2020 in review

Sun Dec 27 2020

Overview

2020 was a bad year for the world but a great year for me:

  • While I didn't get my top choice, I got accepted to Harvard/Oxford/ETH Zurich, any of which I would be happy with.
  • Being alone with Celine and co. in Oxford helped me to study without distractions.
  • Online open-book exams really played to my strengths, and my eventual results exceeded even my wildest expectations.
  • The effort I put into my thesis was also amply rewarded and has led to fruitful collaborations.
  • Even as large parts of the world were in lockdown, Celine and I got to travel around Europe and visit beautiful breathtaking places.
  • Even the fact that I didn't matriculate at Harvard is probably a blessing in disguise: I was able to interview with OGP this year and now I'm reconsidering my plan to do postgraduate study entirely (more on this later).

Since the last review post (2020 Semiannual Review), I have:

  • graduated from Oxford (although not officially),
  • visited Ben and his family,
  • stayed at Celine's,
  • explored Germany,
  • returned to SG,
  • started my job at IMDA,
  • interviewed with OGP,
  • started seriously thinking about what comes next.

Calendar

Month What I did
Jan 20 HT 2020: BEE, Thesis in Politics, Game Theory
Feb 20 HT 2020: BEE, Thesis in Politics, Game Theory
Mar 20 Finished HT 2020. Coronavirus hit. Full lockdown.
Apr 20 Revised for finals
May 20 Revised for finals
Jun 20 TT 2020. Finished finals (which marks---hopefully---the end of my degree).
Jul 20 Stay at Celine's, travel Germany, enjoy Kuhlenbronn. MGGG GSoC.
Aug 20 MGGG GSoC. Do work for Inzura.
Sep 20 Started at IMDA
Oct 20 Work at IMDA, Interviewed at OGP
Nov 20 Work at IMDA
Dec 20 Work at IMDA

This year's review is going to be a bit different: since this year marked a big change in my status (end of my journey in full-time education + end of three years in Oxford), I'm going to write a post specially covering the past three years. I've decided to do it in a format of a letter to myself. It might be a bit navel-gazy and masturbatory, but I just want to try something new out.

Anyway, my point is that the bulk of the review will be in the letter, so this review is going to be short. Still, I want to very briefly look at how I've changed since 2016.

The most important change is that I've become more self-confident/secure/comfortable in my own skin.

Self-confidence isn't something you can just choose to have. Some of it is one's own mindset, of course, but self-esteem needs to be given by others as well. (More precisely: respect and validation by others is a necessary but not sufficient condition for having high self-esteem).

In 2016 my self-esteem levels were as follows:

  • Academic self-esteem: pretty high
  • Social self-esteem: low
  • Girl-related self-esteem: rock bottom

Why? My academic self-esteem was quite high because I had just gotten into Oxford. (And in general I have always been quite confident about/lucky with my academics). My social self-esteem was low because I was isolated from my friends (all of us went into different units) and at that point I wasn't getting along well with my NS mates. My girl-related self-esteem was rock-bottom, because I conflated having no female attention due to lack of opportunity (single sex school + NS) with being unattractive in principle to females. It's an easy mistake to make.

The truth of the matter is of course that I wasn't really unattractive per se (which is not to say I was attractive), I was just not in any environment with girls. I drew the wrong conclusion. But it was difficult to shake off this mistaken conclusion, even after my experience in NTU. Only after dating Judy was I finally able to do so.

I have also had the immense good fortune to have met friends and girlfriends in Oxford who like me how I am. This has made me more confident to be myself, and increased my social self-esteem.

Previously I was always thinking and saying: what do I need to improve? and there was always an internal struggle between authenticity (being true to oneself--whatever that means) and social acceptance. And while I'm certainly not perfect, I have the self-assurance that I am OK there's no need to try so hard to change anything fundamental about myself.

What's changed? Part of the reason is that the flow of time has smoothed out the sharp edges of my personality; I'm not as autist anymore, and I don't say as much edgy shit. I have also benefited from a positive feedback loop: because I'm more self-assured (especially when it comes to women), I don't do so much cringey shit, which improves my social standing, which makes me more self-assured. Another reason is that after breaking up with Judy I spoke with a lot of people and friends (as many as I could) to answer the question: was there something I needed to change? The answer I got was "not really: you guys were just not compatible" and I was able to come to terms with that answer ("it's not me, it's us"). And finally, I have a very lovely girlfriend who loves me.

