Hobby: Critical Thinking

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More than a month ago, I created a Facebook page called “Dinge, die ein Politikstudent nicht sagt” (>3 500 fans), following the example of its successful English Version “Things Politics students don’t say” (>6 000 fans).

Among the most successful posts have been following posts:

The money is in studying Politics, you end up poor if you do Economics.

I have finally found a simple definition of politics that everyone can agree on!

or my favourite

My parents were so happy when I studied this instead of law.

As it is with all things, they’re funniest when they’re true. To anyone who has just finished his A-Levels, look for these pages on Facebook, relevant to your desired program. They will tell you more about your next three years in college studying – let’s say – politics than any student counselor.

When I first started studying Politics back in 2009, Facebook was not as popular in Germany as it is today. As there was nobody to truly tell me how it would be like to study what I had always had an interest in, I was left with my intuition, people’s opinions and experiences about studying Politics and my parents’ disapproval.

I dived in naively, not knowing the relatively unstable job market for political scientists-to-be. While it is true that most political scientists find Jobs within federal governments, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, colleges and universities, political lobbying groups, and labor organizations. Now, three years later, I cannot stress enough that getting a job is highly dependent on one’s own efforts and luck to become a good job candidate.

I now understood why my parents were not particularly keen on seeing me sign up for three, and most likely, five years of studying Political Science.

But 2011 changed everything.

In 2011 within just a few months, “pretty stable” regimes collapsed, Japan’s nuclear catastrophe irreversibly changed Germany’s energy policy and Denmark returned to its infamous border controls. Nothing seemed safe, everything was unpredictable. Questions were asked, answers were needed. The more complex the news, the more necessary became those who could explain them: political scientists turned into overnight celebrities. What they were taught are what they can do best: organize chaos, explain mysteries, foresee hindrance. Explain the world.

Luckily, my parents now, too, understand.

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Poison Penmanship and Politics: Twitter and The Armchair Activist

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The ever growing number of online freedom fighters has been an issue since the advent of the notorious Kony campaign by Invisible Children. At first impression, you must be wondering why it would even be an issue. Why would the increase in conscious citizens using Twitter to tackle real world issues be an issue? Romance.

Freedom fighting has often been romanticised as something heroic and courageous, filled with grit and bloodshed, something noble. The camaraderie, the union of men and women bound by oppression and fighting for a single ideal, freedom. Now this may be a cinematic description of what the Syrian rebels or PKK soldiers may be doing but nonetheless it paints a picture that does not exist. Now I do not doubt nor am I talking ill of those around the world in these political positions – however the fusion of the Internet and the romance of anti-establishment has created a new battleground for these online Guevara-influenced guerillas.

Social media was at the forefront of the Arab Spring and the ones I speak of bear no resemblance to them. I am talking about those who tweet excerpts of The 48 Laws of Power, nationalistic views and the odd picture of Karl Marx or Fidel Castro smoking a cigar with an abstract comment like “the ashes fall like my comrades in battle”. For the readers who get the impression I am a right wing nut with a disdain for anything red or left – no, I am quite the opposite. I was born and bred in London to Kurdish refugee parents. I’ve been submerged in politics, completely out of my control, since I can remember. Now rather than parade what I believe in and what I have learnt, the point I am making is that these armchair activists take themselves too seriously and honestly believe they are waging a necessary war via the Internet.

One click of a hashtag on Twitter and you are sent into a warzone of regurgitated facts and angry polemicists seemingly trying to build a nation with 140 characters. The romance of it attracts the superficial ones. Some do like being oppressed, most may not know it but they are driven by it, they like fighting for a cause and without it, feel redundant. So what do they do? They fight fire with fire. An endless war that they initially tried to end by taking up arms online and as a result they unknowingly become a victim of their own circumstance. The oppressed and oppressors are no different in this case, just two sides of the same coin. For people who are supposed to believe in the welfare of mankind and basic human rights, they are very quick to incite violence on their oppressors or those who disagree with them.

