Posted by: holdenlee | June 2, 2010

More reflections- snippets

More reflections.


What’s that quote, that to see how much you’ve changed you have to compare your perception of something that stays the same. The Christmas music hasn’t changed, but ever since it became a winter tradition for me to listen to it, a lot has changed. Last year, didn’t seem to have much effect on me, Christmas spirit didn’t rub off. Nothing could penetrate my shell in which I spent all my time working. And the Christmas before, was depressing, because I had “failed” the UM math competition. (And before that, it was more naively joyful.) That Christmas, we went to [my cousin]’s house. I had fun there. And I remember vividly starting the drive home, fun was over. Needed to study for USAMO, next year’s UM. A long, cold road in front of me, failure extremely likely because I had already missed my first goalpost.


Why am I not being productive anymore? I feel so lethargic after break. Like I don’t want to do anything. The average period of overcoming inertia has become too great. I’ve hardly done any math problems this break even though my goal was to do them every other day! I’ve hardly written any of Pleasant Island! I’ve only finished half of my notes, and I’ve already spent too much time reading and doing notes!

It’s times like this that I wonder if I’m happy, that if I made the right choices in my life. Like, I don’t know how to say it. When I get depressed, or an inertia or aversion to doing things, I think about stuff like, Do I really want to spend my life doing math? Am I happy now? Will I be happy doing math research everyday? On the outside, I make my “passion for math” clear; many of my classmates will say I’m very dedicated to my goal. But I’m still struck with uncertainties that I am afraid to admit even to myself. Why?

Anyway, about how happy I am- I am actually happier at MIT that I was any of my high school years. They were just one horrible thing after another. First it was feeling left behind in math, then the Silvervine crisis, more of feeling left behind in math (10th grade was actually OK, kind-of a lull- just starting math competitions- dreams without reality *sigh* then it was just furious training, no one around me understanding, then the horrible internship 12th grade, failing the olympiad, I remember clearly the awards ceremony at our school, and how much I didn’t want to be there, how useless and stupid I though awards were, what trash was all this praise being thrown around; I wanted to be in the USAMO awards ceremony; it occurred to me as a kind-of chain, one award above the next; there’s lots of hardworking students at our school, who don’t get big awards at our awards ceremony. Giving an award to me instead of spreading it out is just a horrible injustice, one that I couldn’t find any pleasure in… Then the idea of being average, I remember being so depressed during graduation. Because, why? Graduating was average. I was just like hundreds of my classmates, all equal, all graduating, even though I might have worked so much harder- I wanted to be one of a few singled out- yet even as I think about it now, isn’t that how it really should be? To be consistent with my so-called “philosophy”?) At MIT, I spend lots of time on my studies, and stay in my room, but I’m happy, and I’m getting things done. Maybe I just need to get back to the MIT atmosphere? Anyway, I have no UROP as of now. This is really bad. I need to talk to some math faculty…

Getting back on subject, one big problem is that I have two big drives in my life. One is the original: creating stuff. I think I’m creative by nature (despite what [my cousin] says); it’s just that it’s really been suppressed since childhood- just flip through all the creatures, bits of stories, maps, songs, pictures, comics, etc. I’ve created. Unfortunately, creativity seems to be worth little if it results in scattered bits and pieces. Even putting them together such as in a creature index isn’t anything. The point is, it needs to be directed, to be led (mind effort!). There’s so much that I’ve created but it’s sitting there stagnating. I have to write the stories; otherwise there’s nothing… And then of course, math. I’m still worried about not devoting enough to math. I was sure that I would spend all my time doing it, and the only problem to that is that all my creative urges would just die, all my creatures and stories would die when I die. All the uncreated worlds. I lied: I said so forcefully that I just wanted to struggle with math, as a kind-of “assert my passion because the prevailing view, even if unstated, is that people who devote their entire life to math is way better than any other type of mathematician” kind of view, and just adding to this fictitious idea… And since I believed it myself, I said that “yes, I was that kind of person by nature, and but it doesn’t matter if you aren’t because everyone should be free to pursue their interests whether diverse or focused.” And all the while, that superiority in my tone still being there, still thinking in a secret part of my mind that in the view of the first statement, I was ranking pretty good. Am I not falling into the very trap that I kept thinking of the trap for MIT students?- People who care too much about just being better that others, or getting A’s, and not actually about what they’re learning- it’s the happiness one gains from knowledge that is the best motivating force for getting through MIT in my opinion…

3-4-10 Thu.


The freshman year of college has been a journey to find myself.

