Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 2, on the Difficulty of Doing Development

For most of January, I worked in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Many people have asked me about my reflections on it and how my life changes after it, so I’ve written up my reflections here in Part 1 and this post.

Tech in the World has a stated mission: “to expose top computer science students to underserved needs in developing communities and the various ways technology can be applied to address these global issues.” Certainly there is something more underlying that mission; why expose computer science students to developing nations? So that those students will work there and help make an impact on an area of the world that is impoverished and could greatly improve in quality of life.

So if you want a final assessment on Tech in the World and whether it is achieving this ultimate goal, you will ask the question, “Andrew, how do your future plans change after doing development work in Tanzania?” For some reason, I found this question quite hard to answer the first few times I was asked, but then simplified the question by envisioning two (among many possible) post-graduate futures for myself. The first has me working as a technologist and problem solver in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people I admire and learn from, and solving a problem interesting both technically and in terms of the “business” questions surrounding the value my company can provide, my long-term strategy to achieving my mission, etc. Ideally, I am riding an innovation “wave” in a slow but important industry that is just beginning to accelerate, such as government, education, or energy. Let’s call this future “Comfortable Future.”

The second future has me in Tanzania doing (and rising in) software, global health, investment, or really any type of work that improves the state of human and economic development in the country (see Part 1 for concrete examples of development problems to be solved). I may be working within an institution like Ifakara Health Institute or starting my own, and of course I’ll be living in Tanzania with both my favorite and least favorite aspects of its culture, climate, and daily facts of life (such as electricity outages). Let’s call this future “Uncertain Future.”

Which future looks better as I close my eyes to imagine each? If “Uncertain Future” means graduating and immediately pursuing work akin to my Tech in the World experience prolonged for several years, everything else constant, then I would prefer “Comfortable Future.” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my Tech in the World experience—given the same choice back in the fall with the hindsight I have now, I would certainly still have gone. Rather, I initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of being one of the very few Harvard (math and CS) graduates, technologists, people from the United States, and people from my friend group to dedicate several years of my life struggling to solve problems in Tanzania’s pole pole culture, being almost alone in my decision to go there in the first place. After trying to break down this discomfort in terms of my values of personal growth and world welfare (note how this has evolved from previously named “memorable achievement”), I can imagine changes to the “Uncertain Future” scenario that would make me prefer it over “Comfortable Future.” I think that these changes actually illustrate some of the reasons that many peers and I hesitate about doing development work despite knowing about the significant problems to which they could contribute.

I would prefer “Uncertain Future” over “Comfortable Future”…

1. If I were no longer personally growing in “Comfortable Future.”

For example, if I found that in 20 years, I had learned all I cared to learn about Silicon Valley—developing my software and hardware engineering expertise, having extensive experience leading a company or two in different industries, seeing a wide variety of problems, learning to work with all types of people (within Silicon Valley, that is), and building relationships and community with shakers and movers—then I would prefer the new challenge and growth opportunity offered by “Uncertain Future.” My desire for personal growth is like the American obsession with expansion of the frontier during manifest destiny, always pushing boundaries into the unknown and untested parts of me and improving (aka colonizing) those parts. This scenario is pretty conceivable.

2. If a bunch of people I admired and wanted to learn from decided to start working in “Uncertain Future.”

Even if this happened right after graduation, I think I would go for “Uncertain Future” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately (based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends and network at Harvard and MIT), I see a much higher concentration of people I admire and can learn from following “Comfortable Future” instead of “Uncertain Future.” These “people I admire” include several highly visionary, charismatic or empathic, and/or brilliant friends I have met in college or while working, as well as leaders who inspire the entire communities I come from—Silicon Valley and Harvard. (From Silicon Valley, such leaders include leaders of recent visionary enterprises like Google, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Udacity, Palantir, Dropbox, Asana, Cloudera, OpenGov, as well as Silicon Valley legends like Xerox PARC, investors like Peter Thiel, and innovators like Elon Musk. From Harvard, such leaders mainly include academics like Amartya Sen, Niall Ferguson, Steve Pinker, Doug Melton, Joe Blitzstein, Ed Glaeser, and Paul Farmer.) This higher concentration of people I admire mainly doing work in entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and (to a much lesser extent) finance and consulting doesn’t seem to be spilling over to work in international development, and I sense this is a chicken and egg problem in which the people who I think I could learn from are not in development because they themselves want to be surrounded by people they admire, and of course not many of them are willing to go do work in Tanzania without having their circle of mentors and high-achieving peers around them. There are many exceptions to this generalization: of course many of the leaders I mentioned and my inspirational friends and co-workers do impact world welfare via philanthropy and charity, whether they are my roommate Ben Kuhn (who runs Harvard Effective Altruism), tech giants like Dustin Moskovitz (who started Good Ventures with his wife Cari Tuna), former Bridgewater analysts like Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld (who founded GiveWell), and of course Bill and Melinda Gates through their grant-making foundation. But I can point to fewer people I want to learn from who have actually done development work themselves beyond making or optimizing donations (not to trivialize donations, which are incredibly important), and even fewer who are doing it at the time I graduate. (A few exceptions I know of include Dimagi and some of the leaders at MIT’s D-Lab). If more of these greats were to start doing development work, I would happily join them so that I would be learning from people better than I and personally growing while achieving world welfare. (If you are an effective altruist pointing out that you might have more comparative advantage making lots of money and donating it instead of doing the development work yourself, please see my thoughts on that below [1].)

