Turning 30

I’m typ­i­cally not a big fan of birth­days, as tra­di­tions go, but some­thing about reach­ing a new decade makes it seem per­haps wor­thy of a bit more at­ten­tion.

Espe­cially given the stark con­trast be­tween the long view of look­ing a decade back and a decade ahead, and my pre­sent un­cer­tain cir­cum­stances. I can tell the broad tale of ten years of a ca­reer, but can’t tell you whether the in­ter­view I’m cur­rently go­ing through will re­sult in me chang­ing po­si­tions or not, which seems fairly rele­vant for de­ter­min­ing what the next ten years looks like. I can de­tail ten years of moves from apart­ment to apart­ment, but can’t pre­dict whether I will be in my cur­rent place in a year, let alone ten. A con­ver­sa­tion yes­ter­day es­tab­lished that I am ‘dat­ing’ a par­tic­u­lar fel­low in­stead of just ‘go­ing on dates’ with him, which I couldn’t re­li­ably have pre­dicted the day be­fore. As he is some­times fond of point­ing out, a solid strat­egy is pre­dict­ing that things will last as long as they’ve sur­vived so far, which is per­haps not the most op­ti­mistic pro­jec­tion for our for­mal re­la­tion­ship.

But there’s also this con­fi­dence in land­ing on my feet that I don’t think 20-year old me had; if this role doesn’t work out, there will be an­other one; if this hous­ing situ­a­tion doesn’t work out, there will be an­other one; if this re­la­tion­ship doesn’t work out, that’d be fine even if there weren’t an­other one. I do re­mem­ber hav­ing some con­fi­dence in this re­gard, but not nearly as much; it was only about two years ago when I stopped car­ing about whether or not things would look good on my re­sume, since it was no longer the limit­ing fac­tor in get­ting in­ter­views where I wanted to.

And such tem­po­rary dis­tur­bances get smoothed out when looked at from far enough away. So let us con­sider the Vaniver of May 7th, 2008. Finish­ing his sec­ond year of un­der­grad in Mary­land, he’s liv­ing in his sec­ond dorm room, work­ing as an un­der­grad­u­ate re­search as­sis­tant (I be­lieve already in his sec­ond lab), do­ing well in classes, post­ing on the xkcd fora, was fol­low­ing the Ron Paul cam­paign (which was clearly un­suc­cess­ful but not yet sus­pended), had already made his first ma­jor ro­man­tic ges­ture to R, and been to his first con­ven­tion (where he made a fool of him­self in front of R). He had re­cently switched to pri­mar­ily us­ing his gmail ac­count, reg­istered in 2006 (I be­lieve) af­ter he was too late to get ‘vaniver’ on AOL In­stant Mes­sen­ger and thus signed up for new ser­vices even if he didn’t ex­pect to use them.

What does he think of him­self? What are his goals? I only have some ac­cess—my mem­o­ries of the time are stored mostly as sto­ries in­stead of ex­pe­riences, with snip­pets here and there as­so­ci­ated to par­tic­u­lar things. But I don’t think he put much stock in turn­ing 20 speci­fi­cally; 18 un­locked le­gal adult­hood, and the un­locks of 21 were un­in­ter­est­ing to him, and he had felt like an adult for much longer. He dreamt of be­ing a mil­lion­aire at 30, but I don’t re­call *why* he wanted that be­yond that it was a nu­mer­i­cal goal. He had de­cided to avoid fi­nance, since it didn’t con­tribute to the En­light­en­ment-es­que pro­ject of im­prov­ing the hu­man con­di­tion, and in­stead learn physics and then ei­ther in­vent some­thing and turn it into a com­pany or go into man­age­ment con­sult­ing or some­thing similar.

I re­mem­ber hat­ing writ­ing the “what did you learn this semester?” es­says in my early school­ing days—I didn’t bother keep­ing men­tal diffs, and so it seemed like all of the facts that I knew were just ‘facts I know’ in­stead of sep­a­rated into ‘facts I learned re­cently’ and ‘facts I learned ear­lier.’ But ramp­ing up the time makes it eas­ier: that me hadn’t read Less Wrong yet, not dis­cov­er­ing it un­til ~2011 with Harry Pot­ter and the Meth­ods of Ra­tion­al­ity, which seems likely the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment of my 20s. He already had in­ter­ests that were broad and deep, and the main changes that have hap­pened on that front have been just how deep those in­ter­ests have got­ten af­ter a decade’s in­vest­ment; 10-year old me also liked math, but just hadn’t had time to learn very much; 20-year old me knew more, but 30-year old me knows even more.

