Friday, July 10, 2009

The Dual of Happiness

A huge number of people I know (me included till recently) are very pained/depressed/unhappy/uninspired by whatever they are doing, and the symptoms are almost exactly the same. Some typical features, collected from a pool of conversations with a lot of people, seem to be -

1. Life seems to be led more by following constraints than following objectives. It's so algorithmic[1] that sometimes deadlines are almost craved for, because they give the enormous comfort of just doing what you are asked to do within a certain time. If you have hard constraints, then you don't need to worry about wondering if could have done something else that could have led to different, better things. "I had to do it because of hard constraints X, Y and Z" is such a relief when justifying your decisions to yourself! If you don't have to do something, making a choice is hell itself.

2. All ambition, at least in the direction you've chosen, seems to have dried up. Ambition and drive which were propelling you forward to achieve more and more seem now to be tortuously dragging you down an unhappy path. You realize that there's no end to where you're going, no closure. There's always something that seems just out of reach, and slogging today appears to help you reach that.

Doing a PhD? You better work hard if you want a Faculty position. That's the best use of your work and fight so far, the best you can do from your position. MBA? Get into consulting, and slog there so that you can get into Private Equity. Job? Get as much 'countable' experience as possible to that you can get into a good B-School, hopefully in the top 10 in the US. The more you know about the path and as the fog clears up to reveal the very long road ahead, the less amazing/worthy it seems.

It doesn't stop there. You're an assistant prof? Go fight for tenure and grants. Private Equity? Partner before 35 or bust. Don't you just love your work?

3. A significantly higher emphasis on relationships, and not just romantic ones. Coupled with this is almost crippling nostalgia and excessive dwelling on some happy moments in the past. There's a quote I recollect from one of Jugu's status messages - 'The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealized past."

4. Romantic relationships deserve an entire dissertation on their own, but we'll suffice to quote XKCD (who quoted the most excellent WarGames) and say it seems to be a game where the only winning move is to not play, and that choice too results in a loss.

5. Absolute, sweeping, riveting disinterest in whatever path you chose. Heaven save you if you had good options to choose from - each of those becomes a stinging gnawing 'could-have-been' nightmare.

6. A very deep realization that almost nothing happens like the conventional wisdom of "1. Set Goal 2. Reach Goal 3. Be happy". Things that do follow this path are usually of absolutely no interest or consequence. Reminds me of one of Zeno's paradoxes, where he argues that a rabbit can never race the tortoise because in order to get past it, the rabbit must first reach the tortoise. But in the time it takes to reach the tortoise, the tortoise would have moved a bit further, and the rabbit must again catch up. Zeno the lucky bastard was dealing with a convergent series, but is everyone as lucky?

7. A question as simple as 'What do you want to do?' seems impossible to answer. It's all an unholy mix of "I wanted to do this at that time" + "If you do this it will be good/future will be secure/you will prove yourself/it will be a validation of your abilities" + "X, Y and Z chose this path for alpha, beta and gamma reasons which seem to be applicable to you" + "Relax, take your time, you'll eventually start enjoying it".

8. You see the ultimate paradox of planning - you're trying to direct your actions in a state where you know more (the future), sitting from a state where you know less(the present). If it works out at all, it has to be by chance.

9. There are always people, very visible people, who are happy in their niches and surging ahead. Their growth seems to be exponential (not just figuratively - the rate of growth is proportional to how far you've gone). So tell me again, what have you done in the past 3 months?

10. "You should have known". A friend here put it very succinctly - "The only bottleneck is now you". There's no lack of information, no lack of tools, no lack of options, no lack of anything.

11. Indecision. Pervasive, biting indecision. You're absolutely convinced of one thing in the morning and another thing at night, so much that you don't even know if you're the same person.

12. Anyone who seems to know what he's doing suddenly becomes a highly sought-after commodity. Advice flows in freely from all directions and towards all directions, and the 'right' thing is the thing that was last most forcefully impressed on your mind.

13. You're safe as long as you're far away. As long as no one really understands what you're doing (which is extremely likely if you're doing anything remotely non-trivial). "If only they knew of the things that people do here", you think.

