Reflections of a 24-year old

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I have not once in my life stepped back to reflect on my life, values, and relationships.  Until tonight.  It's strange that it took me 24 years to figure it out but the mind, which one usually employs to do hard tasks whose execution is in some way related to your paycheck, does crazy things when one lets it just roam freely.

24 years old.  I don't feel old.  I feel creative, full of potential (some of it untapped even by the Man himself), I feel refreshed.  I finally "got it".  The little scraps have been flying through my mind since forever, although in the past few months they have intensified.  Now it all makes sense -- and while it would be a cliche to try to encapsulate it in two words, I'd give it a try:  Live free.

Live.  At the end of the day, that's all you have.  Your life.  It's your own little movie, with many actors (one of them you), a script (written by you), a director (you), even the stunts (yup, it's all you).  There is nothing in this world you can take better control of than your life.  Many people forget about it -- they allow their life to control them; they are defined by the routines they do; they convert the simple active "Live" into a passive "Let your life by lived by you".  This seems awkward, doesn't it (it's grammatically correct, of course).  But more than that, it literally suggests that you should allow this ephemeral, esoteric thing ("life") take the lead ("Let your life", as in "Allow your life"), putting "you" conveniently at the very end of the sentence.  Don't do that.  Live.  Active.  Don't be a spectator in your little movie.  Be the cast!  Don't let your life be controlled by the collective, the "Civilization" (more about that later); don't be a puppet whose strings are pulled by the shared conscious of mankind.  Be an individual (a brilliant scene from Life of Brian comes to mind).

You heard it right -- "Live" is an imperative.  It's something you're supposed to do (you may not think of it this way, but the way I see it, the originator of this imperative is "life" itself, which adds the whole thing its devilish meta twist and I love meta); it's a rule but shouldn't be seen as one -- rather, it should be seen as a subordinate phrase in a conditional -- sorry for my linguistic snobbism -- "If you want to [X], Live freely", where [X] is pick-your-poison.  It's whatever dominates your utility function (so by definition, the premise is true: you DO want to [X]).  This framework is also helpful because it shows you a very important principle -- that the best things in life don't come pre-packaged -- whatever wisdom you get, you have to synthesize it yourself, draw the right conclusions, flavor it with the context of your life.  So "Live" is not equivalent to hedonism.  It's also not equivalent to total altruism.  It demands for you to define your utility function -- "what makes me happy? / what makes me feel good? / or from really first principles: what do I prefer to do over anything else (or a pareto optimal frontier thereof)?" -- and steer your life so that your utility function is maximized.

"Free" not in the meaning of "freedom" or "liberty" as we have so literally started to take those terms in the past few decades especially in the U.S., but in the meaning of "unconstrained".  Don't let obstacles slow you down.  You're racing 90mph down a curvy road (say, one of the many roads in Northern Fairfield County).  If you see an obstacle, you don't stop or swerve.  That could end up badly for you.  You go right through the obstacle.  Minor bruise for your car, and a decision that could have just saved your life.  What are those obstacles?  They take many forms: restraints we put on ourselves for no apparent reason ("I'm not going to understand this book, so I won't bother; I should just watch the movie instead"); "convention" and "norm" (which those two words, incidentally, are my "bad idea bears" for the day) which keeps us from being different, unique, from making an impact (ironically, mathematically "norm" is by definition a transformation that maps different instances of some entity into one instance, and is often defined to help us tame entities into something we know and expect (hence no impact) -- so by definition "norm" is an antonym to "uniqueness"); and finally, and most importantly, problems in our lives, the little ones, and the big ones.  Most people let those problems bury them; they are like a smog that prevents you from seeing ahead, from seeing your life and the paths it could take; that prevents you from having a vision (literally and metaphorically!) of your life; that prevents you from being great.  Don't be one of those people.  Solve your problems.

Paul Graham (yeah Kemp/Alex/Will), one of the wittier computer science writers alive, said once "I don't hate bugs [in my code].  I love bugs!  Because there I am, against the bug, and the bug knows it's just a matter of time before I kill it.  miau."  This holds true for problems -- approach them systematically (one thing that problems love is an unsystematized approach -- like not having a plan for how to solve them, or solving too many at once, or solving each problem as its own "instance" rather than seeing patterns and killing the problems even before they are born!).  List all your problems (that's the OCD part of the process).  All of them.  It might be a long list.  Don't be embarrassed -- only you and Microsoft Word (or vim if you swing that way) will know.  Then, for each problem, figure out the root cause (that's the "Sherlock Holmes" or "House, MD" part of the process--reverse engineering things).  This is where it gets tricky -- because some of the problems you thought you just listed are actually diagnoses, so you'll have to go through the list again.  It will most definitely be a long and arduous process (but then, just do a little each time -- surprisingly, not that many new problems enter our lives every day!).  Once you do that, figure out (that's the creative part, the "van Gogh") the solution.  That'll already take you further than most of us have ever been.  Then define a gameplan for those solutions (the "coach" part) -- what do you plan to do first, by when, etc. Finally, execute (the Pierrepoint part -- by the way, it looks like a good movie.  By the way to that aside, got lost in the tangents?  It's a stack; easy to get back on track).  A mistake I have been making for many years was manyfold: not listing all problems and conflating them with root causes, and not executing on the gameplan.  You need those two extremes to work particularly well -- they are your interface to the outside world.

(curiously, the settings of my mail window made it so that in the paragraph above the longer words "understand", "incidentally", "mathematically", "defined", "uniqueness") all line up in a visually-pleasing diagonal (the "high density" letters such as m, e, a, h make this diagonal apparent).  See if you can get that with your mail program -- try out some window widths.  I'm not going to tell you what my width is -- and yes Will, although you could actually compute it given the information I provided -- the average number of characters by which these five words I mention are apart -- I encourage you to experiment.  Perhaps you'll see patterns that I failed to see.  Rather than showing you this one pattern, I would like to teach you how to see patterns.

