I grew up the oldest of five children in an upper-middle class family in Southern California. Aside from divorced parents, by all standards I had a pretty cushy life. My parents (Dad and Moms) made it abundantly clear that they loved us all. They worked hard to get us into the best schools in the district. They took time off work to take us on vacation or attend our sporting events. They spoiled us with presents on Christmas. And (until we got too “cool” for it), they kissed us and said the words “I love you” every night before we went to sleep.
I have extremely fond memories of my childhood, and every once in a while, I find myself lost in reminiscence of that warm, safe, and comforting cocoon that my parents worked so hard to build for me. But like most people who are fortunate enough to experience such a privileged upbringing, the illusion of the perfectly happy life to which I mistakenly felt entitled eventually crashed down around me. For me it began in middle school. As a small-ish, insecure, nerdy kid I was an easy target for less small-ish (but probably no-less insecure) other kids who were likely just trying to negotiate their own position in the brutal world of teenage social hierarchies. Or possibly looking for an outlet for the trauma they may have experienced in their own home-lives. In hindsight, I can look back at that time and realize it wasn’t all that bad (though it was very lonely), but unfortunately for me, that began a long period of moderate social anxiety that I’m still coping with. High-school was in most ways worse, as you might expect.
Then in college I began to find a place for myself among other fellow nerds in my cohort of Physics majors. I had given up on trying to fit in and decided to fully devote myself to my studies. Never before and never since had I spent so much time on academics. As a (at the time) Catholic-turned-atheist, I saw Physics as a replacement answer to life’s biggest questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? What does it all mean? At the time, I fully embraced the materialist paradigm as the capital-T “Truth” of existence. Only in hindsight do I realize what I was really doing.
I’m still not sure how I ended up in grad school. If you’d have asked me at the time why I was doing it, I’d have told you (and fully believed) that I wanted to be an academic researcher helping to unravel the mysteries of the physical universe. However, I can’t help but wonder if I was really just afraid of facing the world. I certainly was behind the curve in terms of social intelligence, so my grad school days became what are for most people, the “typical” college experience (partying, binge-drinking, etc.). The social anxiety I’d developed in my youth was still there, it just looked different. Now, instead of worrying about not wearing the right clothes or having the right hair, I felt like I wasn’t smart enough for my peers. They all seemed to hold down robust social lives, while still staying relatively on top of their work. I eventually did graduate with a PhD in Physics, but completely burnt out.
With lots of experience in programming and statistics, I decided to look for more traditional sources of fulfillment. I started a lucrative career in software engineering and married a woman I was head-over-heels in love with. Though initially both endeavors gave me an incredible amount of joy, neither brought real happiness, which is no longer really surprising. My ex-wife and I found we weren't right for each other and that we could no longer grow together, so we eventually divorced. And though I thoroughly enjoy my career, I have realized that money isn’t everything (though I admit, it helps), and intellectually fulfilling pursuits are, generally speaking, not going to be a guaranteed path to "meaning".
After spending most of my life searching for happiness via external validation, I have decided to look inward for personal fulfillment. As a life-long student, I can't help but approach this problem with a measure of caution. I understand that the search for inner "truth" is bound to be fraught with potential biases. Truth be told, I don't believe there is anyway to completely eliminate those biases, but I believe we can, to a certain extent, mitigate their effects on our understanding of ourselves, provided we're somewhat careful with our methodology.
I’ve always been a “numbers” guy. Numbers are the basis for concrete measure and, when applied to abstract concepts and ideas (often with the aid of statistical analysis) can be used to extract important insights about the human psyche, from predictions of the results of presidential elections to fluctuations in prices of… well almost anything. In fact, I have experience using statistics to predict various facets of behavior.
Simply put, data analysis is powerful. Could that power be used to help individuals learn about themselves? True, the insights gained would not be absolute truths about humanity as a whole, but to the person that uses them to make decisions about how best to live their life, such a tool could potentially be life-changing.
Writing this post at the start of this ambitious endeavor, I have to be honest with you: I am not sure how well this is going to work. But in the spirit of curiosity and adventure that inspires most scientists, I look forward to the journey. I hope you will join us.