» 17-20: a Retrospective on Four Years in College

17-20: a Retrospective on Four Years in College

I graduated from college a month ago and have already developed a tendency to lament the time I wasted on it. In the four years that I spent there I could’ve done so much! Learned several academic subjects on my own, met amazing people, started companies… Alas, this is probably not true. Given my initial circumstances (having been born in Russia in a middle-class family and being in a severe depression at the end of high school), it seems that going to the university and studying the subjects I studied was probably the best I could do.

Economics

When I was in high school I wanted to major in math. However, I did not score high enough on the state exams at the end of high school and ended up entering a program in Economics with a specialization in Mathematics and Economics. Fortunately, I was still able to enter one of the best and most modern universities in Russia.

I am lucky to not have majored in Math, because if I did, I would have likely gotten thrown out of the university. I got exposed to enough math to know that I didn’t want to learn that much of it, and I doubt I would have been able to force myself to study that much. Furthermore, you can’t easily switch majors in Russia, as you enter a specific academic program, so switching to a better suited major would have been problematic.

Additionally, having majored in Economics forced me to learn Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, Econometrics, and some Accounting and Finance, none of which I would probably have studied systematically otherwise. This training allows me to (1) feel superior to people who studied Math or CS and think that if they read several Economics blogs they are qualified to argue about economic subjects and to (2) better understand how the world works at some level.

Work & Career

During my first years of college I thought I could do the most good by working for the government and maybe eventually becoming the Minister for Economic Development of Russia. So, during my second year of college I interned at the Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation, where I studied how economic development agencies across the world try to accelerate the development of their countries’ lagging regions (spoiler: poorly).

The summer after my second year I interned at the Russian Government (the Russian White House) in the department of Economics and Finance. After this internship, I no longer want to work for the government.

During my junior year I figured that I should get a PhD in Economics and work on global economic development (e.g. at World Bank), but after getting better acquainted with Economic Development and Economic History literatures and reading Backstabbing for Beginners, and reflecting further on the primacy of politics over economics in almost all important decisions, I decided that this career path is unlikely to have a significant positive impact.

Consequently, since early 2017 I have been drifting towards an abstract goal of accelerating the future in a way that would probably include being involved with AI, VR, Synthetic Biology or Neuroscience. As of mid 2018, it seems that I am best suited to work on meta-science, trying to speed up the general scientific progress either by:

  1. working in venture capital or philanthropy, identifying underfunded critical research I am fascinated by people working on tools for doing science (e.g. Ed Boyden) or for thinking itself (e.g. Bret Victor). or
  2. somehow influencing how science funding is done or how science itself is done (working on incentive structures).

However, I haven’t totally ruled out the possibility of becoming a scientist myself and working at the intersection of Neuro, Bio, and CS.

Women

All throughout my school years I was afraid of girls. I liked them. I had a ton of crushes. But I never told them about it. I’ve had crushes which lasted for several years during middle and high school.

The summer before starting the university I decided that if I like a girl, I will ask her out.

So, in the very first day of classes, as I’m sitting in the lecture hall waiting for my first university class to start, this absolutely stunning brunette — milk-chocolate skin; an exquisite, slightly turned-up nose; long, beautiful hair collected in a ponytail, exposing her large forehead — enters and sits right next to me.

For the next eighty minutes all I can hear is my heart going BOOM BOOM BOOM.

Then, I ask her out and she says “sure!”.

Thus, began my first real relationship. It was absolutely dreadful in every way possible, would last for the next six months (not including the two months I spent thinking about her constantly after we broke up) and teach me an amazing amount about the relationships. I’m still embarrassed for how awkward I was, having very little real life peer communication for the previous several years, and for most of the stuff I did in it. Coincidentally, right after this relationship ended, my depression, which lasted for the previous several years and was accompanied by a near constant suicidal ideation, lifted and I think I wanted to kill myself only a couple of times since then.

After this experience, I continued to ask girls out, the act being sort of a challenge to myself. I asked an extremely cute girl in metro out (she refused). I asked a girl in the university’s cafeteria out (she refused). I asked an Italian, who turned out to be a lesbian and whom I became friends with when I was at Cornell out. I asked a girl from a physics elective whom I had a crush on out (she had a boyfriend). I asked a girl from an English Literature class out (she had a boyfriend). I asked a girl who was a couple years older and was my Statistics TA (for whom I had a crush for 2 semesters) right after the final exam out (she said that she both has a boyfriend and leaves for a PhD in a month).

