Wednesday, June 15, 2016

the answer is not enough

Thanks to Purnima I met Venkata today. I wanted to do something in Data Science and ever since she told me about his startup, I've been pestering her to introduce me to him. And now that I met him today and had a long conversation, I guess all that will be justified if I apply even 20% of what he's said. A passionate man, an intense man, a very intelligent man (you don't need to be smart to recognise it; you'll realize when you're looking upto him), a man who's failed and fallen, a man who's dived deep enough to be confident of his swimming abilities. After my brief intro where I told him about the stuff I've done over the years, he got into the driving seat and lectured for over two hours, with me acknowledging with "right" and "yeah", about the nature of technology, about finding the purpose, about trying stuff, about failing and having your ego bruised, about the nature of learning, as we walked round and round BDA complex. A couple of times, as a reaction to something he said, my mind wandered in search of an interesting response (I was tempted to quote this wonderful line, "..because people act like homing missiles towards their deepest desires"), but I consciously pulled back because I wanted to 'empty my cup'.

Most of it is stuff you get to listen to all the time. You know, one of those "I wish I'd known this when I was in my 20s" thing. But what enamoured me was his zest for life and learning despite all the setbacks he must've gone through. Not that he explicitly mentioned many but I knew what I was seeing was the tip of an iceberg made up of failures and successes, setbacks and serendipitous discoveries. He told me that it was a good thing I'd tried diverse stuff. But that my learning was shallow. I admitted, saying how it caused a crisis in confidence because I didn't know if I knew any of this stuff or was just using jargon. He nodded, claiming how it took him ten years to even figure out what he wanted to do. And then about how your pursuits keep changing every 5-7 years, that there was no soulmate-y job. That it takes atleast 5 years of dedicated work to even be decently good at something. At the end of first year, you go, awesome, I know everything. At the end of second, you're frustrated because nothing works and you think people must be really stupid to do these things (He repeatedly insisted, "People are not stupid"). Year three is when you realize what things are like and see them in a new light. And years four and five to capitalize on what you've learnt to work on a problem. And then you'll know if you like it and want to pursue it or try something new. That is the investment you have to make.

He kept indicating how it is imperative to find a deep motivation that'll act as your compass even if the rest of the world is saying you're wrong. And then I spoke about my short-lived motivations and he said which is why the time is now for self-reflection. To learn to think. All our lives we've lived in auto-pilot. Somebody's done the thinking for us. But if you really want to learn and grow, conscious thinking is a skill you should learn and apply. It won't come in a day, it's a process but it is something that'll lead to where you want to go. He said to be a good Data Scientist, I should focus on three things: Domain, Tooling and Statistics. That ML is not as sexy as people are making it out now but 80% of it is brunt work: gathering data, cleaning it, making it suitable for analysis. He also spoke about why context is king and how when he was studying Economics, he read biographies of economists to understand the conditions which prompted their thought processes. He also kept using the phrase 'Intellectual Horsepower' which I fell in love with.

I can't remember everything because it was too discursive but the takeaway I've gotten is that learning is bloody work. It demands dedication and practice and effort and sacrifice. And so it is important to find something that you're motivated to do. Making a film, writing a book, starting a company; doesn't matter but you have to find your calling. He said by the time I was 30, I should've started something on my own. Where I've invested either time or money or effort, or all those. Because "at 30, you've seen enough but you're not yet cynical. At 40, you are no more motivated enough to try and change". And for that I should start converging now. That if I got lucky and had a great, supportive wife, like he said he had, it was going to be slightly easy. Otherwise, that'd be another problem to contend with. I had to start preparing for it from now. To be confident enough about something to be able to lead people. He told me that better than attending training and MOOCs, it was better to take an anchor problem and work around it. To try and solve it. That ML and NLP and Statistical Algorithms and stuff like that were just tools and what use would they be if I didn't know what to do with them.

Contentment is a very short-lived feeling. The only thing we can do is keep running to the next marker. To keep running towards something a long distance away, you have to have desire for it. To love it. To be driven by curiosity. Because you think it'll be an interesting destination to reach. And the only way to be able to do that is to work and learn, work and reflect, work and gain perspective, work and live.

..this is just a banal platitude-  but the fact is that in day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. -DFW

As is the norm these days, DFW's saying what I've been thinking in way better sentences than I can ever come up with. I want to say it was a much needed talk. But to know if it's just surface level or if I'm going to learn something from it, only time will tell. Life is this struggle, between the comfort and dead-end of certainty and the fear and temptation of uncertainty. I still think the bloody lessons aren't seeping in. They're just surface level. However, I hope that I'm going to learn and grow and laugh and tell stories and be a better person. How I choose to deal with life will, eventually, be the story of my life.

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