Might I ask for some advice?

by AmagicalFishy6 min read18th Nov 201123 comments


Personal Blog

If you're expecting anything but a long post by an LW lurking college student asking sincerely for some advice, you should read The Curse of Identity, the article that spurred this very post. It's a good read, regardless of my advice-seeking status. With that said: Hello. I'm an LW lurking college student in need of advice, and this is my long post asking for it. I hope this isn't inappropriate.

Mainly, this comes down to my hardly having a satisfying direction in life. I'm ignorant as to the reasons behind my lack of some fully functional inner compass. Is it that I just haven't found my passion—my niche in life? Or am I just lazy? Are the goals I want to achieve products of genuine interest, or are they methods of preserving a reputation which I (admittedly) very much enjoy having? Is my discouragement something I must use instrumental rationality to overcome, a sign that I'm fooling myself; one I should listen to and change something, or just a natural feeling when a particular situation is difficult? Is my not having direction a reasonable, youth-related status (is 22 that young?), or a sign that I've been doing something horribly wrong?

I've always enjoyed, and associated myself with writing and literature—but not to the extent that I feel the need to pursue a formal academic degree for them. When I started school, I majored in Philosophy because I like different philosophies, philosophizing, and the philosophers who did so before me. Then I dropped out for a couple of years and lived half-way across the U.S. with (at the time) my girlfriend. Currently, I'm back in school majoring in Physics and Mathematics (I've always wanted to study sub-atomic particles—I also enjoy mathematics, mathematical thinking, etc., and the two compliment one another well).

So now I'm in school for Physics and Mathematics, and, while I enjoy the subjects, when I'm actually doing things related to the fields, I'm consistently discouraged. I feel like I'm not learning anything, trucking through problems without an actual understanding of the material, and by the time I finish what needs to be done for one class, I have a load of work for another, leaving me little time to, say, work through actual proofs of why something works (or, more likely, my time-management skills are atrocious. This combined with a large work-load leaves me little time). My problem comes ultimately from my trying to figure out what other problems are. For example:
I see homework as that which actually teaches me to use the concepts I learn in Physics or Calculus. The more I wade through the many online interfaces through which I do my homework, the less I like what I'm doing. If I like Mathematics, I should similarly like the ideas in Mathematics. If I'm more and more disliking doing the homework—that is, actually learning how to use the concepts—then do I really like Mathematics, or do I just like the idea of it?
I've come to the conclusion that the online interfaces are what make working on a subject unenjoyable—I blame them on my growing discontent with whatever I'm doing. (MyMathLab, WebWork, WebAssign, MasteringPhysics, etc. are targets of wide-spread hatred among the student bodies of all 3 schools I've been to). But I realized something: When I genuinely understand the work, and when I'm able to do it well—I don't mind these interfaces in the slightest. Perhaps it's the lack of immediate feedback on what (out of the many potential things) I've done incorrect that annoys me. Maybe I just feel better doing things from a textbook. My lack of understanding in something is definitely correlated to how much, on a face-value level, I like something. It can't just be the online interfaces themselves.
After some thought, I lose any grasp of what the problem actually is. I truly enjoy ideas in Physics, but do I want to do Physics? I think so. Is it just the way it's taught and the way I'm learning it that brings about my discouragement, which brings about these questions? Should I, instead of thinking of a different major, try to learn differently? Does every potential physicist ask themselves these questions? When I tell someone my major is Physics, they give me the "Wow-I could-never-do-that-you've-got-something-wrong-with-you" expression. I like that reaction. How much does that play into my thinking I want to major in Physics? It feels great when I manage time in such a way that I can sit down and actually understand particular concepts—does this mean I really should be doing physics because I genuinely like it? Should I suck it up, stop analyzing, and grind through everything until I'm a master at it? (Eat your heart out, MasteringPhysics) Etc., etc., etc.
I think the reasonable answer to this line of questioning would be, "If you have so many damned questions about this, you should change majors!"
The Actual Problem
The problem is that seemingly every endeavor ends in this way, regardless of academic major or goal: This sticky entanglement of questions and different approaches in the face of opposing force concludes in my having no idea where one problem starts and another one stops. My motivation to do anything fizzles in the obscurity that my (apparently inefficient) analytic mind becomes when spread over such a huge range of inquiries.

