I Wasn’t Prepared to Work

Before I started working, I lived in my half-basement bedroom of my father’s house. In there, I was equipped with a few large laser printers, a wall covered in dry-erase boards, a few bookshelves, a computer, and a bed. I was perhaps fortunate that between high school and the time I moved out, I wasn’t demanded of much: maybe to keep my room clean and to help out around the house occasionally. As a result of living a cushy life with relatively few pressures, I was allowed to explore and learn things as I pleased. My bedroom was my own intellectual incubator, my own study, and my own library.

During high school and beyond, I was pretty smart. At least, I think so now in hindsight. I learned to program in C and C++, Haskell and Standard ML, Scheme and Common Lisp, and so on. In each of those languages, I’d written substantial things. In fact, I wrote the most substantial code in C and C++: arbitrary precision arithmetic libraries, interpreters, and compilers were my favorite. I had these grand plans for big software projects, and often I’d actually follow through. (Except for Doron, which is monumentally difficult.)

More importantly though, I had a voracious appetite for mathematics. I never achieved expertise in any area of mathematics, but I thought I knew enough to begin writing books about particular subjects. In particular, I started writing a book on computer algebra, since the knowledge in the field is so divvied up and I sought unification.

I recall spending hours rummaging through the theorems of commutative algebra and field theory in order to write more elegant proofs for my book. I remember spending a streak of 12 hours doing dry algebraic manipulations and clever summation computations by hand in order to both usefully construct and prove the following identity I discovered (worked for all positive integers $m$) which came out of a particular integral from physics and probability theory:

0=\sum_{k=0}^{m}\sum_{j=0}^{k+m-1}(-1)^{k}{m \choose k}\frac{[2(k+m)]!}{(k+m)!^{2}}\frac{(k-j+m)!^{2}}{(k-j+m)[2(k-j+m)]!}\frac{1}{2^{k+j+m+1}}\text{.}

I was very adept at algebra and calculus. To a mathematician, such adeptness is probably a boring skill, but it was a skill necessary to do effective experimental mathematics. (To elaborate, experimental mathematics is a lot about discovery and gut feeling. Being able to do algebraic manipulations, on-the-fly, is a valuable skill and decreases the mental bridge between problem and solution.) I was so adept at calculus that I completed a university level multivariable calculus, with coursework, midterms, and a final, in less than a week.

More important though than being adept at mental symbolic manipulation was the insight into creatively solving problems that I had. There is one particular remarkable instance of this that comes to mind, that amazes me to this day, which I’ll try to describe from memory.

When I was 16 or 17, I was exploring the relation $x^y = y^x$, just for the hell of it. What pairs of $(x,y)$ satisfied that relation? I boiled the problem down to studying the function $f(x) = x^{1/x}$. I started off doing some typical surveying, such as finding extrema.

During my surveying, I came to the following function:

\delta(x) = x\left[1+\frac{W\left(-\frac{1}{x}\ln x\right)}{\ln x}\right]

where $W$ is the Lambert-$W$ function (a non-elementary function which comes up when solving equations such as $y = x^x$). When I plotted this function, it appeared that it was approaching an asymptote, specifically $\alpha(x) = x – 1$. But how could I show this? I guess the typical way I’d do this now is to show that $\delta(x) < \alpha(x)$, and then show that $\lim_{x\to\infty}(\alpha(x) - \delta(x))$ vanished. But what did I do instead? Pulled out the fucking big guns and made the following argument:

If we have our point represented as a column vector $p=(x, \delta(x))$, then we can apply a linear transformation $R_\theta$ to rotate that point about the origin clockwise. We get

R_{\theta} p
= \begin{pmatrix} x'(x) \\ \delta'(x) \end{pmatrix}
= \begin{pmatrix} x\cos\theta+\delta(x)\sin\theta \\ \delta(x)\cos\theta-x\sin\theta \end{pmatrix}.

If our hypothesis that the asymptote is to exist, then there must be a $0\le\theta\le\pi/2$ such that

\lim_{x\to\infty} \delta'(x) < \infty.

After a fair bit of simplification and algebraic razzmatazz and handwaving, we get the following limit:

(\cos\theta - \sin\theta)\lim_{x\to\infty} x

At this point, even though from a formal analytic perspective, the limit did not exist, from the informal, given-all-of-my-previous-reasoning perspective, I just had to find the value of $\theta$ that made sure that limit wasn't an issue. And that's just when $\cos\theta = \sin\theta$ which of course is at $\theta=\pi/4$.

Now that I know that we need to rotate the entire plot by $\pi/4$ in order to get a horizontal asymptote, and since $\pi/4$ corresponds to a unit slope, it was just a matter of finding the value of $c$ in the equation $\alpha(x) = x + c$. How did I go about this? I took advantage of the following fact: $c$ must be the value such that the shortest distance between $\alpha$ and $\delta$ at each point approaches $0$. How baroque! Given a line $Ax+By+C = 0$ and a point $(p,q)$, the shortest distance between the point and the line is

\frac{\vert Ap + Bq + C \vert}{\sqrt{A^2+B^2}}.

