The Examined Life

Socrates taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Presumably he meant that we should take some time to reflect on things. This is of course much easier said than done. For most of my life, I fluctuated between overthinking things and not thinking at all.

I’ll first admit that I still don’t really have a grasp on what I am doing with my life. But believe me it used to be even worse. I didn’t reflect much about my life mostly because I felt like there was just no time to think. When I was in high school, I needed to get good grades to go to a good college. In college there was always an exam and then a cool party. It was always hard to find time to reflect about what I was doing. I regret that. I ended up going down many mistaken paths.

And then for a period of time as college ended I found myself overthinking everything. Which was not productive either. I agonized over which career to pursue. I also agonized over whether or not to break up with my ex (and caused her much suffering). I spent months brooding. I felt emotionally drained, overwhelmed. Sometimes I was paralyzed in my decision-making. At other times I changed my mind incessantly. Many people told me I was overthinking things. And I could not stop.

It’s been said that ours is a generation full of doubt and indecision. I’d be a fool to claim that our generation is any different from other generations. J Alfred Prufrock famously agonized over whether he dared to eat a peach. Let’s not forget Hamlet either. But can we make some progress? Can we approach Socrates’ ideal of the examined life? What does it actually mean to lead an examined life?

~

Over the past year I’ve been trying out a different technique. Every day or two I come home and spend just a few minutes thinking about what made me feel rewarded and content and what made me unhappy and frustrated. Was I motivated and productive? Was my work meaningful? Am I getting better at it? Did I do something for my friends today? What can I do better?

I try to allow those thoughts to sink in and carefully listen to that inner voice. Sometimes I wrote them down and sometimes I wrote them on this blog. Sometimes I deviate a bit and try a new perspective, whether it’s because of a book I read or a person I talked to. And I try to be very honest with myself.

I was surprised to find out some quite unexpected facts about myself. For example, I don’t like startup culture. I was lonely more than I wanted to think I was. I realized that some of the harsh words my mom said to me in my childhood still bothered me. I found out that I was not motivated in my old job. Believe it or not, these facts didn’t fit with who I thought I was. So being honest helped me learn more.

In each case I’d then use what I learned from my reflection to rearrange my life. If I wasn’t satisfied with something that I did, I’d do one thing differently the next day. Call up with a friend. Start walking to a talk that interested me. Plan a holiday. Apply to a job. Write to my mom. Just one small thing. I did this iteratively, incrementally. Every day I learn something and I act on it the next day. So no day is wasted. I don’t wait for some unknown life-changing event. I “just do it.” I live, now.

~

Our culture asks us some big looming capitalized questions – like “Are you following your dreams?” or “Are you living up to your full potential?” I suspect many of them are less consequential than you’d think. I spent the last two years in three places. I can probably live anywhere happily so long as there are loving people I can have interesting conversations with. I’m also confident that there are other career paths out there that I’d be equally happy about. I just happened to stumble into this one. Does it really matter if this is my childhood dream?

In retrospect, many decisions were difficult for me because I cared too much about insignificant things. I saw the world as overwhelmingly complex. Too many potential complications could result from the actions I take. I worried not only about today and tomorrow, but every single day until I’m old and decrepit. I worried about how would I feel and what different people would think about me in every possible outcome. In the language of statistics, I had a dimensionality problem. There are too many variables in my model of the world. And when you have many dimensions to consider, you need a lot of data and a lot of computation to fit the model. Of course I would never have enough data or enough brainpower to figure it all out. To take this analogy a little too far: I ran out of RAM. Blue screen of death.

But I think only a few principal components actually matter. Just a few variables go a long way in explaining happiness and productivity. Think about it. Happiness and productivity probably just have to do with being surrounded by a community of people whom you love and who love you back, having meaningful and achievable goals to occupy yourself with, and realizing that you are incredibly lucky to be alive. What else?

~

Yes, there are still big, hard, painful life decisions to be made. But after I began to listen to myself, I slowly gained a better idea of what mattered to me. And with that knowledge, big decisions became a little less daunting. Once I came to be at peace with the fact I didn’t actually want to be a businessman, my decision to switch careers came pretty easily. Once I had a better sense of who I want my friends to be, putting myself out there to be judged became easier. Certitude came with self-knowledge.

Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” In the same spirit, I just try to focus on the things that actually matter to me – to love and to be a light unto the world as best as I can be. I trust, as Steve Jobs did, that the dots will connect, somehow, someday.

The examined life is hard work. I find that it is also meaningful work. Whether or not we are a more doubtful generation than ones before, I hope our generation is more vigilantly reflective than past ones. As our technologies provide us more options and more possibilities, it is all the more critical that we are able to keep our sight on the things that matter. Developing what we might call spiritual clarity or interior wellbeing can make us more effective people. I suspect a society that understands this will be a happier and more productive one too.

Building Community

Below is an edited version of a blog post for my high school.

I remember my boarding high school years were a mess of social cliques. Even though SPS had much school spirit and many wonderful people, teenagers are teenagers. It was easy to feel isolated, lonely, or alienated, especially coming from a different culture or socioeconomic background.

When I first arrived from Hong Kong, I hardly even comprehended the subtleties of American culture, let alone SPS culture. In my first two years at SPS, I did well academically but struggled to find close friends beyond a few Asians in my dorm. We cooked ramen, watched anime, and were resigned to be social outcasts.

Yet I ended up loving my SPS community. I spent my senior year actively engaged in the school community when I had spent my first years far on the periphery. I found diverse friends, many of which were way cooler than me. I participated in school policy-making, led student groups, and even managed a sports team. I felt supported, loved, and happy. How did this happen?

One true story is that I was simply lucky to have stumbled into a great friend group within my form as it took shape. Another true story is that the teachers, the staff, and wealth of resources provided space for us to bond. But could community have blossomed without the attitudes and actions of our peers?

Over years I began to understand how each of us have the power to shape community. This was most important lesson I learned at SPS and I learned it by observing and learning from a few friends who helped build our friend group.

They had a simple recipe for community building: Invite your friends to hang out with your other friends and make it easy for them to keep interacting. Be inclusive. Then, when they want to hang out, they’ll ask you to come along. A virtuous cycle begins. Soon you’ll be invited to many things.

Our friend group had a few regular activities: A subset would get up at an unreasonable hour to eat “early breakfast” and another would grab sandwiches for lunch at the Tuck Shop together. On Saturday we’d gather in Foster House to watch a movie before heading down to the Rectory. We bantered, debated politics, complained about homework, and trekked out to In A Pinch Cafe. There is almost nothing remarkable about what we did, yet the regularity of our interactions within this loose collection of classmates allowed me to develop deep and life-affirming bonds.

My friends also taught me to be more open to the possibilities of other people. Don’t write anyone off, especially anyone who is written off by everybody else. They will surprise you. Wait long enough, and they will surely surprise you. And if you are kind and appreciate them, they will become your most loyal friends.

I have tried to help build such communities at SPS and beyond, for myself and for others too. It hasn’t always been easy going as it was at SPS, but I know that it is worth it. Not only did my SPS friends sustain me through blizzard and burnout during my SPS years, the deep friendships that resulted from that community also got me through failure and heartbreak as I entered adult life. The secret to community building has made my life many times more wonderful in college and after. I hope you’ll help build communities too. Life is too short to not have many friends.

Things I read often

When talking to some of my friends, I have often discovered that they, like me, keep a list of things to read every now and then. I thought I would post mine here in case anyone else is interested. It is of course a work in progress. Some of these I have linked to in my past posts.

1. David Foster Wallace - “This is water.”

DFW’s classic speech makes the concept of enlightenment concrete in our daily lives. He asks: What is the value of a liberal arts education? How do we response to the grind of adult life? His answer is a fantastic exposition of how to live.

2. Dave Eggers - “Interview with the Harvard Advocate.”

In this interview Eggers reminds us why we shouldn’t worry about what other people think and, even more importantly, why we shouldn’t be dismissive of others. He shows us what it’s like to embrace and to love life. If you like music or literature, you’ll love his references. Feel free to skip right to the addendum, which is where the meat of this article is.

