Autonomy and Purpose as Motivators

Dan Pink in his book Drive lays out 3 factors in motivating people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. While I’m not generally a fan of high-level theory that oversimplifies and (in its abstractness) provides little enlightenment, I have found that breaking down motivation problems into these 3 factors has made my thinking clearer and helped me solve motivation problems (in both myself and friends). I guess I’ve come to appreciate this theory much more after using it in practice.

Here’s another example of this theory in practice, thanks to my global health class teaching assistant Jan-Walter de Neve (this video presents his brother’s research). Paying taxes is not a very motivating process right now, but giving the taxpayer more autonomy (by allowing her some say in where her money goes, even if she only gets to recommend rather than actually make the final choice in where it goes) and purpose (by showing her the government budget and thus giving her context for the purpose of her taxpaying) increases how motivated the taxpayer is in the process. Watch the video to learn more!


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!

Parallel between NGO-Donor and Startup-Investor Relationships

From what I hear, one reason that startups fail is that their visions don’t line up with their investors’. A vision disconnect between the people who are the startup and the people feeding money to the startup leads to an end to funding, replacing some founders, or some other kind of nasty outcome.

The disconnect’s origins make perfect sense. A team of founders and a team of investors both spend lots of time developing their own hypotheses (about business opportunities or the direction of technology or a specific industry), and by the time startup meets investor to raise funding, there is often little overlap. Founders spend their time executing the details of specific visions, while investors meet with many companies and hypothesize broad visions; it’s easy to see why the two sides’ hypotheses don’t often overlap. Unfortunately for the startup, whether the investor funds the startup is exactly the same question as whether the two sides’ visions overlap!

Let me give an example. One of my friends (let’s call him Adam) is building a company that makes data visualization software for wealth managers. Adam told me about his first interaction with one of his prospective investors:

He got really excited when I first explained my company to him, especially when I told him about the partnerships we’ve landed. Then he started asking me these weird questions that had nothing to do with the company. “Are you guys incorporating social?” he asked. “Not in the near future… that doesn’t really fit in our product,” I said. “OK… how about mobile?” “No… not yet.” “Local?” “I don’t think our product has synergies with location either…” After each “no,” he looked more and more disappointed, and I was confused about his questions and dwindling enthusiasm, until I realized it was because he really wanted to invest but my company didn’t fit into any of the theses of his firm – social, mobile, and local!

So Adam didn’t get money because his vision for data visualization for finance didn’t overlap with an investor’s vision for social, mobile, and local.

Interestingly, there is a very parallel relationship in the global health world between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and donors. Just like startups, non-profit global health NGOs need to raise money to fund their worldwide personnel, materials (any medicines or malaria bed nets, for example), administrative costs, transportation, and any physical capital. So they turn to (often international) private donors to raise money. But just like investors, these donors have their own personal visions for what kind of health solutions they want to see.

One example I picked up in my global health class is the influence of neoliberal philosophy on donors in the 1970s. (Take this interpretation of global health solutions with a grain of salt, but consider it.) According to Professor Salmaan Keshavjee at Harvard Medical School, the economic crisis in the 1970s led to blaming government regulation as the crisis’s cause, and a “justification” to revive a decades-old philosophy of neoliberalism – which argued for the free market’s ability to distribute resources and questioned efficiency of most government intervention. This neoliberal spirit manifested itself not only in the election of conservative leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also in the shifting policies of global health leaders like the World Bank president Robert McNamara. For health policy, the neoliberal current was the call for free market instead of public sector solutions to distribute health care. The example of people like McNamara set the tone for pro-neoliberal donors.

One instance of this is the influence of international donors in swaying the Ugandan health care system to implement user fees. User fee programs required citizens to pay for medicine, a reversal of medicine previously freely offered by the government. As you can imagine, in a poor country like Uganda, user fees had the effect of substantially reducing access to healthcare, and many families ended up unable to pay to maintain even their basic health. User fee programs were part of this broader neoliberal philosophy that called for free market rather than public sector health care solutions. Even though Uganda’s national health care system worried about the risk of such programs on citizens, it had to implement them because the alternative was to have no money at all, and some Ugandans were worse off because of it.

