Choosing Your Path
Updated: Jun 27, 2020
Some reflections and advice on picking your path ahead and making impactful contributions.
Some young students recently contacted me with inquiries regarding colleges, engineering, computer science, research, and AI. Here is some advice I would give to younger students if they wish to pick a meaningful path (personal, career, etc.) for themselves.
How to make the most of this document
Start with the general advice below regardless of your interests and goals. If you are particularly interested in engineering/computer science/AI, you can keep reading ahead, otherwise, I hope the general advice helps you. I have structured everything as FAQs and have offered some nuanced reasons as well as the bottom-line to each question.
General Questions and Advice
1. The most important thing
The most valuable thing at your disposal for the entirety of your life will be your thought process and how you reason about things. Everyone is born with comparable hardware, but it's worth spending a great deal of effort in optimizing your software.
There are two things you need to start working on as early as possible in your life.
a. Your mental framework for thinking
b. Defining a vision
Thinking and reasoning framework:
A lot of what we think, do, or say are not actually things we have thought deeply about. The most important thing in your life (at least on a meta-level) is to develop a mental framework that is conducive to independent thought and accurate reasoning. Try not to readily accept ideas that are just socially useful, or told to you by your family and friends. Spend some time thinking about and distinguishing between human conveniences and fundamental truths.
Life is mostly a series of endless information bombardments and an adept framework to handle information and reason about things will pay you back immensely all your life.
Some major ingredients of a well-developed framework of reasoning are:
i. You should be able to recognize what is fundamentally true in the world, independent of anybody's opinion. Only believe something is true if it can be tested and the results are clear.
ii. You should be able to arrive at (mostly) incontrovertible conclusions given the evidence. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to trust evidence and make conscious efforts to get rid of biases and unlearn the wrong things.
iii. Given the fundamental truths, you should be able to reason up from there by yourself.
The scientific method is a good framework for thinking, try and internalize it and keep adjusting it as new evidence is presented to you. I highly recommend reading this piece by Tim Urban about first principles thinking (famous proponents of first principles thinking include: Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk, but a lot of scientists and engineers use this framework with varying degrees of depth).
Defining a vision
No matter how vague, start making efforts to define a vision for your life. The things that you want to be involved in, the things you feel will have a big impact on the future of humanity, the things you want to make, the things you want to improve, perhaps a grand end-goal for civilization. Nothing is out of bounds and it will be deeply personal to you.
Explore as much as you can, travel, meet new people, read a lot of books. Seriously, read a lot. It won't happen overnight but when you start getting a sense of the big picture and the world, you will realize your where your passions lie.
Making big decisions and going about life without some vision is just stumbling in the dark (my apologies for the pun).
Bottom line: Spend a lot of resources in making sure your reasoning and thinking capabilities, both in the abstract and in a practical sense are well-formed. Don't accept anything just because it is socially useful, try to recognize the fundamental truths of the universe, even in the face of ambiguities and uncertainties (see also: Science and Incertitude). Spend resources in developing your personal vision. Try to find problems that you care deeply about, and try to make some impactful contributions in solving it. These things take a lot of time to develop, but understand that they're really really important and will pay you dividends all your life.
2. How do I pick a field/domain/career?
Try to collect as much information as you can. Not just about things that interest you or look cool, but actually about as many things and fields as you can. Read a lot, talk to people, use the Internet. Once you feel you've accumulated enough information, try to pick a field that interests you, aligns with your personal vision in some sense, aligns with what kind of work you feel you can do, and perhaps most importantly where you feel you can make a difference.
Another rich lawyer/doctor/XYZ is no good for humanity (or even yourself), but a person who is making a difference in whatever problem they've decided to solve are always more important objectively. Try to pick things and problems that you want to work on, not titles, status symbols, or anything else that doesn't matter. Remember that you should not accept ideas and symbols just because they are socially useful. Make a difference.
Bottom line: Don't pick fields based on your societal interpretations or status. Do not accept ideas that are just socially useful, even if it makes you a nerd or an outcast at times. Your seniors, parents, teachers can only paint half a picture through their lens of what life and professions are like.
Don't focus on what you want to be, focus on what you want to do. There are too many problems to solve and not enough people trying to solve them.
3. What skills/things should I learn?
Bottom line: Learn everything that interests you even remotely. Try to learn a lot of things but pick 2-3 things that you go really deep in and have some expertise in. Read philosophy, play the trombone, hit the gym, explore as much as you can. But pick the things that matter to you the most and the problems that you want to solve and aim to go deeper than anyone else ever has. See T-shaped skills.
4. How important is a degree?
Degrees have one purpose only: social signaling. It's an easy way to signal to employers, and the general population as a whole that "hey, look, I have been trained in XYZ for 2/3/4/5/10 years and now I'm ready to come and make a difference/earn you more revenue/etc.". Obviously, in the Internet age, information is easily available (books, papers, etc.). Degrees offer almost nothing exclusive that you can't learn from other sources.