Now I get the same response over and over: “They’re raising awareness, it counts for something”. Yes it does but where does awareness end and action begin? The internet is a great tool and a great tool must be utilised, it is not intended to just add ease. It is easy to tweet a 140 character war cry from your armchair. However, I am not suggesting you get the next flight to Tibet and spearhead an independence movement. My intention is for you to be critical of superficial tendencies that get in the way of something so integral as peace and safety for your neighbour.

There is an undeniable romantic appeal towards freedom fighters and anti-establishment. As a result, people become so concerned with the supposed flashy and glamourous life of a guerilla. They do not act like thinkers and builders on Twitter. They act like the very same soldiers they “fight” against. Thus the internet is another battlefield and everyone is equipped with weapons ranging from Twitter to Facebook. People need to understand that the revolution will not be Youtube-d. Actually, it already has.

Why You Should Listen To Stupid Ideas

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There is a man that haunted, crippled and talked me down for years and his name is Earl Keith Miller. He is a successful cognitive neuroscientist who studied at Princeton University and taught at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). As a scientist, his work comprises of a lot of research. As a scientist, he serves humanity in the most honorable way: he collects information, analyses it and tells us what to do, not to do and what is wrong and right in a lot of cases.

In 2009, four years ago, I was in my first undergraduate semester – a freshman eager to do everything right from the beginning until the very end. 2009 was also the year when I read an article on the Ethiopian Review about him and his new, important findings.

This is where the drama begins.

Successes are more informative than failures”, Earl said, meaning: If you fail at something you probably know why. You got fired because you showed up late most of the time. Your spouse left because you showed up too many times at the wrong place, with the wrong person. You already know the reason you failed.

But “if you succeed, everything has gone right, so there’s a lot more information in successes than failures,” Miller continued, meaning: We learn more from success, not failure.

And this is where the climax begins.

Naturally I assumed I should study the successful if I wished to be successful. And I did. For years and years, and even until now, I read biographies of people who are held to be successful members of our society, in their own way, in their own niche – not telling me that most of them rarely talk about failures in their lives. Having founded a startup magazine myself, I regularly read about the successful startups that the Fortune magazine displays so heroically – not telling me that most startups don’t actually start up. And I studied night after night wanting to become like the average A – students – not knowing that there are a lot more reasons why I had not as many As as them than just my IQ. In short, because failure became invisible, the difference between failure and success became invisible, too.

In 2009, I firmly believed that there is an infinite number of ways to fail and only a few ways to succeed and in 2013, I must correct myself: there is an infinite number of ways to fail and an infinite number of ways to succeed.

But herein lies the difficulty: the hard part is pinning down the cause of success.

Most people just point at highly visible things, and make claims like

 “StartupX is successful because the founders worked extremely hard, the office culture was well-developed, and there were lots of team building activities.”

Or

StudentX gets a lot of A grades because he studies a lot.”

The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups and eager students that did all those same things, but failed. Perhaps it turns out that StartupX really succeeded because they had a sales guy with lots of good connections and et cetera. Or StudentX really had better grades because he studied with the right people, had the right routines and et cetera.

Causation is not relation, everybody knows that. But it is damn hard to figure out what and often the people themselves are biased and don’t really know why they have become successful. I would say a big percentage of tips you get are less useful than you might think, perhaps even harmful, but to figure out which one of them depends on your judgment.

In the words of one of my favorite journalists, David McRaney on his blog youarenotsosmart.com:

If you spend your life only learning from survivors, buying books about successful people and poring over the history of companies that shook the planet, your knowledge of the world will be strongly biased and enormously incomplete. As best I can tell, here is the trick: When looking for advice, you should look for what not to do, for what is missing, but don’t expect to find it among the quotes and biographical records of people whose signals rose above the noise. They may have no idea how or if they lucked up. What you can’t see, and what they can’t see, is that the successful tend to make it more probable that unlikely events will happen to them while trying to steer themselves into the positive side of randomness. They stick with it, remaining open to better opportunities that may require abandoning their current paths, and that’s something you can start doing right now without reading a single self-help proverb, maxim, or aphorism. Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.

Sites like Admitting Failure and events like FailFaireDC 2012 which have recently attempted to bring together stories of projects gone wrong, addressed the need to discuss failures. I will try to do that, too.