There are also other changes to my personality. I got the scholarship, and that gave me some money, but more importantly it has improved my attitude. I have been able to move from a scarcity mindset to a post-scarcity mindset. What that means is that I was able to move from being stingy and worried about not having enough money to being "bo chap" and generous with my surplus. I have to thank Judy for giving me the initial wake-up call, but a lot of it also comes down to the passage of time: experience has taught me that I am naturally frugal/don't overspend, so whatever I do spend on is completely fine. This heavily parallels my experience with women: in 2016 I was miles from touching a woman and was a virgin, so I had no chill, no "abundance mentality", which made me do desperate and unattractive things. After I got laid/got girlfriends, I have been able to move from a desperate mindset to a healthy mindset.

In general my attitude towards life has improved. Instead of being worried about the future, worried that I wasn't able to make it, I now hold an optimism that everything will sort itself out in the end. Part of the reason is that I am indeed in a better and more secure place than I was at 21 (which is no fault of past me, of course), but also because I'm very lucky that everything has just gone very well for me so far. Past performance doesn't predict future returns---of course--- but it makes it easy to be optimistic.


What's next? My plans for 2021

I feel a little unmoored with no goal.

I have always had a central, well-defined goal. When I was a child it was to do well in my exams. In the army it was to get into Oxford, and after I got the offer it was to get a scholarship. In Oxford it was to get a First (and get laid). After Oxford it was to get a job as an SWE.

Now that I have graduated, gotten laid, gotten the First, gotten the job, it feels like the world is wide open to me. It's like stepping out of Tutorial Island and having the whole of Gielinor open to you. I no longer have a clear, well-defined goal to aim for. The bar is for me to set/the world is for me to take. What do I want to do?

There are some things that I definitely plan to do. I plan to work hard and learn as much as I can in my job so I can be a great individual contributor and become a senior-level engineer as quickly as I can. I plan to self-study CS to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. This is a given: I want to become competent in my chosen field.

But what will I do besides that? And what will I do in the long term? I'm not sure. I know I have it much better than most, and I have plenty of time to think about it. I'm feeling a bit unmoored right now, so I'll take another week or two to just chew on it (and call Robert, Bassel, whoever-- for advice...). I'm optimistic a good answer will emerge in the end.

Here are some things I'm thinking about:

Should I do a Master's at all?

I likely won't go to Harvard in 2021, and will go to Harvard in 2022 if at all.

The main draw of choosing Harvard over my other schools was twofold:

  1. to get authorisation to work in the US;
  2. to signal competence.

On the first point, doing a degree in the US will allow me to easily bag an internship which I could convert into a full-time job offer since I have OPT work authorisation. Because Harvard went full remote, students who matriculated in 2020 will not be eligible for either CPT or OPT visas. That removes a lot of the incentive, so it was a no-brainer to not go.

On the second point, I've spoken to many who fall into two main camps:

  1. Are you kidding? It's Harvard! Think of how good it'll look on your CV. And the people you'll meet there will be able to give you great referrals. With a DS MS from Harvard firms will be lining up to offer you a job.
  2. You already have a First from Oxford, so the signalling value of a Harvard Master's is marginal at best. Those in the know heavily discount CS/DS master's degrees because they are widely regarded to be cash cows. Work experience as a software engineer counts for much more than a degree, no matter how fancy.

I'm not entirely sure, but I think I agree more with the second POV. So if I do do a Master's it shouldn't be for the signalling value: it should be instead for the atmosphere/opportunity to meet new people and/or my self-edification (having a rigorous environment to study stuff I normally wouldn't). It looks like the pandemic is not going to blow over this year so I don't think an in-person full-immersion Harvard experience is likely (at the very least it would be significantly hamstrung). So I won't do a Master's in 2021.

Something I'm concerned about: if I wait long enough, and my salary gets high enough, will I even want to do a Master's? Or will the opportunity cost be too great? Will the rest of life get in the way? What is the value of a Master's? Or will I end up doing a second degree or Master's only when my children have grown up?

What should I focus on in 2021? What do I want to change?

Someone linked me to a video of CGP Grey's and I've been toying around with calling Spring of 2021 the "Season of Writing". That is, my main extracurricular/"default" hobby when I'm not working will be to write.

