swiftly by my 21st birthday later that month, and preceded by the purchase of the company insurance policy in October, my personal and business lives were dangling by thin threads. In trying to balance it all, I was spread even more thinly, and I was truthfully mastering none of it. In late October, one of my friends tragically died, and just like that, I was sent spinning out of control.
My grades weren’t the best, and to my parents, everything else is secondary. My mom and dad saw me as an intelligent son with knockout ideas, but there I was, caught up in everything but my academics. I had been learning more than many of my business school peers have learnt, well beyond what our syllabi outline. I just couldn’t understand why my parents couldn’t see the education I was receiving. If I dropped out of college today and made a billion dollars tomorrow in business, my parents would be livid that I dropped out of college. It didn’t make sense that they could be so obtuse in their view on education. But it didn’t matter: in my parents’ eyes, I was failing them in virtually every avenue.
I returned home that Christmas break in December 2010 to await poor grades from that semester. I returned home that Christmas break to await my mother and father, who sacrificed so much to get me where I was in life, crying and furious and feeling completely helpless. And despite mending some of the wounds with my parents that Christmas, we were still wholly-unresolved. All they really, truly wanted were time and moments with their son. That’s it. All I really wanted was for my parents to recognize my achievements, and to understand that I’m compelled to do the impossible outside of school. That’s it.
After spending my Christmas Break in conflict, I returned back to school in January 2011, more isolate than ever I’ve felt before. That January, I spent two weeks collecting my DormDrinks files. Tail between my legs, I let go of DormDrinks later that month, a process that was neither pleasant nor simple for me. But, given the mental and emotional melting pot that I watched being heated and stirred, and given that operations no longer required creativity once we acquired the heavy assets, I was burnt out and ready for clarity.
We’re now at the point in the story where we first began, when it’s February 2011 and I’m seconds away from seeing Cannonball’s vision from my dorm loft. You know that I’ve been carrying the weight of my family problems for at least half a year, yet I was extremely active during this period, seeking to breathe life into Cannonball. So what gives?
Instead of reverting to some of the traditional habits that my friends submit to during these kinds of times, the likes of heavy drinking or abusive partying or even just silent depression (all of them wonderful options), I focused absolutely and entirely on building Cannonball the second that it became a reality. I exit DormDrinks, only to start another start-up company a month later, an action that would read nothing but with positive acclaim to most, if not all, people. While this is absolutely true, and while I’ll always and forever have this start-up mentality, what’s clear is that Cannonball became my way of expressing to my parents how I disagreed with their priorities on academics.
The more and more that they would demand the academic system and ignore everything else, the more and more I sought to prove them wrong. My grades would suffer, my parents would argue, and I’d respond by focusing even more on Cannonball. It’s a clear, endless cycle that only grows more extreme with time.
Despite it all, I moved forward in the early months of 2011. It’s now March 2011, a month into my journey, when I’m on my spring break. Remember me telling you that I wrote my first business plan then? I spent half of the break with friends, the other half spent cooped away in my room writing Cannonball’s business plan. I was quietly trucking on, half hurt by the way my parents viewed me, half motivated to get away from the mundanities of school and actually do something of substance. My parents sat quietly, watching to see if I were to either stop it all like that, or continue dissolving away.
Two months later, school ends for the year. The cards were on the table for Cannonball, the result of much hard work and even more luck. We were ready to roll and here I am, a day before departing to NYC, having to explain to my parents why I scored a D in a classes. That it wasn’t from a lack of effort, but because of a desire to risk an exam for funding opportunities (remember how I had to fly to New York to interview on a Wednesday during a very crucial exam?). I went back to my room where, every day, my parents would come in yelling and screaming and demanding and crying and asking why I’m disregarding their plea for academic excellence. And every day, I would sit in the room in silence.
After being delayed by a week, I finally boarded that Jet Blue flight in early June. There I was, half-sideways in the isle of the plane, barely able to focus on the upcoming moments ahead of me. Despite the jokes booming from the couple sitting next to me, the only thought on my mind was of the pitri dish of emotion between my parents and me, the one that was quickly growing out of control given the right amount of heat and pressure. The minute that I arrived in New York City, I felt alive and real and true as a co-founder; a reality that snugly complemented how dead, fake and false I felt as my parents’ son.
The rest of this story beginning in early July is fuzzy for me. It could be because of the lack of sleep that I experienced at the time. It could be because of our complete focus on Cannonball and our post-July 1st deliverables. However, it’s most likely because I was suddenly drowning in confusion the minute my parents phone calls began ringing in late June.
At first, the phone calls were few and far between. But my family’s intensity paralleled Cannonball’s intense evolution. In late June, they quickly realized that Cannonball Projects, Inc. was not a small project that I was working on, but instead saw a full-fledged operation that needed me in the office instead of at summer courses as they demanded. They saw a machine with its own breath and heartbeat, an entity that represented creativity and intellectual contribution far beyond any of our expectations. They were seeing their boy move away from school and away from them, as my quest for creation was captivating me in ways they knew that school could not. My mom and dad feared that I would never return back to Notre Dame, back to college classes, or even back to home.
I’m struggling to describe what I felt. It’s still absolutely, goddamn brutal to recount in my mind what the days were like for me in late June and early July. I was helping lead a group of people move forward and faster, needing to stand tall and tolerate the blows expected from launching a start-up. All the while, I had to stand tall and listen to reasons why I was failing my family, failing their expectations, and failing myself. My mom and dad were filled with anger and complete confusion as to what the future of their only son would be. It became a daily routine to wake up to the demands of the startup, only to close the evening with phone calls and drowning thoughts. I was pulled between two vicious, opposite directions, one just as potent and palpable as the other.
