February 8th, 2008

Future plans.

So... i'm trying to organize my thoughts on what to do with my life. I've been out of school for a month, interviewing for jobs and coming up with project ideas. I decided that writing might help me sort this out, so i'm going to do some of my thinking here, in the open. I invite your reactions and opinions — some of you know me very well, and your feedback could help me out.


First, a little bit about what i'm looking for.

I am convinced that a capable computer programmer can build things of great benefit to the world. I'm not trying to be arrogant; i just think it's true because software and networking enable inventions to spread at incredible speed, and a single person can launch one with nothing more than a laptop and an Internet connection. The software industry is unique in this respect. It only took one person to invent HTML and two people to start Google or Wikipedia. Individual programmers have created things as powerful as Napster (at age 19), Facebook (at age 20?), and BitTorrent (at age 26). So, from a certain perspective, i'm already way behind the game in terms of fulfilling potential.

That's my primary goal: for my existence to have yielded things of benefit to the world — hopefully, of significant benefit to many people. That means my decisions hinge on a calculus of benefit, which is of course a complicated and subjective thing. I often find myself feeling like the stonecutter in the fable as i chase down chains of logic trying to figure out how to achieve maximum benefit. In any case, my current line of thinking is that there are five factors in choosing the most beneficial option:
  1. number of people who benefit
  2. degree of impact of the project
  3. degree of my personal impact on the project
  4. likelihood of success
  5. necessity of my participation
The first three factors are straightforward: the bigger the better (i.e. greater contribution and greater fulfillment). But the fourth, "likelihood of success", is a tricky one: if it's too low, i am likely to be wasting my time on something that won't benefit anyone. If it's too high, then it interacts with the last factor: if a project is already certain to succeed, with or without my help, then contributing my help adds nothing.

The last factor implies that there has to be something about my skills that fits the project — if the job i do is something that would have been done by someone else anyway, then my choice to join the project has little effect. And the ultimate choice, in terms of the last factor, would be to start and launch something of my own, provided it doesn't duplicate something that already exists.

I think of these five factors as combining in a roughly multiplicative way — a × b × c × d × e is the approximate expected utility of making a particular career choice. (Let me know if you notice factors i've forgotten.) Notwithstanding all that, i am biased toward projects that benefit a large number of people and/or people who are less fortunate. I don't know to what extent this is because they are truly more useful, or because i want to be famous or seen as noble. But whatever the reason, it matters to me to do work whose benefit most people can understand.

What is the most important problem?

There's a saying about how to win a game of Go: simply always make the biggest move. Each stone you play will affect the final score somehow; if you choose moves that are worth more than your opponent's moves, you're bound to win. The hard part is evaluating what each move is worth.

I don't expect to save the world by myself, but i'll get further if i have the conviction to focus on something rather than dabbling in a lot of different projects. So, i feel it's time for me to pick a big problem to attack, and after i've chosen it, to go as far down that road as possible. The question is what problem to choose.

Below are some possible answers, presented as arguments by imaginary people (members of the committee in my head, you might say). I've also broken these out into top-level comments by me below so you can comment on them individually.

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Your opinions here...

Which answer sounds the most compelling to you? Are there other good options i've failed to identify? I'm interested in your thoughts.

Update: I've already received several suggestions of the form, "Do what you enjoy." It's good advice, yes, but i should probably explain why i've intentionally left that out of this particular analysis:
  • For me, enjoyment and motivation go hand in hand. If i realize that what i'm doing isn't that significant after all, the motivation will go away and i'll stop enjoying it. So part of the point of this exercise is to construct an argument strong enough for whatever choice i make, such that i can maintain conviction in my choice and continue to enjoy it, long enough to actually achieve something.
  • Also, there's something that feels intellectually dishonest about choosing an answer just because i like it rather than because it's right. I'm hoping to find more solid grounding for my decision.