Individuality

Three years ago, I went through a period fraught with personal difficulties. A relationship I was deeply invested in broke apart, my wrist got fractured playing handball, and my mom lost her job amidst the natural state of depression that defined my life at the time.

Something interested emerged from the chaos, however. Forced to acknowledge that happiness was impossible (whatever the ever optimist marketers might be saying…), I had to ask myself if there was a life beyond it. At the time, I felt that If life was all about happiness, mine was pretty much over. But maybe, there was another way to live in which experiencing suffering and pain was not synonymous with failure.

As it happened, I spent Christmas and New Years Eve alone in Oxford, far away from friends and family. This period offered me much needed solitude to think about the question above. I slowly came to realize that the suffering was fine as long as I was growing as a person. If only I could just get to the end of the academic year successfully, without giving up and without adopting useless identities (such as “mentally ill”, “depressed”, etc.; fortunately I only needed to think about this just thought in order to dispel it). If only I survived and managed to thrive despite (thanks to?) the suffering, then I would be content.

Thus, I spent the evening of New Years Eve writing about the inherent contradiction I saw between seeking happiness and seeking growth. To be happy was to look into the present (or the past) and stay still in perception. It was essentially a passive yet conscious meditative state. On the other hand, to grow was to struggle against reality and either win or learn from the mistakes. It was at times painful, at times not, but always active and subject to a purpose.

The contradiction was in the opposite directions the two ideals were pulling. Action vs non-action, acceptance vs change, non-purpose vs purpose. As everybody knows intuitively, to truly grow in anything requires many sacrifices of pleasure and present joy. And conversely, to be truly happy, one cannot be too preoccupied with making progress; one must let go.

In a moment of epiphany, I consciously realized this deep truth and set go to explore the consequences. What if I embraced my pain and used it to grow instead of wallowing that happiness was being unfairly taken away from me? Both points of view were on the table, but only one really kept me truly alive. If nothing else, adopting a growth-based mindset was the most practical solution to my problems at the time.

In any case, while in Oxford I made my choice to pursue growth and live with the blues if necessary. It worked well — I matured significantly over this period and became more resilient to life’s downs. Crucially, I confirmed my doubt that happiness was overhyped. A great life wasn’t necessarily based around a pursuit of happiness (although it’d be a shame not to enjoy it from time to time). I saw that one could well be more than content with pursuing his/her ambitions and let happiness happen if it should or not if it shouldn’t. Continue reading The non-Wisdom of looking for Happiness instead of Meaning

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At the occasional moments when sexuality transcends the confines of one of society’s greatest taboos, it is often spoken in the context merely of a physical act. 

Indeed, in an attempt to redeem as much as possible from the realm of the sexual, we have ended up with a conception of sexuality too narrow and uninteresting. As a result, we do many sexual actions  such as dressing provocatively, staying in shape, covertly flirting while at the same time feeling the inner need to deny their sexual character.

In the past few years, analytical as I am, I have been thinking a lot about sexuality. More precisely, I have been pondering what a life looks like that takes the sexual just as seriously as, say, a pursuit of knowledge or beauty. Elevating sex to such a high degree might seem a strange thing to do, but for me such a view has been the result of a rejection of religious norms and an honest introspective look at what it is that makes my life enjoyable. The way I look at it is this: virtually everyone enjoys sex, but few consciously design parts of their life around it.

Consequently, my view of sexuality has broadened up. A deep and careful look into what makes for a good sex has led me to develop or strengthen multiple new interests. Crucially, the act itself, albeit important, has been transformed into a mere culmination of many distinct pursuits — artistic, intellectual, corporal. Continue reading Sexuality beyond the Act

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Many of the most important relationships we all partake in are between us and some sort of a greater community. Whether it be the market, the nation, the language group or a favorite online forum, it is communities that in large part define our lives and experience of the world.

Of course, everybody knows such relationships inherently have two opposing sides. 

One side expresses the ability of communities to foster creativity, encourage sharing, spread wisdom and overall increase well-being. The other expresses the ability of communities to oppress, stifle and hinder individuality as well as divide people in multiple warring sub-factions. 

This dualism inherent to any community has always been a source of great political and philosophical conflict. To take one particular example, individualism has frequently been attacked as selfish, uncaring or blind to the fact that human success depends invariably on the work of others and hence can never be attributed to the individual as such.

Thus, the caricature of the selfish individualist was born, i.e. the one that avoids communal life and thinks him/herself self-made whilst clearly dependent on the cooperation of others.