3. If there were more social and economic support for “Uncertain Future.”

By social and economic support, I mean that I have close friends (and perhaps a significant other) nearby who are positive, curious, and compassionate people; and some source of income that meets a modest standard of living but enables me to freely pursue interests and projects without feeling my agency restricted. I think both of these are quite possible (i.e. I can make new friends, try to convince old friends to join me, and make a reasonable income), but the point I want to make is that when I first pictured working by myself post-graduation, I briefly (and irrationally) pictured the lack of social and economic support I have just talked about (i.e. not having friends and not living with enough money), even though the lack of friends would be solved by Tanzanians’ friendliness and the lower income solved by lower cost of living. I believe many people who have not been to Tanzania will seriously picture a lack of social and economic support when you ask them to imagine doing work there, and this might cause the gut discomfort with “Uncertain Future.”

4. If my comparative advantage were strongly in favor of “Uncertain Future.”

This is where my world welfare value comes in (notice that the first three concerned personal growth). You might think that, on the world welfare criterion, “Uncertain Future” of improving the health of an impoverished nation clearly wins over “Comfortable Future” of solving a problem in the wealthy United States. For me, seeing the developing world completely without sickness is more important to me than seeing everyone in the United States with a proper education. But the other question I must ask myself for the world welfare criterion is about my comparative advantage—i.e. on which problem does my choice to work on it (versus not working on it) make the biggest difference? For a person with a problem solving, getting-things-done, people, and narrowly technical skillset (in data analysis and software engineering), I can see that I still have some comparative advantage in “Comfortable Future” (although I think I would be replaceable in the “Comfortable Future” setting). My comparative advantage in “Uncertain Future” highly depends on the problem I am working on. If I am trying to solve one of Tanzania’s bigger problems in electricity infrastructure or drinkable running water, I lack any technical comparative advantage but could still contribute as a generalist in terms of enterprise strategy, attracting technical talent, or executing on projects. If I were building applications for mobile phones, then I would have technical as well as other comparative advantage. The reason I think “Uncertain Future” is not winning significantly on this criterion is because the problems I would have lots of comparative advantage on in Tanzania (e.g. problems involving data and software) do not impact world welfare much more than similar projects out in Silicon Valley (e.g. I could work on online education here in the United States, with implications for the rest of the world), and the problems that have high welfare impact in Tanzania (such as electricity or water infrastructure) are not ones I have comparative advantage in.

Back to the Question

So how does this answer the original question of how my future plans change after Tech in the World? I think conditions 1-4 will happen at some point in my lifetime, perhaps within the next 25 years, and at that point I will prefer “Uncertain Future” to “Comfortable Future.” Tech in the World has helped me consider the possibility of “Uncertain Future” at all and characterize what is holding me (and I believe, many of my peers) back from doing impactful work in development problems ranging from providing drinkable running water to teaching more effectively in schools.

Because of Tech in the World, I am significantly more likely to do more impactful work in the developing world in the future.

