On Motivation

I haven't written a blog post in over a year and a half, and it's been over three years since I was blogging consistently. That concides with when I last found myself between jobs, so I suppose that makes sense.

Quick life update, I recently left my job as a data scientist at Hopper in April. In my opinion things ended on good terms, and I'm still close to some of the amazing folks I worked with. I can't articulate everything I felt leading up to the decision to leave, but I think folks who have hit job burnout would relate to this description (thanks to Matt Yao for capturing it so well): I felt like I was not only climbing the wrong mountain, but that the peak wasn't getting any closer and the climbing was only getting more difficult.

So instead I took a step back to reconsider my motivation. Candidly, back in college I would have said that financial independence and living in the Mountain West with an off-road capable car was a huge motivation for me. I don't think you could have convinced me that having all that would make me unhappy. But I think I've learned some things during this break from work that feel very true, and I'm writing it here as a personal reference because it's easy to forget in the trenches of day-to-day 9-5 work. But if you somehow stumble across this unpromoted personal blog, I hope they'll ring true to you as well.


One concept I came across was the idea of a Return On Emotional Investment. For some reason, there seems to be this notion that burnout must be a symptom of very physical problems: you work too many long hours, you aren't getting enough sleep (or nutrition or exercise), you're doing too much relative to your bandwidth/job scope, you aren't taking enough vacation, etc. For me some of these felt plausible, but it felt like only part of the story.

Return On Emotional Investment is the idea that you can see tangible results of the work you do, and that those results feel genuinely meaningful or encouraging in some way. It's not necessarily that you're working for a non-profit installing solar panels in developing countries, but more broadly that the work you do produces something that is authentically satisfying and visible. The cliche is "take pride in your work", but I think for something to feel that way, you do ultimately have to care about the larger mission of the company.

Put another way, to me this is what distinguishes the craftsman from the assembly line worker. The craftsman sees the final product -- he has lots of agency over the construction of it and he will take full responsibility if it does not satisfy his customer. But most importantly there is a degree of creative freedom he gets to exercise, perhaps incorporating years of experience, aesthetic taste, etc. The assembly line worker does not get to exercise this same freedom. His work follows a pre-ordained blueprint, and he is many degrees of separation removed from the final customer. He works to appease his manager, who works to appease his manager, and so on and so forth.

They have lost track of who they serve and why. Having worked every day at a startup for eight years, the answer was crystal clear for me —— I serve our users. But very few Googlers come into work thinking they serve a customer or user. They usually serve some process (“I’m responsible for reviewing privacy design”) or some technology (“I keep the CI/CD system working”). - Praveen Seshadri, What Ails Google, The Maze is in the Mouse

Put yourself out there.

I've always hesitated with putting my thoughts in public forums. I'm trying to lower my guard.

"you’re not special. this is a very, very good thing. people who feel special suffer extensively to maintain the special-feeling. you are just another echo in this series of caves we’re all stepping in and out of. this is a very, very good thing." - Gabi Abrao, How to Share Your Work Online

Redemption is aligning what you do with what you believe.

In taking this break, I'm trying to be more intentional at understanding how data science can be used to improve people's lives. Data Science as the sexiest job of the 21st century was initially described as a way to improve products based on observed user behavior at scale. In the Harvard Business Review article, the data scientist working at LinkedIn uncovers an algorithmic way to improve suggestions on relevant profiles to connect with. This benefits the user and proves instrumental in LinkedIn's early growth. It's a win-win.

But on the other hand, you have instances like Rebekah Jones, who in 2020 was coerced toward manipulating data to fit Florida's political objective of reopening amidst high Covid case rates. This is such a far-cry from "the sexiest job of the 21st century", and relied heavily on Jones to push back until she was fired.

I believe so much of data science isn't so black and white. It's not necessarily a win-win, nor that you're being asked to manipulate data. Usually it's in more of a middle ground, finding a path to improve some metric the company cares a lot about. Ideally it's a win-win for the user and the company, but not necessarily. The tech industry has become so enamored with profitability metrics and engagement that we don't often enough step back to ask ourselves "Am I improving the world?" To me, this is key to the ROEI described above.

The tools of our day allow brands to leverage automated advertising campaigns that produce results based simply on what generates the highest volume of measurable interaction, often regardless of the quality or nature of the content itself. This leads to marketing that preys on anything that moves people, regardless of what direction it moves them. - Taylor Lee Jones, Whiteboard, On the Redemptive Creative Agency

I would like to believe that this isn't some idealistic head-in-the-clouds dream job. I understand that most of us just want to pay the bills, call it a day, and find meaning outside of work. I gave that a shot for two years, and it didn't work for me. I don't mean to imply that everyone should feel that way, merely that I did.

“It definitely wasn’t a sudden realization. It’s a little bit like having a pebble in your shoe, where you’re walking and something is off, and it’s mildly uncomfortable.” - Paul Millerd, The Pathless Path, Pebble in My Shoe

"How does that project fit into creating a more glorious future? How is that future pleasing to God, the proper order of things, and your own felt value instincts? Your wage is just a budget given to you to help you carry out this sacred duty; give your whole life to the task at hand, and take responsibility for its whole logic. If something in that entire chain of purpose back to the highest purposes isn’t right, fix it. You own the task and the task owns you." - Wolf Tivy, Quit Your Job

On Motivation

I'm still a graduate student in a Master's in Computer Science program (OMSCS), but the progress bar has been stuck at 50% for literally a year now. If you go back to an earlier blog post (OMSCS Part 1), I said this:

"Whereas when applying to the program I viewed it as an opportunity to up-credential myself for more technical roles at Hopper, I now view it as a stepping stone for a longer and more adventurous career in computer science. I expect it to span numerous companies and roles, and I hope somewhere along the way to find financial stability and a greater sense of place."

That was my motivation for the past 3 years, and along the way I did find financial stability and a strong sense of place and community here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm hoping I'll finish my coursework in the next year-ish.

But I'm adding a third addendum, which is that I want to improve the world. I fell in love with technology because it could be used for things like tactile robotic prosthetics, empowering mission-driven organizations on the web, and detecting wildfires early to support containment. Ideally, the sense of place sticks around. I'm not looking to leave the beautiful high-desert home I've come to love. I hope, wherever I go from here, that I can also reconcile financial stability and improving the world.

"Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions — to stand outside ourselves and ask "is this how I want to be spending my time?" As well as avoiding bullshit, one should actively seek out things that matter. But different things matter to different people, and most have to learn what matters to them. A few are lucky and realize early on that they love math or taking care of animals or writing, and then figure out a way to spend a lot of time doing it. But most people start out with a life that's a mix of things that matter and things that don't, and only gradually learn to distinguish between them. One heuristic for distinguishing stuff that matters is to ask yourself whether you'll care about it in the future. The things that matter aren't necessarily the ones people would call "important." Having coffee with a friend matters. You won't feel later like that was a waste of time...Relentlessly prune bullshit, don't wait to do things that matter, and savor the time you have. That's what you do when life is short." - Paul Graham, Life is Short


  • Life