A few days ago, I was asked: “Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?” I replied: “I would like to get some sort of recognition for my contributions… maybe to be known as an expert in something, or someone who is consulted and listened to before important decisions are made.” Now that I think about it, I realize my answer was both bold and pretentious. But things went even worse. Immediately after, I was asked: “So, what do you really want? Is it the act of achieving something extraordinary (like winning the Nobel Prize), or the recognition that comes with it?” My answer was something like the following: “It’s the fact of overcoming challenges that brings me joy. For example, I don’t care about the number of paper citations I have, but I would like to know that I did something remarkable, and it’s great when others recognize my achievements.” In retrospect, what such a pretentious answer that was! What the hell? Seeking for “recognition” is clearly a selfish goal. I wonder why did I answer in that way. So I’ve been thinking deeply about this question and what my true answer should have been. To my relief, I realize that I don’t really want to be recognized in any way. What I really want is to help and inspire others, so they can achieve great things!1 I’m glad I realized that, and I hope to never forget the long and arduous road that brought me here. Or am I starting to forget? Maybe I should recap how insignificant I am and how much I owe to others. Maybe now it’s a good time to remember my humble roots. Seriously.

A hand scratching the surface of the earth
© Remember your roots and stay humble César! Photo taken at Skälderviksplan's park in Stockholm.

Childhood

Remember that you grew up eating wild frogs from swamps. Your father brought them home and cut them, while your mother fried them and told you they were chicken. You loved it. Sometimes, it is better not to know the origin of certain things.

Remember when you were a child and broke that toy to look into it because you were curious about how it worked. You cried a lot when your mom said it couldn’t be fixed. Think twice before taking the risk of breaking things that just can’t be fixed.

Remember that the forest was your playground during childhood. You swam in the wild waters of the river after the hurricane, fished and hunted with the equipment you made yourself, played football with coconuts, and played baseball with almond fruits as balls and a tree stick as the bat. You had so little back then, and yet, you were so happy. There is no need to have many things or do something outstanding to be happy.

Remember that you were the last kid to be picked for teams in all sports. You were never fast enough, strong enough, or talented enough. It was a big deal for you back then, but now you run 10k in 48 minutes with ease and don’t care about such things. The importance of things changes drastically over time, so don’t worry too much about your limitations. You’ll forget about almost all of your “big” problems in a few years.

Remember the good old days when the whole family would sit together at the same table to celebrate the New Year. We played dominoes and listened to music from cassettes and later from CD-ROMs. Those were probably the happiest moments of your life, and you didn’t even know it. It’s likely that you’re living the best moment of your life right now without even realizing it.

Remember your hometown: there were almost no paved roads, and people used horses as a means of transportation. That was great because the streets were safer, so you could play baseball in the streets with other kids. There is always some way to turn our limitations into opportunities.

Family

Remember that your dad harvested rice and fed pigs with his own hands for many years so that you could have the best possible food served on your plate every day. He was a great civil engineer, but he spent more than half of his lifetime just searching for food, to provide for the family. Times were difficult back then. You should do something worthwhile with all the free time you have available now.

Remember how many people your mom helped and how hard she worked, cleaning your non-disposable diapers at 5:00 every single day. She was a generous pharmacist, making, collecting, and giving medicines to those in need. You are living such an easy life compared to your parents, and yet, you are not giving back to others in the same proportion.

Remember your grandfather climbing dozens of palm trees every single day under the harsh sunshine. He had practically no safety equipment to collect the palm nuts so that others could feed and eat pigs. The palm trees were between 25 and 30 meters tall. That was truly hard work, and to be fair, it seems like you are only pretending to work in comparison.

Remember the immutability of your father’s character. “Be quiet as a lake,” he said. Many years later, you learned that staying calm when times are toughest is the way to bravery. Do not overreact or take important decisions when times are tough.

Remember your father; he was at a completely different level of intelligence than you, but he never realized his full potential. He was maybe too conservative. You need to work hard and take certain risks from time to time if you want to achieve something remarkable.

School

Remember that your friends were always the noblest, the least problematic in the classroom, the less popular, and so were you. There was always some bullying here and there from time to time, but you were never alone. It’s important not to be totally alone.

Remember when cartoons were available for only one or two hours a day. There were only two TV channels in the country, and you waited with joy for that moment to watch them on a black-and-white screen. Waiting for things to happen forges patience and brings great pleasure. Stay away from instant gratification, it is really bad because it doesn’t bring lasting joy.

Remember that a few of your preschool friends played in the streets barefoot, but you always wore shoes. You never thought about it and instead wanted the toys of the richest kids. It seems we tend to always look at those who have more and forget about those who have less.