And the only constant through all of this is that I'd rather sit down, shut off my brain, and play video games until my eyes redden and I can crawl into bed and sleep instantly. But whenever I have those days, I feel like I've wasted huge amounts of time when I could otherwise be doing something productive. 

In fact, I used to say I'd have a profession in the video game industry when I was younger; computers and video games have always been a huge part of my life, and I love programming (though I've never taken any formal classes, so I'm by no means an expert. My referring to it generally as "programming" is probably indicative of my being a novice). I considered whether or not I should change my major to something computer related—but, since this is what usually happens, I'm not sure whether or not it'd be a worthwhile thing to do. Will my love for programming fade away as I'm introduced to more rigorous methods and subject to various assignments and deadlines? Do I just dislike structure? Need I force myself into enjoying a more structured environment? Is this even a question of whether or not I enjoy a particular field?

Oh, no. No, no, no . . . am I . . . am I a free spirit!?

Potential Solution

Just writing this post has helped me in organizing my thoughts, and I'm considering this: Take all of my questions (they've got to be fininte) and provide counter-examples that would help me answer them. So, "Is it just the way it's taught and the way I'm learning it that brings about my discouragement, which brings about these questions?" Might be counter-questioned by my asking myself, "Is there something enjoyable I can think of that, regardless of how it's taught or how I'm learning it, I'd still thoroughly enjoy?"

What is the better way of going about this? Where am I being particularly irrational or biased? How would you folks go about solving this?

Apologies if this post is convoluted or confusing.

Edit: Thanks for all your responses, guys. They've been immensely helpful. The main points I've gathered are:

a) There's nothing particularly irrational or unreasonably biased in what my position is—it's normal. 
b) Passion and enjoyment aren't necessities for a satisfying, fulfilling direction (though they help). If anything, the idea of working for your "passion" is a kind of feel-good idiom.

There've also been posted some excellent articles:
Curing Deep Procrastination
The Science of Loving What You Do
Approval and Low-Effort Behaviors


23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:38 AM
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Is it possible that may people-- perhaps even the majority-- just don't have a driving passion?

It's hard to answer this question. If we could define a "passion function" for an individual, we should expect it to have some peaks corresponding to the "driving passions" and then we could compare the peaks between different people. But it's very well possible that the majority of people never had the occasion to "measure their peaks". Let's suppose that my passion function has an enormous peak for skying, but I was born in Morocco, or that I have an enormous peak for physics but am forced to study economics to work in my family's business. And this doesn't take into account the possibility of a variable passion function (which I think is the actual case).

But if you instead mean: "People don't plan their lives around or taking into major account their driving passion(s)" then I'm inclined to answer yes, my guess is that external factors play a bigger role in shaping people's lives.

If you don't know your passion you don't have one yet. Its not like there is a pleasure center in your brain tagged "skying" that is all plugged up and ready to go if only you would some day go to a place with snow. You may have a disposition to a certain type of passion that could be fulfilled by a number of different criteria.

You may be right, I was speculating quite a bit. To be honest, I would be interested to know if some research has ever been made on the subject, i.e. roughly speaking "passion space configuration". I really don't know if the hypothetical "passion function" has some very localized peaks or is generally smooth (or has both large plateaus and sharp peaks!). The only evidence I have comes from myself and it points in both directions, i.e.:

a) I hate pretty much every sport involving coordination, except for tennis (sharp peak hypothesis)

b) I like pretty much every tabletop and card games, some more, some less, but with a small variation between them

The "plateau hypothesis" could explain no passion <= the level of the plateau is low. The "sharp peak hypothesis" could explain no passion <= you never reached the small region were the peak is situated.

Edit: found a better example for a)

I suggest reading this Paul Graham essay:

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That's why he's so good.

If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was when he looked at Maxwell's equations and said, what the hell is going on here?

It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about....The way to get a big idea to appear in your head is not to hunt for big ideas, but to put in a lot of time on work that interests you, and in the process keep your mind open enough that a big idea can take roost

The very first part of this article discusses the value of knowing your options, and I'm beginning to feel that this is a key missing ingredient for productive self-determination and motivation.

