Archive for the Category Personal

 
 

Everydayness and the longing for the magical

It’s interesting how poets, writers, artists and philosophers have to go through their daily ablutions. They have to eat, drink, defecate and clean their bodies every now and then, actually, in fact on a regular basis. A writer may sit in a café for a few hours, churn out some of his best work and feel like he has been transported into a universe where words come alive and his characters are real, but as soon as his coffee finishes and the waiter presents the cheque, he is jolted into the same world he inhabited a couple of hours ago, a world that is very much his. The same world where he was born. The same world he started despising for its endless boredom and repetitious chores that drearily inhabit it.

However, that world is the only true reality he has got. The longing to step away from our everyday lives and get transported into a magical land is so strong that many of us give up little beauties blossoming all around us to chase a scene that doesn’t exist. We read a character sketch truly engrossing, or we watch a movie where lovers are kissing with the Eiffel tower at the backdrop and soft jazz playing melodically through the gentle cool breeze and we sigh and say, gosh this is lovely. Why is that scene lovely and why you watching a sitcom all alone, eating popcorn on a regular Wednesday evening not lovely?

I presume it’s because we’re overly familiar with ourselves. We are bored of being with ourselves. We are bored of our homes. We are bored of our offices. Our own life appears humdrum. But consider this. Imagine your very own life being cast into a movie, a beautiful, magical movie. A frame shows you arriving home, tired and jaded, and you meet your lovely life and instantly the frame zooms into that little glass trinket you have on your dining table, and guess what, the trinket is shining, cutting white light into millions of colors onto the table and the frame then shows the sun setting in the backdrop and probably a Beatles song is illuminating the whole scene. Won’t you find that magical? I do.

We usually miss a lot in our life. The longing to be somewhere else, to be with someone else, and to become someone wrenches our souls so much that we forget that we are someone else for someone out there. What we find as boring might be the most fascinating thing ever. Someone out there might be envying us right now.

The longing for the magical never ends. The longing never culminates. It’s temporary and constantly changing, but our very own world is permanent. Once you force yourself to come to terms with the reality that engulfs your life, our very own world becomes magical.

You are the lead character in a movie, the protagonist in a novel, the subject of an art piece, and you are immortal in your own life. Stay happy, spread bliss and enjoy the fuck out of your every day life!

I love you.

Please don’t let yourself get stereotyped. You’re infinite. You’re beautiful.

Expectations are interesting in forming one’s identity. As the CEO of an A/B testing software startup, I am expected to behave in a certain way. I am expected to be on Twitter (@paraschopra), constantly devouring and commenting on funding news on TechCrunch, participate in lean startup discussions, track and gossip on movements of Apple stock and debate on how India can have interesting startups as well. If I’m a cool CEO, I will be expected to hang out at places like Hacker News and Reddit. Within local startup community, I’m expected to frequent startup events and chat about latest and upcoming startups and things like what can be done to improve the “ecosystem”. All in all, the mere label of ‘CEO, software startup’ describes majority of who I am and how I spend my time.

Now, add an additional label like ‘A/B testing‘ or ‘marketing’ and you’d end up describing the remaining modicum amount of my identity. Most people defined by labels of similar fashion. Someone is an MBA grad from Harvard, and you’d guess what sort of person s/he must be. Someone is into fashion? Ah, s/he must be attending fancy parties. Someone is a journalist? Oh, must be an interesting person to talk to. Did you graduate from a design school? OK, so Where’s your portfolio?

I find it immensely demeaning to label people, and I consciously work hard not to judge people from such labels. So what if someone is a doctor, can’t s/he be playing in a death metal band during free time and weekends? Can’t startup CEOs have interest in Nihilism, digital evolution and comics, all at once? People can, and should, be much more than a few labels they get associated to.

Human identity is infinitely complex and fluid. I say complex because (even though most are afraid to do so) people can behave in unpredictable ways. I say fluid because the self can be changed at any point of time. A religious person can become an atheist once given the right exposure. (And I have seen people change drastically). In spite of this essentially indefinable human nature, we all use labels that conveniently abstract and compress information about people.

People don’t have to be something

We tend to label people because it is very convenient for us. If we see a person dressed in leather jacket and having pointy hair, we’d immediately call him or her a “Punk Rocker” and associate many other attributes automatically. However, this is demeaning to the individual being judged because s/he could be anything s/he wants to. S/he could be a punk rocker who is majoring in neuroscience. It’s OK to have incompatible tastes in life. That’s the fun of being a human.

You are actually a constantly evolving mix of numerous attributes. Your ideas, your aesthetic sense, your dressing style, your take on worldly issues, your interest in metaphysics, your liking for movies (and many other elements that compose you) are to be defined by you, and not a label. What society likes to do is to take one of your (major) attributes and simply extrapolate it to the other ones. It’s easier for them to see (or worse, expect) you behave in a specific sense. Would anyone care to hold megabits of information about you? They want an easy to understand label that fits their mental models so they could sleep well at night knowing that the world will behave in an orderly way, they way they expect it to behave.

But you don’t have to care. Don’t help the society stereotype yourself!

The proper functioning of the world is none of the business, especially if it comes at an expense of your freedom and your definition of your identity. However, interestingly, part of the problem of this stereotyping lies within us. And that’s because probably we’re the first ones to stereotype ourselves.

Many people in search for their identity end up hopeless and anxious, feeling they don’t know who they are and where they are placed in this universe. That moment of uncertainty is precisely when people fall into the trap of stereotyping themselves. They take a hard look at their (randomly stumbled) professions or passions and try to construct their identities around the way they’re expected to behave in such professions or passions.