In high school, I’ve always, and almost exclusively, defined myself in terms of my passion and hard work in mathematics. That was what gave me standing in the world. I’ve relied on it like a crutch to get me where I am today, but now I see it just as a crutch, just as one part of me. I’m no longer letting myself be defined by one thing alone. It seems counterintuitive, but I think the move towards working on math and academics less is almost as momentous as moving towards more work in high school. It’s letting go of a whole system of thought… like I’ve wanted to write more stories. So the time I used to store away for doing math after finishing homework, I’m using it to write stories instead, to develop another part of me. For once, I’m not so worried about my friends overtaking me in math anymore- I am a tangle of different knots, not one string stretching to infinity.

And besides, my “lazier” friends taught me this: Why shoot for an A+ in a subject I’m not interested in, when I can just pass with an A-? I’ll just find the things that really matter for me and do those well.


Why do I always hesitate to tell others what I’m doing? I haven’t really told anyone but [friend 1] (and maybe hinted at with [friend 2]) that I spend my Tuesdays writing stories. Maybe it’s a bit out of embarrassment- people would ask me what my stories are about and want to read it, and I’d have to explain the complicated plot and then apologize that I won’t finish it for several months at least- maybe it’s “being afraid to fail”- like someone working on a secret project they don’t want to reveal for fear that it fails, and will only unravel after a year of work, if it actually is successful. [But sometimes help] can come from outside sources. For example, I really need to talk to [friend 3]- simply to ask his what the environment and schedule at MOP is like so I can put it in my book- and I’ve delayed it for a week already. I need to stop delaying and actually DO IT- I should next time I meet him! So what am I doing this weekend?

Finishing work.

Doing math problem-solving.


Writing stories.

Going to Buddhist discussion meeting.

Playing Civ!

Playing DDR!

So why do I not say these things? Sometimes, I still don’t like saying I do math for fun- people would think I’m too nerdy (even half the people at MIT, possibly) and that I’m too one-sided. On the other hand, I don’t like admitting that I play computer games too sometimes for some reason- maybe to maintain an image as someone who does work all the time, like the picture I painted for myself on the outside. Well neither is really an accurate picture without the other.

[Edit: I didn’t actually find time to play computer games that weekend.]


In biology we were talking about niches. I think that that is human life in a nutshell (to use a cliché). Everyone wants to find some place in the world, where they can say they’ve done something, where they have dignity, where they can be respected for their unique contribution. And it’s always the prominent places where people want to go, be a famous performer, scientist, etc, niches that don’t seem to be able to hold lots of people. And it’s the source of competition and grief. So in high school, I sought after the niche of pure mathematics—pure in the sense that this was the only real goal in life. So I guess that is an occupied niche—by genius people. But what’s most important is searching for a natural niche to fit into, not one that seems clearly defined or prominent. So I think I can be a mathematician and a writer. That’s actually quite tough. Though it doesn’t seem extremely occupied—compared to other non-writer professions, -probably an extremely small percentage of mathematicians are writers. And I’m not going to just write about math, either—I’m also going to bring in a lot of fantasy stuff too. It’s just that the sort of mindset for being a mathematician and writer are SO different, as I’ve been finding out this semester. From some angles it seems so mutually exclusive.

A mathematician spends free time thinking about problems, being so engrossed in these thoughts to not notice or care about anything in the outside world. At least in my experience that’s the case. A writer, however, has to be constantly open to new ideas, to observe the world around him. Mathematicians think of stuff that is utterly “useless” to the outside world, while writers by nature have to think about humanity, to put real experiences on paper.

However, there are also remarkable similarities. Both have hard time and soft time—both types of work require time sitting down with paper and pencil (or computer), to either write or crunch out problems, and thinking of ideas when in transit, lying on the bed, showering, etc. (though the nature of this time is different)

I’m also in this weird situation, where hard work in math has helped me work on writing (though right now it doesn’t seem to be helping, because I haven’t written for so long and math steals time away from writing—it’s the bad thing about having two big interests. It’s so much easier to keep to the ideal of having only one interest to pursue in life, like I did in high school, and in some way it seems so easy to say, forget about writing, I’ll just do math for the rest of my life. Much less stressful, with only one thing that needs to be done! People think it’s hard/ boring to just doggedly do one thing but it seems like an inertial state to me. Having to do two things makes me think I’m more like the average person, who has to hecticly juggle different activities.). And perhaps being a mathematician will help me bring something to writing that has not been much expressed (like my hope for Silfa).

