Reflections on Reflection: Five Years in Review

Introspection is a tricky thing for forward-thinking people because one cannot live in the future if they choose to dwell in the past; however, progress is not just illusory without heeding the lessons of history, but futile. Further complicating self-actualization’s aims, feelings of regret or sentimentality tend to dominate good faith attempts at reflection. Over the course of the last five years, my thinking has evolved more rapidly than ever before and perhaps more quickly than it ever will. Thankfully, the most disruptive and globally pervasive event of our era — COVID-19 — has forced me to reckon with the banality of daily existence and the choices I’ve made in the past. The circumstances I find myself in demand a response, and I hope that this piece of writing provides a satisfactory reply.

What this is not:

  • A new year’s resolution
  • A memoir or an attempt at autobiography
  • A complete list of my core principles
  • A distillation of all knowledge into a few hundred words
  • A dictation on how we ought to live our lives

I have struggled to find a word indicative of what I hope to accomplish in this work, though I hope that the quality of my thinking is capable of transcending any individual linguistic term—entertain this notion, even if just for a few moments. Borne of my experiences over the past five years, I hope this work is capable of shining some light on timeless, unchanging values we’d all do well to reflect on more fully. But perhaps more importantly, I hope readers will walk away from this work a little less certain and a little more confused than when they started. The questions I wrestle with now have no “right” answers. The best I can do is try to ask the right questions and develop a proper framework for sustained, meaningful engagement.

"It is better to solve one problem five different ways, than to solve five different problems one way." — George Pólya

Instead of developing a specialized toolkit capable of addressing individual problems, self-proclaimed “experts” too often prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions in spite of situational nuance. In our increasingly complex world, our institutions fail to teach better ways of thinking. Broad education provides the requisite knowledge we need to understand the multifaceted world we cohabitate; however, such an approach fails to prepare us to confront complexity. Since it is impossible to properly use fragments of knowledge until we develop an information retrieval process, connecting the dots and then using the relevant information can often prove a fruitless endeavor.

If we are to strengthen these thought processes and learn how to synthesize seemingly disjoint pieces of information, we must develop our creativity. We must cultivate our imaginations. The “playfulness” and curiosity of my childhood free time allowed me to explore the world and begin to explain the structure and patterns around me. No level of tutoring can ever replicate this experience because I wasn’t told what to think, I learned how to answer the questions I asked myself. Likewise, we must collectively focus not on recalling or memorizing specific solutions or data points, but on independently pioneering our systems of thought and creating environments where evolution is possible.

When you fail to achieve personal goals, you may conclude that you’re simply not “smart” enough to prevail. On the contrary, “smart” is a word so generic and nonspecific that it has lost its meaning—you likely aren’t a victim of inferior intellect, but instead lack sufficient time to work out a novel creative method. Once you abandon defeatist rhetoric and begin to see yourself as a host of processes, debugging becomes far easier.

For example: When you first approach a question, you intuitively model situations, goals, plans, and relationships. However, if you are to solve the problem rigorously, you must advance a layer deeper. From your initial assumptions, it becomes possible to develop proper strategies for future analysis if you ask why you make these decisions. In essence, before attempting to solve a problem yourself, you must always objectively discern how your mental processes operate. Only through collecting and analyzing this data will you have the perspective necessary for useful self-reflection. You know that you have arrived at clarity when you can deduce a response to the question of "why" which satisfies the question’s principle legitimacy.

We know what we want.
We know how to attain it. BUT
We do not know WHY it is that we do what we do.

All great thinkers should begin and end with "why" So often, intelligence is touted as one’s ability to get from A to B in the most efficient way. Doubtless, this type of efficacy is laudable, and there are few I count among my friends who are not capable of propelling themselves from start to finish. However, there are traits far more important than effectual action.

When the question of "why" governs our actions, our curiosity will triumph, and real progress is possible independent of circumstance. Success isn’t necessarily a set of outcomes, but the capacity to cultivate the most dynamic and reactive thought processes into perpetuity.