Take for example an accountant who likes soccer. He has friends who are accountants who like soccer. He reads blogs and articles on accountants and their lives. Best practices. Tips. Tricks. And articles like 5 best vacations for accountants. He dresses formally in the morning, goes to office at 9 am, does minor chitchat with fellow accountant colleagues on lunch, comes to home at 5:30pm. On the weekends, he likes to watch soccer or go for movies. Life is easy, fun, simple but eventually the accountant gets bored and jaded and he wants to try something new and interesting (hey, sculpture sounds fun!), but unfortunately now it’s too late. He’s fully convinced that he’s an accountant and that means he’s not supposed to indulge in art.

As long as the accountant is happy with his life, I’m fine with the stereotype (after all, what else does one need from life if not happiness). However, I have major problem if this stereotype starts impacting the well-being of the person, once it starts crushing the freedom and potential of the person who merely happens to keep books for a company. The complex feedback loop of the society trying to stereotype the people who want to be stereotyped is quite apparent, but it need not be that way. If you’re an accountant (or an MBA grad or an investment banker or an artist), you don’t have to be necessarily defined by that label. You can be anything you want want and you need not take anyone’s approval to nicely fit into labels the society tries to apply to you.

Shock the goddamned society!

One easy way to not fall into trap of stereotyping is to actually keep people guessing who you are. In fact, by constantly changing and exhibiting varied interests and behaviors, you would actually be send a very clear message that you cannot be defined. (A fact that is essentially true for all humans.)

Go for scuba jumping when you’re 80. Have an obsession for human skulls. Love black lipsticks. Become a hipster, or don’t become one. Fantasize about working at a sweatshop, barely able to survive. Write boring poems. Admire villains. Be devoutly religious and research on particle physics (or, actually, maybe not). Do whatever the hell you like to do and do it often as society doesn’t take a lot of time to form opinions. Always push the boundaries of people’s expectations. If they think you’re normal, become weird. Once they start thinking you are weird, suddenly become normal. Shock the hell out of people and do it regularly! If for nothing else, please do it for the lulz (since nothing matters, all we want from life is a constant dose of lulz).

The point, of course, is not to be a contrarian for the coolness sake alone. Well, if you’re happy that way, fine. But it’s not cool to be a contrarian knowing you’re faking it and actually feel unhappy/pressured to keep up with that contrarian label that is now you. The point, however, is to be whatever you want to be, believe in whatever ideas you want to believe in and be as incompatible as you want to be without caring what the world thinks and how people may judge you.

As long as you’re happy, moral and indefinable, it should be fine.

So, do you promise to do at least one activity that is completely unexpected of you? I promise that the entire episode would be super enriching, maximally fun and you’d definitely thank me for hat! Did I just write hat? Which hat? Maybe I meant that. Or, maybe I didn’t.

Why time is not running out

I have a friend who thinks time is running out for her. I’m sure she’s not alone, a lot of people share that feeling; I definitely was one of those people who constantly worried that life isn’t moving ahead at a pace that I’d be proud of. Everyday before sleeping, I’d look back and wonder: ‘Gosh! Did I just create a presentation today? How would it help my career?‘. Then I’d have nagging thoughts such as these: ‘Oh god, I’m 25 and I haven’t experienced Sky Diving yet and I haven’t even learnt how to play a guitar.‘ Then when I read about revolutionaries, artists, writers, philosophers and scientists, I couldn’t help but think if I’m wasting my youth chasing money and creating software while I could be a guerrilla artist instead.

Is the clock ticking?

The what-I-could-be-doing-instead syndrome

Having a list of interests, goals and wishes is by no means bad. In fact, I have a list of things I’d want to do by the time I turn 30. However, such list merely serves as a gentle reminder of what I like to do rather than what I should be doing. If the only role your goals (or such lists) perform is to constantly make you feel worthless or unaccomplished, what’s the point of having such a list?

Why passage of time makes one worried?

On this fine Saturday late morning, for the past one hour, I have been sitting idle while drinking a cup of milk and listening to some dubstep and classic rock mix. Yes, I know, instead of this I could be making plans, pitching to a new customer, watching guitar lessons on Youtube, refining my book’s manuscript or doing a number of other activities to make “progress” in life. But here look at me, all I am doing is listening to some pretty good music, scribbling a few random thoughts and in general feeling immense joy. Should I feel guilty of not doing something worthwhile? Am I really “wasting” my time or is this life in its core essence?

Expensive watch, but still worried!

Eons ago I thought that one should feel guilty of not solving world’s greatest problems (Having re-read my post, I think I was — and, to a large extent, still am — inclined towards solving great problems because of the challenge and fun, but not because of any inherent value contained in solving such problems). Now I have come to believe that the passage of time makes one worried when an individual expects to do something great in her life but by sheer odds finds herself to be leading a pretty ordinary life. In fact, since the definition of great is always changing as one keeps achieving greatness, no matter what one does, there’s always something more to be done in life. So what if one is an accountant engaged in a standard 9-5 job? Isn’t it personal greatness as compared to millions who have to struggle daily to put food on their tables, let alone affording the luxury of going to school and graduating as an accountant?

Should I be mistaken, let me clarify my position. I’m all enthusiastic for great goals such as “one day I will travel the world or write a book or do my own startup or will take my startup to an IPO”. But if you feel worthless right now for not having made sufficient progress, consider that even after achieving these goals, you will keep on feeling like shit because by then your goals would have changed to something even greater. Once published, a mere book with your name as the author won’t satisfy. Now you would need to write a bestseller book! What if your book debuts as #2 on New York Times list but you still feel it isn’t as great as it could have been? Only if you had put in some more effort, it could have been #1. Or if your startup does IPO eventually, there’s always a company in the competition that is doing better than you! Isn’t it true?

