Some advice on ‘Being Average’

Celebrating mediocrity is not fun. Heck the word mediocre sounds insulting. Imagine if a boyfriend were to rate his girlfriend average! Or a manager were to rate his employee ‘just ok’! I do not sing or speak for mediocrity. That certainly (in some areas of your life) should not be your goal. But what if there were a remote possibility that you will spend the rest of your life hung up somewhere in the middle of some ladder. What if you know only way to climb that ladder is to be reborn again in this world as someone else! Should you stress about it? Should you beat yourself up on some things you just cant seem to excel at?

I will rephrase my question: Is there anything positive about sub optimality? Can it be in anyway constructive for my life? I somehow lately have been coming back to this point: What if I am average, should I be worried or should I just move on. Ill answer both questions now.

  1. Acknowledge: I have realised that geniuses are rare. Rich geniuses rarer still. So, if I do lie somewhere in the (big) middle of the bell curve with people on either side, why worry how high or low am I in the middle? I have stopped stressing about the ideal or the best. I’m focusing my attention on better. How do I make myself, that area of my life or that habit better.  Aiming to be the best is great if it does not stress you. If it does, take baby steps. What is the most immediate room for improvement. Focus on small causes than one big leap.
  2. Saying No: If you do finish step one, i.e. acknowledge being average. You can now say no to so many things. Broadening your scope and horizons are good things. But with focus. I cannot master everything. You cant master everything. Focus on one thing. Say NO to the rest. Learn to deny yourself the worry of not being able to do X, find time for Y or meet Z. Give yourself room to leave things and move on. You cant be the best at everything. Im sure I do not need to tell you all superheroes have weaknesses.
  3. Enjoy the Peace: Acknowledgement and refusal certainly give you some peace. You know where you are and you know where you cannot go, now all you need to do is operate on paths that are still open to you. This freedom and self awareness is sometimes liberating simply because you have less things to worry about! I have recently given up trying to do certain things in my PhD, ever since then, I find it very easy to focus on some problems that I am genuinely interested in. I try to find simple and constructive ways to polish myself in that small area and not worry about things I thought I had to learn to get things done.
  4. Ignore destructive comments: Ignore anyone and everyone that is telling you that you are not good enough. If someone says such a thing, ask them in return: Ok, tell me how do I make it better?. You’d be amazed at how many people are at loss of words when asked that question. They don’t expect to hear a counter question but a meek response ‘I know I suck at it!’. If someone says you are bad, ask them why. And do not stop prodding them until they give you some actual,real and ‘CONCRETE‘ action points to improve. Not some philosophical bullshit. Ignore them completely if none of these points can be acted on. For me, this one has worked wonders in recognising the ass-holes from people who genuinely care about my growth.
  5. Enjoy the mediocrity. You are a unique average. Savour yourself: both your strengths and weaknesses. Let the onus be on the superheroes to try and do everything. Meanwhile, breathe in and take a moment to reflect on where you are right now and where you want be tomorrow. Focus on within than seek from without.

I love my life, all its ups and downs. I also love my averageness. That is my sole USP. I am the underdog, the person who will shine with hard work and persistence.

Time for office 🙂

Beggers are not choosers.

Having finished my second internship in industry I have realized two things about the world. If you think beggars are not choosers and if you project yourself to be a beggar, you will only get pennies! Second, stand up for yourself, even if you may be wrong.

You don’t get in a position to choose because you HAVE NOT put yourself above the position! If you are begging, no one will take you seriously. And you need people to take you seriously. If you don’t stand up for yourself no one else will. What is the worst that can happen? You can be wrong, laughed at or rejected. But who gives a fuck! Its everyone’s JOB to tell you how wrong you are! An animal can identify its prey by its scent. If people sense incompetence and lack of confidence, they will deride you at any chance they get. Slowly, you will not even stand up in situations where you are actually correct. In the adult world there is no black or white, just shades of grey, you could be a shade darker or lighter than your opponent or boss, doesn’t matter!

