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Minerva Week 4: Behind the Curtain

September 29, 2014

When does the honeymoon end? When does an experience lose its dewy ‘newness’? After this week, I think it happens when you start to really, genuinely, live with it. You start to look a little deeper, you scratch at what you thought would be air and hit a wall. Or, you step down onto what you thought was a step and tumble down. It’s so easy to say that an experience has failed you, that it’s not nearly as transformative or well-formed as you expected. It’s so easy to say that it’s like getting to the Emerald City and then seeing the man behind the curtain. In the past few years, I’ve visited several of my Emerald Cities (be they real cities, programs, or even just people) and seen humanity instead of heroism. I’ve seen that the smoke and mirrors have behind them a real, talented and flawed person (or group of people). This used to make me sad, but I don’t want to see it that way any more. I think that another way of telling this story is to say that each Wizard of Oz could be any of us. If there are no heroes, we are all heroes. There’s nothing special about these people and places, except determination and a willingness to improve. Accepting the “real” version instead of mourning the loss of your ideal is needed to start growing. Focusing on what something could become rather than what it is not is an important distinction to make. Heroes, and hero-meeting were the themes of my week.

This week, the 4-class-action-packed Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to hit harder than it had before (they are definitely the mountain peak of our four-day cycle). I worked through a Study-Eat-Exercise-Prepare-Sleep method. When I felt aimless or anxious, I read chapters of a book profiling 50 American Social Entrepreneurs ($3 from a thrift store – boo yah!). They were from all walks of life, all over the country. Most weren’t classically heroic, though sometimes the authors tried to paint them as being so. They faced challenges throughout their personal and work lives. “What made them pull through?” I wondered. By the end of the week I had almost finished the book. The photo below is the view from the second floor of the gym, where I spent quite a bit of my time.


I ran a student session for one of our classes and relished the chance to take on a teaching-assistant role. I also found myself doing informal teaching of the Python programming language to a group of students working on their Formal Analysis coding assignment. I love using my dresser as a standing desk to take my classes. It makes being in front of a screen for most of the day seem more active. My roommate laughs (in a kind way!) when she sees me bouncing in front of my computer screen.

Thursday arrived and we dove into the weekend. Minerva arranged for us to have tickets at a Future of Food-themed event. We heard talks from food truck entrepreneurs, wine bloggers (and app-promoters), a woman who used the Maker movement to manufacture sous-vide equipment for the home kitchen (and bring those manufacturing jobs to SF), a man who neutered a goat (that was a side story, he built a food startup), and someone bent on making personal chefs the new hot thing for home parties. My favourite talk was a back-and-forth between a small-batch chocolate maker based in SF and the reigning chocolate connoisseur from France, especially because they brought samples for us to try. “Pure chocolate,” to them, is only made with cocoa beans and cane sugar (no other additives), and different beans have completely different flavour profiles. I tried one that was citrusy, another that was like honey, and a third that seemed more muted.

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Then, we walked to Mission and 16th street to witness the 9th anniversary performance of a weekly open mic poetry/comedy/music night. Held in a handdrawn chalk circle right by the entrance to a subway station, it’s an unconventional gathering of unconventional people. Poetry about Godzilla and smoking complements ukulele music and comedy about pooping in people’s backpacks. I watched baby mice scurrying around the garbage cans behind us and the haze of smoke rising from many puffers in the group. It was a side of San Francisco I hadn’t seen before.

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On Saturday, we went to Stanford to tour their famous design school (called the and explore their student activities fair. We were on a “Trojan Horse mission” to gain inspiration for our own plans of building Minerva’s culture and student life. The campus seemed like a pastoral mansion. Sprawling and full of mustard-yellow brick, it was not at all what I was expecting! The had a neat setup. I felt at home among the post-it notes. One in particular struck me: “This generation is entering higher education as the most structured one ever, but is leaving into the most ambiguous and uncertain world we’ve ever seen.” How might Minerva help make us at home in dynamic and uncertain environments?

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We had a rich discussion about what we want to build at Minerva (captured below – you can see more of my work at, and then it was time to take the hour-long train ride back. I walked the 40 minutes back to the residence with a few friends, enjoying the cool, clean air.

I feel like I am finally seeing Minerva as a reality more than an ideal. There are parts I didn’t expect and missing things I did expect, for worse and, importantly, for better.

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