Politically, all of this ends up expressed as moral accusations of cold-heartedness and ingratitude to the rest of society. Why doesn’t the individualist want to join the rest of society? Why don’t they want to contribute? Why do they avoid being a part of the wider community? Continue reading Individualism and Public Policy: Not all Communities are Horizontal

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I don’t know if mine is a common experience, but I can remember vividly the first moment when I emotionally felt the true significance of death.

I was on the brink of puberty, lying down in bed at night. (as those things usually go). As I was thinking about life and existence, the sudden and forceful realization hit me with emotion:

I was going to perish! My consciousness would one day wither away!

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about death before that. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the word meant. But my knowledge was merely conceptual. It was far removed from the emotional reality of life. 

It would be fair to say that this experience changed my life.

Partly as a result, I subsequently became deeply interested in Christianity. Moreover, I also acquired a fascination for the various views on death that people hold or have held throughout history.

***

As I was enjoying one of my regular walks yesterday, I started thinking about the ways my sense of personal mortality has informed the way I have come to approach my life. 

And although our culture tends to avoid discussing the topic, I find articles about it important, fascinating and thought-provoking. So, this is why I sat down and started writing this…

***

Now, In the west, we don’t like talking much about death. 

And honestly, It’s difficult to judge this cultural decision good or bad:

Maybe it is nothing but a foolish denial of the most basic and certain fact about the human condition? 

Or, maybe it’s potentially the wisest thing one could do — to keep silence about a thing we don’t really understand.

I don’t truly know.

But the fact is, many cultures and religions have focused their attention on death. From the Roman “memento mori” to various religious ideas, death has played an important role in human history.

As I mentioned above, I was first drawn to Christianity as a way of coping with the feelings caused by a deep contemplation of death. 

Ironically, however, Christianity also lead me to an understanding that death might not be so scary after all.

In the end, my animal brain was equally baffled and terrified by both eternal death and eternal life. There is something incredibly mysterious and scary about the prospect of a never-ending existence. (just try to understand what it means that you’ve been born to never die; that there is nothing that will ever be beyond your life because you’ll always be; I don’t know about you, but all of this truly freaks me out!)

Thus, I gradually recognized that death might not be such a bad thing, after all. True, it sucks to die as early as we do now, after less than a hundred years. But compared to living forever, maybe it’s preferable to just leave this world at some point? Maybe  in the final analysis death is acceptable, perhaps even desirable?

***

Fast forward a few years and I was no longer a Christian. 

In the meantime, one of my grandmas had passed away. It was my first close experience with the actual way death happens. Maybe I was too young at the time for it, but I didn’t feel an impulse to cry or mourn excessively. To be frank, life just seemed to change and continue ahead pretty much the same, only grandma was missing. (a fact which was not necessarily that painful after you’ve come to see her life descend into a series of strokes leading to an inability to even stand up straight and walk)

I have often reflected why I reacted so indifferently back then. (especially since I am not sure next time would be the same!)

In recent years, one of my theories has been that I might have just been too young to  appreciate grandma fully. Maybe I just didn’t have time to grow long enough around her and so I consequently found it hard to miss her?

Of course, it all could have been because I just have a natural inclination to accept death easier than most. To be frank about it, I have never really found the dark and painful side of life expressly unnatural. After all, it is no surprise to anyone that life is not all roses. So, what’s the point in suffering needlessly when we get reminded of that fact?

Perhaps this is why my next stop along the way of exploration of death was buddhism and taoism. 

In reading Alan Watts, for example, I came to appreciate the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself. I resonated deeply with many eastern notions. I understood that death didn’t necessarily feel like a tragedy because, well, it had to happen at some point — life just wasn’t going to last forever! Moreover, there was nothing that could really be done about it. Once you were gone, you were gone. Life better move on.

To be frank, having both a Christian and a Buddhist/Taoist interpretation of death is quite the experience. Where one philosophy sees the biggest of tragedies, the other sees just another change along the way, no special and no more tragic than any other. Where one sees the beginning of an eternity for the personal soul, the other sees the end of a temporary illusion of a fake self.

In truth, Buddhist/Taoist views about death can bring great calm. Yet, they also suggest that the whole sense of anxiety is most irrational — there is no self to begin with, so why worry about it ceasing to exist?

At least to my western ears, this was a step too far from my intuitions. I wasn’t ready to believe myself an illusion quite yet.

***

Fast forward once again, and you suddenly find me an undergraduate at Oxford.

My university years were generally a continuation of my teenager fascination with the life lessons of death.