What are the lessons between the NGO-donor relationship and startup-investor relationship? One key takeaway is that so long as both sides’ priorities are matched, such situations don’t have to occur. The next question, then, is whether or not there exist enough donors with priorities closely aligned with those of NGOs and developing nations (I’m going to focus on the problem for these actors because they seem to be the worst off). And based on the dreadful state of health in many developing nations despite billions of dollars of funding, my guess is that not enough of these vision-aligned donors exist. If that’s true, how can we create more of these? Building potential donors’ awareness and empathy to win them over to the priorities of health organizations on the ground (rather than the donors’ intellectual priorities) might be the answer.

Notes for Harvard Fall 2013

I am now posting notes for school and other main goals for my junior fall semester at Harvard. Check out my open notes page.

I am posting notes for these classes:

  • Computer Science 229r: Big Data Algorithms
  • English 157: Classic Phase of the Novel
  • Math 122: Abstract Algebra 1
  • Societies of the World 25: Case Studies in Global Health
  • Statistics 221: Statistical Computing and Learning
  • MIT 6.804: Computational Cognitive Science

Identity Statements and Small Wins

Kanjun shared with me a very intriguing (and simple!) piece about habits yesterday. The idea is to visualize and say things about the person you want to be – the identity you want to have – rather than the actions you want to do. I’m not sure how true it is that actions do actually derive from identity in the post’s identity-spawns-action-spawns-appearance model (I don’t know any scientific basis for this), but as with many things in life hacking and psychology, we can still change ourselves by changing how we think (e.g. the language and emotions we think in) even if we don’t understand the scientific mechanism by which that changes our actions.

James Clear (the post’s author) suggests leading off with statements like “I’m the kind of person who never misses a free write” or “I’m the kind of person who reads for half an hour each day” or “I’m the kind of person who turns all of his notes into compact learnings so that he understands better what he has learned.” I personally hold all of these desires for identity, with additional desires like “I’m the kind of person who never misses a workout” or “I’m the kind of person who never misses a call with a friend” or “I’m the kind of person who follows through on project ideas.” The point of such identity statements is to use the powerful and usually inhibitive inertia that such static statements impose on our actions (e.g. “I’m not going to talk to her because I’m just the shy kind of person who can’t talk to girls”) to keep us in our new habits when we do switch from old habits to new ones! (Imagine not being able to not socialize because you’re just the kind of person who talks to everyone – there’s no use in trying to fix that problem or change your ways of being outgoing because that’s just who you are.) The concept of using inertia to change is as simple and exciting as using a virus’s ability to inject DNA into cells in order to inject genes that can cure diseases – gene therapy!

Identity-based habits hypothesize that thinking in the language of actions is less compelling than thinking in the language of identity. Ironically, we often tend to describe our (desired) identities in terms of the actions we do because actions paint amazing pictures of the identities that spawn from. For example, the identity “I’m the kind of person who never misses a workout” immediately brings to mind the picture of a student who wakes up at 7:30am each morning, puts on his running shoes and breathable waterproof shirt and short shorts, jogs for 3 miles in the cold alongside the Charles River, comes back to his dorm at Eliot House to eat a protein-rich breakfast with some carbs for recovery, and at the end of the day sleeps promptly at 12am so that he can do it all over again the next day. The most vivid descriptors of this student’s identity in my mind are actions he takes that spawn from an identity of a “healthy and ritualistic person,” yet had I just used adjectives like “healthy” and “ritualistic” to describe him, I would not have nearly as accurate a depiction of his identity. So we need actions and visualizations in general to depict identities, yet making habits out of those actions themselves (e.g. “I will wake up at 7:30am each morning”) is not compelling without tying the actions to the larger picture of the identity they spawn from, according to identity-based habits. That’s why adding the phrase “kind of person” into our thinking about habits (e.g. “I am the kind of person who wakes up at 7:30am each morning”) makes such a difference.