To overcome both I have decided these rules will help:

  1. Get better and better at your craft, so that they don’t choose you, you choose THEM. Work on yourself till the time you don’t need anyone. Then, in reality, you will become the chooser and they the beggars.
  2. Everything is possible even the impossible. You alone know your impossible’s list. You know what you fear, you don’t have to sing about or laugh at your fears and incompetence, you have to constructively approach them. You don’t have to even pretend to be good at them. Acknowledge them and work towards them.
  3. Slow and steady may not win you a race in today’s world, but it can be the only way to do things peacefully and completely. I tend to do too many things simultaneously. If you have to multi-task, multi-task in bits. Give two hours of undivided attention to it. Slowly this two hours will reduce to 1 hour, even 1/2 hour as time passes by. Even a multi processor CPU works on one task at a single time. Invest your energy and mind in one thing at a time COMPLETELY.
  4. Finally, don’t get distraught by failures. People who succeed have seen far more failures. You can keep failing at something and learning something new each time. And this is not motivational bullshit. I wrote 200 lines of code 3 times during a 1 month period at Google. They made me write it every time. While I felt harassed, I  hate to admit it, I learnt something new each time. And with time I hope it improved my coding skills.
  5. If you are starting to run, you need to know how to walk first. Shortcuts are short-term success and long-term nearsightedness. They can get you into odd situations in the long run. Ask yourself why you are doing something a certain way, is it only to save your time? or is it the correct way to do it. I have landed myself in trouble before submission deadlines just because I was trying to do things to save time. Prefer correctness over speed.

Thats all. 5 tips are good enough for today!

Handling Academic Rejections.

Deriving self worth from reviews!

Well the title reveals all! Such impact bold and large fonts can have on your thinking!

Last month I had results of two of my submissions come in. Both papers were rejected with varying degrees of doubt and reservation. Both papers had several comments about how ideal our setup is and what more could we have done. Usually people complain that the reviewer did not understand anything! But unfortunately in my case, they understood my problem and discrepancies in my methodology better than I did. This saddened me as it hurt my pride. I have always been under the impression that I am right. Well those assholes took that away from me! Respect to their time and commitment!

I wanted to write this post especially because I have been trapped for the most of my PhD in churning out papers faster than I can think. I have been submitting something every few months and I hope to break that pattern this time. I want to clear every doubt about my progress and think clearly about what needs to be done next.

I want to write remaining bits to help myself look objectively at my rejections and learn to change bad habits that I have gotten trapped with. So here is a list of self help pointers for your upcoming paper rejects.

1. First and foremost thing is to realize :”This is not the end of the world!”. Impact of rejection is directly proportional to years in PhD. While you may learn to handle rejections as you progress, acceptance becomes more crucial when you are trudging towards final years of PhD when everything needs to converge and written up. But I was disheartened and demotivated. I had to tell myself repeatedly that it is OK to fail sometimes.

2. This result does not reflect your intelligence or caliber. We get into a trap of evaluating ourselves with the kind of papers we publish, constantly comparing ourselves with our peers. But we forget, our journey, our life and our effort is different from that of others. We cannot draw conclusions about ourselves from 3 people’s comments on 5 sections of a paper! Life is bigger and better than that. I tend to constantly worry about how smart I am. I worry more about Am I doing enough? Am I putting in my best. Of course, there is always more to be done! But you should not get trapped in judging your self worth from comments from someone, to whom, your existence does not matter (well, technically some conferences are double blind, they don’t see you, you don’t see them, so why give a fuck ?).  I told myself this time, that I can only do better!

3. Take a break. That is my problem, I dont take a break or I take a break at the wrong time. You need to keep rejections in a corner. You dont want to mull over what the hell was wrong with the reviewer and why he cannot recognize your genius! I found that not thinking about the rejection helped, because thinking about it made me angry and sad at the same time! I left these rejections and came back to them only some days later. Take your time to come back to the process. I read somewhere that usually this time reduces with more experience (hopefully, this time wont come for you but for your students :D).

4. Go over the reviews objectively. VERY OBJECTIVELY. That guy may not have understood anything at all in your paper. You have to then explain things better. Or he may have understood it wrong. You have to explain things more simply. He may argue about your methods. You dont discard his arguments but address them, one by one, you figure out why did he raise such a question in the first place. Of course some reviewers are lazy, thats just unlucky. Dont worry about them. Go to a temple and pray for their brains to function properly while reviewing your paper next time!

5. Learn to take constructive criticism and swallow your damn pride. I find that most difficult thing to do! I feel that I am somehow the god in my area of work when I have actually accomplished nothing. You need to be humble and talk to more but right people about your problem. You need to take constructive feedback from your adviser. You need to think how you could have done things differently and do them.

6. Finally, its something I see more clearly as I make progress. Nobody who succeeded had it easy. We only see the papers at conferences, we do not know how many times each paper was rejected! We dont know how many hours they spent in reviewing and re-reviewing their papers! You dont know anything but the title and abstract of paper! Success does not come easy, that does not mean you should not try at all! This is the only way to learn. You will learn and get there — eventually.

Thats all. Im writing another intro! 🙂 Chao.

#startnew New year biweekly update !!

