Marissa Mayer, the V.P. of Search Product and User Experience at Google made an interesting point during the last ten minutes of her interview on the Charlie Rose show. (link)
Charlie Rose: Why did you choose computer science at the beginning?
Marissa Mayer: I grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor. And I started off as a biochem double major at Stanford. And at the end of my freshman year, I realized I loved chemistry, was very good at it, but it’s a lot of memorization, right? It’s a lot of memorize this chemical equation. And when I went home, I realized that all my friends who were at other schools studying biology and chemistry were learning the exact same material. In the exact same way. And I thought, well what could I do that would be unique to Stanford, that Stanford does really well and also would teach me not just facts but how to think better, how to be a better critical thinker, how to be a better problem solver. And that’s when computer science came in because in computer science, they have one of the best programs in the country, and you get to working on a new problem every day. So it’s not so of what you know or what you’ve memorized, but it’s more how do you think about problems.
Marissa’s comment regarding wanting to challenge her thoughts struck a nerve with me and made me realize that most of my post-secondary education has been the type that encourages rigorous and critical thinking.
In undergrad, I studied economics – what we do with what we have. That simple summary leaves open many variables and a lot to think about. Beyond understanding the language necessary to be fluent in any field, the study of economics provides a student with a unique method of viewing each and every daily interaction. One of the basic assumptions is that we are rational beings. Moving from that assumption to the next, and trying to solve a problem takes on a step-by-step process. A chain is setup as the student realizes that shifting one variable may have an effect on many others. Once he’s thought long enough like this, it becomes difficult to make decisions because he realizes that everything can be rationalized. It’s just that some outcomes are better than others.
I studied creative writing as well, which was, and still is, to this day, the most challenging task I’ll ever undertake. Nothing is more intimidating than a blank page because it is completely on the writer to fill it. He can draw from his life, the news, stories friends tell, or nothing at all. But when it comes down to it, making something up for others to read is an incredibly frightening thing to do. It’s a narcissistic and selfish thing to do. To think that what he has to say is worth someone else’s time. Yet, writing is the single most freeing thing I do on any given day because it challenges and renews me. It is a way to order my thoughts, my perception of the world, and my understanding of my relationships.
And perhaps now, more than ever, critical thinking is a matter of my daily routine. The appeal of a law degree upon applying to law school was that the degree would have a wide application – law, business, entrepreneurship, teaching, etc. What I underestimated was what exactly would compose that degree. Now that I’m nearly finished with law school, I’ve come to group the value of my expected degree as follows. Primarily, I have learned a critical and logical method of thinking. This is a vague and fleeting tool, but significant nonetheless. Ancillary to the method of thinking is the day to day knowledge and experience – basically, how to find what I’m looking for – that comes with having attended law school for three years. While there is value in each of these things, only from critical thinking do I derive any personal satisfaction.
It’s only now, as I review my education, that I realize why I have pursued my chosen fields of study. Each one has challenged my thinking and opened my eyes to new things. Economics, writing and law have each allowed me to better make sense of the world around me. Not only can I attempt to answer life’s questions, but I can give answers with support and argue for my position. I can understand where others are coming from and empathize with their viewpoint. I can challenge them and be challenged, knowing full well that there may not be a definite answer.