Dammit I’m Happy

I would characterize my life in phases, chunks of time when certain things be preoccupied on my mind. In the past they were about trying new things, video games, girls, career success, friends. But for the past few weeks it has been about my character.

This semester so many friends have been stressing out, figuring out how to best use their time. Adam Grant came to give a talk about Barry Schwartz leaving Swarthmore, and he quoted a line from Barry that really stuck with me:

“I’ve only had one job and one girlfriend, but dammit I’m happy”

The question of how can I become happy, how can I just be satisfied with “good enough” and not be constantly worried about achieving the best has converted from a moral, internal question into resource allocation question. How can I serve the greatest number of people? How can I make the biggest impact? These questions always lead to a lot of stress, and being genuinely satisfied with life requires lowering your expectations. Not in the sense that you just want to sit on your ass all day because you don’t have any goals for yourself. But in the sense that if you have all these expectations for yourself and other people in your life, you won’t be able to experience the pleasant surprises in life. Life is pretty damn random and trying to plan so far into the future is like throwing a fucking fortune cookie into a black hole, hoping that somehow the fortune cookie will magically come out unscathed and end back in your hands. Things change so much, and when you carve your epitaph, major, and career decision onto your tombstone when you are an 18 year old freshmen in college,  you will never be able to be present and experience the pleasant surprise of change. 

I think the people we should pay attention to are those who are passionate not just about some subject matter, some hobby, but about life. Maybe they do have hopes and expectations for the future, but if things don’t turn out the way they expected it to, they are fine with it. Or in other words, they are confident that they will be happy whatever the outcome is.

So how does this relate to character? I feel that a sustainable goal for college, and more importantly for the rest of my life, will be to develop a sense of depth in my character. I want to engage in an effort to magnify what is best in myself and also become strong in my weakest places. Overcome the bad parts of my character that have been repeating too many times in my life like selfishness and thoughtlessness. As David Brooks puts it, wise people who have lived their lives to ultimately improve their character possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. And I feel that this is a sustainable goal for happiness because I will not be phased by external pressures and expectations to succeed. The means to achieving this goal is simply to live. To experience failure, rejection, then be able to laugh about it not because you came out healed, but because you came out different. These scars will be a constant reminder to me that I was present to experience these events in my life, and they will ultimately be a part of my character. Furthermore, I think that things like career success (while important) are like good looks, they will eventually fade and what is left is the character.

I feel that these resource allocation questions, trying to decide a policy now for the rest of your life, will never lead to satisfaction because you will always be thinking about what you had to sacrifice in order to do that one thing. Feeling guilty for spending time with your friends because you prescribed that you had to attain some GPA seems like a sad way to spend your time in college.

Life is not an optimization problem. 

I think focusing on living my life as a means to deepen my sense of compassion, integrity, and character will be a way for me not only to do good, but be good. The journey along the way will be filled with bumps, but dammit I’ll be happy.

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Psychological Inertia

How can always doing random shit keep you young and lucky?

I thought of this theory about a year ago, and I got inspiration for this idea during my practice for discipline, which I describe in detail here in my Quora answer. Tl;dr: I put myself through small challenges for about 3 weeks each, like waking up early everyday without snoozing, doing 20 pushups a day, meditating at least 10 minutes a day, etc.

The hardest part about these challenges was getting used to changeif I wanted to adopt a new habit, I would have to change my daily routine. Waking up before 8AM everyday at the first ring of my phone’s alarm was annoying, it was uncomfortable. To be honest, I didn’t even have to wake up before 8. I could’ve easily woken up at 8:30 every day and still arrived to class on time, no problem. It’s so cold too, waking up so early in the morning. I could list an infinite amount of excuses, but at the end of the day I was determined to follow through on this challenge. So for the next 40 days, I kicked off my blankets at the first ring of my alarm.

My main blocker in this challenge was moving past the thoughts of discomfort and putting it into action. So the way I went about solving that blocker was to tackle on that discomfort head on. The idea of cold is really interesting because that’s usually where people are most uncomfortable. Ice cold showers suck, so I needed to start there. For one day, I wanted to try something completely new. I was going to get up exactly at 7:30, take off my clothes, and jump into a cold shower.

