Originally posted Jan. 1, 2012
This is the story of the last several years of my life, and my resolution to the very first post of my blog. It's a deeply personal story, and I've thought long and hard about whether I should share it with the world.
The answer to that question lies in front of you now.
In addition to being a deeply personal story, there are interesting gems buried throughout the piece, so I hope that reading this won't be a complete waste of your time.
Many people wish to be understood by the world, but I ask - if you do not understand yourself, how can you expect the world to understand you?
Part 1: Lost in the Real World
Part 2: Self-Annihilation
Part 3: Limbo
Part 4: Rebirth
N.B. I have a rather heavily sarcastic sense of humor, especially when referring to my past. If you have to ask, "Wow, does Brian really believe this/think like this?", the answer is certainly not anymore, but just a bit back in the day.
Part 1: Lost in the Real World
September, 2007. Come stand in my younger self's shoes. Brian is a freshman, wide-eyed and excited about all the crazy and interesting things happening at MIT. Two month prior, Brian had won a silver medal at the 39th International Chemistry Olympiad in Moscow. That was certainly the pinnacle of his life so far, and the question burned brightly in his mind: "What's next?". For the last four years, his life has been all about the competitions - math, chemistry, or otherwise - but there are none at the college level, at least not in chemistry. Brian had known this all along, but it's only now that it really starts to hit home. Well, there were some substitutes. He's just passed the notoriously difficult Advanced Standing Exam for general chemistry, and is now petitioning to pass out of Organic Chem 1 so he can get on to the difficult stuff.
November, 2007. Isn't Brian so smart? He's in Organic Chem 2 with sophomores and juniors, and the professor calls him "wunderkind", randomly calling on him/teasing him in class for already knowing all the material in the class. It's not quite the same level of competition, though. Since the problem sets and tests aren't particularly difficult, Brian tries to stand out in other ways, doodling on his exams, putting down rather creative alternate solutions on his exams, and the ol' classic, walking out of the exam room early to show JUST HOW SMART he is. Pitiable, isn't it?
The real trouble begins when Brian gets into undergraduate research. Here is the golden answer to his question, "what's next?". He can do important research and publish papers and win Nobel Prizes and become famous and save the world and be the next Einstein and rise to one of those coveted positions, the TENURED PROFESSOR at a top research university. And, of course, show everyone how smart he is in the process. (Can you see the trouble up ahead yet?) He asks his organic chemistry professor if he can start doing research in his lab. The professor says yes, and Brian moves onto the next big phase of his life: research.
If you want to be a scientist, you can't be driven merely by competitiveness. (Well, you could, but you'd slowly turn into a career zombie, if you weren't one already.) Your love for science has to be strong enough to persevere in the face of the anti-intellectual monstrosity that is modern academia. Brian loved organic chemistry, but it wasn't all the right kind of love. He certainly loved the material itself, the ways that organic chemistry could explain and reveal interesting things about the real world, and he certainly appreciated the elegant and powerful ways in which synthetic organic chemists had conquered complex molecules. But mostly, he loved organic chemistry because he was good at it.
What happens, then, when reality tells you that you're actually not that good at something you've based your life, your existence upon being good at?
Answer: You have an identity crisis.
December, 2009. For the first time, Brian's research is really refusing to cooperate with him. His compounds are decomposing upon isolation, his experiments decay into what can only be described as a witch's brew, and his project's goal seems distant and rather like a pipe dream. Research is never a smooth thing; you are studying the unknown, and unlike a test, there is no guarantee of even the existence of a solution. As the research drags along, Brian enters a state of learned helplessness, like a monkey resigned to life in a cage. He is a frail shadow of his former self, with the intellectual firepower to do whatever he wants to do, but without the willpower to exert himself to the limit. The spark is no longer there. Brian poured his life into organic chemistry, and it failed to return his love.
Brian was unhappy in a very fundamental way his junior year, and became heavily cynical and jaded about research. Academia is just a paper-churning, career promoting machine. The pay is miserable and the hours are long. Professors only care about masturbating on their piece of scientific turf. Grad school will be a 5-year slog. Academia is a huge pyramid scheme waiting to collapse. Professors use and abuse their grad students. Research is just grunt work. Brian liked to make a joke: if you want to get top-notch research done at $9.25/hour, contribute to the MIT Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program fund.