I tend to systematically under-invest in the discovery of options. I chose an undergraduate major which I believed would provide me the broadest range of options upon graduation. What I had actually done was chosen an undergraduate major which provided a range of parentally approved, high paying, high status job options. I did not know that such a thing as a National Lab existed. I thought that professors just taught courses. Actually, I don't think I had the faintest idea of what Academia was, or even what /science/ actually was. So obviously when I was trying to "broaden my options" I was not thinking about those options. I was thinking about the options that I already knew a lot about.

That said, it is impossible to know all the options. The linked article also points out that the job you'll be doing in ten years probably hasn't been invented yet. But I think that you can still find out the /types of work/ that exist. It took me a long time to realize that I hate being told what to do. Some people love being told what to do, and find it comforting and secure to do a clearly delineated job, and to become very good at that job. Sometimes I wish I was like that, but I'm not. I require creative freedom or I lose all motivation. You could call this a character flaw, but I see it simply as a useful fact to know about myself, and something I wish I had known when I was younger.

I went to college with a lot of people who fully intended on working just long enough to save enough money to retire, and then they would do what they really wanted to do. I do not possess the amount of discipline and/or delusion required to live my life this way. It sounds like AmagicalFishy doesn't either. Maybe you can self-modify to become someone who enjoys something different than you do now, if you think the problem is that you enjoy the wrong things. I think it would be more realistic to first find out the type of things that you enjoy doing and thinking about and the way you interact with people, and then do a broad search for options that might fulfill those needs, attempting to avoid anchoring on the ones you currently think of as viable options.

This is similar to "You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process." from xkcd.

A sense of direction does not mean "forswearing experimentation". Without a direction you aren't going to get much accomplished. I spent years thrashing because I was (and am) interested in almost everything.

Besides the Paul Graham essay, you might want to read the Study Hacks series on deep procrastination, especially this one.

procrastination, in my experience, is not a character flaw, but instead evidence that you don’t have a believable plan for succeeding at what you’re trying to do.

Enjoyment isn't enough nor totally necessary (though it can make the work involved feel easier). The most important thing is to have a specific goal and a believable (by you) plan to achieve it.

In the same vein, I found this Study Hacks article extremely useful:

Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do

Something that struck me was the idea of humans working less efficiently when presented with a reward. I think this very much relates to a (relatively new) part of me which puts a bit too much value in grades.

I used to think that I was lazy in college too. I was "smart" so there's NO WAY the course load was too much for me, right?

Saying that I DON'T do well trying to handle a full course load seemed like saying that I was stupid. Especially since it's a better deal to take more classes (set tuition at 12+ credit hours is better deal than the per credit rate for less than 12 credit hours).

So it took me a looong time to admit that I should only be in 1-2 classes per quarter. In fact, I feel like I got MORE out of my money that way, since I could really focus on those 1-2 classes, and would end up learning WAY more in that subject than I would have if I took more classes, and retaining it better too, since I really took the time to internalize all the knowledge.

Of course, since you'd be spreading your time-to-complete out, you would need to work (in a job) more to compensate.

EDIT- Also, although right now "4 more years" or something seems like a long time, but relative to your total expected life span, it's not.

Regarding taking courses more slowly, I think it is useful for students of hard sciences who do not take to the material quickly to pick up a minor in an easier soft science or even humanities class if only to avoid the blow to personal ego and potential drop in status for being a part time student. All of this is based on my own personal conjecture. However, there are other benefits to taking a minor in a slightly easier discipline. You could take a minor in history and choose to learn the history surrounding the concepts you are learning in a more rigorous class. This allows you to fit the discoveries and ideas into a narrative as you learn all about Newton’s Europe while you study Classical Mechanics. Allowing you to put Newton’s ideas in a particular time period could give a student a better sketch of the territory he is trying to paint in his map. By taking a minor in a related but 'less pure' topic a student can paradoxically raise his or her status while making the per semester course load easier.

EDIT: As pointed out below, I do not particularly mean easier per say. That was a terrible choice of words on my point. Rather, use a class that can supplement your current studies to gain greater context.

As someone who has their undergrad in history, I actually think it is MORE important to slow down humanities classes. Because it's possible to breeze through them, doesn't mean that you actually get much out of them when you do (note: I am not talking about any "intro to" or 101-level stuff, which I'll admit is generally idiotic). However, when you have 3 other classes fighting for your time, the temptation to do so is strong. It's much easier to get a decent grade in humanities, but its also much easier to get WAY more out of it by putting time in.