You have to choose to be happy in spite of non-achievement (or achievement) of goals.

And since no matter what you do, there’s will always be something else you could be doing, key is to relax, go easy on yourself and just enjoy the phenomenon called life. (But don’t let this pressure to be happy actually make you unhappy! It’s OK if you are not happy today, there’s always a tomorrow.)

Life is awesome!

Why we actually have an infinite amount of time in life

Like myself, if you subscribe to the philosophy of Nihilism and consider that life is inherently meaningless, you should find this worry about time passing away dissolve pretty easily. Consider this truism that you didn’t exist before you were born and you will of course not exist after you die. You don’t observe time when you are non-existant. So, essentially, for you, whatever time you spend living is all the time available in the universe. To clarify, for example, if were unable to complete your assignment today and (god forbid), you die tomorrow, you won’t be there to notice the tomorrow and then of course the non-completion of your assignment wouldn’t bother you. Similar is the case with all of the life’s great goals. It’s nice if you achieve them but it’s totally fine if you were unable to do so as it really doesn’t matter after you die. Regrets people have on their death beds don’t matter to them once they die! They (and everyone else) should go easy with their lives because: a) they never really had much freedom to influence their lives; b) as long as they are happy now, the past doesn’t really matter and future won’t matter after their death.

Clocks and anxiety

In spite of all such rationalization, looking at a clock does make one anxious. At least for me, clocks generate anxiety to act. When I look at a clock and see that the time is 3 am, I immediately ask myself if I should be sleeping? Or, if it’s 9pm on a Saturday, shouldn’t I be out partying? Why am I wasting my life doing things? What else could I be doing right now that is best optimized for the current hour and day?

Run, clock, run!

It used to be like this until one fine day I decided to remove clocks from my home and disabled time on my MacBook Pro. If only my iPhone would let me disable showing time on homescreen, god knows I would do that in a jiffy. Instead of push-based time where photons reflecting from the clock constantly reminding me of passage of time, what I want time to be is pull-based. For example, if I’m bored, I type ‘time‘ into Google and know what time and day it is. I realize that running a software business with such idiosyncrasies doesn’t take one far but I rely on reminders to tell me if I have a meeting or a commitment rather than regularly looking at time and then wondering if I have a meeting. Pull-based methods let one be in control of time rather than time controlling one’s life and activities.

Conclusion: it all boils down to happiness (as always!)

I believe that the only thing a person can reasonably aim for is to be happy. If you buy that theory, it makes absolutely no difference to what you are doing as long as it makes you happy (ideally, while staying within the bounds of morality and not impinging on others). So the feeling of time running out is nonsense because it relies on an assumption that future will be happier than the present, but ironically the only people who worry about time running out are the well-to-do ones (have you ever stumbled across a poor chap who’s worried about this?) and for them happiness does always remain in future! (Side note: I really like a phrase and it goes something like this: “Future is the source of all worries!”)

LOL :)

Don’t complain, relax, listen to some french jazz and maybe sip a glass of wine too. Trust me, there’s nothing better you could be doing right now!

Free will, facticity and their (not-so) surprising consequences

Most of us tend to take our world and its inhabitants for granted and we tend not to put a lot of thought into what is what. For example, while growing up as a child, as soon as we become aware of the world and our surroundings, we are told that people are either good or bad. In our adolescence, our categories become a little more well defined. Depending on our inclination (and here’s the key, as you will see later) we may either regard children who do well at studies as good kids, or we may instead idolize cool kids who bunk classes and have fun all the time. So early in our life, what makes us fall into one group and not the other?

this way, that way

Growing still more, we may happen to find ourselves good at a specific activity. Some can tell extremely funny jokes, others can play piano, some excel at tennis, while others may score fantastic grades and secure admission at a top-notch university. Fast-forward a few years, and we stumble across something called career. Then it suddenly dawns to us that people we grew up with would end up with so much different lives and careers. How did this happen?

If you are an investment banker earning a million dollars a year while your kindergarten buddy is now a carpenter, should you feel pride? Or should you feel wonderment about what’s so special about you that you deserve making a million bucks? Wait, do you really deserve it?

What is facticity?

Quoting Wikipedia’s article on facticity:

In the works of Sartre and de Beauvoir, facticity signifies all of the concrete details against the background of which human freedom exists and is limited.

And here’s an alternative definition:

Heidegger discusses facticity as the thrownness (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are “thrown into the world.”

The way I like to see facticity is the influence our world exerts on us without our consent. There are multiple ways to analyze this effect. An obvious one is congenital or genetic influences and disorders. For example, if a person happens to have born blind, that condition is a fact and it is something he hasn’t chosen for himself. He just happened to find himself blind. What this also means is that people with normal vision should not feel superior or pride over blind people (but of course feel extremely lucky) because normal vision at birth is not something they have chosen. They were simply given this trait. The same goes for other attributes of body like beauty or fairness. As a beautiful person, one may get privileged treatment at work or in society (thank you, evolution!), but it would be a silly mistake to think you deserve all that. Or even worse, the assumption that other mediocre looking (and hideous) people are inferior in some sense. They’re not since they happened to find themselves with a particular face.

