The Optimizer's Guide to a Good Life

Here, I write about how to live a good life, mindfulness and meditation, and real-life data-driven decision-making under uncertainty. Though the freqency of updates depends on how busy I am at the moment. Just sign up for the email newsletter if you want to be notified super-infrequently.

Recent posts:

Don’t be number one – reflection on the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been wanting to write about the passing of Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH; 一行禅师), a Buddhist monk and leader of global peace movement during the Vietnam War. Though I never met him, TNH’s influence on me has been profound. Today, I finally fought off the procrastination monster within and updated my blog with this – a new post since a while ago. I will loosely touch on some thoughts about leadership and our Asian heritage. None of what I write here will be peer reviewed or read by another person, what a relief!

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When you can't optimize

In previous posts, I have been talking about decision-making through the lens of mathematical optimization. Heck, I even gave a formula for real-life decision-making. But the crucial question is, what if we can’t implement the optimized decision? What if we are in the heat of the moment and cannot think it through?

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Being Machiavellian is not optimal

We all know those people: they seem to be smart, or so they think. They always nudge people towards what’s good for them. They always have a hidden agenda when talking to you. They seem to have gotten ahead in life, and make you question why the world is so unfair.

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Some random books I loved

Upon the mention from a friend, here are some random books I enjoyed:

  • Antifragile: Taleb’s version of the optimizer’s guide to the good life. This installment in his book series populated what he called the “barbell strategy” to decision-making. It’s a pretty interesting heuristic.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin: This mind-bloooowing trilogy makes me think about why we live as a species, generations after generations, and how much our civilization has left in the tank. I read the Chinese version, obviously, but I also heard great things about the English version.
  • The Evolution Of Desire by David Buss: A rational view of love and desire.
  • Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin: It’s like robust optimization applied to personal finance. It’s about saving money and our freedom. I love the analogy that good financial habits are like a dam, storing your life’s energy to one day power truly important things in life.
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Treating life's frustration as an optimization problem

It is the end of a long day, and you just wrapped up a conference tour. Almost boarding the last leg of your flight, you will soon be embraced with that familiar place called home, sipping your camomile tea and curling up with a favorite book in hand. Until the moment you were told that the flight had issues and would not arrive for another four hours and that you will be spending the chunk of the evening at the airport.

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A good life, what this is about

There is no shortage of takes on decision-making in the popular sphere, such as from the social psychology perspectives (see book 1, book 2). While I appreciate reading those authors’ painstaking efforts to back up the arguments with empirical data, I often felt something missing. The statistical associations from typical studies are, at most, statistical associations. Yet, decision-making uncertainty requires us to understand the model and dynamics of the world. Furthermore, there does not seem to be a practical system for decision-making as a means to a good life rooted in sound logic. For those who are mathematically minded, statements like if you do X, you will be 15% happier are certainly cringeworthy.

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