Face the fear! Questions for the AI revolution

There sure is a lot of fearmongering in the media these days. Watch any clip of mainstream news and you’ll get scared out of your pants about terrorism, nuclear war, biosecurity, climate change, and machine intelligence taking over the world. Yes – these are real and important global issues ripe for discussion – but jeez, must we talk about them in such a doomsday (and in fact, completely useless) way?

Let’s take the societal fear of machine super-intelligence taking over the world, a.k.a. Man versus Machine. The scenario we all fear is this: Man programs machines to learn how to learn. Machines become more intelligent than man. Man loses control over machines. Machines overtake man. Man is exterminated or become enslaved by machines.

Or another scenario: Man programs machines to learn how to learn. Machines augment mans’ intelligence. Man employ machines as support to achieve mans’ goals. Depending on what those goals are, the world may (or may not) become a better/fairer/more equal/ideal place.

The first step mentioned above – “Man programs machines to learn how to learn” – is inevitable. In fact, we’re already there. Anytime you use a spam filter, choose a movie from a list of personalized recommendations, or type a search query, you are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. And arguably, you are benefiting from it.

The next step – whether we choose to compete with machines (as in Man vs. Machine”) or collaborate with machines (as in “Machine augments mans’ intelligence”) – is up to us.

It all depends on what question we ask.

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The Calgary Supermoon in 2016. Photo taken by Mark X. He (aka my dad!)

If we take the first scenario, we might begin by asking How we can program machines to be as smart as us? First, we could duplicate whatever capabilities man has, so that the machine will have it too – that is, programming machines to mimic human intelligence. We’ll start with manual tasks which are simple for man but difficult for machines, such as turning a doorknob or vacuuming the living room. Later, we’ll move on to more complex tasks like recognizing debris versus people when rescuing victims after an earthquake, or responding to subtle emotions in a human face. Once we’ve achieved these tasks, maybe our question might evolve to Can we program machines to be smarter than us?  For some tasks, the answer is yes. Examples are Garry Kasparov – the former World Chess Champion who competed against IBM’s supercomputer “Deep Blue” in 1997 and lost, or how Google AI beat Ke Jie, the world’s Go champion in May 2017.

In the second scenario of collaboration (“Machine augments mans’ intelligence”), we would take a completely different approach. As Tom Gruber states in his TED talk“instead of asking ‘How smart can we make our machines?’, maybe we’ll ask ‘How smart can our machines make us?” To answer this question, maybe we could first identify what mans’ strengths and weaknesses are, particularly when compared to machines. What are the things we humans do easily and intuitively that machines can’t? And what are the things we consistently fail at or come up short on? (For examples, check out our many cognitive biases). How can machines augment, supplement or overcome our weaknesses to make us better/more rational/empathetic people? On that note, perhaps instead of pursuing “smart” or “intelligent” machines, perhaps the question we really should be asking is How can machines make us better people? How can machines help us to live our best lives?

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Photo credit: Mark X He

But wait – how you would you define “better” or “best”? In Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk, she states that “We’re asking questions to computation that have no single right answers, that are subjective and open-ended and value-laden. We’re asking questions like, Who should the company hire? Which convict is more likely to re-offend? Which news item or movie should be recommended to people?”

Tufekci says: “These systems are often trained on data generated by our actions, human imprints. Well, […] these systems could be picking up on our biases, amplifying them and showing them back to us, while we’re telling ourselves, ‘We’re just doing objective, neutral computation’.  For example, “Researchers found that on Google, women are less likely than men to be shown job ads for high-paying jobs. And searching for African-American names is more likely to bring up ads suggesting criminal history, even when there is none. Such hidden biases and black-box algorithms that researchers uncover sometimes but sometimes we don’t know, can have life-altering consequences.” (More about inherent biases in our technology design here.)

She argues that “Artificial intelligence does not give us a ‘Get out of ethics free’ card. We need to cultivate algorithm suspicion, scrutiny and investigation. […] We need to accept that bringing math and computation to messy, value-laden human affairs does not bring objectivity; rather, the complexity of human affairs invades the algorithms”.

The AI revolution is already here. There is no point in denying and restraining progress. Human beings have an innate curiosity and a creative spirit. Innovation may be the hallmark of our species. As machine learning and AI advances in the next years, let’s make sure we are asking and focusing on the right questions. The most effective questions. Like, what does it mean to be human? What values and morals do we care about, across countries, across cultures, across the human species? What are the goals we want to achieve? What kind of world do we want to live in, our children to live in?

