# Definition of Success

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?

# Autism and Genius

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

# Pride and Pretention

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?

# Pursuit of Knowledge

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.

# Summing Up

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.

# Are You Busy?

In the corporate world, all successful people are extremely busy. If your calendar is not filled with back-to-back meetings, you don’t belong in the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. Like most things in the corporate world, this feature has also turned on its head. You are not busy because your successful, you are successful because you can project an aura of being busy.

Something I read on the New York Times blog reminded me of an online resource that clearly told us how to look busy. It asked us to watch out for the innocent-sounding question from your colleagues or boss — what are you up to these days? This question is a precursor to dumping more work on your plate. What we are supposed to do, apparently, is to have a ready-made response to this query. Think of the top three things that you are working on. Rehearse a soundbite on what exactly those pieces of work are, how important they are, and how hard you are working on them. Be as quantitative as possible. For example, say that you are working on a project that will make a difference of so many million dollars, and mention the large number of meetings per week you have to attend to chase up other teams etc. Then, when the query is casually thrown your way, you can effectively parry it and score a point toward your career advancement. You won’t be caught saying silly things like, “Ahem.., not much in the last week,” which would be sure invitation to a busy next week. Seriously, the website actually had templates for the response.

Acting busy actually takes up time, and it is hard work, albeit pointless work. The fact of the matter is that we end up conditioning ourselves to actually believe that we really are busy, the work we are doing is significant and it matters. We have to, for not to do so would be to embrace our hypocrisy. If we can fool ourselves, we have absolution for the sin of hypocrisy at the very least. Besides, fooling others then becomes a lot easier.

Being busy, when honestly believed, is more than a corporate stratagem. It is the validation of our worth at work, and by extension, our existence. The corporate love affair with being busy, therefore, invades our private life as well. We become too busy to listen to our children’s silly stories and pet peeves. We become too busy to do the things than bring about happiness, like hanging out with friends and chilling for no purpose. Everything becomes a heavy purposeful act — watching TV is to relax after a hard day’s work (not because you love the Game of Thrones), a drink is to unwind (not because you are slightly alcoholic and love the taste), playing golf is to be seen and known in the right circles (not to smack the **** out of the little white ball) , even a vacation is a well-earned break to “recharge” ourselves to more busy spells (not so much because you want to spend some quality time with your loved ones). Nothing is pointless. But, by trying not to waste time on pointless activities, we end up with a pointless life.

I think we need to do something pointless on a regular basis. Do you think my blogging is pointless enough? I think so.

# Retirement — a Wife’s View

In connection with my recent retirement, my wife sent me an article (a speech given by someone on how to retire happily) which made several interesting points. But even more interestingly, it started with a funny story. Here it is:

In a small village in Kerala, a devout christian passed away. The local priest was out of station, and a priest from an adjoining village was called upon to deliver the eulogy. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” began the venerable pastor with the coffin before him. “Here lies dead before me a rare human being of this village with outstanding qualities. He was a gentleman, a scholar, sweet of tongue, gentle of temper and very catholic in outlook. He was generous to a fault and ever smiling.” The widow of the deceased sprang up and screamed, “Oh my God! They are burying the wrong man!”

True to form, this gentleman concluded his speech with another story.

First God created the cow and said, “You must go with the farmer everyday to the field, and suffer under the sun all day long, have calves, give milk and help the farmer. I give you a span of sixty years.” The cow said, “That’s surely tough. Give me only twenty years. I give back forty years.”

On Day Two, God created the dog and said, “Sit by the door of your house and bark at strangers. I give you a span of twenty years.” The dog said, “Too long a life for barking. I give up ten years.”

On the third day, God created the monkey and said to him, “Entertain people. Make them laugh. I give you twenty years.” The monkey said to God, “How boring! Monkey tricks for twenty years? Give me only ten years.” The Lord agreed.

On the fourth day, God created Man. He said to him, “Eat, sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing. I will give you twenty years.”

