College and choicelife, growth
31 May 2023
6 minute read
For some context before I get into it, my first year of college has passed… and with it, a lot has happened. I definitely became more adult; getting into my first big relationship, coping with the difficult change of leaving my family and culture, taking really challenging classes and realizing I’m not shit, meeting tons of great people, and generally feeling like I understand the world better.
This growth in college happens (for me and others) for many reasons: the independence, the need to care for your own needs, the lack of family to be an overwhelming support, etc… BUT also as the place where you start seeing how much your choices matter.
You start evolving in an environment with lots of people who are like A/B tests 1 for how to live your life. A lot of philosophers are into this idea of mimesis: becoming something by imitating others, and when you’re with a lot of similar people figuring out their lives, there’s a bunch of implicit steering going around in terms of what you decide to value and what you decide to do with your time. It’s like being in a pool of tadpoles quickly growing together and imitating each other as they go.
College is an A/B test for how to live your life because you suddenly have a lot of people making choices around you that are very relevant, and often you can easily find big pools of people making opposite choices, forming contrastive baselines. Then, the question is how do you feel about those people and those choices, and what does it make you want to imitate. A lot of college dynamics are formed from this type of imitation, of people stumbling about and being like oh damn! you’re cool! and this things you’re doing seems interesting!, so let’s do it. This is why it’s also such a great place to learn things with peers, even outside of classes.
This pattern applies to choices, but also to preferences in general, where being subjected to so many people’s perspectives on things forces you to kind of figure out who you are too.
Building takes about who you want to be and who you are is core to becoming an adult, and this strikes me as a big pro to the American university if you do it right, because of the sheer amount of things you can try and see.
College, ironically feels like one of the periods where you are the most both made and known by the choices you make, and where you have the most freedom to explore and try random things. Pay attention to the choices those around you make and where it leads them and from this, learn the sketch of the life you want to live. Not that it’s fixed.
I’ve been getting the privilege of exposure to so many different ways of living life / goals, from people exploring new digital instruments to people trying to understand the mechanisms behind modern AI systems, with people going for pure math, sustainable architecture, and building rovers in between! Seeing so much is really helpful, but also overwhelming and scary. Becoming is scary.
And I think this stuff is pretty hard. Makes sense. becoming an adult is hard. Becoming anything is hard. Aristotle thought a lot about this opposition of power vs form, power vs action. If you take a cube of rock, it can become anything, it has power through potential. Once you sculpt it it has form. There’s an irreversibility here that’s kind of scary too, and I think college students can understand this idea that yeah they have freedom right now, and that freedom is a time for them to also get a better idea of what they want to be sculpted into, so it does matter. They understand that yeah, their summers are even more free for them to figure things out, but that the options they pick will influence too what they converge on, what they get shaped into, in non-trivial ways.
And I actually hate decision making. There’s a strong perfectionist part of me that’s afraid of becoming something, and losing the power that comes with being able to still become anything. This is made worse by the fact that in college you still don’t really have a good sense of what you want, and you need to bootstrap that taste. But you have to if you want to become anything.
I was so torn up about where to study because of the tradeoffs I had to make that I was angsty about it even during my first year of college, and I constantly am flitting between different aspirations, for example:
- do cool research in topics like interpretability
- learn more math and get really good technical foundations
- make more cool software projects
- explore my taste for literature, poetry and philosophy more and build a culture and system for my thought to grow on
As I’ve been thinking about my dreams, becoming and choice, I keep coming back to the piece Becoming a magician. It’s easy to become something or say you want to become something in the abstract, like a magician, a person who cares about people, who is competent, etc… But then the implementation details are actually quite scary, because going through the movements take time, and people start realizing that time has a lot of value, as college is constantly reminding them that suddenly they have too many things around them they want to do.
But the premise of that post is that you sometimes encounter people who are competent at something in a way you cannot even begin to understand or intuit, and you should want you current self to look at your future self and feel the same. This requires putting yourself in environments with enough diversity and difference for you to find the magicians that push you towards something you want to become. This is a big selling point for college, as a place where you can be surrounded by people who are talented at very different things.
So go out! Touch grass! Do things that allow you to see forms of talent you can’t begin to imagine, dip your toes into many things and figure out what you like, but don’t forget to focus too, lest you miss out on the magic that requires depth.
I think I’m slowly getting a better idea, and I’m enjoying the ride, bumps and all.
Tomas se répète le proverbe allemand : einmal ist keinmal, une fois ne compte pas, une fois c’est jamais. Ne pouvoir vivre qu’une vie, c’est comme ne pas vivre du tout. - L’Insoutenable Légèreté de l’Étre
An A/B test is a strategy people in product design use to causally gauge whether certain changes to their product help them attract more people/sales. They make a change to the product, and then show that change to a certain portion of people, and not the other, and then they compare different stats for each user group, figuring out whether the change improved things or not. ↩
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