At some point in our life, we come to accept the fact we are closer to death than life. What lies ahead is definitely less significant than what is left behind. These are the twilight years, and I have come to accept them. With darkness descending over the horizons, and the long shadows of misspent years and evaded human conditions slithering all around me, I peer into the void, into an eternity of silence and dreamlessness. It is almost time.
I have had the pleasure of driving in many parts of the world. Being fairly observant and having a tendency to theorize about everything, I have come to form a general theory about driving habits as well.
You see, each place has a set of driving norms, a grammar or a dialect of driving, if you will. In Marseille, France, for instance, if you switch on your turn signal on a multilane street, people will immediately let you in. It’s not because they are polite and considerate drivers (quite the contrary, in fact), but a turn signal indicates the drivers’ intention to change lanes, not a request to let them. They are not seeking permission; they are merely letting you know. You’d better let them in unless you want a collision. In Geneva (Switzerland), on the other hand, the turn signal is really a request, which is usually denied.
Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.
When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Don’t worry, i am here to help.
Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot — look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success — and fame its byproduct.
Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, “I just want your best game.” Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.
We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.
Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?
Most things in life are distributed normally, which means they all show a bell curve when quantified using a sensible measure. For instance, the marks scored by a large enough number of students has a normal distribution, with very few scoring close to zero or close to 100%, and most bunching around the class average. This distribution is the basis for letter grading. Of course, this assumes a sensible test — if the test is too easy (like a primary school test given to university students), everybody would score close to 100% and there would be no bell curve, nor any reasonable way of letter-grading the results.
If we could sensibly quantify traits like intelligence, insanity, autism, athleticism, musical aptitude etc, they should all form normal Gaussian distributions. Where you find yourself on the curve is a matter of luck. If you are lucky, you fall on the right side of the distribution close to the tail, and if you are unlucky, you would find yourself near the wrong end. But this statement is a bit too simplistic. Nothing in life is quite that straight-forward. The various distributions have strange correlations. Even in the absence of correlations, purely mathematical considerations will indicate that the likelihood of finding yourself in the right end of multiple desirable traits is slim. That is to say, if you are in the top 0.1% of your cohort academically, and in terms of your looks, and in athleticism, you are already one in a billion — which is why you don’t find many strikingly handsome theoretical physicists who are also ranked tennis players.
The recent world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is also a fashion model, which is news precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. By the way, I just figured out what that mysterious expression “exception that proves the rule” actually meant — something looks like an exception only because as a general rule, it doesn’t exist or happen, which proves that there is a rule.
Getting back to our theme, in addition to the minuscule probability for genius as prescribed by mathematics, we also find correlations between genius and behavioral pathologies like insanity and autism. A genius brain is probably wired differently. Anything different from the norm is also, well, abnormal. Behavior abnormal when judged against the society’s rules is the definition of insanity. So there is a only a fine line separating insanity from true genius, I believe. The personal lives of many geniuses point to this conclusion. Einstein had strange personal relationships, and a son who was clinically insane. Many geniuses actually ended up in the looney bin. And some afflicted with autism show astonishing gifts like photographic memory, mathematical prowess etc. Take for instance, the case of autistic savants. Or consider cases like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, who is only slightly better than (or different from) the Rain Man.
I believe the reason for the correlation is the fact that the same slight abnormalities in the brain can often manifest themselves as talents or genius on the positive side, or as questionable gifts on the negative side. I guess my message is that anybody away from the average in any distribution, be it brilliance or insanity, should take it with neither pride nor rancor. It is merely a statistical fluctuation. I know this post won’t ease the pain of those who are afflicted on the negative side, or eliminate the arrogance of the ones on the positive side. But here’s hoping that it will at least diminish the intensity of those feelings…
Photo by Arturo de Albornoz
What has been of intense personal satisfaction for me was my “discovery” related to GRBs and radio sources alluded to earlier. Strangely, it is also the origin of most of things that I’m not proud of. You see, when you feel that you have found the purpose of your life, it is great. When you feel that you have achieved the purpose, it is greater still. But then comes the question — now what? Life in some sense ends with the perceived attainment of the professed goals. A life without goals is a clearly a life without much motivation. It is a journey past its destination. As many before me have discovered, it is the journey toward an unknown destination that drives us. The journey’s end, the arrival, is troublesome, because it is death. With the honest conviction of this attainment of the goals then comes the disturbing feeling that life is over. Now there are only rituals left to perform. As a deep-seated, ingrained notion, this conviction of mine has led to personality traits that I regret. It has led to a level of detachment in everyday situations where detachment was perhaps not warranted, and a certain recklessness in choices where a more mature consideration was perhaps indicated.
