Rationally choosing a life: part II

Four months ago I wrote an article on the process of deciding what to do with my life. I promised an update in two months and then lay back and listened to the famed whooshing noise the deadline made as it rushed past.

Amazingly, complete strangers have been emailing me every week since to ask where the update is. I'm not sure whether the ideas struck a chord, or whether I just pulled the blog equivalent of going into a bookstore and ripping the last pages out of all the detective novels.

Either way, here are some things that happened:

I spent two months in London. Much of that time was spent looking at various companies, labs, jobs and courses online. I bookmarked 49 companies and 13 schools and contacted none of them. I realize after the fact that I procrastinated on the next steps because deep down inside I'm some kind of feral man-ape that can't even handle committing to a single country, let alone showing up at an office at the same time every morning. More on that later.

I did apply for Cognitive and Decision Sciences at UCL. The rolling application process filled all the places before they even reached my application, but a few months later they looked at it and liked it enough to offer me a place in advance for fall 2017. I don't have to make a decision until October, but I'm leaning towards saying no simply because the gap between the decision point and the actual start of the course is so long. I don't want to commit to something and then sit around twiddling my thumbs for 12 months.

I was staying with a friend in Beijing when I wrote the last post and I spent my last week there mostly reading, climbing and eating ridiculous amounts of food. I read 9 books that week, and also started a habit of publishing notes. I'm surprised at how many people seem to find those notes valuable, far more so than the blog posts where I try to communicate ideas that I think are valuable and/or novel. I've also ended up referring back to the notes myself multiple times, especially when trying to dig up citations.

I spent a week in Budapest with another friend where, thanks to forgetting to pack a phone charger, I was offline for the entire week. This was such a pleasant experience that I've since brutally cut down my online activity. (RescueTime confirms that I've consistently stuck to this for two months.) The biggest change was learning to recognize the feeling of craving distraction and closing my laptop/phone in response.

I spent two weeks in NYC for the 'Tools for Thought' workshop. I was really unsatisfied with the talk I gave but the workshop was otherwise fantastic and I got to meet some amazing people. I don't like the city itself though, and I spent a lot of the time there fretting about how much money I was spending without any idea yet of where the next paycheck is going to come from.

I visited Berlin for a week. I met lots of interesting people and wandered into many interesting nooks and crannies, and decided to live here. The quality and cost of living are amazing for such a vibrant international city and the tech scene has more artists and anarchists than startup cultists.

I took an intensive German course in the first month. Contrary to literally every single thing I've heard about it, German is a delight. There are a lot of tables to memorize but it's complicated, not hard, and after that you get to play with the non-linear grammar and compound words, which tickle my brain delightfully. My favorite word so far is Betriebsblindheit - the state of being blinded by routine.

I also spent six weeks on a consulting contract that is not really working out, in part because of the aforementioned feral man-ape thing. Let's talk about that some more.

I have a really strong visceral reaction to obligations, such as having to be in a specific country at 9am every morning. This affects me to the extent that being obliged to do something that I already wanted to do can be enough to make me revolt, flip the table over, sell everything I own and move to Germany.

People have a tendency to tell me that this is just the way the world works and I had better get used to it, to which I tend to reply that this is the way your world works and I didn't vote for it.

I think there is a trick to dealing with this. There are essentially two ways to make money:

Most of the things that bother me come about because of the second option. As soon as someone starts giving me money in advance I suddennly feel obliged to keep doing whatever it is that they wanted me to do, which means that I no longer want to do it.

The first option seems to be much better. There is still a degree of accountability, but it's much more delayed. If I decide to dedicate all my time to adding cat pictures to my work, people may well stop giving me money. But they can't insist that because they are giving me money I can't decide to dedicate all my time to adding cat pictures to my work. The obligation is asserted through my bank account rather than through managerial permission and that somehow makes it better. If that doesn't make sense, it's probably because I'm a feral man-ape and you're thinking in econ. I'm not supposed to make sense.

Let's take a brief empirical detour and look at things that made me happy in the last year. I noticed recently that all the highlights were holidays. That's not surprising in itself, but what is surprising is that those same holidays were also much more productive that the surrounding time. What seems to happen is that most of the year I sit around at home in front of my laptop, refreshing hacker news and beating myself up about not being productive. When I'm on holiday, I give myself permission to do whatever I feel like doing, and occasionally I feel like reading a book or writing some code. And because I don't have to do those things, and because there are plenty of guilt-free holiday alternatives, I don't procrastinate at all.

So if I decide that I'm going to embark on a grand project to make a thing that people will give me money for, the most likely outcome is that I will sit around beating myself up about not doing that.

Instead, I'm going to take a long holiday. I transferred some of my savings to my freshly opened hi-tech German bank account - enough to live on for 3-6 months, depending on how thrifty I am. During that time I'm going to wake up each morning and spend the day doing whatever I feel like doing.

The reason that this is a good plan is that when the money comes to an end and I look back at what I did with the summer, I'd be pretty happy if I spent the summer climbing, or reading, or coding, or learning to juggle, or pretty much anything except for:

  1. Wasting time on the internet
  2. Beating myself up about not being productive

But I seem to have got a handle on 1 lately, and 2 is not a problem because I'm on holiday. It may turn out that I do something interesting that leads to people giving me money, but I'm very explicitly not relying on or planning for that. I'm just going to do things I enjoy while I have money because that's the whole point of having money in the first place, and it completely defies the point if I waste all my money on worrying about how to get more money.