So identity-based habits might work better than action-based habits for reasons of inertia and visualization. The key step to adopting these identity-based habits, then, is to prove that you are “the kind of person who wakes up at 7:30am each morning.” The way to do that is very simple – wake up at 7:30am each morning! In general, proving to yourself that you are who you say you are that means small wins, which is Clear’s term for taking small steps to achieve your identity (called “baby steps” or “incremental habits” by others). I like this term because “wins” builds confidence and “small” reminds me to keep my wins small and not obsess about achieving a lot at once, because even seemingly small actions are changing and proving my identity. I don’t have to bench press 300 pounds right now in order to be “the kind of person who bench presses 300 pounds”; I can start with 50 push-ups each day and still be that “kind of person”!

The distinction between changing identity and changing actions is an important one. C.S. Lewis describes the distinction well in the context of just identity and just actions in his Mere Christianity (what he says here has general application beyond Christianity):

There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is the man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. They have a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician’s mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of “virtue.”

With this is mind, I’ve decided to start this week with a few identity habits and small wins of my own. See Open Habits to keep posted on my experiment.

Open Notes

One of my obsessions is to learn how to learn. I constantly experiment with new ways of learning more efficiently and expanding my capacity to learn, understand, and memorize.

One of the practices I’ve found most helpful for learning is – to quote my high school physics teacher Bill Dunbar – to know “where I’ve been, where I’m am, and where I’m going.” In other words, it is incredibly helpful to put any learning experience in the context of what I’ve previously learned by reusing and building upon this previous learning in my current learning, and in the context of what I seek to learn by giving current learning some motivation or direction based on this envisioned destination of future learning. Another way to say this is that I translate and simplify everything I learn into my own language, whether that language is a mathematical language (e.g. I picture my theory about relative happiness as an absolute happiness curve minus its moving average over time), an athletic one (e.g. I view most traits, including my own productivity, as capable of being trained through a planned schedule of concentrated rituals that are designed in the same stress-recovery mindset as weightlifting and interval training), a Bayesian one, or a photographic one. As mentioned in Moonwalking with Einstein, this helps with memory due to the chunking phenomenon – by building each piece of new knowledge in terms of a few chunks or concepts that I have already packaged into a few words or images (e.g. one already packaged chunk is my image of the graph for quantities that are relative over time in the happiness example above, and another chunk is my conception of the word “training,” which encodes my experience with training in sports as a set of highly focused stress-recovery rituals), I can more easily remember and draw connections between different parts of my learning. And isn’t that was learning is – just remembering new information and synthesizing and connecting it with what I already know?

A big part of this translation is taking what I learn during class lectures, talks, reading, or interesting conversations with friends and chunking a lot of information into a few big ideas. Taking notes to articulate what I just learned right after coming out of lecture is a good way to do this, but I’ve yet to chunk as well and as often as I’d like (it takes time) in addition to taking notes just to record my learning in general. To ritualize chunking and (as an auxiliary benefit) spark some conversation regarding what I’m learning, I will begin to open source my notes from all of my learning experiences and chunk the interesting thoughts on this blog from this point onward.

You can find my (raw) open notes here, which include class notes from this semester at Harvard as well as various talks that I’ve attended and found interesting.

Treatise on Startup, Part 1

Why “do startups”? It’s hard to imagine a phenomenon in recent memory that has had a stronger stranglehold on the imagination of young, ambitious America. Popularized and made sexy by The Social Network and $1 billion Instagram exits, startups have become the combination of all American principles and definitions of success – rags-to-riches, fame, be-your-own-boss individualism, exploration of unknown frontiers, powerful impact on society, and (for the younger generation) a cool combination of technology and business. The potential to achieve success and become the 21st century American technological cowboy has led many to “do startups,” while this very same prospect of danger has scared others away into less risky pursuits.