14. There is an anchoring towards over-dramatizing one positive aspect of somebody else's life, to the point of grieving that you don't have it. Money is too trivial an example, but consider something like traveling. You feel a deep sense of lack that your job/life doesn't involve much traveling, and fantasize about how awesome it'd be to see the world. It's normal to feel that in passing, but in this state it seems as if your life is incomplete without it.

15. There's a tendency to want to live life as if walking backwards. You want to make sure that you make the 'right' choice before making it, even in cases where it's impossible to know the consequences.  An abnormal urge to super-optimize everything. A thought-train like this is common - "I'm OK with my job right now. But imagine what I might be missing! What if I instead I was doing this? How do I know I won't like it more than what I am doing?". This is too is a perfectly normal thought in passing, but in this state you feel it right in you, and it's gnawing at you.

The same principle to thinking about projects/offers. You want to take up that job or that project which you are 'best suited' for. You're worried that if you take up something that is not 'fit' for you, you will waste time and everyone will go ahead. This tendency to super-optimize really starts to bite your ass when you see multiple 'good' options, if only 'good' because of your ignorance. Buridan's ass, I meant :-)

16. You realize the greatest con of organized slavery: The reward for hard work is the opportunity to do more hard work.

17. Thanks to Nikhil for this one; So far, all your time has gone into proving the existence of potential. Did well in entrance exams? Good, you could do well in engineering. Did well in engineering? You could do well in grad school. Did well in grad school? You could do well in research. Did a great PhD? You could do well in a career in research. Showed promise as a junior researcher? You could do well in middle management. Every single thing you do is a (likely nonconstructive) existence proof.

18. You do something, say X. Maybe you liked it, or were neutral to it, or let me put it this way, you didn't hate it. People see that you've done X, and give you something related to do, X1. X2, X3,... Very soon, you've so much related to X that that's your only 'qualification'! Even if you now hate X, you're too experienced in X to start clean, or at least that is how you perceive it. You're 'stuck' doing something you once liked, but no longer enjoy.

This happy state of affairs seems to be rather well approximated by the idea of a Quarter Life crisis, but everyone has their own flavor. The solution to all this is? I have no freaking clue.

But about everything else: the most exalted and most venerable Raja Rao once said to an overzealous ED class in glorious Guntur Gult: 'myaake dengevaadu okkadu unte toke ettevadu okkadu untaadu'. (The glory is all but lost in translation, but still: 'If there's someone ready to fuck a goat, there'll someone else ready to lift its tail. [So chill, dude]').

You know you're living an eventful life when you take solace in Raja Rao's expletives :-)

Update (Nov 7): A very nice article in the New York times, The Referendum:
"We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning."
As I said, brilliant article.

Update (Dec 4): A very nice 2 minute video: Music and Life

Update (Dec 28): Career advice from Charlie Hoehn: "Therein lies the best career advice I could possibly dispense: just DO things. Chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. Stop acting like you have a set path, because you don't. No one does. You shouldn't be trying to check off the boxes of life; they aren't real and they were created by other people, not you. There is no explicit path I'm following, and I'm not walking in anyone else's footsteps. I'm making it up as I go."

Update (Dec 31): Is it today's individualism that's at the core of such problems? In Africa they won’t feel lonesome tonight

[1] and Title: A 'dual' to an optmization problem is looking at the problem from the point-of-view of a person on the other end of the transaction. For example, if you're minimizing the cost for some buyer in some given cirumstance, the dual of that problem is maximizing the price for the seller in the same circumstance. The constraints of the dual correspond to the variables you can play with in the original, 'primal' problem. Here, you seem to want to minimize regret and eliminate wrong choices than maximize happiness. What you'd normally consider objectives turn into constraints.

About constraints and objectives, there are two very broad divisions of optimization algorithms: the first kind, which slide along constraints and check if they are improving the value of objective. Constraints are very important for this kind, because they can greatly simplify the search. The very famous Simplex algorithm is an example of this kind. I had written a small, general-purpose article about the history of this method a long time ago, and in case you're interested, here it is (Page 26).

The second kind of algorithms care more about the objective function first, and use that as a guide to move around and try to stay within the constraints. Karmarkar's interior point algorithm is of this kind.

So when I say 'algorithmic', I really mean algorithmic :-)