Two months in to his twen­ties, he goes to an­other con, older and wiser, and this time im­presses R; this starts a few months of driv­ing up to New York to visit, the be­gin­nings of a long-term re­la­tion­ship, mov­ing in to­gether, break­ing up three months into a twelve month lease, con­tin­u­ing to live to­gether as friends, then mov­ing out and drift­ing fur­ther and fur­ther apart.

I sup­pose I should men­tion my idea of “life mis­takes,” by which I mean some­thing that I knew at the time what I should have done, and didn’t do it for rea­sons that were in­suffi­cient, but not some­thing where I couldn’t have known the right thing to do. Three things are on the list, and the first touches this bit of the story: it was the last day we could back out of mov­ing in to­gether, and I no­ticed that I felt wor­ried; I thought “ah, I will call R, and get re­as­sured.” So I called, he ex­ploded, I had to con­vince him that I wasn’t break­ing up with him, and then he was too ex­hausted to mean­ingfully re­as­sure me, and then the call ended. I looked at the phone and thought “huh, that was a worse out­come than I thought was pos­si­ble. If I had vi­su­al­ized this as a flowchart where the call was gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on whether or not we should move in to­gether, this would definitely point to the ‘we shouldn’t move in to­gether’ and ‘we should break up’ ac­tions, but I just said that wasn’t hap­pen­ing when I pan­icked un­der stress. It would be awk­ward to call him back and break up.” I have since up­dated, and will have deeply awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions and would make that sort of phone call to­day.

Since then, very lit­tle hap­pens when it comes to ro­mance—I ex­press in­ter­est in other peo­ple, other peo­ple ex­press in­ter­est in me, those groups have very lit­tle over­lap and it rarely works out for longer than a brief time. But my sus­pi­cion is that this was mostly a num­bers game, ex­ac­er­bated by be­ing mostly tied to en­g­ineer­ing cul­ture and de­tached from LGBT cul­ture—over the course of my life, I think I’ve asked out more than twice as many men who weren’t in­ter­ested in men than were. Prob­a­bly the longest re­la­tion­ship af­ter R is G, a fel­low reg­u­lar at the gay board gam­ing group in Austin who asked me out, I went on four dates with him, look­ing for some­thing to be im­pressed by, and then on not dis­cov­er­ing any­thing de­cided it wouldn’t work out.

What about ca­reer? Most of my 20s were spent in for­mal ed­u­ca­tion; I grad­u­ate from un­der­grad at 22, also found­ing a pub­lish­ing com­pany with a friend (which fails, mostly be­cause we paid in­suffi­cient at­ten­tion to mar­ket­ing /​ didn’t have a real enough model of why book sales hap­pen). My sec­ond ma­jor life mis­take hap­pens when I ap­ply to grad­u­ate schools for Physics but filter on whether or not they also have good Oper­a­tions Re­search pro­grams for the op­tion value, as op­posed to ap­ply­ing to schools for both Physics and OR (where I would have got­ten in to the top OR schools and the top 15 Physics schools, and might have ended up in the Bay that much sooner). I tran­si­tion from Physics to OR within the first two years, and then dis­cover the down­sides of a small pro­gram first­hand when my first choice for an ad­vi­sor re­tires, my sec­ond choice dies, and third out of eight is re­ally not that high a rank in per­centile terms. We end up not hav­ing a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship, our first pa­per to­gether stretch­ing on for years and then im­plod­ing, and I step side­ways out of grad­u­ate school into work­ing for the com­pany that had been fund­ing my re­search. As soon as I get through the door and they hand me an em­ployee badge, I’m al­lowed ac­cess to the yield data, which is con­sid­er­ably more valuable than the re­search I had been do­ing, and so that pro­ject falls by the wayside, and even­tu­ally I for­mally with­draw from the grad­u­ate pro­gram with only a mas­ters. After be­ing at Sam­sung for a year, I de­cide to fol­low ad­vice from Scott Adams to ap­ply for new jobs ev­ery year (ei­ther you get one, and move up, or you don’t, and you stay where you are, with only some va­ca­tion time lost), also not­ing that I had never re­ally been on the job mar­ket, and so had no idea what my salary should ac­tu­ally be. A friend in Austin was work­ing on a Hired clone, In­deed Prime; I use it and end up hired by In­deed.

