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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Was I this mature then?

Yesterday I realized that I hadn't logged in to my Hotmail account in a really long time, so I thought I would try logging in to make sure that it had not expired. Upon logging in I found that this account was frozen in time. When I was creating my Hotmail account I had the idea that this would be my official account and so I had not signed up for any weekly digests or newsletters. Consequently, the first page of my inbox was filled with formal email conversations from a couple of years back that I had had with friends, college seniors and employees in Open Source organizations. I found these emails really fascinating and I thought I would browse through them for a bit - to decide whether I should delete this account or keep it so that I could refer to these emails later.

I was really intrigued by the content of the emails. It was not that the emails showed a level of understanding of Computer Science topics that I didn't know I possessed a couple of years back. No, it was pretty clear from the emails that my knowledge of Computer Science topics had increased over the past few years thanks to the courses that I have been taking and the books that I have been reading. What stunned me was the level of maturity of the person who had written the emails. I found it hard to believe that I had written all those emails; surely I wasn't that mature back then? Then it struck me that I had often seen many parents express similar feelings of disbelief when they saw their child say or do something that was mature for his or her age. I know that more often than not they are right about the fact that the action was unexpectedly mature for a child of that age. But sometimes it is due to the fact that we tend to underestimate how mature a child of that age would be. Why? Because when we have no reference to compare to (we don't know enough people in that age group to generalize), we try to remember how mature we were at that age based on a few incidents that come to our mind. This is exactly what I was doing while going through those emails.

We all know/have those Aunts and Uncles who are great with kids. What sets them apart from others? It is the fact that they are able to estimate the level of maturity of the kids better. Why are they able to do so? Is it because they know a lot of kids of different age groups and are thus able to generalize accurately at any given point of time? Seems highly unlikely. I think the key idea is that they never lost touch with how mature they were at a given age. This begs the question, why do we forget how mature we were some time back? I think this is because we incorrectly correlate an increase in knowledge in any area to an increase in the level of maturity. Sure, reading a few books and figuring out the solutions to a few problems helps you draw analogies between new problems that you encounter and problems that you have solved, but have you become more mature at the end of the exercise? Probably not. Unfortunately we can't quantify maturity, but if we were to estimate how mature someone is we would probably look at a few key areas like: their understanding of social norms, their views on how risky something is, they ability to control their temper, their ability to recognize that there may be no single solution to a problem, their ability to recognize that quite often there is no right or wrong but only shades of gray / circumstantial correctness, their views on religion, their views on sex, etc. My point is, the next time you learn something new, make it a point to ask yourself, "Have I become more mature after acquiring this piece of information?". Many people, myself included, don't put in the time and effort to ask themselves this question and over a period of time forget how mature they were a while back.

So why is all this important? We regularly find ourselves debating with others on important issues - sometimes with those who are younger than us. Even if you are debating with those who are older than you, the roles are reversed so that the above applies to them. In a debate our goal is to pool our common knowledge and try to arrive at a solution to the issue at hand that is most acceptable to all parties involved. It is therefore crucial that we understand the context in which a person expresses a particular thought, and we use a person's level of maturity (amongst other things) to give context to his/her ideas. Now if we are unable to correctly estimate a person's level of maturity, we may dismiss good suggestions put forward by that person based on the false premise that he/she is 'immature'. The conclusion is that if you are in a debate, it is in everyone's best interest that you correctly estimate everyone's level of maturity and to do so you need to be in touch with your own level of maturity and how it has changed over a period of time.

So when you have some time on your hands, open up a few emails in your inbox from a couple of years back and see if you are surprised by the level of maturity of the younger you. I sure was!

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