A Letter to my Cousin Rose

I wrote this for unrelated reasons, but I’m posting it here as an update to “I am a 4-Year College Opt-Out. Here’s Why.” It’s not necessary for you to read the original post in order to understand this one; in fact, I’ve restated most of the original post here. Still, I’m leaving the original post alone, because I believe it’s important for people to see my progression over time.

Dear Rose,

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other; my memory of you is frozen at the age of 5. But I know you’re 14 now and starting high school. Your mother told me that you were considering your future: if and where you’ll go to college, what you’ll do for a career, and all those major life-determining questions we’re expected to answer in our adolescence. These answers are more complex and nuanced than most people realize, and since I’m closer to you in age than your parents are, I thought I would share my experiences in this area with you.

For me, awareness of college started the summer I turned 8. My siblings were debating with my parents where to go out to dinner, and as with most families trying to decide on things, we voted on it. The kids were initially in the majority with one decision, but then the parents threw a wrench in the rules: “adults get five votes.”

I didn’t mind, but I was curious about the reasoning. “So we get five votes when we turn 13?” I asked, being a Jew who becomes culturally an adult at 13. (By the way, Rose: congratulations on your bat mitzvah; I’m sorry I couldn’t be there!) “No,” said my mom, “it would be silly if you could age into it. For our purposes, an adult is someone who’s graduated from college.”

From this and other similar conversations, I decided I was going to college. But when a child decides to pursue something, it’s not because they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and found it’s the logical conclusion based on their knowledge and past experience. A child thinks something is worth pursuing if it sounds impressive, fun, or cool.

In and of itself, this wasn’t a problem. Children choose to pursue plenty of silly ideas: when I was 8 I also wanted to make a career out of inventing a time machine. 

But then society perpetuated the problem by leading me away from ever questioning my belief. “Of course college is the right choice for you,” spoke the voice of the populous. “You’re smart, capable, and a hard worker. And you want a good job, right? You need college to get a good job.” I didn’t question these comments: they came from people I knew, trusted, and both knew and trusted to understand more than me about the world.

So as I was entering my senior year of high school, I was just assuming I would go to college. That’s what you do, right? But despite this, I had gotten really sick of taking classes. The things I worked on in my courses seldom related to the real world, and if they did at all, they reflected real-life work through a funhouse mirror. Due to dual-enrollment, I was close to graduating high school with my Associate’s in computer science. At last, I thought, I could start doing meaningful work and creating value for real people! Wait, no, I couldn’t. I had to go to college. Didn’t I?

Finally, I realized that I had pursued college with partially mistaken and mostly absent reasoning. This was not the right way to go about making a major life choice. When I began genuinely considering my options with a fully sentient brain, I came to the conclusion that I did not have nearly enough evidence on which to base a decision that would cost me years, and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if I chose wrong.

This terrified me, but I had no way to remedy it. I didn’t have enough data to decide whether or not college was the right choice. The only way to gather that data would be to get a job in or near the area in which I wanted to work, figure out what types of degrees the people working in my desired field had, and then go to a 4-year college or not based on that.

So, at the end of high school, that’s exactly what I did. I went through a selective program that matches young people with startups, and chose to move to San Francisco and work as a digital marketing consultant. 

While living in SF, I met a lot of technology professionals: programmers, business analysts, technical writers. Before I moved, I’d never thought about the differences between these professions, nor had I made any effort to choose one. Now, because I understood what they were and knew people who did them, I could find out which I would be good at, which I would like, and which paid the best; the combination of which I used to choose a target career. (I decided on business systems analysis.)

Now that I had an idea of what career I wanted, I could work backwards. Do people working in that career have college degrees? What types of degrees do the best new hires at their company with similar jobs have? If they have degrees, where are they from, and what are their majors? 

Based on all the data I gathered, pure programmers often didn’t have degrees at all, or had Associate’s or Bachelor’s degrees in unrelated things from schools I’d never heard of. Pure writers were the same way. Consultants and analysts were much more likely to have Bachelor’s degrees. Finally, data scientists, especially those in research-intensive roles, often had Master’s degrees or PhDs.

From a year of living as a self-supporting, independent adult and working full time for a technology company, I decided with input from friends and associates that the best fit for me was to be a business systems analyst, most of which have Bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, I decided to get a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems, which, as you may have heard, I’m now working on.

I have three points of advice for you, Rose, from my experience.

First, if you haven’t already looked into dual-enrollment during high school, I recommend it. It’s much more cost-effective in terms of both time and money to get as much of your college work done as possible while you’re still in high school, and I know you’re smart and hardworking enough to do it.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, don’t go to college just because everyone does it. Even if you get a full-ride scholarship, it will still cost you 3-4 years of your life which might be better spent working. 