From this, I came upon the conclusion that the distance between the asymptote and the curve was

d = \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}\vert \delta(x) - x - b \vert.

Great. Similar to the procedure above, take the limit as $x$ approaches infinity, and we get $x = \pm(b+1)/\sqrt{2}$ for $b+1$ positive and non-positive respectively. Therefore, the limit will vanish if $b=-1$, which means our asymptote is $\alpha(x) = x - 1$, demonstrating the original hypothesis!

After all of that, I came up with, through experimental ways, methods for approximating $x^{1/x}$ using rational functions, very reminiscent of Padé approximations.

I've digressed greatly. But my point was that at that time of my life, I guided myself down paths that I thought were extremely interesting and insightful, at least compared to my approaches to things today. While the end result was never very interesting, the path, and the decisions made, were. While I did take advantage of Google, papers, and books, I spent a lot of time exploring and attempting to solve problems on my own.

I was approaching my 20s and I had to get a job. Living at home off of my parents was not sustainable, and wasn’t conducive to a better future.

I began doing non-consulting, full-time work several of years ago. During the span of those years, I have made moves between the plains, the mountains, and the coast. I have learned a good deal (though I don’t claim expertise) about different facets of the tech industry from different perspectives. But I also took a great hit. I got stupid.

Working at any of the companies I’ve been at has never really been an intellectual pursuit, even though such a pursuit was the main driving force in my betterment up until I found work. It has been an exercise in solving a problem using given tools (and often, no more), and doing it quickly. What does that mean? It means I can’t spend 12 hours doing the equivalent of bumbling around finding interesting or ingenious solutions to things, it means I lookup on Google and StackOverflow what the correct way to read in a file line-by-line, copy-paste the code, and modify it. I could definitely write my own, but why bother swapping in that memory when the L2 cache—that is the internet—has it already? Unfortunately, this toxic habit leaked, and I find doing the same thing for other problems I have, including math problems. I have developed the hazardous mindset common in programming, “if it has already been done, why should I do it?” It is a dangerous inverse of Not Invented Here, or NIH syndrome.

With all of the moving around, I could never create the same homely environment as I had previously. While I lived in Colorado, I managed to get a very large schoolhouse chalkboard in my cramped bedroom. It was literally a foot or two away from my bed. I had a very small desk to fit a monitor. I had no printers hooked up. My books were in tall disorderly towers, not on a shelf.

Here in Silicon Valley, it’s even worse. I have an aesthetically nicer place, but I now don’t even have a desk or desktop machine. I type from a small laptop on my couch, being held up by a pillow. I have no room for a chalkboard or whiteboard, unless I wanted to cover up half of my mirrored closet.

But the environment matters a lot less than the fact that when I get home from work—which is a two hour commute each way (sorry, I can’t afford to live in downtown San Francisco)—I just feel like being mentally incapacitated. Occasionally I have a little spark of brilliance (relative, not absolute) that motivates me to write a short bit of code, but the code is never more than one or two hundred lines. It usually consists of some little trick.

How has this affected me? I’ve mentally atrophied. I now feel like I can’t talk about any subject with more than a centimeter of depth. A half a decade ago, I could dive with you to the penetralia of convergence theorems of hypergeometric series, but now I cannot. Even my programming has taken a toll even though I do it every day. I find myself abstaining from studying advanced topics in programming and computer science, and instead sticking to this comfort zone of what I know. I contemplate blaming this last issue on the fact that Silicon Valley is quietly cutthroat; you need to be the best at what you do in order to land jobs at e.g. Google. If I stay in my comfort zone, I am able to keep small unimportant details of a particular language, tool, or implementation in L1 brain cache, which proves useful during interviews. (Feel free to see my last post Interviewing In Silicon Valley on this subject.)

I find both my attention span when I read books, and my ability to comprehend them, has at least decimated. Previously simple equations describing neural network behavior, like
\frac{\partial E}{\partial W_{j,i}} = -a_j\varepsilon_i f’(\mathbf{W}_i\cdot a),
take a while longer to reason about.

In order to repair myself, one of perhaps two things needs to happen: I need to rethink my lifestyle and re-evaluate the boundaries of what I can and cannot do (e.g., can I force a more balanced work-life proportion without getting fired?), or I need to change my domain of work (e.g., get a degree and go into academia or a research lab). Traditional Silicon Valley software engineering certainly isn’t a fulfilling, or healthy, way of life for me right now, but neither of those options appear to be very easy.

I wasn’t prepared to work. My mind wasn’t. Had I known the burden that an average (or above average) job would put forth, I might have re-evaluated my decision to rush off to stuff my bank account.