It was during this period that I discovered Stoicism. I read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I learned and understood phrases like “memento mori”. Crucially, I realized that I was not alone in looking for life lessons at seemingly the unlikeliest of places — death — the only place totally devoid of any life by definition.

It wasn’t just the discovery of stoicism, however, that my university years gifted me with.

I also saw that the lessons of death do not necessarily come after, but before it as well. In other words, I discovered how wise old people can be. 

Indeed, up until that point I had been a lot more irreverent in my attitude towards the old. I just didn’t see why age should matter as to how wise an opinion is. I guess what I learned was not that age matters per se, but that life experience does. By the time I got to university, I had had time to pose myself enough big questions (should you marry? should you have kids? should you care about money or lifestyle first? etc.) that the opinion of those on the other side of life started to acquire greater and greater significance for me.

Still, perhaps the most interesting development of my university and post-university years was that for the first time I started to consciously resist the passage of time.

Of course, attempting to do so was futile, non-sensical and certainly impossible. Yet, wanting to push back the seconds and retain my youth forever was definitely a very real internal experience for me…

Granted, even now, one year later, I am still in the beginning of life. Nonetheless, I am slowly finding myself in an unknown, aged world.  Many people associate the innocence of youth with a lack of sexuality, but I have to see it in more than just that. There is also the innocence of not having to think about your eating “right”, exercising or arranging regular check-ups for various diseases. In a way, for the first time I am starting to feel that life is not just about living, but about preserving living as well. 

And all that is totally new…

Of course, none of the above considerations are ever-present in my mind. Yet, they are starting to visit me more and more frequently. 

One of my high school teachers used to say “Every second we are always dying”. I remember finding the phrase too grim years ago. Now, I believe I am starting to understand its meaning.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that I now expect the next revelation about death the future will bring me without much fear. I wonder what my 30, 40, 50, … year-old selfs would have to say on the topic of death. I wonder what revisions they would make to this article..

Until the next revelation, however, I, like many others, will keep entertaining hopes that my generation will finally be the one to beat aging and live to 150, 200, or even more. 

Frankly speaking, without the promises of religion and away from the Buddhist whispers that there is no self, it seems that the only remaining hope of saving oneself from death marches under the joint flags and harmonious sounds  of science and technology. 

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical. Am I not just discovering late a millennia-old vain desire of immortality? Am I not back where I started — lying in bed, thinking about death and, yet again, finding it terrifying?

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A few months ago, I learned that one of the people I follow in the podcasting world lives with basically no possessions, moving from one airbnb to another every few weeks.

I was naturally intrigued by this lifestyle. And that’s hardly a surprise since whatever the way you try to describe such a lifestyle, unconventional would certainly be part of the deal.

I have since learned that there is a whole community online of people following a similar path. They call themselves minimalists and are happy to share their story and philosophy with the wider world.

So, I read some of their articles…

And I just couldn’t get that excited about the whole thing. 

In the end, it just didn’t quite ring true to my ears. 

Here’s why.

Less is More Fundamentalism

To begin with the easiest and most general objection first, some minimalists are almost fanatical about the idea of owning less.

Now, if people playfully competed with each other about who of them lives with less, then maybe the whole thing could be shrugged off as just an inside joke, i.e. the minimalist community’s banter. 

But we know people can easily go down weird rabbit holes and commit to unhealthy ideologies and beliefs. Living with less strikes me as exactly that kind of thing. 

Clearly, the extremes forms of living with less are pretty unhealthy. One could subsist and live minimally somewhere along the border between life and death, but what’s the point? Why become a fundamentalist and deprive yourself of pleasures? 

It might be few who are actually doing that (for various reasons, some of which I’ll cover down below), but the whole idea of judging life by the number of your possessions is bizarre and potentially dangerous. One can do without many things, even one’s limbs for example, but what’s the point? Less is not always more.

Is Minimalism about the Right Balance?

Now, the above is certainly something many intelligent minimalists realize. To them, minimalism is not expressed by the maxim “less is more (always and forever)”. Instead, to them minimalism is more of a tool for personal liberation which functions only because wellbeing happens to be correlated with owning less. In other words, this minimalism is not a dogmatic belief in simplicity for its own sake, but an evidence-based philosophy that promises a greater wellbeing.

Frankly, this is the kind of approach to minimalism that appeals to me on a gut level. That is not to say it has no flaws. Rather, it it to say that I find that doing or owning less can sometimes indeed correlate with an improvement in wellbeing. For example, while at university, I felt much better once I stopped trying to be at as many events as possible. As soon as I allowed myself some free time to think and reflect, my life quality improved. 