So why do startups? One certainty is that it doesn’t make sense to “do startup” without thinking about what startups are designed to accomplish or why starting a company might be important to the founder. I’m not going to support or criticize any of the above “success” criteria as reasons for pursuing startups, because the validity of each reason depends completely on the individual. Then a better question to ask is, “Why should you do startups?”

Below, I outline the framework that I use to answer this question. I hope this framework confirms or adds perspective to the seasoned entrepreneur, the incipient dabbler, and the uninformed outsider. If you’ve read other posts from this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn that this framework for deciding whether to pursue startup and which startup to work on builds first and foremost upon the personal value system (just like everything else).

Start from your value system. What do you care about most, and what are the principles you live by? Those are the values you aspire for in your everyday activities; they constitute your value system. If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, your value system likely includes something like “making an impact beyond self,” in which case you probably (perhaps subconsciously) see specific things in the world worth impacting. Then you have some vision for the world that is different from the status quo. You’ve developed this vision after years of life experience, collecting data from your environment and (subconsciously) synthesizing that data into intuition and world view.

Articulate this world view. Then you can articulate the differences between this world vision and the status quo. What are the biggest differences as measured by your values? For example, one of your values might be learning, which might mean that you care about everyone learning together in a collaborative, college-like style because in your experience this style has helped you learn the most. So you might envision a world in which learning from kindergarten onward emphasizes social interactions with others in addition to (or even instead of) individualistic classroom-style learning or rote memorization of knowledge; this refocusing of the education system is your “difference.”

“Differences” could be solutions to present problems that frustrate you beyond belief (e.g. ridding of inefficiency in our healthcare system) or improvements you could not see the future possibly living without (e.g. cheap knowledge of my personal genome). Choose one such “difference” – let’s call it an “innovation.” Do you personally wish to invest the effort to create this innovation? You should consider how creating this innovation would optimize your personal values (e.g. how much would you learn? How much would you enjoy the struggle and unknown of solving this problem? How much money would you make?). If one of the values you’re optimizing is world impact, you have to be especially careful to not assume anything in measuring the impact of this innovation. You have to find out if enough other people value your innovation, an undertaking I call “problem discovery” (in business talk, “market research”). Go further than cold-calling one hundred potential customers (i.e. people you plan to impact) and asking each if he/she would value this innovation; in many cases, you’ll have to envision or even prototype a minimum viable product that your customers actually use to help them understand how much they value (e.g. how much they’d pay for) your innovation; you’ll probably even want to fairly sample your customer base beforehand and construct an entire demand curve to know who places what value on your innovation. Be sure to ask your customers questions about related innovations too, and to sense them beyond asking questions, because you might then choose a slightly different innovation for a slightly different customer group that achieves much more impact and similarly satisfies your other values.

Just as you should be meticulous measuring your innovation’s impact if you value impact, you should be equally deliberate in measuring your innovation’s achievement of your other values. Evaluating your potential innovation based on your values should tell you whether you actually want to make it happen. Compare the world in which you’re creating this innovation to worlds in which you’re pursuing other fulfilling activities, and evaluate your opportunity cost based on your values. Given that you could invest the same energy and time elsewhere, do you still want to do this?

If you do, the next question is how to do so. Notice that I haven’t mentioned the word “startup” in this framework once up to this point. That’s because many of the innovations you’d want to create are not best facilitated in a startup or even a business. For instance, you may wish to solve one of Hilbert’s unsolved problems in order to contribute to mathematical thinking around the world; this is probably best done in academia. You may want to change the way that the United States conducts foreign policy; this is probably best done in government. But a surprisingly large number of innovations are best facilitated by companies and startups specifically. Startups in particular have the mission-oriented aspect that makes them great facilitators for innovation. Just by their smaller size, they have lower n-squared bilateral communication costs (because the cost of transferring information between each pair in a company scales quadratically with the company size). Just by smaller size, startups have a higher concentration of people strongly aligned in a similar version of the above personal philosophy. Peter Thiel speaks on why it’s difficult to innovate on your personal mission in other environments:

The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. There’s something wrong with big companies, governments, and non-profits. Perhaps they can’t recognize financial needs; the federal government, hamstrung by its own bureaucracy, obviously overcompensates some while grossly undercompensating others in its employ. Or maybe these entities can’t handle personal needs; you can’t always get recognition, respect, or fame from a huge bureaucracy. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.

