I fastened my seat belt as the sign went off and the air hostess shuffled hurriedly to help people settle down. I was nervously grasping the folder of documents, going through it the third time since I had boarded the flight - passport, i20, university acceptance letter. I put it away, to avoid checking the documents a fourth time. It was August 16th 2019, a day after India’s independence day, and I was moving to the USA. There’s some poetic meaning there under a metaphoric rock if one looks hard enough. The plane was accelerating on the runway, about to take off. Everything was going to change.
It has been two years since I arrived in the US, with a bag full of food, head full of plans and heart full of hope. It has been an interesting time, personally, and objectively for humanity. I would of course be lying if I said things went according to plan. But I wanted to write this nevertheless to record what my expectations were, when I arrived and how things generally turned out. It would be a woeful template for anyone (including myself) to use. As they popular machine learning saying goes - all models are wrong; some are useful.
Why’d I come here?
I had never been enamored by the west the way many of my friends and acquaintances were. I took up a job in Bangalore after IIT Kharagpur, and moved around quite a bit. On some days I liked my job, and on some days I hated it - on most days I was bored. It did not take much to be perceived as good. To shake things up, I joined a start-up - which ended in a disaster. All this time was sprinkled with hackathons, side projects, heartbreaks, and travel. There were moments of glory, but most were meh. I had felt “alive” enough times to know that I was not feeling alive enough. Extrapolating my general trajectory did not lead to anything particularly glorious. It would be good, it would be familiar, it would most probably not be any less boring.
Did it turn out to be everything I expected?
Of course not, nothing does, really - and that’s a good thing. Berkeley allowed me enough time to find more things to be starry eyed towards. I was pleased to discover a love for driving, especially on road trips - I’m sure that is helped by beautiful views and beautiful company. I was horrified to discover I would not be called “progressive” in San Francisco. I was miffed to find out that this place was not the Eden it was purported to be - differently flawed than a few I’d seen, but flawed all the same. I was thrilled to find authenticity and courage in people working to create magic. The pandemic made sure that we spent more time in our own heads than we could earlier. It chipped away at all the distractions we clothe ourselves in - laying us bare.
Almost everything is performative. Most of our actions serve a dual purpose (and in many cases a very single purpose) to signal to the world and to ourselves that we are this creature with these attributes. We dance this dance to find and retain friends, we dance to find love, we dance to sleep better at night. There is no moral here; no secret that you can exploit to game the world. But recognizing this helps understand why something ridiculous or amazing can make sense to people who are also very much the protagonists of their own stories.
Gradients matter a whole lot more than simple values. I think, for reasons that were very helpful in escaping being eaten, we constantly update our baselines for everything. I have things now that I would ecstatically accept if offered ~2 years ago and feel like I was on top of the world. But I very much feel normal now. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but I think this is a property of how we function. The default is a gradient of zero (or if you account for general entropy, it is negative). So feeling-alive-ness requires effort. Positional values are easier to measure, but gradients are what you feel.
If you’re not feeling alive, does it even matter? Following the last realization, it must be true that we don’t one day wake up and feel glory. Unless you went SPAC, the day before would very much be the day after. So, if you’re expecting a huge spiritual and emotional payday, you will most certainly be oh-so-disappointed. I heavily optimize to be moved, to feel exhilaration and wonder at smaller time scales than I used to, before.
Arbitrary things like an essay chronicling two years doesn’t really mean much more than the meaning you give it. I’d like to think that these two years have helped me catch my own bullshit and my own self deception. I’m currently working on real, hard, humbling problems. This is a good place to be. Don’t Panic.