Unexpected meeting

Facticity goes even further than mere influences at birth. Do you remember how you become friends with that particular person you call now your best friend? Chances are that you just happened to sit with him or her on your first day at school or college. You didn’t survey all the people in your class or college or locality before zeroing into your best friend. As they say, it just happened. Again, there’s nothing to be proud about having that particular person as your best friend.

Influence of genetics

Intelligence, personality, predisposition to commit murder, love for a particular genre in art and literature and (heck!) even preferences for financial investment schemes have been demonstrated to have genetic influences. The field of behavioral genetics is littered with examples of how much influence our genes exert on our behavior. And fortunately (or unfortunately) our genes is not something we choose — we just happen to find ourselves with a particular set of genes.

Genetics

This of course does not mean that genes dictate our behavior. Genes merely predispose us to certain types of behavior. How we eventually turn out is a curious mix of our genetic predispositions and facticity (influence of independent events happening around us).

What all does this have to do with free will?

Given who we are is solely determined by our genetic predispositions and our historic interaction with the environment we happened to find ourselves in, we must admit that free will as we know it does not exist. Sam Harris has written an excellent book justifying my stance (it is just 96 pages, so go read it!), but allow me to put forward a simple scenario showing why I agree with him.

Let’s imagine you are given a very simple choice:

There are two pills that taste the same but differ in color. One is red colored, and the other one is blue colored. You can only pick one candy, which one would you pick?

Not exactly candies, but whatever!

OK, so my question is just another way of asking what’s your favorite color but it is nevertheless an important question on the subject of free will. Imagine you pick the red candy and I ask you why did you pick the red candy. Here are all possible responses you could give:

  • I just picked a color at random, and it happened to be red
  • I like red color (or alternatively, I hate blue color)

There are two levels of apparent free will here. First you decided whether you will choose to prefer one color over the other. If so, you decided which color you prefer. The first choice between picking at random v/s picking preferred color really depends on whether you have a preferred color or not.

If you never cared about colors, that could be due to several reasons:

  • You are blind, or
  • You are red-blue color blind, or
  • You genuinely don’t care about colors or your preferences of them

The first two cases are easily explained and it is obvious how physical conditions limit the exercise of free will. But the third case of indifference is interesting. Why would anyone be indifferent towards colors? The same question is actually applicable to choice of a particular color: What is the basis of choosing any color at random v/s choosing red v/s choosing blue?

xkcd-pill

There could be several answers to this question:

  • I like blue color because it soothes and pleases me. This effect is not something you have chosen, the blue color just happens to create a calming effect for you, and that’s that. If you can calm yourself by free will, why do you need blue color? There may be a genetic predisposition for you to like blue color.
  • I like red color because I like sunsets or my whole neighborhood is full of red buildings and I have caught fancy of the color. . Again, this effect is not something you have chosen by free will, rather you happen to live in an environment which led to you to like red color. (There is definitely a genetic predisposition here too)
  • I just don’t care about the color because I’m depressed and this trivial exercise interests me the least. The mental state of mind is not something you choose. If you are depressed, you are depressed because of factors outside your control (genetic and environmental). Again no free will here.

If the only difficult answer to tackle seems to be I chose XYZ because I like it and I’m free to exercise my free will. If you think carefully, this answer is superficial. When asked to justify the choice, the buck stops at irrational preferences. No matter how vacuous, I-just-like-this answer does seem to hint at presence of free will. But science disagrees with this viewpoint. Assuming the I here is the I you feel conscious about, research shows that our brain makes a decision hundreds of milliseconds before we become conscious of it. Our brain then plays a neat trick of convincing us that it was a decision made out of free will. (Why it creates that illusion is probably due to evolutionary survival reasons, or it is a result of evolution of consciousness).

The famous Libet experiment

scumbag-brain

Benjamin Libet did the pioneering experiment in this field (neuroscience of free will) where “he asked each subject to choose a random moment to flick their wrist while he measured the associated activity in their brain”. And what Libet found was that “the unconscious brain activity leading up to the conscious decision by the subject to flick his or her wrist began approximately half a second before the subject consciously felt that she had decided to move.” What this means is simple: even though we feel we have made a decision out of free will, it has already been made on our behalf by our brain.

Important conclusion: free will is nothing but an illusion.

But does this mean our lives are pre-determined?

No. Even though free will does not exist, people, ideas and thoughts do exist and change our lives in a very real sense. Due to involvement of seemingly infinite variables in our environment, our future is largely un deterministic. (At atomic level, I don’t know if universe is deterministic or not, but at human level it definitely is not). I have previously blogged about this in my post titled Luck, Randomness and Success. However , recently I have realized there’s a nice metaphor about how I think about our lives and choices we make. Here is how it goes:

I like to see everyone’s life as a unique trajectory in the space-time. When a person is born, he or she is put on a unique trajectory (because of his or her unique genetic, economic, societal and cultural conditions). Unknown to the person, every passing second, his or her trajectory is changed every time s/he encounters a new person or an idea. He or she changes other people’s trajectories by his/her thoughts and actions, and other people change his/her trajectories by their actions. It’s a complex interaction that makes lives non-deterministic, but without involvement of any sort of free will. Some trajectories are pleasing (an individual is happy, moral, etc.), some trajectories are not pleasing (unhappy, poor, criminal) but since nobody chooses a particular trajectory, nobody should be appreciated or blamed for having a particular trajectory in life.

calvin-fatalism

This very post is trying to change your trajectory in life and I cannot claim to have written the post out of free will. I happened to have read books on science, then neuroscience, then philosophy and I happened to have a father who is interested in all this and probably passed his “rationalism-preference” genes and has definitely passed his books to me. One thing led to the other and I happened to hold these particular set of beliefs on free will. Most importantly, I happened to find a block of time on a very fine Sunday evening to write about it and was not in a mood to watch a movie or TV. It just happened, but that’s not to say the idea of free will not existing is not potent. The idea has real power to change your views and ideas. That’s how potent it is, and that’s why I’m writing about it.