Yet, I think this only happened because my life balance was so off at the time that any change towards doing less would have worked. 

In a sense, if I have misunderstood minimalism and it really just stands for basic moderation in life,  then great. I cannot argue with this sentiment. Cognitive overload and overwhelm only lead to burnout and any life philosophy that avoids them successfully is a winner in my book. To give one more university example, exam period was always stressful for me because of how unnatural it was — humans, especially young ones, are not made to sit and read books all day…

However, if the above is true, then it certainly casts doubt on the name of the philosophy. Unless humans are all (unbeknownst to them) terribly overwhelmed by normal, everyday life, then minimalism is at best a misnomer. True, moderationism hardly sounds as catchy, but I think it’d better represent the above approach. Moreover, it would not tempt people into any unhealthy extremes. (it’s truly hard to be a radical moderate!)

Dealing wisely with Complexity

Nevertheless, I don’t think minimalists got confused in naming their philosophy.

So, I will assume that some of them indeed argue that normal life is overwhelming. In fact, I have seen quite a few posts suggesting as much. Countless bills, excessive material desires, stressful communal commitments — all of those seem to go rub minimalists the wrong way.

Once again, I won’t deny there is truth to some of this. Life can get out of hand pretty fast and simplicity makes it all easier to manage. 

But besides the comment on moderation I already made, there is another point of conflict here. If the problem is how to manage the load of normal life, then the intuition and logic of minimalism is far from from obviously true.

For one, minimalism understood this way stands in a marked contrast to other approaches such as the stoic one. Phrased more directly: If the environment is overwhelming, then perhaps the proper solution is to toughen up and simply adapt to it. After all, maybe there is no final escape from the complexity of the modern world save from completely checking out of it. 

Moreover, if our capacity for dealing with complexity is not fixed, then it seems that minimalism threatens to leave us less prepared for it. Of course, maybe a committed minimalist can learn to deal with complexity even in a single one of their pursuits, but it’s unclear whether the skills so acquired would transfer to dealing with the complexities of life should the need for that arise.

Admittedly, this might sound foolish. Why would a minimalist care if they can deal with the complexity they have decided to escape for good? 

Well, in short, because I don’t think minimalists have escaped all complexity forever. To appeal to the popular saying, shit happens. Life can get complicated pretty fast, forcing us to drop old habits or acquire new ones. If people stop exercising in pursuits of their career, then why wouldn’t they drop minimalism if their parents fell sick and they needed to live with them for a while? And that’s just one example out of many…

In the light of this, it seems that adopting a radical position and chasing simplicity might have unintended negative consequences.

The Need for Order

All of the above notwithstanding, I would now like to turn to a desire which I presume is driving at least some minimalists: the desire for order.

Now, it is definitely true that simplicity and a scaling down of life can help establish order. It’s naturally easier to manage two interests rather than twenty.

And as expected, the minimalist solution is to embrace these positive effects of simplicity and achieve order this way. However, it is not clear to me whether this is not ultimately paying too high a cost.

Firstly, it’s not obvious that order is best achieved through the simplicity of owning less. Ultimately, a minimalist (I presume) finds inner freedom in caring less about external things. Yet, this goal can be achieved through many different means — meditation, better systematization, etc. 

In general, I am slightly suspicious of the hippy vibe of philosophies that rave against material objects. My life has been made immensely better for the things I’ve had and I have hurt a lot for the things i haven’t. This is why I am skeptical when minimalists condemn material objects as harshly as they do.

The truth is, I have lived a pretty minimalist choice for years. Only it was not because of some great philosophical love of this lifestyle, but out of necessity. I have gone years now without being able to afford things I know would make me happy — musical instruments, sports equipment, books, new clothes or cool gadgets I can play with (e.g. drones, etc.).

Minimalists are right that there is a mental cost to ownership. Yet, for me the cost of non-ownership has been greater. And that’s one of my deeper problems with the minimalist movement as I see it.

It seems that few minimalists want to go all the way to embracing simplicity. They bask in owning less, but are happy to change what they own. They have a superficial personal simplicity while enjoying all the variety the wider market provides for them.

And if that is so, if you, say, own 1 tech gadget but change it every six months, one justifiably asks: how is that different from owning 2, 3, 4? Clearly, what’s new is always on your mind in one way or another. You haven’t really achieved inner peace from possessions. And that’s to be expected: as buddhism reminds us, the war against attachment is waged through stillness of the mind, not the credit card.