Moving past tactical questions of "how" to understand the intrinsic, philosophical "why" is the greatest quandary we must address. If we do not possess a necessary understanding of why, we will lack the determination to continue our pursuits when they become most challenging. This isn’t a question of burning out—for perhaps we could muster the energy to advance some level despite individual challenge—though a question of sustainability. Is destination A really any better than B, and why is it that linear continence is desirable to an alternative? If we are always lost in addressing "how", this nuance is easily lost. If we are not intentional in reminding ourselves why we act as we do, we will lose sight of why excellence is preferable to the alternative: mediocrity. Moreover, if we are to channel our passions for the benefit of others, we must first understand our own motivations—knowledge of self is always foundational in answering deeper questions of "why".

Thinking for yourself enables you to find yourself
Rooting questions of “why” in your convicted foundation of personal belief makes you unassailable
By extension, don’t be afraid to be controversial—even if it means being hated.

For too long, educational institutions have trained students to unthinkingly respond to questions correctly. However, they have failed to reward students for asking the right questions and neglected to encourage the development of critical thought processes. Those celebrated as the best and the brightest can implement objectives well, but they seldom question whether the objectives are worth executing in the first place. The appeal to authority and the unflinching faith in conventional wisdom that institutions of higher education have normalized is negligent, even bordering on professionally irresponsible.

How can our education system produce so many highly educated people who lack the capacity for independent critical thought? The robots that our institutions cultivate can do little more than patiently await instructions from those more charismatic than them—those who, through consensus alone, have been elected to govern and direct action. Unfortunately, it is oftentimes the loudest voices—not the most thoughtful or measured—that end up dominating and directing our public discourse.

Likewise, the problem with Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of reactionary social media is that you are constantly bombarding yourself with other people’s thoughts. While evaluating divergent perspectives is a useful (and potentially enlightening) exercise, it becomes far harder to form your own voice or do little more than react to others’ sentiments. To make things worse, social media promotes the illusion of a false equivalency of ideas, yet not all human thought processes are created equal. Without an interpersonal relationship, it can be difficult to assess the validity of an interlocutor’s motivations online which further erodes one’s ability to ask the big questions. Moreover, reactions are often construed as an answer to why and attempts at genuine discovery devolve into demagoguery. Unless you know exactly who you are, how can you know what you really want? Unless you are able to listen to yourself, how can you really know what you care about? Most importantly, how can you discover what you believe in?

In an environment where the primary goal is to learn and grow, allowing the opinions of others to control your actions and hijack your capacity for thought is too high a price to pay for shallow validation. To be well-liked is an ephemeral construct, and you are always one misstated word or independent thought away from tarnishing years of complacency in purist of other people’s meaningless affirmation. So don’t be agreeable, bland, and without opinions. Being superficial is antithetical to the aims of learning. We must spend all of our time worrying about the strength of our own arguments, not how to communicate them in a way that panders to orthodoxy.

Everyone who has ever made a positive impact on this world has upset established actors, which inevitably draws the ire and resentment of the masses. We cannot be afraid to stand boldly apart from the crowd. When guided by principles and supported by facts, we should express our strong opinions without fear of judgement from our peers. It is our obligation as thought leaders to challenge conventional wisdom and speak clearly even when it may not be politically correct or socially acceptable, even if this causes us to be loathed. However, equally important is that should we find ourselves in the new establishment, we do not rest on our laurels; heed to flatterers; or become complacent, slovenly, or uninquisitive in the isolating cocoon of the progress we’ve made. In addition to challenging others, we must elicit controversy in ourselves if we are to truly strive for greatness.

Achieving excellence is not an end in and of itself but a means to realize a larger vision for humanity, yet we live within an academy that values the perfection of grades more than the betterment of the human mind. So, I challenge you: never allow school to detract from learning. We must move towards improvement for the sake of bettering ourselves, not to advance our standing on a report card. The tools that excellence provides are meaningless without a clear direction. Likewise, a clear direction is meaningless without the courage to act on one’s convictions. On the path to success, external obstacles confront us which are far greater than the internal insecurity which impedes self-actualization.

Once you’ve identified why, don’t allow discomfort to prevent you from striving for excellence. Use self-efficacy to explore your passions fully and always admit what you do not know.

Nobody enjoys failure. I generally refrain from talking about my failures, though this isn’t the consequence of some underlying insecurity; rather, I think people generally pay too much attention to their shortcomings and allow regret to serve as an impediment to future progress.