Third, you may have heard from various adults that you start by choosing what you want to study, then where you want to study it, then what career you want to get. This was the way our parents approached college, but it’s the opposite of how we should do so. Begin by doing research into what career you want to get, then use that to determine whether or not you need a college degree, and if so, which type. From there, you can choose a major that best suits the career choice you’ve made, and use that to decide between colleges.

I know this has been a long letter and is probably a lot to absorb, but I hope it has been useful. If you have any questions, or just want to chat – I would love to catch up – just let me know.

Your cousin,

My Problem with “Women”

I have no trouble with being a woman, any more than I have trouble with being a human in general. I do dislike some parts of that, to be fair: continuous sensory experiences I can’t turn off, a body that needs ongoing maintenance, and the nonexistence of any owner’s manual for the whole system. But these would be the same if I were a man instead, and so short of being uploaded, there’s not a lot I can do about it.

However, being called a “woman” – being referred to as such in any social context – is uncomfortable. I’m aware that the biological definition of the word “woman” does apply to me: so far as I know, I can bear children. But if all people meant by the word “woman” was “an adult human of the type which ovulates and can bear children”, I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with being called that. (I also have no clue why anyone would bother, outside the context of asking to have children with me.)

Humans love to sneak things into definitions that are not actually present in the best definition. We basically never use “woman” to mean what it should actually mean: a set of commonly co-occurring biological traits. Instead, it conveys a whole host of mostly inaccurate, often outdated, sometimes demeaning, stereotypes that have been thrust upon us childbearing-capable humans by various cultures throughout history.

What about ovulating produces poor driving skills? What about a uterus produces a lack of self-confidence? Does a vagina induce a desire to cook, clean, and take care of children? Does chromosome set XX create gracefulness, thinness, or a preference for dresses?

But, of course, these are only stereotypes. While they are annoying, it shouldn’t make me uncomfortable with being called a “woman” just because some idiot thinks women can’t drive.

The problem is, it isn’t only the stereotypes. As social psychologists learn to better isolate relevant variables, studies have been published about the differences between the sexes. Evidently, women are more likely to prioritize work flexibility and job stability over earnings growth. They prefer socially interesting, rather than mechanically interesting, jobs. They’re physically weaker than men.

The inherent trouble with this is segmenting an entire population into two groups, and having the definitions of those groups be any more complex than a single trait. If you assume all women are graceful housewives with poor driving skills and self-confidence issues, or if you assume all women are family-focused social butterflies with a chronic avoidance of lifting anything heavy, then you’ll be wrong no matter whether your sources are stereotypes or science.

Nobody is an average. There is no such thing as “the average woman” or “the average man”. These aren’t people; they don’t exist. When a social psychologist says “the average woman prefers work flexibility to higher salary, prefers socially interesting over mechanically interesting work, and is weaker than the average man”, they aren’t saying that every woman is like this, or that there even is a single woman who is all these things. They are merely pointing out a pattern.

The trouble pointing out patterns is that, in any sufficiently large population, there are always patterns. It is always possible to find traits that are more likely to occur in one group than another, even with statistically significance. If I analyzed a large enough population, I’m sure I could find statistically significant correlations between someone’s personality and their hair color, skin tone, or preference for window coverings.

And even if the patterns do reflect real differences, they still don’t tell you anything about any specific individual. There are statistical differences between age of mortality, for example – women tend to live longer than men – but that doesn’t mean that any given woman will certainly outlive any same-aged man.

The implications of all this pattern-finding, though, is that people who are outside the pattern often don’t get to do outside-the-pattern things they enjoy. For example, I like helping people by doing physically-demanding tasks for them (lifting or carrying heavy objects, opening tight jar lids, etc), but nobody ever asks me to do this because they don’t think of me as the sort of person who would enjoy that type of thing.

And then everyone – especially intellectual and “progressive” folks – decides to bring my womanhood into every conversation. I can’t just be strong, I have to be a “strong woman”. I can’t just be an engineer, I have to be a “woman engineer”. I can’t just be primarily attracted to women, I have to be a “lesbian”.

Keep in mind: I wouldn’t feel any less strongly about any of this if I had been born a man. I could write a whole list of arguments rebutting the stereotypes and tendencies associated with men that I don’t follow, if those stereotypes and tendencies had been the ones to shape my social life.

None of this has anything to do with womanhood; it has to do with gender.

I can understand why gender would be a useful thing to consider, in the primitive societies where language was being developed. I can understand why it would continue to be useful throughout the majority of human history to have gendered words like “woman” and “man” used more frequently than “person”: when your gender determines everything from your clothing choices to your career options, differentiating between genders while talking is sensible, perhaps even necessary. But in modern society, where we’re trying to do away with gender roles, I cannot imagine a reason to continue using gendered words.