My parents would burn their words into my head every single day. And, the beauty behind it all was that my choices were so clear: leave the company, or leave the family. That’s all it was.
Three constant, timeless weeks later, I simply could not take it anymore. I couldn’t put up with the emotional drain. Just like that, I found myself standing at my dorm room on my phone with my father. “I can’t do it anymore. I’ll stop this and go to school. I’ll do whatever you want. This just needs to end.” I couldn’t perform at the ‘Marc Anthony Energy’ that I’m known for, and I couldn’t put up with the emotion drain that dominated 6 of my 18 waking hours. There I was, words echoing inside my mind, hunched in the dark corner of our room reeling with defeat. Just steps away from me, Ryan and our new friend Caitlin were watching a movie, drinking Four Lokos and scooping out ice cream. Films struggle to capture the kind of imagery that I saw before me: In front of me was a lighted expanse, filled with happiness and carefree success; a reality that cuttingly juxtaposed the dark shadows of the hallway that I had sunk into, a hallway filled with sadness and impassioned failure. These two worlds didn’t make any sense together, but in one moment, they instantly became mine.
Just like that, I was leaving Cannonball. Beginning a second after my phone call ended, the rest of that week felt strange and bizarre to me, most likely because of how ordinary it felt at the time. I remember that I was very mechanical and strategic in behavior, absent of any overwhelming response or even emotion for that matter. It was like all of this was normal, like I had unconsciously trained myself to be calculated and machinelike during these exact moments, like this was just part of my plan. Ryan, Chris and I sat down and went through our next moves and outlined failsafe strategies. The team understood that I was leaving or doing something. To me, I convinced myself that this was a three week hiatus to take a course in web design, per my parents’ demands, and that the only thing different was my inability to man the phones. We couldn’t grasp the gravity of this situation, that I was stepping down and removing myself from every single moment and contribution that I’ve made for half a year up to this point.
At the beginning of the week, I was a vibrant, full-time voice for a company that I helped to create from the ground up. At the end of the week, I was on a plane ride en route to the Midwest, a 180-degree plot twist that I still can’t really understand. We spent our last Friday night together eating an incredible meal, drinking fantastic liquors, and enjoying the company of each other for one last time as a cohesive group. For the first time in Cannonball’s early history, we held a celebration of sorts. Cannonball’s CEO was stepping down, and we were celebrating.
From this point forward, my behavior was absent of premeditation or purpose. I remember sitting in my ND dorm room a day before I began summer courses and just a day ago from being in New York, staring blankly at a desk arranged almost indistinguishably from the one I called home on the 12th floor of 1501 Broadway. I remember aimlessly wandering around Notre Dame’s outskirts, finding myself leaning against a dumpster, gripping my cell phone, validating my previous messages to my investor, and confirming my strangely-immediate presence at ND. I remember listening quietly on the phone to the exact steps in which our financier and our employees were to sever me from the company, in order to make sure that no more damage would be done. I remember sitting in a computer lab and reading an email, outlining every single Cannonball document and file that I created from which I was removed access. I remember sitting in a courtyard, playing the logic in my mind, agreeing to give up every single share that I owned in order to restore confidence to everyone involved, and to use as compensation for my unknown replacements. I remember being on the phone with my parents, listening to them outline exactly how I’d be removed from the family in every single way, if I were to file Notre Dame’s leave of absence papers neatly stacked on my dorm room desk, clear my personal accounts, and fly out to Manhattan. I remember sitting in front of my computer with a word document open, pausing for a terrifying period in time, having to choose which one of the simple words “for” or “from” will appear in the sentence “I’m officially leaving ___ Cannonball.”
The choice I made was not easy, and each choice I was given would independently have a colossal, spiraling effect on a minimum of half a dozen people.
But, then again, that’s why I chose to be a big boy and launch a company in the first place.
This is the story of someone who becomes so engrossed in a dream, that he almost loses everything else. To look at that sentence right now, the word “almost” burns brightly in front of me with big, bold lettering.
I write to you here from Notre Dame, Indiana, three weeks into my senior year. I write to you now, roughly a month and a half after I gave away an idea to some of the most competent individuals that I’ve ever met. I write to you, smiling, albeit exhausted from retelling all of these moments, and glad that I’ve made the choices that I made. Companies come and go, but no matter how fantastic a vision may be, my family is the most absolute thing that I know.
Back in that computer lab with the word document opened, it was just so damn clear. I wrote a resignation letter to the same team that I helped build, explaining my choices and giving them unadulterated transparency – the same transparency I extend to you right now. Just like that, I went to Southwest.com and changed my arrival destination to read RSW instead of JFK, and what would have been a business trip after summer classes turned into a surprise flight home to my family. I spent the rest of the summer with my mom, dad, and sister, and we shared some of my most meaningful family memories to this day.
Looking back at how it all went down: I don’t believe that my parents were just in responding impulsively, battering me with phone calls, throwing me on a plane, and effectively negating any possibility for a smooth exit strategy or closure.
But, I am ultimately thankful for what my parents did. It could have easily been handled better on both sides; there’s no question about it. But the bottom line is that my family is growing older, a graduation and a career is just a year away from me, and the fleeting moments of our lives are momentary. Sometimes, instead of reinventing the diving board to make it better, you need to just jump right in.
No matter what problems you’ll ever face, each and every one of them stems from very basic needs: The need to spend time with a son. The need to be recognized by parents. The need to communicate openly and honestly. The need to be different and create.
I made a promise to my parents, and I have yet to break it. And after I graduate on time, there will be countless opportunities to build billion dollar companies, raise investment funds, run around in Times Square, and do appropriately-phrased “big boy things.” But for right now, I think I’ll be okay settling for simple texts between my mom and dad. Even if they can’t figure out how to use Cannonball on their phones.
Jump right in.
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