Man said, “Only twenty years? No way! I will take my twenty, but give me the forty the cow gave back, the ten that the monkey returned, and the ten the dog surrendered. That makes it eighty. Okay?” God agreed.

That is why for the first twenty years we sleep, play, enjoy and do nothing.
For the next forty years we slave in the sun to support our family.
For the next ten years we do monkey tricks to entertain our grandchildren.
And for the last ten years we sit in front of the house and bark at everybody.

Well, I managed to cut down my forty cow-years to a mere twenty. Here’s hoping that I will get similar discounts on my monkey and dog years!

# Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

# My Life, My Way

After almost eight years in banking, I have finally called it quits. Over the last three of those years, I had been telling people that I was leaving. And I think people had stopped taking me seriously. My wife certainly did, and it came as a major shock to her. But despite her studied opposition, I managed to pull it off. In fact, it is not just banking that I left, I have actually retired. Most of my friends greeted the news of my retirement with a mixture of envy and disbelief. The power to surprise — it is nice to still have that power.

Why is it a surprise really? Why would anyone think that it is insane to walk away from a career like mine? Insanity is in doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Millions of people do the same insanely crummy stuff over and over, everyone of them wanting nothing more than to stop doing it, even planning on it only to postpone their plans for one silly reason or another. I guess the force of habit in doing the crummy stuff is greater than the fear of change. There is a gulf between what people say their plans are and what they end up doing, which is the theme of that disturbing movie Revolutionary Road. This gulf is extremely narrow in my case. I set out with a bunch of small targets — to help a few people, to make a modest fortune, to provide reasonable comfort and security to those near. I have achieved them, and now it is time to stop. The trouble with all such targets is that once you get close to them, they look mundane, and nothing is ever enough for most people. Not for me though — I have always been reckless enough to stick to my plans.

One of the early instances of such a reckless action came during my undergraduate years at IIT Madras. I was pretty smart academically, especially in physics. But I wasn’t too good in remembering details like the names of theorems. Once, this eccentric professor of mine at IIT asked me the name of a particular theorem relating the line integral of the electric field around a point and the charge contained within. I think the answer was Green’s theorem, while its 3-D equivalent (surface integral) is called Gauss’s theorem or something. (Sorry, my Wikipedia and Google searches didn’t bring up anything definitive on that.) I answered Gauss’s theorem. The professor looked at me for a long moment with contempt in his eyes and said (in Tamil) something like I needed to get a beating with his slippers. I still remember standing there in my Khakki workshop attire and listening to him, with my face burning with shame and impotent anger. And, although physics was my favorite subject (my first love, in fact, as I keep saying, mostly to annoy my wife), I didn’t go back to any of his lectures after that. I guess even at that young age, I had this disturbing level of recklessness in me. I now know why. It’s is the ingrained conviction that nothing really matters. Nothing ever did, as Meursault the Stranger points out in his last bout of eloquence.

I left banking for a variety of reasons; remuneration wasn’t one of them, but recklessness perhaps was. I had some philosophical misgivings about the rightness of what I was doing at a bank. I suffered from a troubled conscience. Philosophical reasons are strange beasts — they lead to concrete actions, often disturbing ones. Albert Camus (in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus) warned of it while talking about the absurdity of life. Robert Pirsig in his epilog to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also talked about when such musings became psychiatrically dangerous. Michael Sandel is another wise man who, in his famous lectures on Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? pointed out that philosophy could often color your perspective permanently — you cannot unlearn it to go back, you cannot unthink a thought to become normal again.

