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Everything is an Optimization Problem, Isn’t It?

I was once watching a video course about Convex Optimization, and the lecturer said something very interesting. He said that “there will come a time in your life when you realize that everything is an optimization problem, the question is when do you realize it? in early college years? or later in life?”.

I still do not really understand what Convex Optimization is because I only watched the first lecture of the course. Now that I think about it, I was rarely persistent enough to finish watching, or even attending, a whole course, whether live or video. I think that this straight forward laziness is related to the subject we are discussing.

The lecturer’s words hit me really deep back then. I used to, and still, think of my self as quite an optimizer. I even had some thoughts about me being an engineer as an identity rather than a vocation. It is something you cannot turn off. You have to solve problems in the optimal manner so you get the most outcome with minimal cost. I have applied this to studying, career choice, self development, and of course personal relationships. Most of the nearly “optimal” choices that I made where not intentional nor conscious. They were the act of an optimization machine working on autopilot. Now I know that it’s not something special because all people do this whether they realize it or not.

With all that said, we must zoom out a little bit and ponder on where this optimization has taken us, on all levels, starting with the individual level up to the global scale. I will make the wild preliminary assumption that the most important output to optimize is the general “well being” of us humans. This can be broken down into mental health, physical health, and the general “happiness” indicators. So where are we on this? I guess it is not looking good, is it?

On the personal level, after nearly 15 years of adolescence and adult life. I can say that I am not satisfied with where my methods have taken me. I want to be clear that this does not mean that I’m not content with my life and grateful for what I have. On the contrary, I am very pleased by the fact that the minimal effort I put in everything has resulted in great outcomes. I am happily married with two beautiful kids. I have a job that I really like. I am climbing the corporate ladder with an above average speed which makes me able to provide for my family, the most primal self fulfilling accomplishment, in these hard economical times.

What I am not happy with is that I always take the easiest way to solve problems and get outcomes. In college, I studied only for a week or so before the midterm and the final exams, which makes a total of two to three weeks of concentrated studying per semester. The studying was oriented towards passing the exams in any means possible and not learning of course. And up until now, I skim through quick tutorials rather than profound reading about work related subjects. I have failed to have a healthy lifestyle due to the fact I am too lazy to build a workout habit and keep my mouth shut. I listen to audio-books because it is much easier than actual reading, both mentally and physically. Yes I’m saying that I consider the effort needed to hold a book up when optimizing my own learning process. That’s how lazy I am.

When you read this you might say that this is a laziness problem rather than the byproduct of optimization driven behavior. You may be right. I cannot be objective in such assessment. However, I really believe that there is an issue buried under all the described behavior. It is the fact that I seek the maximization of expedience while minimizing the effort. This is a clear optimization problem.

Let us zoom out a bit and examine how everything is driven this way. Starting with the tech giants and how they are building their products: All digital platforms are built to make you get the most outcome with the least effort. Social media is a nice representation of this dynamic: fulfill your social duties and connect with your family, friends, and also acquaintances with a single “like” click as opposed to the old “pickup the phone and call” and even “visit”. Why visit my relative(s) or even call them to congratulate them on their newborn when a simple click on the baby’s pic can do the trick?! Moreover, one of the most crude representations is the porn industry: sexual pleasure without the hassle of having to deal with other humans.

If I wasn’t lazy, I would have continued to dig deeper in order to address the real problem here: Materialism. This may be counter-intuitive if you do not have any sort of spiritual background. On the other hand, for a religious person like my self, the problem is very clear. It originates from the idea of quantification and materialistic measuring of the whole human experience. It is dealt with as one limited to the physical and mental pains and pleasures in this life.

When you believe that this life is everything you have, will try to make the most of it by optimizing what you think is “nice” about it. The problem here is that what we think is nice (i.e. food, sex, some more complicated mental and emotional needs) is needed for evolutionary reasons aimed at our survival as a species. Now, with the great abundance we have, and the perishing of real dangers, the pursuit of such goals seems to have gone in a wrong direction. Obesity and other kinds of addictions are good examples of things going wrong.

In the end, I would like you to forget about the last couple of paragraphs if you have different views on the materialism thing. Let us just agree that there is something wrong, and we, as a species, should address this.