That being said, the best part about college is meeting like-minded people, who care about and want to solve the same problems as you do. Whether it be your peers or faculty, the end-goal of colleges in many ways today is for all students to collectively develop robust frameworks of thought.
Bottom line: Degrees aren't mandatory especially now that you can just as easily showcase your work and signal through other means like the Internet. There are still many advantages to colleges and degrees (brand association, networking, etc.) but it mostly boils down to your personal cost-benefit analysis. There are success stories on either side of the college/no college fence. Depending on your financial and personal situations, my advice largely varies regarding this.
Do your homework, considering all the necessary pieces of information, and make an informed decision about your college or the choice not to attend one.
Important: No matter what field you choose, be scientifically literate. While in the past, lack of scientific knowledge would have been shameful, with a society that is increasingly heading towards AI, biotech, and climate change problems among many others - lack of scientific knowledge today is suicidal.
It's very difficult to predict the future, but it's almost completely certain that some variant of AI and automation will affect our collective future more than anything ever has before. There are signs of it today already. It's very likely that many jobs will be automated over the years (yes, even the creative kinds). In such a volatile environment, your skills and talents will start becoming obsolete at an unprecedented expedited rate. Learn to learn new things above everything else. It's difficult to say what exactly you will need to learn, but at a meta-level, ensure that you are constantly learning and adjusting your mental framework to reason about things in a way that keeps up with the world, ideally staying a few steps ahead of the world.
Advice for future engineering/science students
1. Engineering colleges in India:
In Indian engineering colleges, the spotlight is on developing strong skills in engineering students. Better coding skills, more languages learned, higher GPA, etc. Whilst skills and academics are important in their own right, realize that as an engineer you want to be innovative, scientifically sound, and morally upright.
The way our education system is structured, we are only allowed to specialize in narrow domains and everything we learn is to signal to employers and the consequent end-goal is employment.
Do not forget your job as a budding engineer is to make useful things and work on important problems. Colleges usually want to make good employees and workers, and independent thoughts and innovations are even stifled many times. I've seen some engineering colleges optimize their ass-covering. They provide for students to get placed to bolster their statistics/rankings/positions/funding etc. even if it comes at the unfortunate cost and irony of being Luddites.
Don't let it get you down, focus on being an innovator.
You can choose what that means for you personally, it could mean working at a big company, it could mean a start-up, it could mean a research lab or anything else. But pick your prospects on the basis of one thing only: how it will help you do and make useful things that align with your personal vision. Without diving deeper, my bottom line advice would be just this:
Don't aim for employment/security, etc. It's the perfect age to attempt risky things and work on solving important problems. Don't get trapped in the proverbial rat race/placements/masters etc. Be where the environment is conducive to doing important things and working on important problems. Learn as much as you can, apply yourself, target high impact problems, and work hard. It will probably take a long time but why do something that isn't worth it?
2. I did not get into IIT/XYZ college of my choice.
Congratulations on wherever you got in and have decided to go. IITs are brilliant colleges but remember that your degree's signaling power is second to your passion, drive, and your work. Even students at IITs are learning many things from the same Internet sources as you are. Colleges don't matter as far as gaining knowledge is concerned. As I've mentioned, colleges are largely good for meeting like-minded people. The important thing is to work on important problems, learn continuously, and try your best to make meaningful contributions to the world. Failure is irrelevant unless it is catastrophic and leaves you incapacitated.
3. A word about computer science and AI
I am aware about computer science's apparent image as the best stream/easiest to get a good job in etc. There are some valid arguments concerning jobs among other things, but again, these things are inconsequential in the long term. Only choose computer science if you are truly fascinated by the field, jobs won't matter in the long term, and computer science can be very frustrating if it doesn't interest you.
Coding: No, our primary job is not coding, especially if you enter research. Programming is a tool to reify your ideas. The ideas are what we usually spend the majority of our time on. At a crude level, we work on developing better algorithms for solving problems, and algorithms are not programs, programs are a way to implement algorithms on a computer. Even as a software engineer (here the majority time might be spent in coding on some days), you don't sit on your computer hacking away, you try and develop ideas and algorithms to solve whatever problem you are currently dealing with.
That being said, programming is an immensely useful tool and a useful way to debug your ideas quickly. Learn how to code regardless of your branch/field. It offers a very unique perspective on thinking.
AI: As far as AI is concerned, there is tremendous hype around AI and Machine Learning. Not just between laity, but it seems to be a bandwagon amongst scientific people too. Again, truly evaluate and figure out what's going on in the field, read books, take online courses, see if it actually interests you. Don't jump on the bandwagon because of the hype. Hype always dies.
Think of yourself in evolutionary terms. When the next generation thinks of us, they will think of all the interesting problems that we worked on, our protests against injustice, our unbridled faith, and trust in our fellow humans. Try to make sure that when you near the end of your life, you can give them something to be proud of. Make sure you contribute to the best of your ability to humanity's knowledge and/or useful outputs.
Always work with the big picture in your mind.
All the best!
Tim Urban's The Cook and the Chef