Footnotes

[1] One note on the effective altruist argument that, depending on who you are, your comparative advantage in maximizing world welfare might be to make a lot of money and donate it instead of doing the development work. I used to buy this argument strongly for myself, but being in Tanzania has made me reconsider this (although I can’t generalize to other nations). The claim that I should spend my time making a lot of money and donating it instead of doing development work myself (whether medical work, broader health research, technology development, or education) assumes that my donations cause multiple people to go in my stead, who combined are more effective than I alone would have been. Then (depending on which kind of people I want) I would guess that spending my time increasing the incentives to do development work and breaking down the barriers mentioned in this blog post (e.g. by starting a scalable version of a program like Tech in the World) is a more effective way to cause people with medical, health research, development economics, technological, and pedagogical background to do development work. (This assumes you want to solve problems that need people with these kinds of technical expertise and motivation.) Effective altruists—what do you think about the problem of getting more people into development work?

Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 1, on Development

Now we’re back in school—what a change of scenery to be submerged in the Boston snow after four weeks in 90-degree Tanzanian weather! It’s helpful to take a step back from the rush of school (yes, including getting used to being surrounded by hundreds of peers) and think about my experience in Tanzania. In this series of blog posts, I’ll talk about the big things I learned, and then (the harder and more interesting question of) what changes in my life and my plans now.

The order of certain technological developments in Tanzania (at least Dar es Salaam) is different than those same developments in the United States. Cell phones are very popular now, and the order of developments in Tanzania has been widespread 3G and cell phones (even though only 20 percent of the country has electricity), then accessible personal computers, then widespread electricity and Ethernet/WiFi. Compare this to the almost opposite order in the United States. It’s interesting to think that many Tanzanians quite likely will never even use personal computers as their main devices for communication and other needs like transferring cash (see M-Pesa), instead defaulting to their phones (as Dave Morin has emphasized before). There are already many entrepreneurs and problem solvers, many of them local Tanzanians at incubators like TANZICT, who are taking this to heart and developing applications for the old Nokia mobile phones (not smartphones). Here is a likely opportunity to influence Tanzania’s technological development in the next 10 years.

Beyond the technological view on development, there is a lot of room to improve the general quality of life. In the next 20 years, it seems certain that Tanzania will need drinkable running water, cheap and well-distributed anti-malarial treatment (especially in rural areas), and a public transit system (since the traffic congestion is terrible enough that it is possible to waste 3 hours to drive 20 km to get to the airport). I am not as certain about the future of other possible improvements to standards that we have in the United States—such as a “modern” education system focused on teaching students how to think instead of the current pattern of taking tools/skills (e.g. Java) from the West and trying to adapt them to the students. Compared with the needs to stay hydrated, stay healthy, and get to places, the need for education is less well-defined; it’s clear that the purposes of the first three are critical to life, but the purpose of education—whether vocational training or cultivation of good citizens—is something that is still not even settled in the United States and thus could lead to a completely different form of “modern” education than the system in the United States today. Even just a hundred years ago, the United States and major European powers all had different purposes for education, which manifested in university systems that looked completely different:

[Speaking about 1890-1940:] Universities had long existed in Europe, where they took several forms: the classical studies of British universities, the scientific training of French grand ecoles, and the graduate and research institutes of Germany. The modern university of the New World, however, was a different creature than its European counterpart, for it served a far broader clientele of students and the state, yet increasingly strove to be a research center. [1]

I am very interested to see how the education system in Tanzania develops just as I am learning that different countries have potential to develop in completely different ways (which relates to cultural differences such as the lack of private space and ownership). Just as Tanzania is skipping personal computers to using mobile phones, and just as Estonia skipped from no internet infrastructure following Soviet collapse to using the internet to vote, do tax returns, and issue prescriptions, I expect the Tanzanian education system to skip to some of the cutting-edge work in education—including the use of online resources like Udacity—by virtue of not having an inertial university and secondary education system. And I’m especially excited about the creative solutions to be devised in Tanzania because it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world hasn’t exactly solved education yet. As my friend Jacob Cole pointed out, creative businesses like Habari Mazao (a website that Tanzanian consumers and farmers can visit to get fair prices for crops), which emerged from the first Tanzania-MIT Tele-Hackathon, would never have been thought of in the United States.

It seems that comparatively studying development, both in the economic and social sense, could be fruitful for shedding light on how to predict the trajectory of a country like Tanzania, which we couldn’t just say is where the United States was in the past, partly because Tanzania is starting from a different place in time and culture, and partly because she is surrounded by modernized countries that have already developed (but not finished) their own solutions to problems like education, energy and the environment, and effective governance. Studying comparative development might help one think about this problem and give useful case studies, but I am afraid that the lack of sufficiently many data points regarding development of different nations would lead to unhelpful generalizations. Who knows? I’ll have to take a look.