And that ties in with another critique I have seen on minimalism — that is it geared primarily towards the rich. And there’s certainly a slight feel of this. Most people cannot hop from place to place, traveling and living for experiences rather than material possessions. And in any case, this dichotomy is stupid. A material thing like a guitar can be a source of very many great experiences if given to the right person.

Not that it is wrong to have life philosophies aimed at the rich. Quite the contrary. I am actually interested in them. But it seems to me that many minimalists intuitively feel their philosophy lacking in variety (what did you expect if you downsize your life on principle?). And it also seems to me that the solution for some minimalists has been to simply sell one thing and buy another. In other words, they have chosen to get the benefits of variety without the costs of simplicity. And that’s cool. But the reality is, it has an economic cost attached.

Now, maybe in the US, where minimalism is most popular, that cost is easy to bear. But then, the US is so exceptionally wealthy that even poor people there live better than much of the rest of the world. Myself, living outside of the US, I find this aspect of minimalism a bit absurd or at the very least out of touch with what the real dynamic between simplicity, materialism and wellbeing is.

Love of Change vs Minimalism

Above, I already hinted at the wellbeing improvement a change in lifestyle can provide.

I think that fact is central to why minimalism feels so good to many. When you have less, you are forced to change more often. And that’s great. Uncovering new horizons is extremely exhilarating.

This fact is precisely why I love change. I am not sure, however, that minimalism is the best or only way to spicy up your life.

In any case, probably the best example of a lifestyle full of change (and one that probably drives a lot of intuition we have about what minimalism feels like) is traveling. 

Now, because of luggage restrictions and lack of permanent storage, it is hard to travel the world carrying a lot with you. Moreover, change happens naturally — of people, of places, of languages, of cultures. I have always loved this feeling.

This is why I think minimalism, or at least parts of it, draw their appeal from the joy of traveling light. However, the size of the bag seems hardly the most relevant factor. In a way, I am much more on board with a philosophy that embraces travel (and which might, by necessity, lead to a de factor minimalist lifestyle) than minimalism.

In any case, travel is only one mode of living, a joyful yet imperfect one. Visiting new countries might produce great joy, but so does having your own yoga mat and a room full of the posters and the books you adore. In other words, there are joys to be found in both contexts and some of them require ownership. In my view, it is the process of change that leads to wellbeing, not necessarily the number of possessions.

Minimalism through a youthful Travel-Lens

It is worth remarking that, looked through the travel-lens, minimalism will probably appeal to younger folks more. Young people love to travel and are generally not wealthy enough to own much anyway. So, it’s natural that they will gravitate towards a “live light” philosophy — after all, it looks like the natural extension of “travel light”.

As I indicated above, I think that’s cool. Youth requires change, experimentation and discovery. But exactly because of this, I fear that willful minimalism (as opposed to the instrumental one, e.g. the one done for the sake of easier travel) might occasionally prove detrimental.

What I mean is this: I fear that an increased focus on simplicity and downsizing will actually hinder experimentation; that great novel things won’t be tried because they come in a material form; that prioritizing what you love and throwing away everything else will only reinforce old habits without developing new.

Maybe I am too cautious about this. But I know that along with the simplicity of minimalism, a natural form of isolationism will occur as well. If every new thing is judged as a potential threat to your minimalist street cred, then you’ll be less likely to buy it and try it. And over time, life will become more boring. And if it doesn’t, it certainly will make it more lengthy for novelties to finally seep into one’s life.

Which, ultimately, might be what a minimalist wants. But for me, I want change a lot more. New things and experiences are absolutely exciting!

The viewpoint diversity within Minimalism and Minimalism’s intuitive Appeal

Finally, I want to talk about minimalism in a more positive light.

To begin with, let’s just say that most life philosophies (religions, etc.) are better lived than talked about. The best way to know if a belief system works for you is to adopt it and see what happens.

In any case, there is an aesthetic appeal to minimalism that can certainly be attractive. Simplicity is a big part of Eastern art and for a good reason — there is a great beauty in it.

In a sense then, if minimalism was about making your life more beautiful, then I could easily see the attraction. After all, some painting are beautiful because of how colorful and varied they are,; others, because of how simple yet expressive. 

Of course, there are undercurrents in minimalism that go beyond beauty and wellbeing. For every minimalist that wants to focus on experiences rather than oppressive material things, there is probably another that sees in minimalism the only responsible way to approach the environment and save nature from human destruction.

