Sunday, October 05, 2008

On the notion of heroes

Paul Graham describes his personal heroes as those who've had a tremendous positive influence on his life. When making decisions, he'd ask what they would do when faced with the same situation. This, he states, is a stricter definition than just admiration. I generally agree with his description. His list of heroes (and justification thereof) was a fun read. I imagine it was also fun coming up with the list, so I figured I'd do the same.

Given that my accumulated wisdom cannot hope to match his, this list will probably be far less impressive. I'll also use a slightly different definition of heroism. My quarter-century of experience has been fraught with personal paradigm shifts. As a research oriented academic (or maybe it's academically oriented researcher), I probably value clarity of thought and purpose more than most people. The people I list below are those who have positively influenced my outlook and approach on life, the universe, and pretty much everything. It's impossible to provide a comprehensive list, so think of these as my personal all-stars.

My high school friends - I've been very fortunate to have found lasting friendships dating back to my IMSA days. I've known Steve, John and Navreet for over ten years now. We also went to college together. They each pulled me towards different perspectives and have thus (in my humble opinion) made me a better person.

John is almost certainly the most competitive person I've ever known. He's also one of the most practical. He has accomplished much in his brief career, and is always excited to tackle the next problem or learn about the next big thing. He is, in some ways, the most driven person I know -- because he genuinely loves everything he does.

Navreet's basic approach to life (as I understand it) is pretty straightforward: you have to do what makes you happy, and you have to be prepared for when you change your mind. He has always been active about discovering the opportunities that await him. He convinced me to join ACM@UIUC, encouraged me to work on research projects, and asked me to help with Illini Book Exchange. Looking back on my undergraduate experience, those were probably the most meaningful things I'd done during that time.

Steve is the most cerebral of the bunch. We've spent many hours discussing a wide range of topics. I find that talking to him keeps me honest. He challenges my core assumptions and embraces my faults. Indeed, I sometimes treat him as a personal oracle for bullshit detection. We also share very similar hopes for the future. His outlook is generally sunny, and his optimism has proven resilient to life's many challenges.

J.R.R. Tolkien - this is perhaps an acknowledgment to childhood nostalgia. When it comes to quality story-telling, I always use The Lord of the Rings as the standard to compare against. Tolkien started writing these stories as a teenager in the trenches of World War I, and he continued to work on them until his death. He quite literally infused his essence into the lore of Middle Earth. The Tale of Beren and Luthien reflected his own pursuit of the his love, Edith. Like Paul Graham's description of Leonardo, Tolkien did not initially write these stories for public consumption. He wrote them as a tool for personal exploration.

Coincidentally, my love for The Hobbit sparked a love for theater and subsequently choral music. I joined my first choir at the age of 12. To this day, I'm still an active choral member (now with the Cornell University Glee Club).

Isaac Newton - I found Paul Graham's description of Newton very compelling, and it's worth repeating it here:
Newton has a strange role in my pantheon of heroes: he's the one I reproach myself with. He worked on big things, at least for part of his life. It's so easy to get distracted working on small stuff. The questions you're answering are pleasantly familiar. You get immediate rewards—in fact, you get bigger rewards in your time if you work on matters of passing importance. But I'm uncomfortably aware that this is the route to well-deserved obscurity.

To do really great things, you have to seek out questions people didn't even realize were questions. There have probably been other people who did this as well as Newton, for their time, but Newton is my model of this kind of thought. I can just begin to understand what it must have felt like for him.

You only get one life. Why not do something huge? The phrase "paradigm shift" is overused now, but Kuhn was onto something. And you know more are out there, separated from us by what will later seem a surprisingly thin wall of laziness and stupidity. If we work like Newton.
Daring to dream big is almost a necessity in many areas of research. Our intellectual and technological progress now defines our evolution. Which leads me to...

Aubrey de Grey - A computer scientist turned biologist. The leader of the Methuselah Foundation. Champion of the SENS platform. History will judge him to be either a hero or a fool. At least he cares enough to try.

Professors at Cornell - While dreaming big is great in the abstract, the implementation requires attention to details and an understanding of the fundamentals. Some people get caught up in the big ideas and are out of touch with reality. Others are mired in the details and cannot contemplate the bigger picture.

Since arriving at Cornell, I've received some of the best education and mentoring that can be reasonably expected, and have learned to somewhat bridge this gap. Most of the credit, of course, goes to my advisor, but I'm also appreciative of the Kleinberg brothers and others at Cornell as well.

Dwight Schrute - oh yeah.

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