A guide for ambitious high schoolers

Being the best in your class is cool and all but are you hungry for more? This is a list of advice, opportunities, resources, competitions, and programs that I wish I had at the beginning of my high school career. It will be updated as I discover more 😁

Life advice:
Big Competitions:
Grants/Funding:
Summer Programs:
Other:
Last updated on March 24th 2020

Economics as Mental Models

Economics isn’t just about the economy- it’s universal. It’s funny to think that if an alien race were to get to our level of technology, it’s highly likely they would deduce the same principles of economics. Economics is everywhere, including in the way we think.

After picking up Macro and Microeconomics in preparation for my Advanced Placement Exams, I began implementing the concepts I’ve learned as mental models without knowing it.

When we grow up, we build internal systems called mental models to help us understand the world. These models shape how we reason, rationalize decisions and view opportunities.

When we are young, the mental models we use are defined from the limited experiences of how the world functions. Our puny brain cannot comprehend what happens and uses models to simplify the data points we perceive.

As we grow older, we adapt to the world, begin to adopt newer, more accurate models. If you never studied mental models or questioned the way you thought, this is a great opportunity to do so. Try and understand why you think the way you do, and consider the following models from economics.

These are fundamental concepts in Economics that I use on a daily basis.

1. Opportunity Costs

Doing one thing means not being able to do another. We live in a world of trade-offs, and the concept of opportunity cost rules all.

It is easy to think of opportunities in the scope of only the value you gain. For example, say you were considering interning at McDonald’s over the summer. Sure you are earning $15 an hour which is one aspect to consider but to better assess the opportunity, you need to consider the sacrifices you will make for the best alternative option.

Continuing with the example, say you could intern at McDonald’s, work at Google, or volunteer as a soccer coach. By pursuing McDonald’s, you are losing out on the best option, Google, which pays $30 an hour plus gives you good work experience. Despite earning $15 an hour, by pursuing this option, you are losing out on $30+ an hour which is the opportunity cost.

Lots of time, people do or continue to do something because are blinded by the fact that they are gaining value from it. They fail to consider that they could be gaining a lot more by doing something else. Considering the opportunity costs of each decision and assigning a quantitative value to each (like money or growth) is key to making good evaluations.

2. Comparative Advantage + Specialization

You don’t send a baker to fight while making the soldiers cook- this is inefficient. A baker may bake 10 loaves of bread per hour but die instantly on the battlefield. A soldier could thrive on the battlefield but fail to even start the oven. Bakers have a comparative advantage in making bread than soldiers. Soldiers have a comparative advantage in kicking ass than bakers.

You are good at some things and bad at others- this is the same for your peers. If you can design your teams to have specialized roles that reflect their strengths, you can reach the maximum potential efficiency.

Specialization also applies to the way you organize your time and tasks. If you work on certain tasks better at certain times or environments, do that. Take advantage of efficiencies.

3. Marginal Utility

The marginal utility allows us to understand the value gained from continuing to pursue a decision, and in most practical areas of life, that utility diminishes at some point. In some cases, continuing to do something decreases marginal utility until it becomes negative. For instance, giving water to a thirsty man has diminishing marginal utility with each additional unit, and can eventually kill him with enough water.

The law of diminishing return states that as you continue to do something, the value you gain from it decreases. The core principle I follow is that you continue to do something until the marginal utility is negative or lower than the opportunity cost (that's if I am optimizing for the best short term results, something I am trying to stay away from).

4. Supply and Demand

Everywhere in the world, you can find that there is a limited supply of desired goods and competition to obtain those goods. Supply and Demand naturally gravitate to the equilibrium, a point where both are equal.

Supply and Demand state that the scarcer something is, the more valuable it is. Picture a Toyota Corolla and a Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. The rarity of the Lambo is a huge contributor to the insane price difference. If everyone had a Lambo would they be valued as much as they are today?

This is why you should learn to do things that other people can’t or build skills/combinations of skills that few others have. Doing so increases your overall value. Look at Elon Musk. He is a polymath with a world-class skillset. Few to no other people match him, making Elon irreplaceable and highly sought after. Do shit that's hard.

