2020 has turned out to be a completely outrageous year. Not at all what I expected when I joined OpenAI’s Scholars Program. All told, it’s been extremely hard to concentrate on my work with personal medical issues, and the world falling apart. While I wish so many of the things that happened this year hadn’t, I am grateful that racial inequality is getting such high profile, and desperately needed attention. And honestly, being distracted in my program is such a tiny price for me, as a white person to pay for the good that I hope may come out of this revolutionary time.
With that said, my original vision for this blog (as a narrative arc where I share and de-mystify my process of learning) is no longer practical. I’ve been too distracted to keep up blogging as I’ve learned, so I’m not going to try to go back and write months worth of things all at once. Instead I’m going to jump forward to where I am now, write about what I’m learning, and try to backfill what’s needed in the future.
There is one thing I’ve learned over the past few months that I do think is important to highlight here, though. That’s about shame. In mid-February, I started struggling with asthma. My asthma made me unable to concentrate or work productively, which made me feel ashamed that I wasn’t doing as much or as well as I wanted to, and knew I could. I got wrapped up in that shame, and it turned into anxiety, which exacerbated the asthma, and it was a downward spiral. Through this process I did manage to solve the original environmental causes of the asthma, and I finally managed to get my anxiety under control as well. To do that, I had to embrace the parts of me that I was ashamed of. I had to accept that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to finish the program or my project at all, that maybe I was just going to fail and maybe that really was the best I could do.
Only when I started to look at that as a real possibility and make peace with the idea of failure, did I finally start taking the steps I needed to take to care for my health. I got a prescription for anxiety medication and I also cut myself off from the news for a while. This felt dangerous as a trans person, but it was an urgent self-care decision. When I stayed in touch with the news, my heart hurt. I don’t mean emotionally. I mean, reading the news literally caused strong physical pain in my chest. My heart started skipping beats regularly, and I stopped sleeping. For a while, my body was also losing the ability to regulate my temperature. I would be bundled up and freezing at 75 degrees but my thermometer showed I wasn’t running a fever. My allergist told me it was the first time she’d ever seen me so fragile.
And through all of that, I felt like it was my one shot to finally follow the career I’d been dreaming of for so long. I felt like I needed to impress my mentor and my co-workers and show them what I knew I could do. And I felt like that chance was slipping out of my hands. But the reality was so much kinder and more open-ended than that. I remember talking to Christina, one of the recruiters who runs the program, back in April and I just broke down crying. She was so kind. She told me they knew how hard this period was for all of us and that she and my mentor, Christine, were working to get us more support and an extension for our projects. I was so grateful for the compassion in my period of fear and struggle. One of the things that’s impressed me the most about OpenAI is the company’s compassion. Every person I’ve talked to there has been an incredible combination of smart and kind. On the weeks when I couldn’t get any work done at all, Christine gently supported and encouraged me. She helped me relax and set aside my belief that I had to be perfect all the time and she just told me to do what I can. That calmed me down enough that, in the end, I was able to put together a project that’s gotten a lot of praise and that I’m really quite proud of.
So, I’m writing this post for other people dreaming of going into AI, especially as the world teeters on the brink of precipices that might threaten you personally. If you see my work in the future and think you have to prove yourself every minute of every day to do what I’ve done, you don’t. You can be weak. You can be afraid. You can struggle. And you can still succeed. I know because I did it. You just need to be kind to yourself and you need to have people around you who are also kind to you. You deserve that kindness. If you’re part of a minority group, you may sometimes forget that you deserve kindness because you may be less accustomed to receiving it than others. But you do. And if you accept your failings, and love yourself despite them, and do your best to surround yourself with people who will treat you with kindness, then you can be successfuln and you can be happy, which is so much better than perfect.