And how can AI get us there?

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Tristan Harris and the Design of Ethically Persuasive Technology

Let me start with a confession. A (not-so) well-kept secret. In the five years since I’ve started this blog, this is the first post I’ve written about technology. The very first. This might make me a terrible computer scientist. Or it might make me a really focused one. Let me explain.

Researcher Dr. Eric Baumer studies the disuse of technology – why some people consciously engage in no use or limited usage of Facebook and other social media. Having never used social media myself (exceptions: LinkedIn, Twitter consumption) and being a late adopter to new technology trends, I would have been a prime participant for his studies. Which is why when Tristan Harris posed the question of “How do you ethically steer people’s thoughts?” when designing technology, I was more than intrigued.

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Freshly picked wildflowers at my old desk in the People and Computing Lab, University of Zurich.

Harris begins his TED Talk by saying that there are a hundred people in a control room who “shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people”. He argues that the design of technology is not evolving randomly but rather “in a very specific direction” – that is, “the race for our attention”. As Netflix CEO recently said, “our biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and sleep.” Perhaps this is why Netflix has designed their interface to auto-play the featured show on your homepage without waiting for a user click; why Facebook’s notification buttons are red (to take advantage of our visual perception system) rather than blue; why teens go through almost any means to maintain their SnapChat SnapStreaks.

Technology design is not neutral. Why? Because designers of technology are real, live, human beings – like me and like you– with values, goals and intentions. The designer may or may not be conscious of such values, goals, and intentions, but nonetheless, they are there. Harris argues that technology companies are actively manipulating its users in the race for more attention and more screen-time. Harris states, “the reason it feels like it’s sucking us in”, is because it was intentionally designed to do so. In his (previous) role as a design ethicist at Google, he would know.

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Photo of an art piece made out of floppy disks in Paris. (Unfortunately, I forgot to jot down the artist’s name).

But why does this matter? Why should we care? Harris argues this is the most urgent problem of our day – “because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want, it’s changing the way that we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other. And it affects everyone, because a billion people have one of these [smartphones] in their pocket”.

As human beings then, our attention and focus – our ability to do deep work – is our most precious resource. Without a conscious awareness of how technology usage can negatively impact our attention and in turn quality of life, we are losing, I argue, everything it means to be human. To connect and engage authentically and empathetically with our family, friends and strangers. To be creative, innovative and inspired, both when alone and when together. To critically reflect on the problems facing our world today and to collectively work towards solutions. And most importantly, to have the time and space to develop clarity on what we want in life, not only to protect against what we don’t want.

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Harris proposes three radical changes to reach this goal:

1) To recognize that we human beings (as users of technology) are easily (and almost laughably) persuadable;

2) To encourage technology companies to be more ethical, accountable and transparent in their persuasive technology design. As Harris argues, “the only form of ethical persuasion that exists is when the goals of the persuader are aligned with the goals of the persuadee.”

3) For technology companies to design technology that empower users by aligning with their goals and values. In other words, you say ‘I want this’, and technology goes ‘I’ll help you get there’. Harris offers a simple example: “Let’s say you wanted to post something super controversial on Facebook, which is a really important thing to be able to do, to talk about controversial topics”. Instead of the current design – a big comment box, asking what you want to type to keep you on the screen – “imagine instead that there was another button saying, ‘What would be the most well spent time for you?’ And you click ‘Host a dinner.’ And right there underneath the item it said, ‘Who wants to RSVP for the dinner?’ And so you’d still have a conversation about something controversial, but you’d be having it in the most empowering place on your timeline – which would be at home that night, with a bunch of a friends over to talk about it”.

So let me end this post now, by turning off my computer, getting some tech-free time and doing what feels most empowering to me – cooking with my loved ones, then doing some painting.

I wish you, dear readers, a reflective and empowered day!

 

A beautiful, honest mess

I’ve been pondering the nature of spaces. How their design can make us feel the way we feel, and the subtle ways our environments can impact what we do and how we interact with each other and ourselves.