Remember when you got admitted into that middle school where the best students went. You managed to get in by a very narrow margin. Your mom was very happy. Being at that particular school opened new doors and brought opportunities. Education is invaluable, and we tend to underestimate its importance at a young age.

Remember that you are not, and never were, the smartest guy in the classroom. But that was great because it made you grow faster. “If you are the smartest in the room, then you’re in the wrong room,” someone said.

Remember how many writing tests you had at that middle school. You were woken up before 6:00 AM, as a student you washed the dishes and cleaned the whole school restrooms, and at the same time, you had classes the whole day for 11 days in a row (alternating with manual work at the orange plantations), for 3 years. Nevertheless, you were extremely lucky to be at that school. It’s good to invest in education, it has proven to pay off very well later on.

Adventures

Remember that you were often the target of bullying, and you didn’t even know the real meaning of that word. So you fought other kids many, many times with your fists to defend yourself, and your pride. It took you a while to understand that a few punches here and there were better than the daily humiliation of being a coward. Later on, you learned that the worst kind of aggression is passive aggression, for which fists are not effective anymore.

Remember that you were separated from your parents to work on potato plantations for 40 days under child slavery conditions. You were 11, and that seemed normal to you. The perception of what is socially acceptable or not is very subjective.

Remember that day you were sitting on the rooftop with your father, staring at the stars in the dark during one of the common blackouts. It was damn hot, and you used a newspaper to fight mosquitos. He told you there was no hope for the new generations in the country and that escaping the communist regime was the only viable option. You understood what that meant for you but not for him to say that. The people who love you the most are those who prioritize your happiness over their own.

Dreams

Remember that you grew up listening to radio stations from the US and dreamed for decades about freedom of speech and a free market where you could buy toys and food beyond the government regulations. Now you enjoy all of these, but many people still live under dictatorial regimes and die without ever experiencing that kind of freedom. Don’t take freedom for granted, you have the duty to protect it.

Remember the more than 150,000 Cubans who have died crossing the Straits of Florida seeking the same freedom, opportunities, and prosperity that you enjoy today. Say it again: more than 150,000 Cubans died in the quest of freedom. That number should be enough to remind you why your parents chose to stay and resist the communist regime instead of risking their lives in the sea. Do not judge the decisions of others, you are prone to miss important context.

Remember that you have a very bad short-term memory. Indeed, you never managed to memorize the multiplication tables at school but learned to quickly do sums instead. The lack of some abilities can certainly unleash new capabilities.

Remember that when you were a child, you once tried to become good at playing chess but soon realized that you were not smart enough for it. You have never been smart enough at any kind of mind game (or any game at all), and you probably never will be. No big deal, though. Fortunately, the majority of people don’t have any special talent, they are as clumsy as you, so it’s better to lower down personal expectations.

Remember that your parents never knew about the internet, never used a smartphone, and certainly had no idea what AI, Bitcoin, or even a PhD is. All of these things were invented quite recently, and for your parents, life was simpler. But they were happy in their way. Perhaps simplicity is a fundamental component of happiness.

Certainties

Remember how lucky you were to be able to skip the mandatory one-year military service and spend a year working in a library instead. You were fortunate, but many others have sadly wasted so much time on such unproductive things.

Remember that the less popular students later became the most successful adults. You’re biased by social conventions and sometimes become blind to perceive reality in full. Popularity is temporary. Social status can go up and down very easily. Quite often, you act as an insignificant Sapiens trying to fit into the masses, it’s better to be yourself.

Remember that you studied Computer Science without a PC at hand. You did practically all your exams at university on a piece of paper. Today, this is inconceivable. Kids now have computers and many technological devices. You’re an oldie-minded man compared to the new generation of tech talents.

Remember that you started learning to code very late (you were 18). Most good engineers of your age in developed countries started coding very early (before 10). You are way behind your peers in terms of practice, no matter what, so do not forget that.

Remember how many exams you failed at university. Sometimes it was because you were too lazy to study, and other times because you just didn’t get it. It’s surprising that you always managed to pass them on the second chance. Thank you so much my dear education system for giving me so many second chances.

Remember all the time you wasted playing video games. There was certainly very little value in doing so. You were too young to think about it. Just imagine how much value and growth you could have achieved if all that time had been invested more wisely. Wasting time is very easy these days, and we often realize it when it’s already too late.

Remember the times when you said “no” to life adventures and preferred to stay home. You always regretted it afterward. There is nothing like real-life experiences. You should never miss a party with good people. There is nothing as important as human experiences. All the seemingly “important” things on your agenda can wait until you finish the family dinner.