48 comments to I Wasn’t Prepared to Work

  • Amit

    Obviously, you should sign up to a good graduate school or go work in some research lab. You will begin working on interesting problems again, with a lot of intellectual freedom and other smart people to talk to. It sounds like you feel you’re falling into a trap, it’s not too late to save yourself.

    Also – 4 hours daily commute?? Wow. Even half of that sounds like a nightmare.

  • Jonathan Graehl

    You’re 1. tired and 2. out of shape. Solve 1. by reducing hours, stress, commute; possibly by a vacation, or maybe food+activity can be improved. Solve 2. by practicing whatever it is your interested in. You still benefit from that past learning, even if it seems inaccessible to recall; if you reviewed, you’d reapprehend.

  • Hey Robert!

    This was a fantastic read, thank you so much for sharing.

    Last month I started a Medium collection called How To Be A Polymath, and I think it’s something you might be interested in. There’s just one post in it at the moment – my own as a kind of “polymath’s manifesto”. (I know that the notion of calling anyone a polymath is kind of presumptuous, but I think the principal of continuous education is important, and a word to call someone who strives for that is convenient).

    I’ve made the collection open for anyone to write to, and was hoping you’d be interested in writing something for it? Maybe concerning how you learned things, or (to me more interestingly) what you think went wrong, in a bit more detail, or what you plan on doing to get learning again? Heck, just republishing this if you want?

    Thanks, and I hope to hear from you!

  • Steven Obua

    You might want to sign up to ProofPeer (www.proofpeer.net) once it is in a first usable stage. Send an email to contact@proofpeer.net, and I’ll let you know once it is ready.

  • Programming is like writing. There are different genres. It is possible a person does not writing technical documentation, but likes writing mystery novels. Right now there is a distortion in the market place. There are too many programming jobs and not enough people to fill them. This creates an opportunity to be selective about the kind of program that best fits your mind. Also I would recommend working at a startup where the focus is on results rather than procedures.

  • PTK

    You could consider to quit the job, go live in some more relaxed place, and do your own thing either in academia or on your own. If money is the issue, try keeping things simple and saving some fixed percentage every month. 50% saved after a few years will give you a pretty long runway if you move to a lower expense place.

  • This is amazing. I feel so much like the author, except that I managed to survive, grow two kids, leave my family, my country, come over here, start from the scratch etc, and eventually, gradually, get back to the stuff I’ve been always curious to study.

    Anyway, you probably know the answers to most of the problems you’ve posted here.
    San Francisco… an interesting place where one can waste one’s brains without noticing it.

    Come over to our Bay Area Categories and Types meetup; we are just starting a new round of studying the ground-breaking book, and then get to the essence of things. I do not promise getting to HoTT or to Uniform Foundations, but, weather permitting, we could.

    Thanks a lot anyway!

  • well said. it took me 30 years of programming to reach the conclusions you’ve hit much younger.

    it’s very easy to fall into the trap of the silicon valley programming world thinking you’re doing really smart stuff, only to realize years later that your true thinking skills have atrophied. the easy money is part of the seductive nature, as is the easy work. Consider this method for preserving your sanity and rebuilding mental skills:

    1) Work from home, even if it means halving your salary (which should be really big in SF or you’re not doing it right). that can be as a contractor, or taking employment where you can work from home. This leads to…

    2) Lose the commute. This gives you an extra four hours per day (20 hours per week, if my own brain hasn’t atrophied to the point of be no longer able to do simple multiplication). getting rid of this long commute is a must.

    good luck. I look forward to seeing what bold steps you take. which reminds me of an old saying I just make up, “a commute is too long if it’s anything more, or less, than a few bold steps”

  • John

    You’re a fool. Be grateful for that fact you were able to do something you enjoyed and not work at a shit job like McDonalds. If you spend all the money you earned and still have to work like a dog that has nothing do with with your programming skill but your lack of intelligence.

    It’s like high school valedictorian going to a prestigious university to study Humanity and then complaining why she can’t get a job. Books smarts but not street smart.

    • Toby

      Dear John, Your deep insecurities are showing. You can get help with that, and become a decent human being. Until then, I suggest avoiding making idiotic blog comments.

      • zch

        John does have a point. I think it’s important for all of us to recognize the privileges we’ve had. It is indeed a luxury being able to spend your free time however you want to in high school. I had that luxury, but very few of my friends did. I also had the luxury of not having to work during college. I had the luxury of well-paid internships and research stipends in the summers rather than minimum wage jobs.

        Is it a coincidence that I ended up in a better school? That I did better in school in general? That I ended up with a better job? Honestly, probably not. I worked hard, but so did my friends. I was just given a better starting point. It’s a form of compound interest. A little push in the beginning can have a big effect over time.

        Moreover, someone of the OP’s intelligence *should* be able to monetize that intellectual ability to the extent that at the very least he doesn’t have to commute four hours a day. I wish the OP the best of luck in working out the situation.