Each and every approach was scary. Each and every rejection hurt. But with every approach and rejection I became slightly less scared and slightly more confident. Eventually, approaching girls became almost easy. I knew instinctively that nothing bad will happen if I make some small talk (usually via a witty observation) with her and then ask her out for a coffee.

I went on Tinder and had several dozen dates — walks, coffees, bars, — most of which ended nowhere. Definitely not because of my tendency to A/B test the drafts of my blog posts on girls.

In the process of all of this, some girls I asked out in real life actually said yes and some of the tinder dates led somewhere and I had a couple more actual serious relationships, continuing to learn a great deal from each of them.

Then, during my senior year in college, a new girl joined my lab as a Research Assistant. After two months of us working together I realized that I had developed a crush on her. So I told her that she smelled exactly like one of my exes (which was true) and asked her out. Within a week of our first date I realized that she is the one. We’re married now. I hope she doesn’t kill me after reading the portrait of my first girlfriend.

People

The university forcibly exposed me to hundreds of people of all sorts and I had the opportunity to work with dozens of people in various university-related projects and to befriend several people.

I got rid of the illusion that smart people would be more moral than normal people. See orthogonality thesis. I saw again and again how groups of extremely smart people cheat and lie en masse the moment the opportunity presents itself. Everybody I saw just followed the incentives or was totally complicit with what they saw. I struggled greatly — and sometimes unsuccessfully — to resist doing same myself.

I’ve viscerally understood that, even in populations strongly selected for intelligence and autism, the share of people who share my core values is close to zero and that the fact that someone is a nerd has very low predictive value in this regard. A normie will continually seek out sensory pleasures; a nerd will continually seek out pleasures for the mind. Neither will care too much about doing something important.

Despite the above, I’ve viscerally understood the value of companionship and why it’s so important to seek out people who share my core values.

I saw how many of the smartest people I know wasted the opportunities they were presented with because of low conscientiousness and alcohol.

I’ve worked in a research lab that didn’t produce a single significant paper in three years and I’ve viscerally understood what people mean when they say that you should only work for the best people and with the best people.

An argument could be made here that none of these lessons were worth four years of my life and that if I was dropped into a better environment, I could’ve avoided most of the mistakes I made. There is probably some value in this argument, however, it seems that understanding other people, with very different from mine values and characters and how I should and should not interact with them, is important and the way I learned it was at least ok.

In the end, I don’t know the optimal share of such interactions, but I’m glad that I had the ones I had.

Productivity

One specific instance of university having a large positive impact on my productivity was the discovery that productivity depends largely on the context. I discovered that going home meant I will be playing videogames all day long, while staying at the university and going to the library magically allowed me to be productive and decreased the craving for videogames by many times. I didn’t discover this earlier, because my high school was 3 minutes away from home and I never even thought about staying there, instead of going home immediately after classes.

I’m still somewhat angry at my parents for not telling me about this trick. My life would have been much different if I learned about it several years earlier. For example, when I was in 9th grade I wanted to enter a math-specialized high school. I flunked the entry exams, because every time I tried to start preparing for them I began playing videogames instead. The only thing my parents, teachers, or anybody else had to do was to tell me to try staying at school after classes or to go to literally any other place than home. Fuck.

I stopped reading productivity blogs and books during my senior year of high school, since they seemed to make precisely zero difference in my life (no surprise after the previous paragraph), and turned mostly to introspection to figure productivity out. In the last four years I think I’ve mostly come to grips with having a lot of free time on my hands and learned many specific recipes on how to remain productive for extended periods of time and what to do when I start procrastinating or when I’m demotivated. Nowadays I may waste half a day procrastinating, but by the next morning I know exactly what to do to get into the productive equilibrium for at least the next several weeks.

I once heard someone saying that having kids actually increases the amount of productive time that you have. Maybe the same is true of the university and having it impose at least some sort of a structure on my life, it let me cut the downside risk and experiment more freely.

Epilogue

So, without the university I wouldn’t have had all of the opportunities to learn esoteric subjects and to explore my interests and probably would have much worse knowledge of my preferences today; I probably would have been less productive today; I would have been even more autistic than I am; if I hadn’t met my first girlfriend in the university I might have still been wallowing in depression as many other people around me are, and would not have done even the fraction of the things I did.

Finally, I certainly would not have met my wife.

I guess these years were not totally wasted, after all.


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