It is true that many minimalists would probably cite the above motivations as important. But, ultimately, there is a conflict between them for many of the great experiences one can have require a lot of energy and resources to offer. In other words, one person’s experiential minimalist is another environmental minimalist’s unsustainable hell. I guess this only goes to show that even within minimalism, there can be differences in viewpoint. 

In any case, though appealing, the environmental version of minimalism can fast devolve into a “less is always more” mentality and give rise to a desire to extinguish one’s presence from this world. Personally, I find this extreme position a bit unhealthy. I guess that, at the end of the day, I am indeed a moderationist. 🙂

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Lately, I’ve been thinking of love (yet again). 

More precisely, I’ve been pondering an idea that has, frankly, confused me for quite some time: unconditional love.

Honestly, this concept can be such a mystery…

***

Now, growing up, there are many things one hears said about love.

Some of them, such as the concept of a love at first sight, quickly meet their death at the hands of the harsh reality of human interactions. People don’t just look at each other and fall in love. Certainly not if love is to mean anything more than pure lust, anyway.

However, other things one hears, such as talk of unconditional love, can be more difficult to grapple with.

That is why, personally, I have always felt a bit ambivalent touching on that particular subject. Partly it’s because love itself is hard to experience deeply, but mostly it’s because the requirement of unconditionality goes against many of my usual intuitions. Continue reading Speaking of Love, Could it ever really be Unconditional?

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Last June I finished my Mathematics and Computer Science degree at Oxford.

It took four years, a lot of work and much resilience. 

As the time I spent in Oxford was one of the most formational periods of my life, I figured it would be a good idea to write a summary of the my time there. Not just for me, so I could move on with my life, but also for others, who might consider applying or are simply curious.

The caveat, of course, is the below is my experience, i.e. one subject to my interests, personality quirks, strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know what how to write about Oxford from another person’s view. And frankly, I wouldn’t even want to even if I could.

***

Because university is (used to be?) for learning, I’ll begin with the academic side of Oxford.

In Oxford there is a big separation of the way degrees are structured between STEM and non-STEM. 

Reading maths, I was mostly concerned with problem sheets, department lectures and classes/tutorials. My peers in science and engineering followed a similar pattern, only they had lab work thrown in the mix as well.

(In contrast, humanities tend to base their degrees around essay writing. Medicine is a whole other story.)

Now, I could go deep into the details of my course, but that is probably best left for another post. I’ll concentrate instead on the big picture of education at Oxford.

Radcliffe Camera

The iconic Radcliffe Camera. I spent my first year revision mostly here. I love this place.

Firstly, the tutorial system. The way Oxford is structured, each student lives in a college. You can think of a college as sort of like a walled mini-city which houses, feeds and looks after its student-citizens.

As far as education is concerned, the college is responsible for tutorials, revision, mock exams (or collections, in Oxford speak) as well as general performance reviews.

Most of those functions are handled by your tutors who are expert researchers in your subject area. They are the ones who monitor your progress and ensure you are well-prepared for the end-of-year exams.

Now, tutorials are what Oxford is famous for so they certainly deserve a mention. What tutorials are is basically a institutionalized guarantee that your tutor will give you some personalized attention and help you solve the problems you as an individual have met with.

In practice, Oxford does this by allocating (bi)weekly meetings between a tutor and two or three students of a given subject. So, for example, as a mathematician I had weekly one-hour Algebra tutorials with another student from my year.

Each week I would have problem sheets set by the department and would present my solutions to my tutor. He would mark/comment on them and we would discuss the kinds of issues that had surfaced in the problem solving process.

The benefits of the tutorial system are obvious. You get personalized attention, feedback and teaching from some of the best researchers in the world. Unfortunately, the system is highly time inefficient so for maths it was only available to us as first and second year students. Beyond that, we had classes, which are gatherings of around 10-15 students from different colleges and which are much less personal.

Still, even with this caveat, the tutorial system was a great way to build relationships between students and tutors. 

Overall, albeit only lasting for the first two years, I definitely enjoyed and benefitted from the tutorial system. It certainly helped me understand the material better and often provided me with insights it would have taken me much time to come up with on my own. (truly valuable!)

***

Now, let me say something about the philosophy of education at Oxford. But first, a step back..

Growing up, the high school I attended would pretty much test us constantly. Every few weeks we would have a graded test / exam. Combined with the sheer number of different and often unrelated to one another subjects, the result was often a lot of unnecessary anxiety mixed with frequent boredom with the current month’s topics. Moreover, cramming for tests is not exactly how lasting learning happens either.