Consequences of (lack of) free will and facticity

If we accept lack of free will, we must stop (serious) attribution of consequences of actions to individual people. Yes, that is a radical statement but that is what it is if we accept the obvious conclusions. While doing a certain act, if the person couldn’t have done any different, why would you attribute any consequences of that act to him or her? I’m all game for spreading happiness and pleasure in the world, but when it comes to punishing, berating, or generally bad-mouthing particular people or particular types of people, we must remember that the physical or emotional pain is felt by an individual who happens to be like that and there’s nothing they could have done about it. Pain is felt for real, and it hurts.

dilbert-free-will

The lack of free will also brings about other interesting consequences:

  • The word pride or achievement is vacuous, and should perhaps not be used. If you happen to be an investment banker earning a million dollars annually and you feel you deserve it because you were born in a poor family and even then you paid yourself throughout college by waiting tables, you must remember that it is because of the unique trajectory you happened to find yourself on. Maybe you decided to enter the university because your neighborhood kid made it to a good college despite similar economic background? And then maybe your rational decision to mimic that neighborhood kid is due to your previous experiences of mimicking the right things and achieving rewards? I can go on and on and on ad infinitum but the key point is that you shouldn’t feel proud. In hindsight, you couldn’t have done otherwise.
  • Attack ideas not individuals. A common mistake that atheists make is that they criticize religious people. Remember that there’s no point attributing choice of religion or adoption of God to a person. Rather, our aim should be to expose religious people to rational ideas that prove there is no God. Why criticize religious fundamentalists? Attack their ideas instead.
  • Capital punishment, really? As I hinted above, any sort of punishment to an individual is wrong. The pain felt by that individual is real and it’s terrible especially when the individual couldn’t have committed a crime out of free will (because it does not exist). If a murderer does it due to lack of morals or due to economic pressures, it is not his or her fault. And if an individual does crime for pleasure or if his/her brain is wired that way, again that is not something he has chosen. I do see the point of punishment as an idea that deflects people from trajectories of crime, but the pain accompanied with punishment of any sort by society or state to an individual is simply cruel. There must be better ideas of fixing crime. Maybe create a moral society, cure mental disorders or just have a better economy?

Summary

calvin-free-will

Free will does not exist and if there’s a summary to the whole post, it is this: do not attribute consequences of actions to an individual, but by all means attribute them to ideas and thoughts because they influence individuals.

Edit: corrected the spelling of facticity. Thanks Hacker News.

A boring poem

Every day cannot be a party.
Every word cannot be pretty.
Every action cannot be weighty.

There is mundaneness all around us
we can either love it, ignore it, mock it
or write poems about it.

But, what we cannot do
is forget that ordinariness is real, and
still remain honest with our souls.

What we cannot do
is think we’re changing the world, and
still have time to laugh at funny jokes.

What we cannot do
is think we are making world a better place, and
still roll up the window at the beggar’s face.

And, what we cannot do
is feel we’re deserve to be special, since
there are billions of you out there right now.

You are a tiny, little improbability.
Just remain curious, interested, weird
and this may eventually pass.

A perfectly normal life – Part I

What’s missing in her life, mused Sheila. By all accounts her life was as normal as it could possibly be. She had a decently paying marketing job that a lot of her friends envied. Her projects were moderately challenging, work hours reasonable and she even had a cab assigned from office that dropped her back to home daily. As an external observer, you couldn’t spot anything dissatisfying about such a life. Yet, right now, staring blankly at her empty inbox and sipping a mildly fragrant coffee in a cheap, plastic cup, Sheila felt uneasy and out of place.

coffee

After being in a relationship for five years, she had recently married Ajay, a software engineer with Microsoft. It was an elaborate Punjabi ceremony and many relatives and friends attended the wedding; some had come from as far away as Singapore and Dubai. Wedding was a monumental event in her life and she has fresh, sweet memories of it. She thought it was a perfectly fine wedding and obviously she now has a husband that she loves, but still… she knew something was amiss and she couldn’t locate the source of her emptiness. Sipping some more coffee didn’t help her narrow down the real cause.

From an adjacent cubicle, she could hear a jarring noise made by a photocopy machine. This single, isolated noise in otherwise silent office was distinct and she was sure that everyone noticed it, but unlike her, nobody was even remotely bothered about it. Maybe, everyone else was busy with their work. With an air of boredom about this mundane observation, she gulped some more coffee.

Sheila thought a little Facebook wouldn’t do her harm. Work can wait, and anyway there is nothing world changing that she does. The mild excitement of opening Facebook quickly turned into a huge disappointment when she realized nobody, absolutely nobody had liked her last status update. Even though it had just been 2 hours since she had posted “Bored beyond my wildest dreams”, it should have at least got a single like by now. If not by anybody else, at least Ajay should have liked it! He was her goddamned husband. Sight of zero likes or comments on her status update made her very anxious, and hence, with half-twitched eyes and love-hate feelings, she quickly scrolled through updates of her friends: pictures, videos and check-ins that shouted how awesome everyone’s life is. She sighed, and got more flummoxed that she deserved to be.