5. Production Possibilities Frontier + Scarcity

You have a scarce amount of brain juice and muscle sauce to do the millions of things you want to do. Production Possibilities Frontier allows you to visualize all the possible ways you can allocate your time, effort, and resources on the things you want to do. Knowing this, you can better find the best allocation of your time to match your desired output.

This article will be iterated upon as time goes by. Feel free to shoot me some feedback at sigil.w3n@gmail.com - I don't bite :)
Posted on March 22nd 2020

High Standards

Setting high standards is key to success across all domains within your life.

If you look at the best (insert dream job here) in the world, their standards are likely 10X higher than yours in each of their respective domains.

But It was not always like this. At one point, they had standards below yours. At one point, Shakespeare wrote at the level of my English Class Slam Poem. At one point, Michael Jordan played basketball worse than you do.

By continually pushing their bar for performance, they were able to reach world-class standards. You can’t reach the best if you don’t develop high standards for your performance, the people you work with, the environment you achieve in, the knowledge you have, etc.

A lot of times, people are limited by the standards within their environment. If you are in school, your definition of high standards is what get’s you an A+. If you are working, your definition is becoming your boss's ideal employee. However, the problem with standards influenced by your environment is that once you reach it, think you have reached the best you can. It’s common to become content with your work after reaching what you think is “100%”, preventing you from reaching your full potential. This sucks if you don’t realize that the standards in your environment suck ass.

How can you become an award-winning writer if you continue to compare yourself to the best in your English class? How can you be a software engineer at google if you go to Seneca community college? Don’t be limited to your environment. It’s likely the standards are really low. You just don’t know it yet until you actively search for higher standards. If you want to reach world-class performance, work with the top people in the best environments, you need to be able to match their standards, surpassing your current idea of good performance.

I think humans have to make mistakes to learn. It's really difficult to learn without making a mistake and connecting emotionally with the negative outcome. Also, I'd rather just have thousands of awesome stories and terrible stories than 100 good stories. At the end of the day, we're going to die. Consciousness is going to be lost. Everything will decay. May as well try to do something risky.

Now how do you reach high standards?

To reach high standards, you need to know what high standards are.

The internet allows us to easily find information- this includes the best people in whatever you are trying to do. Look at their performance and practice raising your bar towards that level. You can increase the process of reaching high standards by surrounding yourself with people who produce high-quality work. This can be done physically or through the internet.

Don’t be limited to who you already know. It’s likely that your friends who you think are “super good at ____”, aren’t in the eyes of others. Find communities of like-minded people. This may be school clubs, students at your local university, different organizations working in your passion, etc. Find online communities of like-minded people; Reddit and Facebook groups are good to start. Find people you aspire to be like and connect with them through email, twitter or whatever you use. You will be surprised just how easy it is to friend people online.

The problem with setting high standards

You can’t be too ambitious with setting standards for yourself as it can hinder your growth. Reaching high standards is a continuous movement, not a drastic one. Expecting unrealistic high results too fast will discourage progress if you are unable to reach it. This happened to me.

The issue I faced was that my standards for being able to grasp new concepts were very high as within school, I could understand everything with minimal effort. When I began reading AI Research papers and learning technical concepts, I expected to understand the concepts quickly the same way I do with everything from school. It’s pretty clear that an AI paper a Ph.D. wrote should not be easy to grasp by a high school rookie. When I wasn’t able to understand that paper the way I expected it, it was infuriating and discouraging. This led to me quitting the pursuit of getting technical in AI- because I was too ambitious with results. If I paced myself and was realistic with my approach, I could have gradually reached the level I sought out for and progressed more in my work.

This may be the reason why you struggle to instill your new workout routine or start that business. You expect good results fast which is unrealistic.

Achieving high performance is a gradual process. Just because you know it does not mean you are there yet. Make sure to set out the time and discomfort to reach it.

A lot of people never realize this throughout their entire lives. You can’t be lazy when it comes to achieving high standards.

I am going to try again at becoming legit in AI- actually not just AI but all domains. I’ve been optimizing too much for short term results giving me the false sensation that I am progressing a lot. I am reassessing my approach to growth towards reaching high standards- becoming legit. This blog will document that progress.
Posted on March 21st 2020

Antifragility

You likely have come across many quotes regarding Success and Failure that all share the same fundamental idea. Whether it is…

Failure is the mother to Success

or...

