Stoic emotions

What an oxymoronic title, you might think. Many often relate the term stoic, to being emotionless or indifferent to emotions, through no fault of their own of course. For that is how the definition of this term has evolved over time in the English language. From an observer’s perspective of the Stoics, this might seem to be an accurate term, but it’s an oversimplification really.

To understand why the Stoics seemed to appear like emotionless robots in spite of circumstance, let us peer down the deep and fascinating rabbit hole, that is the philosophy of Stoicism. The Stoics believed that everything falls under two broad categories — things within our control, and things beyond our control.

Categorising things this way makes it immediately obvious the pointlessness of worrying or stressing over something. If something is beyond your control, worrying does nothing at all as it wouldn’t change a thing. Whereas if something is within your control, you have the power of changing the outcome. So instead of worrying, take action and steer it toward your desired outcome.

The Stoics believed that one of the most powerful things we have control over is our faculty, our mind. They believe the mind to be a weapon, because when you acknowledge that you are in control of your mind, who can hurt you? No one can tell you what to feel, you decide for yourself how to respond to whatever life might throw at you. Nothing can hinder you from making the most out any situation.

He is most powerful who has power over himself.


Meaningful mandatory module

I just started my second year of school and this semester I’m taking a module that has been prescribed to me — GEQ1000 Asking Questions. This is a module which is mandatory for the majority of students in my school, regardless of faculty. Not only was this a prescribed module, but it was also a pass-fail module. Which meant that you won’t get a grade that affects your Cumulative Average Point (CAP, or GPA in other schools).

Needless to say, the consensus toward a mandatory general education module is that it is not that important and no one’s really interested in modules like these. Being a pass-fail module, that also meant doing the bare minimum required to pass. I did some poking around online, reading the reviews posted by seniors and sure enough, they reflected the said consensus.

I too came into this module with low expectations, all ready to do the bare minimum. But, I was thoroughly surprised by the Philosophy segment in the first two weeks. The prof discussed the need for a module that teaches us something seemingly fundamental — asking questions. He discussed the irony of having a Question pillar as one of the five general education ‘pillars’. Questions often tear things down, while pillars should be doing the opposite.

I’m not going to delve too much into the content of the lectures but I think he did a great job proving the importance of this module, by tearing down numerous assumptions that many have made about the field of science, human nature and other supposedly ‘simple’ things, just by asking us questions. Seriously, more questions than answers were provided! For instance, have you ever wondered what a question truly is? What about the science behind questioning? Is it a sophisticated intellectual ability privy only to us advanced human beings, or something more primal and instinctive, shared by all animals?

So far, I’ve found this module extremely interesting, and even somewhat mind-blowing. But then again it’s only the second week and I might not enjoy the other non-philosophy segments as much. We shall see. I shall end with a quote by Sylvain Bromberger that was mentioned in the lecture.

We find ourselves, as individuals and as communities willy-nilly cast in a world not of our making, in which we want to survive, if possible to thrive, and whose features we want to understand. We start out with little prior information about that world, but we are endowed with the ability to come to know that there are things about it that we don’t know, that is, with the ability to formulate and to entertain questions whose answers we know we do not know. It is an enormously complex ability derived from many auxiliary abilities. And it induces the wish to know the answer to some of these questions. Scientific research represents our most reasonable and responsible way of trying to satisfy that wish. That is its most tenable defining goal…

However, in seeking its goal science repeatedly runs into difficulties. Many of these difficulties are physical in nature and call for the design of new and more powerful instruments. Others are psychological and call for the invention of devices that supplement our memory and our computational powers. Still others, and those are the ones that are relevant here, are intellectual and pertain to our ability to conceive, formulate, consider, connect, and assess questions, and to our ability to conceive, formulate, consider, connect and assess answers. These sorts of difficulties often call for inspiration and creative intelligence. Careful observation and description are not enough.

Sylvain Bromberger, On What We Know We Don’t Know

Product thinking

My recent internship at Taskade has got me thinking quite a bit about products, and from rather different perspectives too. There’s a difference between building something for fun as a hobby and when the product is the business.

From my internship, I begun to see and understand the different considerations that went into building new features. Being an engineer, it’s easy to simply focus on the technical considerations, but there’s really much more that goes into deciding which features to prioritise.

When the product is the business, you can’t focus solely on building features, you have to take business sustainability into account as well. In the early stages that might look like getting investors and sometimes prioritising their needs over your users’ needs.

Slightly further down the road, you should start thinking about creating a profitable business model for your product, maybe in the form of a pro subscription plan, or in-app purchases or even just ads. This bit is tricky because you have to be really clear on how your product adds value to your users, but this might be a topic for another day.

Product thinking from a business standpoint is definitely very different from an engineering standpoint. Both are just as important, and it’s never as simple as building whatever you want, or always building things your users are asking for. I think it’s good for engineers like myself to be able to see the big picture and understand the company’s high level objectives in order to contribute effectively.

Defining success in 2020

I guess everyone wants to be successful, myself included. But first I’ll need to define what success means to me. It’s a question that I have not asked myself in awhile. Thinking about it, my answer now is actually rather different from when I last thought about this a couple years ago.

Back then success to me was doing what I love, working for myself, starting something of my own, and being a somebody. I bought very strongly into the whole pursuing your own dream instead of working hard to help someone else pursue their dream thing. I thought success meant being the next Mark Zuckerberg (back then he wasn’t in so much trouble) or Elon Musk. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the recognition.

And now, success to me still means doing what I love, but the rest is kinda different. On top of doing what I love, I want to have a good work-life balance. As much as I love my job, I still need breaks, and I want to be able to pursue my many hobbies and spend time with the people I love. Because success also means having quality relationships with the people I care about, and having the mental and emotional capacity to go about building these relationships.

Looking back, I realised how much my goals and ideas have changed. Maybe I’m more grounded in reality, or I’ve matured, or I’m afraid of dreaming big. Some would say having work-life balance probably even more unrealistic! But that’s alright, I think its possible and I’ll have much more fun in the process of this pursuit.