Analyzing myself, I yearn for the ideal of everyone occupying his/her own niche, though I don’t know what that means… It’s like, I can’t stand having competition, for some reason. I want to occupy a unique place where no one can compete, and I think that everyone else should get that satisfaction as well. I guess you can say this is silly, because everyone is born different so by default would occupy a different niche, but a niche is more than that—it’s how one decides how to use resources and talents to accomplish things, the things one works hard to attain in life. It’s like, wanting not only to be different but also to accomplish something both different and significant. With this definition there is going to be overlap. Dunno, some attitudes are hard to change. Since Olympiad days, I’ve tried to get my mind to be non-competition oriented, but it’s just so difficult to change my nature *sigh*.


“We all became mathematicians because we were lazy.” -?
I didn’t understand the quote before because math only opened up to me when I discovered how to work hard. But there’s more than one type of laziness. There’s a tendency to just work on math and nothing else, and that’s a sort of laziness. A laziness to try new things that I wouldn’t normally do, to talk to people and make more friends, to get involved in more activities. Because none of that is really necessary to become a mathematician. All I need is to study math hard, spend a lot of time thinking, and be able to communicate with other people from academia. Math is not very interdisciplinary; there’s a laziness in that there’s no need to venture outside the completely self-sufficient castle of mathematics. Fundamentally, though, there’s a need to break this habit of laziness if I want to be a fiction writer as well. It requires breaking this math bubble and observing and interacting with the outside world. It requires not just observing others passively—one of the problems in my stories is that I show how people react to events in character but not how they interact with each other and impact each others’ stories—it’s not well-woven. It requires doing research, and that often requires not just visits to the library but actually finding and asking people more knowledgeable on the subject than me, and gaining their trust. And that’s all stuff that I find pretty hard. (Especially since I’m not open about a lot of things. I could have told [my cousin when she asked] that writing a novel was one of my goals this summer but I didn’t… I still have a lack of confidence somehow, a need to be perfect at something before I show it to the outside world. But I need to realize that it’s okay to ask for help and learn from others because that should only make whatever I work on better. I guess that I’m afraid that this will somehow undermine my confidence—I work best when there’s no comparison to be made—or replace my creativity. But as I see everywhere, one of the keys to becoming a good writer is to “read the masters,” which I really need to do more of, not creating a “great” work and then read and compare and improve.) But I really do want to combat this “laziness” that “mathematicians” tend towards. (Of course, not all mathematicians are so 1-dimensionally lazy…) Also mathematics doesn’t require that much creativity—we say “art of problem solving” but face it, creativity in math is not the same thing as creativity in art. There are rigid rules to abide by, so it’s a kind of structured creativity; the ground rules are already in place and all one has to do is build on them, whereas, when I’m writing a story, I have to build the world of my story from the ground up. Math reports have their guidelines but the bottom line is that the theorems and proofs are correct, while in writing [fiction] one has to painstakingly go over the lines again and again to make sure that every sentence is as potent as possible.


[A friend] always asks everyone, “What do you do in your free time (outside of school)? At night?” and even “Do you have any inspirations to share with us from your experiences?” I’ve thought this kind-of “nosy” before […], but when I stop to think about it, it’s something that I should do more often! I realize that I actually know very little about other people—even my friends. We only see what is on the surface—for example I always make an appearance of being a hard worker in math, disinterested in other stuff, but few know that I have a yearning for creative expression as a writer, or my weakness for Civilization, etc. What else are other people hiding? If I only take what people appear like on the outside and make them into characters, they will be utterly one-dimensional. It’s asking these types of “nosy” questions- though perhaps less bluntly- that we can learn more about each other, get others to open up to us. What’s striking is that many people at MIT have a main interest- say, math or physics- but also have something else that they are really good at, or enthusiastically involved in, or working hard to get somewhere at. MIT people know how to manage their time to be productive, even though they may allow significant time for fun. The key is not to be deterred by feelings of inadequacy, just doing things, not necessarily finely manage their time. Many times the answers to []’s questions aren’t that inspirational—“I spend the nights surfing the Web,” but sometimes he probably learns more. For example,  [omitted].


Which is more important in life—being happy or getting things done? […]

[Random philosophical debate that goes nowhere]

Debate: H=Hedonist P=Productivist (yeah, that’s not a word, whatever)

H: The goal of life is to be happy.

P: The goal of life is to get as much done as possible.

H: Since we only have so long to live, we might as well enjoy life while we can.

P: No, you’ve got it backwards. Since we only have a finite life span, every minute of it is important! Every minute we waste is a minute we could spend doing something, whether it is learning, or making artwork, or volunteering!

H: Or having fun.