3. Oliver Sacks - “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)”

Oliver Sacks is a wonderful writer. He is full of awe and optimism. His writings help you marvel at the world we live in. He reminds us that there is always a silver lining. One can always find beauty even in what may seem to be dark and difficult situations. This is a lovely piece that I want to revisit as I age.

4. Paul Graham - “How to do what you love.”

I read and reread this article in the past few years as I tried (and still try) to figure out what the heck to do with my life. The key insight of this post is that it is actually very difficult to know what you love. He has a lot of astute observations about how people fail to find what they love. I recommend this for people who are still looking for their purpose in life. It is a great reminder of the effort necessary to be fulfilled.

5. Clay Christensen - “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

Christensen is the kind of academic I’d like to be. An excellent thinker and teacher and human being. He is committed to his family, his Church, and his students. He observes that a number of his classmates at HBS and his fellow Rhodes Scholars ended up in jail. He asks why. He spills his secrets for having a fulfilling and purposeful life. The key? A year of daily hour-long reflection. A constant quest to maintain perspective and see the bigger picture.

6. Radhika Nagpal - “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc.”

Nagpal gives the best advice about how to navigate high pressure environments. It is surprisingly simple. Stop worrying. Find friends. Have fun. A must read for anyone considering an academic career.

7. Youtube - Interview with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem about how to deal with Failure.

This is a video interview of James Murphy talking about his failure as a fledgling artist. He talks about his fear and depression. He talks about taking steps to engage culture.

8. Joel Lowell (NYT) - “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”

Saunders writes powerful, compelling, deep, transforming stories. He teaches you how to be kinder, how to be more vulnerable, how to find beauty all around us. But he’s not always easy to read. I have found this review very useful in summarizing up some of his ideas. It’s not enough, of course, and someday I might supplant this link with something Saunders himself wrote. For now I’ll leave you with this New York Times review wherein you will find many quotations.

9. Thich Nhat Hanh - On Love.

I learned about this little book from my one-time housemate Jamie. In my mind this book captures the secret to having a life full of meaningful, loving relationships with others. It talks about being aware and present for our romantic partners, our friends, our parents and children. It teaches us what it means to love someone, how to understand someone, and how, by understanding them, we can stop hurting them. Indispensible.

New Job

Even before I first started my new job, people started asking me to post an update. What is your new life going to be like? Back then I didn’t have much of an answer. More often than not, my friends’ well-intentioned questioning sounded existential to me: What are you doing with your life!?

Today I hit my three month mark. I’ve finally settled into a routine, and I like it very much. Here comes the full report!

Location: My new desk is located in the Becker Center on the third floor of the business school building at UChicago. At my desk are two monitors, a blazing fast desktop, and a number of books that someone had left behind and I never bothered to remove. The titles include “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Communist Manifesto.” In this rather cramped and messy room are 20 or so other RAs who like me decided to forego the real world. The space is a bit like a bunker. There’s little space between the rows of desks so I frequently have to climb over other people to get in and out. The lights also flicker a lot and there are no windows. (How ironic that I left physics to escape from windowless rooms only to find myself back in one.) There is a wonderful perk to this location, though. I sit right next to Steve Levitt’s office. In fact, I get to see him even more often than when I had worked for him at the Greatest Good.

Bosses: Jesse and Matt. They’re awesome and brilliant.

Job description: The most immediate benefit of this job is that it is much easier to explain than my last. (My mom still thinks I was an IT consultant…) The new job description basically goes like this: My bosses want to answer some research questions and I help out. For example, here are a few research projects I’ve been helping with:

My job is to help answer these questions by chipping away at an easier sub-question. On a given day, I might head to the library to find historical data, write mathematical derivations, write code to simulate a model, draft parts of a paper–to mention a few of the more common tasks. Most of the tasks are quite intellectually challenging. A majority I wouldn’t know how to do until I spent a couple hours thinking or reading. I’m given a lot of independence to figure out how to achieve a research goal and can go about it the way I see is best.

In past jobs I have often been frustrated by the repetition of tasks that can easily be avoided by using the right tools. No longer! I am very happy about the well designed infrastructure that our research group maintains. Our codebase is kept abstracted, well organized and fully versioned. Our team communicates almost entirely via a project management website. At any moment, I know what’s going on in our whole lab and I easily figure out what someone else has done. It is amazing how big of a difference this has made for me.