Example- In a math class, once you know the material, you know it. "Learning more" just means "getting ahead of the class". OTOH, there is a near infinite amount of material in say, a history class. What did different historians interpret different things? What was every day life like? What was technology like? etc. I could take the exact same history class with the same professor 10 times, and although the lectures would get monotonous, I would never run out of new stuff to study.

Unfortunately, because you CAN pass with minimal effort, that ends up being what most people choose to do.

(Also, I tend to take offense when science people look down on humanities. I can see why, but I have also taken a year of full loads of ALL math/physics/engineering courses (after I got my BA, and was catching up to switch fields), and will say that in SOME ways it's easier. (It's always programming that kills me))

You misunderstand my intent. I didn't mean to imply that studying history was not worthwhile. In fact the different questions one could ask:

What did different historians interpret different things? What was every day life like? What was technology like?

Were precisely the reason I think a minor could be useful. The fact that, if you need to, you can attain a passing grade, while still focusing your studies to learn the background knowledge of your chosen field is of immense value. Rather than being a 'blow off class,' I would recommend a humanities course to be supplementary. I have long suspected that if the history, culture, science and art of The West were presented together the fact the students can relate different classes to each other would improve their overall interest. This is what I meant by making it a lighter course load. Again I can cite no studies I know of, but when I study Mathematics I find it's easier to learn it by tracking the ideas back to the time and place they were thought up and the effect it had. By learning these together, my subjective exprience says I learn each more efficently. In fact I would hazard to guess I work more on each class than I would have if I didn't take them cocurrently. I apologize for not being clear.

Is my not having direction a reasonable, youth-related status (is 22 that young?), or a sign that I've been doing something horribly wrong?

Very much possible. High school usually doesn't prepare you to really be able to identify your goals and capabilities, and therefore to choose a career. Usually it's at college that you have to confront with reality for the first time.

My lack of understanding in something is definitely correlated to how much, on a face-value level, I like something. It can't just be the online interfaces themselves.

In my personal experience it really takes a lot of time to completely make sense of the full picture of physics (and particle physics in particular). There are a few things that you can immediately understand, and other that make sense only when they come together to form a bigger puzzle. It's also perfectly natural to feel frustrated when you're stuck doing something you don't fully understand.

Does every potential physicist ask themselves these questions?

In my observations, at least half of them do. The other half either did a lot of previous research on the subject and are really convinced of what they're doing, or simply don't care.

All in all, what it looks like to me is that you're confronted with a difficult decision (basically, what to do for the rest of your life), and are confused by some amount of opposite evidence. I don't know you well enough to make an overall suggestion, but for the physics related part, it appears that you just realized that, well.. it's a tough subject. "Physics is a tough subject" is kind of a "mysterious answer": you don't really know what that means until you begin to study it. So, I'm not going to deny it: learning physics can at times be boring ad discouraging. But once everything "clicks" and fall into its place, it's a beautiful moment. If you enjoy those moments, then you will enjoy physics.

I hope I have been helpful.

I'm a graduate student, studying high energy particle physics. Research in particle physics is something I have wanted to do since I was 13 years old. Many people have dreams at that age, but as they grow older, they find that they didn't really understand what would be required of them, in one sense or another. This has not been my experience. The more science and mathematics that I learned, the more enthusiastic I became. I enjoy solving problems and working out equations; I enjoy programming simulations of physical systems; and I enjoy working in the lab, using equipment to get data, and then analyzing it. I do physics because I can keep doing it without getting bored, discouraged, etc. longer than I can do anything else.

That's not to say that there are never times when I get bored or discouraged, but those specific instances are uncommon enough that they haven't put me off the field as a whole. I certainly empathize with your distaste for MasteringPhysics (although it's not the worst online homework system that I've seen; that dubious distinction goes to WileyPlus). I was fortunate enough to attend an undergraduate program in which the physics majors did not have to deal with online systems, but I'm now a teaching assistant for a course which does use MasteringPhysics. As a TA, I can see the answers for my class' homework assignments, and even then I'm still sometimes mystified at what the system is doing.

