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.