Last weekend, I was happy to be reunited with my classmates at the 30th reunion of the Harvard class of 1989. An interesting activity was on the agenda called “The Harvard Chase”. I want to describe what it taught me in this blog.
If you’ve ever seen The DaVinci Code and played an “escape room” then you will be familiar with the basic rules. These wonderful people spent a lot of time effort and considerable effort coming up with 15 minor puzzles which were eventually solved in three distinct locations to decipher a rather complex master cipher. This picture shows the three custom letter wheels and the treasure globe with the five letter cipher that needed to be solved.
Since the event won’t be played again, I will not be spoiling it by revealing the answer but before I do, I wanted to reflect on some of the meta-takeaways that I experienced during and after the fun event.
- Why play?
- Why not cheat?
- Why the hints?
- What is optimal cooperation?
- Trust in teammates
- Intuition and meta-cognition is encouraged
- What is success?
When a fifty-something year old person sees “Harvard Chase” on the schedule, the mind naturally tends towards hanging out with friends, enjoying something leisurely, or even taking a nap. With nothing to gain and perhaps nothing to prove, why bother? Suffice it to say that people who went to Harvard probably like an intellectual challenge, are competitive, and maybe even like to play for its own sake.
Why not cheat?
Given that the event was run on consecutive days, it would be possible to ask someone for the one word answer or various clues that would solve the treasure cylinder and then do enough of the puzzles to make it look like you simply guessed the answer. The phrase “Give peace a chance” is easy enough to intuit from the clues and you could make it look like you just had a preternatural inspiration in response to the emerging clue of ” Enter ***** and give it a chance”.
The answer to why not cheat is probably that the stakes are so low that most non-sociopathic people would adhere to an honor code that is shared among Ivy League schools. You are honor bound to not cheat although given the pressure that some feel and their moral flexibility, as evidenced by the “Varsity Blues” sting operation of last year, some might feel inclined to cheat if the stakes were high.
This brings us to the rather uncomfortable issue of the college admissions “arms race” that exists to the detriment of the mental health of parents and students alike. One of the most poignant questions of the breakout discussions was when a classmate asked the dean of students to take a leadership position on deescalating the status quo given that kids are actually taking their own lives over the pressure.
Why the Hints?
One of the ground rules was that if you get stuck for 10 minutes, you were allowed to ask for help. This clearly was meant to address the infinite ways in which lack of clarity or a false assumption could derail a team and make the process less fun and ultimately non-attainable. As in academic pursuits where office hours, practice tests, and grading on a “curve” exist, the givers of the examination are invested in avoiding total failure by the test takers. Being a prideful bunch, I don’t believe we availed ourselves of the hints, even when offered.
What is optimal cooperation?
It was stated at the outset that the optimal way to work was in parallel and in fact of the 15 puzzles, I only had contact with 4. With three teams of competent teammates, we tackled all the puzzles efficiently and in disparate locations. Sadly, I was unable to savor the challenging and well-crafted puzzles which makes me a bit wistful. The upshot is that these teams of Harvardians and their families nearly all conquered the Harvard chase in just over an hour. Take a look at this partially decoded cipher with its multiple symbols of different colors and you can imagine just how effective working in parallel can be.
Trust in Teammates
This rubs both ways. On the one hand, as the words of the cipher emerged, we attained a certain fault tolerance. Two instances of untrustworthy teammates came up however. The first was my failure to actually read the instructions on what the co-creator deemed the hardest puzzle. Seven die-cut shapes of countries were given and instead of reading the instructions, I jumped into solving the puzzle without knowing there was a map on the reverse side where the letters and approximate locations were manifest. Had I known this, I would have solved it in 4 minutes instead of 16 and that would have, as Robert Frost said, “made all the difference”. I and my teammate managed to get 5 of 7 before being told there was a map and then it was easy enough.
The second instance of teammate inadvertent sabotage came when I was sent back to location two to recover something that was actually unrecognized in the backpack of my teammate at the final location. I took a five minute backtrack to find location 2 locked. During this time, I glanced at the image and realized that the second word was scrambled and the subject of the decoding gears. Had I only though about what five letter word could fit in this space, the deciphering in of the gears could have been bypassed altogether. Only because I was separated from the group could I switch my executive functioning and think about the bigger picture.
Intuition and meta-cognition is encouraged
In my book, The Telomere Miracle, I created an epigraph that stated “intuition is the royal road to wisdom”. I found it interesting that the Dungeon Masters, if you will, stated before the game began that you didn’t need to solve all the letters (as in the game “Wheel of Fortune”. One of the Easter eggs in the license plate challenge was that the word clues all started with the same letter of the correct state. When it came to Texas vs. Tennessee, this wasn’t of any help but the creator said we were one of the only teams to make this observation.
What is success?
In the final analysis, we “lost” by about 6 minutes. I was told one of the teams had a 10-yo savant who immediate recognized all the countries by shape, so perhaps we never had a chance when our team let me handle the bottleneck puzzle as a guy who doesn’t read all the instructions.
Even though we didn’t medal, I felt that our team operated at high efficiency and with an excellent degree of cooperation. Nobody was made to feel badly and everyone contributed.
I enjoyed the brilliance of my teammates unscrambling words and having our collective amygdala tickled by solving each successive puzzle under time pressure, culminating in that sweet unlocking of the treasure globe and a sense of triumph.
We had fun, were challenged, and accomplished something as a team so that felt like success to me.
Denoument (trigger warning for those who hate Trump)
I was happy to hear that many of my classmates had children attending Harvard. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe this to be legacy cronyism in most cases but rather that these are talented and successful parents who raised focused and ambitious students.
