0073 – strive to transcend local optimums

I’m feeling somewhat calm. My cat is asleep beside me. The wife is cleaning up the house- some of my cousins are visiting in a while. I’m going to join her once I’m done with this. It’s a rather cold sunday morning. I like cold mornings. I’ve closed almost all my tabs- okay now I’ve closed all my tabs. My mind is relatively empty.

Let’s talk social media.

I dropped by PM Lee’s Facebook Page for a few seconds and glanced at some of the comments. I felt a momentary impulse to respond to couple of them. Not for any particular purpose, just a kind of casual impulse. “PEOPLE ARE WRONG ON THE INTERNET!” goes a familiar XKCD comic. The machinery/mechanisms and protocols are all in place- everything looks like a nail when you’re in the possession of a nice big old hammer.  People aren’t even particularly wrong about anything, they’re just lacking MY input. I’m so important and relevant, they need to hear what it is I have to say. It’s relatively effortless for me- I’ve spent so many years doing this. I enjoy the challenge of having to come up with an off-the-cuff response to something. It almost works backwards- I look at things and the responses formulate themselves, and I have to resist putting them out there because the act of typing them out distracts me from more useful or important work.

I was very angry with myself for having developed this way, but now I’m starting to look at it from a place of acceptance and understanding. It IS a pretty cool skill, I just have bigger fish to fry now. I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now if I hadn’t gone through those experiences before. I had developed myself into a local optima, but now I need to break out of that to reach a broader optima. I think that’s why it’s important or useful to take fasts and pilgrimages and break free rfrom things from time to time. We always want to make the best possible decision at every given moment, yet this can lead to us getting fixated or stuck in a local ditch.

A visual explanation of what I’m talking about:

So it’s really, really important to take random leaps and get out of your neighbourhood sometimes. You could be optimizing the wrong thing, struggling to climb the wrong mountain. I think this applies to everything from your writing style to your social networks.

So yeah, being smart and witty on Facebook was a Local Optimum for me. I’m seeking the global optimum. I know I can always go back to Facebook and try to be smart there again. But I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what a global optimum might look like, and so the idea of spending time on Facebook again literally is beginning to disgust me. I imagine it’s like how some ex-smokers don’t even enjoy the occasional cigarette anymore- they literally get sick of it, and start finding themselves uncomfortable around cigarette smoke- it seems harsh and horribly hypocritical, but the human body can change quite drastically over time. We never seem to be able to adequately or accurately grok these changes- we overestimate how much can change overnight, and we underestimate how much can change in a year.

Back to social media thoughts… I’ve said this before but I think Facebook is rather toxic if you’re trying to do creative work (creative meaning “build something”, it could be programming or a startup or something, not necessarily arty farty expressive stuff). But that’s just me talking for me and people like me. You might be completely mature and able to manage your time effectively, doing work for an hour then thinking “Hmm, I’m just going to spend 5 minutes on Facebook and see what everybody’s up to, then get back to work.” I can’t do that. I’m the equivalent of an alcoholic. I get heavily invested in every single conversation and I’ll carry it to the end, even if there’s nothing to ultimately gain from it. I think this happens in a lot of circumstances- video games, TV serials… it’s interesting how we can take these things more seriously than say personal relationships or happiness, or broadly “life itself”, because it’s still a hell of a trip even if there’s “nothing to ultimately gain”.

I think the main reason for this is that life seems too unpredictable, it seems like we don’t have much control over it. I KNOW I can sit down and interact with people on Facebook in a way that brings me amusement. (It always sounds silly when you type it that way. It’s the same thing with alcohol or cigarettes- you know you can finish that cigarette and get that high in your head.)

So I think a big difference between people who “do well” in life and people who kind of meander around is the amount of certainty and belief you have in yourself and your ability to change things. I’m confident of my ability to change things within some rather limited circumstances. I was reading on Quora about how people born and raised in wealth tend to be incredibly confident, because they never truly fear utter ruin. Even if they’re broke and on the streets or something, there might be someone they could call, a family friend or something who’ll bail them out. This belief can be crippling too, it can mean that you’ll never have to do anything. But I think it inspires academic success, for instance, and maybe even success in personal relationships, because you can see where it’ll take you. You know where you’re headed with your degree- there are jobs and directorships waiting for you. You know what parties you’re bringing your partner to, you know what your marriage is going to look like.

This certainty can be rather unfounded- there are black swan events that will wipe you out- but for the most part, the certainty has a social (and personal) utility that gets you by. You look and seem genuinely confident, you believe yourself, people believe you. Lots of wins to be had all around.

In contrast, I think me and a some of my peers were wracked by a kind of deep-rooted self-doubt. I don’t mean like a verbal “Nah, I don’t think I can do it” way- we might make grand plans and big dreams, but it’s all talk- there’s no real, visceral examples of things to get into. We don’t have a hyper-successful relatives to emulate ourselves after, we’re forced to be pioneers in the living that we’d like- and pioneering requires conviction that’s extremely rare in young individuals (and it’s stamped out when it’s there, becuse it’s unrealistic).

It’s very, very hard to be the RIGHT kind of unrealistic, or what Paul Graham calls Formidable- it’s the unrealistic on the other side of stupid. The simplicity on the other side of complexity.

I know I’m painting a very one-sided picture here- rich kids have troubles too, people with successful families have troubles too, life is hard for everybody. I’m just playing around with words and thoughts to develop a mental model of what my problems really are so that I can work on them with increasing clarity, efficiency, focus. Done with this, going to go clean up my house now.

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