Well, I am not keeping up with every 2 weeks trying to do something new. But following is a status update.

Last week of Jan : I started wearing skirts. First time in my life! Well. Its girlish talk so I am sorry. But surprisingly it was due to a medical reason. You see I had a surgery in December only the doctor told me to stop wearing denims or at least avoid rough cloth on skin! So, here comes something new.

Mid Feb : Its been a while but I ordered groceries online, went for Chinese new year to Trafalgar square. New haan? And I ordered grape fruit. Interesting fruit very interesting fruit!

Late Feb : Join a gym and RUN. So I have started running again only now 3 times a week and 20 mins each time. I need to loose weight, especially with so much leg show off in a skirt! And I’m getting there. Now I run (its a monthly status thing, I think) at 8km/hr for 20 mins straight. And its been good! I also went to a hackathon at Facebook. Enjoyed it. Got reminded of why I liked coding if I ever did.

Early March : Fight with my prof to change my problem! I give up. I will apply machine learning models in my next life. This life is dedicated to useless problems and experiments just to take an Idea of a phd you see! For my phd in next life time, I will work with likes of Jordan or Ng. God bless me.

Mid March : Buy another skirt 😀 .. And Yes I have decided to work on mobiles now. So I will study search behaviour on small screens. My first user study.  Order more food online. No grape fruit but more kiwis :D.

Late March : I am organizing a competition at TREC this year : The Tasks Track. Write up a webapp for the same. I enjoyed playing with Node js and express. Very cool and handy!

Im trying to keep my spirit high. And im hoping to get there. Well today am out for food and drinks (hopefully more drink than food, have to go running tomorrow!).

Chao

friends

#WithFriends :: Learning with Friends

Well this is not a self help post. Its more of jotting down learning post.

I am a big fan of Friends, the series, yes that over 10 years long and over 10 years old series. I recommend it to everyone. Not because it has some of my favourite actors but because it can show you so many things that are right with your life. It can teach you so many things that House or Mentalist just dont get.

This is my second innings with them. And I keep seeing things I never noticed before. I never moved past the actors. But I realize now its not the actors but the characters. So much in their story is so inspiring. I love each one of them (well chandler is my favourite!!). And I am not obsessing about them, by the way! Its not a phD students take on them. So no abstracts, experiments or conclusions. But a short summary.

So here it is:

Individuals

You should at some point follow your passion. Both Rachel and Chandler get to it eventually in their life. Both worked in areas they hated or were not naturally good at. And later moved (via small baby steps) to acceptable work environments. It takes a lot of courage to recognize and act on your desires and ambitions for your life. They both overcome the fear of failure. I’m having trouble placing and pacing my PhD for that very reason. I always thought if I have not done it till now how will I do it in future. They prove that hypothesis wrong!

Also you may have to start at the bottom of the ladder. Chandler starts with an unpaid job. I cannot imagine doing that. But he loves his work so much he does it anyway. I do not have that commitment towards my aspirations. Im starting to build it.

Forgiving and taking things in stride. Well Im not good at either. I forgive slowly and I dont know how to take things lightly. Everyone at some point fights with the other. But they are quick to forgive and love each other the same way again. And we are talking about serious stuff, Chandler taking away Joey’s Girlfriend, Rachel moving out of Monica’s apartment and Phoebe’s apartment on fire cause of Rachel. Phoebe forgives her own mother and father at some point in the series. This is serious. I have to work on this. Hopefully will improve with time.

Appreciation, at some point or the other, each one of them appreciates the other, whether or not they are in a relationship. Again, appreciating and thanking others is not natural to everyone. Nonetheless one should try to cultivate this habit.

Not taking oneself too seriously. All of them laugh at themselves at one point or other in the series. One of the many perils of doing a PhD is that you start to take life and yourself very seriously. You forget that is NOT your entire life. It will involve a lot of ups and downs. I just asked a postdoc in my group how she got through her PhD. Her answer was ‘alot of Drinking’! I dont consider that to be healthy. There is a world beyond PhD. there are your ambitions/goals other than a PhD. I get too depressed too quickly. I am beginning to remind myself every now and then that this is the means not the end!

Shall I continue talking about relationships in next post ? I have to meet my advisor soon 😦

Tschüs!

#startNew — Whats ‘new’ with the new year ?

I kept thinking all December 2014, I will plan for 2015, I will set my priorities (in research) right and obviously I will think about more ingenious problems to work on. Fast forward December and most of January, its 19th and I’m still thinking maybe I can plan soon. Maybe if I think hard enough for 2-3 days I will have some problem or I will get clarity of what I want from this year.

