2014-06-17

On Being Hard, and Getting Harder

What is "hard"? Is it the difficult, or the painful? Is it the unpredictable, or the intentionally rote? It is different things to different people, at different points in time. I have written these stories before, but once more, they are called to mind.

For the first few years of my life, the main struggle was perhaps avoiding corporal punishment, as I was raised in a society where this is the norm. My earliest memory of this sort, perhaps a false one, was when my mother would slap my hands with a ruler, as I caused calamatuous havoc at the dining table from my baby chair. I seem to remember learning one day that "the anger of the disciplinarian is sometimes false," and that the easiest way to avoid further punishment was to act contrite, to let the body do its natural thing, to let it cry, loudly, pathetically, while a part of your mind sits back quietly watching the whole ensemble, thinking, "patience, this is what is done to live happily with others."

And then, at the age of six, my parents who had raised me to think in English, sent me to a Chinese primary school. With the exception of a year spent in the United States, the next six years were spent dodging strange mores, babbling colleagues, and narcissistic educators weilding ratan canes. Survival in a culture other than one's own is a strange thing. The funny thing was, I knew it would eventually end, and that allowed me to focus on "just getting by," without any pursuit of excellence in the meantime. Hardness, was the conscious pursuit of local norms, while curating an active life outside those norms.

Did I mention, my folks are deeply religious? My father's father was a senior administrator of GuangDong in the KuoMinTang government, a strict Confucian, who fled with his family to Macau when the People's Liberation Army took over in China. He moved his family to Malaysia where he assisted the Special Branch of the Malaysian Police in addressing Communist militants. The Communist Party influences were stronger in Chinese schools, and so this grandfather sent his children to mission schools run by the British. His children mostly became Christians, and true to their moralist upbringing entered the Christian ministry as pastors and missionaries. So this too was a significant part of my cultural environment in primary and secondary school.

Having been screwed over by my folks for a good half decade already (before primary school, they had asked if I wanted to attend a Chinese school and I had vehemently objected on account of the added cognitive workload), I begged them with tears and trembling to send me to a secondary school where English was the medium of conversation. The pleas worked. I consequently became much more active in clubs and societies, particularly the committee of the Christian Fellowship. Leadership training in the Evangelical tradition was a formative experience. You're twelve-years-old, and trained by people just a couple of years older, to run daily chapel, to manage crowds, speak in public, conduct mass spiritual experiences through improvisational singing and prayer, analyse texts, facilitate tutorials, and provide counselling on a personal basis to peers. (Nevermind the bits about event organisation - I think all the other clubs had that too.) That's all in the first year - in the second year you're bearing the mantle of leadership, and in the third you're "retired", and focusing on national standardised testing. The year I turned fourteen was the best year of my life because it was carefree, in the sense that one knew that certain privileges existed while one was a legal minor. Throughout this time, I trained and tested my ability to manipulate human psyche, to gain favour with gatekeepers, to work a room for contacts, to trade for economic profit, and generally to understand people as individuals. And by the time I was fifteen, I was quite sure, that I was bored by people.

The next two years were spent in a different town. The hardest things then, were making sense of the rote fashion by which science and mathematics were taught in public schools. Despite preferring to study methods carefully, I was forced to cram by rote for the next stage of national exams which would determine the success of my applications for scholarships from colleges and universities. That was on one hand. On the other, was the challenge of understanding the people of a small town. At seventeen I was exhausted between the futility of escaping strange mores, in both intellectual and social pursuits. I developed a sensitivity for anthropology and the arts, given that these were areas of study which I identified to be lacking in the local secondary education curriculum. At some point I got around to watching a movie that my literary friends had raved about, the Matrix, and while underwhelmed, I did find an interesting problem to work on - figuring out how to translate human experiences into digital forms. It seemed possible that the human mind was not so complex that it could not be completely stored on a hard drive, so I decided that this would be a pet problem.

And then I got a scholarship, went to college in America, and decided on the first day on campus that I wasn't going to learn enough if I did what normal students seemed to be doing. And I then decided to minimise efforts on official studies, to aim for a B-average, and to guide my own studies for the next four years. It was hard, but far from impossible, and this gave me much time to consolidate my various previous fields of study, in my work outside the classroom. I learnt a few important things about the brain, during this time. Most fundamentally, that I could rewire my impulses to desire or hate just about anything - a dangerous hobby. The self, as an intuited ideal, thereafter ceased to be anything more than another system of nature, wide open for mechanisation. During this time, I had carefully avoided commercial studies, planning to specialise in them later in life.

Upon graduation, commmercial studies became an important part of my life for the next nine years. Since then, I have sought to understand companies large and small, to become adept at building machine intelligences, and to develop a natural intuition for macroeconomic phenomena. These three fields of study have proven to be successively difficult, and I find that it is most economically viable, given short and long term incentives, for me to focus my efforts on the second of the three.

What is "hard?" Hard things are done, when I can find no clear understanding of how they are done. And that is all I spend my time on, these days.

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