Ego, Identity, and Rationalization

September 8, 2022 ยท 6 minute read

Physics is a macho field.

Not physically. Take a look at your average physics student.

Physics is academically macho.

Physics majors love to scoff at the other sciences. Biology’s just bullshit. Where’s the math?! Chemistry is all memorization, whereas Physics derives the quantum numbers from first principles. “Soft” science? That’s not science.

Even within Physics, there’s a hierarchy of hardcoreness. Theoretical Physics is clearly at the top. Those who can’t cut it end up becoming experimentalists. The closer your experimental work is to *gasp* engineering, the less of a true physicist you are.

I spent 10 years in Physics, and I agonized over leaving the field for data science. Could I be happy simply being a code monkey? Surely I, a trained academic with a fancy pedigree, should strive for more than to descend into the capitalist abyss and simply work at a company in exchange for a fair salary.

Of course by this point, I was far from the top of the totem pole. Even before going to grad school, I knew that I didn’t stand a chance doing theoretical physics. No worries. Experimental physics may be “less pure”, but it has a more immediate impact on the world, I told myself. If you want to do theory, you should probably just admit to yourself that you don’t give a shit about this world and go ahead and do math.

xkcd 435: Purity

xkcd 435: Purity

While I did pretty well in undergrad classes, I struggled in grad school. An older student told me during my first year that they had rarely seen a correlation between performance in graduate classes and research success. I took this to heart. I practically convinced myself that doing well in classes was actually a bad sign for research ability. It at least made me feel better.

This wasn’t the last time I went on this journey of stroking my ego with colleagues, building an identity around this, and then suffering some cognitive dissonance as I rationalized said identity in the face of the egotistical axioms that had built it.

Moving into management while young was a great way to restart this journey. Data science was the perfect field because nobody had any experience, so you could move up quickly. And that’s what management is, right, moving up? And that’s what you want to do, right, move up?

Of course I wanted to move up. I maybe could’ve been a professor! I stepped off the track to tenure track to go into industry, so I ought to rise up and make a big name for myself. In relative terms, I’m decent at talking and other social things. Get on the management track and start collecting titles. Director, VP, who knows what else?

This is an absolutely terrible reason to move into management.

You should manage people because you want to manage people.

What about money? People like to make money, and you can often make more money managing. This is true, but not towards the top of the market. A data scientist with a PhD and a couple years of industry experience is easily making multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars as their starting compensation at top tech companies. This is as an individual contributor, and you can stay as one forever.

Some may really want more money, so they move into management. That’s fine! I just think that you should be honest with yourself that that’s why you’re doing it. And be honest with yourself about why you need to make more than multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. And remember that you’re now somebody’s boss, and all the connotations that entails, while you stack checks.

It’s not all about the money for everybody, though. Many don’t want to work for a big tech company. They’re just more a of a startup person, you know? They thrive on the thrill of building things from the ground up, and they couldn’t be happy as a cog in a wheel at a bigger company.

Maybe. Or, maybe they just tell themselves that since they’ve only ever worked in startups. That’s what I told myself, at least.

I’ve been trying to become more mindful aware any time I craft an identity around my current situation in a self-serving manner. Sometimes this becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

Here’s a pernicious one:

Shouldn’t I found a startup?

I got a PhD in Physics from an ivy league university. Shouldn’t I be doing something more than simply working for a company in exchange for a salary far higher than I ever dreamed? Good god that’s so narcissistic. Am I really god’s gift to this world, and the world needs me to bless it with my genius? Woof.

A telltale warning sign is when you start imagining your future title. Founder. Chief Whatever Officer. Professor.

But what about leaving a legacy?

How’s that different than narcissism?

But I’m the type of person who just can’t work for other people. I guess I have to run a company!

Maybe. Or maybe you tell yourself this because what’s more glorified in America than being destined to be an entrepreneur due to your tyrannical genius?

But don’t you want your life to mean something?

Sure, and I think the hard thing is making sure that that meaning is meaningful.

OK fine, so I guess we should all be ascetics, devoid of ambition, stagnating in nihilism.

No, no, it’s fine to work hard, it’s fine to have goals, it’s even fine to get a little excited when you update your title on LinkedIn. Just, like, check yourself a little and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

The root of all of this is probably the inability to simply be content. Comparison is the thief of joy. I work reasonable hours for a big company doing interesting things making great money in the best city in the country. Any time I start to think about blowing that up, I try to ask myself if it’s just for a short-sighted ego boost.

Caveat Lector: I fully understand that this post is ridiculously tone-deaf to most people, particularly for anybody not in the tech zeitgeist. The beauty of the modernized world is that many of us are now rich enough to afford the luxury to suffer existential angst. Having lived in NYC for 13 years, my motto is that “you have to be miserable to be happy”, so I’m just happy that I have some content to write about.