Yes, I became quite pessimistic about the whole research enterprise.
Part 2: Self-Annihilation
"I define myself not by the things I am, but rather by the things that I am not."
Thanks to a very enthusiastic teacher in high school who had us read books like Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and Robert Park's "Voodoo Science", I discovered the atheist movement, and its dedication to freethinking and rationality.
Often, people learn about human cognitive faults and logical fallacies, but only to use against other people in arguments. Thus, they continue with their uninspired lives, content to use their newfound knowledge merely to demonstrate their intellectual superiority and to silence their critics. I, on the other hand, took my sharpest weapons, and turned them against myself.
The study of rationality is inevitably bound together with the study of motivation. For example, let's consider a situation in which a lawyer is considering spending the day helping the needy by volunteering at a soup kitchen. The "rational" analysis suggests that a lawyer should instead work that day, and donate his earnings to the soup kitchen (value contributed: 10 hours * $100/hour), in lieu of volunteering directly at the soup kitchen for a day (value contributed: 10 hours * minimum wage). Most lawyers would only ever consider the latter option. A few lawyers might weigh these two options, and fewer still would choose the "rational" work-and-donate option. It's telling that these two options are even comparable to begin with.
In this situation, why are people so "irrational"? Well, they're not. They are only irrational if you believe that "to help the homeless" is their motivation. But let's suppose the lawyer's motivation for helping the homeless is to display himself to the general populace as an empathetic and altruistic person. Then, volunteering at the soup kitchen would make perfect sense, because it is more important for other people to see you in the act, than it is to actually help the homeless. Of course, if you were to confront the lawyer with your insight, he would deny it, because he really does believe deep down that he is volunteering to help the needy. But as a hypothesis, it's much better at predicting when and how the lawyer will decide to act "altruistically".
To become more "rational", then, necessarily involves a careful analysis and sleuthing of one's own hidden motivations, as well as a willingness to confront the existential nature of life. I interrogated, analyzed, and dissected my motivations for everything I did in my life. Why did I enjoy debating creationists? Why did I want to learn about wines, why did I speed-cube? Why did I insist on speeding through all the graduate-level organic chemistry courses as a sophomore? Why did I consider majoring in philosophy? Why did I take such pride in MIT and bash Harvard? Why did I neglect my grades? Why did I take pride in living in a dorm where a significant fraction of the residents had competed in an international olympiad? In Part 1 of my story, I painted myself quite mockingly and one-dimensionally as someone who only cared about showing the world how smart he was. This is not a bad summary of my honest answers to these questions. Unsettled by the shallowness of my actions and beliefs, I resolved to remove these ignoble parts of my life, as well as any other parts whose motives were suspect. Perhaps all humans are shallow if you look at them carefully enough, but I wanted to transcend my humanity.
I'm a bit OCD at times. If you've ever tried to cut a circle out of paper and instead ended up with a long spiral of paper and a still-not-perfect circle one-tenth the size you originally wanted, then you know exactly how I sometimes behave. I picked at my cuticles until I drew blood; I continually picked at my acne and scabs. I cracked my joints every opportunity I got, and I'm currently in a phase where I pull at my hair. And just like the gardener who trimmed his blooming bushes down to its naked interior, I compulsively pruned away the richness of my life, one branch at a time.
Three years thus passed, and when I came out of this trance, I stood in front of a mutilated tree, surrounded by the fallen branches of my life. And you must realize the horror I felt when I discovered that my metaphorical tree of life was missing its trunk. I had assumed that by cutting away the extraneous, imperfect parts of my life, one by one, I would be left with the fundamentals, the purified essence of my identity. Instead, I discovered that my life was almost entirely composed of actions and beliefs with questionable motivations, hiding the absence of anything substantial underneath.
I still had a few sturdy branches that had survived the mutilation - chemistry, Go, and music. But at about this time, I was in the process of discarding the first (as described in Part 1), and was terrified that I would discover an excuse to discard the latter two. My OCD-like pursuit of perfection had led me to destroy my own life. I was left only with my conviction that to discard these parts of my life was the right thing to do.
