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Joyce Xu

AI/ML researcher specializing in NLP, reinforcement learning, and distributed computing.

Aspiring bartender, DJ, and unemployed white male p'dcaster.

Chaotic neutral.

20: A tribute to my off-brand teenage-ism

19, I learned that I liked all-nighters. I liked the ones at the techno clubs in Berlin, stumbling out into the bright and blissful 8am sun; I liked the ones pouring over my CS229 homework, in over my head but unable to tear myself away. They weren’t — aren’t — sustainable, I’ve always been quite aware of that. But I liked them.

I’m posting this almost a month late. It’s February 23rd; my birthday was January 28th. I’ve struggled on-and-off these past few months to write something appropriate for my 20th birthday — some kind of tribute to my off-brand youthhood, a reflection on the person I am and the person I want to be, a final stamp of the thoughts and dreams and misplaced beliefs of a teenager — but I guess I had tried too hard to count my life into perfect chapters. My 20th birthday came and went, and I never quite got the right words out.

Then last weekend, after returning from what should’ve been one of the most amazing concerts and nights of my life, I finally texted an old best friend: “these three weeks since I’ve turned 20 have been some of the weirdest and shittiest in my life.”

I literally could not figure out why, but there was a perpetual knot in my stomach and a pounding in my chest and fuck, I felt completely ungrounded. Ever since I was 17, when I moved to San Francisco on my own to work for a summer, the one thing that had consistently anchored me — tangibly, all-consumingly — was direction. But direction was something I made for myself. I made targets and I made dreams, and then I chased them down until I inevitably found something else. Some of it was material: I had schools I wanted to get into, internships I wanted to get, and research I wanted to work on. But most of it was far less tangible. I had lives I wanted to taste: the mad science intellectual, the ambitious change-maker, the free-thinking partyer, the inquisitive wanderer, the trail-blazing storymaker and the trail-hunting storyteller.

Over the past few days I’ve been doing some thinking. It’s not that I don’t want all of that (and more) anymore. But in this last year, I’ve gotten a taste of…a lot of what I’d been seeking, honestly.

19, I started conversations with strangers at bars and finished them at their birthday parties two weeks later, dim fairy lights zigzagging across their brick apartment wall.

19, I listened to a Syrian refugee with one functioning arm tell his story as he taught me to roll a joint, one hand and all, orange lamps and muted TV screens setting aglow the haze in that Barcelona coffeeshop.

19, I danced away the night with old friends in new cities and spilled my life story over omelettes to someone I had met only hours before, Girls by Rita Ora crackling over the staticky breakfast shop speakers as he spilled his.

19, I raved about neuroscience in reinforcement learning, race in structural oppression, and everything in between with a friend who is surely a reincarnation of myself in the current life, the London nights ablaze with our dreams of doing something in this world.

19, I pursued the most fascinating research at the AI company of my dreams; 19, I came back at 2am on Saturday nights and drifted off reading papers. 19, I stayed up till sunrise working on the most difficult take-home midterm I’ve ever taken; 19, I went to a Brockhampton concert in the middle of that midterm because I wasn’t going to let it stop me from living my life. 19 I felt so purely, utterly alive.

Teenage Joyce wanted a tribute to keep her future self accountable to who she was; here it is. For all its ridiculous ups and downs, I know I lived freely and deliberately at every turn, and there was no better way to cap off my ridiculously off-brand teenage years.

But now I’m 20. It’s a completely arbitrary distinction, of course, but I guess the wheels have been spinning out from under me for a while now because I have no idea why the last few weeks specifically turned to shit. All of a sudden I realized I had become so burned out with my research, so entirely unmotivated with my learning, and so very tired of hearing about how you’re “making the world a radically better place” (sorry, Google X). Mostly, though, I looked around and realized I didn’t know where I was trying to go anymore. I stared down a half-blank midterm with five minutes on the clock and felt nothing but dissociation. I looked out on a crowd of my peers and wondered if everyone was just comfortable with a level of complacency I wasn’t, or if they had simply figured out something I had yet to understand.

For three weeks the apathy, aimlessness, and nauseating anxiety grew. On paper everything was great. I was doing well in school, getting job opportunities I would have killed for at any other point in my life, and surrounded by a pool of world-class resources and support - but what the fuck was at the end of the road anyways? The whole point of this life was that I never climb anyone else’s ladder. There are enough people in this world good at climbing ladders and checking boxes and following a wealthy white man’s Guidebook To Success that the system will not miss me. I carve my own path. But somewhere between the ski trips and classes and raves and 3am pset-ing I couldn’t tell what I was carving anymore, and god, I never realized I have no fucking clue how to live without my own dream to chase. On top of that, every day I would listen to more of my closest friends opening up about going through and drowning in so much more, and never in my life had I felt so useless to the people I cared about.

The morning after I sent that text, the first blue-sky-California-sun day we’d had in weeks, a different friend and I took a drive down to Santa Cruz. Somewhere in the backdrop of those timid blue seas and noisy wooden rollercoasters, I think I finally hit the reset button.

I’m beginning to realize I don’t know how to reconcile my intellectual passions with the problems I want to work on in the present day; the most interesting questions in AI to me are also the most conceptual and theoretical, and reinforcement learning, machine “theory of mind,” and representation learning literally do not intersect with the social inequities I care about addressing. But I have also yet to try to work on these problems. I’ve always held myself back, telling myself I don’t have enough experience or perspective or skills yet, telling myself I don’t know what I’m doing.

And, seriously, I don’t know what I’m doing. (Ask my friends, I’m sure not a single one would trust me with their life.) My degree of day-to-day incompetence is a statistical miracle. But I do think that over the course of my endless bumbling and chasing of human experiences, of my oddly uninhibited dives into communities and lives that never overlap, that I’ve internalized a thing or two about different walks of life — something about where systems intersect and collide, where people circle and miss. About where you can’t get any further because you don’t have the technical understanding and where knowledge will get you jack shit because you don’t understand people who are not you. About how to move a needle here or there.

20, I want to start working on something. For real this time.

What am I going to work on? Still thinking. Recently, when reading about the history of hip-hop, I learned of the story of the South Bronx. Between the years of 1973-1977, over 30,000 fires of abandonment were set in that seven-mile radius of a borough. One hot summer day, 40 fires nearly blazed the city down in 3 hours. How? After the end of WWII, a man named Robert Moses embarked upon the most expensive infrastructure project in the US to date: the Cross-Bronx highway, which cut through over a hundred avenues and rivers and subway lines to connect New Jersey through the suburbs of Queens, also led the devastating white exodus out of the South Bronx. Within a decade, the South Bronx had lost 43,000 housing units and 600,000 manufacturing jobs alone, leaving its remaining residents to refer to it as “a Necropolis - a city of death.” This is not a standalone narrative; urban development projects inevitably reflect and perpetuate hierarchies already entrenched in society, and our cities reflect this trend. How can we rebuild the world - literally, physically - in a way that is fair and sustainable, without breaking the world while we rebuild?

I don’t know. But it excites me that I don’t know. There are a lot of problems in this world I have full faith we will continue making progress on — with challenges in engineering, medecine, and science, we have never not continued moving forward. It’s with human problems that we sometimes cannot tell whether we’re making progress at all, and as much as I love ML research, I think it’s time for me to dive in to those problems.

I don’t know why I used past-tense earlier to say I liked all-nighters. I still like all-nighters. 20 will be another year full of all-nighters, and I’m unhealthily excited to see what they’ll look like this year.