Measuring Progress

Almost two decades through formal schooling ingrains a strict sense of progress in my mind. There were exams, essays, assignments, all with deadlines that were more or less immovable, some teachers that were more or less inflexible, and some material that was more or less unmotivated. I’ve swam for so long in this world that if I’m not careful, I find myself sinking into it again. I’ve internalised systems of worth that drown creativity in the service of somewhat arbitrary metrics, transforming time from something I live to something I have.

For most of my education, I’ve never had to think too profoundly about what would come next. The successor of this year was next year, just with new curricula, new assignments, and some new faces. When confronting the yearly barrage of schoolwork, it’s actually easier not to consider the future or any broader goals; there’s just no time, not to mention that focusing on artificial markers of progress can even be satisfying. The pace of our digital world may have encouraged short-term gratification, but the education system is plausibly culpable too. If for more than a decade the vast majority of our waking hours is spent in pursuit of grades that ostensibly correlate with a superior, hypothetical future, why might we not eventually conflate the two, perhaps even prefer the former’s clarity over the latter’s uncertainty? At times, I treated grades like a game: if I did well enough, I could bask in the certain pleasure of a level completed. There was little time for the doubts in my head to ask what comes next? because my mind would race straight to the next screen.

The doubts reverberate until they eventually shatter the illusion of progress. For me, my echoes started becoming unbearable after my second or third year of university, when I had to reach a conclusion about what I would do outside of the world of grades. An overwhelming thought during this time was that that I hadn’t made the best use of my time during my education. Although the phrasing of this anxiety presupposes a regimented, quantified conception of time, it lives within a regimented, quantified conception of society. It’s rather ironic that in a system where we are told to decide futures as soon as we can, our education inhibits us from choosing more informed lives. I’m quite fortunate and privileged to have found a meaningful, somewhat stable path now, but it didn’t have to be this way. The echo chamber could have been more durable, my alternatives more unpalatable, or my support more reticent.

Although the constituents of progress disintegrated, I am still drawn to the missing pieces. In research-based graduate programs, visible indicators of progress are less frequent, less obvious. When not submitting papers for publication or giving talks–which admittedly are not themselves frequent–I read, think about what I’ve read, write some code, and read some more. The passage of time in research is less punctuated than during the earlier years of my education; there is no grade for a paper read, no gold star for an idea pondered, and no report card for a program written. I do keep a daily research journal to record ideas and as a todo list, but it remains difficult to stitch together a coherent narrative of progress, maybe because one does not exist. I don’t know if the next paper I read will matter to me1. Will it change my work? Will it change my mind about something? Will it lead to a meaningful interaction with other people? If it doesn’t do any of these things immediately, does that mean I’ve wasted my time? The answer to the last question is clearly no, but it’s just as clear that the “yes” might never surface. I might never be able to pinpoint the origin of an idea, just as I’m unable to draw with perfect fidelity the web of interactions that have created the person I am today.

Having no sticks of progress contributes to imposter syndrome. In observing my own apparent “lack of progress”, I observe too keenly the marks that others leave in the sand, most often in the form of publications at top conferences. It’s difficult to peer through the veil of the person we present to the interiority of the being we hide. By nature, I don’t see anybody else’s “lack of progress”–just my own. Despite that many of us must feel like imposters at some point, that I do indeed have my own progress marks, I still feel like I’m swimming catch-up in an ever-expanding sea, the land masses conspiring to become ever more indistinguishable against the horizon. Will this feeling ever subside?

I wonder how much of my motivation comes an inherited sense of deadline. Why do I get up in the morning? I sometimes tell myself that there are people worth helping, that there are problems worth solving, and that there are things worth learning. I believe all of these statements, but conscious belief might not match unconscious conditioning; years of waking up for school instills the idea that if I don’t get up, I will have wasted the day, with less time before the deadline for my work. But which deadline? I am no longer inundated with these daily demands on my attention, so thinking about time in the same way seems outdated.

Nevertheless, I can’t release this pattern of thought. Besides as the imprint of habit, the feeling of not wanting to waste a day helps me actually not to waste a day. I kid myself if I doubt the existence of urgent issues in the world to which I can contribute, in part, to their resolution. In my field, for example, there is urgent need both to combat the discriminatory impacts of AI systems, and to design systems that empower citizens to resist oppressive institutions, rather than ones that permit the powerful to dominate the powerless. The masochistic flavour of this sentiment doesn’t detract from its strength for me; I have the liberty of time and resources, however illusory they may appear in the quotidian.

Thanks to Kevin Wang, Iara Santelices, and Rudra Patel for reading a draft of this piece.

  1. This fact is why I tend to skim papers, before reading them more carefully if I think they’re important. ↩︎

Alan Chan
Alan Chan
PhD Student

I’m a PhD student at Mila, where I think about AI safety. I’d be happy to have a chat!