        • “Be grateful” is not a point, it’s a demand.

          I am very grateful of the fact I lived a comfortable lifestyle, and I continue to do so. I wouldn’t be where I am today, most likely, without that cushion previously. There is no denying it. There might have been the potential, but it means nothing if it’s not realized.

          But being grateful and being content about one’s current situation aren’t equivalent. If everyone was content with living the bare minimum required to be comfortable, the world wouldn’t be productive.

          To say someone should be able to “monetize that intellectual ability” is borderline nonsense. It either means you think someone smart should be able to do something (like a start up) and become very wealthy. But that’s not true, so surely you don’t believe that. Otherwise you believe someone smart should (or can) have a job. The latter is true in my case.

          Commute times aren’t things you can fix on a whim, especially in a place like Silicon Valley. It is often not possible, or not feasible without repercussions, to get up and just move somewhere closer, especially if one is unsure that will be the place they’ll continue to work at some time period away from now.

          Lastly, whether or not John has a point is nearly irrelevant if he is unable to be respectful or tactful. If he wants to present some logical argument, he doesn’t need to equip it with demeaning baggage.

          • zch

            I didn’t say anything about starting a company or becoming wealthy! You don’t need to be wealthy to share an apartment downtown in San Francisco.

            What I believe is that someone of superlative intelligence (the OP appears to be such a person) should be able to find a job where the compensation is sufficient that one could afford to live closer to work than two hours away. Perhaps I should say that rather than believing this to be true, I simply hope it is true, as I think it’s the way the world should be, at the minimum. But from my limited anecdotal evidence it does indeed appear to be true.

            As for commute times, two hours one way is just too much. It’s worth the effort of relocating or even changing jobs if at all possible. Even if it takes half a year or a whole year to complete the effort, it would be worth it. Four hours of commuting a day is an extreme amount, and very, very few people could do that without suffering some repercussions–I believe some of the dissatisfaction and unhappiness we see in the OP’s post is nearly a direct result of the extreme commute time he is having to endure.

    • foljs

      You’re a fool. Be grateful for that fact you were able to do something you enjoyed and not work at a shit job like McDonalds.


      And why shouldn’t the McDonalds employees not ALSO be grateful for the fact they work there, instead of being unemployed, homeless, or third-world hungry?

      You put up a BS artificial limit to what someone wants to do with his life?

      Jealous much? Sounds like you work in a McDonalds type job.

      If you spend all the money you earned and still have to work like a dog that has nothing do with with your programming skill but your lack of intelligence. It’s like high school valedictorian going to a prestigious university to study Humanity and then complaining why she can’t get a job. Books smarts but not street smart.

      What exactly have you done with your life?

      Except rude and off topic comments on blog posts?

  • dave

    grass is always greener. academia is full of shit too. make sure you know what you want before you jump. otherwise youll end up with the same feeling. you need to find what drives you and do that.

  • Commander Z


  • If you decide to go the academic route, ensure that you are not consigned to low academic value, unpublishable technical work. Some academics—by no means all—have no compunction exploiting the time, energy and labor of others, especially if this gets them out of low academic value work themselves. There are few tenure-track positions in academia in the US, even for someone as technically talented as yourself. As for research positions, some are really technical support and web development positions in disguise, so beware.

    Do what you can to recreate the environment you found conducive to intellectual work, if you want to become an intellectual and not a mental technician, to use Richard Hofstadter’s distinction in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. If you have a choice between changing your environment and exercising will power in an effort to transcend your surroundings, my advice is to change your environment. Practice differential association.

    You can restore the depth you believe you lost. For some, it may take a profound loss, or a series of them to realize what is at stake. But you already know this.

  • erikb85

    It also depends to some degree on your work ethics. The same way you need to push yourself to get anything done after the main problem is solved, you need to push yourself constantly to push your results to the limit. You are probably used to solving the problem at hand, that your team or your department leader gives you. Why not look for problems yourself and convince others how important those problems are? Why not find solutions that solve more then the problem at hand, e.g. instead of simply removing the symptoms of a bug, looking deep into the code base and restructure it in a way that a whole class of bugs can’t emerge, including the bug you should solve?

    I work that way. And for me it’s doing a great job. I usually take longer to solve a given task than my coworkers, but not that much longer that I get fired. But where other’s solutions often yield unexpected bugs, my solutions sometimes yield unexpected features. Whole problem categories that I couldn’t even understand a year ago, belong now to those problems that I can solve in some hours without even mentioning it. I feel very good working that way, because I actually solve interesting problems (the ones hidden underneath the surface), my skills are growing and nothing is better then seeing a surprised smile of a coworkers face, when your solution made their work easier later on, even when they don’t realise that it is a result of your work.