Take where I’m at right now. A Starbucks in Calgary, Canada. It’s -20°C outside, cold wind and fresh snow on the ground. I’m sitting at a long wooden table, typing and hidden away in the corner. Customers come in and out, and the chatter of background voices and music drowns out as I focus and type, and come into view again when I look around to ponder. I’m warm, comfortable and productive here. With no one at my table, I feel alone but together – perfect for writing with my introvert self. I only wish there were more trees outside, instead of parking lots and road.

In the last months, my interest in the design of public spaces has grown considerably, sparked by the amazing work of urban artist Candy Chang.  In her work Before I Die, a simple prompt written in chalk on an abandoned building led strangers to anonymously share their dreams and aspirations with one another.

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In Confessions, voting-like booths allowed people to confess anonymously on post-it notes, which Chang later shared in a public art display – inspired by the idea of ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’.

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In this talk, Chang says: “People’s responses ranged from the functional to the poetic. […] It made me laugh and cry, they consoled me during my toughest times. […] It reminded me that I’m not alone as I’m trying to make sense of my life” (minute 28).

She says in that eloquent, quiet way of hers, “These public walls, are like this honest mess. An honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, and fear and wonder that you find in every community. Everyone is going through challenges in their life. And there’s great comfort in knowing you are not alone. But it’s easy to forget this because there are a lot of barriers to opening up” (minute 31).

Chang says in our society, When we feel fear or anxiety or confusion, we often do our best to hide it from others. But what if we could make more safe places to share? There’s great power in knowing you’re not alone. You’re not alone as you’re trying to make sense of your life. And you’re not the only one that feels like they are barely keeping it together.” (minute 39).

She asks: “How can our public spaces become more contemplative and more nourishing to our mental health? […]  Through opportunities for collective introspection, I think we can gain great value in self-realization and communal kinship. […] Our public spaces play a profound role to help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.” (minute 39/40).

What a fascinating question. What might a vision of such a public space look like? In this time of prejudice, polarization and fear, how might such spaces unite and connect us? Inspire us to be our best selves? Extend our compassion to strangers? Instead of our carefully curated self-presentations on social media, how might the design of public spaces encourage us to share and engage with each other in more authentic ways?

Exciting questions to ponder. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

Figuring out your thing in life

There’s an episode of the Robcast called “Listener Questions“. As the name suggests, listeners write in with questions and Rob Bell answers them. Of all of his podcast episodes, this is one of my favorites. Lots of goodies in here, though I’d like to bring your attention to minute 4:20, when a woman named Susan asks, “How do you figure out what your thing in life is?”

Wow. Super succinct. I want to know the answer too.

Rob answers: “First off, we all have to eat and pay rent and mortgage and put gas in the car, […] so let’s take that issue and put that aside. And let’s talk about your thing in life.”

Okay Rob. It’s put aside ♣.

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Little statues in Nara, Japan.

Rob says, “Listen to your life, because its been speaking to you the whole time. […] Look for the thread, look for the base note, look for the connections.”  He asks: “When is it that you felt most alive? When is it and what were you doing when you felt the most peace? […] The most satisfaction? […] When you felt like what you were doing mattered? Like it was bigger than you?”

Rob offers three ways to figure this out.

  1.  “What do you love to do? What is that when you do it, that you lose track of time?”
  2. “What fills you with anger? What is it that when you see it, you think – someone should do something about that. […] Somebody should fix that. The question is, are you that somebody? This is not a petty like, someone hurt my feelings anger – but a divine, sort of injustice anger, like, that’s…not…right”.
  3. Curiosity. What vision of the future makes you most curious? What is it that you most want to know more about? A lot of my work is driven by curiosity. I write that book because I find that topic or theme fascinating. And I have to make it because I have to see what’s its like if I make it. […] Follow your curiosity.”
    • “One more thought. The Japanese have a word called ikigai 生き甲斐 – translated to ‘that which gets you up in the morning’, […] at a deep, soul, spirit level. What is it that you wake up going ‘I get to do this for another day’. […] What is it that’s exhausting but also exhilarating? Somewhere in there, perhaps is the thing that is your thing in life”.

Before we move on, let me just say that I love Rob Bell and his humour and wisdom. When I’m feeling lost, I turn to his podcast to regain some perspective in life, and remind me of the miracle of my own existence. So thank you Rob Bell, for all that you do.

unnamedBut let’s go back to that little clover ♣ , when Rob so sagely asked us to put aside the practical considerations of making money so you can support yourself/your family. It reminds me of this Venn diagram that went around on social networks about “purpose” –  drawn at the intersection of what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, with what others would pay you for. In essence, Rob asked us to take out “What others would pay you for” when talking about your purpose / calling / thing in life.

