a few weeks ago i had a job interview. we had some extra time at the end so i took the chance to ask my interviewer (let’s call them p) a few questions
me: what would you say is the primary source of joy in your life? is it your work or personal relationships or something else?
p: i would say there are three main components. you actually just mentioned two of them: one is people and another is creative work, like art or research. the third one is fulfilling obligations. they all contribute to my sense of meaning in different ways – social things help me feel a sense of connection, creative work helps me feel like i’ve expressed myself, and obligations make me feel like i have weight in the world, like i’m not unbearably light
me: interesting… i guess i asked that question because a lot of my friends in industries like big tech or finance openly admit to doing meaningless work, but they have good social lives, and they seem like they’re having a good time, so i’ve been wondering if maybe work simply isn’t important and having good personal relationships is enough
p: yeah, i think it’s common for these kinds of narratives to become very totalizing and for people to decide to only focus on one component. clearly that’s an oversimplification. the point is that my three components all fulfill me in different ways, and i need all three to be really happy
me: wow, i actually like this framework a lot
p: for what it’s worth, i also knew a lot of people from college who took the path you described, and i agree that they seem to be doing fine. but the question i would ask you is: do you think these people are thriving?
me: i don’t know. i don’t think they’re thriving, but i’m also not really sure what thriving looks like for them
p: yeah, i’d agree with that
i spent the past week at hacklodge, a one-week program where ~20 college students live in a house and work on applied cryptography projects together. it’s somewhat difficult for me to pinpoint what i got out of the program – i learned a bit of new math but not a lot, and i don’t think i became a better developer because i worked on a relatively familiar stack. if i had to put it in words i’d say my biggest takeaway was a sense of freedom, a knowledge that if i want to, i can work on personal projects i care about (instead of a traditional academic or industry position) and things will probably turn out alright
one of the mentors at hacklodge, let’s call him c, graduated from mit last year and is currently doing independent research on digital identities (the actual work is a bit hard to summarize, but i guess you could say the goal is to end up in a future where people have data ownership and anonymity instead of one where large internet platforms know everything about you). c and i talked a bit about how he lives reasonably comfortably off of grants, and how, even if he didn’t have those grants, people with the privilege of a) having gotten a math/cs degree from mit b) being us citizens c) not having family members or dependents to support can very feasibly fund themselves through a mix of gigs like tutoring and consulting and contracting
c mentioned how a lot of this comes down to goodwill, and how, if you’re a smart young person working on problems that communities care about, there’s a lot of goodwill you can tap into as long as you’re willing to try to. as i talked to him i had the feeling that my mind was being unblocked, that there was another path appearing before me, one that had always existed but which i’d been too scared to take a serious look at until now
i’m only now realizing it consciously, but when i look back at the last few years i can trace out a long line of people telling me not to get a job
before hacklodge it was last fall, when half my friends bookmarked the article quit your job:
Even if you are rich and have no nominal boss, statistically speaking you are still effectively a wage slave. If all you end up doing is nursing the money, without ever exercising the authority to decide on which future it shall be spent, it might as well be someone else’s. People miss that escaping this meaningless servitude to our own capital was Thoreau’s main point in Walden. You don’t actually need the money; in reality, the money needs you to give it a worthy purpose, but everyone gets this backward.
before that it was this past summer, when i spent many of my weekends hanging out with someone doing independent research in data neutrality:
Édouard Glissant’s Archipelago gives a glimpse into a “future [which] lies not with the great powers, but with the little islands, lands, and cities.” Not all research needs to happen within the monolithic institutions in academia or profit-hungry companies. Perhaps the next generation of innovation and discoveries that advance society will be made through small squads banding together to build things, live together, and create something more intricate, comprehensive, and wonderful than any one individual could have achieved on their own.