    That is also the disadvantage of my method. Most people, including coworkers and management, don’t really care about improving things. They want to get rid of some symptoms and solve the tasks the person directly above them gives them. Then they want to go home and drink a beer with their friends. They neither care nor understand a desire to improve ones self and the world in general. So the only way for them to accept a working style like that is to make big positive impacts on their lifes. So I can’t fully recommend it to everybody. Just for me it works quite well until now.

  • Colin McCabe

    Why not get a job doing something involving mathematics? For example digital signal processing (DSP). Or study something like computer vision or data science. You could probably take a two-year masters and be good to go.

    If you really care about something, you need to surround yourself with people who feel the same way. Otherwise you will not be happy.

    Also– the people telling you that your commute is absurd are completely correct. Two hours each way? Come on. If you really can’t find a job near where you live, just work from home 4 days a week or something.

  • Sean

    I have an interesting setup at the moment which actually allows for a sustainable lifestyle like you used to have.

    Note I am Australian and here manual labour give high wages.

    Anyway It isn’t too hard to get a dull job (I lift boxes) that you can live comfortably on with only 2/3 shifts a week (Minimalism lifestyle helps), this gives plenty of days off where you can do what you want without any bosses breathing down your neck.

  • w0z

    I too ended up in a big city when I was 23 – earning a bucket load of cash, but had to endure 9 hr work days + 3 hr commute. After 3 months I could hardly think two coherent thoughts in a row. classic city stress. I ended up in India doing a vipassana meditation retreat – 10 days of sitting still, 12 hrs of meditation per day. by day three everything came back & my mind went into overdrive. by day 6 I had solved every coding problem I had ever had. by day 10, pure silence.
    Nothing like a break from the daily grind, to bring back some crystal clear focus. it only took 3 days …

  • LP

    A couple years ago I felt just like you: hated my job, felt like getting dumber every day and got to the point where I simply could not get any pleasure programming.

    I quit my job, switched to a less-stressful one (and better paid!) and joined a University to take a math degree. Now I still hate my job, but the lack of pressure and the amount of free time allows me to follow my intellectual pursuits and I’m much better this way.

    I recommend you to look for other opportunities. Silicon Valley always seemed like living hell to me…

  • Jesse

    If you are working in tech in SF, you can afford to buy a desk and some whiteboards for your apartment. You blame “constant moving” for your poor home setup, but it really doesn’t take much to get those items. Cover up your mirrored closet if you have to, you don’t sound like the kind of person who cares about his appearance. Even if you have large amounts of debt or other financial obligations, carve out enough for an IKEA desk so that you can have at least a space to work at home, it will make a big difference. Physically separating leisure (sofa), work (office) and whatever we call doing math (desk) helps you focus on them each better.

    It’s been several years since I lived in the Bay so I could easily be wrong, but I’d be surprised if you couldn’t move to Oakland or somewhere closer to your work for a similar price as you are paying wherever you live now, so as to reduce your commute.

  • Donn Felker

    As another poster said – work from home and do contracting. Move back to CO or some place you enjoy (or stay in the valley if you like it). Your pay will be less but you’ll have time and more freedom. Time and freedom will do wonders for your psyche.

  • o

    Overwrought self pity with more than a hint of humblebragging. Diagnosis: unforgivable youth.

  • Simon (different one)

    I can relate whole-heartedly. I used to be very adept at mathematics, maybe not as adept as you claim to have been, but it came very easy to me, and I loved using it to solve problems. This is what initially drew me to computer science. I also used to be capable of spitting out a few thousand lines of bug free code per day. Now I google everything, and thanks to 2 years of enforced TDD, can no longer write complex code simply in my head, a skill that used to give me a considerable advantage over my co workers but one I seem to have lost.

    About four years ago, having worked for around 4 years as a software developer, I started on a part-time PhD program. I am still working developing websites during the daytime, but I have been gradually exercising my more analytical side learning machine learning and the accompanying math in my spare time. I very recently was offered a position as a data scientist, which I intend to take, while completing my PhD program. I would recommend one of the following:

    1. Look into going back to school part-time for a Masters or PhD. This means you can still get paid, but can work towards a qualification in something more mathematically inclined (that will lead to such a job). That will also likely involve getting a job with a lesser commute, unless you are able to study during your commute.

    2. See if your current skills and experience can get you are more challenging and interesting job right now. You may qualify as a data scientist if you know enough about machine learning. There is a high demand right now for that sort of thing. Alternatively, you could consider becoming a ‘quant’ and working for a trading company.

    I would definitely change your career trajectory, as soon as possible. It is far better to get paid a fraction of what you make now and feel challenged and fulfilled. Otherwise, you will only regret it as you spend the rest of your life doing a mundane job. Note however that there are not that many jobs where you would be doing the kind of mathematics every day that you crave. There is always academia, which may be the best fit for you. If that is not for you, then I suggest you
    decide what career path you want to follow. Too many people go back to school without a clear end goal in mind, and end up floundering looking for a job once they graduate.

