Giving and Various

Hey readers!

… The number of things I jotted down to talk about this week is absurd. There’s basically like 10 pages of notes, some of it in paragraph pre-written form, and I don’t know where it starts. (I have a running document that spills over from week to week.) Luckily, I have a tried-and-true method for dealing with this problem, which is to screw organization and ramble on for many many pages! I do love when I’m organized. I also love being in my 20s and writing a blog about trying to figure myself out. The whole endeavor is ridiculous to begin with, so I suppose a little more disorganization won’t hurt.

All right, we begin! I am very happy. I have some really excellent people in my life, and I’m learning a ton in many domains (which include game theory, AI, computational models, cognition, philosophy, social stuff, and dealing with myself) which all intersect. I’ve made a lot of progress in my thinking in two and a half months, and can see those changes. Today was the first day in which I sat in on a lecture that was over my head and had only one single insecure thought, which was combatted immediately and with no top-down instruction. This is the work of personal effort, time, and reassurance from some caring, wonderful friends, who appreciate me in a way that I know from experience is unique and special. All of my mentors are taking care of me, I have awesome work, I’m around awesome people, and it’s incredible.

All of these great people have all been willing to have fun discussions with me, as well, so I have numerous topics to explore! I’ll start with one of my favorites, though, which is perception of me by others. I’ve been hanging out with a smaller group of people who encourage abstract thinking and modeling of people and situations around me. That has driven my natural tendency to over-analyze social things to death to another level (and added some more computer science vocabulary) and I’ve been quite pleased with this update. However, I was talking to someone today who reminded me (I always forget this) that this is not the modal view in the world!

“And it’s so fun to have people get you, you know,” I said, and they were nodding along.

“Like, be able to say, ‘that’s so you’ with something you’ve done,” I added: more nodding.

“And have these great mental models of you,” I finished, delighted with the thought, and they stopped nodding and started laughing.

“Maybe not that last part,” they said.

“But—but mental models of you in their head!”

They were still laughing at me. “That’s a very you thing to say.”

In the end, they actually ended up agreeing that we could have mental models of people and that that was a cool thing, which should actually not be an expected response, now that I stop to think about it. The nice thing about being at Wellesley previously is that I had people who were non-science people around to ground me. I’ve since lost touch with reality and am in this domain of science-y model-y abstract people who are encouraging tendencies which I enjoy but don’t lend themselves to precisely common frames of thinking.

And even in this group, I’m considered “weird” on the social analysis end.

I love being weird. I was writing an essay recently in which I was describing how I came to be interested in social cognition, and it started out with a paragraph about how I’ve always viewed social situations in a rule-based, formalized way. I referred to it as a “personality quirk” and jokingly ended the sentence with, “it could be overcome”. One of my friends, an excellent reviewer and observer of what’s missing in good writing, commented: “maybe replace ‘personality quirk’ with ‘problem’? I know it’s not, but it might make the story better in this case.”

A great point, and it definitely could have made the story better. I absolutely refused to incorporate it.

It’s a personality quirk, and one that I surprisingly do not regret having. I mean, I’m working with a wacked-out system—I’ve developed all sorts of unusual workarounds that indicate it’s different than normal—but while I probably should have wished I could feel out social situations intuitively, I don’t. I don’t even know if the mechanisms I’ve developed for dealing with social situations (various sets of rules, mainly, and I can list several explicitly) are a reaction to this handicap, or are building a strength. I do know that I like appreciating people as complicated systems. (A phrasing related to me by the friend mentioned earlier.) It makes people a source of curiosity and learning. But this feels to me like back-justification: I don’t know why I don’t wish I had the easier intuitive system, but I’ve never had trouble being confident and secure in this being the way I am.

Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up, though. I don’t feel like talking about people and communication as fascinating systems takes away from their value as “just people”. Another friend has described this in a different way, expressing mild frustration that I’m not appreciating people with my heart. (…it also frustrates people that I refer to the “mind” instead of the “heart”, and also use “mind” and “brain” more interchangeably that most.) In the discussion with the friend earlier, we had a brief discussion about whether people could love people in both ways: intellectually as systems, and also as people. I posited that scientists could DOUBLE their capacity for love if they could simultaneously do both, but we decided that was intuitively infeasible. They suggested that we do have some limited capacity for love, but that it might not divide evenly into “people as systems” and “people as people” buckets as I suggested, but that this love capacity rather might add in some non-linear way. (I add as an aside that there are no normal people in my life.)

I don’t know. I feel like I’m probably “colder” in my loving people than many. I don’t, to my understanding, love unconditionally. I love very conditionally, and can write out all of the things I enjoy and respect about you if I consider you a friend. If you suddenly start behaving unusually, and you’re in that group of people for which I can tell you at any point why you’re amazing, then I am happy to do and very much want to do whatever you need me to do. If you’re not in that group… well, I’m kind of a terrible person.

I just… don’t want to help the people who really need help. I like ideas, I like mindscapes, I like helping others achieve their goals and overcome obstacles. I like mentoring. I like supporting my friends. But my friends are usually the sort of people who don’t need my support.

One of my friends recently told me: “You’ve made it pretty clear that your favorite gift is ideas.” And some part of me was like: ooooohh boy. That’s going to open up an interesting can of worms.

Because it is true. I like people because they’re interesting—freaking FOUNTS of new ideas. Some people synthesize and learn about new ideas and then talk about them, which is awesome. In my experience all people are naturally interesting, in that they’ve got some things that they care about deeply and have thought about deeply, and it’s great to learn about their opinions on such things. As long as people are willing to engage with me and answer questions, I’m almost always capable of learning something.

This attitude means I place pressure on myself, since I like that other people are interesting and can generate ideas and that means that I expect myself to generate ideas. This is the main insecurity I’ve been struggling with since I got here (Berkeley), which is that there are some people who have a lot of ideas and I felt like I wasn’t keeping up. But, like I said, I’ve been reassured that people just straight-up appreciate me for natural traits, and have tested this by not trying so hard, and still am receiving positive feedback. So I’m happy to know that other people conditionally appreciate me with a more permanent traits-list in the same way I appreciate them :).

But relating this back to the idea of supporting people: I will always want to hear about how my friends are struggling. I will want to hear about how others are struggling if they are generating new ideas in my head. And generally, if we’re talking about support, I only want to hear about problems that are not solvable.

The solvability point is rather independent from the ideas-point above, I think. Since constructing a new friend group at Berkeley, I’ve run into even higher numbers of people who prefer the “but I want to offer a solution!” approach to comforting rather than the “I’m empathizing with you” version that we all know we should be using. I kind of suspect that the kind of people who go for the “I have a solution!” comforting mode also use this approach in dealing with their own problems. This intuition comes from my personal experience, in that I grew up in a household that was very solution-oriented and so I expect myself to have worked through various solutions before going for help. This intuition is also supported by what I’ve heard from friends, and the behavior I see in my friends, which is that they seem to rely on themselves for the initial emotional barrages. This sense might be misconstrued because people might just not go to me for support, and go to other friends instead, but friends have reported that they internalize first and then ask for help. I think part of it just might come from the idea that if you hang out with people who are solvers, you yourself are likely a solver AND you know anyone you go to is going to helpfully offer solutions despite their best efforts.

What this means is that I’m usually most happy to listen to unsolvable problems, because those are the issues where people are upset, there is no easy solution, they are purely asking for emotional support, and I’m happy to give that. I give many thanks to my friends in college who dealt with my perpetual rants during a very long-lasting unresolvable situation: many of us strive for minimal drama in our lives, but life is what it is.

