Lifelong investments

by jefftkjefftk5 min read23rd Jan 20215 comments

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World OptimizationPractical
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I love living in Boston, and find the benefits go up each year. The longer I've been here, the more people I know, and the more integrated I am into my local communities. Friends move here because they like the community we've built and want to be closer. The house I've slowly been renovating gets closer and closer to what I want. I get to know the area better, and now that I have kids I know lots of fun places to take them.

I love being married to Julia, and the life we've been building together continues to get richer. She's by far my favorite person to talk to: with so much conversation over the years that we have an enormous amount of shared context and I'm so easily understood. As we continue to get to know each other better, we're better at helping each other and being the kind of partner the other needs. We can divide things up, making complementary investments in skills and responsibilities for our joint life.

I love my kids, and they just keep getting better. At four and six they have such deep personalities, interests, and ways of looking at the world. I love playing with them, showing them things, teaching them things, seeing how they figure things out.

I love my friends. So many backgrounds, skills, and interests. People to visit in so many places, people to catch up with after a long time, people I see almost every day. People to play with, people to ask for advice and help, people to give advice and help to.

I love my blog. When I have an idea that builds on an earlier one, I don't have to explain the other idea, I can link to where past me wrote it up. If I notice something related to something I've been thinking about, but too small for its own post, I can catalog it as a comment on an earlier post. I can notice places where my thinking has changed, and try to figure out why past me had a different view. People read my posts, find them useful, and leave good comments. Some of those people start reading regularly, continue leaving good comments, which attracts others who leave good comments. Being in the habit of writing means that when I want to communicate the barrier is low and I have lots of practice. Some ideas I have promoted here have caught on, and now I can read other people building on them.

I love my work. I've been programming since I was in elementary school, and I can make computers do what I want. I've built deep knowledge of web browsers, web performance, and the ads ecosystem. These compound and interact, and the more I do the better I am at my job. Even incidental things, like working with unix tools on the command line, compound: each new thing I learn makes many others slightly easier. The more systems I work on, the more I have a feel for others, being able to rely on my knowledge of "I would probably build it this way, so it probably works like this." The more coworkers I've had, the better I'm able to work with new ones.

I love making music. Every tune, rhythmic idea, chord progression, they all build together. I've been playing my different instruments long enough that if there's some thing I want to say musically, it often just comes out. If I get frustrated with one instrument, and go play another one for months, when I come back to the first one I'm often better because of what I learned elsewhere. Time I spend learning to play teaches me new skills that I can apply for the rest of my life.

If I look at how I spend my time, what my interests are, the people I'm around, it's not that different from 10 years ago. The difference is, by investing in all of these areas over years, they're deeper and more fulfilling. Which makes me want to give the advice: pick somewhere, settle down, put down roots; marry and build a joint life; go deep on your career and hobbies. But would that actually be good advice?

An alternative explanation is that I've been lucky. I happened to grow up in Boston; it's luck that I've been sinking roots for thirty years in a city with strong opportunities in my field, close family, and multiple great communities. I met Julia when I was 20, my ~3rd relationship, and we are both very different than we were when we met; it's luck that we've grown together through early adulthood and such large changes as getting seriously into EA. It's luck that I happened to be good at programming, and then it later turned out to be a deeply interesting and lucrative career. It's luck that I happened to have such terrific kids. And so on. Perhaps if I were to give that advice to someone else they might invest in a place/relationship/career/hobby that was a poor fit, and with a little more exploration they might have found something far more fulfilling.

There are also places where I've fit things into a narrative of commitment, where perhaps they don't belong. I haven't focused on any one instrument, and even on my strongest instruments I'm nowhere near as good as people who've been playing fiddle since they were ten. I have a lot of friends, many of them acquaintances, when I could instead have focused on building deep connection with a smaller number. I blog about whatever I feel like, instead of building up expertise, reputation, readership on a coherent theme.

I don't have a solid take-away here, I don't know what in general leads to the best life, considered over a time span of decades. I suspect that people often undervalue the very long term benefits of these investments, since we all discount a bit hyperbolically, and so leaning a bit more in that direction is probably good? I'm very curious what other peoples experiences have been: deep investment that you're happy with? That you realized late in life was misplaced? A life of many different careers/places/relationships that's been a better fit than a smaller number of more thoroughly explored ones?

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This reminds me of something that I read in David Epstein's book Range, which is the idea of "match quality." Essentially, the idea says that one must experience a wide variety of different areas of study, hobbies, etc. in order to find which ones match your unique blend of skills and interests. I think this expands upon that idea somewhat, in that if you find something that fits you very well you should then "invest" in it more deeply and not necessarily worry about the short term gains.

I found it really interesting to think about this in a business context, as it is similar to the argument between actively managed funds and passive index funds. You have determined that in this case, investing early and often in your chosen pursuits was much more "profitable" than frequently making changes. However, continuing this analogy, it's possible that not enough research was done on the activities that were chosen for investment, and another career path could have been more fulfilling with the same amount of effort invested. Kinda similar to the multi-armed bandit problem, in that a wide variety of options are available but only one is the most profitable.

On the other hand, common financial wisdom indicates that early investment is more profitable because of compounding interest. Investing in any choice is most likely better than no investment at all, provided that choice generally makes you happy (i.e has a positive return on investment). Seems like you may have happened upon a set of highly positive investments and invested early, which is awesome!

This advice would have gone really terribly for me. I have maintained a lot of friendships over time and I have been with the same primary partner for almost eight years now. But most of my previous life plans were really dumb. Thank goodness I did not commit to them!

I moved around quite a bit and every move was worth it from my perspective: Moves for university brought a lot of friendships I still maintain, moves for work brought 10x increases in savings, both kinds brought valuable experience. I now have a strong network from multiple communities which is … distributed all over Europe.

Over the last 3 years I've been trying to optimise toward the more local investments you talk about, to find a place where there already is community and where I can imagine staying long-term (success) and where I can contribute to the community and make investments in it (establish a group house + hub. Success for 1 year out of 2 year existence). Build a life with someone (failure).

I'm lucky that I am now for already 2 years in a place where I want to make new investments and where I can build on the investments I already made in other places. So I'm quite excited for what the next years bring :) I didn't particularly like the place I grew up in and I feel that I'd be missing out if I had tried to make local investments there.

So I guess this is partly corroborating what you say, but with a very different perspective?

Nice post, thanks. :)

What about post-life investments? Are you already thinking about some kind of mechanism to keep this website up and hosted after you are gone?