Previously on Refactoring Myself
It all started 4 years ago, when in a moment of distress and despair I googl-ed "Help me refactor my life" one of the results was on LessWrong I read that page and found the overall "energy" helpful so I posted my own version and got some advice.
The following paragraph is written in descriptive third person to differentiate between "me @ 2022" and "me @ 2018" it is poorly written, a skill I am still honing, but nevertheless it sets the scene of the few chapters that follow which contain reflections on things I've mentioned 4 years ago.
Before and After, the Last 4 Years
In the last 4 years I graduated with honors from my Applied Mathematics program, applied for an MSc in Applied Mathematics that at first seemed insurmountable, aced it then decided against it and went on to do an Engineering Degree in Computer Science for 3 years. In my last semester I choose to work on a research thesis instead of an internship (98% of the class did an internship) because I actually got a full time paid job as a Software Engineer.
I completed my thesis on NLP & Language Models at the same time working 8 hours a day remotely for a tech company. To say that I am proud of Pausecafe2018 would be wrong because "proud" is the wrong word to describe that feeling. The proper word would be "thankful". I am thankful Pausecafe circa 2019/2020/2021 didn't give up even when faced with moments of distress and despair, because he was equipped with new and better skills and most importantly he acknowledged himself and was able to understand the cathartic message that started it all.
Some things about Pausecafe didn't change much. "Scholarship is the first virtue" he repeats every morning in a quest to improve his own skills and gain a better understanding. But contrary to Pausecafe2018 now there's no hurry. Side projects are approached as hobbies with the explicit purpose of acquiring knowledge, popular science books were thrown away in favor of more epistemology and Russian literature, skepticism is now woven into his fabric and imagining magical solutions to problems is now a forbidden practice. He also learned to say "I don't know" more than often because it is what it is - the truth.
Now, 4 Years later
Finding an Anchor In Time
Time is a fascinating concept, during the summer of 2020 and later on 2021 I went on a personal quest to grasp time at its fundamental level by studying physics while I was preparing for what then was "The Plan". After finishing my computer science degree I originally was planning to pursue a PhD in Quantum Information and Computation but somewhere in the late days of summer 2021 I was wondering why did I start doing this, when did I think out this "Plan".
It would turn out later on that this was one of my "ADHD-propelled decisions" it is well known that people with ADHD tend to have short periods of obsession with a particular thing. But it wasn't known to me, this would tend to be a common pattern from 2014 till today, designing grand "Plans" of studying X. I focus on "studying" because it was almost always the case for me, my obsession was knowing things, it didn't matter if I had long term grasp what mattered was always "understand what X is and how X works".
My "ADHD-propelled decisions" were my biggest time sink hole and I would later understand that my 2018 breakdown was effectively the result of that. But because I had new skills that helped me differentiate between short term impulsive "ADHD-propelled decisions" and the long term ones I was able to reduce this effectively, although it took me almost 3 years to come to this conclusion.
When I say "Finding an anchor in time" what I mean is training myself to discern between the two, knowing which output comes from which process and being able to manage under constrained resources. While scholarship is the first virtue, one must be able to orient his resources wisely, nowadays I am able to discern between the two by using a few rules of thumbs, because I am still not able to eliminate them completely.
What is more interesting in my case is that some of these tend to bring insights into other things, insights which sometimes are worth exploring as I will later find out.
In order to survive and thrive under ADHD and in the absence of medication (my case) I made out a small list of heuristics that now play the role of coping mechanism :
Is the investment requirement for this decision proportional to its output (e.g I want to do a PhD in Quantum Information, do I have 3-6 years to spend in graduate school ? Will I find a job in academia after that ? What about the industry ?)
Is this worth a weekend of discovery, instead of trying for 5 minutes I try to decide for a weekend (8 hours of deep work) sometimes if I can find a tiny clue to grasp at I may continue to spend more weekends otherwise I just drop it and move on.
Will I remember it the next morning, sometimes an idea is attractive enough that you can't sleep, I take note of it (I always have a notebook or my phone close by). In the morning if the insight reignites I decide to try for 5 more minutes otherwise I move on.
The first heuristic might seem "too big" well that's it's purpose, it asks questions about the impact of a choice on current real life conditions, most such plans need to be brought down back to earth before you can introspect them otherwise they take over you, somethings are really out to get you.
