Jul 03, 2016

2015-2016 year in review

It's been about a year since my last year in review, and my life has been changing a lot lately, so it feels like a good time to reflect on the past year. I'll likely do a 6-month review in January to bring myself in sync with everyone else.

I'm not thrilled with the format I used last year, which was dominated by responses to the PhilPapers survey. My approach here will be a loosely structured prose narrative. I think this will make the review useful and accessible, while maintaining flexibility when writing.


(Following my framework for thinking about performance.)

Technical skill

Improving my programming and statistical ability was a major goal of mine over the past year. Towards this goal, I continued working through Learn Python the Hard Way, enrolled in a Udacity Nanodegree (in Data Analysis), and pursued a couple coding projects on my own.

I'm not very satisfied with my progress here. I still haven't finished all of Learn Python the Hard Way, and I made only intermittent progress on the Nanodegree (I would work diligently for a few days or a week, then drop it entirely for several weeks, then begin feeling guilty/anxious about my lack of progress and start working diligently again, beginning the cycle anew).

This is frustrating, because I really want to learn about these subjects. I feel that my poor performance in this domain is not a failing of desire to learn, or ability to handle the material, but one of conscientiousness (sidenote: Gwern has an interesting page on the effects of IQ and conscientiousness on online education outcomes).

My failure to accomplish as much as I wanted here is a strong signal that something is going wrong – I either need to revise my goal or revise my approach. I have a chronic problem of setting highly ambitious goals for myself, then only working casually towards these goals, falling away from the ambitious schedule, feeling bad about this, then either abandoning the project or revising the schedule (which repeats the cycle, because the revised schedule is also highly ambitious).

I basically think that I should no longer focus on teching up. I would classify my interest as casual, an "oh, that's interesting, let me poke around for a while" rather than a "wow this is the coolest thing and I have to learn everything that has ever been written about it." Another way of explaining this that resonates: I don't feel the same degree of excitement about coding or statistics as I do about writing – my interest in writing goes to depths unplumbed, whereas my interest in coding/statistics quickly bottoms out. That is not to say that this interest isn't there, or that it is in some way disingenuous. It is just to say that I believe my interest isn't sufficient enough to drive intense autodidacticism in these areas.

This means that (a) I'm not going to make an effort to learn technical things for a while (though I will likely pick up a fair bit of instrumentally useful technical stuff at my job), and (b) I'm not going to stress about about not learning technical things (I think guilt about being non-technical drives many non-technical people to attempt to learn technical topics, and to feel bad about their sporadic, insufficient efforts).

On the object level, this means stopping all technical learning I feel that I "should do," while continuing to learn things that grab my attention. One exception to this: I want to finish my Nanodegree by the end of August – towards this end I'm going to block off my Sunday mornings to work on the Nanodegree, either until it's finished or September arrives, whichever comes first.


My verbal communication improved over the past year, especially in professional contexts. I think this improvement was largely driven by increased confidence in my expressive ability. I'm not sure where the confidence boost came from.

My written communication ability hasn't changed very much over the last year, though I suspect I got better at cranking out emails that can be sent quickly, without spending too much time rephrasing or proofreading. This improvement also was driven by increased confidence in my expressive ability, as well as by a recognition that the minutia of my email style just doesn't matter very much.

Looking forward, I'm planning to continue working on my verbal expressiveness. I have some "rough around the edges" tone issues that could be smoothed out, as well as substantial anxiety about speaking to large groups of people. Also, I over-mediate my speech depending on my audience – if I perceive the person I'm speaking to as more powerful or hierarchically above me, I tend to be wish-washy and quick to walk back my opinions (as well as expressing fewer opinions in the first place). When speaking to someone I perceive as less powerful or hierarchically below me, I tend to be forceful and strongly opinionated. Ideally, I would just say what I think, regardless of my perception of my audience.

I'm planning to improve my verbal communication by attending Toastmasters and working through its Competent Communicator course. I think this will improve my public speaking by reducing anxiety and improving flow, tone, and delivery. I'm not sure if Toastmasters will help with the over-mediation, but it would be very surprising if it hurt.

I have complicated feelings about written expressiveness. For a long time, I have considered writing to be one of the things I do best, and I haven't seen much obvious room for improvement. This is a bit naïve – it would be very surprising if I was at the top of my writing game without doing any intentional work towards improving my ability. I think there are gains to be had, though I'm not sure how to realize them. With self-improvement, my emphasis has long been on growing in areas where I am weak, rather than polishing up my strengths. But writing is one of my favorite things. I want to continue writing for my whole life, and investing time and effort into a pursuit I love seems robustly good. So I'm going to start thinking about how to improve as a writer. My first strategy is simple: write a lot. Ideally every day, and at least several times a week.

Project management

My biggest weakness in the project management domain is implementation. I'm very good at planning, but my follow-through needs work. There were several instances of this over the last year: in addition to the irregular progress on my Nanodegree, I did almost no work on the Chomksy project I outlined, read far less than I intended to, and did not do as much work on my professional goals as I would have liked.

This implementation failure is in part a symptom of a planning failure: over-ambitious plans are bound to fail. It is a tricky balance: I want to be pushing myself with my plans, but not so far as to burn out when I don't achieve the planned goals. It's important to lay ambitious plans to ensure that I'm using all of my capacity (i.e. if I were to make easily achievable plans, I would not be challenging myself, and some of my capacity would remain unrealized). But too ambitious and the plan seems unrealistic or over-onerous, and thus demotivating. Right now, I'm too far in the over-ambitious direction.

One part of the solution here is to just do less. Have less stuff on my plate, and do the stuff on my plate very well. Not focusing on teching up will go a long way towards this, and there are other things I can pare down as well.

