On the Genealogy of Myself

Spencer Yen
9 min readJul 23, 2018

Written as the final essay for a class I took called Contemporary Civilization, referred to as CC

I apologize in advance if this “essay” isn’t quite essay like — I really wanted to take this opportunity (and appreciate you for hopefully allowing me) to just write out a stream of consciousness of what I’ve been thinking about in the past year: in the context of CC, and in the context of the greater picture of my life. Especially during finals week at a school like Columbia, it’s really easy to be intoxicated by the infinite stresses of school. It’s funny writing this in the midst of it all — just this morning I bombed a final exam for Computer Science Theory that I’d spent all of my weekend studying for, got a coffee, went to our last CC class and had a pleasantly stimulating discussion on Fanon, ate lunch, and now I’m writing this final paper that’s due tomorrow. After this, I’ll move right onto the next assignment, the next final to study for, as I process and output information like an automaton. But one of the things that CC has helped me do is take a step back from the constant busyness of day to day and take time to think. That’s what I’m going to try to do now. What is my place in the context of the world? What really matters to me? How do I want to live my life? These are questions with no easy answers, and it’s my ongoing project to think about them for myself.

I always love coming up with pretentious titles — “On the Genealogy of Myself” is no exception. Recently I had one of those quintessential “deep” college 2AM conversations with a friend about how one’s personal experiences and formative childhood moments can explain the origins of their beliefs and ideas. She gave an example of Michel Foucault’s repressed sexuality and how all his ideas “now make sense” because of his personal experiences. It brought to mind our discussion on John Stuart Mill’s formative upbringing, where his father homeschooled him with the intention of making his son the perfect avatar of utilitarianism for the next generation. Mill’s basic utilitarian beliefs were evidently shaped by his father, but his post-existential crisis interest in romantic poetry seem to have even more formatively shape his worldview. The evolution of an individual’s values and ideas throughout the progression of their lives is just as fascinating as the ideas themselves.

I grew up in the Bay Area, a place increasingly known for its hyper competitive high schools and privileged overachieving students. I can’t say I’m an exception — my parents did a fine job of indoctrinating me with the meritocratic ideal of hard work equals success. My tunnel vision was up and to the right on the never ending stairway of success. Capitalist society told me to find my passion, so that I could write something meaningful on my college application, so I could go to an élite college, so that I can find a well paying job, so that I can be “successful” in life. Maybe finding your passion is just a euphemism for the division of labor.

At the end of middle school I learned how to code to make an iPhone game, because the thought of making my own ideas a reality was exciting (the 21st century Lego). The highly marketable skill of knowing how to code somehow led me to my first summer job as a software engineering intern at a tech startup. Capitalism managed to do it — they got a 15 year old to enter the workforce willingly! Adam Smith would probably have been proud of this productive young capitalist laborer. In retrospect, these experiences distorted my view of labor and money at a young age. Work as a concept was fun to me, and the unreasonably high paying nature of programming jobs made it seem like money wasn’t hard to make. Somewhat similar to the bourgeois class that Marx critiqued in The Communist Manifesto, my ideas on the world became an “outgrowth of the conditions of [my] bourgeois production and bourgeois property” (487). I viewed the world through my experience of working, and probably had a superiority complex in viewing myself as different than most of my peers. I became a perfect example of Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization in Hind Swaraj, at a young age already “enslaved by the temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy” (32). I don’t mean to be pessimistic about this, I’m very grateful for my early professional exposure. But it has put me in a weird position in college that has made me question what I really like to do, and what kind of career I really want to pursue for my life.

I was first exposed to the philosophy of the Stoics sometime in my junior year of high school through blog posts describing stoicism as a “life-hack” and tool for self-improvement. Reading quotes of Seneca and Epictetus felt liberating — here was a fancy seeming philosophical framework that put me in control of how I acted and reacted to the world. I embraced stoicism (or at least what I thought it was) as tool to be as productive as possible and achieve success, to the point I think I was unconsciously suppressing emotions. As an ambitious teenager armed with the shield of stoicism, I felt a need to prove myself to those around me. Much of my self-worth was measured by how “successful” I considered myself to be, and how successful others considered me to be. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s terms, this was textbook amour propre — man comparing himself to others and the need to boost his public esteem. For Rousseau, this drove inequality in society, and for me, it pushed me to climb higher on the never ending stairway to success. The interesting part — if I had to psychoanalyze myself — was that academically, I was far from a genius. I’d dropped out of the academic arms race of GPA, SAT, and science and math competitions, because I knew I couldn’t compete with my peers on those fronts. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but my method of amour propre was to try to excel in different verticals that had less competition. If I paved my own path, then by definition I’d be the best at it. I was always pursuing some ill-defined future goal that I thought would prove that I “made it”: raise funding for my own startup, intern at XYZ prestigious company, or release an app that goes viral.

