Humans of SymSys: Paul Gregg


"Get a Master's if you want to play with magma."

Paul is a recent grad who got his undergraduate degree in Symbolic Systems with a concentration in Decision Making and Rationality. 

Introduce yourself: I graduated in 2017, have since been taking really great "gap" time, and am now looking to settle into a job. Some of my fondest memories at Stanford were made with Fleet Street, Camp Kesem, my quarter with BOSP Australia, and being an RA in Roble. I love making music and running around outside (ocean, mountains, you name it)!

What drew you to the SymSys major? Why did you pick SymSys as opposed to other (especially, related) majors?

I've always considered myself a generalist, and throughout college my interests were always pretty varied and hard to narrow down. Freshman and sophomore year I tried to pick classes based purely on interest, and when I looked back after a few quarters, my transcript screamed SymSys. I guess I chose Symsys over related majors because I wanted a sense of breadth/a "liberal arts" education, but also liked the sense of cohesion Symsys offered.

What is your concentration and why did you choose it?

I concentrated in Decision Making & Rationality! I started off in Learning, because I've always loved working with kids and have been fascinated by their brains, but changed course once I discovered that the "other" learning — machine — was not my passion. I chose DM&R because I felt like I could spend another 4 years at Stanford taking just classes from the concentration list. I think the concentration is so applicable to life: it helped me to understand myself and other people as decision-making agents from multiple points of view. After all, life is just a series of decisions!

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken so far?

I think Moral and Character Education was my favorite Symsys class I took. I took it senior year, and it really clicked as something I genuinely loved and found really important, not just a class I felt like I had to take for "skills." Some other contenders are CS 103, Johan Ugander's networks class, Brian Knutson's neuroeconomics class, POLISCI 356A, and the developmental psych Bing observation lab.

What is one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

Don't treat college as just laying the groundwork for your career. Life is about finding balance between working towards long-term goals and enjoying the now. At Stanford, it's really easy to be poorly balanced. Sleep more. Don't let self-care be a productivity tool. Make time to do nothing with your friends -- that's when you create the memories that'll last. You've already shown that you have the brains and the dedication to achieve; those won't go away overnight. Your chances at the many other rich and meaningful experiences that only college offers will. And support your friends at it too! It's tough to fight the duck syndrome alone, but if you encourage others, they'll find the courage to support you too.

As a diverse major with a lot of flexibility, many students struggle to find continuity across their coursework. (How) do you address this?

I'd say there are multiple flavors of continuity. Say I love to dig. I could pick up a shovel one day and dig one continuous hole through all of earth's layers until I hit the middle and finally figure out what's hiding down there. Or, I could dig a bunch of small holes all over the place and discover "whoa! There's dirt here, there, AND over there. They're all kinda different, this one's gravelly and that one's loamy, but they're all dirt! Who knew?" Both are pretty neat, and I think both offer some version of continuity. Symsys really only offers the latter kind. Get a Master's if you want to play with magma.

What’s the coolest (loosely) SymSys-related topic that you’re excited about right now?

Well, this prompt reminded me that I haven't checked in on the whole full-body transplant saga in a while. I was bummed to google it and find out it (maybe?) happened and sorta fizzled out. I think the experiment has fascinating repercussions for the whole "who am I, really" philosophy of mind debate. Also, as trite as it is, I think the impending age of AI and automation of the workforce is really important for everyone to think and talk about!

Paul is one of many profiles featuring selected alumni, undergraduates and graduates who are involved in the Symbolic Systems community.