The Curse of Optimization


Now that no educational institution binds me to a certain societal structure, the temporal freedom in my life entails more decision-making: What should I do next? From what activity would I derive the most value? But would that activity also bring genuine happiness? Long-term or short-term? How much would that cost, amortized? Okay, I have this, but what if I could get something better?

Optimization is about pursuing the ideal solution given some situation. In fact, the majority of my classes taken at Berkeley centered around some form of optimization. Machine learning, dynamic programming, simulated annealing, particle swarm optimization — there’s an optimization method for every problem and its reducible sibling in the world.

And quite frankly, I’ve been viewing life as an optimization problem. A complicated one, but unsolved nonetheless. A human being is born into an environment with some pros and cons, attempting to take a sequence of actions measured against metrics of success produced by expectations of self and society [1]. What an eerie resemblance of a Bellman equation!

Well, here’s my take on unfulfilled desires of lifelong optimization: realize that life is a gift, not a problem.

I constantly have to remind myself that I don’t actually deserve anything. I am not fundamentally entitled to any ownership at all because I didn’t earn the opportunity to live. Here’s an illustration: If I pay rent to live in an apartment, it is reasonable to think that I deserve to live in that apartment. But when did I pay for life itself?

This is where we can embrace God’s grace with gratitude. Since gratitude requires humility, and humility requires self-awareness, having this mindset of gift-receiving enables me to be grateful without trying to optimize decisions. It’s going to be a lifelong process for me with many failures along the way.

[1] What those metrics are, or the lack thereof, is discussed in other posts of mine.