For years I have been told by the masters of various fields that the key to success lies in dreaming big. The most famous example is Prof. S.T. Yau’s auto-biographical ppt slides in which he advocated the importance of tackling the big problems in the field. All the speakers on the Ted talk series are also typical proponents of such principles. With all due respect, I think Prof. Yau made a valid case against a trend in math where it is easy to generalize existing framework incessant and pretend to be productive. That was one of the earliest reasons why I switched field from physical geometry (a word vague enough to hopefully not offend any practitioner/former colleague) to more applied domains like probability.
Given my somewhat colorful and tortuous career path thus far, it is fair for me to make a statement regarding the objectivity of big dreamism. In the ideal situation, everyone would want to make a visible impact to his/her spatial and temporal neighborhood. This is the so-called freedom of expression at its quintessence. Biologically this is perhaps grounded in sexual competitiveness, which also explains why certain poets/musicians lose their originality upon marriage and why liaisons tend to promote more of the latter (based on anecdotal evidence). Now the Freudian take on dreams is certainly also sexual in nature, so in a metaphorical sense the big dream promoters are world-class pimps. Superficially, these success-pioneers are non-profit, completely voluntary. Underneath, however, they reap a handsome amount of pride, respect, sainthood, forefatherliness, and socially accepted karma. I am not saying that these super beings harbor any ill-intention or conspiracy against humanity in general, nor are they actively calculating the aforementioned rewards consciously. But the principle of rich getting richer, in the sense of even spiritual wealth, is clearly at work. My purpose today however is not to criticize these generally good-willed, compassionate folks who cannot help project their voice at a much wide range than mere mortals. Instead I would like to pinpoint a few flawed assumptions that their big-dream claims are based on, and show how the removal thereof can easily topple the whole edifice of so-called proactive thinking.
For years I have battled against a condition that has lately been known as sub-well-being. In plain words, I experience physical discomfort under mildly stressful situation (judged by my own standards). Frankly many people in the world suffer from varying degrees of illness throughout their life. A colleague of mine had type A diabetes, gluten intolerance, among others, and yet he is productive by any standards, in terms maybe not of sheer quantity of output, but certainly of the quality and originality. So I consider him an outlier. In any case, the majority of successful individual, in the conventional definition of success, tend to be physically robust. A common phenomenon among them is the so-called sleepless elitism: certain people get by with 4-6 hours of sleep a night, for an extended period of time, without major health relapse. This is not just myth intended to scare away informationally disadvantaged people. There is solid scientific evidence behind such crookedness. Of course 2 extra waking hours might not seem such a productivity boost to most, but as anyone engrossed in intensive research activity can attest, an uninterrupted period of concentration is critical to breakthroughs. The human brain is indeed highly comparable to silicon based computers, insofar as the memory loading time can be a tremendous overhead. But more importantly, human brain is a wetware, hence has a much more complicated maintenance schedule than metallic hardwares. This renders human brains more susceptible to errors, but also conceal a huge amount of potential that’s waiting to be tapped. While I do not buy the old truism that an average person only used 1/3 of his or her brain, there is definitely some left over power that goes untapped all the way to the grave. Nature never anticipated the way we will be using our brains at this day and age, so the optimization problem she tried to solve for millennia has a typical solution of not burning out your brain in one session, and quickly giving up on tough bones to save resource for the long run. But with all the survival resources supposedly in place nowadays, we are valued only for the “extreme actions” in research, presidential speech/debate, or athletic competitions. All other activities are considered mediocre and at best earn you a living but not glory to pass down for generations.
Now a chronicle fatiguing illness can render all your dreams meaningless. And perhaps I am only speaking for an exceptionally unfortunate individual. Cliche examples like Stephen Hawking often remind us how obsessive we are at criticizing our environment and endowment. But again to speak on behalf of a well-meaning average citizen, it’s fair to say one is often battling more against his or her physical condition than the hardship of the work.
So why not keep a big dream and work on it without expecting to finish it? Well humans are conditioned unfortunately to learn from mistakes, and these lessons are most effective if given in a short span of time. There are certainly those with extraordinary memory that captures scenes decades in the past, most of us are too preoccupied with other memory-taxing subjects that lessons are most effective when freshly taught. So another option is chopping a big dream into smaller pieces. That’s perhaps the best compromise between the two schools, but the premise of small dreams in that case is still the big one, and being dream, it is hard to swallow the intermediate steps without anticipating over-optimistically its benign consequence.
From another personal angle, I have been constantly scaling down on the dream size over the years. One of the first lessons learn in math research is to try small trivial examples before moving on to general ones. This works like a charm in math, since people are not always good at seeing the forest without examining the trees first. Same principle often applies to other fields such as programming, writing a piece of music, or composition of any kind. Having a less ambitious goal in mind can also be a great stress-reliever. We live in a world where everything is potentially a stress-inducer. Interaction with people is especially fraught with stressors. One of the motivations for writing this entry is to rant about my own stress-induced digestive problems. It got so bad at times, especially during the austere months of winter, that even tasks that seemed trivial in high school can feel insurmountable. The consumption of energy and confidence is comparable to a mental disease. Perhaps I realized this a bit late, since I got quite discouraged during graduate school or even my Netherland years. For me the greatest stressors of course came from human interaction, as that’s the greatest unsolved problem of all age, until we can truly replicate ourselves. But deep down, the real source of troubling anxiety is the mismatch between ambition and action.
Perhaps for the majority of the population the need for a big dream injection is evident. Most people are content with living in their little small world in a carefree, parasitic manner. It’s often striking to me how they managed to keep their ambitious ego under such fine control, and how they learned to fit into the stereotypical world population so comfortably and instinctually. I am not saying I was born to be a saint. Quite the contrary, I have been morally electrocuted in several occasions to the point that every tiny critiquing signal around me gets amplified manifold. Being raised to some extent in the US should by conventional wisdom have imparted me more of the “take it easy” wisdom, a colloquialism that I often took too offensively in the past. Now I see the wisdom behind. When I met my middle school teacher the first time I went back to China, he was surprised to see a mere skeletal figure rather than the well-anticipated fabulous fat boy. I was equally appalled at my stunted girth. At the time I attributed it to my asthmatic condition which suppressed the physical freedom to grow sideways. But I forgot that I didn’t make that choice myself to a large extent.
Another funny incident in recent memory, that relates directly to the notion of dreaming, is the self-administered experimentation with Chinese herbal medicines, a variety that allegedly reinforces kidney function. It is something of a common sense myth or mythical common sense, that self-conscious Asians like me tend to suffer incessantly from various ailments, which can largely be attributed to kidney inadequacy. Not to authoritate over centuries of western medical tradition, but I personally believe that kidney serves many functions in the regulation of the body as a whole, apart from the obvious, sex and pee. Going back to the medication: the first night I took about a quarter of the recommended dose, which amounted to about 35 pea sized pills, all in one gulp of water. That night I had lucid and stressful dreams: someone on earth was pursuing me to the point I had to hide in a distant planet and still any of my movement got caught by his omniscient eyes. Perhaps this is a remote metaphor of the kind of stress I have been going through all these technology-trained years, starting from the proliferation of facebook. I grew into the habit of watching every movement I make, every word I utter, and every emotion I express. My imaginary pursuers, either those who live near me or by tree-induction and degree of separation theory, everyone else in the world who might eventually weigh in on my future career, take a deep toll on my health, my spiritual freedom, my right to contribute without retribution, and plainly just the audacity for publicity.
I cannot tell whether the fleeting weeks of self-gauged kidney inadequacy will have any lasting impact, but the stress in my life will continue if I don’t do anything about it. It has started to contaminated even the most virgin quarters of my thinking space, namely the literary dreams themselves. To be honest, when I started writing this rambling mess, I placed the root cause of my plague in more apparent territories such as my supposedly bruising duodenum (look it up as you surely have it). Doctors and dad have hypothesized variously about my digestive disorder, with the extreme case being a briefly acquainted Flushing Chinese doctor who upon hearing my gluttonous eating habit during early undergraduate years, asserted with indignation that my stomach has suffered irreparable damage since then and now I am basically paying back the debt of the heinous usury. Alas if it were that simple. Stanford doctors were less speculative, largely because of better equipment: they simply concluded upon berellium inspection into my guts that all tubes are well lubed and no holes on the pipeline. I almost had the courage to go through a round of gastroendoscopy, since my cousin and my roommate both did, had I not been burdened by the workloads near and after graduation that I simply let other stresses take over this more fundamental one.
So imagine that half way through your dream you started having a bad cramp in the stomach. Two things could happen: either you wake up immediately and rush to the toilet, or you rush to the toilet in the remainder of your dream. I guess I belong to the latter, at least for a long time. My recent dreams have often spiralled into bleeding dance scenes: though I might have accomplished something in the end, the memory left behind is far from pleasant, and the drag and delay before fruition reinforced my preconceived self-assessment of inefficiency. If there is any lesson learned, it’s that dreams must be had in a relaxed, stress-free manner. If a smaller dream suits you, by all means finish that up first. Don’t let the professional dream promoters mislead you into never fulfilling vicious cycle of brain damages. Instead write expletive blogs like I do but polish and refine your tiny dreamware to perfection, in a slow but steady pace, and enamored with elegance and peace of mind.