When most people think of Harvard, they reflexively believe that it represents excellence and perhaps even superiority. The fact that people say McGill is the “Harvard of Canada” or that Duke is “The Harvard of the South” speaks to this rather pervasive bias/delusion.
While I can attest to the fact that on average, the students that I went to school with were bright and motivated, I can also attest that there are many different kinds of intelligence. There is emotional, social, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, computational, abstract…god knows how many ways you can be a frickin’ savant in your own right.
One of the most telling remarks was from a friend who didn’t attend the reunion. He pointed out that much of what passes for intelligence is just good test taking and regurgitating what the teacher wants to hear. The actual ability to think critically is not highly valued, even and now perhaps especially at the alleged top learning institution of the country.
Things brings me to the bittersweet message of the blog. I almost didn’t attend reunion this year despite having a great time at the 25th. Why? Facebook. Some years ago, I made the determination that it would be fun to be Facebook friends with classmates in the class of 1989 despite not knowing them IRL (in real life).
Over the years, I have come to know their beautiful pets, children, vacation photos, and to my chagrin, their vitriolic political opinions. Contrary to the opinion that many might take away from meeting me or hearing the kinds of question that I ask in discussions, I am not socially inept but like to consider myself congenitally impaired from hiding my deeply held opinions and genuine irreverence for conformity for its own sake.
My suspicion was that my occasionally Trump-ambivalent blogs and attempt to bring scope and nuance to the current political climate would be unwelcome was sadly confirmed by the reunion. Of the people who also lurk on my Facebook profile, only two classmates came up to say they had read and enjoyed them. I actually presume that most of my classmates are ambivalent to hostile to them and I simply didn’t want to deal with the hate this time around so I almost passed on the whole affair.
In the age of social media, I found myself recognizing people and knowing their spouses and children’s faces despite not never having spoken to them. If you are reading this now, thank you for not openly deriding me for what is after all, just my attempt to express my honest opinions.
On a final note, I attended many lectures where words like “diversity”, “tolerance”, and “inclusion” were tossed around like axiomatic beatitudes. I found it telling that at lunch when I asked four graduates of the class of 2019 what it was like for Trump supporters on campus. Using descriptions that I can only compare with being closeted and gay in the 1980s, they used phrases like “they don’t ever speak up or identify themselves”, “they only talk to each other”, “it is just easier for them to keep silent about their preferences”.
I honestly believe that Trump Derangement Syndrome is real. My own family, knowing that I occasionally defend Trump, have called me “a f*^king asshole” and my 17-niece deigned to tell me that “you’re not a shitty person, you just have shitty ideas.” This weekend, I sat through an echo-chamber session of over an hour of people who applauded each other for having the “courage” to state that Trump was an existential threat to democracy
because he and his supporters were white supremacists and fascists. Ironically, to hear them say that the senate and electoral college needed to go because of one untoward election was breathtaking and I felt like the one guy at the Nazi rally who didn’t raise his arm that everyone memes about.
Sadly, the alternative hypothesis that a literal game show host and narcissist that was raised by a KKK member may have won an election for very good reasons receives zero traction at the Ivory Tower of the contented class. Regardless, as the choir shrinks in clout and moral authority, the preaching becomes less and less capable of stanching the current sea change of populism, nationalism, and self-determination that is taking place around the world and in our own country.
I refer you to the songs of Leonard Cohen if you want to know what the heck this blog has devolved into. Specifically, see “Everybody knows” and “Democracy” which references the Tiananmen Square revolution and massacre that occurred mere days after our graduation in 1989. Yes, I realize that Cohen despised Trump; but sometimes the prophets only hear voices but don’t actually understand the subtext.
I also refer you to our class of 1989 commencement speaker, Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated after claiming Bin Laden was already dead before we killed him on BBC television.
Most of my classmates feel the world is coming to the end because they, like this year’s commencement speaker, Angela Merkel, believe nationalism equates with fascism. Maybe it’s time to ask about her own pedigree and loyalties and just how relevant she, Macron, May, and the folks meeting now at Bilderberg are going to be going forward. Democracy is coming. Harvard, by curating its own mythology rather than leading on difficult and complex moral issues, is rendering itself irrelevant by a slow but inexorable process.
I submit that if you hate Trump then defeat him with electoral politics, not by changing the rules and pushing a narrative debunked by facts and the underwhelming Mueller report. In the game of politics, we revisit the questions asked earlier in the blog:
- Why play? – we want representation of our values
- Why not cheat? – the system has worked to keep our republic stable and vibrant
- Why the hints? – we are invested in truth, not getting bogged down in “truth narratives
- What is optimal cooperation? – listen to truly diverse opinions
- Trust in teammates – believe that people have good intentions and don’t demonize them a priori
- Intuition and meta-cognition is encouraged – use your bullshit sensors and ask yourself quo bono when consuming the media’s manufactured consent.
- What is success? – a more perfect union where everyone, even those in the “flyover states” matters. Win in the marketplace of ideas, not with the bludgeon of facile rhetoric. Or at least have the common sense to do politics as usual. If you want to replace Trump, promise things that you don’t intend to deliver like ending wars, single payer health care, and a living wage. Don’t advocate for the restructuring of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as your first move for goodness sakes. That seems un-American and frankly, treasonous to the oath of office that people in the government and the military swear to uphold
I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed …
Again, if you are reading this blog and a classmate with whom I have no connection IRL, thank you in advance for not hating. I am just telling it as I see it. In the words of my politically woke niece, I am not a shitty person, I just may have shitty ideas.
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu:
May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.