Then, this article on Intellectual Hipsters and Meta-Contrarianism was written, and it became by far the sharpest sword yet in my arsenal. I quote some paragraphs to summarize:
"In certain situations refusing to signal can be a sign of high status. Thorstein Veblen invented the term "conspicuous consumption" to refer to the showy spending habits of the nouveau riche, who unlike the established money of his day took great pains to signal their wealth by buying fast cars, expensive clothes, and shiny jewelry. Why was such flashiness common among new money but not old? Because the old money was so secure in their position that it never even occurred to them that they might be confused with poor people, whereas new money, with their lack of aristocratic breeding, worried they might be mistaken for poor people if they didn't make it blatantly obvious that they had expensive things.
The old money might have started off not buying flashy things for pragmatic reasons - they didn't need to, so why waste the money? But if F. Scott Fitzgerald is to be believed, the old money actively cultivated an air of superiority to the nouveau riche and their conspicuous consumption; not buying flashy objects becomes a matter of principle. This makes sense: the nouveau riche need to differentiate themselves from the poor, but the old money need to differentiate themselves from the nouveau riche.
This process is called countersignaling, and one can find its telltale patterns in many walks of life. Those who study human romantic attraction warn men not to "come on too strong", and this has similarities to the nouveau riche example. A total loser might come up to a woman without a hint of romance, promise her nothing, and demand sex. A more sophisticated man might buy roses for a woman, write her love poetry, hover on her every wish, et cetera; this signifies that he is not a total loser. But the most desirable men may deliberately avoid doing nice things for women in an attempt to signal they are so high status that they don't need to. The average man tries to differentiate himself from the total loser by being nice; the extremely attractive man tries to differentiate himself from the average man by not being especially nice.
A person who is somewhat upper-class will conspicuously signal their wealth by buying difficult-to-obtain goods. A person who is very upper-class will conspicuously signal that he feels no need to conspicuously signal his wealth, by deliberately not buying difficult-to-obtain goods.
A person who is somewhat intelligent will conspicuously signal their intelligence by holding difficult-to-understand opinions. A person who is very intelligent will conspicuously signal that he feels no need to conspicuously signal his intelligence, by deliberately not holding difficult-to-understand opinions."
This essay was simultaneously my salvation and the six feet of dirt on top of my grave. The countersignalling hypothesis reassured me that I was justified in removing parts of my life, and simultaneously barred any return. It also brought my efforts to transcend my humanity back to square one
As it turned out, I was instinctively an intellectual hipster of epic proportions. If I could attach anything - a name, a label, an identity - to a group of people, I automatically sought to demonstrate my superiority to that group by signalling or countersignalling above them. I wasn't content with merely being one of many.
"But although he may not have wanted what he had, and he may not have understood entirely why he had it, he appreciated its value and tended it with care. This meant cultivating a discreet distance from any group with which he might be too quickly identified -- professors, public intellectuals, liberals, Jews. He was all of those things, of course; he would never have denied it. But he resented being understood under the aspect of anything so insufficiently nuanced as a category." - Louis Menand, 2009/9/29
This essay revealed a hidden motivation that explained with shocking precision the beliefs I had held and the choices I had made. As a high-schooler, I had invested in all these branches of my life because I wanted to signal my intelligence compared to normal people. Then, when I was surrounded by intelligent people at MIT, I discarded these same branches of my life in an effort to countersignal my intelligence compared to intelligent people. If this hypothesis were true, my search for "purity" would simply have been self-deception, just like our lawyer friend who really thought he was helping the needy.
Simultaneously, this essay helped me identify the final boss, as it were: "People Who Countersignal". In order to demonstrate my superiority to this group of people, I would have to countersignal over them somehow - but the very act of attempting to countersignal above them would imply that I was still within their ranks. I was stumped. Countersignalling was such a natural attitude towards life for me that I simply couldn't stop countersignalling, any more than a fish could stop swimming.
There are striking parallels to "The Game" here, and as anyone who has played The Game knows, the only way to win The Game is to stop caring. And in this manner, I finally managed to walk away from my countersignaller's paradox. I simply didn't care about trying to solve it anymore. I "won" the Game, but in doing so, I had to abandon the countersignalling identity that had guided my life for several years. I was now unanchored, with no identity, no affiliations, nothing that aroused my passions save music and Go.
Part 3: Limbo
"Never waste a breakup."