I've realised that I enjoy writing in the same way that I enjoy going to the gym: that is, I hate the process, but I'm always very pleased to have done it after the fact. And while I have never thought of myself as a particularly good writer, I realise that I either am one already--or have the potential to be one. So should I not do what I'm good at? Should Spring 2021 be writing season?

My personal moat

A personal moat is a skill or set of skills that you possess and others find difficult to replicate that give you a unique competitive advantage.

Daniel Gross writes about personal moats in the 21st century

His personal moats are:

  • Read long-form content: "the ability to read and focus for lengthy periods of time is going to be an increasingly rare trait."
  • Write frequently
  • Healthy body
  • Get lucky:
    • generate unique ideas
    • be skeptical and optimistic
    • embrace adventure
  • Get busy: get into the habit of doing stuff
  • Know your mind: "reflect on what motivates you, and use that to hold yourself accountable."
  • Develop an inspiring environment: surround yourself with people who motivate you.

What is my personal moat? In my opinion, and in descending order of comparative advantage:

  1. I read (very) voraciously, quickly, and relatively widely
  2. I have a fluency in the discipline of social sciences, and am somewhat competent at reading and critiquing papers in the discipline.
  3. Through lots of practice and an innate (?) affinity, I can write concisely and clearly, and lay out an argument persuasively. (I'm still working on being funny/witty).
  4. I always come up with lots of interesting (to me) ideas.
  5. I can design and write software.

OK, so these are my comparative advantages: what do I do with them?

Should I start a startup?

Since I'm always full of ideas (4) and I can write code (5) I could start a startup.

Of course, my ideas may not be any good, and I probably lack several other important/necessary skillsets. Could also be a very risky, high variance endeavour?

Publish papers in journals?

Another moat I've got: because of where I went to school and uni, I'm very privileged to have many very very smart and ambitious people as friends and mentors. Many of these very very smart and ambitious people are pursuing academic careers. I could use my reading, writing and programming skills (1, 2 and 5) to write and publish academic papers.

But what would be the point, since I'm not pursuing an academic career? Would it be primarily vanity? It seems like if the goal was to write something and have people read it the easiest way would be to publish it on a website rather than go through the rigamarole of peer review. Do people actually publish papers for fun?

Publish explorable long-form content?

It's a lot of work to produce interactive/explorable long-form content, but the gains to understanding/engagement might be worthwhile. It might also be my comparative advantage. I already can write quite well, but if I combine this with some programming, it might make me world-class. Communicating with Interactive Articles is an excellent post on the potential of interactive articles.

Some links:

Publish more blog posts?

On the lower end of the effort spectrum (highest: academic papers, lowest: tweets) I could just write more blog posts like I do now.

Why am I writing?

Is writing my hobby or my career?

If writing is something that I want to use to advance my professional goals then I should be thinking hard about what to write. But if writing is a hobby for me then all of the above analysis is moot. I should just do whatever I find fun.

Think about this some more...

To sum up

2020 was a wonderful year for me. All my dreams basically came true.

Very pleased with career/academic/social/romantic, not so pleased with fitness. Now that the journey is over I feel a bit unmoored. I can do anything but not everything: what do I want to do?

Questions I'm thinking about for 2021:

  • Big question: what is everything for?
    • What should my goals be?
    • What do I want to achieve/have achieved?
    • What kind of mark do I want to make on the world?
  • Should I do a Master's at all? What would it be for?
  • Should the start of 2021 be the "Season of Writing"?
    • Why am I writing?
    • Should I write more academic papers? Why? What for?
    • Should I write more blog posts? Why? What for?

Above all, I want to avoid sleepwalking into the path of least resistance. It's ok to do anything I want but I must do them purposefully, not just because of inertia or from previous decisions.


Epilogue

In a post I wrote in 2016 after my birthday I started with

I am now one year older and have entered gasp the twenties...

and ended with the following:

The perennial feeling of not doing enough with my life has emerged yet again and all I can do is try to salve it.

One year older, but just as lost.

I am now entering the mid-twenties: gosh! I am rather lost even five years later, and am ending this review more lost than when I started it.
Not much seems to have changed at first glance, but in fact a great deal has. I've made my peace with my (lack of) productivity. I will try to do more, but I won't beat myself up over it. And while I'm lost again, I'm optimistic that I'll find my way and everything will work out in the end.