These abstract, liquid thoughts made her feel guilty not because she was unhappy – she was still unsure if the unusual feeling was of genuine sadness or simple bewilderment – but because she couldn’t grasp what they were about. All she knew was that there’s something missing from her otherwise normal life. She was secretly craving for something that was perhaps out of her reach, but nonetheless at least she should have known the object of this craving. How can she reach for something that she has no clue about? This uneasiness about what the uneasiness was about was driving her even more uneasy. A self-fulfilling uneasiness, that is.

Sheila is generally too cool to bother with introspection, but this attraction for the unknown pounced on her again and again in the most humdrum of situations. She suspected this feeling is always there at back of her mind, but it definitely intensifies when she has a swath of time to pass. At times, even the funniest of the Internet videos appear shallow and forced to her. And at other times, her usual gossip with girl friends would bore her to death. This unnatural feeling wasn’t consistent, but it was very persistent. (She rationalized that, surely, she couldn’t be depressed or suffering from a mental ailment.)

Sheila loved it when she was absorbed in work. But absorbing and challenging work was no long term solace because it meant she would be forever dependent, and it also meant work would become an escape mechanism for her. But what was she escaping from and what more she wanted, she didn’t yet know. Knowing that was her first priority. Also, as if some other self was whispering in her ear, she was doubly troubled by that persistent simultaneous thought that she shouldn’t bother with these useless thoughts. Normal people don’t care, and she shouldn’t.

This infinitesimally tangled feeling brought a slight amusement to her lips – the same kind of unnatural amusement one gets when one thinks about his or her suicide, and realizes how absurd it is — yet can’t deny the validity of such an action.

Sheila’s coffee was almost over, and she quickly spotted a few new emails. With a huge sigh, she was glad her short work-break was over and that once again she can immerse herself in dailyness of life.

And like she had always been doing, Sheila very casually postponed confronting her real self to the next coffee break.

To her credit, at least she was brave enough to entertain such thoughts.

That thing we call happiness

What’s the goal of life? Every one of us is an expert at answering this innocuous question. Some say life is all about compassion for other beings; some say it is about achieving greatness; some say it is about being a good father/mother/brother/sister, and yet some (like me) say there’s no goal in life and it is inherently meaningless. Who’s right, who’s wrong? We can do an endless debate about it, yet people’s opinion about what life is about seldom change. Opinions on life are not formed on an intellectual level, rather they arise from within and then we search for its justification.

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No matter how much we disagree about meaning (or lack of it) in life, there’s one obvious fundamental fact that everyone will agree with. It’s almost a tautology, but while we’re alive, we exist, and this existence should rather be pleasant than be disgusting. So, every one of us in our respective ways, seek to be happy. Even for people who suffer tremendously because they believe in a difficult cause (say reporting from a warzone) do so because feel happiness at a deep, emotional level.

Happiness in life may come from passions, relationships, experiences, creative expression or achieving greatness. So even if we disagree on the goal of life, we can at least agree that ultimately it is happiness that we seek.

The key question for life then becomes: how to be happy?

There are two obvious ways: a) we all have our intuitions and ideas on what we think will make us happy; b) we can read books like Stumbling on Happiness or embrace movements like Positive Psychology to understand what scientific research says about happiness. For example, research says that people who are married are generally happier. Research also says that additional money, as long as you are living in poverty, actually increases happiness but once past the milestone of middle class living, the difference between making $50,000 a year and $50 million a year has hardly any impact on happiness.

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So, from intuition or scientific research, we develop a number of hypotheses on what’s going to make us happier. Maybe a few additional friends will make us happier, or maybe cultivating a passion will do the job, or maybe entering into an intimate relationship is the best thing to do. All these plans for being happier sound too good to be true, but where’s the catch? If being joyful is so straightforward, why is only one quarter of population say they’re “very happy”? What about the rest? Are they not happy enough?

The pursuit of happiness: external v/s internal factors

In the pursuit of happiness, many of our activities involve depending on external factors, some of which may be beyond our control or influence. If we solely depend on such external factors for being happy, we risk facing rejection and failure, and hence negatively impacting our current happiness and limiting our potential future happiness. An example would be the scientific result that married people are happier. Now if the right person comes along, and you get married and thereby become happier, nothing like it! In pursuit of this goal, you can, of course, socialize and try increasing your chances of finding the right person. But what if that right person never comes and you never get married? Life is full of uncertainties and this is surely a possibility (however remote). Another example would be passions that are seeped in external factors. Suppose someone watches a lot of National Geographic Channel and is fascinated with the variety of experiences this world offers. He develops an internal idea that travelling the world would give him immense happiness, but if his life situations (maybe he is poor, married or bedridden, or maybe he is all) don’t allow him to travel, should he be less happy because of this fact?

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Am I advocating resigning to one’s fate? Yes, and no. As long as you are happy, what’s wrong with resigning to fate? Though I’m not saying we shouldn’t try changing our external circumstances. What I am saying is that we cannot factors beyond our control, so it is foolish to rely on them to bring us happiness. Of course, we can (and should) always try to change external circumstances but we cannot put our happiness in jeopardy for that. If that external circumstance changes (by luck or effort), nothing like it and we should enjoy the happiness that comes along with it. But getting frustrated because you couldn’t move that rock which stands between you and happiness is quite childish. If the rock doesn’t seem like moving even after a great deal of effort, simply move on. You cannot blame yourself and feel frustrated because you couldn’t change the world or your circumstances.