I’m going to transition here to something that will return at the end: I was talking with this same friend about whether people have “inherent worth”, rather than just being marked through their accomplishments, and we ran into a kind of fundamental thought barrier. (I enjoy when this happens, when I and another person just have really strong contradictory intuitions.) We actually agree on a lot of points, but there’s something in me that expects people to have an external impact where I don’t know if other people think this is so necessary. Like, I think you can have external impact in a lot of ways—accomplishing something is the one people think of, but I actually count anything which positively influences other people. So if you’re making the people around you happy through what you say or how you interact with them, you have a lot of worth to me. If you’re making people think, you have worth. If you’re impacting any creature outside yourself positively, then I’m happy to say you have worth. The thought divide occurred in that I don’t—just, I define worth through external impact. Like, thinking of things isn’t enough for me, they don’t count if I don’t share them. This philosophy motivates a lot of my behavior, I think, especially since I feel that more external impact is better, so I’m going to go for options that share ideas with more people (e.g. this blog), I’m going to share as many interesting ideas as I can generate rather than keep things to myself (e.g. oversharing), and my goals are pretty aligned with what other people think.

Transition time: want to hear something really, really terrible? I believe in helping others, and I believe the best way to help others is to help those who really need help (e.g. not my friends) and yet I do nothing, because helping not-friends is low-idea and low-impact.

Arguably, the worst part of this lack-of-action is that I’m not alone in this. A lot of people say they believe in things, but only take action with regards to the small number of people they care about. I’ve been reading / hearing about effective altruism, and one of the most striking ideas is: why aren’t we all buying mosquito nets to save lives lost to malaria? This is one of the single highest-impact things we could do with our money if we valued all lives equally—those nearest to us as well as people on the other side of the world—and yet people spend their money buying meals out and taking care of themselves and the people they care about. My friend Smitha is quite interested in this and formalizing how much “caring” we have to give, and a lot of the things I’ve been reading are very concerned with this issue.

It’s a problem. I’m part of the problem! I imagine other people think about it differently, but through my reasoning it’s pretty clear the ways in which I’m selfish, which in my personal framework stem back to my value of learning and impact. Both noble goals on their own, I’m sure, but the problem with trying to maximize any goals is that you have to cut back somewhere, with regards to time if nothing else. (The limiting factor for me usually isn’t emotional investment. I maintain a pretty stable internal state as long as people aren’t mad at me, and I’m quite analytical when listening, so I’ve never done support enough that I’ve had an emotional drainage problem.)

And this brings me, at long last, to one of the traits I value most in people: when people are giving. The traits I value most in people are often the ones that I’ve tried very hard to cultivate, and generally find very difficult. Specifically, you will automatically go up on my pedestal if you are a person who is an idea-generator, who speaks well, who teaches well, who does math / hard-science, who is constantly curious, or who is giving. These are traits I strive for and adore in other people.

Because there are people who are naturally giving, and do it all in addition to having immense accomplishment-based external impact. Often, these are people who seem to miraculously do both—who take care of others and do a tremendous amount of non-people work and just seem to keep running all the time. And keep giving all of the time, without losing themselves. Wellesley has an anonymous support thread where people have recently posted about other students who hear them crying and come talk them through what’s going on. Someone was recently telling me a story about preventing a friend from committing suicide. I have another friend who worked at a suicide hotline. Another friend is very socially intuitive and notices whenever someone is feeling bad, and will make sure to drop them a little gift and a note. These people exist, and they are astonishing.

I often say that if there were more people like this in the world (usually I insert a name here), the world would be a better place. I love what I do—I love science and its abstract fascination—and I’m very grateful to be allowed to continue doing it, but if someone was in charge of the world and they decided that actually, people should only be allowed to continue working if they devoted time and effort to supporting others who really needed it, then I think that would be a fair and good request. It’s pretty crazy to me that I’m allowed to get away with not supporting non-friends, and that the people who are crazy-giving that I know don’t expect it of others. I’ll be like: “You’re amazing,” and they’ll shrug modestly and not tell me: “GO DO IT TOO, YOU NUMBSKULL, WHATCHA DOING RESPECTING ME IF YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE ACTION.”

This—guilt, I guess—of mine comes up with reasonable frequency on the blog in different formats. I live with a lot of “shoulds”—more on this later—and this is a big “should” for me that I’m not fulfilling. My father tells me that the best thing I can do with my time is to continue studying and working, which I’m always happy to hear because I do that anyway and I find that fun. He says it’d be a waste of investment not to continue working on what I’m good at. I buy that. Apparently, my wonderful giving friends also buy that implicitly, because they’re not pushing everyone else to do what they do. And there’s something to be said for things coming naturally.