P: If it is while doing other productive activities, sure.

H: Not every second has to be productive, you know. Don’t you ever just do nothing?

P: No! That’s the problem with people—they have stuff to do but they get bored! And you get people complaining that they don’t have enough to do this or that, or that they have so much they want to get done. People clearly aren’t managing their time well. Time spent doing nothing can always be better spent doing something—people spend long car trips doing nothing, when they could have gotten a puzzle or math problem to think about, or think of an idea for a story, or something. People need to exercise their brains more; then this kind of stuff will become more natural.

H: But it’s… human to just have nothing to do. And sometimes people just want to relax. Maybe if you spent some time to relax you wouldn’t be so tensed up.

P: Life isn’t supposed to be easy.

H: It depends on your point of view. If you want to view life through rose-colored glasses, then you can. If you want to see everything as tinted in struggle and effort, then you will see it that way. So why not take a more easy-going attitude towards life?

P: It’s because I force myself to do things that I get things done. It’s because of the burning need to be productive that I am productive. Besides, I get the satisfaction of getting large projects done, which is much more lasting than the temporary satisfaction of say, playing video games.

H: Speaking of that, don’t you ever just have fun, without being productive? Don’t you ever just play video games or something?

P: Yes… but I try to minimize that time as much as possible.

H: See, that’s my point. You can’t be productive every minute of every day. So why don’t you just accept the need to have fun, and have fun without being conscious of the fact that you are “wasting time?” Anyway, people aren’t bored that often nowadays anyway; they listen to their iPods during long car trips. So how about this compromise, people spend the time they would have been bored having fun, and no time is wasted? It’s not like people like being bored, most of the time.

P: You know why I don’t use iPods? Those things dull your mind. I could be spending that time thinking about math problems or something. I could listen to a song a few times and get all the meaning out of that song. Why do I need to listen to it again and again? The more times you do something, the less impact it will have on you, and the more addicting it will be. Music, computer games, they’re all like drugs.

H: On the contrary. Many times the more you play something the more meaningful it becomes. After a week of being hosed with work sometimes I just want to be awash in music for an hour. And it’s never less effective. You seem to think that the more you stick your head in the stream of popular entertainment the less productive you are. Maybe that’s true if you’re a mathematician desperate for a Fields Medal. You stick to the ideal of authorship that a person should shut himself/ herself up in a room and write a great novel. Well, that’s not how most art is made. Often people make great works because they’ve learned a lot from popular culture, because of the perceptions and insights they’ve gotten by being fans of some TV show or game they adore. Just look at remix culture nowadays, at WoIA and all those things on YouTube. How do writers and directors, etc. keep their readers and viewers so spellbound? Because they’ve not deprived themselves of all these human experiences. How can you deliver a message that the masses of people out there can identify with if you don’t have basic human emotions such as boredom?! You think you can become a great artist by just locking yourself in a room and spending 1000 hours on something? Well, you might make something you like very much but no one else will care about it.

P: Of course you have to learn from others before you. If you want to become a good writer, you read books; if you want to become an animator, you watch anime… There’s nothing wrong with that, it all has the ulterior purpose of adding to your experience.

H: Why does everything have to have some ulterior purpose to it?! To become a writer, you just take your English teacher’s list of recommended classics and read them and that’s it? You have to make your own decisions about which books to read sometimes and why would you choose the books you read? Because you like them, that’s why. You try to explain everything away in some web of “being productive” but at the bottom these little choices are made because of what makes you happy. People want to seek happiness, but they try to explain it in all sorts of other ways.

P: You know what I think happiness is? It’s one of those annoying bars in the Sims computer game that you have to keep filled to prevent your character from having a nervous breakdown. What matters are the other achievements.

H: Life isn’t just about the quantity of things you get done. You don’t need to feel like you’re competing with everyone on how much you can make. There’s no shortage of people trying to make things. Sometimes you need to listen. Watch a thousand movies, enjoy them, and make one movie, have a cup of tea and feel good about your accomplishments. People always consume more than they produce. That’s how it’s supposed to be.



  1. In response to the hedonism vs. “productivism”, I feel that if you work hard at whatever you want and don’t constantly doubt whether you are “perfectly” managing your time (since you won’t know this until it’s too late), you will be satisfied with how you’ve used your time. I know a former USAMO winner who now runs a local math program by himself that works really hard year round, except for a few weeks when he sort of crashes and catches up on his other numerous other interests, and he doesn’t seem to dwell on time management in the form of self-doubt. This being said I need my own advice more since I don’t know how hard I should work on problem-solving this year to balance my other interests.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: