From NWA to MIT

He was complaining to me about it, and the more we talked the more it reminded me about my own recalibration.

I went to high school in Iran and was just an average student (part of the reason was I didn’t grow up there, so I really struggled with the language). That being said, the high school curriculum in Iran is among the toughest in the world. You end up learning Trigonometry, Calculus, Physics and other STEM-based subjects at an early age, and the content just keeps getting tougher through the years. It also helps that we went to school 6 days a week (we had Friday’s off!) and the average day was 8 hours long.

In any case, I came back to the U.S. for my senior year of high school, and wound up at North West Academy in Houston (that’s where NWA comes in; what were you thinking?). A week before classes began, I had to go in and give them my transcripts and take a bunch of tests. To make a long story short, I ended up clearing all AP requirements for math and science-related subjects, so I only had to take courses that were not offered in Iran, like Economics, Sociology, Speech, etc. By the end of the year, I had near straight A’s; I did exceptionally well in my SATs; and I had applied to 3 colleges: Caltech, MIT, and UT ( University of Texas, Austin).

I remember getting the letter. It shocked me how short it was. Basically, in a somewhat nice way, MIT said: “Buddy, keep walking… this store ain’t for you.” I was shocked. I was devastated. My school counselor had encouraged me to apply there, so why was she so wrong? Worse yet, how could MIT be so wrong? Then, Caltech sent me their version of the “Dear John” letter. Same story.

What the heck happened? How could they be so mistaken? I was one of the smartest kids in my school!

I started to look into the type of applicants who got into MIT: I looked at their average scores, I reviewed the acceptance rates, and compared them to other schools. I looked at the number of PhDs they cranked out, and the number of patents attributed to their work. The more I searched, the more I read, the clearer it became.

some large random library; impressive-looking

I was NWA smart… but I wasn’t MIT smart.

NWA was a small school in a small section of Houston. Perhaps, had I graduated and stayed in my small neighborhood, I might have continued to feel “smart” and above average as compared to my neighbors, but Houston is a big town. Texas is a large state. Schools like MIT attract the best and brightest minds from all over the freak’n world! In that pool I was just a drop in the bucket.

At PartnerHero, we have a similar situation, but with a twist. As a 2-year-old company that is experiencing rapid growth, we don’t have the luxury of changing our expectations, standards, and systems in 5 or 10-year increments, over elongated transitional periods. We need to adjust to the market we serve (startups) and raise our core baseline (operations) often, and as frequently as every 6 months. So, what happened to my colleague was that he “enrolled” in NWA (PartnerHero at launch) and over the course of 2 years found himself at MIT (kind of). The scoring systems had changed (dramatically), the complexity of our work had changed, and even the people doing the teaching and scoring had been replaced (new professors.)

This realization that although I was “smart” at some level, just not smart enough to get into MIT, was the first time I experienced recalibration. And it wasn’t my last one.

Lots of people think they are good cooks, or even fancy themselves a chef (this guy included). Bullshit. I have chef friends who work in real restaurant kitchens; you and I would be lost/killed/injured/laughed out of the average restaurant kitchen. Instead of looking at this as an insult or a threat, treat it as an opportunity to get recalibrated. It’s the type of humbling experience that scares you, yet makes you feel alive again, and it tells you that you’re aiming higher.

I don’t regret applying to MIT or Caltech (ended up going to UT), or getting rejected. The shock of not being good enough for them was the kick in the ass I needed at that point in time. The advice I gave my colleague was simple: sure, express yourself, but at the end of the day, it’s not about your scores last month; it’s about getting recalibrated and aiming higher.

May we never stop getting recalibrated.

Shervin Talieh