If this kind of pre-professional childhood sounds bleak, I don’t blame you. By senior year of high school I started to really think about why I was doing what I was doing, ironically because of college applications. So many of my peers (and myself) were living their lives jumping through hoops for the sake of college admissions. In the “holistic” admissions meritocracy, passions were commoditized and sold in packages of extracurriculars to teenagers. And this was a double-edged sword: high school students were more accomplished on paper than ever, but as Adam Smith writes, perhaps it was all “at the expense of [their] intellectual, social, and martial virtues” (840). I didn’t want to be a hoop jumping sheep following the herd, but I was also becoming jaded by my “alternate” path of making apps and chasing pre-professional success. It’s funny that I did end up at Columbia — I think only after getting admitted did I feel that I’d proved myself in some capacity.

College, and specifically elite colleges, make for an interesting microcosm of society. Some of the smartest and most talented high school graduates are thrown into a new unfamiliar environment where they are told, among other things, to figure out what they want to do in life. Coming into college, I thought that my approach was going to be to take the experience at face value, and enjoy four years of independence away from home to do whatever I want. But in reality, I found myself simply setting foot into a new group of peers to constantly compare myself to. Since day one, I felt a need to seem cool, impress others, make friends, and prove myself to others. For us insecure overachievers, amour propre became amplified.

If you flipped through my CC class notes, you’ll notice that the margins of my notes of Mill’s On Liberty are filled with scribbles hastily emboldened with stars and underlines. If an education is a liberation, then this day of discussing On Liberty in CC was at least half of my liberation. Mill’s views on individuality articulated the missing piece of what I value: individuality is essential to the cultivation of the self. It is as simple as recognizing that you must make your own choices as an individual. As Mill writes, “He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties” (58). In deciding how we want to live our lives, there is no one right answer for all of us, there is one right answer for each of us. Mill writes that we should run different “experiments of living,” of trying things out and seeing if it works or not for ourselves.

It’s easy and natural to compare yourself to another person’s life and use their life path as a template for your own. Treating life as an experiment allows you to live your own life; you can decide if you want to follow a path, or maybe start a new path. The whole purpose of individualism and experiments is to unlock the best possible life for yourself. This allows for us to have the ability to make our own decisions and live our own life — we can all become the übermensch inside of us. Accepting and internalizing this belief has changed both how I make my own decisions and I view others’ decisions. There is no moral high ground of how someone should live their life; everyone has a unique past and should do what is best for them.

The importance of making choices reminds me of an experience I now remember as “sandwich philosophy”: One day last summer, a friend and I ate catered sandwiches for lunch at the company I worked at. As we were about to clean up and leave, I noticed that there was one fully unopened sandwich on my friend’s plate. I asked him if he was going to eat it, and he told me that he was going to throw it away because he was full and there was no label on the sandwich. I dismissed it in passing, but then right before we stood up, he paused: “Wait. What if this mystery sandwich turns out to be the best sandwich I’ve ever had?” I paused, and considered this Schrodinger’s sandwich possibility. I thought, this mystery sandwich probably won’t be the best sandwich — but that’s just a preconceived assumption. We don’t know for sure until we try. After agreeing that we were obliged to unwrap the packaging to see what the sandwich was, we excitedly unwrapped it to utter disappointment.

It was a veggie sandwich. I’d accepted the defeat, but then my friend paused me again: “Wait. Have you ever even had a veggie sandwich before?” Turns out, neither of us had ever tried a veggie sandwich before. “If you’ve never tried it,” he said, “how do you know it’ll be bad?” He was right. I’d been living under a dogma that for some reason veggie sandwiches were bad. So, I had to take a bite out of the sandwich. At this point in the story I wish I could say it turned out to be the best sandwich I’ve ever had, but life doesn’t always have happy endings. The veggie sandwich tasted terrible. But I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t made the choice to try it.

I’m going to be trite here: In life, you never know until you try. It’s up to the individual to make choices and do things. So open that sandwich, take a bite out of that sandwich, and find out for yourself. That’s how I want to live my life right now, and I’m excited for the path that I choose for myself.

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”

— Friedrich Nietzsche

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Spencer Yen

small stories, writings, and uninformed opinions from my life