Remember all those talented people around you who took the wrong path and never recovered. Sometimes very small decisions can have a dramatic impact on the future. The best path to take is unpredictable. Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people all too often.

Remember those times when you messed up, said the wrong thing, or feared making a huge mistake. Be brave enough to say a sincere “I am sorry.” Apologizing from the heart is a true act of bravery.

Remember how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things. Great achievements in this world are not the result of one person’s work but of many people working together. Scientific discoveries and all other truly impactful accomplishments are distilled from the cumulative knowledge of our species.

Remember when you started participating in programming contests at university. You were not good at all. Indeed, you only reached the local contests and never solved a hard problem during the actual competition. It seems that you have a hard time every time you try to be competitive. If competing, it is better to do it against yourself only.

Remember how hard it was for you to understand Keogh’s lower bound during your bachelor thesis. At this point, there is no need for any other proof to the fact that that you’re not smart at all.

Remember to listen more and talk less. You get excited very easily sometimes and are driven to defend your viewpoint. But everything you believe in is the result of your own experiences, which could be totally different from others. Personal viewpoints are always a matter of perspective.

Remember, there is no silver bullet, and nothing truly worthwhile can be gained in this life without investing time and putting in a ton of hard work. Like when you thought others would solve your problems. For example, you believed for years that some family members would help you to emigrate, but that didn’t happen. It’s good that you realized it and rectified it in time. Inaction tends to induce failure. Fortunately, the path towards true success is largely within your control.

Remember that action precedes motivation. Your human sight and misled perception of time are too limited to foresee the long-term results of your actions. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of small but incremental improvements. The compounding effect of daily efforts is what makes great things happen.

Remember that big opportunities only knock a few times in life. Like when you met that amazing girl who is now your wife. It’s good that you didn’t let the opportunity slip and took the risks to move forward. Opportunities will show up occasionally, but it’s up to you to be ready and take the decision to not let them go.

Remember that simple things sometimes have the biggest impact. Like when you decided to focus your MS degree on applying Computer Science to popular sports, just because you were truly interested on it. It was not the fanciest research work, but it proved surprisingly rewarding and people were surprisingly interested. Impactful achievements don’t necessarily have to emerge from complex subjects.

Remember how easy it is to get off track these days. It is especially easy when you haven’t set a clear goal. Like when you were freelancing after university, you knew deep down that it was temporary, but money sometimes gives you a false sense of security. It’s better to stay away from easy money tracks.

Remember that there is a whole global system built around transforming your time into profit. Sadly, some of the most brilliant minds of your time are working hard to find clever ways to monetize your attention. It’s good to focus on consuming less and creating more.

Remember when you decided to take that hard English test that drilled down your pocket. You had only enough money for one attempt. You met that private English teacher that day, and he told you that you needed one or two years to have a chance at passing. Yet, you studied intensively for one month alone and passed the test with the bare minimum. Some people underestimate the power of self-determination. So don’t let the perception of others affect your willingness to achieve great things.

Remember again how bad you are as a programmer. You still don’t know how to implement a deep neural network. And despite that, somehow you managed to deliver acceptable code when the need and pressure were high enough. It seems that people get superpowers for a short time when under heavy pressure.

Opportunities

Remember that it was only after (and never before) you worked really hard to get out of the dictatorship that real opportunities arose. You shouldn’t waste time and energy complaining about what you cannot control. Taking action is absolutely necessary to make things happen.

Remember how lucky you were to get that PhD student position. You worked hard to get there, yes, but ultimately it was a mix of luck and the help of other people that led you there. Especially, do not forget about all those who were much more talented than you but weren’t so lucky.

Remember the value of having a strong supportive network. The only way that progress is made in life is by involving others. Be kind to everyone, as people change very quickly. You never know who might become an important person who could assist you in the future. Build strong connections and be patient, let serendipity to work its magic.

Fears

Remember when you were stopped just before taking your first plane and got surrounded by security personnel, they asked you questions about how is that you managed to leave the country. They threatened you as if you were a terrorist, and let you go just a few minutes before departure. Sometimes, you find yourself in situations where you’re totally helpless and at the mercy of others.

Remember that you started from scratch as an immigrant in a country far, far away, with a different culture and language. With very little money, you ate pasta for weeks and couldn’t pay the rent in the last month. Only a few people offered help, and you never forgot those. Never miss a chance to help someone in real need.

Remember how difficult the beginning of everything is. Like when you started your PhD and felt completely behind your colleagues (some of them coming from European universities, others from large tech companies). The truth is, you really were behind. You’ll always be behind w.r.t others in whatever thing you pursue in life.