Speaking of things coming naturally… I’m going to wrap up this section on giving by just saying that for now, I’m still failing to take action, but I am immensely grateful and appreciative of the people who do take action. You all are (astonishing, also generally modest and wonderful) heroes.

All right! Transitioning onto natural behavior. Specifically, on how scary life is.

Carson was recently mentioning that doesn’t really fear anything. My response: huh? Because it’s kind of weird to think of our lives as scary, since as students in academia we’re pretty insulated from any violence or external physical threat. And that’s what’s usually meant by fear.

However, I then got to thinking about whether life is psychologically scary, and how that affects peoples’ behavior. For example, I’m a low physical risk-taker (I have this opinion that I need to preserve my brain within this very delicate and easily-killed body of mine) but I don’t think I’m a low psychological risk-taker. Specifically, I find the world scary in various ways and do things despite being nervous.

I know I find things scary because I have a distinct “psyching myself up” period before various social situations, most commonly going to talk to a superior or new people. I was asking a few people about this recently, and apparently it’s not so explicit in their heads. In mine, it’s quite conscious: “Come on Monica do it you need to do it no really you have to go on no you really need to do it go go go go go FINE”. Amusingly, I did this in my head in front of Christine, Carson, and Liz quite recently, and when I asked Christine about it she said she hadn’t known anything like that was happening. Which means that I must have looked like any other person sitting there nervously trying to decide, which makes me wonder what goes through other peoples’ heads when they have this same external behavior. What works for me is convincing myself I need to do something, that it needs to happen to pursue the goals. I have some time-limit rules on how long I’m allowed to do this prep-thing, and it’s gotten shorter with age, but I still execute it with reasonable frequency.

As I was recently explaining to Carson, I have various lists in my head, and the hardest one is “should do” because those activities are also on the “uggg don’t want to do / hard / scary” list. But, I was telling him, if I only did what I wanted to do, I’d just read and work every day in my room. The “should do” list is essential, and includes things like “meet new people!”, “travel!”, and “do things that make you uncomfortable that are learning experiences!” And I was wondering if the reason that people sometimes tell me, “Stop doing what you think you should do, Monica, do what you want to do,” is because they naturally do useful things and don’t need to brain-beat themselves into doing the life-enriching scary things.

So that’s a question for the week—how scary is life for people and does that influence a “enjoy life!” or “push yourself!” mentality. (Last week’s was: what do you think the point of humanity is? Is it to create cool stuff—are we just a stepping stone to the incredible super-intelligent AIs of the future—or is it for humanity to exist in harmony? These were the modal responses; I left it more open-ended than that.) This kind of falls into line with the emotional regulation stuff I was talking about in an earlier post—specifically, do people with more emotional brains do more self-regulation? It’s kind of a hard question because it’s self-treatment, so you’re not exactly sure what the initial state was…

And another question on a similar note. I was talking to Christine about how much she cares about others’ opinions. She tells me that due to her upbringing and personality, she really isn’t as affected by what other people say as much as is standard. On the other hand, I know that I am more affected by what other people say than is standard. (Well, it’s specific people, but I will update myself in response to feedback.) This relates in an important way to how much we generally care about what others think of us.

I seem to be generally more reliant on external feedback. I mean, there are some things about myself that I’ve never considered changing, but I’ve changed a lot about myself from middle school. In fact, I think the fact that I’ve put a lot of effort into appearing “normal” has restricted my thinking in a lot of ways. I know the rules now, so I’m aware of when I’m breaking them. Clothes, for example. I’m breaking the rules slightly by wearing tennis shoes all the time, but I’m not willing to compromise on that. I also don’t usually wear jeans, but otherwise I dress what is considered acceptably in the US / Europe. I have not dyed my hair nor have any intention to, since that would call undue attention to me. I follow social rules, and expect others to as well. If people violate something I’ve spent a long time learning, I get briefly aggravated. For example, the “introducing people rule” is something that took me until last year to get (if you’re walking with someone and pass someone you know, you have to introduce your friend, even though you’re only going to see the passing person for like 10 seconds) and so if people break it I have this very strong desire to tell them: “no, you’re breaking the introducing people rule, you have to.” Which, yeah.