Another perk is that my bosses encourage outside intellectual pursuit. I spent a good portion of my summer reading up on econometrics and microeconomic theory. I also attended the Chicago Price Theory Summer Camp and a few workshops. It is enormously fun and stimulating to see brilliant economists get really worked up arguing about greek letters and equations. When school starts up, I will be taking classes as well. Eventually, I’ll also start working on my own research, but I’ve got to find questions first!

The one downside is that I perpetually feel dumb. It’s very much like how I had felt when I was a freshman at Harvard, surrounded by people who were brilliant. It is exhilirating, but it’s also a bit painful to see the distance between where I am and where I can be. Thankfully, so far feeling dumb has been motivating rather than demoralizing, so I have not become depressed. Instead the result of feeling dumb is a sense of urgency. In fact, I’ve started to think that an hour I don’t spend learning is an unproductive hour. This has encouraged sloth in other aspects of my life. I’ve been heading to the gym less and cooking less.

Overall I am happy to be alive in intellectual pursuit. It took a few turns to get here. And I do miss my friends, so do come visit.

Beyond Tragedy

A few months ago I traveled to Concord to attend a reunion at my boarding high school. Many words were exchanged between my friends, many things felt, and little of it made sense.

Hugh Koeze wrote a lovely piece about our reunion on his blog where he ponders our motives for coming together. He asks, why did we travel hundreds of miles when a free Skype call could have deepened our friendships? What is it that we were actually looking for? How many people did I really get to know better during our drunken evening? Did we ever really go much beyond small talk? His post provoked me, and we ended up having a few emails back and forth discussing this issue.

Like Hugh, I think there’s some deep psychology going on. We returned to St. Paul’s to reconnect with some story we believe about our life, a story in which we have a home or a group. Hugh, for example, feels unsettled much of the weekend until, at long last, over brunch before we bid farewell, he has recreated the feeling of camaradarie that pervaded our high school years. We go through the rituals of taking photos to construct some identity for ourselves. We were renewing not only our bonds, but also our memories of our bonds.

But, even as we try to relive the memory of a happy time and create happy memories for the future, we confront the loss of our youth, our innocence, our deep and intense friendships of yore. Our reunion forces us to reflect on our life since, and as a result, our reunions were also marked by a tinge of sadness. Hugh writes: “I have real doubts that my friends will ever be as together as we were in high school. That sounds trite, but I believe it’s a real tragedy.”

As trite as it may sound, Hugh is right: Our reunions show us exactly why adulthood is hard. It is hard because to be an adult is to deal with tragedies. As kids, we operated in a safe environment where forgiveness is easy and hurt can be undone. Now actions have real consequences. We can’t just move back to be with our friends or parents. We can’t turn the clocks back. We realize, all of a sudden, that our bodies can’t handle the same amount of alcohol anymore. And we realize that we’ve hurt someone else even if we didn’t want to. We’re also still hurt from some event that we can no control over. A quarter of our lives are behind us and there are no more graduations to look forward to. This might be it. The grind.

~

Recently I tried to help a friend grapple with traumatic childhood experiences. Even after a decade they still bother her on a daily basis. Her memories of alienation make it difficult for her to build deep friendships with strangers even today. She told me that she hates all the people in her middle school because they “robbed” of her good memories of her childhood. I didn’t really know what to say in response. She’s right. She cannot get those memories back. There’s something tragic about it, even though it hardly seems dramatic. So then, how can I help my friend? How can we respond to adulthood?

I can think of a few approaches we might take when confronted with a tragedy.

We can tell ourselves a story that makes us feel better. This is what my high school friends tried to do by returning to SPS. We were telling ourselves a version of a story about our own lives, one that included deep friendships, common identity, and a sense of belonging. And perhaps that is why we started a “War on Terror” in response to 9/11, to pretend to have some control over our destiny. Or why we care so much about our histories.