Another cause of the implementation failure is lack of discipline. I am a conscientious person, but variably so. I go through periods of shirking responsibility, of gleefully disregarding my carefully laid plans, and of plain akrasia. These periods are likely not going away, though I could find strategies to minimize their impact.

I don't have many actionable ideas for improving my project management, but I've come to a useful diagnosis of my problem. Going forward, I will reflect further about this when making plans.


I did a fair amount of worldview building over the two years. For most "big" questions, I now have an answer that I operate under. I think having a more solid worldview has improved my vision (which I define as "ability to decide what to do next").

This is the least well-specified domain in my performance framework, and I can struggle to think clearly about it. I am weak on macro-level vision – I don't know what career track I want to be on (though it's likely academia, politics, or the startup-o-sphere). On intermediate vision, I feel better. I almost always know what I'd like to accomplish during the week ahead, and I usually know what I want to accomplish during the upcoming month.

I'm not planning to explicitly work on improving my vision in the upcoming months, though I expect it to improve as my worldview continues to distill. (sidenote: I think I should specify the vision domain better, because I'm not convinced it is useful as-is.)


As mentioned above, I did a lot of worldview building over the last two years. Although I took stabs at laying out my thinking, much of this was implicit. In contrast to where I was a few years ago, I just feel more settled (and more self-possessed as a result).

Last summer, I enacted a radical open period. I made an explicit announcement of the period's beginning, and I think it pretty clearly came to an implicit end sometime during the last year. It was a useful exercise, and I feel no desire to do a postmortem of it here.

I'm not going to try to carefully lay out my worldview, but in slogan form it could be stated as: "Use empirical evidence to figure out what to believe, and test your beliefs whenever possible. Interrogate your beliefs, and try very hard to change them when they appear wrong, but do not doubt them simply because they run contrary to the opinion of others. Make morally good decisions when you feel the urge to, as well as when it is easy to do so, but do not feel obligated to be as moral as possible. Use loosely specified consequentialism for moral decision-making. Assess arguments based on their merits, not based on their context or their advocates. Recognize that other people are mistaken about a lot of things, and that you are also mistaken about many things."

Yeah, that looks about right.

Life narrative

My life changed a lot over the past year, and it is in a transitional phase as I write.

At my job, I grew more confident and took on more responsibility. I also felt an increasing urge to leave, as I didn't find the work intrinsically satisfying and wasn't growing as fast as I would have liked. In early 2016 I dedicated a lot of energy to thinking about what I wanted to do professionally, and pursued promising leads. One of these promising leads yielded an offer, which I took. I started my new job in late May. I feel good about this job. I enjoy my co-workers, I care about the mission, and I believe that I will grow quickly. But it is still early days, so I'll leave off without further discussion.

I recently moved from California to Michigan, at least for the summer and perhaps for longer. I did this to start dating someone who I'm excited about (we met via Tinder when I was visiting Michigan in the winter; it has been the most successful Tinder interaction I have ever had or ever heard of; I should probably contact Tinder to discuss using our story in an ad campaign). My plan is to stay in Michigan for the summer, get to know this person I'm excited about, and decide at the end of the summer where I want to settle (my new job is at a distributed startup, which affords me the luxury of living wherever I want). It's very likely that I end up in either Michigan or the Bay Area, though I really don't know which. The looming decision is a bit fatiguing, but I have been managing it okay so far.

I took some really lovely motorcycle trips over the past year. In August 2015 I headed up the California coast road, then through Oregon, Washington, and back down. In November I took a nice dip down to LA. In May 2016 I took another trip up to Seattle, then further: explored the Olympic Peninsula, saw Victoria, Vancouver, and a sliver of British Columbia. I really love motorcycling, and recently I realized that motorcycling supports a more implicit interest: geography and demographics. I'm a bit embarrassed to proclaim a love of geography, it feels like the sort of thing stodgy 46-year-old dads enjoy, but when you find yourself putting off sleep in favor of reading about Ames, Iowa, what else can you say?

In spring 2016, I decided to take a longstanding casual interest in mindfulness more seriously, and enrolled in an 8-week course. I really liked the course, and I wanted to maintain a regular mindfulness & yoga practice afterwards, but I fell away. I have plans to reinvigorate my practice, but currently these plans are sitting in a box with all my other plans and it is not obvious that I'm about to pull them out and dust them off.


This review took quite a while to write, and the writing process was painful. I was very akratic, burning an entire evening on the internet instead of finishing the thing. Though I'm pretty happy with the result, I'm not confident that I'll be able to do such a heavy structure for next year's review. But that's far in the future.

More broadly, I've been writing on this blog for about 1.5 years now. Overall, I've been satisfied with it. It certainly hasn't blown up, but I never intended it to (though a secret, deep-down part of me would be unbelievably satisfied if it did). Existence as a public diary is sufficient: I write more seriously for the blog than I would for a private journal, and I navel-gaze less (an odd thing to say at the end of a massive introspective piece, I know, but trust me – however self-involved you find my blogging, my journaling is massively more so). Plus it's nice to have something I can reference when a topic I've written about comes up in discussion.

In its 1.5 years, this blog has gone through some phases: there was the Freewheeling Juvenilia phase, then the Hey Look I Have Important Things To Say phase, then the Dabbling In Prediction Markets phase.

I'm not really sure where we are now, but it is time for a shift in approach. I want this blog to move more in the direction of "public diary", and further away from "analysis of a possibly interesting and definitely obscure topic." I like interesting, obscure analyses, but they take a lot of work to crank out, they breed a lot of performance anxiety and writer's block, and I think I'll get more utility from stream-of-consciousness journaling than from carefully prepared treatising.

I'll think more about where I want to go with this thing, and might write more about it as well.

[rereads: 5, edits: many phrasing tweaks, style edits]