I’m very resistant to change in several respects (see the shoes thing. I know it’s a violation) but once I have converted over, I can get kind of stuck when others don’t. I actually respect it when people dress non-normally—I don’t want to get judged for doing that again, but respect that they’re willing to take that risk—but I can get kind of weird on the social rules thing. Luckily, people normally are more advanced than I am, and I can just watch them as they beautifully execute social maneuvers and think: yup, that’s going on the to-learn list. But my point here is that the strange combination I have of “responsiveness to others” and “really, really, really stubborn until I’ve decided it’s worth it to change over” can manifest in interesting ways, and that I think the effort of trying to normalize (and some of us have farther to normalize than others) can interact with receptiveness in a sort of feedback loop. I haven’t floated this hypothesis to people yet, but do you think that if you’re really far from normal, you’re either completely insensitive to others or extremely sensitive, while if you’re closer to normal there’s a smaller range? Or sensitivity to external feedback and normalness could be unrelated. Someone will I’m sure let me know.

Closing this section, starting another :). The rest of these sections will be shorter, I think, smaller chunks. Though I wrote two short things earlier in the week, and am going to paste them here.

Pasted Short #1: Sharing Information

How detailed should anyone be upfront? What’s the intuition behind not telling someone why a project they could get involved in might fail? … I think the only advantage to doing that would be to get someone invested in a project and then spring the bad things on them later—i.e., for your own advantage as recruiter for this company. Recently, someone was, I think, offering me a moral argument for the idea that you shouldn’t tell people all of the circumstances of a situation in which they’re determining whether they want to invest in or not. Apparently, giving someone all details of a situation, specifically uncertain negative details, can be considered unfairly influencing someone, since you’re then basically telling them that they’re going to have to work very hard to overcome those challenges or that they shouldn’t become involved at all. The person who told me this is very reasonable and was seeming to be motivated by some moral intuition. Even after writing this out, I’m completely baffled with regards to the logic. It must be that this is a context-specific issue—that I’m framing the situation in a kind of abstract way that doesn’t fit with the specific example that was being interpreted. Or maybe, even within the abstract framework I’ve laid out, it actually is morally better to not inform people of negative details, so that you don’t worry them or cause them to unduly stress or something, especially if the negatives are uncertain. Still, it seems to me that I’d rather be in a situation in which all of the current information is laid out, with uncertainty estimates attached, rather than in a situation where this information is not available. Anyone have any ideas against this argument? I find in many situations that people don’t lay out all the details which I might consider relevant, which I thought was forgetful or slightly self-serving omission rather than anything morally purposeful. But it’s now occurring to me that there might be some intuition in the population that uncertain negative information should not be shared, not because it’s self-inconveniencing to do so, but because they actually think it is kinder to others not to.

Though I suspect this might be the kind of situation in which people are feeling uncomfortable, and then place the blame on me with some unrelated higher moral reason attached. I’ve started to learn the characteristics of this sort of behavior. Interestingly, I’m not learning the characteristics of the arguments yet—I get confused in arguments, because there’s usually a lot of information people don’t say so I pretty much always think I could be wrong. What I’m learning is the social responses, i.e. the instinctive responses of many individuals when I re-describe the situation to them. One particular story I tell has amused me greatly because it elicits almost exactly opposite reactions among Wellesley friends compared to everyone else. It is a very consistent reaction, and it is a very strong reaction, with everyone feeling very deeply that they have the moral high ground. In response to this polarizing story, recently I’ve begun weighting the responses I receive by a stereotyped average of where I think my listener’s opinions lie with regards to that specific class of stories. I maybe should have been doing this from the beginning, but usually I assign someone to an “I generally agree” or “I generally don’t agree” camp on the basis of any of their arguments, rather than their opinions on specific domains. I think, however, it might be useful to start imposing some more domain-specific expectations.

