Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Today in complexity theory lecture the professor briefly made reference to the number-on-forehead model* and I realized that this problem had been one of the main reasons I had decided I was not cut out for theory. When I was 14, I had participated in Andrew's Leap, a computer science summer program run by Professor Rudich at CMU. A simple, 2-person version of the NOF problem* had been presented on the entrance examination; I felt very bad that I did not even understand the solution right away even after it was explained to me. I was written off as not a child prodigy, and I wrote off math/theory as not for me. I proceeded to spend the rest of my teenage years developing my other skills (programming, writing, drawing, field hockey, etc.) rather than learning more math and computational theory.

I would like to now make two observations that I did not realize at the time: 1) one does not have to be a child prodigy to be a theorist and 2) not being a theorist does not mean one cannot have a deep understanding and appreciation of theory. Had I known these things, I would have probably worked harder to make myself smarter at theory all these years; I would be better at certain parts of life had I done this. This supports my hypothesis that being exposed to too much too early may have negative (but not irreversibly harmful) impact on overall life productivity.

I am going to make two somewhat correlated claims:
  1. It is not sustainable for most people to sustain a high level of productivity for a long period of time.
  2. Trying to do too much too soon in life can have negative consequences on overall life productivity.
The corollaries to these claims are:
  1. Don't worry if you were/are not precocious. In fact, you might just be a late bloomer.
  2. Don't be too hard on yourself for not being as intense as people around you.
  3. Don't worry if you are burned out and other people are not, especially if you have been working intensely. It doesn't mean your life is over; if you stop being hard on yourself it will probably go away.
This is all related to a conversation I had a few days ago about burnout (both running burnout and academic burnout): what it is, why it happens, and what it does to people. This conversation involed a few side observations: 1) most students form undergraduate programs do not go on to become grad students/professors and many grad students/professors at top institutions did not graduate from equivalent undergraduate institutionss, and 2) many Harvard students from top New England boarding schools tend not to become academic superstars and instead do a lot of activities because they are tired of constant academic challenge by the time they get to college. This suggests that high levels of pressure and intensity may not pay off in the long run.

My life experiences support these hypotheses. Because I did a lot in high school, I was tired both in general terms and academically by the time I went to college. In high school, I spent my summers doing programs at Carnegie Mellon University that involved a fair amount of college-level material which required me to stretch my mind and feel like I didn't know very much. I was also always doing activities: after school I had sports, then piano, then Chinese; finally around 8 or 9 PM each day I would begin a few hours of homework. Even if I finished my homework early enough to get a good night's sleep, since I was a teenage whose existence needed to be verified in some significant way every day I would waste valuable sleep time covertly chatting on AIM, reading a novel, or writing bad poetry before I finally defeated my insomnia and shut down for the day. In high school I was always very excited about the day: I hated sleep, usually slept little, and found it nearly impossible to remain asleep for more than 7 hours a night. This was not the most sustainable of lifestyles.

After a summer of four hours of sleep a night at Governor's school, then a senior year busy with college applications, AP courses, college visits, and end-of-childhood melodrama, then a summer of 3 jobs and more adolescent gerascophobic melodrama, I showed up to college completely worn out and overstimulated. While everyone else was excited to pull weeks of all-nighters alternating between discussing Nietzsche, drinking beer, and discussing Nietzsche while drinking beer, I was trying to figuring out how to maintain a sane sleep schedule. Freshman year of college I slept from 11-7 almost every day**, taking a moderately ambitious course load and keeping my number of extracurricular activities to at most one. I picked up the intensity as the year went on, and by the middle of sophomore year I entered into a slump: I didn't know what I wanted to do in life; all I wanted was to have time to read, sleep, and run. I eventually figured things out and got wound up again enough to take on a heavy load of coursework, teaching, and Robocup, planning to continue doing as much as I can until I got a neck injury from my randomized algorithms take-home final*. The injury slowed me down a fair bit, since I couldn't sit at the computer or look down at my desk for more than an hour or so because I would get muscle spasms. Thus in college I had gone from burned out to full intensity to burned out again.

Though I am excited about grad school and my late blooming, I am taking it easier than usual and enjoying life as I go. Because of my neck injury and because of my experience with too many weeks of little sleep for reasons that seemed good at the time, I was not one of the kids who showed up to grad school excited about 36-hour coding marathons and the weeks between paper deadlines when mortality is forgotten and invincibility is assumed in the name of increasing the paper count. For a while I wondered if I should feel guilty that, instead of hanging around lab, I spent my weekends laying around, reading random non-fiction and novels, blogging, and thinking about the world. If you've been reading my blog, you might have noticed that I have collected enough reasons (your brain needs down time; stress is harmful to your creativity) to justify not feeling guilty. I hope taking it slowly in the beginning will decreases my chances of burning out. And if not, I can at least look back at this time and say that I read the books that I wanted to read and did the things I wanted to do. One of the best things that has come out of my neck injury is that practioners of the various alternative healing methods I have sought out (such as yoga) have taught me to be less hard on myself. And until I achieve something I can always take comfort in the knowledge that I am a late bloomer. :)

I am going to end this post here because I suddenly find myself despondent and unable to continue, but I hope you got the point****. ;)

* Chandra, Furst, and Lipton? Sorry; couldn't find a good source.
** Except once a week I would pull an almost-all-nighter for my math homework because all of my homework was due on the same day of the week--maybe this is why I think I am bad at math. :/
*** Apparently my monitor was too much to the right and this was irritating my neck joints. The days of staring at my computer was the last straw. This injury scared me about working too hard for a while because I am still healing over a year later.
**** Kidding; I have to go to bed.


Euro said...

Well, I'd like to say I had similar experiences. It's better to slow it down and let small work build up.

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