Even better is the situation where you don’t need to move any rocks to be happy. There are many internal factors for happiness that solely depend on your own ideas, thoughts and emotions. One of the most important factors that impact your happiness is your outlook in life. For example, if you idolize greatness, yet are not able to achieve it, simply change your outlook. Look at happy people around you who have achieved nothing significant in life. Is their life any worse than those who have won Nobel prizes or founded billion dollar companies? Another factor you can control is being at ease with yourself. If you crave for external validation of your life, work and actions, you set yourself for disappointment and unhappiness. Similarly, if you crave for people’s company and don’t seem to get enough of it, you are setting yourself up for unhappiness.

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I realize that evolution has constructed humans as social creatures who seek approval and company of fellow beings. But evolution never really cared about an individual’s happiness. It’s blind to my happiness as long as I reproduce. So, even though evolution makes it hard for us to being happy by ourselves alone, doing so is still preferable to the harder job of changing the world. Demanding the world that it should give you happiness is an act doomed for failure.

Tricks I use to be happy

One of the tricks I personally use (and still trying to get better at it) is to cultivate passions that do not depend on external world. I feel happy whenever I’m writing, so I try to write as much as I can (this post is an example of it). I’m a curious person and like learning about different fields (these days, it is psychology, philosophy, brain and mind), so I keep reading books (GoodReads.com is an excellent resource for suggestions) and articles on Wikipedia. I also like to constantly improve upon different aspects related to my startup Wingify (things like product features, user experience, customer support mechanisms, marketing tactics, etc.). Just making Wingify better than what it was yesterday gives me joy and, as opposed to something external like IPO or acquisition, improving Wingify is something that depends entirely on me.

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My outlook that there’s no grand purpose in life and it is essentially meaningless make me not crave for possessions, wealth and greatness. Rather than depressing, my Nihilistic outlook is liberating and opens up easy paths for happiness. And my passions for writing and reading keep my busy and happy. My aim is to rely on myself to be happy and essentially detach my happiness from external factors that I cannot control. Note that this is not to say that I dislike wealth or greatness. I have respect for people who do great things, but I simply don’t want these things to impact my happiness levels. Similarly, it is not that I dislike socializing or don’t have friends. Far from it, I tremendously enjoy being with people. But I don’t want my friends or family to be sole determiners of my happiness.

Summary

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The key to a happy life is to admire windfall of happiness but in absence and in spite of it, we should prepare ourselves to be happy even in a situation where all we have with us is ourselves.

On (not) having heros in life

Having heros is a dangerous habit. If you have a hero, expect to be disappointed and disillusioned when you discover they don’t approve of your interpretation of them. Your world will shatter when the hero that you respected so highly shrugs you and your ways off. You will then be forced to think: “how could my hero reject me, a person who is obviously shaped by the very same hero’s ideas and ways?“.

Suppose I respect Steve Jobs. Suppose he’s my hero; an ideal that I want to be. Obviously, I will try to emulate him and his ways. I will try developing my own point of view based on his thoughts. He likes simplicity, so I like simplicity. He likes good design, so I like good design. He can be ruthless and direct with other people, so I too should do the same. I’m in awe, and he is perfect. Of course, I don’t have to base my complete life on one hero; I can have multiple heros too. But if heros come to represent what I want to be, their ways ultimately dictate my life and choices.

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Heros dictating one’s life is not bad by itself. But what is bad is the possibility of discovering that your hero doesn’t approve of your life. If being a Steve Jobs fan, I design a product and with childlike enthusiasm go and meet him to show my product. Now suppose he sends the whole thing away to trash and criticizes me, and laughs at my misunderstanding of his ideas. Wouldn’t this rejection be as shameful as it can get?

Rejection from others can be tolerated since you often rationalize them to be wrong. But accepting rejection from a hero is very painful. All your life you had been interpreting your heros’ lives and ideas, and one day they may scoff at just how mistaken you were! It’s not to say that heros will disregard you, but the mere possibility presents a strong case of not having heros in life. (You cannot obvious control or predict how your heros behave towards you when you go and meet them)

Do you not then set yourself for a (possible) big disappointment if you lift a hero higher than yourself? What would you do if his ideals, his values, and his way of life becomes an ideal, and he himself rejects your life? Why can’t you idolize ideas instead of people?

Also, be ready to be shocked when (and if) you discover even your heros have fallibilities; when you discover they could be wrong too; and that they too are ultimately humans (just like you and me).

Save yourself from such earthy embarrassment. Follow a simple rule in life: don’t have heros larger than yourself. Respect your opinion, values, ideas and ways above anyone else!

As Nietzsche famously said, “become who you are”.

It’s OK to disagree in a face-to-face conversation

We have casual face-to-face (and telephonic) conversations everyday. We chat with our friends, discuss latest gossip with colleagues and sometimes also strike up conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus or something. I have observed that in such casual conversations most people (impulsively) tend to agree with each other, no matter what is being discussed. For example, imagine this conversation: I meet my cousin at a family function and I bring up my love for Goa as a vacation spot. Irrespective of his own opinions, my cousin is likely to respond in this manner: “Yes, it is really a fun destination”. For all I know, he may have hated his experience in Goa last time, but because of unsaid conventions, most conversations enter into mutual appreciation mode. I agree to what you say, and you agree to what I say.

Why do people have affirmative casual conversations?

Because agreeing is much less riskier than disagreeing. Unless you strongly disagree on a topic, it simply isn’t worth confronting the other person with your disagreement. So what if you hate Goa? It isn’t worth upsetting rosy fantasies of your cousin who you only meet once in a while. This drive to agree with others is so strong that even if some people want to express their disagreement, they would qualify it with an acknowledgement first. For example, they may say “Goa is nice but I didn’t like the beaches. They were dirty”.

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No, you’re not!