We can also rely on some simple principles so we don’t feel so lost. We boil the complexity of life into some simple principles or rules of thumb. We look up quotations to make ourselves feel better. We tell ourselves that time will heal everything. Of course stories and principles are really not so different. Both are attempts to simplify the complexities of life so that we might understand better – or at least feel like we understand. Stories and principles go hand in hand; together they describe much of religion and moral philosophy, even self-help books. To deal with the terror of tragedy, we turn to simplication.

Now simplification is unavoidable. The world is too complex for humans to understand otherwise. But simplication is also dangerous. To simplify things is to be untruthful. Any simplification necessarily hides aspects of the true thing. When we try to describe something in prose or in mathematical models, we can never describe it fully. To actually come close to understanding a tragedy requires an nimble intellect. We need the invention of many languages to help us probe and express the truth. We need the diverse arts and the many disciplines of the academy. It also takes buckets of honesty to see things clearly. Only then can we begin to grasp the true stories and true principles. It is real hard work.

You might ask: Can’t we just pretend? Why do we need truthful stories instead of mere story? Why must we work so hard? Surely we don’t need deep understanding to move on emotionally after a tragedy. For millennia humans have told fantastic stories about the afterlife; is that not enough? But, without a deep understanding how can we avoid causing tragedies again? Surely, there is something to the saying: “History does not repeat itself. Fools repeat history.” We can’t merely seek comfort from mythologies; instead we must learn the lessons of history. Proper understanding gives us to possibility to get past some tragedies. Tragedies such as polio, injustice, or war. Our ancestors’ desire for truth has surely allowed us to prosper advance far beyond our hunting-gathering predecessors; we must continue in that tradition. And so it is in our personal lives. Facing up to the truth will help us grow up. It will let us stop hurting ourselves and other others. So, yes, it is not enough to just simplify. We need to actually understand.

But we also need something more. Understanding summons our demons, illuminates them, weakens their spectre, but we may yet need more strength to finally exorcise them. And for that strength I know of no source more powerful than love. Or, if you prefer, compassion, or empathy, or fellowship. I think of the stages of grief after a break-up. It’s horrible at first. Then I go through some process to understand and interpret the events. I begin, perhaps, to see my relationship for what it was or to understand the inevitability of its end. I begin to learn my mistakes. I reorient to a new reality. I accept it and I am content again. Each and every step would be so much harder without the support and love of friends. As George Saunders said, “We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.” The hippies were not wrong; love and understanding constitute our salvation

~

And so, I loved this part of Hugh’s conclusion: “Let’s not be embarrassed about wanting to see each other. I want to see my friends, and I’ll go much further than Concord to make sure I do.” It’s all in there. Empathy and honesty and fellowship. Exactly the things we need to move past a tragedy. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s poem: “Ah love, let us be true…” Hugh captures that same sentiment in words that we postmodern 23 year olds understand.

I only wish Hugh’s tone was less wistful in the preceding paragraphs. As much as he recognizes the tragic reality, his tone fails to disguise his wish to be wrong about it. This is understandable; denial often the least painful way of coping with tragedy. The lives in front of us may be depressing. As we grow up, we become dispersed. We get tied down and become increasingly isolated. Jobs. Kids. Mortgages. Then we become empty-nested. Then we die. I have seen nothing lonelier than when my grandma withered away. This happens to people. Each of us. It’s reasonable that we avoid this truth; we wish it away. We curate happy memories for relief; we numb ourselves. We avoid living. We pretend we’re not lonely and think it’s embarrassing.

But, as a response to tragedy, this isn’t enough. Like Hugh wrote, we don’t have to be embarrassed about wanting to see each other. We need not always rely on half-truths. We need not be asleep in curated memories. Instead we can be alive in the moment and do some good before we die. Yes, that darkness may be daunting; things may seem hopeless. So we cling to whatever source of hope and light we have. And we employ all the tools available to help grow that glimmer of hope: We lean on our friendships. We reflect and we deepen our understanding. We meditate or pray. We write and express and create. We open up. We reach out to someone in hopes that they will give meaning to our lives. And in so doing, we strengthen ourselves and we strengthen each other. We weaken our demons and face down darkness. We stop hating and we start to love. Because to affirm life, to move past tragedy, to love – that is greatness. It’s going to be so hard sometimes, but it is possible. I have seen it in a woman who suffered war and destitution.

We must try and we must have hope.