(Follow-up for the uncomfortable-ness: I think that people really do have a good reason to be uncomfortable in many cases, and I think it makes sense for people to say: “wow, that’s a crazy story, I would not have done that, and the characters made the responses that I think are the right thing to do.” I think that maybe where we start to go wrong is in the very subtly different response that people usually give me: “wow, that’s a crazy story, I would not have done that, you shouldn’t have done that, they did the right thing.” Both responses are telling me that I did not align with the majority. (I know that, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling the story. This is a story I quite enjoy telling, and my good stories are not boring because they are weird.) Both responses are suggesting to me that I align with the majority. The difference, and it is tiny, is that one response is telling me that they, as an individual, suggest that I should align, versus the idea that you know what, it really is just universally wrong not to align. Very subtle thing, and I don’t even think people notice when they’re doing it. I have noticed that some people, whenever I ask for advice, begin with “So I can only base this off of my own experience”, and most do not. (Incidentally, I tend not to be in the latter “universal” party. I think I should fix that.))

Pasted Short #2: Shoulds

I like “shoulds”. I think there are a lot of things that we could be doing better, and I think that if there’s room to improve then any statement that details such a situation should have a “should” stamped onto it. I also think that this indicates that there is some responsibility to take action on improvement, but I also don’t expect any repercussions if I don’t take action. (There’s a whole host of questions that pop up there. At some point there needs to be reinforcement from somewhere otherwise no change occurs. I’m very open to discussion on this point.)

When I was writing down a thought on the corner of my notebook one day, I noticed that I was transcribing a “should”, and a kind of weird one—I’d written down that there are certain hobbies that engender more talking and thus might be more optimal to have from a social perspective. Some hobbies are personal, so you can’t talk about them much. Some hobbies require too much background knowledge to talk about, so aren’t good to have unless you hang out with a specific subset of people. Some are skilled-based, so can’t engage novices. Some have weird pre-requisites.

And then I asked myself: wait, what? I’m now dictating hobbies as a “should have” kind of concept? The idea seems especially strange because I’d defined a weird optimization function—I was trying to rank hobbies by how well you’d be able to talk about them, which really is not the point of hobbies. So then I thought: fine, what’s the point of hobbies? Probably to make you happy, and also show whatever kind of social signal you wanted to present by having them. So then we could still have a “should” kind of statement for hobbies, but it’d be “you should do whichever hobbies make you happy and also present a specific social signal.”

But get rid of the “social signal” thing because I don’t think that’s what we actually want people to be trying to improve on. I think mainly all of these “shoulds” are essentially trying to make people take actions that make people happier.

And so then we get to the common-debated idea that the point of life is trying to maximize happiness. Possibly for the maximum number of people, possibly for a lot of people but with different assigned weighting functions. Possibly we’re not trying to maximize happiness, but some other type of utility function. This is a HUGE area of discussion in philosophy and artificial intelligence, and probably other fields, and I have happily had various discussion about this with people and will presumably continue to do so.

And now we move to piecemeal. Various observations throughout my days!

Someone said to me: “I’ve learned more from you than anyone else [in the group] has.”

So fun. I think how much you learn from a person depends on their interest, your interest, and whether their interests are easily accessible to them and you, whatever “accessibility” means for the two people involved. How connections form and from what sources we seek information are always fun topics for me.

Gah, I can be really controlling when you throw me into it. Like: “nope, we have a goal to achieve, we are not being focused, let us be focused, let’s list out deadlines and posts we’re going to meet, a), b), c), all right, break.”

I don’t often put myself in leadership situations, but when I do I always just kind of watch myself in bewilderment. The inside of my head works this way, but I’ve learned not to let it out into the external world, and when I do I still haven’t gotten it quite under control.