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But, wait – that’s not what 21st century society tells me nowadays! I’m told I need to make money to live. But, I, coming from a rich, Western, developed country, shouldn’t be making that money in a soul-sucking job. I should be doing something that’s morally ethical,  environmentally sustainable, intellectually challenging, fulfills a higher purpose, serves a bigger community, and oh, answers the call of my soul. While getting paid big bucks.

Jeez.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds a bit like the Holy Grail. Times sure have changed from when work was just work, and what brought you joy and meaning was something completely different altogether. And to combine the two and not know the answer yet, does that mean I’m supposed to suffer in quiet, existential angst while I slowly [read: over the course of my lifetime] figure it all out? This type of “life design” will likely take years of experimentation, failure, lessons, and creativity. Am I destined never to feel fulfillment until I finally reach this “destination”?

I imagine I feel the same as entrepreneur Marie Forleo once did. In her video intro to “Why you’ll never find your passion”, she writes: “When I think back to my earlier self, I often had a hard time enjoying simple pleasures because so much of my mental and emotional energy was focused (umm, obsessed) with figuring out my life’s passion. In other words, I spent an extraordinary amount of energy trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do with my life.” Her antidote was to “stop thinking, and start doing. [….] Clarity comes from engagement, not thought”.

So on Monday, I will begin a week of Doing, rather than Thinking. I will stop consuming articles and inspiration on the Internet in the pretext of “researching”. I will stop agonizing over which of the three ideas I’ve picked is the “right” one to move forward with. I will stop anticipating what I will or won’t like/enjoy in future imagined scenarios. And I will separate the ‘making a living’ from the ‘call of your soul’ bit.

I will experiment and try. I will create, rather than consume.

Here goes!

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The next right thing

There is something beautiful about watching lightly falling rain. Clear glass droplets rolling off of autumn leaves. Small pools of cascading ripples. Me, inside, with a cozy cup of tea. Writing.

It has been one month since I’ve moved to Germany. The PhD feels close yet far away. I’ve been learning how to slow down, to relax, and to take time. I’ve been learning not to measure the worth of my days (and indirectly, myself) by how productive I’ve been. I’ve been learning how to sit in the discomfort of not knowing what’s next, and all the anxiety, anticipation and questions of self-worth that it encompasses. It’s hard and scary. And sometimes, if I dare, exciting and electrifying.

I don’t know my path yet.

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StadtPark. Köln, Germany

So I bike around and explore the city. I try out new cafes and people watch. I read and think and draw. I get inspired. I write down ideas. I feel up. I feel down. I feel like I’m making progress and gaining clarity. I learn that clarity can’t be forced. In moments of quiet and stillness, I know I’m on the right path. In moments of fear, I’m itching to have it all figured out and am despondent I’m not there yet.

As Glennon Doyle Melton writes, “You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.

So I sit with this discomfort. I invite it for tea. Stay as long as you like, I say. It’s okay that I don’t know what’s next. I’ll just keep showing up. I’ll do my part and move forward everyday. I’ll sift through what I want and don’t want. As I do this, Clarity makes brief  appearances. Discomfort becomes a familiar friend. Process and Journey become my guide posts.

As Melton writes, “Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.”

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Marriage, the elusive shape-shifter

I’m getting married in a month. My partner and I have been together for 10 years. I’m still not sure what marriage means to me.

Let me preface this by saying that what prompted our decision to get married was not romance or a deep yearning to publicly declare our commitment to each other in front of family and friends. Rather, what prompted this decision was my desire to stay in the country. With a residence permit. And health insurance. And the permission to work, without needing to specify (at this moment), exactly what that work will look like. So that my partner and I can finally live together again, after five years of a long-distance relationship – first between continents, and then between countries.

Ah, “the realities of institutionalized companionship”, as writer Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.

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As our “special day” inches closer, I find myself trying wrap my head around exactly what marriage is, and more importantly, what it means to me. To be perfectly honest, I ain’t got a clue. But, dear readers, its not from lack of trying!

