Mid-Semester Reflections

After finishing off papers and midterms this past week, I took a few days to reflect on how my values have changed since I first articulated them here. On first thought, my stated values have not changed. I still try to make choices to optimize values of personal growth (rephrased from “self-enrichment”) and achievement, and looking ahead now, it seems that my values could stay this way forever (with the likely added on value of deep relationships)! But a few things bug me about this (although I wouldn’t call them strong claims):

    • Other people live by different values and seem equally contented to prefer their own to any other values. I’ve twice asked each of 10 friends, “What are your values?”—once a year ago and once now. None of their answers have changed, although their values vary as widely as intellectual stimulation and power and they have all undergone the formative experiences of college. What bothers me is not that my friends and I all differ from each other in values (for this may simply reflect differing utility preferences), but that none of us differs from our past selves despite being exposed to changing friend groups, life experiences in different countries, or personal crises.
    • This excerpt from Anna Karenina (which I was reading right before this reflection) hit home the point that there may be some bias (beyond rational justification) in preferring your values to alternate ones (because you chose your values for a good reason, right?):

      [Oblonsky and Levin] were fond of one another in spite of the difference of their characters and tastes, as friends are fond of one another who have been together in early youth. But in spite of this, each of them—as is often the way with men who have selected careers of different kinds—though in discussion he would even justify the other’s career, in his heart despised it. It seemed to each of them that the life he led himself was the only real life, and the life led by his friend was a mere phantasm (1.5.26).

    • Many great people in the past led their lives with values completely different from personal growth and achievement. Gandhi espoused love while Winston Churchill always seemed to follow courage. Although the difference in values might again be due to differences in utility functions, why have I never considered these other values to optimize?

These three things suggest some bias in my methodology for initially choosing values a year ago. (Important aside: The function that values play in my decision-making is purely heuristic. My goal is to optimize my utility function, not necessarily my values. Values are variables such as personal growth that I’ve noticed are positively correlated with my utility preferences, so they become useful when I make decisions, because instead of thinking, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that is a maximum of my utility function somewhere random in my search space of possible decisions,” I can say, “I should read Anna Karenina right now because that optimizes a combination of my personal growth and achievement, of which in general I know I prefer to have more instead of less.” In other words, for me, choosing certain concepts to be values solely serves the purpose of helping me search my decision space more efficiently.)

Keeping that purpose in mind, what’s the bias in my methodology for choosing values? I first chose values that summer after freshman year by straightforwardly reflecting on my past and thinking about the times in my life which I preferred the most. Then I looked for commonalities between these times, and set these commonalities (such as personal growth) to be the values I would strive for in the present. My choices for “preferred” times in life were probably influenced by faults in memory, what my friends and family implied that I prefer, and the limited range of my own experiences and others’ that I witnessed. Looking back, this has obvious flaws:

    • I will only ever optimize values I’ve experienced a lot, and those values will probably be those I’ve optimized. So personal growth and achievement will never change. Claiming that these 2 values are better heuristics than other values when I haven’t tried the others is like trying out 2 slot machines in an entire casino of slot machines giving out different payoffs and saying, “These 2 that I’ve picked surely reward the most!” This is like exploitation-only in the exploration-exploitation tradeoff from reinforcement learning.
    • Even when it is possible for my values to diverge from these 2 (because I do witness and see the merits of other values in my friendships, and often make spontaneous choices that deviate from growth and achievement), my existing values are solidified by my local environment. Being surrounded by Harvard student culture reinforces values of growth and achievement through constant interactions at meals, in classes, and in the daily disorder of students walking around and bumping into each other. This local world reinforces values not only through direct conversation, but also the activities people choose and even their clothes (e.g. the many suits you’d see around Harvard are associated with achievement).

So I wish to look beyond the limitations of my own faulty memory, personal life experience, local world, and even this 21st century era for value exploration. That’s why I’m beginning to look at values of “great” people in history by studying the lives they lived, to (1) draw on them for my own value exploration and (2) compare their values with the values of people in my local world today as a case study of the variance of values across time period and local worlds. This is my plan in particular until the end of January (I selected the people below based on diversity of values, my personal curiosity, and availability of literature or Harvard expertise on them):

    • Overview the lives of Einstein, Tolstoy, Truman, John Rockefeller, Catherine the Great, Gandhi, Darwin, Hitler, and Ayn Rand via biographical and autobiographical material, as well as interviews with Harvard professors and researchers (e.g. Janet Browne is a foremost expert on Darwin). (EDIT: I added Hitler and Ayn Rand based on excellent suggestions by Ben Kuhn and Josephine Chen to consider people with less “admirable” values or utility functions.)
    • Conduct 10 interviews with a sample of students and professors from Harvard to similarly overview their lives and understand their values and these values’ origins. List so far: Ben Kuhn.
    • Post weekly reflections condensing the content of these studies and my takeaways.
    • Write a final blog post at January’s end that includes (a) my updated values and (b) comparisons/contrasts of the values of the “great” people and Harvard students/professors, both within these groups and between them.

Thoughts? If you think you can do better, want to help, have suggestions for people to study, or happen to be at Harvard and want to be interviewed yourself, please comment and/or message me here!

2 thoughts on “Mid-Semester Reflections

  1. This is a really interesting plan! I look forward to hearing what you come up with.

    – I suspect that getting an abstract/intellectual understanding of other people’s values, while useful, won’t be enough to substantially shift your own preferences, though. In addition to learning about other people’s values, are you planning on trying to actually implement them?
    – I think it would be instructive to consider failure modes as well as success stories. I can’t think of any particular examples of people who were obviously wrong about their values, but if you can, these might be useful test cases as well. Ayn Rand might be the closest example I can think of, though not too close–I’ve heard good things about The Ayn Rand Cult (http://www.amazon.com/The-Rand-Cult-Jeff-Walker/dp/0812693906) as a summary of Objectivism’s issues.
    – Also, happy to be interviewed, of course 🙂

    1. Thanks Ben!

      – I am considering implementing other values I discover (you’re right that an abstract understanding of others’ values won’t be enough to help me fully appreciate them). This depends on what I discover about these other values =)
      – Other people (Josephine Chen) have given me the same feedback about finding people with failure modes (including Hitler, Stalin, or less extreme versions). Ayn Rand sounds interesting – I don’t know much about her values (although that’s a reason to study her!). I’ve added “failure mode” people above.
      – Yes, let’s interview you =)

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