I’ve been told I have natural curiosity. But I control the direction of that curiosity so that I’m only learning things that I think will be useful in the future. This seems like it’s kind of cheating and negates the natural curiosity thing. Christine says the curiosity, no matter where it’s directed, has to come from somewhere. I’m personally becoming slightly alarmed by the number of times the word “goals” has appeared in this post and think that may be overriding this whole discussion. I don’t know, curiosity just doesn’t quite feel organic to me if it’s harnessed—but mayhaps “organic curiosity” is a social construct and anything where I’m happy to learn is still curiosity.

My neuroscience cohort—all nine first-years—take care of each other :). We were recently at an over-my-head lecture and at some point I looked at a friend with “help me” written all over my face, and she tried but couldn’t during the lecture, but afterwards she took me aside and explained it all so that someone with little background could understand, with simple words and pictures, and I was like: I love you guys.

It was a really weird situation, too, because the speaker looked directly at me when I asked a question. They then answered the question and saw that I was obviously still confused (I mean, I assume it was obvious. All my cohort people said it was obvious, and I wasn’t trying to hide it). When they were responding, they didn’t change the level of their language—I had no idea what a fourth of the words were—and then they continued on afterwards. I mean, ignoring confusion is what you’re supposed to do with large lecture halls to make sure that the lecture doesn’t get derailed. But there were nine people in that room, and I have a fairly decent background so I know I wasn’t the only one lost. It definitely could have been that the speaker didn’t know what our backgrounds were and thought I was the only one who was out of it: that’s definitely possible.

It’s just—I was exhibiting, by my opinion, a fairly high level of distress when I was listening to the answer to that question. I framed it as “this is a stupid question” because I was at the point where if I didn’t figure out what was going on in the next few slides or so, I was going to miss everything in the rest of the lecture. And then they looked at me and delivered this stream of incomprehensible material, and expected me to understand, and that’s something I’m not good at dealing with: when people don’t work with me when I’m showing I need help. I was near tears—I wasn’t actually going to start crying, I don’t do that—but at that stage where I was stressed enough that I was blinking rapidly and backing down for the sake of getting out. I don’t know if the speaker could see that; I’m not sure how easy I was to read. I’ve always been surprised by how well other people can read me though, so I don’t think I was being impenetrable.

Really strange, and threw me off for the rest of the lecture. (The previous lecture had been similarly incomprehensible to anyone without that specific background. I didn’t have trouble with it, but was shaking my head at a few points where I knew the speaker had lost almost everyone. No one asked a clarifying question in that one though.) It made me wonder about a lot of things, like: a) what it’s like to be a speaker, b) how easy it is to read one’s audience, c) can you see when the audience wants to you slow down, and d) can you tell when the audience knows each other well?, e) how can you tell if your explanation is the right level?, f) how important is being accessible?, g) how do you deal with questions that indicate a lack of understanding?, h) how does this change based on classroom size and time restrictions?

But my cohort was awesome, and we went out to dinner later, and three people all brought up the fact that the speaker may have been unfair in answering that question, and I was like: oh, it’s all right, we take care of each other.

I had a question: do people do math because they like math? I then WENT AND ASKED A FRIEND. This has been such a cool process since arriving at Berkeley and having a network from previous locations (in this case, I asked a friend who’s living in Germany via Facebook). It’s so fun to have people as resources, that I can just ask any question, or tell them some question I’ve been thinking about, and I don’t have to Google search it, it’s right there.

Last Sunday I let my brain go on a distraction-click run, meaning I let it follow random trains of thought rather than constantly asking it if I was on track. I love letting the poor thing loose; I attempt to keep it focused far too much of the time. In this case, I started with a document I was supposed to read, and three hours later had watched seven different Youtube videos and started several unrelated articles. At some point I returned to the document, was surprised to see I hadn’t finished it, started reading it, and got to sentence #2 before seeing the word “Linux” and was like: so THAT’S how I got to be watching youtube videos on servers and Bayesian games…

Epic thought I had during a lab meeting. “I’m kind of annoyed with not knowing things. Let’s know things.”

That was the beginning of the end of the insecurity bit.

Do you consider it more or less depressing to consider someone a genius?