Remember to keep moving forward despite all the fears and failures. In particular, get rid of the fear of looking dumb. Publicly admitting a lack of knowledge is a way of showing true professionalism.

Remember what real fear truly is. Like that time when your son was one year old, and he fell on the floor, hitting his lips, with blood on his face. You ran with him in your arms, and that was the biggest fear of your whole life. Most fears are not real but made up from social imagination.

Growth

Remember the big difference between knowing, understanding, and actually doing something about it. For example, reading an article casually is one thing, reading it and then pausing for five minutes to deeply think about its ideas is another; whereas reading it, thinking about it, and then actually putting that knowledge into action is something completely different. The world is full of people who know and understand many things, but only a few of them actually do something useful with all the information they accumulate.2

Remember to be respectful of others. There is so much context you’re missing all the time. Also, your understanding of other cultures is heavily influenced by the media and other forms of propaganda and socially accepted manipulation that exist. We’re all susceptible to being manipulated by opinionated social media and similar communication channels.

Remember the danger of staying too long in that cozy place called the comfort zone. It’s not really a good place to be. Instead, it pays off to self-impose controlled doses of stress from time to time, e.g., by setting strict deadlines to accomplish new achievements. Like when you decided to speak at Jfokus, you were concerned about the challenge but so grateful for the opportunity in the end. The times when you find yourself touching the boundaries of your capabilities are the ones that make you grow in the end.

Remember to be grateful every single day for all the good things you have today. Only ten years ago, ice cream was a luxury for you, drinkable water arrived once a month in hour home, electricity shortages happened every day or week, and cheap chocolate was practically unaffordable to you. Don’t forget your humble roots and never take those small, great things you have now for granted.

Remember once again that more information is not more knowledge, and more knowledge doesn’t necessarily translates into more value. This is important. What matters is the value you provide, and gathering information and knowledge are just necessary tools to produce such value.

Remember the many times you doubted your capacity to do a PhD. There are always doubts surrounding the great things in life. You managed to finish it against the odds. Maybe every time you doubt your capacity to do something, it is actually a good sign that you’re growing.

Remember the importance of connecting the dots. You’re not great at digging deep into something and tend to overestimate the value of niche technical knowledge. Some of the greatest things are based on assembling existing ideas in a simple and novel way.

Remember that you are certainly too small as an individual to make any fundamental change in this large and complex world we live in. However, you can still inspire others to change their lives just as you did through scientific research. Remember that helping people is what really makes you happy.3

Remember that you (eventually) become the same as the people you are with. If you surround yourself with great people, you become great. Beware that the opposite is also true. Also, be grateful for all the people who helped you and influenced your work. Your family, friends, and PhD supervisor deserve a big chunk of the credit. Acknowledging others is not only fair but also brings a lot of joy.

Remember that you never achieved anything for the sake of getting recognition. To be fair, most things you have done so far have been for your own benefit. It’s always a good time to give back to the world for being so generous with you. It’s always a good time to send your luck in the other direction.

Remember to be more understanding and forgiving about the imperfections of the social system you live in. Sometimes people are hostile for your own benefit, to educate you. Like your parents were when they punished you, like formal education is by forcing you to do frequent exams, and like your PhD supervisor was by setting high quality standards. Until you know the true purpose, it is unfair to make negative judgments about the established systems.

Remember that being positive works wonders. But be careful of showing too much energy and enthusiasm. Others could perceive such behaviors as pretentious. Even for good things, there are certain limits.

Remember that right now there is so much suffering and injustice in the world. You’re very lucky to be far from the terrible things going on out there, such as wars and military dictatorships. You’re living a happy life in a great country with freedom and human rights. You have so much now, don’t forget that.

Remember that in the end, you will not remember your failures at all. Only the successes will be remembered. Only the happy times with great people will be remembered. There are always people involved in your good memories, so think about it.


TO BE CONTINUED THE NEXT TIME I'M PRETENTIOUS

Footnotes

  1. BTW, I don’t believe that throwing away shiny rocks is a good way to solve the fundamental problems of humanity. Instead, I support effective altruism, increasing opportunities, and creating a system that rewards good behavior. I also believe that the higher a person is in the social hierarchy, the more chances s/he has to create opportunities for others and make a larger impact. Thus, personal development is a driver for good. 

  2. Perhaps a good approach is to force ourselves to create something valuable from all the information we consume. I believe that by doing so, I’ll eventually become more selective about what I spend my time on. This is because I’ll be aware of the time I will need to invest later in creating something useful from it. 

  3. I strongly believe in the possibilities of science as a life/s changer. Right now, there are many opportunities in academic research for people around the world to change their lives. In fact, pursuing academic research has changed my life!