Seen against this background, Oxford was (fortunately for me) markedly different.

Firstly, although tutorials were due each week, they never affected your final mark. They were between you and your college (by proxy of your tutor).

Now, it was true that some colleges and tutors would confront you if you handed in your scripts late and/or not at all. Still, that was a system enforced by the specific college and tutor and not a university-wide policy.

This was fortunate for me.

There were many times when I would get behind with work and I would end up not finishing my assignments on time. In my case this was mostly because of depression (Oxford is amazing for this, by the way) or the sheer workload for the term. 

But those were not the only reasons one could be late. Oxford was a great balancing act between personal, professional and academic life and sometimes the former two would take priority for many students. 

For example, some students around me willingly accepted a lower academic standard for themselves and instead chose to optimize their Oxford experience for CV or job opportunities.

Others focused less on the future and instead preferred to party or went into as many sports / societies as possible. 

Personally, I felt lonely in Oxford and I could never get to like the partying culture there. As a consequence, I ended up focusing a lot on my work and a few sports I liked. Solitude and exercise were a way for me to cope with the isolation, frequent depression and the stress of my life in Oxford.

The result was that I held my academic work to a high standard but I couldn’t always finish it on time. And this is where I am thankful for the way Oxford was organized.

In Oxford, by the end of term I would pretty much always get behind on work. Now, if Oxford were  like high school, and we had constant exams in each subject over the course of the academic year, I would very likely have failed. Or, at the very least, have performed much worse than those around me who always seemed to absorb information much faster.

Yet, Oxford was not like high school. Fortunately, tutorials didn’t ultimately matter and you can fail as many of them as you want and still get to the one (true) decisive final exam. 

Put differently, even though I was behind on work during terms, I still had the vacations to catch up and revise. By the end of each year, I would know as much or more than many.

It worked for me. I graduated with a first. Having just one exam per subject per year was amazing to relieve the stress of always having to perform, of always being tested.

So, as far as I am concerned, being bothered by the necessary evil of examinations just once per year was a gift sent from god. It allowed me to concentrate and do well without losing my mind (which would have happened if exams were going on all the time; in fact, it always did happen — I would always need two, three weeks to recover emotionally after two months of intense sitting in libraries in May and June… totally unsustainable and unhealthy)

On the flip side, the fact that exams were once per year had its downsides too.

Firstly, having one exam determine everything might have meant peace and quiet most of the time, but it also carried with it great stress and anxiety once the exam date approached. This is why I would always burn out at the end of exam season.

Secondly, you better pray to God you sleep well before an exam. But not too much lest you oversleep! You better ask Him to keep you healthy too. 

In short, luck is definitely involved. I almost overslept for an exam once. I also sat two other ones on less than four hours of sleep because of anxiety. So there is that.

***

As far as term structure is concerned, Oxford divides the academic year in three terms of eight weeks each. Exams are mostly at the end of the third term, although that depends on subject.

Compared to other universities, Oxford has much shorter terms. Therefore, a lot tends to happen in the space of weeks 1 through 8 of each term (the measure of time in Oxford).

For me, this meant that I would have to study several subjects each week solving a separate problem sheet in each of them.

Personally speaking, this system didn’t work well for me. I like studying a subject by immersing myself in it for a few complete days until I get bored. When you have 5 problem sheets to complete in the space of 7 days, that way of learning is impossible.

Of course, the first problem sheets were always easy and I could manage to do them without much additional reading. But as term went on, I would get behind. The term structure was definitely a contributing factor. Switching from one subject to another had a clear cost to understanding.

As I hinted at above, vacations were when I usually caught up. In large part, this was mostly because I was allowed uninterrupted solitude (no lectures, no classes, no meetings, etc.) and time to immerse myself for hours and days into a subject.

Overall, I presume that learning styles are highly individual so I cannot generalize a lot from my experience. However, if you identify yourself as even somehow similar to me, the above is definitely something to think about in the context of institutions like Oxford. 

Magdalen Tower

A view from the botanic garden. Great place in spring / summer 🙂

It is often remarked that university education is only as good as you make it for yourself.

Oxford definitely takes this approach as its guiding principle.

Although tutorials and lectures were great, they were rarely the time when most of learning happened. As far as our learning was concerned, Oxford expected and encouraged us to be on our own.

Such autonomy worked out pretty well for me. 