Of course, if someone brings up a sensitive topic (like religion, family, ethnicity or anything else you strongly care about), you would certainly disagree. For example, if my best friend says to me “Punjabis are rude and brash”, I will certainly confront him with my arguments. However, the problem is that some people qualify their disagreement even on topics they strongly care about. In hope to sound nice, they may say: “You may be right about Punjabis, but it is not 100% true because…”. Why in this world can’t you simply and plainly disagree?

People find it easier to disagree on online forums/platforms. This is because of two reasons:

  • Our online identities are somewhat masked. My online handle @paraschopra is not as authentic representation of me as the words coming out of my mouth while I am having a face to face conversation. What this leads to is a somewhat emotionally detached point of view, where you argue based on facts not caring a lot about others’ reactions (because you can’t observe them online as you would do in a face to face conversation). As they say, you don’t have to be necessarily nice on the Internet.
  • There is no immediacy in responding. One of the reasons why we tend to agree (in person) is because we subconsciously fear that we may not have enough time to justify our disagreement, so we risk coming across as a fool. But online it is different: you get enough time to think through your opinions and lay out your disagreement.

But, of course, anonymous people online can go crazy and simply disagree for disagreement’s sake. Obviously, this is not what I am arguing for. My point is that:

It’s not rude to disagree in personal conversations

Cowing to others’ opinions in a conversation is mark of a weak person. If you find disagreeing online easier, there is no reason why you shouldn’t stand for your opinions while talking in person or over phone. A conversation where all you do do is blindly agree with each other is a grand waste of time and is so boring. I say something, you agree. You say something, I agree. What are we doing here? Pleasuring each other?

disagree
Hell, yeah! Only people who disagree go on to make new theories.

Conversations with different opinions are much more interesting. If you don’t like Goa, just say it. Don’t qualify it, just tell me your reasons and we should be having a much more meaningful conversation. If you don’t like color of your friend’s newly painted house, just tell him that when he brings up this topic. Of course, you don’t have to bring up the color issue out of the blue. That would be rude. What wouldn’t be rude is to tell your friend that you find the color dull when he asks you: “Do you like this new color I have chosen?”. You shouldn’t lie. You shouldn’t agree just to be nice.

Please stop agreeing with others out of fear and impulsion. Stand firm on your opinons.

OK, so do you agree with me on this?

Why do people fall in love with nostalgic past?

We all know that feeling when the past seems beautiful and there is an uncontrollable longing to belong to a time that has already passed. Most of us romance our carefree childhood and want to relive those special moments every now and then. Artists amongst us want to live in the ages when Picasso and Dali were creating their masterpieces. Present day scientists wish to witness the years when Einstein, Darwin or Newton were just about to change the Zeitgeist forever. And, don’t writers today pine for the times when George Orwell or Shakespeare produced one great work after the other? We entrepreneurs in computer/technology space, how much we fancy times when PC industry was coming to an age with Bill Gates’s BASIC and Steve Jobs’ Apple II.

Albert Einstein is probably bored (or ill)

When we witness a past age through a historical movie or a biography, it all comes vividly alive in our imagination and then we fantasize about what it must have been to live in those times. What if you could have witnessed Gandhi or Bhagat Singh during Indian freedom struggle? What about life during World War II? What if you could have lived in Victorian times where everything was so royal? And how utterly fantastic would it have been to witness man landing on moon? (Many of us are recent borns, so we only have romantic imagery for those moments.) No matter if we love or hate the past, we can’t deny that it does indeed seems to be more captivating than the present.

Past captures our imagination because so little of it is recorded. In fact, only the most interesting events of the past are recorded. When we read or watch about the past, we only get to observe tids and bits of events happening that historians and writers found worth recording. Evidently, nobody records that, for example, on March 25th, 1902 Einstein was utterly bored for the day and he passed his time by listening to news on a half-broken radio and lazily chatted up with neighbors. Even if Einstein lived a humdrum, normal life for months and years, it wouldn’t have probably got recorded or noticed by contemporaries or future historians (precisely because that period of time wasn’t interesting). Even if these uninteresting days in Einstein’s life get written about, they are given far less importance as compared to occasional, eventful days in his life. A biographer (or a writer) would spend a good chunk of her time simply to build it up to the moment when Einstein revealed his Theory of General Relativity. This event was monumental, so it makes sense to highlight it and do an extensive elaboration of Einstein’s life around it. It is obvious that no serious biographer would write a book that contained every small (and boring) bit about a Einstein’s life. Only worthwhile bits make it to history.

But the problem is that (in present) when we imagine the past, our imagination is obviously guided by whatever we know about the past. And, what we know about the past is only the juicy details. We can’t possibly imagine our heroes or people in romantic ages living boring, humdrum lives. We can’t imagine the past ages completely and truly because we simply don’t know or remember non-important parts. So, we extrapolate whatever past our imagination can reconstruct and imagine that whole of their lives and times must have been interesting. We fall in love with the past because we imagine it to be so damn interesting. However, we must not forget that past was once present and our fancy for the past is nothing but misguided.

Today’s present will probably be longed by future generations, so right here, right now, you have an excellent opportunity to make your present as interesting (or as boring) as the past you love!

Dreams and Nostalgia

(This post was inspired by absolutely drop-dead beautiful movie by Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris. Extending this logic of falling in love with the past, we can likewise imagine why people fall in love with our present day heros’ lives as well. What we hear about lives of others is, again, just the interesting parts. So our mental imagery of how actors, sport stars or celebrities we adore or admire is significantly biased by what we get to hear, read or see about them. And, remember, nobody talks about boring parts of life. They’re not worth writing or recording, apparently.)