“Benjamin Franklin had the Junto Club, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had The Inklings, Jobs and Wozniak had Homebrew. The Bloomsbury Group was integral to the success of Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and John Maynard Keynes, while MIT’s Model Railroad Club spawned much of modern hacker culture.” – James Mulholland, Small Group
is it foolish for individuals working together on passion projects to hope to compete with large institutions and corporations? i think the answer depends on the nature of the field
in fields like agi development, progress scales very well with increased compute and budget, so you end up with scenarios like the current one where a few well-funded groups (openai, deepmind, etc.) make most of the progress and it’s very difficult for other individuals to make a difference. i think this property also holds in fields like drug development and particle physics, though i’m not as familiar with those subjects
by contrast, fields like applied cryptography have the property that progress is almost independent of compute – having a large datacenter won’t help you come up with new protocols, and the world’s best supercomputers will struggle to invert hash functions or factor large numbers in the same way your personal computer does. this lack of asymmetry is why it’s possible for independent researchers to be as productive as researchers in established labs
anyway, i don’t know if i’ll actually follow the advice of not getting a job, but at the very least i do feel more comfortable with taking on nontraditional and higher-variance roles now
a year ago i knew very little about applied cryptography. however, i did have the privilege of knowing the founder of 0xparc, an applied crypto research group, so i was able to join 0xparc and get onboarded pretty quickly, and within a few months i was able to work on cutting-edge research. obviously i am extremely fortunate, and obviously this is extremely unfair in at least two ways
on one hand, it’s unfair that organizations like 0xparc and hacklodge are so small, that people with genuine interest in the subject aren’t able to do good work because they don’t know the right people or don’t come from the right background. in a previous post i wrote about how an mit.nano class made me feel optimistic about climate change for the first time in my life, and it’s similarly unfair how only 25 people get to take that class each year, how more people can’t get access to that incredible feeling
on the other hand, it’s unfair that these organizations and classes, which put people in a position where they can do productive work in the span of only a few weeks or months, don’t exist in most other fields. in an ideal world students interested in any subject would be able to join a group like 0xparc and try doing real research in a relatively streamlined manner, but unfortunately 0xparc is a massive anomaly
we often dunk on college students, especially at schools like mit, for abandoning their intellectual interests and selling out to a lucrative industry position. what is often ignored in these discussions is that, in most cases, the person selling out never truly believed they could succeed to begin with, because they never had a chance to properly explore their original field and make real progress. it’s only natural for someone like that to convince themselves they’re unable to accomplish anything in their field of interest and to give up, and that to me is the greatest tragedy of modern universities
we can’t prevent selloutism through motivational speeches about values and morals and making the world a better place; the solution has to come from people having real experiences with real alternatives, and even exceptional institutions like mit often fail in this regard, instead burying their students in an avalanche of homework and anxiety and recruiting
we are born into a deeply nihilistic and pessimistic society, one where, from the moment we become conscious, we are bombarded by adults and news outlets and pop culture telling us that the world is falling apart and that life sucks after childhood. it is completely unreasonable to expect young people growing up in this environment to discover dreams and to have hope for the future, and then to preserve those hopes and dreams into their twenties with so little support
a few months ago i wrote “you wonder what could have been, how much good could have come about but never will, if young people at this school weren’t just left to their own devices to be swept up by peer pressure and marketing and insecurity, if they actually had the support they needed to make bold and principled and life-affirming decisions”. i wasn’t thinking very concretely when i wrote that and wasn’t really sure what i was writing about, but upon reflection that paragraph feels more true to me now
on the last day of hacklodge, c and i listened to self control by frank ocean. we talked about one line in particular – “wish I was there, wish we’d grown up on the same advice”. of course, in the context of the song that lyric is about relationships and breakups, but it’s also how i feel about young people growing up today. i know i’m extremely privileged to have had the experiences that have left me feeling so confident and optimistic and open, and i wish other people could have grown up with all these things as well — i wish we’d grown up with access to the same advice and resources and mentorship. i know that will never be the case, so i try my best to communicate my perspective by writing blog posts and being available for anyone to talk to, but it always feels terribly inadequate