Personal Report, 2023

At the end of 2022, I thought I had everything I’d ever wanted: I’ve got a first-class degree from Cambridge, a well-paid job with engaging work, and I’ve got great mentors and friends. 

But as 2023 began, I knew something was missing – that familiar, reassuring anxiety, anticipating what’s next in life. It had accompanied me since I was 14, when I first left home to study abroad. Perhaps, I thought, it’s time to leave it behind.

2023 was my first year after graduating university; my first year working full-time in London. For the first time in my conscious life, I was no longer primarily a student. Sure, I still presented at conferences, still led a new academic paper on the group behaviours of AI chatbots, and even started my own research fund in Cambridge. But for the first time since leaving home, I no longer had a “next” to plan for. It seemed that I’d reached my destination.

I did a lot in my work as a data scientist at Yonder. Never formally trained as an engineer, I built machine learning models and APIs, and helped build this young, exciting upstart credit card. It’s been very rewarding. I could point to something out there – not some slideshows, something actual people use – and say hey, I built that, I made that happen

I also learned a lot from it. Heavens and my boss know how many mistakes I’ve made. I learnt that to actually put something out there, I must learn to teamwork. I learnt to build with others, so that I am not over-fitting on a local optimum. I learnt to restrain from complexity, and instead build simple solutions that can iterate fast. I learnt that technical skills are meaningless without narratives to pull attention together, and contexts to pull people together. 

But that eery sense of absent anxiety remained. In some ways, three generations of my family worked to get me here, from that illiterate village in the Tibetan foothills to Cambridge and London. What next then? What are all these for? Why am I doing all this? By reaching my destination, I had lost my destination. 

As a teenager, I believed in grand missions. Thankfully I grew out of that protagonist delusion: the world has too much inertia, it takes a lot of privilege and egoism to believe that oneself can make a difference in the right direction. I had the luxury of neither privilege nor egoism. So, trying to avoid cosmic nihilism, I began calling myself a “rational hedonist,” and resolved to enjoy life as much as I can.

And I did just that. At a Parisian café, an old man asked if I was a poet, seeing me writing in my journal. I saw the best orchestras, in Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam. I read some fifty books. I watched sunsets and moonrises, in Edinburgh, Florence, Prague. I cycled the rolling hills to Cambridge, and dodged dears at Richmond Park. I arranged music from Succession and Mahler by ear, playing modern chords on my instrument’s ancient strings.

I did try writing poems as well. I wrote about how clouds were scattered postcards, sent from the setting sun to the rising stars. I wrote about how dusk would put make-ups on buildings, with threads of thoughts of the night. For the first time in my life, I stopped worrying about the future, and began living in the present. 

All that was very, very nice, and I’m grateful of how lucky I am. But in truth, the travels made my life chaotic, and I got bored. I started only journaling every second day, and then only every week. I stayed up later and later to catch stray dopamine. I missed the old anxiety of anticipation. I missed the strategizing, the dedication, the discipline; I missed that drive to go somewhere, that rush to what’s next.  

Over a beer after work, I asked my manager Theso for advice. He pointed out that I had broken my habits, and it woke me up. The irony is, I used to write about this back on WeChat, how motivation is actually a system of small habits: habits of behaviours, habits of thoughts. I used to write that habits are the rhythms of life, and there I was, losing my own rhythm.

To be fair, it wasn’t without reason. Transitioning from studies to work meant not only that I lost my destination, but also that I lost my community. It was in that community of constant intellectual debate where I kept my thoughts sharpened. Now, I spent most of my waking hours solving technical puzzles, instead of thinking, reflecting, and debating, as I always did.

In losing my destination and community, I lost my habits of thoughts and actions. In a way, I lost my identity. Who are we but stories of ourselves? Stories that we tell ourselves and hope others to tell of ourselves, not for others’ approval, but to know who we are. Even to see a cloud is to tell ourselves a story, that here the sky ended, and the cloud began. I needed my story back.

Can I stand behind a mission again? The world has inertia, but there’s been some individuals who are so delusional about their missions, that they actually managed to change the world. Individuals like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Thatcher, Deng, Mao – not all of them changed the world for the better, and I wonder how many of them were happy. I don’t want to become one of them.

But narratives, missions, and stories, are never just about the destination. They are also about the journey itself. They focus the millions of possible paths and destinations into one journey. One journey with its ups and downs, sunsets and moonrises, its poetry, its chords, its rhythms. 

As 2024 begins, I am still finding back my mission. It was once about individual empowerment, for I saw so many injustices of wasted potential, and for how I myself was so luckily empowered. But as I learnt in Cambridge, there’s no such thing as an individual. There’s social influence, cultural dynamics, and there’s effective or ineffective collaboration and competition. 

I hate the injustices of wasted potential. In a way, life and civilisation are systems evolved to optimise resources. The danger is to over-fit on local optima: species too adapted to a by-gone world, cultures whose once adaptive features became bugs, organisations lost in its own maintenance and grew into societal tumours. This is where resources are misused, where potentials are wasted. 

Is my mission somewhere here? To work on freeing potentials by breaking silos, by driving tech adoptions, and by changing cultures? I’m not sure. What I do know is that whatever this mission is, it’s no longer a vane destination, but a direction and a promise for an interesting journey.

The old man at the Parisian café said something I kept thinking about. “Keep Art in your life,” he said as we shook hands in farewell, “for Art is our self-sovereignty against instrumentalization; Art keeps our souls ours.”

That’s it then. I will find a mission that pushes me out to a worthwhile journey, a story that keeps my rhythm. Art will be my anchor, to remind me that it’s not about the destination or the glory, and to pull me back to who I am. 

In the end, I guess it’s just about living an interesting life. A life not bound by expectations, not lost in vanity or hedonism. A life that reaches out for adventures and stays true to art and love. A life that writes its own stories, in its own rhythms. 

January 2024