I think that one ought to put a positive spin on life because if you don’t—if you constantly frequently about how life conspires against you—you will end up with an optimal outcome precisely 0% of the time. Participation in the robotics team and programming union has been useful in learning how to overcome setbacks because they’ve forced me to learn how to confront failure. Every competition has a binary outcome—a single winner—and as aspirational as I am, I concede that no one team is good enough to win every time. Via participation in such environments, you learn to not beat yourself up with each failure but instead focus on identifying, fixing, and hopefully mitigating future disappointment. In viewing failure as a catalyst for change, I’ve also learn how to adjust my expectations and understand collective strengths and limitations.

Students from elite schools expect success and expect it now. Some of them have never experienced true failure and the idea of being anything less than consummately successful terrifies them. But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks. I think that this reality explains why the number of intellectuals at universities has declined precipitously. Being an intellectual means far more than excelling in school. To lead an intellectual life means living a passion for your ideas—NOT for an arbitrary number or letter on a piece of paper with university letterhead. Only a small minority of students understand their education as part of a larger journey towards intellectualism. Disconcertingly, most seem comfortable with the trajectory that their education has marked out for them—content with a destiny in which they have had no input.

Moreover, I think society overlooks many excellent and capable individuals because our metrics for success are too narrow. We spend much time evaluating people and their work, though we spend little time considering their evaluation processes. I personally consider my work a success if it positively influences other people, even when my contributions are not publicly acknowledged.

When we are content with generalizations and simplicity, we fail to evolve. When species fail to evolve, they die. We each perpetuate a crusade of mediocrity against human intellect every time we spurn complexity and neglect nuance. The jack of all trades is master of none—so follow your passions as far as they will take you, even if that distance involves discomfort. Learning should be a humiliating process and we must accept momentary embarrassment for lifelong growth. To celebrate true success, we must liberate ourselves individually from caring about the ad hominem judgement of others, celebrate the independence of our ideas, and afford ourselves the freedom to fail. As a community, we must cultivate an environment where self-efficacy prevails, failure is learned from, excellence is admired, and mediocrity has no place. Though make no mistake, the road to greatness is a lonely one.

We must tirelessly strive to preserve our intrinsic sense of bewilderment, fascination, and wonder to become a more solution-oriented society — one capable of addressing complex problems with equally multifaceted and intelligent solutions.

If we maintain our primal curiosity and recognize a shared capacity for intellect within each other, we embrace our shared humanity. Through acceptance of this fact, we can come to respect and acknowledge our differences—the beginnings of nuance—and from this understanding, we may come to know ourselves. We each fit into the seemingly unnavigable mess of chaos that delineates and colors our world, though as soon as we succumb to groupthink and conformism, we relinquish our ability to carve out our niche and make it impossible to understand what station we occupy. Only after self-actualization do we begin to feel a consciousness apart from consensus, and can we begin to find community in ideas larger than ourselves and independent of those around us.

It is now a dangerous game, for free action invites controversy and few are bold enough to risk stability for greatness. Take the leap. Let your convictions guide you. After we have come to know ourselves, we can come to understand our capabilities and limitations. The how is suddenly easy, because it stems from why. We no longer ask ourselves questions of why ex post facto, but instead impetus drives action. From this knowledge, we grow comfortable with action and come to appreciate the complimentary talents of those around us—come to cherish daily life—and come to peace with our stations in life.

The world seems to be constructed inside out, modeled off of reverse engineered outcomes instead of focused on processes. We identify too early what it is we want to do and spend our lives discerning how to get there, never asking why until it is too late—when we have mortgages to pay, families to feed, children to educate, and obligations to fulfill. And then we die.

I am a congenital optimist, which drove me to write these reflections and think through the past five years of my life experience. The world and its processes are not gloomy forces that are out to get us and conspire against our happiness, livelihoods, and wellbeing. It’s a wonderful life, if only we chose to start living it through our own senses and brains—not allowing others to think it through for us or pretend that we are the protagonists in a movie someone else is watching.

I implore you all, think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.
Cherish thinking, admire others, embrace the chaos around you, and accept ruggedly individual learning—not the validation of others—as salvation. If we all collaborate in the co-creation of knowledge and lean into the discomfort of random, stochastic, chaotic unknowingness, the world will be a much better place.

Mike Gao · 2020/12/31

I would like to thank everyone who gave valuable advice and suggestions for this writing, including C. Yockey, T. Hao, N. Ogawa & many others. You can find GPG clear-signed version here, and you can verify my signature here.