This is why good entrepreneurs build startups (and, in my opinion, the only valid reason for you to build them) – because their values drive them to achieve some innovation in their world vision that doesn’t currently exist, and because startups happen to best facilitate this innovation and mission. Why do I think that this is the right philosophy for thinking about startup? Simply because this philosophy is consistent with the entrepreneur’s (and the human’s) fundamental individual decision-making framework by building on his/her values. The fact that the choice to pursue a specific startup springs forth from personal values keeps the entrepreneur motivated, visionary, and certain that that specific startup is where the entrepreneur wants to invest energy. Imagine asking such entrepreneurs why they are working on their startups. In essence, you’d be asking, “Why are you doing something that you’ve determined is in highest accordance with your values… Wait, never mind; silly question.” The entrepreneurs’ responses would just be a matter of articulating values and vision.

This being said, I certainly don’t advocate consciously thinking at such a high level 24/7 while working on a startup. Too much pondering and optimizing at this level makes it impossible to focus and actually experiment without the fear of being wrong. But values and vision in the above philosophy are things I believe all good entrepreneurs keep in the back of their minds, and they are things that good entrepreneurs revisit every once in a while to paint the big picture for themselves and their teammates. You can tell when you’re talking with a good entrepreneur; ask any question, and the answer you get is some piece of a bigger world vision that forms a clear picture in the entrepreneur’s mind and drives the excitement in the entrepreneur’s voice. As you ask more questions, you get more puzzle pieces that you can fit together into a world vision. How do you know if you’d like working with, investing in, or even buying from this entrepreneur? Ask yourself how beautiful his/her vision is to you.


Thanks to quite a few of you who have reached out to me regarding my last post. Your comments not only continued my thinking about memorability and how it relates to my value framework, but also helped me realize how many of us are thinking through similar questions. I want to share how I’ve been thinking about these questions and ask about your philosophical processes – how have you arrived at the beliefs you hold today, and (more importantly) the questions you wonder about today?

For me, I suppose that each person lives according to some framework or value system (which may change), and within each framework each person has some goal or objective function. My goal is to optimize my self-chosen values; for others, the goal could be to discover some fundamental truth about the workings of the world or to serve as a mirror image of God. Throughout life, each person is trying to best achieve this goal.

I personally view achieving my goal as a reinforcement learning problem. I best achieve my goal by pursuing exploration (i.e. gathering information to figure out which activities would best achieve my goal) and exploitation (i.e. gathering immediate reward from activities that I already know achieve my goal pretty well, even if they’re not globally optimal). Although this tradeoff is an entire fascinating discussion in of itself, I am more interested in discussing exploration here because I feel that exploitation is something that is personally specific and straightforward (i.e. everyone knows of activities and experiences that accord with his or her own framework, and it’s pretty intuitive to figure out how to keep exploiting those activities) while exploration is a less straightforward pursuit filled with common challenges.

In exploration, I am Bayesian updating, i.e. I have some prior belief on which activities achieve my goal and update my belief with each new incoming piece of information or experience, hopefully honing in (accurately) on “best” activities as time goes on. Now each of my updates has two steps: 1) retrieving the new piece of information and experience, and 2) incorporating that into a new belief on best activities. To borrow words from Confucius, doing 1) and 2) is akin to “learning” and “thinking.” I first learn things: I observe how my friends’ reactions differ when I walk up to them smiling instead of frowning; I swim in a pool and capture sensory details from my environment; I go to topology lecture and finally have some (vague) understanding of manifolds; I notice that I feel less sad after my second house move than my first; etc. Then I think about these things, subconsciously or not; I somehow incorporate these learnings into my beliefs about which activities best achieve my goals of self-enriching and achieving.

