Core Developer @ Hudson River Trading
On 5/9/2023, 12:47:49 PM
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I'm moving house this week, back from California where I stayed for a year -- working at Google, getting laid off, and regaining certainty -- to the familiarity of the East Coast. It will be a change of company: both of industry and of the friends near me. I see this as the clear-cut end of a chapter that began a year ago after the graduation from college.
In the spirit of the "brain dump" posts I used to write on my old blog, I'm writing this post without a sense of direction1. But it has a sense of mild urgency. Because I'm worried about losing the new feelings and revelations from this life chapter. There is much, much too much, that happened over the course of the last year to be expressed in writing, but I will try to convey some of the most critical discoveries here.
As an exercise of constraint, I did not intend this to be a long post. Each section was supposed to be limited to one paragraph maximum to avoid rambling. This failed miserably -- after all, how can you communicate feelings so large and clumsy in a single paragraph? I hope to get better as I write more blog posts2.
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
Frank Herbert, Dune
Uncertainty seems to be the word of the decade, especially amongst the newlyadults of my generation. Tech layoffs have hit the largest and most prestigious companies, seemingly picking employees at random without regard to performance or seniority. Doomscrolling the front page of news sites or Reddit to see mass shootings, illogical political bickering, war stories one after the other. Knowing that the people in power will only act on global climate change once it's too late.
One friend was telling others, "I wonder if it's worth investing in a 401k" -- because, you know, we won't make it out after retirement.
To me, uncertainty was the most real in the middle of my job search. Rejections, ghosting, and self-regret create uncertainty and fear -- fear that you're not good enough. Fear that you've wasted a three-month application process at your top-choice company because of one bad interview. Fear that you should've allocated more time to working on a personal project rather than preparing for a certain type of interview, or vice versa, lest you fail the next interview. A crippling fear that your current mistakes may be felt late in your career, so you must not mess up -- but how do you know what the optimal next move is?
Despite how optimistic I was going into the job search process, this fear of uncertainty, or perhaps this uncertainty caused by fear, practically stopped me dead in my tracks as the rejections piled up.
In hindsight, things usually work out okay. The older generation is able to see past individual life storms to a sunnier day; I know I am still young with plenty of space and time to grow3. But it doesn't make the feeling any less intense, nor am I alone. Just considering friends my age that I regularly converse with, I know three people recently struggling to get out of oppressive old jobs; three people laid off or with offers rescinded; and many others crossing their fingers that their jobs aren't affected by a mass layoff. Outside of the tech industry, the threat of generative machine learning and an economic recession threaten many more jobs. We are all feeling it.
The only way I know out of uncertainty is weaponized ignorance. Put aside the world's problems and focus on the moment. The next interview. The current topic. Keep your head looking at the floor to place your next step, oblivious of the steep drops all around you. Enjoy the time with others. Once things get better, then you pick your head up and look down the road.
It seems that the other unifying theme amongst newlygrads is a sense of isolation. What is a friendship, and how does one find them? My interactions with friends point towards loneliness as another acute epidemic amongst young adults, second only to the uncertainty epidemic. The problem is exacerbated when moving cross-country, and nerds like my roommates and I are notorious for introvertedness.
Luckily I am not prone to loneliness. But I worry about my friends when I hear the following story from many of them, in some flavor or another:
Work takes up ten hours each day of the working week. By the time you're home after work, there's no energy left to start anything. By the weekend, it's time to rest before the next week's grind. Work is full of people much older and more experienced than you, with families and different priorities. Some of your team is remote and you've never met them. And there's no energy to join new activities or clubs on the side.
Overwork is loneliness's strongest sidekick. Despite best efforts to meet new friends, it's difficult when you're not thrown in a class of people your age as you had in school. Despite best efforts towards self-improvement and building hobbies, it's hard to find someone who matches your energy, humor, and tendencies. The lucky ones know old friends who live in the area.
The case for dating seems to be even more dire, especially when I'm living in a region lovingly known as Man José.
There will be times when a family relationship, friendship, or some other mutually-respecting relationship becomes tense. In some cases, a little distance helps. Other times, you accept your differences and get along, or one side realizes their mistakes and changes (hopefully for the better). In bad situations, there may be enough grievances of one side of the relationship that the damage is irremediable, and the relationship is, for all intents and purposes, finished.
I've seen this happen twice in the course of a year, between people I've known for a few years. In both cases, one person -- let's call them Person X -- alienated multiple others by means of insensitive remarks and belittling. Little annoyances and unease built up over the course of months or years. As a bystander in both scenarios, I initially found some parts of the aggravators' behaviors mildly annoying or rude, but chalked it up to a difference in upbringing. Sometimes I would notice and confront them about insensitive remarks, but it would smooth over with only a slight unease.
Then a dramatic phenomenon appears, when someone else approaches you about the worrying behaviors, and wonders if you've noticed it too. Yes, I've noticed, but what of it? And then they tell you that you're not the only one; five of your classmates also have stories that affirm the sleeping suspicion. The loss of basic human understanding and trust horrifies you. You then join into this comfort group, and your stories become shared. You think back in time and uncover missed red flags from before there were any problems. You get angry together on the victims' behalf, but the victims themselves want to stop thinking about Person X altogether because every thought about Person X, including anger, brings pain. It's too late for reconciliation.
Most of the time the unacceptable behaviors derive from arrogance. Arrogance borne out of good-natured confidence about one's abilities and knowledge but taken too far once it comes at the victim's expense. It often starts with small comedic jabs at someone that border on insult. It may involve the overuse of superficially clever or dramatic remarks that usually work to impress others, but end up hijacking conversations. A lack of self-awareness, a victim mentality, and a poor response to constructive criticism become a time bomb of a personality. In both cases Person X was both very technically smart and (I hope) well-meaning, but good traits do not excuse or cancel wrongdoing.
With the victims and their sympathizers, a herd mentality arises. Why should we try to fix Person X that hurt our friend(s) this badly? We are not Person X's close friends nor their family, so it is not our place to teach Person X basic societal ethics. Any interaction, any attempt to better Person X after so many chances to not be a terrible person is a form of community service; helpful to society, but not something I would force on others. In this collective mindset, Person X is a lost cause. Complete avoidance going forward is the best way to move forward without lingering pain.
My position has been to play the middle when possible. This means acknowledging that Person X has done horrible things to the victims, but that they have erred not out of malintent, but mainly due to lack of self-awareness. And if Person X felt blindsided by the situation out of pure ignorance, then I will try to be the person they can talk to. This is not to play devil's advocate or apologist, but acting on spite or hatred helps nobody. Professional help is a good idea, though I can imagine that it's difficult to open up to a stranger, no matter how professional.
I had a month-long standoff with my parents when I was fairly depressed about the job search. Everything they said, even and especially words of encouragement, struck me as an off-color joke that demonstrated blatant misunderstanding of my situation. Being the "victim" in this situation, I learned that there can be a huge divide between the intent and effect of words, no matter how well-meaning the intent. In this case the discrepancy comes from a generational gap, which is one form of difference in upbringing.
A post on r/AskReddit just popped up on the Reddit front page, called What is one thing you regret doing in life?. Some of the top upvoted top-level responses include:
Which is to say that, learning how to deal with this difficult scenario is more common than I would have thought.
"Black and white, that's just for death and taxes. Everything else... Everything else happens in the grays."
The events of the past year made me realize more than anything that change is the only constant, and there are very few rules of adult life -- you do what your manager allows you to do, what the government says you have to do, what you have the energy left to do, and what you need to do when emergency arises. Life continues around you.
I've been incredibly lucky up until this year that I haven't lost anyone dear to me, at least not in my conscious memory. But my great-grandmother passed away early this year. She's had episodes of dementia weaving in and out in the past few years, but still demonstrated impressive vitality up until her final year -- acting lively in card games, berating her grandchildren, getting drunk on occasion, and even taking up cigarette smoking to teach her grandson a lesson. This is the strength of a ninety-nine year-old elderly lady, who had to hide from the planes in WWII in rural China, who survived trampling by a bull many years ago, and who oversaw her whole tree of descendents leave everything behind to immigrate to the United States. Her children too -- my grandma, grandaunts and granduncles -- are the liveliest bunch, and raise their children with that same strength.
I lived with my great-grandmother and my grandma (her daughter) for the first six years of my life, and probably spent more time with them than my working parents at the time. Her funeral was the first one I've attended. It's hard to look anyone in the eye when thinking about her. The hardest thing is talking to my grandma after the fact, who has taken care of her mother for longer than I've been alive, and especially since the dementia has worsened.
The circumstances regarding her death were also difficult for me. Being in California, busy with work and isolated from the rest of the family on the East Coast, I was so unsure of whether I should return. From the periodic updates I got from family, her situation was touch-and-go all the way from November until her death in February -- every day might have been her last. I was able to return for Christmas and visit her, but she was non-responsive at the time. Finally, I was laid off in late January, and was working on scheduling a time to have lunch with my team before heading back to family. Unfortunately, she passed just before I met with my team. I determined after that that I would find my next job near family.
It's definitely a weird feeling, to be without someone. The closest I've gotten is when our family cat disappeared when he went outside one night, but since his fate still unconfirmed I never stopped believing in my heart that he was living out his days as a wild cat. So I've never felt sad for him.
But around middle school I had too much free time and energy to think in my bed as I waited for sleep, so overactive mind would obsess over death. What is death, what does it feel like to die, what happens afterwards? How would I react, if my siblings or parents or grandma passed away? My dreams would also be tormented by terrible scenarios with no escape; I felt the simulated despair of losing a loved one a hundred times over. It was a torment grown out of the fact I hadn't had to face the reality of losing a loved one. Luckily, I was freed of this when I began to obsess over schoolwork and programming in high school, and would fall asleep instantly every night, mentally exhausted. That middle-school death-obsessed phase lasted two years. At its end, I concluded that if someone dear to me passed away, I would resolve to turn my mind away from it and into my studies; and if I had to face my own untimely death, then it would be a relief from worldly struggles4.
As mentioned before, I already have been very lucky with family and health. This year was a bad year for the elderly -- two of my close friends have each had two grandparents pass away. Losing two grandparents in a year is a magnitude of tragedy still unknown to me, but it is an important part of growing up. Just like the other black-and-white parts of growing up: paying taxes, finding an apartment, moving house, paying for a car and for car insurance, etc. Each of these is so irreverent of your current situation, inconsiderate of the other storms that befall you. Life has no provision that you will have time to recover from one tragedy to the next.
I'm glad in the sense that I've finally experienced this sort of grief so that I no longer have to be endlessly tormented by griefs unknown as I was in middle school. Somehow, I thought that this chapter would be the easiest to write because I thought there were no more tears to shed. But it seems that grief comes in waves.
At Google, which has consistently been ranked one of the best places to work, I always felt that I had a fantastic life within the company. I had fantastic colleagues that I could jump into a conversation with, and suddenly we'd be talking about tech, philosophy, and tech philosophy. Gorgeous benefits, free food, and abundant ping pong tables promote good well-being, which promotes high productivity. I was able to build a network that helped me quickly get back onto my feet after the layoff. I was aware of some tension between more senior engineers, but it never touched me; I was also blissfully ignorant of the angst foreshadowing the layoff.
There is nothing to complain about with life as a junior engineer in an envious work environment like the Google office, at least nothing that should invoke sympathy except in the most out-of-touch tech-bros5. I was extremely lucky to have and undeserving of that experience. However, I did feel that maximizing my life at work meant minimizing life outsied work, to some degree. The main issue was the lack of motivation after work. I was well-rested, well-nourished from the free workplace food, ambitious to complete side projects or learn something new. But I couldn't commit to projects on my own. I'm not sure how much was leftover burnout from college, but I'm sure that working contributed a large share to it. It took full-time unemployment, copious self introspection, and plentiful time spent with friends before I was able to retrieve the ability to start something of my own again6.
In light of the suicide of a Google software engineer from the NYC office at 11:30PM one night last week, my friends were discussing in a group chat:
Friend J: The most I’ve done is 10 am to 2 am ugh what am I doing with my life XD
Friend J: Ig 2 am isn’t as bad as 6 am
Friend S: u do realize that is 16 hours
Friend J: Huh
Friend J: Welp at least if I get fired or disrespected I can say I tried my best
Friend S: that isn’t a shift, that’s the literal minimum hours of being awake per day lmao
Here we see the less ideal side of the lucrative tech industry, worsened by the shadow threat of mass layoff. Compared to Friend J's hours, mine were child's play. He takes pride in the virtue of working hard, but I worry that the threat of physical burnout is very real in our generation.
Clearly, long hours, exhaustion, and lack of recognition (or the fear thereof) extend past the tech industry. Friend M was struggling with all of these factors caused by a systematic failure in the company to support people new to the industry, which involved a failure of the management structure and a failure of a manager. Work was a hell where noone cared about her or appreciated her work; life after work was exhausted and spent regretting. This weekend, I was fortunate enough to hear about the night-and-day difference she felt at her new company. Her second week of work was a work trip designed by her company to meet her team. Not only did her teammates and the leadership demonstrate that they were willing to invest the time and effort to meet her and provide onboarding services, they also were explicit that she should never forget to appreciate the work of those supporting her in the company structure as well. It was a moving display of leadership that values its people.
Friend T perpetually juggled taking care of family, working a dead-end job in project management, and taking on a part-time remote Master's degree. To make things worse, she experienced multiple family tragedies and the wrath of a terrible job market. She endured and kept applying to new jobs, but this felt more like waging a war of attrition against the job market.
Friend K7 also has faced issues with her supervisors at her research position. The managers are sometimes racist, hypocritical, and arguably even abusive at times to Friend K and her colleagues. Multiple complaints have been raised through the due process at the university, some involving lawyers, but all have been dismissed. Speaking up through alternate channels causes worries of retaliation that would cause her career to be dead-on-arrival. She is two years into a three-year contract, so she's also worried about sunken cost if she quits and cannot get a recommendation from the PI. Half of her colleagues left or quit within a short timeframe as a result. Friend K genuinely loves the work, her coworkers other than the supervisors, and the trial subjects, so she's willing to endure this abuse for her remaining year.
Happily, most of the work-life balance scenarios above have improved, either by switching jobs or by reaching some endurable steady state. There is a cautious hope speckled by the economic uncertainty. These stories, and the countless others not mentioned here, make it very clear to us that a comfortable adult life is not to be taken for granted. No matter how terrible or terrific the job makes itself out to be, it's important not to lose sight of your original goals, because your job is not your life.
I didn't know the meaning of fun before I sat on the back of a four-person surrey in Monterrey, pedaling in overdrive as we swerved left and right on the exercise path, and were slowly overtaken by a casual old man on a bike. It was a cool, overcast day in April by the California beach, and though the drivechain was loose and came off once, we were able to fix it and continue on our reckless way. "No drunk driving!" an onlooker shouted as we noodled along. "Whooo!" we shouted back. Out of breath, we drifted into the surrey parking spot.
I never knew the taste of onigiri or nattō, or that the dough of obayaki (imagawayaki) could be so tasty. As bad with taste as I am, I would've never guessed on my own that the first okonomiyaki I tried was undercooked8, or that the yakisoba from the same restaurant was underflavored, had my friend not called it out. (Perhaps it was a red flag that the restaurant was serving everything on paper plates.) Nor would I have learnt that "yaki" indicates a cooked dish in Japanese.
Cooling off at the Half Moon Bay beach in the hot summer weather. Hiking up Castle Rock in the mountains east of the valley. Biking eighteen straight miles of incline up Mount Hamilton east of the valley. Gathering logistics for a Korean BBQ company event for new grads. Bouldering at a local climbing gym. Exploring the downtowns at all the small towns scattered throughout San Jose9. Watching traditional taiko, kendo, and mikoshi performances at a Japantown festival. Learning how to pose for photos and take photos for others. Taking road trips down historic Route 1 and Highway 101. Learning fine dining etiquette at a steakhouse. Going to a trial day at the gym and learning how to barbell squat. Rating coffee shops for their work atmosphere with my newfound travel buddy. Celebrating with hot pot and bowling.
I had the chance to meet up with a few friends from the East Coast who had settled here or were visiting; the conversation usually begins with work or school, but I always end up finding interest in their work and learning whatabouts of old mutual connections. After my layoff, I was referred to a few old connections of my colleagues to gain insight into the finance industry. They were much older and wiser than me, and I ended up taking away handfuls of life philosophy on top of new technical areas of interest. Unloading about the daily ups and downs to roommates and a close friend group on weekends feels more worthwhile than it sounds like it should.
I missed the memo at some point: It's surprisingly meaningful to spend time with others doing unproductive things. Perhaps I used to believe that always being productive was a given. After all, I used to be the person that would argue against high school prom on logical grounds of efficiency. But any "constant productivity" is no more than pretense.
"It's not like over working would safe my ass from layoff"
Being laid off in such an indiscriminate way -- irrespective of how productive I as an individual was -- changed my view on productivity. I am full-time unemployed, so productivity is fully defined by me, head of the freelance company UnemployedPersonNamedJon. And honestly, the best thing for me to do is to get my head back on straight while preparing for interviews and my next job. I don't think anything was better for me than to chat to people about worldviews and concerns and updates. Fun get-togethers provided an escape: not only during the event, but in the weeks before as you plan and get excited and gather ideas. You are never more in-the-moment when things go awry and you scramble to make the highly-anticipated plans still work out. The more the shared turmoil and chaos and struggle, the sweeter the experience.