Oxford provides great libraries and study spaces so immersion in a subject is made as easy as possible. Perhaps the only minor nuisances for me were the early closing times of some facilities. I have always been a night owl…

Another great thing about Oxford was the number of events and talks given by all sorts of experts, artists and overall interesting people.

Naturally, some of those were academic in nature. Although I never really attended many of these myself (they often seemed to me either too specialized or too trivial and always inadequately short), I am sure others benefitted from them. If nothing else, at least people got some photo shoots with their heroes.

(This side of Oxford was probably way more attractive to those studying politics or economics, for example. Imagine having prime ministers and senators regularly coming to speak at your university!)

***

Due to the collegiate system, many Oxford students got to live and befriend people from other subjects. This was certainly great because there is always a natural tendency to drift off and only move within the narrow circle of your subject group, especially if you are not much of a party-goer.

To be completely honest, because of my introversion and the isolation I felt at Oxford, I cannot claim to have benefited as much as possible from the above.

However, I nevertheless made a few friends from different backgrounds.

Relationship-wise, that was great. It sure made Oxford easier to bear when times got rough. I certainly miss many of those friends now.

Academically speaking, however, there was little benefit. Undergraduates just don’t get that many research opportunities or do not yet know enough to require interdisciplinary knowledge. So, relationships with others were rarely of much academic interest. 

Still, good conversations could be often overheard on many interesting topics. Philosophy, science, literature, etc. — whatever your interest, you could always find somebody to speak with. Yet, being frank, if attainment of knowledge is your goal, you are probably better off reading a book than speaking with somebody else.

***

In high school, I was often made to study many subjects which never interested me.

That had the unfortunate effect of making me think the subjects were boring in themselves. As it happens, oftentimes I would have to rediscover a passion for many such “unattractive” subjects through my own curiosity. Such was the case for history, music, even parts of geography, for example.

Moreover, high schools seemed designed to punish specialization and passion. At least in my high school, being a specialist was a sin; being a mediocre generalist — the ideal.

In Oxford, everyone gets admitted to study a particular subject so this latter problem is practically non-existent. Sure, sometimes there would be mandatory courses which were a bit boring, but generally those were over past the first one or two years. Oxford was generally good at accommodating and listening to students’ course preferences in later years.

(It needs to be said that I was definitely disinterested in my research project in my final year. I would have instead much preferred to do further coursework. Coursework and research were a bit like water and oil for me and I found them hard to combine)

As for the first problem, Oxford never really made me hate a subject. Although there were certainly teachers of varying abilities, the fact that I was studying the subject I was interested in ensured a baseline of satisfaction from get go. Moreover, most of the time the courses were up to my choosing too, so in general I was always following my curiosity.

Once again, the autonomy Oxford allowed worked well for me.

***

In conclusion, academically speaking, Oxford was amazing.

I certainly learned a lot of new things and acquired a greater appreciation for my subject.

Crucially, Oxford rarely conflicted with my curiosity. Even now that I have graduated, I still retain a love for knowledge and seek out to further my understanding of the universe.

Of course, no institution can be trusted to develop such curiosity on its own and there is certainly a part of me that would always stay interested in the universe and its wonders regardless of my environment. 

However, I know that before going to Oxford, certain mathematical techniques were difficult for me and impeded my learning.

Today, I might not know much more (a degree really only serves to highlight to you how much there is to know!) than when I started. However, I know enough to be able to delve deeper into the subjects that really resonate with my interests.

And in that sense, I think Oxford fulfilled its academic mission. It gave me a great start and built in me a solid base for exploration of the world.

At the end of the day, that’s probably one should realistically hope for in any university, let alone one of the calibre of Oxford…

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Through our constant search of philosophies and ways of thinking, we have all gradually become citizens of the world of words. We read and listen, write and speak with others. Words conceptualize the world for us.

In many ways, this approach has worked out amazingly well. Words have enabled the communication through which we have come to know so much about the world. Thanks to technological and scientific progress, we can now discuss what used to  be unspeakable.

Yet, albeit a net positive, words have downsides too. Indeed, in some subtle ways, words can serve not for the construction of greater understanding, but rather for that of mental prisons. Continue reading Words Are not Always our Friends

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Sometimes great things don’t mix well together.

In my life, for example, a desire to do good and a preference for contrarianism have often run against each other. Because I believe neither of them is worth sacrificing, I therefore perceive of a need to clarify this conflict and provide some guiding thoughts on combining doing good with contrarianism.

Continue reading Reflections on Social Groups, Contrarianism and Doing Good

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