To be honest, it sucked, a lot. I had this glorified view that after doing this, I was going to be super disciplined, but in the shower I was just a kid shivering his ass off. But what drove me to continue was my desire to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. From then on, I became more impulsive with random things. I started doing random challenges that sometimes made no sense at all. I thought wow it must suck to not eat meat anymore, so fuck it . I’ll be vegetarian for 40 days.

What I started to notice that this mentality started to permeate into my decision making. It made me open to change, hell, it became a habit for me to seek change. Do you know the weird feeling you get when you skip brushing your teeth for a day? I had that weird feeling whenever everything was the same.

At this point in my life, the most important decision that I’ve made so far was coming to Swarthmore. And that was one of the luckiest, and most impulsive decisions I’ve made to date. I was thinking about how much I would succeed if I followed the conventional path of going to a technical school to study Computer Science, then chucked it all out the window when I decided to commit to a liberal arts college with a flip of a coin. This is where the second part comes in: getting lucky. When you decide to do something completely out of your ordinary, you might discover something that you really like. And if you don’t, you will have grown from it and now know what not to do.

If you are evaluating a set of options (people, food, etc) don’t just go with the one that seems to align best with you. Occasionally take a chance on an interesting “bad” option just because it strikes your fancy. Come up with quirky ways to make decisions and use them.

Think of all the possible outcomes you wouldn’t want, say fuck it, and then do it.

Go do random things, get comfortable with the uncomfortable, always keep your mind in motion so that you will never grow old.

References used, you should check these out!
1) Telegraph article on being lucky

2) Yishan Wong’s answer on luck

How to not hate your job

It is widely accepted that motivation to do work goes beyond just the paycheck. People don’t work just to get paid, we want to feel challenged, have independence in our work. We want to get good at stuff worth getting good at, serve a purpose larger than us.

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

The dreaded nine to five is commonly used to describe the absolute minimum number of hours people have to work a week before they can get the hell out of the office. A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that around ~90% of Americans either actively hate their jobs or go through their workday mindlessly on autopilot. That’s ninety percent of adults who spend half their lives doing something they don’t want to do.

Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore, conducted an experiment to study motivation in a group of nursery school children. The children were given time to draw, and Schwartz then awarded some children with a special marker. The next time they were instructed to draw, those awarded with the markers were less likely to draw at all, and drew worse pictures, than those who were not given awards. Children draw because drawing is fun, but introducing a reward took away from that internal fun – it transformed an activity that wasn’t instrumental to an activity that was.

This idea of intrinsic and instrumental activities is interesting. Consider why a painter paints: to produce beautiful art AND to make a living. However, there is an intricate connection between producing beautiful art and painting – the only way to make beautiful art is by painting. Painting and making money, on the other hand, have an instrumental relationship. There are many other ways to make a living, not just through painting.

Isn’t this counterintuitive? Wouldn’t giving people two reasons, rather than one, be more motivating for people? You can draw because it’s fun and there is a reward for outstanding students! You can paint because you can make beautiful paintings and you can make money! You can take this course because it’s interesting, and you can fulfill requirements! Don’t more rewards motivate you to do these activities? No, in fact, the very notion of separating “work” and “play” perpetuates the instrumentalization of activities that we might enjoy. So many people feel miserable about their work because they are making connections between intrinsically and extrinsically related things. There is only one way to make beautiful paintings, and that is by painting.

Classes are fun, they are play. Grading classes turns them into work. The importance of play is that when you are playing, consequences do not matter. Turning something into work (grading) inevitably brings up those consequences. (I need this GPA to get into med school, etc.) In turn, the rewards (higher income, social status, school rankings) shifts the intrinsic fun that came from learning into an instrumental one.  (I should start taking easier classes to boost my GPA), do things that I might not like to achieve a goal. When there is a misaligned connection between intrinsically and extrinsically related activities, people will subject themselves to unpleasant forms of activity of anything but play to achieve that thing.

Let us look at a another example of this happening in the real world. A daycare was having issues with parents coming to pick up their kids too late, so it imposes a fine on parents who come late. They thought that this would give a new reason for parents to pick up their children on time:

Reason 1) Parents have a sense of responsibility for staff and children

(New) Reason 2) They won’t have to pay the fine.

