“The Social Network”

“Smoking in the Boys’ Room” or What I learned from Mark Zuckerberg

Before moving to Toronto, I had the romantic notion that, after two decades of working in highly competitive East Coast Prep schools, where success was all too often and all too narrowly defined by the number of ivy bound seniors, I’d come to a land where wonderful, government supported universities were largely accessible, both academically and financially, to a great swath of students. In such a pleasant, less competitive, more egalitarian milieu, I assumed students would be less grade-conscious, less status-oriented, especially about university placement, and freer to explore their academic interests. That UCC was an IB school, also gave me the impression – at least from a distance, that it was a place where students could pursue a truly liberal education — without the academic anxiety that all too often undermines, what administrative types like to refer to as “a love of learning.”  After all, our boys are graded externally, and that should eliminate any need for grade grubbing, right?

And then I met the stewards of 2005, a wonderful bunch of talented, ambitious, and determined lads who showed me the ropes and in the process showed me that they were just as focused on name brand schools as are their American cousins.  I soon realized that, while the great majority of our students attend fine Canadian universities, there is also a significant portion who shoot for international “shock and awe.”  (The awe is in the acceptance; the shock is in the tuition.)

I was reminded of my own naivety this week, when I saw, “The Social Network,” a film about both the creation of Facebook and about the age-old struggle to fit in. You might be tempted to think that, if you can make it through the Harvard University Admissions’ process, you wouldn’t have any problems handling the social scene in Cambridge.  But that’s clearly not the case for Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, a student who is blessed and cursed with a profound imbalance between his incredible IQ and his incredibly bad social skills. This sea-saw imbalance creates all kinds of tensions and contradictions in the movie and in his life. More on Mark in a minute.

I won’t bore you with the mundane details of my own job, but part of it involves asking Old Boys to support their old school. What has surprised me is that, many of our extraordinarily successful alumni will readily admit that they were anything but stars in high school. These men possess street smarts, an entrepreneurial spirit, and extraordinary drive, but what really sets them apart is that they are all blessed with or have acquired tremendous social skills. I am continually struck by how collegial, engaging, and good spirited these Old Boys are, and I frequently leave their offices feeling like I’ve just met my new best friend.

Which brings me back to the profoundly talented and profoundly flawed Mark Zuckerberg.  Columnist David Brooks sums up his situation by pointing out that, “(Facebook’s founder) is without social and moral skills. It’s not that he’s a bad person. He’s just never been house-trained. He’s been raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct. The character becomes a global business star without getting a first-grade education in interaction.”

Let me end this morning with a quick story about a recent attempt at social education. A few weeks ago, I had  lunch with some students, and when I sat down at a table, I noticed that 3 of them had their laptops open. I grasped for my “pause button,” but it was no where to be found, so I impulsively tried to engage a victim, the boy who had the misfortune of being seated directly across from me, a  perfectly wonderful boy, I’m sure, but a boy who seemed to be huddling behind an electronic wall. I quickly offered a few open-ended questions to which he begrudgingly responded with one-word answers.

After a few minutes of this, I asked him if would close his laptop and play a game of verbal ping- pong with me. I pointed out that I’d been asking all the questions, and he hadn’t been doing much in terms of responding, so now he’d have to ask me at least one question. I told him I’d be willing to answer almost anything, that he could raise questions on academics, arts, athletics, economics, politics, international geopolitical strategies up to and including meaning of life questions. I told him in advance that, if I didn’t know the answer, I would surely bluff.

He stared quietly for a few moments before asking, “Why do we eat white rice?” This clearly was a Theory of Knowledge scholar, and he was obviously employing a metaphor. I thought I should respond poetically myself, but was his question about a perceived lack of diversity in our curriculum or in our culture? As I started to clarify this question, he quickly cut me off. “No. I mean. Really. Why don’t we just have brown – rather than white rice?”

Before I criticize my rather literal thinking friend, (“You can go back to your ‘World of Warcraft’ game, Biff.”)  I had to admit that, many years ago when I was studying abroad, I was so painfully awkward and uncomfortable in the cafeteria where all of the other reasonably well adjusted students had lunch together, that I actually took my brown bag lunch and ate it each day in the washroom.  Talk about a “distinctive” ambiance!

So this morning, even as I stress the importance of developing your people skills, and as I urge you to avoid becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg, I can only wonder at my own profound social limitations as an adolescent. And I wonder, too, what the other guys in the men’s room must have thought, as they listened to the strange and perhaps disconcerting noises coming from stall #4.

I guess there’s a little bit of Mark Zuckerberg in all of us. With or without the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

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