The difference between success and failure is one more time

These are life-changing ideas that are simple for everyone to grasp. It makes a lot of sense that if one keeps pursuing a goal, each further pursuit of such goal increases their chances to achieve success.

Unfortunately, knowing about an idea is far from actually implementing the wisdom into your life. Oftentimes, people don’t understand or misinterpret how to approach achieving what they deem as success. One common thought after reading the quote is that success comes with perseverance- True, not giving up is apart of the equation, but success more so relies on something just as simple to grasp: your mindset.

The Fixed Mindset

This might sound familiar to you: You go headfirst into your next ambitious project super motivated to make progress. While working, excitement fills you as you remind yourself just how great this project is going to be. But what happens once you encounter a problem? How do you react once it seems like your pursuit of success is going to fail? Most people are inclined to give up in such a situation, but certain people are able to overcome and progress more from encountering mistakes.

Why? Let’s look back to the times you were easiest to influence. The good old days.

Within school, we are assessed on our performance to not make mistakes. Often times, this builds up this idea that smart kids don’t make mistakes and thus mistakes are bad. Having gone through 10 years of grade school at 5 different institutions so far, I can verify that this is, in fact, the culture many schools foster. Students grow up fearing mistakes and viewing them as a sign of failure, cultivating what we call a fixed mindset.

This passage from Mindset, New Psychology for Success by Carol S. Dweck outlines the fixed mindset very well:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled.

Essentially, in a fixed mindset environment, we believe that people are born with the talent that they have and it does not change throughout one's life. This, however, leads to the formation of excuses and a culture that promotes meeting requirements over actual growth.

In school, individuals who consistently perform well continue to avoid failure at all costs to try their best to maintain the feeling of being smart- after all, being perfect leads to success, right? Meanwhile, those that underperform view themselves as inadequate and accept the fact that others are innately “smarter” or “skilled” than themselves and don’t challenge it, not realizing that nothing is innate, and everyone has the power to change themselves. Many grow up striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs. However, the truth is… failure is inevitable, but it is definitely not a bad thing, quite the opposite.

To people who think with a fixed mindset, encountering failure demotivates them. For each new pursuit towards success, initially, your ambition brings an abundance of willpower. Powering through each instance of failure with willpower is incredibly hard and not sustainable. Through with every instance of failure, your motivation, alongside with willpower, drains, which is not sustainable for your limited willpower.

A common misconception is that willpower is a skill that is innate to those who have it. Thinking like this leads to excuses for not being born with willpower. Willpower is not a skill, it is a muscle. Like a muscle, our willpower can only handle a limited amount of mind-taxing tasks before we run out, but over time, it can recover. With proper training, we can exercise our willpower muscle to build up the total capacity of mind taxing tasks we can handle. If someone with a fixed mindset tries to lift up too much or faces failure, because of how we have been conditioned towards failure, our willpower muscles get injured, hindering our ability to take on willpower intensive tasks.

After failing, having a fixed mindset leads to demotivation which can affect other aspects of your life. This happened to me- my bad performance in school made me feel horrible and doubt the feasibility of achieving my goals at a top tier university. It impacted my relationships, health, mental health, and even further performances. Just from a single instance of failure, it took over a month to recover and get back on the ball. Just from a single instance of failure, I let it degrade my life for weeks. Unfortunately, for the billions of people with fixed mindsets, this is their way of coping with failure.

But It didn’t have to be this way.

Growth mindset

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. Dweck perfectly explains and compares it to the fixed mindset in the following passages:

A “growth mindset,” thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities…

Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience… it creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval.

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Not only are people with this mindset not discouraged by failure, but they don’t actually see themselves as failing in those situations — they see themselves as learning. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential. In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

Wow… this is a lot to process.

The first time I came across this idea, I went through a paradigm shift- a complete change in perspective of my life and the world. But similar to any wisdom, the ideas are simple to understand but to actually go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?

Once again, let’s look back to the times you were easiest to influence. The good old days. This time, we break down how we can cultivate a growth mindset.

Antifragility, the key to a maximizing Growth

Those with fixed mindsets are damaged when encountering failure. Those with growth mindsets grow when encountering failure. Fixed mindsets stem from environments where failure is “bad”, making us fragile against failure. Growth mindsets stem from environments that promote failure, making us “anti-fragile” against failure.

