Jan 01, 2019

2018 reflections & 2019 aspirations

Other parts of the 2018 review: analytic, state of the blog.
2017 review: analytic, narrative.
2016 review: analytic, narrative.

Last year I noted a growing reluctance to publicly discuss the arc of my life. That holds true this year for the same reasons.

I'm more comfortable reflecting on my 2018 aspirations, and talking about my 2019 aspirations, so let's do that.

2018 aspirations... how'd those go?

Four stances I aspired to at the beginning of last year:

  • Deliberate performance at work
  • Using entry points to drive my learning
  • Writing business cases for decisions where more than $300 was at stake
  • Saying "no" and saying "yes"

Let's consider each in turn.

Deliberate performance at work. This was aimed at people management, following Ben West's thinking.

At the beginning of 2018, I was managing a team of 12. I'd also meet regularly with several other teams to stay coordinated. So I was having a lot of conversations!

I started keeping a journal of my work conversations – whenever something surprising or important happened in a conversation, I'd take a couple minute afterward to write down what happened & my off-the-cuff impressions of it. At the end of each week, I'd read through the journal as part of my weekly review.

I left that job in April, and stopped keeping a work-journal then because I was no longer meeting with multiple people every day.

Keeping this journal felt like a useful practice, though I don't have specific examples of its benefit. I think it caused me to pay closer attention to how my body & psychology were affected by conversations I was having (things easy to gloss over when I'm in the flow of a workday!). It may have also helped improve my understanding of my colleagues, because I was regularly taking time to reflect on our interactions.

If I start managing several people again, I'll probably return to keeping a journal like this.

Entry points to drive learning. Tyler Cowen suggests using entry points to learn about new topics, where an entry point is a question or subtopic that seems self-evidently interesting. Another example – studying Indian textiles to learn about Indian history & culture.

The theory is that exploring the entry point will generate a lot of learning about the supertopic, without feeling onerous or unpleasant.

I did something like this a few times in 2018, though not very intentionally:

  • OpenAI's AI and Compute (a) and AI Impact's Interpreting AI Compute Trends (a) helped me learn about the compute requirements of best-in-class AI, and the implications for AGI timelines.

  • Following Kuppy's investments (mostly in offshore oil and natural gas) helped me learn about investing principles and corporate governance.

  • Larks' 2018 AI Alignment Literature Review brought me up to speed on the year's AI safety work, plus generated an exciting reading list for going deeper on the subject.

  • Most of this blog's posts could function as entry points into their respective subject areas, but I haven't done any deep dives here.

Written business cases. I wrote out seven business cases in 2018, fewer than I was expecting to. I think these are basically good to do, especially for high-stakes decisions, but they're very heavyweight & I'm not sure how much they actually refine my decision-making.

Planning to deprecate this practice in 2019, though I'll probably do something like it for very high-stakes decisions (e.g. for whether or not to take a job).

Saying "no" and saying "yes." Last year I wrote:

So in 2018, I aspire to say "no" to things that don't deeply matter to me when I'm thinking about how to spend my time. And simultaneously, I aspire to say "yes" to everything that arises in my life, as it occurs.

I did this very imperfectly in 2018, in both directions – I didn't say "no" as frequently as I could have to things that don't really matter to me (thought-experiment: I probably would have made many choices differently if I had had a diagnosis of six months to live), and I didn't affirm the things arising in my life as much as I could have either.

I continue to like this sentiment & will keep it in mind going forward. I'm planning to hold it lightly – no metrics for this, and no beating myself up when I fall short.

Other stuff that happened in 2018

  • Finished my series on consequentialist cluelessness – I'm pretty happy with how this turned out
  • I left a job in April, and started working on another project
  • As above, thought some about AGI timelines & concluded that AGI is unlikely within the next 10 years (deeply uncertain about all this stuff though)
  • Spent some time in Italy & Greece, which was really nice
  • Did a couple of meditation retreats (some discussion here)
  • I took the GRE and applied to a couple grad programs, though I remain bearish about grad school being a good idea for me
  • Wrote an essay about giving & happiness towards the end of the year

Aspirations for 2019

I have a bunch of concrete goals for 2019, but don't want to reify them here. Below are some aspirational stances I'm holding going into the new year.

Everything compounds. As I continue to plug away at projects with long time horizons, I'm coming to appreciate the power of compounding (a) more & more.

Sure, investments compound – everyone knows that. Best to start saving early!

And so does literally everything else. Romantic relationships, platonic relationships, work towards goals, good habits, bad habits, institutional norms, community norms.

This is sorta vague & hand-wavy. But I think there's a real, important kernel here, and coming to appreciate this kernel is a big update for me.

I used to think that many actions had limited impact – limited by my memory, the memory of others, and the chaotic mixing of the world.

It turns out that memory is long, and actions have ripples that carry across long time horizons. Even when an action doesn't appear to have immediate ripples, its effects can surface years later. Everything compounds.

This is kinda about karma, kinda about complexity theory, kinda about old-fashioned common sense. "Reputations take a lifetime to build and a minute to destroy."

I aspire to keep the compounding-ness of things in mind as I move through 2019, and the years that follow.

Don't rush, and rushing isn't a speed. A teacher I respect sometimes says that "mindfulness doesn't have a speed." I think a corollary to this is that rushing doesn't have a speed either.

Rushing is a state of mind.

Sometimes right after I wake up in the morning, my mind feels very rushed. It's a constrained feeling, and it demands immediate action (it doesn't really matter what the action is; it just wants to be doing something). I've noticed that this rushed headspace can arise even when I'm on vacation or on retreat, when there really isn't anything I need to get done.

I've also noticed that the feeling doesn't correlate strongly with my productivity. Sometimes when my mindset is very open & spacious (i.e. unrushed) I get an enormous amount done. And sometimes when my mind is rushed, tight, and urgent, I accomplish little.

(Elon Musk talks about his mind feeling like "a never-ending explosion" in his interview with Joe Rogan, which seems analogous.)

At the margin, I think feeling less of this rushed-ness would be good for me. So I'm aspiring to keep in mind that this feeling is orthogonal to my productivity, and that it's not something I'm looking to cultivate.

Beware the counterwill force. Developmental psychology sometimes talks about the counterwill force (a) as something present in toddlers.

I'm not sure why the concept hasn't permeated into adult psychology – it feels very relevant to my own mind. Basically, whenever I firmly assert that I have to do something, it's pretty likely that a strong countervailing force arises arguing that no, in fact I do not.

This phenomenon complicates self-improvement.

I'm reminded of the Zen advice for dealing with difficult emotions & desires: "To control a cow, put it in a wide pasture."

Something in that direction feels right. In 2019, I aspire to keep an eye on my counterwill tendencies. When I take on self-improvement projects, I'll try to not force the improvements.