Action Items from Part 1, on Development

  • Look into research and classes surrounding economic development at Harvard.

References

  1. The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The Journal of Economic Perspectives , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1999) , pp. 37-62. Published by: American Economic Association. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2647136.

My Character Foil: Levin from Anna Karenina

Former president and dissident of Czechoslovaka Vaclav Havel points out in his essay “Power of the Powerless” how “absurd” it was that most Czechs and Slovaks lived under Czechoslovakia’s repressive Communist regime in the 1970s and 80s according to the mantra, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (Havel 1978). One great point he makes is that most of the conformists living this “absurd,” submissive way of life are content to do so—and are completely confounded by why some of their former friends have alternatively chosen to “live in the truth” by performing dissident music and writing dissident literature at the cost of being jailed by the state—because these conformists have never experienced an alternative way of living, and thus could only judge the “absurdity” of their submission if they stepped outside the way they currently live. (See here for more background and full text.)

Taking this lesson outside the context of repression in Czechoslovakia, it seems quite possible that if I were living another way of life B, I would spot many “absurd” aspects of my current way of life A, where I’m defining an absurd aspect to be an aspect in A that is much less preferred than the corresponding one in B—for example, if I were swimming in B as an alternative to basketball in A, and having seen basketball from the swimming point of view and vice versa, I were to prefer swimming to basketball. My intuition for why this is true is that people often need help from outside lenses to see aspects of themselves in their true form. One example is the surprise many people experience after hearing their voices recorded on a recorder for the first time. “Do I really sound like that to the world?” Additional vibrations within our body that are picked up by the inner ear when we speak or sing automatically bias our lens of our own sound. Another example is people not being able to see mistakes in their form/technique in sports without a coach, videocamera, or other pair of eyes. Phoebe running in Friends is a fun example of running form, and since my dorm room has a view of people running on the Charles River, I can confirm that many people (including myself, until my girlfriend corrected me) would run differently if they knew what they looked like. Other great examples of needing other lenses include people’s many psychological biases and the usefulness and often surprising nature of feedback in the workplace or from friends.

So given that our lenses of ourselves are imperfect, how can we spot our “absurdities”? My friend Ben points out that regularly getting feedback from those around you is one way. Another way seems to be to carefully study other people and (as objectively as possible) figure out how you compare to them along certain dimensions; this relies on how self-aware you are.

But consider the way Havel suggests. Intuitively, it seems that living out the alternative life yourself (i.e. trying swimming for a time) is a more robust way for you to judge how much you prefer one way of living versus another (instead of guessing at how much you’d prefer swimming by seeing that someone else does it every morning and enjoys it, but seeing nothing else). Unfortunately, real-world constraints (e.g. time, financial resources, relationship obligations) might prevent us from even being able to try the alternative life to test how much your prefer it. Here is where characters from literature (hence the title) might be one solution.

Perhaps the next best thing to living out the alternative life yourself is seeing it lived out in a literary character about whom you can observe every detail, including his thoughts, motivation, close relationships, past life, and personality, as well as the internal and external consequences of his way of living. (At least the genre of the realist 19th century novel, according to my English professor Phil Fisher, permits such intimate knowledge of the characters, more intimate than you might have of your closest friends.) Authors often use foils to bring out contrasts between different characters—why not use literary characters as foils for ourselves? Luckily, I found exactly such a foil in Levin while reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

What makes Levin a good foil for me is that we share enough attributes that I can empathize with him, but differ on the other attributes enough that I can make many comparisons between my life and his. (You’ll have to read Anna Karenina for a full appreciation of Levin’s character, or you can see a summary here if you don’t have time and just want an overview or refresher of Levin.) What follows is the beginning of my unedited freewrite about how Levin is a foil for me and my learnings from that. See here for more.