A more keen reader with a decision theory background might have a better framework, I did try a few other heuristics but most of them were too easy to face, they didn't help me see the truth and thus they didn't help me destroy the alternatives. If the sword doesn't help me concentrate my probability mass by slicing through hypotheses what good is it ?
All That Matters in a Storm is the Next 5 Minutes
When you're sailing into a storm it doesn't really matter whether you arrive to your destination or not, what matters is to survive the storm. In a storm all that matters is the next 5 minutes, the next knot to tighten, the next wave that is crashing down on you...
All that matters is the next thing to do.
That's the framework I use to process my times of distress, it is objectively terrifying that everything in the future has its reward function reduced to "f(x) = 0". How can you think about AI alignment when you can't afford rent ? How can you think about reading the textbook on your reading list when you're rationing food because you are left with 5$ and it's the third week of the month ? I couldn't but I somehow still persisted, I found solace in the fact that may be it doesn't matter ," I have to think about the future" I kept telling myself.
Well a few consequences later and I decided on the "Next 5 Minutes" rule, fortunately after 4 years of work I managed to reduce my bag of "Things I have to worry about in the next 5 minutes" to almost 1 or 2. With a job I can afford rent and food and going out every now then, but most importantly I can now afford time.
Buying time would turn out to be one of my best decisions, nowadays my stress levels afford me spending a weekend exploring a new paper or reading Schopenhauer essentially I can afford peace of mind to think about things more deeply, the storm has passed and so I can go back to thinking about reaching my destination.
Note: Anyone who lived or experienced poverty knows that overwhelming feeling you feel when not even your basic necessities are not fulfilled yet. The thought that if I don't make enough money in the next few weeks, I can't pay the rent and if the landlord isn't feeling forgiving I might get kicked out, do I even have enough food so I can work this week ? What about the midterms ? But I am going to end up homeless ? It's hard and terrifying and makes everything else feel negligible. AGI's going to put me in indefinite servitude ? Well at least it's going to feed me so I can put in the work.
Small Decisions (are still Decisions) Can Have Consequential Results
In the later days of 2018, I stumbled upon a cryptography paper that was interesting.
Having spent months learning various things about the subject before I decided to spend a week to implement it. It took me less than a week and I posted it on my personal Github page. And that was it.
Fast forward to December 2021, I woke up one Saturday and went on my morning walk, a ritual I would undertake for three years since 2019 to grab breakfast at the local cafe.
While waiting for my eggs and coffee order I checked my phone and found out a company had forked the 2018 repository and felt a bit excited, given I was about to embark on my last semester and hadn't found any internships, I went on their website and saw they were recruiting. I wrote them a short email clicked send and went back to my breakfast.
Three days later a reply came thru, "We are interested, can we setup a call".
And that was how I got my first job straight out of college with almost zero professional experience, as I am writing this am currently 9 months in and in a few weeks my Visa that was sponsored by the company will come through and in a few months I will finally achieve what I had set out to do 4 years ago, leaving the country for new opportunities and a new chance at a different environment.
There's no point to this paragraph, if there is one I can only surmise that it's a justification for what I now believe, that a combination of luck and more luck, one small decision that in retrospect seemed almost unimportant would have its biggest impact on me.
On Direction vs Velocity
I used to believe that being unable to complete a 600 pages textbook in a week was a mark of failure. I used to believe that my ADHD was a divine judgement, a decision by the Gods to be to mark me as average, as a form of limitation. That I can't do more because I am already playing in handicap.
It would turn out later that I was wrong, It should take weeks up to months to fully grasp the subject you intend to study. It would turn out that my retainment of most things I've read is about 10%, I would also later learn that the objective "Read a textbook cover to cover" is almost always the wrong objective to optimize for, I sucked at learning.
By analogy I approached my ADHD limitations as the wind and my effective energy and motivation as the sails in a boat. I started seeing things in matter of direction instead of velocity. Because to be honest it didn't matter If i learned in a week or a month as long as I actually learned, as long as I could generate that knowledge from scratch as if it didn't exist before. This approach was what helped me excel in 2018 and 2019 to get my degree with honors and manage to pass the graduate exam for the MSc that I would later decide against.