    I would also recommend doing some math problems each day to get back in the habit. Or take a MOOC, Coursera has bunch of good online courses for example.

  • Hello Robert,

    Like the first poster, I also would like to say: It is *not* too late!

    Of course, your situation in life has changed from living with your parents (and being able to learn what you want) to working, which as you say, significantly decreases the time you have for doing interesting things.

    This might be a time to make major life-changes (e.g. move to a different job, move house, leave industry and join academia etc.), or, minor ones like trying to learn new things each day or at least re-learning the things you might have forgotten.

    Great post.



  • Hey,

    Well obviously you need to sort out that commute. As for Academia (which is my route), you certainly do yet opportunity to explore as you wish. But it’s not a silver bullet, and there’s a lot of beuracracy, and a lot of pressure to produce publications (meaning you often have to compromise your ideals). That said, it works for me!

  • bob

    Be (brutally) honest w/ yourself.

    Thinking academia …

    I studied analysis (baby Rudin) under R. Hamilton as a sophmore.
    A Fields Medal wasn’t in the cards for me.
    Algebraic topology remains a “hobby/distraction” for me … (and, uh, trust me, this will never get you hooked up)

    Allow me to suggest you could benefit from a *total* change of “venue”.
    Find others w/ totally unrelated/disparate interests.

    Always … “do no harm” … and continue to learn.
    Simply move forward.

    And, out of sheer necessity, find beauty where others walk past blindly.

  • Totally off the wall solution, but why not consider doing a PhD in Uppsala, Sweden? The tuition there is far lower than any American Universities, you can probably pay a lot of your living expenses doing remote freelancing, and the Swedes will teach you about quality of life. Like eating meals and grabbing a pint with other people at the student pub, cooking from scratch, beautiful bike paths through the countryside, and oh, nice IKEA furniture in student housing (which is probably the nicest housing I’ve ever lived in). I also found my time there got me out of a serious rut.

    Another path is academic IT (different from academia, though you can do both or use academic IT to transition into academia), which I worked in for many years. I worked as a sysadmin and an application developer. The pay might be lower, the projects not that exciting, and sometimes the locations might seem less glamorous, but it’s usually a 9-5 gig and some universities offer free tuition. If you end up in a place with lower housing costs, you can walk to work. For me I was offered a chance to transition from academic IT to academia, but I turned it down since my experiences working in the field gave me a good idea what it was going to be like and I decided it was not for me.

    But no matter what you do, you can’t ignore quality of life: social, sleep, and food needs are things a lot of people in our field would like to just go away, but there is no beating biology– the fact that you are a human being. And even beyond that, human beings do better with a life full of enrichment, whether a nice place to live or a musical hobby or spending a weekend hiking.

    If you stay where you are, you might want to move in with roommates, which is something sometimes the tech sort of people might dread, but in the end when I lived in an expensive city it allowed me to reduce my commute and despite some minor annoyances, I often had fun with my roommates. And I also didn’t have to worry about furniture since I always seemed to find roommates who already had plenty.

    • Be careful about transitioning from academic IT to academia: this is a local career minimum. Academic IT is considered low academic value support work. This is a deeply ingrained attitude. Your work as an academic is evaluated on the basis of publications, teaching and service. Academic IT or technical support for your academic program does not count as service.

      Exhibit A. The Globus Online file transfer service
      “Minimize low-value IT considerations and processes.”

      Exhibit B. Self-Sabotage in the Academic Career from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
      “You want a reputation as helpful, but you can’t afford to let your own work go undone while you spend time helping others. Especially at risk are academics with technical skills. It is very hard to get promoted on the basis of the technical skills you used to help your colleagues.”

      Exhibit C. If you are busy with academic IT, you probably aren’t networking.
      No one bothered to tell me any of this, or if they did, I was too busy cleaning the digital bedpans of successful academics to notice.

      Exhibit D. Naming is of the utmost importance to bureaucrats.
      Academic IT support personnel are administrators, not academics.

      Exhibit E. My own humiliating experience.
      The path from academic IT to a full-time tenured faculty position exists largely in the mind. This is a pipe dream that will lead to a failed academic career in all probability. In addition to the harsh academic job market, you will have to overcome the impression that you are an IT support person instead of an academic. Attempting to change that impression will be like retraining Pavlov’s dogs.

      Exhibit F. The email of a successful academic looks nothing like that of an academic IT person.
      An academic IT person has requests from professors, students and staff. You might have an email subscription to The Code Project, which borrows articles from Hacker News. You might be required to attend an ITIL course. ITIL, which stands for “Information Technology Indoctrination Library,” is the mind-numbingly platitudinous expression of the frustrated British colonialist bureaucratic impulse. You are a service provider, not an innovator. Your job is to keep the lights on. The inbox of a successful academic is inundated with speaking invitations, requests to review papers, proposal submission deadlines, travel arrangements, communications with editors and collaborators, meetings with high-level academic administrators, meetings with colleagues, interviews with prospective faculty–not to mention the automated email reply to your request for low academic value technical assistance from IT.