My desire to understand marriage started in my early teens. I was 12 and had just watched a Korean drama where a young girl was forced into an arranged marriage. It terrified me. I don’t want to get married, I thought. I’ll be stuck in the house all day cleaning and cooking! I’ll have to take care of babies! I won’t get to do anything fun. What a horrible way to go! (Note: Korean historical dramas may have led me to a slightly skewed perception…).

Later, at 14, I had my first boyfriend. If I could describe this relationship in one word, it would be “infatuation”. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage [yes, I love her, I’m going to reference her many times in this post], “Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it’s more like love’s shady second cousin who’s always borrowing money and can’t hold down a job.” Obviously, it didn’t last. At 19, I had my second boyfriend. More of a “real” relationship than my last one, though frankly, based on insecure, mutual dependency and all sorts of unhealthy, possessive behaviors.

At 23, I met my partner. He had dreamy blue eyes and a dazzling smile. I swooned when he held my hand, like a delicate damsel in a fairytale book. The world stopped when ….

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Just kidding.

Okay. So here’s what I really want to say. It’s been 10 years since our first date, and I find myself with an ever-growing love and respect for him and for our relationship. For the first time ever, I am with someone who has clear boundaries and communicates emotion in healthy ways (omg!). Someone who is so self-aware and calmly grounded in himself, that problems and disagreements actually get resolved, rather than pushed down and slowly brewed into resentment. Someone who apologizes when he messes up, and who has the generosity to forgive me when I mess up, royally – without the subtle and almost imperceptible ways that couples can punish each other in future, completely unrelated interactions. Someone who knows me to my core – my goals, hopes, fears and struggles. Someone who I can be completely vulnerable and not to mention, bratty with – in ways I would be embarrassed if even close friends and family saw me that way.

I know how precious this is.

But, what does this have to do with marriage? For some wisdom and advice, I poured over Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, which spans centuries of history about the institution of marriage in the Western world while she tried to make her own peace with marriage (prompted by US Homeland Security). Here’s what I learned:

Gilbert writes: “Marriage, it seems, does not like to sit still long enough for anyone to capture its portrait very clearly. Marriage shifts. It changes over the centuries the way that Irish weather changes: constantly, surprisingly, swiftly. […] Marriage was not always considered ‘sacred’, not even within the Christian tradition”. In fact, “the early Christian fathers regarded the habit of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property, and nothing whatsoever to do higher concerns of Divinity”.

Gilbert references the different types of marital unions throughout history – most commonly, between one man and several women, between one woman and several men (as in southern India), between two aristocratic males (as in ancient Rome), between two siblings (as in medieval Europe, when valuable property was at stake), between two children (as in Europe, orchestrated by inheritance-protecting parents), and even between a living woman and a dead man (as in China, called a ‘ghost marriage’). Such marriages were “pragmatic” – as “a tool for tribal clan building”, or to acquire land, wealth, inheritance and physical safety, where “the interests of the larger community were considered above the interests of the two individuals involved”.

It was only in the beginning of the 19th century that people started marrying for love. Ah, l’amour… But only love defined by certain terms. Interracial marriage was not legal in the US until 1967, where a poll reflected that “7 out of 10 Americans believed that it should be a criminal offense for people of different races to marry each other”. Moving on, a quick google search reveals that while homosexuality can be punishable by death in some countries, same-sex marriages became legal in the Netherlands in 2001, in Belgium in 2003, in Canada in 2005, in the US in 2015, and in Germany just one month ago in October 2017.

Indeed, as Gilbert so wisely states, “marriage survives, because it evolves”.

With one itty, bitty problem. Gilbert writes, “as marriage became ever less ‘institutional’ (based on the needs of the larger society) and ever more ‘expressively individualistic’ (based on the needs of …you) […] – divorce – which had once been vanishingly rare in Western society, did begin to increase by the mid-19th century”. This means that, “by unnerving definition, anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious reasons, it can always unchoose later – again, for its own mysterious reasons”.

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So, what neat, tidy conclusion have I come to about marriage – this elusive, institutional shape-shifter? Before we sign papers in city hall, I’d love to come to some kind of clarity on what this whole marriage business is.

But I don’t. I’m just as clueless now as I was ten years ago.

What I do know is this. I love my partner. We’ve built a strong foundation for our relationship – one that gets deeper and more wonderful over time. We’re committed to showing up for each other and to support each other in our dreams and goals. Hey, we don’t play a perfect game (who does??), but all we can do is learn and grow together.