October, 2010. I was a zombie stumbling through life. As I explained to a friend, I wasn't unhappy... but I never got excited about anything, either. I applied to graduate schools; my "life plan" at that point was to slog through five miserable years of grad school while riding on the wave of my previous successes, get a stable, decently paying industry job, and spent the rest of my life comatose in front of a computer, playing mindless video games and idly refreshing reddit/4chan/my RSS feed. When my high school math teacher asked me the question "Where/What do you want to be in 10 years?", it was a foreign mode of thought. It didn't occur to me that I should be thinking about this question, any more than it should occur to a jellyfish to think about where in that deep, dark ocean he wanted to be in six months' time.
I should say that even within that hazy fugue state, there was direction. I poured what remaining passion I had into the MIT Go Club, and music was my most loyal friend, always there to help me empty my mind and put me into a temporary state of nirvana. But I didn't have very much in life to look forward to.
Then... a girl came along.
At first, I was completely apathetic to her advances. I guess I had a mild preference for her staying in my life. But as I spent more time with her, I came to realize that she was a genuine person - someone who, unlike myself at the time and unlike most people in this world, had a tree of life with deep roots.
I fell in love.
She was inquisitive, open-minded, assertive, smart, nonjudgmental, and beautiful.
To my jaded, burnt-out, and apathetic self, she was heroin, in every sense of the drug. They say that two people complete each other, and the phrase "my better half" is often heard. In this case, she wasn't just my other half, she was my other ninety-five percent. She became my life, my existence, my purpose.
In the days following the breakup, I had only one thought in my mind: how could I get her back? I went through identities like an actor went through costumes. I thought that if I only could find the right identity, if only I could remake myself in the right way, I'd be able to get her back. I briefly considered taking my friend's advice (disregard females, acquire currency), but discarded that. I sent in a resume to Jane St. before changing my mind about going down the quant path. I inquired with a start-up company that did chemistry/chemical engineering. I strongly considered abandoning grad school, where I had already been accepted at Harvard and Princeton, in favor of spending a few years at home exploring computer programming. I considered going into engineering, to work on renewable energy.
I eventually managed to pin down the source of my life angst. I realized that subconsciously, I believed that she had left me because I wasn't "white" enough. The drastic things I did or considered doing were best explained as a manifestation of my subconscious belief that I wasn't "white" enough for her. By "white", I mean somebody extroverted, open to new experiences, risk-taking, outgoing, charismatic, and successful. One of my "white" friends had initially been registered at a state college, took a year off traveling in China and Russia, reapplied and got into Harvard, transferred to MIT, and last I had heard, dropped out of MIT and moved across the country to work at a startup. Another of my "white" friends had dropped out of college, achieved notoriety by cracking into several systems touted as secure, got sued for it, did a stint at Google, and works at Facebook now, all the meantime going off on wild and crazy projects. A "white" assistant professor I met had been an engineer before meeting a professor in a coffee shop and switching tracks completely into the sciences. My personal idol, Richard Feynman, fits my description of "white"-ness quite well, as do many prominent figures in the tech/startup world. In a conscious effort to sever myself from my Korean roots, I thought I could become more "white" by bringing myself to change fields easily and repeatedly.
I realized that it would be silly to throw away all that I already have, just because I thought that a drastic job change was the right way to become more "white" (and in turn, win her back). My life could certainly have used an infusion of assertiveness, risk-taking, and extroversion, but this wasn't the way to do it.
Having realized this, I finally returned to my original quandary: What do I do with myself? Where/how should I plant the seeds of my new identity?
It didn't seem quite right to me that I should base my life around my love of music or Go, despite how much I enjoyed them. It was also very self-evident to me that I shouldn't use circumstances of birth to dictate who I should become. To me, it's silly to think that your birthplace should dictate which sports team you support. Similarly, my gender, my intelligence, my birthplace, my ethnicity, society's opinions, my parents' religious affiliation, the time window I was born into, etc. - none of this should be relevant in deciding who I should become. An objectively "true" way of life should not depend on where/when/how you were born.
Descartes realized during the course of his meditations that none of his physical experiences could be trusted to give him true information about the world. Yet he was thinking - and thus, he could at the very least, conclude that he existed. "I think... therefore, I am."