A brief de­tour on fi­nances; thanks to the gen­eros­ity and fore­sight of my par­ents, and their trust of my judg­ment, I was es­sen­tially handed my col­lege fund at 18, and told to make good choices and take out loans if I needed any­thing else. But I had read the stud­ies on that col­leges were ba­si­cally all se­lec­tion effect in­stead of treat­ment effect, and so was fine go­ing to the state uni­ver­sity where I had a full ride rather than de­plet­ing the fund to go to a fancier school, in­stead in­vest­ing the money ‘for grad­u­ate school’ (tho, of course, grad­u­ate school is free for STEM stu­dents). Here re­sides the third of the three ma­jor life mis­takes, how­ever; in about 2012, I was talk­ing to friends min­ing Bit­coin (then worth about $8) and then im­me­di­ately sel­l­ing it (to cover the cost of the elec­tric­ity). “But don’t you think it’ll go up?” I ask, and they sort of shrug; I say to my­self “I should put a thou­sand dol­lars into this in case it ex­plodes.” But then I don’t ac­tu­ally put in the calories of figur­ing out how to set it up, and don’t buy in un­til 2013 when Coin­base ex­ists (and the price is already about $1k).

So for all of my twen­ties, I don’t think I ever dropped be­low 5 years of run­way in the bank, so long as I kept a grad­u­ate stu­dent’s lifestyle; when I went from be­ing a grad­u­ate re­search as­sis­tant to an en­g­ineer­ing in­tern to an en­g­ineer to a data sci­en­tist, ev­ery step was (ap­prox­i­mately) a dou­bling in in­come, and there was cred­ible rea­son to think an­other dou­bling was pos­si­ble tho un­likely (if I man­aged to land the right sort of ML po­si­tion). But my stan­dard of liv­ing only went up by, say, 10%; I spent about a year try­ing to put all this newfound money to use in a way that would ac­tu­ally move the nee­dle on my life satis­fac­tion, and no­ticed very lit­tle. I ba­si­cally aban­don the goal to be­come a mil­lion­aire, and start think­ing of money as a loose con­straint in­stead of as an ac­tual op­ti­miza­tion tar­get.

In­deed sends me to San Fran­cisco for a month for train­ing; while there I get pitched on do­ing writ­ing for MIRI. I balk; I just took a new job, I had just looked at the bill for the ho­tel room in down­town SF where In­deed was putting me up for a month; surely they can find some­one else to do writ­ing for them. Months go by, I set­tle in to my work at In­deed, and then go to a CFAR work­shop where I think through bits of how my ca­reer will af­fect the fu­ture, and whether it makes more sense to end up at Deep­mind or MIRI. I talk to MIRI again; em­piri­cally, they can’t find some­one else, and I should be think­ing of their can­di­date list as hav­ing two peo­ple on it (one of them me), rather than thirty. “Well, you only need to ask twice,” I say to my­self, and leave In­deed for MIRI, mov­ing to the Bay in Novem­ber. (My cur­rent un­cer­tain­ties are about at­tempt­ing to move from my writ­ing role to a tech­ni­cal role at MIRI, which per­haps I clear the bar for, and per­haps do not.)

So all in all, the sense is that there’s only been one big change: join­ing the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity and go­ing from lurker to com­menter to poster to spear­head­ing com­mu­nity in­fras­truc­ture pro­jects and liv­ing in the ra­tio­nal­ist village in Berkeley. But that also doesn’t seem like it would sur­prise the Vaniver of 2008; show him LW a few years early and he’ll jump ship to it just like he did on dis­cov­er­ing it later. For the rest of my life, it seems to be ‘the same but more,’ in a way that steadily ac­cu­mu­lates.