It’s intuitive why and how I should do step one of learning. To again draw on machine learning analogy, the more data I have, the more informed I am to (generally) make better decisions and have a closer approximation of the optimum. If learning is good, how do I learn more? I try new things; I have different conversations everyday, explore different cuisines everytime I move to another city, go to college to expose myself to diverse people and pursuits, etc. Especially as babies, humans exhibit these learning tendencies by putting everything in our mouths or touching anything in sight; I think these learning inclinations are innate to all of us.

I also think we innately know why and how they should do step two of thinking. However, it’s much harder for me to articulate how I think in the same way that I just articulated how I learn. I could again offer the Bayesian analogy and say that when I think, I calculate the probability that what I just learned is actually true given my prior belief on optimal activities, and use that to update my beliefs (the improbability of each of my “learnings” correlates with how drastically I should shift my beliefs). But that calculation step is still a black box, both in actuality and in my attempt to explain it intuitively.

From personal experience, I’m going to offer intuition on how this black box works. In some ways, I think of the input-output process of this updating black box – which turns learning input into new belief output – as I would think about solving a math problem – which turns an input set of assumptions or conditions into an output set of answers or implications. More often than not, I start with techniques I already know that might help me get part of the way to the answer (e.g. draw the figure out on paper); then in the likely case that I still need to do more, I start experimenting with simple and intuitive or related approaches, often with many unfruitful trials, until finally I get that “aha” intuition, however fuzzy or hand-wavy it may be. Then I spend the rest of my effort trying to precisely explain that intuition and mold it exactly into an answer. In my mind, updating proceeds similarly. If I observe a learning input that is already very consistent with my prior beliefs, I can just leave my existing prior untouched (akin to using my existing “techniques”). If I see a novel learning input, subconsciously I try to connect it with previous related thought processes or learning experiences, with many of these attempted connections striking no personally resonant chord until I get some “aha” connection that for some reason “feels right” to me. Once I get that “aha”, I spend time consciously thinking or writing about this connection until I can articulate it precisely and make it consistent with the rest of my newly updated beliefs.

Concretely, I think that the “aha” intuitions happen mostly subconsciously and are brought out by events mostly beyond my control – during discussions with friends, a certain question or comment may spark revelation; a new pursuit like photography could help me notice something new and groundbreaking about the subject; or during free-writing I might let my consciousness stream and end up on a topic I never would’ve chosen to write about. Once I get these “ahas”, I try to talk through them with my friends or think and write about them explicitly in order to articulate them into my new belief set.

Some might then conclude that these “ahas,” not articulation ability, are the limiting factor to this updating because we can’t control them and therefore they must be some rare, magical occurrences. But “ahas” are only a limiting factor if few of them occur, and while we cannot directly control our “ahas,” we can affect the number of belief updates that we have to do by increasing the amount of learning we do, so that we update more frequently and more easily (with each new learning, we just have so many more things we can use to make those “aha” connections!).

This formulation of exploration has led me to balance my amount of learning (i.e. undergoing new experiences without necessarily thinking about how they help me achieve my values) with thinking (i.e. converting my learning into an updated set of beliefs and prediction machine). I used to think it incredibly important to think about things before learning or experimenting with them. After all, isn’t it much more efficient and powerful if I can predict something by thinking about it rather than having to actually conduct an experiment? It turns out that thinking, both in process and input, thrives on existing data (i.e. learning), and that thinking without learning can lead to fruitless mind-racking and “dangerously” wrong conclusions, to quote Confucius.