I quickly came to the conclusion that nothing in the world could satisfy my stringent requirements for a place to replant the seeds of my new identity. Yet I realized that I am evidently the kind of person who cannot stop seeking for objective truth, an unbiased way of life. Why not plant my seeds here? So, I did.
"I seek... therefore, I am."
Part 4: Rebirth
Written 10/5/2011, 11/15-30/2011, 12/25-31/2011
"Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water."
Go is the most minimalist and simultaneously the most strategically deep game I know of. There are essentially three rules to the game: 1) The winner of the game is the person who controls a greater portion of the board (or equivalently, the person with the most stones on the board), 2) Surrounded chains of stones are removed from the board, and 3) No board position may be repeated. From these three extremely simple rules, a rich, beautiful and strategically deep game is produced. Unfortunately for beginners, the rules are almost too simple, to the extent that learning the rules tells you nothing about how to play the game. In contrast, the rules of Chess, although arbitrarily complex in nature, clearly dictate a certain way to play the game.
To say that "I seek, therefore I am" is to say that my life flows from my search for objectivity. But what tangible consequences, what guiding principles does this resolution provide? Much like the rules of Go, my resolution is elegant and simple, but it's too minimalist - how do I start rebuilding my life?.
Let's start by examining what exactly I mean when I say that I seek objective truth or an unbiased way of life. I'd like to rephrase this in terms of extrinsic* and intrinsic* motivation. First, some definitions (I use an asterisk to remind you that these are not the standard definitions): I define extrinsic* motivation as motivation stemming from the expectations of others, the conditioning of society, and desire for status. For example, I would consider peer pressure, and "keeping up with the Joneses" to be core examples of extrinsic* motivation. Signalling (e.g. desire for fame and recognition) and countersignalling (e.g. desire for relative superiority in status), are extrinsic* motivations. What I referred to in Part 3 as "circumstances of birth" (e.g. ethnicity, nationality, hometown, local religion, time period [link to http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html]), I would also categorize as extrinsic* motivation. On the other hand, I would not consider pain and pleasure to be extrinsic*. Nor would I consider core personality traits to be extrinsic* (By "core", I mean something that would remain constant over many possible worlds). A utilitarian necessity for money would also not be an extrinsic motivation.
On the other hand, I have not been able to come up with a satisfying definition for intrinsic motivation. Humans are quite unreliable when it comes to knowing their own motivations, and so, many of the things we would naively call intrinsically motivated, are in fact extrinsically* motivated. I hesitate to define intrinsic motivation in hedonistic terms, since the life of a heroin junkie does not seem to merit the label, which I consider to have positive connotations. Additionally, there is the added complexity that actions can be both motivated both extrinsically and intrinsically. Perhaps the best definition I can offer is that an action is intrinsically* motivated if extrinsic* motivation is not a significant factor. By "not a significant factor", I mean an explanation with better predictive power. Therefore, according to my definition, an intrinsically* motivated activity would elicit this sort of response: "I don't see what extrinsic* motivations you have for doing this... my best guess is XYZ extrinsic* motivation, but that doesn't quite explain your behavior. I guess I should simply take 'I like doing this' at face value and conclude that you are intrinsically* motivated."
Thus, to clarify: when I say that I seek an unbiased way of life, what I am really saying is that I want a life driven by intrinsic* motivation; equivalently, I want a life that is not primarily extrinsically* motivated. I'm not sure why I'm so allergic to the idea of being extrinsically* motivated. Perhaps it stems from my aesthetic appeal for self-sufficiency and objectivity.
Before going on, there is one argument I must address. Of the many ways I could have defined intrinsic motivation, I chose to define intrinsic* motivation by what it is not, rather than by what it is. If this sounds familiar, it is - it's the countersignaller's credo in disguise. Am I merely performing mental acrobatics to maintain a loophole that lets me countersignal without being a countersignaller?
I argue that my search for intrinsic* motivation is not simply a rehashing of my countersignalling ways. The key is in my definition of intrinsic*: instead of rejecting extrinsic* motivation categorically, I acknowledge that there is always a way to phrase motivation in an extrinsic* manner, and I allow extrinsic* motivation if it's simply coincidental. On the other hand, I would be countersignalling if I am constantly reacting to extrinsic* motivation, whether it is a primary motivation, or merely coincidental. I don't embrace or reject others' ways - I merely disregard extrinsic* motivation, to the best of my ability.
