Saturday, September 24, 2016

Some of My Niceness Role Models

Yesterday my friend Grzegorz asked me if I knew how to prevent promising students from becoming "brilliant jerks," and I opened up this question to the Internet because I didn't know. One theme in the responses is to set a good example, demonstrate that you value niceness, and make visible examples of people who are both brilliant and nice. This made me realize that niceness is high on my list of qualities I appreciate in people, and that I keep in mind a growing list of "niceness role models" who remind me to be not-a-jerk in different ways. Here is a subset of those people.
  • Margo Seltzer, my undergraduate academic advisor at Harvard. Despite being so busy, famous, important, etc., Margo always made time for us. She took meetings with me whenever I asked, responded to my long angsty emails with similarly long emails of advice, and took me to lunch every now and then to make sure I was doing all right. When our robotics team was in the RoboCup World Cup in Germany, she came to Germany to cheer us on (though it probably didn't hurt that the real World Cup was there at the same time) and even brought me German gummy bears, because she knew of my love for candy and bears. And this was not because I was particularly special--other students I've talked to are in awe of how much time and space she makes for us. My friend Diana once said that if Margo is not too busy and important for us, then who are we to ever think we are too busy or important for anybody else.
  • Armando Solar-Lezama, my PhD advisor at MIT. As a PhD student I was something like a research cat, always bringing in random ideas and visitors I had "hunted" into Armando's office to see how he might engage with them. Throughout my PhD Armando was incredibly generous with his time and attention, always engaging with whatever--or whomever--I brought, and never telling me that I had wasted his time, or to stop. Whenever I'm inclined not to listen to an idea or person, I think of how patiently Armando listened to us--and with genuine curiosity.
  • Martin Rinard, my other thesis committee member at MIT. Martin has a reputation in our field for being loud, controversial, and not necessarily the warmest person on the planet, but he also has a reputation among the PhD students for being an incredibly supportive advisor and mentor. Martin goes above and beyond to train students in creative ways. He once made one of his international students practice his speaking skills by "re-lecturing" every one of his morning lectures in the evening for the class he was teaching one semester. Throughout my PhD, Martin felt I needed to learn to fight better, so he put me in situations of needing to defend myself whenever possible (most publicly throughout my entire thesis defense). Whenever I'm inclined not to care about other people's growth, I think about how generous Martin was with his time and advice.
  • Max Krohn, who co-founded Spark Notes, OKCupid, and Keybase. Max did his undergrad at Harvard and his PhD at MIT and is now worth so much money that when I hosted him to speak at MIT I had to meet several times with the handler MIT assigned him because they had identified as a potentially high-impact donor. While many people of Max's profile are too important to be nice to anybody, Max is incredibly nice, and also generous with his time and attention. I had first met Max when my friend (and co-founder of a company that never ended up existing) reached out to Max for advice, and Max has continued to impress me with how unassuming he is, how much he listens, and how much he genuinely tries to be helpful. My interactions with Max reinforce the lesson that I should not ever view myself as too successful to be nice, and to pay it forward when it comes to supporting younger people.
  • My friend Alison Hill. Alison is a brilliant and very successful HIV researcher who, at a fairly early point in her career, received a prestigious Gates Foundation grant to run her own lab. How I've always known her, though, is as the friend I could always count on to say "yes" to fun things, and to be there to talk if I needed it. Most recently, Alison spent over 30 hours designing, choreographing, and organizing the rehearsals for a dance-skit for our friend Adeeti's wedding. Whenever I think I am too busy for my friends (which happens all the time), I think about what Alison would do.
  • Dominic Mazzoni, someone I worked with when I interned at Google in 2007. He was not my mentor, but I interacted with him quite a bit because I used the (very useful and well-engineered) machine learning tools he was developing. I was so impressed with how nice he was in all of his emails and code reviews: he would thank the sender for the correspondence, be complimentary about legitimately good things, and convey what seemed like genuine joy about the interaction. I especially appreciated that he took my questions seriously, even though I was some random intern--and not even his intern. Interacting with Dominic reminded me of how nice it can be when someone tries to make interactions pleasant, and whenever I remember to do so (which is not often enough), I try to be more like him.
  • Einstein. Every time I feel like I am too busy to engage in correspondence to a stranger, I think about Einstein's letter to a young girl interested in science, and how if Einstein wasn't too busy and important changing the world to respond to people, then I shouldn't be either.
I feel grateful that I know so many people who are simultaneously so brilliant and so nice! (And there are so many more nice, brilliant people in my life!) Obviously I would die if I tried to be as nice all of these people combined (and most of the time I forget to try to be nice at all), but it's very useful to have people like these in mind to remind myself to be nicer. And I think that for all communities I'm in, it would improve overall morale to give more credit for niceness and not just brilliance.


kaletzkya said...

It is possible to be jerk and yet be nice. I'm one.

All it takes is cycling through checklist of jerk behaviours at about 0.017Hz and counteracting such if detected. The difficult is preventing higher-priority interrupts.

reece said...

nice post!

I try to make it a point to never make anyone feel stupid or inferior when they talk to me. That the people that feel the need to be jerks are the most insecure, so I mostly feel sorry for them.

The letter that Einstein wrote to the little girl reminded me of the story of the first meeting between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson - both also very nice.

Thanks for sharing.