To accelerate my exploration process, I also ask myself how to increase “ahas.” We unintendedly do so in our daily (often bilateral) conversations and active pursuit of novelty (see post on memorability). But can we specifically design situations that would bring out lots of “ahas”? I think one way to do so is to have multilateral conversations through which we can broadcast and collect our learnings and beliefs in a many-to-many model rather than one-to-one discussions or self-contained thought processes. That many-to-many conversation is what I hope to spark with my thoughts and questions here on this blog. I encourage you to help initiate and participate in the discussion as well!


Many of my friends know I consciously live my life according to a value system – I choose pursuits that optimize two values, self-enrichment and achievement. I’ve picked these values based on what I’ve (perhaps subconsciously) noted about myself and my priorities over the past decade or so. Then I’ve built in rituals into my daily life that facilitate me fully pursuing these pursuits that optimize my values, including physical enrichment (working out in the morning, with lifting MWF and swimming TSa), intellectual enrichment (allocating half an hour to read for leisure every night), and even a set of times and places during the day when I work exclusively on startup or school. I adhere to rituals because once I get used to them, it takes little energy to “be disciplined” and follow them, and I spend less time wondering what I’m going to do next or how my rituals contribute to my grander value system.

I’ve been confident that this is the best way to live my life. When I say “best,” I mean according to this framework of optimizing for self-enrichment and achievement. But yesterday, while reading Joshua Foer’s Moonwalk with Einstein, I came across a passage that led me to reexamine my framework. The book documents Foer’s experience of training for the US Memory Championship, and the specific passage that provoked me describes Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke seeking to make his life maximally memorable by packing his life with memories. Foer suggests that because we remember events relative in time to other events in our lives (e.g. I had my first kiss after that Flight Deck ride at Great America, after getting soaked on the Logger ride, etc.), we can make our lives more memorable just by increasing the number and novelty of experiences (e.g. the number and novelty of “afters” in the above sequence).

After I read this, the idea of maximum memorability began to resonate with me. One of Foer’s statements in particular articulates this seemingly strange resonance:

Like the proverbial tree that falls without anyone hearing it, can an experience that isn’t remembered be meaningfully said to have happened at all? Socrates thought the unexamined life was not worth living. How much more so the unremembered life?

Another explanation for my resonance with maximum memorability is its natural interpretation as maximizing psychological lifetime, or subjective experience of time, if we merely measure this “time” by number and novelty of experiences. I find subjective time a natural personal value to optimize. For one, I think this desire to maximize subjective lifetime could be the reason that I (and many humans in general) seek novelty and change in pursuits. This idea that humans measure subjective experience of time by novelty of life rather than by physical, objective time comes up everywhere. In Duane Michals’s Now Becoming Then, Michals tells stories of twisted relationships, mystical and religious occurrences, and even entirely different worlds (“Empty New York”) by capturing snapshots of “points of novelty” in each story’s trajectory – the points at which the story changes most significantly – rather than by taking snapshots at constant time intervals. Why are these points of novelty so much more interesting to us as chronological markers of subjective time than time itself? In finance, one problem that traders commonly encounter is how to index “time” in the market, given that incredible volatility and trade volume can be concentrated into such short times of day while the remainder of the day trudges slowly along. One approach to indexing time is by counting specific changes or events in the market, which suggests that change or novelty gauges the subjective time we’re interested in. In computer vision, a common approach to identifying objects in an image is to scan across the image and detect significant changes in pixel values, which correspond to one object disappearing and another beginning, suggesting that novelty is an index of objects’ very existence. All of these modes of thinking imply that we seek novelty because we seek to lengthen our psychological experiences of time, i.e. make our lives more memorable.