An analogy can be made to The Game, which I previously mentioned in Part 2. The only way to "win" The Game is to stop caring about it; but if you are actively claiming that you don't care about winning The Game, you could be accused of attempting to win The Game, hence you still care about The Game and you have not won. Almost by definition, it becomes impossible to win The Game.
However, I will tell of one amusing story - there was a high school teacher who, one day, overheard his students talking about "The Game". He couldn't quite remember where it was from, but then managed to put his finger on it. After decades of silence on the matter, he suddenly declared, "I guess I just lost the game". I think I can fairly say that this teacher really did stop caring about the game, therefore "winning" the game. At a secondary level, he also stopped caring about caring about winning the game, sealing the deal.
I will therefore say no further on the matter, because the more I attempt to argue that I am not countersignalling, the more it becomes true that I am countersignalling. (Of course this is a counter-counter-countersignal; I hope to assure you that I am inactively trying not to solve this.)
Countersignalling tangent aside, I still really haven't gotten anywhere in deriving a livable set of rules from my one axiom. I've figured out that I'm allergic to extrinsic* motivation. But this is probably about as far as I can get with pure deduction.
What about music and Go? I play the piano because it summons in me passion and emotions in a way that little else can. Striving to be recognized as a talented pianist is unimportant to me, and I care little for others' opinions on the "proper" way to interpret and express classical music (as my past piano teachers can testify). Similarly with Go, the time I spend playing Go is spent in pursuit of simplicity and elegance, rather than in pursuit of mastery. Go is deceptively simple - the more you learn about it, the more you realize how beautiful it is, and how little you understand about the game. In this respect, it is much like physics and mathematics, in which I've recently revived an interest.
I talked to a professor several months ago. He was an aging scientist who, despite his age and deep ties with the academic system I had learned to detest, retained a sense of curiosity that drove him to continue learning. I came to respect him as we discussed education models, the pursuit of knowledge for curiosity's sake, paradigms overturned, the many problems in academia, and much more. He reminded me that what had originally sparked my love of chemistry was simply curiosity and a desire to know how the world worked. He reminded me that in high school, I had spent countless hours surfing Wikipedia, and that at one point, I had even enjoyed reading science textbooks, immersing myself in them while ignoring the outside world. Then, I changed.
At MIT, I never read Wikipedia except when necessary to fill out my problem sets. I also particularly remember that during my freshman year, I attempted to read my advanced organic chemistry textbook, figuring that I should try to maintain my lead over other chemistry students. I was unable to find the motivation to do so, as if I had nothing left to strive for after the IChO. When I bought Feynman's Lectures on Physics, they sat unopened on my bookshelf until very recently. I should have realized then that at some time during my final year in high school, my reasons for doing chemistry and science had shifted from curiosity to a desire to appear smart. The two genotypes have the same phenotype (so to speak): in both cases, the person appears smart. But the subtle difference between these two genotypes is that one person is busy reading the Feynman Lectures, while the other person goes around, publicly saying "I want to get around to reading the Feynman Lectures at some point". The former is driven by his curiosity; the latter by his desire to impress his peers. (The authors of the Bible understood this very well - see Matthew 6:1-7)
So, I've rediscovered that I am naturally a very curious person. I had forgotten how to be properly curious, probably because olympiads and competitions perverted my incentives. Curiosity is intrinsically* motivated as far as I can tell, and goes hand in hand with seeking. I would be happy to embrace and nurture this part of myself. Going forwards, I should be on the lookout for other intrinsic* motivators/activities that I can be happy with.
This therefore concludes my identity crisis. It merely remains to be seen how robust my new life philosophy is over time. I realize that this feels like a non-conclusion, and this too, is intentional. After trying to think of a clever conclusion, I realized that to write a proper conclusion to this tale would signify that I have stopped growing. My identity is always a work in progress, and so I will instead leave you with one final thought:
I have often wondered whether I would rather have lived in a world where my trajectory was smooth, and I did everything right the first time around, or this world where I ended up taking a four-year side path to figure out something that has been said countless times by other people. I prefer this world, with all of its travails. A strong sense of identity and independent direction in life is a precious thing, not easily earned.