Philosophy and recklessness aside, the other primary reason for leaving the job was boredom. The job got so colossally boring. Looking out my window at the traffic 13 floors below was infinitely more rewarding than looking at the work on my three computer screens. And so I spent half my time staring out the window. Of course, my performance dwindled as a result. I guess scuttling the performance is the only way to realistically make oneself leave a high-paying job. There are times when you have have to burn the bridges behind you. Looking back at it now, I cannot really understand why I was so bored. I was a quantitative developer and the job involved developing reports and tools. Coding is what I do for fun at home. That and writing, of course. May be the boredom came from the fact that there was no serious intellectual content in it. There was none in the tasks, nor in the company of the throngs of ambitious colleagues. Walking into the workplace every morning, looking at all the highly paid people walking around with impressive demeanors of doing something important, I used to feel almost sad. How important could their bean-counting ever be?

Then again, how important could this blogging be? We get back to Meursault’s tirade – rien n’avait d’importance. Perhaps I was wrong to have thrown it away, as all of them keep telling me. Perhaps those important-looking colleagues were really important, and I was the one in the wrong to have retired. That also matters little; that also has little importance, as Meursault and my alter ego would see it.

What next is the question that keeps coming up. I am tempted to give the same tongue-in-cheek answer as Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge — Loaf! My kind of loafing would involve a lot of thinking, a lot of studying, and hard work. There is so much to know, and so little time left to learn.

Photo by kenteegardin

# Rules of Conflicts

In this last post in the rules of the game series, we look at the creative use of the rules in a couple of situations. Rules can be used to create productive and predictable conflicts. One such conflict is in law enforcement, where cops hate defense attorneys — if we are to believe Michael Connelly’s depiction of how things work at LAPD. It is not as if they are really working against each other, although it may look that way. Both of them are working toward implementing a set of rules that will lead to justice for all, while avoiding power concentration and corruption. The best way of doing it happens to be by creating a perpetual conflict, which also happens to be fodder for Connelly’s work.

Another conflict of this kind can be seen in a bank, between the risk taking arm (traders in the front office) and the risk controlling teams (market and credit risk managers in the middle office). The incessant strife between them, in fact, ends up implementing the risk appetite of the bank as decided by the senior management. When the conflict is missing, problems can arise. For a trader, performance is quantified in terms of the profit (and to a lesser degree, its volatility) generated by him. This scheme seems to align the trader’s interests with those of the bank, thus generating a positive feedback loop. As any electrical engineer will tell you, positive feedback leads to instability, while negative feedback (conflict driven modes) leads to stable configurations. The positive feedback results in rogue traders engaging in huge unauthorized trades leading to enormous damages or actual collapses like the Bearings bank in 1995.

We can find other instances of reinforcing feedback generating explosive situations in upper management of large corporates. The high level managers, being board members in multiple corporate entities, keep supporting each other’s insane salary expectations, thus creating an unhealthy positive feedback. If the shareholders, on the other hand, decided the salary packages, their own self-interest of minimizing expenses and increasing the dividend (and the implicit conflict) would have generated a more moderate equilibrium.

The rule of conflict is at work at much larger scales as well. In a democracy, political parties often assume conflicting world views and agendas. Their conflict, ratified through the electoral process, ends up reflecting the median popular view, which is the way it should be. It is when their conflicting views become so hopelessly polarized (as they seem to be in the US politics these days) that we need to worry. Even more of a worry would be when one side of the conflict disappears or gets so thoroughly beaten. In an earlier post, I lamented about just that kind of one-sidedness in the idealogical struggle between capitalism and socialism.

Conflicts are not limited to such large settings or to our corporate life and detective stories. The most common conflict is in the work-life balance that all of us struggle with. The issue is simple — we need to work to make a living, and work harder and longer to make a better living. In order to give the best to our loved ones, we put so much into our work that we end up sacrificing our time with the very loved ones we are supposedly working for. Of course, there is a bit of hypocrisy when most workaholics choose work over life — they do it, not so much for their loved ones, but for a glorification, a justification or a validation of their existence. It is an unknown and unseen angst that is driving them. Getting the elusive work-live conflict right often necessitates an appreciation of that angst, and unconventional choices. At times, in order to win, you have to break the rules of the game.