  • Salmon Head

    Take a sabbatical in a filthy 3rd wold country, get typhoid fever, malaria and hepatitis and then think about how well off you were back in your basement – wanker.

    • MichaelWH

      Ever been in one of those “filthy 3rd wold” (sic) countries you’re babbling about? Quite frankly I like the people in “filthy 3rd wold” countries much better than complete shitheads like you – cocksucker.

  • Bored Computer Hacker

    I can relate to a lot of this. I started doing reverse engineering at age 13, then went off to university and got a degree in pure mathematics. In the third year of my degree I got burned out, and started doing reverse engineering again. I spent the next five years doing programming and computer security work, until it became extremely boring. For a while, learning computer science and good programming practice was engrossing, until I became a good C++ programmer and then it was just dishing out lines of code on projects that weren’t particularly interesting. Computer security held my interest for another couple of years; at least these skills weren’t systematized, and so learning them was exciting and gave me abilities that were very satisfying and profitable, and which most humans lack. But eventually, I was very good at that too and it was no longer challenging.

    So I took up abstract mathematics again. In particular, program analysis: the application of algebra and formal logic to the analysis of computer programs, provable correctness, etc. At some point I decided that I was done with computer security and programming stuff, and went back to graduate school. What I found was that parts of academia can be very corrupt politically and bereft of novelty. I cannot stand working with incompetent, brown-nosing, ladder-climbing people who went into academia because they were not good enough to make it in the real world. I get bored of reading papers that apply the latest buzzword technology to the latest fad problem and don’t contribute anything. Academic computer security folks inhabit a bizarre alternative reality in which they are good at computer security and have contributed to improving the discipline.

    These days I work part-time as a computer security consultant while writing a mathematics textbook on the side. The work is lucrative enough that I don’t have to do it very often to maintain my cushy savings account. It’s a fine life, but I’m looking for something more sustainable. I’ll let you know if I come up with any better ideas.

  • Zack Morris

    The same thing happened to me, I’m 35 now and can’t even really do calculus anymore. I can reason about what is happening theoretically, but when it comes time to do the math, it eludes me. I had so many semesters of it in college that it should be no trouble, but the problem is that I need a refresher of the first chapter, and then a refresher of the next chapter, on and on until I’ve had a refresher of the entire curriculum. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do refreshers, so I’ve fallen back to research (get it? re-search?), just finding existing answers and trying to rearrange them in new ways.

    And work destroyed me both mentally and physically. Took a few menial jobs here and there after college and became thoroughly demoralized during the regressive 2000s. There was simply no place for the idealistic ways of truly solving problems that I had been educated for. There was only the quick buck and how to get it. Now I’m too old to begin the training again and float through life, a fish out of water, trying to find whatever metaphor floats my boat and gets me back in the swing of things. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my wandering though, and have renewed optimism that maybe the teen years will have a kind of renaissance and we’ll get back on our feet. Perhaps some better mathematical tools are needed that don’t solve problems specifically, but can give instant refreshers at each step of the process, sort of a way of storing more abilities in the human mind than it was originally designed for. Kind of an analog version of Johnny Mnemonic or the Matrix. You might check into things like SuperMemo, I haven’t tried them but maybe if they were a little more mainstream, it could offload some of our burden into machines so that we could back to the work of brainstorming and not sacrifice our mental health in the process.

  • MSG


    I stumbled upon this post via Hacker News. I have some pertinent, highly relevant advice for you: spend the next year or so and plan for a new career. Trust me. You are burnt out, and this lifestyle will continue to burn you out until you suffer from a mild form of PTSD. I cannot guarantee this will happen to you; but, it has happened to me, and it has also happened to other friends of mine who also happened to work in Silicon Valley as engineers/programmers.

    I am 39. I majored in math and chemistry as an undergrad. I am quite smart as well. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, scored really high on various academic entrance exams, and because of that, I could gain entrance into several notable high IQ societies (although, I digress, I’m not particularly elitist or fond of the concept of IQ). Since 1998, I’ve worked in various programming/IT related gigs. I worked on the movie Final Fantasy for awhile. I got sick of that, moved to Silicon Valley during the dot com boom, and I worked at several start ups eventually landing at a less stressful gig at a large IT company. After living and working in SV, I ended up like you. I just could not think and retain information to save my life. I also suffered from severe burn out. It was due to a combination of the following: living in an area known for major rat race; being involved in an industry and career that is constantly changing near the speed of light (hyperbole, yes, but our industry is a fast moving one); being wired, online, and inundated with constant information all the time–I think the last point is mostly responsible for my fragmented thinking nowadays. After 10 years of that crap, I finally decided to quit and move on.