Freewrite

The story of Levin is at times comical, idyllic, and most relatable for me in the novel. He comes to Moscow wanting to propose to Kitty, the daughter of his schoolmate. He envisions a wife to fill his home as his mother did for his father when he was a child (he still lives in his childhood home, so we see the role of tradition for him). (Cf. my initial motivations for dating Kanjun—I saw that we grew together and learned from each other, making our time together high-quality.) He is attracted to Kitty (and the other Scherbatsky sisters) by the sisters’ refined and “mysterious” aristocratic habits. He is nervous, out of place in Moscow—and moreover his mood is tied to Kitty’s every move (e.g. during skating)—I can empathize with the discomfort he experiences changing environments (especially his independent rural life to the socialite urban life—does the reverse discomfort hold?) and to a much lesser degree his caprice (responding to Kitty’s moves). Then he proposes, is rejected for a rival Vronsky, spends the rest of the evening sadly, and leaves. He returns to the comfort of his home base in the country side – his maid, books, land, peasants, huting, solicitude. He can crafts plans for his agriculture in solicitude and bounce his ideas off his perhaps not-so-educated maid Agafea (akin to Casaubon and Bulstrode in Middlemarch in their isolation having the power to dream up plans without any external check). Sometimes I feel that I in my room, or in quiet working spaces, might be akin to Levin in his comfortable home base. Kanjun tells me that Boston, maybe Chicago, maybe Palo Alto (but not SF) is my home base (where I am most comfortable/confident), but even in crowded, loud social spaces in Boston (or anywhere), I feel less at home. And sometimes in my room I can see the slowness and danger of trynig to plan things all by myself (leading to possible error of not having others check me), although thinking on one’s own is good to (a) learn how to think and (b) develop independent perspective. So perhaps strike a better balance between planning/thinking/learning independently vs. with others – do the first as I’m doing now, but then actually talk to others/profs, see how other people solve problems and do things, etc. to see other ways of doing after my own…

References

1. Havel, Vaclav. “Power of the Powerless.” 1978.

Thinking

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!

Memorability

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.

Swimming

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.

25th Floor

I’m amazed by the things I notice when I stop what I’m working on to actually take a look outside. It’s especially cool to observe so many details about life on State Street and The Loop in Chicago just by looking out the window of my apartment on the 25th floor.

It’s noon on a Saturday and people are out and about, sporting their summer clothes that they bought just for this occasion. From up here, the pedestrians look like calm ant troopers – not scurrying around in any rush, but carrying on confidently in single file to their weekend haircuts or grocery shopping. Some travel in small packs – families or bands of brothers – but many walk alone, the women with their shades up and black purses tucked under their arms, and the guys wearing anything from button-ups with jeans to deadmau5 tees with shorts and flip-flops. Every now and then you have joggers with their headphones locked in determinedly weaving through the sidewalk pedestrians, listening to some motivational Kanye or getting into lock step with LMFAO’s beats (you can tell from their jogging pace). The joggers come mostly in singles, although occasionally there is the couple trying to stay in shape together. Even though it’s the weekend, you can tell Chicago is a mix of fast- and slow-walkers, of East and West Coast – you have your New Yorkers with quick, big strides (it’s like they can’t get it out of their system, even on a Saturday) and then your dilly-dallying Californians always blocking the paths of the impatient New Yorkers behind them. I almost laughed when I saw a New Yorker plow through a crosswalk in half as many steps as the Californian behind him.

Of course, there are a few people chatting away on their phones – making last-minute weekend plans, getting unexpected calls from friends they haven’t seen in a while, or (still) discussing work with demanding bosses unable to detach from office life. (You can see who’s doing which by the facial expressions.) And the jaywalkers never cease to amuse me with their creativity and audacity, especially the jaywalkers who simultaneously talk on the phone and wind between cars at an intersection that’s about to go green.

And then there are the many species of cars traversing the grid-like jungle of Chicago streets and skyscrapers. Taxi cabs of different sizes drive by every now and then, sporting pizza ads from their rooftops. You have your fair share of typical sedans and (to a lesser extent) SUVs cruising up and down State Street for as far as the eye can see, as if they’re on a never-ending assembly line that disappears into the horizon. This serenity lasts for 30 seconds; then, suddenly, a big rectangular bus breaks up the homogeneity on the street, invading the bike lane and blocking out multiple lanes on left turns. As if to compete in size, a white Hummer limo steps out from behind the Hotel Palomar tower and is joined by a fully stocked supply truck just turning onto State.

I raise my eyes and gaze out further into Chicago, to the sight of towering construction cranes planted squarely at the centers of city blocks. Skyscrapers edge each other out of the way for the city’s best vantage points. Like dwarves among giants, the 5- and 10-story buildings put their rooftop gardens, fans and ventilation systems, and even swimming pools on full display for their taller brothers to see. Under the overcast sky, a cute girl sunbathing by one of the pools eerily reminds me of the opening sniping in Dirty Harry, but the large McDonald’s in the background with its happy yellow arches puts these thoughts away.