As Rob Bell writes in The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage,

“It is risky to give yourself to another. There are no guarantees and there are lots of ways for it to fall apart and break your heart.

But the upside is infinite”.

 

Let the current take you

There’s a scene in “The Shining” where Wendy comes up to Jack at his desk to ask him how writing is going. They’re in a huge hall with tall ceilings and shiny hardwood floors. A single lamp radiates a golden glow. Eerie music plays in the background and all you hear is the clack-clack of Jack’s keyboard, echoing loudly through the hall. Wendy walks up to Jack, and in a high, upbeat voice says, “Hi hon, (kisses him on the cheek), how’s it going?”

Jack: (Puts down his papers and takes his hands off the typewriter). “Fine.”

Wendy: “Get a lot written today?”

Jack: “Yes”. (Looks up at her blankly).

Wendy: “Hey, weather forecast says its going to snow tonight”.

Jack: “What do you want me to do about it?”

Wendy: “Aw, come on hon. Don’t be so grouchy.”

Jack: “I’m not being grouchy, (scowls in that Jack Nicholson way), I just want to finish my work”.

Wendy: “Okay, I understand…I’ll come by later with a couple of sandwiches for ya, and maybe you’ll let me read something then”. (Smiles).

Jack: (Stares at her in disbelief). “Wendy, (clears throat), let me explain something to you. Whenever you come in here and interrupt me, you’re breaking my concentration. You’re distracting me (hits himself on the head dramatically). And it’ll take me time to get back to where I was (he tears up the papers he just typed). You understand?”

Wendy: (Wide-eyed). “Yeah”.

Jack: “Fine. And we’re going to make a new rule. Whenever I’m in here and you hear me typing (he hits a few keys on the typewriter), or whether you don’t hear me typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing in here – when I’m in here, that means I’m working and that means don’t come in. Now, (stares at her with those crazy Jack Nicholson eyebrows), do you think you can handle that?”

Wendy: “Yeah”.

Jack: “Fine. Why don’t you start right now and get the fuck out of here?”

Wendy’s footsteps echo down the hallway.

Whoa, whoa, ….whoa. 

I know what you’re thinking – what an abusive, temperamental asshole! And, what a surprising and uncanny resemblance to thesis writing!

My thoughts exactly.

Indeed, during those months of writing my dissertation, my temper was short, I was quick to snap, quick to laugh, and quick to cry. I avoided social interactions because they took away precious time and energy. I avoided information – any information unrelated to my thesis because it would take brain power to digest. I holed myself off in the library in hopes that the Writing Gods would bless me with abundant, free-flowing text. Instead I drank tea, went to the bathroom a lot, and hit the delete button till my carpel tunnel came back. Some days I succumbed to an overwhelming anxiousness and fear that chewed deep through my bones. Other days, I battled through that fear and directed my energy to focus on one – single – tiny – task – at a time. On those days, things got done, though I didn’t dare look back in case the fairy dust would wear off. I worked nights. I worked weekends. I took walking breaks in the forest. I felt frazzled and tense like a cold rubber band. If I was in an abandoned hotel in the middle of the mountains, I might have gone berserk and snapped too.

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Woods near the University of Limerick, Ireland.

Now that I’m done, I can safely look back at the five years I spent on this dissertation and view it from a distance. I have time to think, reflect, breathe. Slow down. As my dear friend C puts it, “to put a finger on the pause button”.

For the first time in five years, I have no commitments. No deadlines. No looming tasks or to-do lists. I can wake up and think about what I want to do today, rather than what I should or need to do. I have the space to try new things, experiment, explore. I can re-evaluate my life, where I am, where I’m going and who I want to be. And most importantly, I can nap in the middle of the day.

Though I learned many things in this PhD, perhaps my ultimate lesson was figuring out that I needed to surrender. To give up control, or rather, the perception that I had any control. To loosen my tightly clenched fists that were forcing its way with raw brute force in hopes to achieve tasks, deadlines, goals. To realize I don’t have all the answers and that its not going to be glorious and perfect, the way I envisioned. That dammit, I’m only human and I’m just doing the best I can.

So I gave up. Or rather, I gave in. I stopped trying to orchestrate things. Stopped trying to force and manage. I let the current take me.

As Lao Tzu said, “By letting it go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.”

Lao Tzu, I think you’re onto something.

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Black sand on the shores of Iceland.