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Why smart children become sad adults

Why smart children become sad adults
By Elizabeth Filips • Issue #55 • View online
There’s this concept in AI called overfitting (don’t be impressed by my knowledge, I had an amazing dinner with Brian Christian last night and he told me about it), which I found absolutely mesmerising and so relevant to explaining one’s childhood. 
When AI is being programmed to learn something, it’s put in a test environment: it’s given data to solve a problem and it tries to solve it again and again until it learns to do it properly. When AI is doing this, it often takes shortcuts. It programs itself to behave in ways that make the overall process easier and faster to do. 
The problem with this is, once you then launch the AI in the real world to work with real data, it doesn’t work. The shortcuts it programmed for the test data don’t work with all the different types of real inputs. So the AI is basically useless. 
The smarter and the more powerful the AI, the more and the bigger shortcuts it will make, and the more likely that it won’t work in the real world. 
To me, this sounds like how we are programmed. 
As a child, we’re like a little AI machine programming ourselves. And the test-data and input we use is (mostly) our family home. We create shortcuts to adapt to our parents needs, behaviour and reactions, the interactions and systems set in our family, we program and reprogram ourselves around the shifting-test-data that is our environment until we’re fully set. We’ve fit our identity, beliefs and truths around the tests that we had to run again and again. 
We have a drive to survive and thrive, and we’re all built to survive and thrive in our test environment, but just like AI, I think we can over-fit to it. 
When we’re out in the ‘real world’, away from home, which for me has been almost over 10 years now, I find with every passing year that I’m uncovering more and more ways that I’m programmed un-ideally to cope with world. 
My familiar ‘shortcuts’: beliefs, behaviours, thoughts are perfectly created for an environment that has data very different to the variety I’m having to face. Unlike AI though, I can’t just ‘not work’, I’ll have to function and take the hit of maladaption in negative consequences to myself, emotional pain, bad results, distress. 
Not everyone is my parents and siblings, not every system is my family system, and my overfitting to that test-data leads to behaviours that in reality, just glitch. 
I don’t like calling people ‘smart’ or not, but the label does easily transfer a description of intentional-targetted-effective-thinking, which the more a child probably has to do to fit their environment, the more they probably overfit it. And the more inflexible/counterproductive they might be in the real world. Maybe some children can be ‘too smart’ to be happy adults?
Frameworks like this are so valuable to me. I’m not passionate about arguing if they’re right or wrong, they don’t have to be right at all: the point of them is, sometimes they just are so useful for reframing, understanding, and highlighting the moving parts and the possible reasons for things being the way they are. And therefore they can be the way to enact positive change. 
Accepting that your now unhelpful behaviours or ways of viewing the world are most likely ancient, reasonable, maybe even intelligent coping mechanisms for a test-environment you’ve long left, can help you get rid of them.
Creating your own frameworks for cause and effect: my parents did this, so I had to respond in this way, so now I might think this is true - don’t even need to be 100% accurate, but they can be 100% valuable in uprooting the shortcuts, reconsidering new data, becoming functional in our new environments, and maybe even, avoiding overfitting to whatever data we are being fed at the moment in our current setup. 
The only constant is change :) 

🪄 Quote of the week
“There is no limit to what morality can ask of us.”
Todd May, with Readwise
🖤 My Favourite Things This Week
Book: I finished Morality for the Rest of Us this week and summarised it here. A great book on applicable, realistic, interesting decency and a reasonably-demanding guide to what it looks like to be moral today.
TV show: I just finished Dark on Netflix. BRILLIANT - loved the plot, loved the acting, loved the cinematography (especially) and music scores. It’s a TV show about time travel, has deeply unlikeable (and therefore quite realistic) protagonists, great plot twists (only half of which I saw coming), a decent length of 3 seasons. I would recommend watching it in German with subtitles (which is what I did) because it sounds much better.
🎥 YouTube Video This Week:
The best reading skill no one ever taught you
The best reading skill no one ever taught you
The Perils of Audience Capture, Notes
…you find yourself in the limelight of other people’s gazes, remember that being someone often means being fake, and if you chase the approval of others, you may, in the end, lose the approval of yourself.
A person’s identity is being constantly refined, so it needs constant feedback. That feedback typically comes from other people, not so much by what they say they see as by what we think they see. We develop our personalities by imagining ourselves through others’ eyes, using their borrowed gazes like mirrors to dress ourselves.
Our personalities develop as a role we perform for other people, fulfilling the expectations we think they have of us. The American sociologist Charles Cooley dubbed this phenomenon “the looking glass self”.
It was clear to me that the only way to resist becoming what other people wanted me to be was to have a strong sense of who I wanted to be. And who I wanted to be was someone immune to audience capture, someone who thinks his own thoughts, decides his own destiny, and above all, never stops growing.
For this same reason, I’m suspicious of those with strong, sharply delineated brands. Human beings are capricious and largely formless storms of idiosyncrasies, so a human only develops a clear and distinct identity through the artifice of performance.
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Elizabeth Filips

Heya, I'm Elizabeth, a medical student and painter in London. Some Sundays I write about exploring meaning, productivity, little pleasures and just navigating life. And some of my favourite things that week.

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