The result? Lateness increased, and when the daycare revoked the fine, the lateness increased even more. After introducing the fine, the responsibility to show up on time was completely thrown out the window, it then became all about personal interests. Sure, I would pay a small fine to come a little later. The worse part is that once the instrumentalization happens, it seems irreversible. This phenomena draws many parallels with the college admissions hustle of high school. For many people, the whole experience of high school was instrumentalized into a process to build up impressive admissions files. Similar to the daycare scenario, we have become, in a sense, jaded to many aspects of school; transformed in a way where the initial desirable motivation – the fun – is lost.

Well, shit.

So how can we achieve a pure form of success solely fueled by fun, internal desires?

Several years ago, Interface, a carpet tile company launched a mission to reduce its carbon footprint to zero. The company was prepared to lose some money because it was going to focus its efforts on upgrading the infrastructure used. However, Interface didn’t lose money, its profits had actually increased by a great margin. Ray Anderson, the founder of Interface, had instilled a sense of civic responsibility among his employees. The workers who just showed up to make money were transformed into people driven to save the world. Employees worked harder and worked more, flattening the hierarchy of the company because supervisors saw how enthusiastic workers were. Supervisors were excited by employees’ motivation to learn more, so employees were offered more leadership roles and autonomy.

Finding and making salient a sense of purpose, whether it be a sense of civic responsibility or a drive to expand and mature your mind, is the key to making the world your playground. The process of finding and aligning with a sense of purpose will permeate throughout all aspects of your life; it will deter you from the common notion of separating your life into work and play. You’re able to throw any instrumental consequences out the window, throw the work out the window. The bigger picture is not learning to make money, it is learning to have fun.

Parenting: Malleable Mindets

For my cognitive science class, I was reading about classing personality traits like happiness, resiliency, and helplessness into two mindsets derived by how people thought of themselves. There’s the fixed mindset, when somebody believes that their qualities are carved in stone. It can create an urgency for that person to prove themselves over and over. The second mindset (which in this context is the advantageous one) is the malleable mindset. People with malleable mindsets believe that cherished qualities can be developed through effort and dedication.

Also, there was an experiment done gauging the effects subtle linguistic cues in praises could have on children’s motivations. Imagine that you had kids A and B, who are instructed to draw a picture. Kid A is given a generic praise, “you are a good drawer.” Kid B is given a more specific, non-generic praise, “you did a good job drawing.” The study showed that children like kid B who were given non-generic praises had less extreme emotional reactions to criticism and were motivated to correct themselves. While when children like kid A were criticized, they started to cry and gave up drawing. I feel that what contributed most to those outcomes is that giving generic praise, or even too much praise, implies to children that they have a stable ability that underlies their drawing performance. They become emotionally attached to that identity that they are stably good drawers. Mistakes then reflect on that stable ability, and can demoralize their perception of their ability. However, what makes the non-generic praise not so generic (haha) is that it comments on a specific instance of drawing, not the child’s skill of drawing itself. ex. “You did a good job drawing that yesterday” vs “you are such a talented drawer!” so the child doesn’t attach as strongly to this identity as a “good” drawer. They can then continue along with their lives drawing, still motivated to correct their mistakes and become better.

I thought it’d be interesting to bring these findings together and think about how I would raise my own kids to develop malleable mindsets. So that in the long run, they won’t be overwhelmed by emotional distress and will be able to jump into any field (whether it be academic or not) with the confidence that they can master it. When a child receives a lot of affection from, let’s say, a mother, the child will naturally grow close to her and come to her in times of loneliness and stress, kind of like a secure base.  There was a study discussing the behavior of these securely attached infants. In an experiment, a group of infants A were conditioned to not see their mothers as secure bases, and the scientists recorded how their behaviors when their mothers left the room they were in (how long they would at her after she left). The group A of infants made no discrimination to their mothers when they left the room; they even showed signs of surprise when their mothers came back. These infants had different expectations about caretakers than babies who were trained traditionally to go to their mothers in times of stress. I think this relates to the idea of attaching to an identity in the second experiment. However, rather than attaching to an internal identity, the child can become attached to an external entity (in this case, a parent). And if a child is pampered heavily, he or she will become dependent on somebody else, which I feel will perpetuate a fixed mindset. So how should we go about parenting? Do we have to sacrifice some of our attention for the long-run goals of independence and malleable mindsets?