The recklessness led to many strange career choices. In fact, I feel as though I lived many different lives in my time. In most roles I attempted, I managed to move near the top of the field. As an undergrad, I got into the most prestigious university in India. As a scientist later on, I worked with the best at that Mecca of physics, CERN. As a writer, I had the rare privilege of invited book commissions and regular column requests. During my short foray into quantitative finance, I am quite happy with my sojourn in banking, despite my ethical misgivings about it. Even as a blogger and a hobby programmer, I had quite a bit success. Now, as the hour to bow out draws near, I feel as though I have been an actor who had the good fortune of landing several successful roles. As though the successes belonged to the characters, and my own contribution was a modicum of acting talent. I guess that detachment comes of trying too many things. Or is it just the grumbling restlessness in my soul?
What I would like to believe my goal in life to be is the pursuit of knowledge, which is, no doubt, a noble goal to have. It may be only my vanity, but I honestly believe that it was really my goal and purpose. But by itself, the pursuit of knowledge is a useless goal. One could render it useful, for instance, by applying it — to make money, in the final analysis. Or by spreading it, teaching it, which is also a noble calling. But to what end? So that others may apply it, spread it and teach it? In that simple infinite regression lies the futility of all noble pursuits in life.
Futile as it may be, what is infinitely more noble, in my opinion, is to add to the body of our collective knowledge. On that count, I am satisfied with my life’s work. I figured out how certain astrophysical phenomena (like gamma ray bursts and radio jets) work. And I honestly believe that it is new knowledge, and there was an instant a few years ago when I felt if I died then, I would die a happy man for I had achieved my purpose. Liberating as this feeling was, now I wonder — is it enough to add a small bit of knowledge to the stuff we know with a little post-it note saying, “Take it or leave it”? Should I also ensure that whatever I think I found gets accepted and officially “added”? This is indeed a hard question. To want to be officially accepted is also a call for validation and glory. We don’t want any of that, do we? Then again, if the knowledge just dies with me, what is the point? Hard question indeed.
Speaking of goals in life reminds me of this story of a wise man and his brooding friend. The wise man asks, “Why are you so glum? What is it that you want?”
The friend says, “I wish I had a million bucks. That’s what I want.”
“Okay, why do you want a million bucks?”
“Well, then I could buy a nice house.”
“So it is a nice house that you want, not a million bucks. Why do you want that?”
“Then I could invite my friends, and have a nice time with them and family.”
“So you want to have a nice time with your friends and family. Not really a nice house. Why is that?”
Such why questions will soon yield happiness as the final answer, and the ultimate goal, a point at which no wise man can ask, “Why do you want to be happy?”
I do ask that question, at times, but I have to say that the pursuit of happiness (or happyness) does sound like a good candidate for the ultimate goal in life.
Toward the end of his life, Somerset Maugham summed up his “take-aways” in a book aptly titled “The Summing Up.” I also feel an urge to sum up, to take stock of what I have achieved and attempted to achieve. This urge is, of course, a bit silly in my case. For one thing, I clearly achieved nothing compared to Maugham; even considering that he was a lot older when he summed up his stuff and had more time achieve things. Secondly, Maugham could express his take on life, universe and everything much better than I will ever be able to. These drawbacks notwithstanding, I will take a stab at it myself because I have begun to feel the nearness of an arrival — kind of like what you feel in the last hours of a long haul flight. I feel as though whatever I have set out to do, whether I have achieved it or not, is already behind me. Now is probably as good a time as any to ask myself — what is it that I set out to do?
I think my main goal in life was to know things. In the beginning, it was physical things like radios and television. I still remember the thrill of finding the first six volumes of “Basic Radio” in my dad’s book collection, although I had no chance of understanding what they said at that point in time. It was a thrill that took me through my undergrad years. Later on, my focus moved on to more fundamental things like matter, atoms, light, particles, physics etc. Then on to mind and brain, space and time, perception and reality, life and death — issues that are most profound and most important, but paradoxically, least significant. At this point in my life, where I’m taking stock of what I have done, I have to ask myself, was it worth it? Did I do well, or did I do poorly?
Looking back at my life so far now, I have many things to be happy about, and may others that I’m not so proud of. Good news first — I have come a long a way from where I started off. I grew up in a middle-class family in the seventies in India. Indian middle class in the seventies would be poor by any sensible world standards. And poverty was all around me, with classmates dropping out of school to engage in menial child labor like carrying mud and cousins who could not afford one square meal a day. Poverty was not a hypothetical condition afflicting unknown souls in distant lands, but it was a painful and palpable reality all around me, a reality I escaped by blind luck. From there, I managed to claw my way to an upper-middle-class existence in Singapore, which is rich by most global standards. This journey, most of which can be attributed to blind luck in terms of genetic accidents (such as academic intelligence) or other lucky breaks, is an interesting one in its own right. I think I should be able to put a humorous spin on it and blog it up some day. Although it is silly to take credit for accidental glories of this kind, I would be less than honest if I said I wasn’t proud of it.