So I think it’s natural to value memorability; I certainly place some value on it. (I should be clear that I value memorability in the sense that I value the mere number and novelty of memories that I possess and thus am continually influenced by, however subconsciously, rather than some efficient system for fetching these memories by rearranging my neural connections or any other type of conscious recall.) And if I value memorability, I should incorporate it into my value framework, but how? I could add “memorability” as another value, but that seems unnatural because I don’t view it as a competing priority that I should optimize. Rather, I should use memorability as a metric and choose to measure how greatly an experience or activity achieves my two values of self-enrichment and achievement based on its memorability, i.e. its subjective impact on me, rather than based on any other criterion. For example, in my self-enrichment value, memorability is already naturally encoded, because by definition self-enrichment emphasizes pursuits that have self-impact. But as for my achievement value, until now I have had in the back of my mind some external metric for achievement (e.g. number of people impacted) that felt less genuine to me. What I really value in “achievement” is that subjectively experienced (“memorable”) magnitude of achievement. I can’t truthfully say that my 14-minute TEDx talk to 100 Gunn students was a more memorable, impactful achievement for me than 14 minutes of fixing certain bugs in my pathway identification algorithm in a cubicle, even though in many standard definitions of “achievement” the former would be greater than the latter. And because memorable achievement is genuinely what I value, that’s how I should evaluate how each of my actions optimizes achievement.

Thanks to Kanjun Qiu and Carl Gao for their thoughts on this.


I spend twenty minutes every morning freewriting before the daily onslaught of startup work and college. My only rules for freewriting are that I don’t stop writing and that I don’t erase. Here is one of my (revised) freewrites that I found surprisingly helpful for my thinking.


Walking back from a morning swim without contacts is an interesting experience. I’m tired but content, wearing short swim trunks that reveal the whites of my thighs. I’m passing people in the gym and weight room, in the dining hall, and even on the stairwell up to my dorm. But I can hardly see them. My lack of contacts obscures the details from me. And in this part of my daily routine, that might be a good thing.

For some weird reason, I used to think that others judged me as I walked back from my morning swims. “Look at those short shorts.” “You don’t even swim, yet you get up at 8am to do so? Why?” These are obviously exaggerated, but I used to think that others were thinking these things; even I was sometimes thinking along these lines, so they had to be!

As it turns out, when I take off my contacts, I become oblivious to any judgment from the passerby. I only see a big fuzzy picture, without the nuances of people’s slight eyebrow raises that would imply judgment. I can’t even see if I know the people I pass, and I end up not caring about how many human blobs appear on my path. But for some reason, I still hear the criticisms. Where are they coming from? Then I realize that the voices are just me.

Now it’s not exactly a mind-blowing revelation that my insecurities often stem from my own attitudes rather than others’ judgments. Rather, what I find more interesting here is that I can learn new things from the same daily experiences by viewing them in less detail. Occasionally, taking off my contacts opens my eyes to the bigger picture and filters out noise that obscures underlying truth.

In general, I wonder what I could learn by running my life without contacts. How comfortable would I feel to let the details fall away and only see the big picture? Would this new perspective help me focus on greater vision in my life philosophy, and put me above day-to-day vicissitudes?

What would it be like to see only a big green-brown mass instead of a tree? To be surrounded by a mahogany space rather than a dining hall filled with ornate chairs and tables? Maybe details help me form stories and rationalize. Take the dining hall. How were these chairs designed? With a slight natural back arc, maybe the designer thought to support good posture. The chairs are wooden, yet light enough to be moved around, perhaps for the sake of intermingling. The tables part along a central walkway through which I can rush to class or stroll and catch up with everyone I know. The tables seat eight; maybe that’s the optimal amount of people for a nice dinner conversation?

Are these the details – the stories – I would miss by shedding contacts and a closer examination? Would I learn more or have clearer direction if I missed these random details and focused on the bigger picture? Of the random and coincidental details I’ve noticed already, of course I appreciate the stories behind them. But now that I’ve understood them, can I wrap them up in a nice black box since I know the lower level implementation?

Maybe that’s how vision, both figurative and literal, should proceed. Upon first sight, I study the fine details, then abstract them away and leave a fuzzy picture in my mind. Then every so often I put on my contacts and refocus these fuzzy pictures, as I gain more life perspective that helps me reinterpret the updated details.