It can be frustrating when you know you've worked out a problem correctly, but you get no credit from the online system because of some minute detail. The scoring often doesn't reflect your understanding. However, the actual act of working out the solutions to the problems should still be a little fun, at least sometimes. And, of course, academic physics is not all there is to physics: learning to do research and lab work is just as important, generally. If you're really not enjoying any of these things, physics may not be for you, and that's okay.

Lest I be accused of other-optimizing, I'm definitely not saying that everyone should hold out until they find something which is to them as physics is to me: an area in which they enjoy working, have some skill, and can make a living. That may just not be possible for some people, due to whatever combination of influences that controls their skills and what they find enjoyable, as well as the constraints imposed by economic feasibility. Many of us will have to go for two out of three on that list, at best. To be honest, whether or not I can make a long-term living in physics is still an open question. Much of my research contributions involve software and programming, since I'm pretty good at it (at least among physicists), so I could probably secure a software job without too much difficulty. However, I find physics more meaningful, and that gives me more drive and interest than I might have working on some arbitrary coding project. Tradeoffs like that are, for the time being, part of life (as long as basic resources remain scarce).

One parting note: don't get too down on yourself for having those days where you just want to vegetate with some entertainment. That happens to me, too. It's okay to take some time to ourselves now and again; trying to be productive all the time will just lead to burning out.

You managed to have a section titled "The Actual Problem" without ever discussing the actual problem. Starting with a few detailed examples of an "endeavor [that] ends in this way" would be helpful. Analyzing what (ostensibly) led you to abandoning each individual endeavor might help deduce a pattern and potentially some underlying reasons. Why did you drop out of philosophy? What is an example of a physical concept that led you to dislike the underlying mathematics?

As for majoring in Physics from a practical point of view, it is only worth it if you can't get enough of it. Computing/Engineering/Commerce/Finance provides a much better bang for the buck (or buck for the bang, as the case may be).

I had thought the pattern is the explanation of the problem—in the first paragraph after the bold letters. It's less the specific reasons for various decisions (though these have to be [and are in the process of being] analyzed in full, I agree), and more so the general path my mind takes when confronted with said reasons.

Or, are you saying that I should re-examine the specifics because the pattern is too general, and isn't much a solvable problem as-is?

Facts that need to be cleared first: (1) you are 22, (2) "passion" is a meme imported from the tech industry.

You shouldn't have a sense of direction at 22. If you do, you're doing it wrong; it means forswearing experimentation, which is a huge net positive endeavor at that age.

People usually develop a sense of direction because of path dependence. Since you are not in a professional major, dependence is weak. The down economy, with its ebb of opportunity and grim signals, worsens any confusion. If you feel you are even more confused than you should be, that's probably the reason.

The passion thing is just what techies talk about to thump their chests. It means whatever the speaker needs it to, just ignore it.

I wasn't aware that the meme that one should "do what you love" came from the tech boom. I was given to understand by Alain de Botton (I believe in his TED talk) that this idea orginiated in France among the upper class at the same time that life long romantic love began to become a thing. Is he wrong, or is it that the tech boom allowed the lower and middle classes to buy into this idea that passion can be economic sustaining?

It seems to me that Silicon Valley hijacked "passion". One of the things they want it to do is prevent people from perceiving them as the robber barons of the 21st Century by giving the impression that they founded technology companies to follow their personal passion rather than to make obscene amounts of money with IP assets. Not that there is anything wrong with doing that, I wish I had.

No, he's probably not wrong but he's also not relevant. The OP probably isn't importing the meme directly from 19th century France. In the US, you import the meme from two general sources: hippies or the tech industry. Given the author's own description of his life, the tech industry seems most likely.

But who knows: maybe he's a meme hipster and only imports French originals?

I suffer from the same problem and this topic have been talked about quite a bit before, though I don't think there is an accepted solution to the problem posted yet.

As I understand it, this confusion is not at all due to the activity being chosen, but skeptical methods exposing the illusion of coherence of the mind. To think harder would point to the traditional sense of self being more a flawed map then some physical level construct however it does not suggest a comfortable, stable alternative in which to organize mental processes.

On the short term, one thing that has been on my mind is how to merge the very counterintuitive empirical, outside view of the self with the inside view and not run into ineffective introspective loops,