In the past post, I would describe my ADHD as "I am in a hurry, in a hurry for what I don't really know". I still don't know what "I am in a hurry for" but I managed to find ways to cope with that urge, somethings are still messy like the 4 papers and 2 courses on databases I want to go through but as I said direction, not velocity this morning I watched a one hour lecture and made notes but I have no "Plans" for when I will read the other papers or the next lectures. I just leave that part to nature, when I actually feel like it, not because I have an urge to do it.
This seems an almost ascetic approach, and it's true, resisting the temptations of doing everything at once makes you sharper in the things that you do with focus.
Doing nothing is good advice, doing with less is also good advice. With the thousands of lectures and books curation becomes an NP-hard problem, and I've found out that most often all the lectures and books have the same content but differ in delivery so nowadays I just pick the easiest and friendliest ones. After all my time is limited and expensive.
So learning things that are helpful career wise is something I do during my working hours (contextually speaking) as in while having breakfast or lunch. Outside of the working hours context I spend almost no time on these and focus more on philosophy, epistemology and artificial intelligence.
Coping With My Limits
When I was a little boy I watched "A Beautiful Mind" with my mother, she expressed a deep sense of admiration and I felt a certain weakness in seeing how she admired Russel Crowe as John Nash and I immediately wanted to be him, I wanted to be a mathematician. But do I really like "math", what is "math" even ? Back then I thought about how he looked at a set of numbers and deciphered cryptograms and thought to myself I wish I could be like that.
Back then I was naive, and given the societal and cultural norms I wasn't given a reality check and so deep inside the little boy always felt pathetic.
I can't really explain how much impact these childhood experiences had on me, to illustrate I still felt that way even as an adult. It would take me serious work on myself to go through that and finally acknowledge myself. On the upside I spent enough time studying mathematics, with the same admiration for mathematicians, until I learned the basics well enough (The things all graduate students need to know before graduate school) what I also learned from this is that I don't have the fast intuition and computer-like brain to decipher cryptograms, I take the long way through and stumble around until the concepts start making sense. And more than often it is only that weeks later when I am doing something else that the concepts make themselves more concrete.
I am not gifted, and the idea that "I am gifted" and seeing some of my peers go through difficult proofs in a breeze made feel like an impostor. Not in the impostor syndrome sense but in the sense that I always felt I don't understand things well enough. That unlike others I need more time to understand things, it's this acknowledgement that made me realize how much wasted time I had spent trying to measure myself to invisible bars, that the reason the bar was high is because there's no real bar that the standards by which we are measured in school and college don't really exist. That true insight comes from a true understanding, the ability to create that knowledge as if it didn't exist.
Coping with my limits, that's the proper description. I needed to look at things from a different lens than the one I had implanted in me through experiences in school, college and society.
It was while reading "Récoltes et Semailles" by Grothendieck that I came to the above realization, below is the most pertinent paragraph from Chapter 2.
"Since then I've had the chance, in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my "elders" and among young people in my general age group, who were much more brilliant, much more "gifted" than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle—while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things that I had to learn (so I was assured), things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates, almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects."
What The Future Holds
I don't really know, do I want to do AI Alignment research ? Yes, but is it out of pride or out of an Ex-Machina moment ? I don't yet feel the latter yet but I still consider the threat real. I talked about obsessions but till now no obsession has really "capsized my boat" I still jump from and around without finding any footing. There are many things I want to work on. I want to improve my social skills, I want to write better and I want to finish the few books I've been reading lately and I want to understand somethings in depth.
But I don't know what the future holds, I am still wandering painfully up an arduous track trying to find my footing on a ground that seems to be always shifting.
P.S: I don't know if my writing skills have improved since last time, so please mind the fact English is not my first language and I am self-taught so if you have any misunderstandings or find something confusing it's me not you and do let me know.
I would like to thank Vanessa Kosoy for our short and brief chat in the PM's and over email, and I am sorry If I disappeared for a bit. And thanks to @moridinamael @Elo and @ryan_b for their enlightening comments and advice. And thanks to Nate Soares for his wonderful blog mindingourway.com
Edit: I feel that this post might not have covered much ground to be seen as a retrospective, so If you have questions or curiosities, please PM me I would love to answer questions, get to know you and even make friends !