Speaking of teaching.  Calling it "important" would be a huge understatement.  I think the ability to teach defines mankind.  Whatever definition you take for mankind (not related to the species but to the phenomenon), it somehow rests on the notion of civilization (do that exercise! -- try defining "mankind" or "intelligence"). Civilization is this strange thing -- it's intangible yet it assumes the existence of so many tangible objects; you think of the "Roman civilization", you see the Colosseum, the Legions, Asterix, the lazy fat guy resting on some sort of hammock and eating grapes -- all tangibles!  It's man-made (does not occur in nature), it transcends man (a man dies, civilization stays), it's -- I'd claim -- the closest one can get to calling something "man's soul" -- the intangible shared information that's part of the collective), it's made possible because of the institutional memory, which one man passed to another by teaching.

(Aside: if only humans could all communicate through the mind -- what I saw in my mind as a simple equivalence took me an entire paragraph to write up).

I've taught some classes in college, I've taught the new hires at work, I've taught my brother how to take square roots (no calculator!), I've taught my parents that family, no matter what the short-term bumps or the long-term distance might tell you, is incredibly important in one's life, it's embedded in one's conscious. These are all instances of the same principle -- "sharing your passion to know/feel/think/do with others".  Everyone can be a teacher in this framework.  I encourage you all to share your passion.  Whatever it is.

Live free.  This sounds simple but in fact it's so generic it's not very useful (remember: pre-packaged stuff) unless you internalize it.  And this is the thing: you can read about it, you can be told this same thing over and over again, you can be forced to memorize the definitions and the corollaries of this, but you won't understand it, you won't "get it" unless you reflect on this phrase, let it assemble with your mental framework while it's fresh, and let it purge your framework of weed (Ideally everyone's mental framework should be one principle, the Master principle, from which everything else is derived; but as humans we like to create "caches" or "short-circuits" so we don't have to re-derive all the time.  The problem is that when we rely too much on the caches, the cache becomes a part of your framework in fact obfuscating the Master principle.  The great thing about the framework, unlike Will's code, is that it can be refactored (cleaned up, rearranged) really easily.  You just need to think about it; reflect.

So as you reflect on the gist of this email (again, this is meant to transfer my passion about this, not the individual facts or inane adages I may have inadvertently constructed), the phrase "Live free" will enter your framework, but as it passes through the plumbing, it (like a virus -- a "good" virus) has the ability to destroy those stale caches and simplify your framework.

As you see, this email, too, is very strange coming from me.  Perhaps tomorrow I'll be just my former self.  But perhaps, all the thoughts that races in my mind tonight made me realize the value of reflecting.  You should all do it sometime.  Your brain deserves it.

What's this mystical "framework" that I so eagerly refer to in this email?  A framework is a set of principles that's logically sounds (but not necessarily complete), possibly adorned by those "shortcuts", where for example, we substitute an example for a proof that one principle follows another (principle: humans are all capable of accepting teachings and incorporating them into their framework (sorry, self-referential again.  "Learning" would just unnecessarily litter our space with one more word that we have to define); derived principle: experiences in life can provide such teachings.  It's not too easy to derive it from the former (something like "we accept teachings" => "teachings must be facilitated by a teacher"; "the teacher must share with us more than what we contain in our framework" (otherwise it's a vacuous case) AND "we experience signals from the outside world" AND "some experiences are not part of our framework" (which is hard to prove) => "there exist experiences that are teachers so we can learn from them".  See -- that was hard.  So we substitute in an example "I touched a hot stove when I was a child and got burned: I learned not to touch hot things") [yeah I got lost in the parentheses, too].  If not an example, we substitute in a model (for example, we understand gravity through a proxy of the infamous F=mg.  But do we really understand gravity or just the mathematical implications of the model?).  While the example/model is a good shortcut from the whole proof, if used too much, it will replace the proof entirely and then, since in examples you don't need the statement of either the derived or the higher-level principle, you forget what those principles were.  You can imagine this process cluttering your framework all over -- it's going to be impossible for you to get to the highest level principle (there's always one -- semantically it's equivalent to saying "stick to the set of axioms you accept as true" -- because you can definitionally derive all other principles from it).

So this is why reflecting allows your framework to clean itself up.  Forget the examples, forget the specifics.  Forget the F=mg formula/model, forget the falling apple example.  Think in terms of high level principles: mass attracts mass.  [Sorry for all the physics, guys].

Why does your framework need to be clean?  Because if it's clean, you have direct access to all the principles (through the proofs), and thus to the highest level principle.  If you do, and if you learn to apply the principles to life, you will LIVE your life FREE.

If you've made it all the way to here... some lighter stuff:

Claim 1.  This is not a moral reasoning paper or an introduction to expository writing.  In fact my paper for the latter in college was an analysis of Dark City submitted as a web page.

Corollary.  Most of what you just read could be crap -- it could be fantasy, hallucinations, rambling.  Please approach it critically -- ask questions if you're interested, argue if you disagree, present counterexamples.  (Although hopefully by now the "good" virus I just planted in your head with this email worked its way into your framework and removed some of that old weed...)

Proposition 1.  I propose as means of assessing the amount of reflection one has done to count the occurrences of semicolons in some writing that is inspired by said reflection.

Corollary.  This write-up has 17 semicolons; oh wait, now it's 18.

Completely subjective opinion.  18 semicolon-worth -- that's a fair bit of reflection!