I personally find it relieving: if I classify someone as a genius, then I’m not expected to perform to their level and can leave them alone. If someone’s not a genius, then I have to run through the usual: “okay, how do they know what they know. What would I need to learn to know what they know. Could I generate that thought if I knew that” and it’s just so much easier to abandon it.

One of my other friends says thinking of people as unattainable geniuses is in fact depressing, and that they can be as smart as any other person if they have the same information.

Smitha recently praised me for a specific trait I wasn’t very aware of.

I attend a weekly meeting in which I don’t have the background to contribute. This group was going to have us take quizzes on specific readings, after which the results would be publically read out to the group, to provide incentive for us to do the reading beforehand. I said I was fine with this, despite knowing that I’m going to fail whatever quiz they give me.

Smitha pointed out this trait to me as something she admired: putting myself in new situations and not being afraid.

And my response was: huh! The way my mind works, the gaps it has, are so funny sometimes. Because what went through my head when I was agreeing to this went something like: ah, well, you don’t know anything anyway and feel like crap about it, it doesn’t really matter if it’s public knowledge.

Which says something about how I care about other people—since I was judging my own knowledge based on everyone else’s levels of responses—and also how I basically think that not contributing means I’m worthless and know nothing, so I wouldn’t be adding any negative evidence to the pile by failing a quiz. Which fits in so well to what I was saying about my version of inherent worth earlier! And also exhibits why that particular idea doesn’t make much sense! Because having slightly negative evidence of me not knowing things (by the fact of my not contributing) should not be equivalent to publically failing a test. On the other hand, if I fail something—anything—I’ll usually tell people about it because I feel bad about it, so this also has something to do with the level of information I share with the outside world, and how I consider internal shame to be just as bad as internal + external shame. (Also, we get a nice “should” out of this—”should raise hand in class”—with the motivation “otherwise you show you know nothing” based on external self-worth. Look at all the connecting and slightly illogical points here.)

Which is just kind of fascinating / weird. If friends have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear about them, since this is kind of an unravelly ball in my head right now.

But I digress—I take Smitha’s point, which is that I’m willing to put myself out there when it involves learning things, and that’s actually not very hard / scary for me. And for that I count myself very lucky, and lucky to have a friend like her :).

*(Also, like previously mentioned, I no longer feel bad about not knowing things, and am now just thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to hear everyone speak with each other. You pick up the common threads of arguments and topics and what to watch out for—it’s incredibly useful.)

I was looking into the Myers-Briggs Personality test again, because I adore that test and don’t think I’ll ever stop. Personality reduction! Super exciting!

My conclusion: I’m growing even more into my personality type with time. It’s very strange how this happens.

(Can you guess what I am? I mean, if you read this blog, it should not present anything of a challenge. Though I’m terrible at guessing, so if you are as well I throw no stones.)

How I feel about being people being good teachers:

  1. They’re a good teacher. Information is clear the first time.
  2. They mean well. Information is available, and they’re happy to play 20 questions with you while you pull out whatever information was missing from the original description.
  3. Don’t care / not at the right level?

The introvert’s dilemma. I know far too many people who were going to Halloween parties this weekend, worked really hard to make sure they could go, and then were like: wow, that was tiring, I’m just going to curl up with some tea and read.

I love these choices :).

It’s oddly strange to me when people ask me about myself and I report something and then they proceed to treat me as if what I said was a true thing. Weirdly, I think I’m just far more used to people deciding how I think from my behavior (what I say when not prompted). My behavior’s certainly much more consistent than I what I say—generalizations are hard, and whatever I say usually fails to cover specifics—but the strangest thing to me is that I think it’s strange.

And with that, I’ll end. Apologies for typos—this thing is massive—and thank you as always for reading :). You all are the best, and I’m so grateful to have people willing to sit through these things and then even engage with me after! If you ever see me, any topics are up for discussion, no segue needed.

Happy Wednesday, all, and thanks :).




One thought on “Giving and Various

  1. Hi Monica,

    I have (started) reading your two most recent blog post and they are really interesting. If you have time, I would be happy to meet and talk about them and other topics. Friday evening or this evening would be great for me but I am flexible. Just let me know what you would prefer.

    Best, Falk


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