Dec 03, 2015

Lost time

Warning: navel-gaving ahead

I liked this passage from the recent New Yorker Profile on Nick Bostrom:

Bostrom has a reinvented man’s sense of lost time. An only child, he grew up—as Niklas Boström—in Helsingborg, on the southern coast of Sweden. Like many exceptionally bright children, he hated school, and as a teenager he developed a listless, romantic persona. In 1989, he wandered into a library and stumbled onto an anthology of nineteenth-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He read it in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he often visited to think and to write poetry, and experienced a euphoric insight into the possibilities of learning and achievement. “It’s hard to convey in words what that was like,” Bostrom told me; instead he sent me a photograph of an oil painting that he had made shortly afterward. It was a semi-representational landscape, with strange figures crammed into dense undergrowth; beyond, a hawk soared below a radiant sun. He titled it “The First Day.”

I sympathize with this sense of lost time. Lately, I have felt like I'm learning about all sorts of big important things that will require a lot of time to get my head around. Harder still, several of the big important things probably require acquisition of technical skills which are no cakewalk to learn either.

If only I had been turned on to these ideas a few years earlier! Instead of learning a whole lot about the Siege of Alesia, I could have been learning about arguments surrounding the Fermi Paradox. Instead of learning Latin, I could have been learning Python. Instead of a major in history, one in statistics. Or computer science. Or physics. Or economics, at least.

The picture I painted in that last paragraph is too bleak. I did get a lot out of my education – I can write well, and I can learn new things easily. Having a bunch of eccentric facts rattling around my head is pretty nice as well, especially in social situations ripe for amusing anecdotes.

But I can't shake the sense that all of that time could have been better spent. All the "could have been's" are useless, but the general sentiment is useful. I don't have very much time, and knowing what time poorly spent feels like is important for appreciating the time coming down the pipe. I have a lot of catching up to do, and I'll only get my head around all those big important things by chipping away one hour at a time.

Holden uses a heuristic that I like:

I have a general heuristic of “when in doubt, say no to everything that isn’t a core priority.”

I'm tempted to adopt this myself. I have a lot of ideas for interesting projects to work on, and these all float around in my head without prioritization. If the status quo persists, I'd expect most of these projects to be dropped and a few to be half-heartedly executed. But doing something well requires full-hearted execution. And full-hearted execution eats up a lot of capacity. Ergo, doing things well means that I can only do a few things at a time.

Trouble is, I don't know what my core priorities are. I have a guess, but it's shifting, fickle, and uncertain. I don't think I need an ordered list of everything that I want to do, but I'd benefit from a rough idea of where I'm headed.

So I'll work on that. Figure out the current core priorities, drop everything else, and execute on what remains.

[rereads: 2, edits: some word-choice changes, small formatting tweaks; I will probably think this post is written in an absurdly young voice when read at some future point]