The more I think about thinking, the less I want to think and just stay in that limbo I’m used to — Find more experiments for my problem, find more data from my problem and obviously keep a track of who else is publishing on my problem. Notice how possessive I am about my problem (its mine! I can smell LOTR here)! Sometimes this is overwhelming and I wonder what is NEW in the new year. There has to be something new! There has to be some precursor for change! Somethings have to be set in motion to reach my goals. But then again what are my goals ?

With this post (Now it feels like I’m writing an abstract to a paper!), I explore what plans to make for the year. How concrete should they be. Can I devise some rule/s to structure my thoughts so that I take more action and am happier this year.

Newness in work or personal life ? What needs change or what needs tweaking. Do I work more or party more ? I certainly want to party more, for that I need to make friends and for that I will perhaps need more time from my work or do I ?

Well I have the first point now.
1. Newness at work —

  • I will not work longer than 1 hour at a stretch, my eyes and brain both need rest!
  • I will write something new at least for 10 min a day! I need to work on this, being a research student, writing is so important not only for expression but clarity.
  • Summarize the new papers I read, make a list of smarter papers and list of crap ones, to know do’s and dont’s of my area
  • Learn something new within a stipulated time! I tend to drag things for months. So anything that I start now will have a deadline. A week or two week but MUST have a deadline.
  • 80-20 Rule. Invest 80% time in thinking, formulating experiments and 20% in execution. I can code quickly. So this new rule should help.

2. Newness in self —

  • So for starters I will adopt a 2 week rule, go out once in two weeks, whether it is for that jog my body needs or the chocolate ice-cream I have been craving or just go shop!
  • Every 3 months I will get some new clothes for myself. Being in london I should treat myself with this luxury!
  • I will learn to cook something new once a month. More often than that will annoy me! And cook something with new ingredients.
  • And finally work on my hairstyle, I will do something new once in 2 weeks again.

3. Newness in behavior with others —

  • I need to be on time. Well this isnt new but required. Respect time. Reach places on time!
  • Listen More and speak less. I am a chatterbox. Need to change that now.
  • And lastly not judge quickly. I am a quick judger this will change.

This much planning and newness should be good enough. One more thing let me write 2 week update about how new things are!

Chao

What do we mean when …

Well I realized this when I was submitting our short paper for CIKM this year. Apparently, it got in. They dint find it as shitty as I did!

Nevermind, So there is a certain use of language in research, its a language that hides well the reality of our results, experiments and our understanding of the problem and the proposed solution. Its a clever veil to keep others at a distance, so that we do not face the criticism that we know we should!

When authors write:

[Abstract] Our method performs exceptionally, fairly or significantly better ==> Well we all know these adjectives have degrees. Exceptionally means, well we nailed it, we took either such simple baselines or such poor methods that any thought into the approach had to beat the previous numbers. Fairly means, we tried and tried, but our approach works only either for some datasets or by tuning parameters you don’t want to waste time tuning. Significant isn’t an English usage, is more statistical here. Statistical significance is only mentioned because we couldn’t use grand words for our results. We say statistically significant because it was time we submitted this work and it isn’t going anywhere. Plus we are making effort to conduct such tests. You cant reject the paper on ‘No statistical significance checks!’.

[Conclusion] We leave X,Y and Z for future work ==> This paper on its own was a lot to take. We leave the onus on other over enthusiastic students to not only verify our findings but to see the faults we see so clearly that they are willing to write another paper on this subject. The other (and often) explanation == We oversimplified our problem to such a level its not realistic anymore, making it realistic, testing it on real data or with proper model is definitely this guys PhD!

[Experiments] We tuned X, Y Z methods and report results of A, B, C ==> This is actually a warning. We tried bits and pieces, it dint work. And we are already struggling with grammar checks on this paper, we dint have space or time to mention more failures. And we are only mentioning it here so that you know that we know such things can be done (well they dint work!) and we are letting you know with as little words as possible.

[Related Work] Previous work A, B, C is very close to ours in D, E, F ==> This is sweeping things under the rug. And if you happen to review a paper with alot of such statements please do check the D, E and F. They would be probably different just by an inch. This is also an admission of guilt of some sorts. Its like these people built this first, but I find this idea so fascinating that i still work on this, and im just modifying (or borrowing) their idea to do something more insignificant.

[Approach] We assume parameters A, B and C for simplification ==> This isn’t a simplification. Its a complication you have no idea about. Read on and our experiments will tell you in detail about how much pain have these parameters caused. So much for the enthusiasm to join grad school to do research on cool stuff!

I will update these as and when I encounter them or use them in my papers!