"Be of service" is a life motto and mindset of Friend J. In the face of struggles and insecurity, despite how illogical the trials the world throws at us, as long as the work that we do ends up helping others, everything will work out okay. I think it's a really telling statement, not only of Friend J's personality, but of the times we live in and our stage in life. We are each insignificant pawns in a much larger societal machine where terrible things happen all the time, so the best we can do is depend on our own actions and hope on the goodness of those around us.
Unfortunately, most people (including myself) are not as strong as Friend J, or they are driven by other means. Friend A, who is still in college, sent a message that struck me.
"i'm just ecstatic to be alive and i'm enjoying every moment
and i'd like to keep in contact w you bc you unknowingly strongly shaped my growth thus far 😄"
To put this in context, Friend A is one of the most zealous academics I know, and I believe we're both driven by sheer interest in our respective fields. Even with that in mind, I thought this was an increasingly rare outlook on life: most engineering students are too stressed and tunnel-visioned on grades, and the recent graduates I know are struggling to find purpose, much less be ecstatic about living alone. But here we see an incredible specimen of a life zealot, someone who finds meaning and fun in everything they do, and uses this to boost their impact on the world10.
My philosophy resonates closely with Friend A's approach. My aim is not as noble as Friend J's. My issue with the latter is that we can never really know the effect of our actions on others except in hindsight. We can do work that is generally considered to be socially good, such as choosing the engineering profession, but we can never predict all the negative ripples caused by our good-intending actions.
Instead, my driving goal is the satisfaction in my work -- both inherently, from the ingenuity of the work, and externally, from the appreciation by others. Listening to the gratitude of others provides a concrete, albeit superficial, method to tell that your actions are helping others, rather than hoping that your good intent is sufficient. Helping others becomes a trickle-down effect. Rather than deciding what will be of service to others, I only need to steer clear of clear evil, which (I believe) is an easier distinction to make.
This also approaches the second nuance to Friend J's approach, which is the clash between the noble pursuit of social good and the selfish want for recognition. If the hypothesis above is believable (that recognition of work is a natural indicator that you're being of service to others), then we don't have to worry about conflicting goals.
Is it selfish and privileged to prioritize your satisfaction above everything else? It is, but I simultaneously think that it is how I can make my highest contribution to society. To keep yourself in high-spirits and motivated, I think, can allow one to achieve greater and help others better. And it is true that I have grown up fairly privileged, but I cannot change the circumstances of our birth or the resources we have access to. I cannot say that what feels true for me must also be true for anyone else.
One also wonders whether the praise or recognization earned from others should be trusted. This requires scrutiny and trust in the people providing the feedback. Luckily, I am surrounded by many good people with more experience than me, so I trust their judgments and feedback more than I trust myself.
Being appreciated for your efforts, by people you respect, for the work you're interested in, is one of the best feelings in the world. It feels amazing to know that the software I wrote helped someone continue their passion, or when someone tells me they were struck by the thoughts in one of my blog posts, or to hear that I was a positive influence on Friend A's ambitions. I want to trust this feeling.
1. Jon: "What do you think is the thesis of the overall essay?" ChatGPT: "The overall essay doesn't seem to have a clear and explicit thesis statement. However, the essay seems to be a collection of personal anecdotes and observations about the theme of growth and change. The author shares different stories of personal growth and draws insights from them, while also reflecting on the broader significance of these experiences. So while there isn't a single overarching argument or thesis, the essay seems to be focused on exploring different facets of personal growth and change." Honestly, thanks ChatGPT.
2. Hey ChatGPT, can you format the following excerpt in one paragraph of 5-8 sentences?
3. I like to reference a quote by George Eliot in Middlemarch: "If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new."
4. At the time of writing this blog post, I realize that this is a very Victor Frankensteinish outlook.
5. Sorry, I hate this term.
6. Namely, my OS project. My current intent is that this will evolve into a lifelong project.
7. Really this should be Friend J2, but that designation seems unfair.
8. I am now addicted to okonomiyaki sauce and obayaki bread.
9. Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Campbell, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and possibly more.
10. To the best of my knowledge, Friend V is very much like this too.
© Copyright 2023 Jonathan Lam