Over the last 4 months, I have been an innovator at The Knowledge Society , the world’s leading innovation program and Human Accelerator. I consider myself ambitious for a 16-year-old high school student and in the past, I have been involved with a lot of competitive programs ranging from LaunchX and DECA to Junior Achievement and TOPS. But there is nothing quite similar to TKS.

Why?

Rarely are there environments designed for you to fail openly and receive tough feedback. Oftentimes we spend our efforts avoiding failure at all costs as we are assessed on our ability to not fail. Yet this inhibits growth, creates insecurities, and an environment where people can’t show vulnerability. This makes us fragile to criticism and fosters fixed mindsets.

Within TKS, it is quite the opposite. It is an environment that builds antifragility, the opposite of fragility. We are heavily encouraged to fail, and get roasted (more like receiving critical feedback) by our Directors Navid and Nadeem, as well as our peers. Initially, we all come in with fixed mindsets developed from our limited life experiences and take brutal feedback personally- “oh Navid hates me because he is criticizing my perfect public speaking that won be 1st place at DECA ICDC.” But imagine, it’s not just you failing, but everyone within the room. From the start of the program, the environment is set to embrace failure- an Olympic level training ground for the next Elon Musks is a good way to put it.

Giving honest feedback with no sugar coating is incredibly underrated in today’s world as people are too fragile and we fear to hurt other people's emotions over honest beneficial critique as we want to be “nice”. Within TKS, many of my peers CRAVE feedback and love to fail- after trying their best of course.

Failure is not to be feared. It is from failure that most growth comes. -Dee Hock

Think about Olympic athletes like Runner Usain Bolt or Gymnast Simone Biles. Think about the smartest people we love to look up to like Elon(gated) Musk(rat) and Genius Albert Einstein. We often are led to believe that these so-called “prodigies” are born geniuses or athletes, yet this is simply an excuse for those with fixed mindsets. It’s easy believing that success is innate to one, as you have an easy excuse as to why you can’t reach their level and shouldn’t bother trying.

Yet at one point in time, we were all at a similar stage. What you don’t see about these “prodigies” are the amounts of times Elon failed, Simone Biles bellyflopped, SpaceX’s rockets blew up, or the fact that Albert Einstein was rejected by academia. Because they exhibited growth mindsets, they were able to overcome their failures and use it as vital learning points within their lives to reach the legacy that they have built today.

Essentially, by embracing failure and feedback, the students (we call them innovators) within the program shift from fixed mindsets towards growth mindsets. Building antifragility is key to a growth mindset. And that starts with setting an environment that promotes failure. Not everyone has access to Olympic level training grounds like TKS with ideal growth environments.

If you are in school, ask your teacher’s afterward how you can 10X your current work- seek feedback from failure. At work, make it clear to your colleagues that you want un-sugarcoated criticism and won't take it personally — this sets the environment right. What I am currently striving to master is the ability to show vulnerability with others while being able to convey that I can take any feedback.

Another component of building growth mindsets is to internalize perceived risk vs. actual risk. Often times, we view doing something with the potential of failing as having too much risk involved, fabricating fear- we have a tendency to do this. Yet once you begin rationalizing the situation, you understand that the actual risk is significantly less than the perceived risk.

Let’s look at an example. Say you are a startup founder and you see Daniel Gross walking down the street. You likely start imagining a bunch of different situations that play out- you stumble in your elevator pitch, he thinks you are dumb, you fail. But if you really think about it, what do you have to lose? The actual risk is you pitch yourself, he walks away and you don’t gain lose anything. I’m sure this is relatable. Meanwhile, the potential benefit of the situation is that Daniel takes interest in your startup, invites you to a meeting, and becomes an investor.

We often let our emotions cloud our judgment of situations, making us FEAR “failure”. But in many cases, the potential benefit significantly outweighs the risk yet we overestimate the risk involved. Fixed mindset’s fear failure, and with that comes overthinking the risk involved- making you leave potential life-changing opportunities.

...

Growing up, I've been very fragile, afraid of failure, and had a fixed mindset. I am set out to change that. If you are in a similar situation, we can both strive towards improving ourselves. You can keep up with my growth through this blog or by subscibing to my monthly newsletter. This is where I document my progress towards becoming legit :)
Posted on Feb 9th 2020