    Since then, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. When you start to pine for another way of life, it’s time to move on. A lot of people can’t, because they are chained to a house, family, and responsibilities. But, you have none of those. You can move on. Most of my friends in the Valley simply can’t, and most of them are suffering severe burn out. The only one that has moved on was a woman I used to work with a notable research facility near Almaden in San Jose. After 15 years of being a systems engineer, she had had enough. She was never happy doing what she was doing, and it caused a lot of grief in her life. She sought counseling, therapy, all kinds of crap. Ultimately, she realized it was either the money or her happiness. She chose her happiness. She quit, moved back to Indiana, and enrolled in graduate school. She just graduated a few years ago with a Ph.D., and is now an associate researcher. The last time we spoke, she is quite happy with her life now, and said she is still bitter she didn’t make the decision sooner.

    As for myself, I’m on a new path too. I’m also upset that I didn’t jump ship sooner. But, Cest la vie. Anyways, I hope you take this to heart. You sound burnt out. The commute definitely doesn’t help that. But, I think you already know that it’s time to jump ship. Just pull that trigger and do it.

  • JDallas

    I’m at the same point in my life. I went to school for ChemE, but became a software engineer. While the pay is good, the work is, well, work. It’s not particularly exciting, but a nice paycheck is worth it…for now. I now look at some of the equations I use to toss about using tensors and such, and am somewhat dumbfounded.

  • MichaelWH

    I’m only going to give you three words of advice, Robert: Quit. Your. Job.

    Now comes the commentary.

    You know I’ve been where you are now. You don’t want to go where I went (a suicide attempt) as a result. MSG correctly identified this as a form of PTSD. (I disagree that it’s mild.) If you don’t get out now you’re going to burn out to the point that you’ll lose *everything* that made your brain sharp and you’ll likely wind up like me, eternally bitter at an industry that chewed you up, destroyed your mind, then spit (s/p/h/) you out and stepped on you when done.

    Get out now. And I don’t mean “look for a new job, then leave the current one”; I mean “leave your current job, then think about what you want to do after you’ve had a bit of time to heal”. I was fortunate enough when I had my flame-out to have accumulated enough money that I could live really comfortably for a year while I thought about what to do. Even if you lack this buffer zone, however, quit now. Get a menial part-time job somewhere to keep yourself barely afloat while you evaluate your future.

    Incidentally, do not listen to the assholes above demanding that you be “grateful”. Indeed if you meet them in person express your gratitude for their advice via the tender mercies of a plumber’s wrench.

  • I’ve found myself in the same position. I wasn’t as smart as you, but before I had to make a living myself, I’ve been writing pretty ambitious projects. Then my programming was basically reduced to writing glue code between libraries, because it’s the most effective and business-friendly way to accomplish a goal.

    After 10 years, I’ve found an exit from this trap: I specialized in a particular topic, started a business and I’m selling my time as a consultant for very high hourly rates. It’s not that I’m greedy, it’s that I have more time for myself this way and still make a basic living.

    The problem is, my mind became so numb I’m just browsing the internet and doing more sports, while I expected to start some new exciting project. Every new idea I have sounds shallow and seems to be already implemented. This wasn’t a blocker for me when I was 17 and sure that the audio codec I’ve been working on will be better than MP3 and everyone will use it.

  • Igor

    Drop some Acid!

  • Brooks

    A close friend of mine recently went to 80% time (at 80% of full-time pay) in order to help her partner with childcare. My impression is that the “in order to help with childcare” wasn’t a critical part of the deal; her company would have been willing to do this for any good reason.

    Might be worth asking about, at least.

  • Mate,

    I think that after the fact, the best thing you can do is to acknowledge the positive things that have come out of your current work situation, and to use them to your advantage.

    You’ve got a silicon valley job. This means you have a very pretty CV that can land you a job practically anywhere on earth. So here’s what I’d do if I was you:

    Move to New Zealand. Work hours are very reasonable and travel time for me personally is 20-40 minutes to work and 40 minutes back. You have plenty of time to work on your personal projects, and if tertiary education is what you want to do you can fit that into your schedule. IT employers are usually quite flexible around here, allowing you to leave work to attend your classes and make up the time later.

    You only get one shot at life and it’s not worth spending in an environment that detriments your creativity and over all happiness. My 2c, hope it helps :)


  • Samantha Atkins

    Dude, I have a spare room with a large white board and all the wifi you can eat. Come teach me as much as you can about math and spend your time on whatever you like. I can’t afford to pay you and I am in the South Bay but you won’t starve. And there has to be work for you somewhere out in this end of the valley if that is what you want.

    A mind is a terrible thing to waste. I should know. I have been an employee (mostly) in the valley for over 3 decades.

  • George

    Awesome blog.

    y^x = x^y
    y ln x = x ln y
    y / x = ln y / ln x = t
    y = tx AND ln y = t ln x
    y = tx AND y = x^t
    (t^(1/(t-1)), t^(1 + 1/(t-1))), t is real (whatever the constraints are)

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