I’ve never paid too much attention before to these shorter buildings, or to the rather ugly cranes and industrial rooftop fans, or to any of these interesting details in the local passerby for that matter. I’ve always had the habit of getting home from work rather late and taking a minute to gaze out through these same windows at the same barrage of pretty city lights as if gazing upon the same stars. But I’ve never had the opportunity or urge to count the number of steps a young child takes to cross the intersection at State and Grand, nor to observe the variety of 5-person walking formations that people try on Chicago’s sidewalks. The unchanging black night sky awaiting me when I get home – the black city background – has obscured the fact that there is so much detail and human substance behind that visage of flashing lights, of city thrill and architectural grandeur. But now, taking an hour just to observe – to part the curtains of night and see the mundane backstage behind the dazzling theater of nightlife – is a truly enriching diversion.

Oddly enough, I notice these details more profoundly now, 25 stories high and behind the isolation of glass windows, than when I am surrounded by people on the packed bus to work, or when I am eating out in a crowded restaurant surrounded by others doing the same. Seeing Chicago now and knowing that it will be so different 9 hours later – or even 5 hours later – and knowing that this cycle continues day by day and week by week reminds me of Monet’s paintings of the same stack of wheat across all times of day and all seasons. What must have captivated him to paint the same subject in so many different settings is exactly that there are so many undiscovered nuances in even the things we think we know intimately, and such a wealth of information to be captured by observing one object at a different time, from a different perspective, or even with an entirely different sensory capability.

Why Blog?

Due to my over-preparedness, I find myself at my gate at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport two hours before my flight. I have no internet and nothing else to do – I guess this is the perfect time to start writing and recap my trip. But before I do that, let me explain why I am beginning anew my attempt to journal, blog, and otherwise record and analyze parts of my life for my own processing as well as (hopefully) others’ enrichment.

Life moves too fast. It’s a cliche – I know – but especially as a college student (even one on summer break), I find myself reaching into so many things – a startup/research project outside of class, an associate role at a VC, somewhat interesting classes, multiple friend groups and student organizations within Harvard and without, and relationships with VCs and entrepreneurs. All of this is partly for enjoyment, partly to develop skills, but mostly to “discover my passions.” That’s the priority I wrote out in big blue marker on a motivational poster for myself this freshman year, and it’s a focus I’m still happy about pursuing. The idea is that I can dabble in a variety of interests, figure out which ones really engage me (i.e. my passions), and then pursue those passions to the fullest. Right now, I’m still dabbling.

In my dabbling I feel like a computer’s task scheduler, compartmentalizing each of my interests into a process and constantly context switching between these processes. The problem is that I only have one CPU and I can’t actually multitask. Unlike a scheduler, I can’t make split-second switches between processes – as a human, I can’t accomplish something without first putting in substantial time investment, plus I can’t just turn interests on or off on a whim. Yet this is exactly the multitasking approach I have to take to explore so many exciting things on such a tight schedule. Imagine the opportunities for distraction at a place like Harvard – late night conversations learning about your roommates (and even understanding the motives of English majors), interviews and talks with tech and finance companies about their business and engineering challenges, meals and coffees with entrepreneurs and VCs to understand the problems they’re solving and their world visions, and brilliant, fast-paced lectures delivered by Professor Edward Glaeser.

The result is that it’s impossible to focus on any one thing to gain enough depth in it.

But I don’t want to stop exploring! I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Exploration keeps things interesting and it’s fun, and in many cases I find that it yields complementary undertakings – rather than time tradeoffs – to my main pursuits. How, then, can I keep track of what I’ve learned even as I explore so many interests simultaneously? As long as I’m exploring, I’d better explore purposefully. I’d better solidify what I learn or risk forgetting it all. More importantly, I’d better think more deeply about my learning rather than merely absorbing information, to begin to make sense of what I am exploring and be able to determine my next area of pursuit with more insight.

That is the very long explanation for why I am writing this blog for myself, first and foremost. To not only record my learning, but also to analyze it in writing and produce theses and direction for my life.

And I want to blog publicly to engage with others who I believe are making this same journey, albeit along different paths. There’s only so much I can explore as one person, but I’ll happily exchange lessons with others so that I can cover an expanse orders of magnitude larger, even vicariously. Hopefully I can contribute to others seeking their own direction by sharing these reflections.