It isn’t only the fact that everyone’s gender doesn’t necessarily match their birth sex, although this is true. It isn’t only the fact that not everyone’s gender fits into the Western binary system, although this is true also. It isn’t even about the fact that, if you assume someone’s gender and you’re wrong, it can be anywhere from a minor inconvenience to an immensely traumatizing experience, and you have no idea which.

It’s about the fact that assuming peoples’ gender based on their gender presentation actively entrenches gender roles and stereotypes.

If, in trying to accept transgender people, we go from an attitude of “anyone with breasts is a woman and should be called by she/her pronouns” to one of “anyone wearing stereotypically feminine clothing is a woman and should be called by she/her pronouns”, that isn’t progress. It’s moving backwards. Because, in the act of moving from the one to the other, we get the worst possible mix of both. In order to “pass” as a woman, a trans woman needs to embrace every bit of stereotypical femininity she can. She puts on makeup. She shaves her legs. She paints her nails. Even her actions aren’t free from scrutiny: if she doesn’t keep her knees together while sitting down, speak in a high-pitched quiet vocal register, and apologize constantly, how will people know she’s a woman?

The appropriate thing to do here is definitely not to get upset with transgender people. Passing is necessary for their survival in a cisgender-dominated world: it isn’t their fault that this necessity perpetuates gender roles. The best thing to do, instead, is to abolish gendered words altogether.

This might seem daunting, but you can implement it yourself easily. Just refer to anybody whose gender you don’t know – including hypothetical people and strangers – with they/them pronouns. When describing someone, say “person” instead of “woman” or “man”.

Of course, in the modern world, some conversations are explicitly about gender, in which case, gendered words are inevitable. You can’t restate phrases like “women tend to make less money than men” into gender-neutral words and have them still make sense. But the majority of conversations, containing phrases like “I saw a lady at the bus stop today, she was wearing this gorgeous purple suit”, or “when I was driving home yesterday this old guy was tailgating me the whole time”, can be restated with gender-neutral words easily.

In conclusion: I don’t want to be called a woman because gendered words carry uncomfortable stereotypes and then perpetuate them by their continued use. Instead, I prefer to be referred to with they/them pronouns and gender-neutral words.

In the interest of moving society past the pervasiveness of gender, I invite you to consider the same.

My Advice for My Younger Self

…or for other people sufficiently like me and in a life phase before mine such that it might be applicable.

I want to start off by saying that I myself am still, by many peoples’ definitions, a young person. I don’t think this should inhibit my ability to give advice, either to my hypothetical younger self or to others. Chronological age is a mediocre indicator of life phase, anyway.

My current life phase is that of someone who has completed a college degree, taken an internship that became a well-paid (above the median income of adults in America, where I live) full-time job, and subsequently decided to move back to my hometown in order to complete additional schooling and certifications. My goal in life is to cure mortality; as an intermediary step I intend to become extremely wealthy, and for that I have a plan to make a six-figure salary within the next five years.

A younger me, or a young person similar to me, has ambitions to fix at least one of the world’s problems, but perhaps doesn’t know of the best way to go about doing so. That’s the type of person that I’d like to provide advice to, because that’s the type of advice I wish I could have gotten from someone just a little further along the path than I was, back then.

Advice #1: Find your purpose. Right now.

By really no virtue of my own, I found my purpose very early on. (I didn’t know how to achieve it, but that’s a different post.) If you don’t know what yours is yet, I recommend finding it as soon as possible.

Not having an end-goal makes it extremely difficult to make decisions – especially the big ones, but since those propagate downward, the small ones too. It doesn’t matter if your end-goal changes over time, just make sure that you have something you’re moving towards.

Think about it as a physical destination. You pick a place to go, and based on that you choose a route, and based on that you choose how to prepare for your trip. If your destination changes partway through your journey, you probably figured out a better place you’d prefer to be than where you were initially headed. That might come with a little bit of regret (at having not chosen the better path first), but it doesn’t feel hopeless or aimless. By contrast, just walking out your front door with no preparation and no plan is liable to end you up stranded fifty miles from your house with no idea where you are or how to get somewhere better.

When choosing a goal, make sure it is specific, but it doesn’t have to be easy, simple, or even possible. That being said, choose something that would genuinely make you very, very happy to actually achieve. The harder the goal, the more critical it is that it would actually make you happy. You, not your parents or your friends or society. If you don’t know what would make you happy, consider what state of the world would make you content with your life and then think about the first, clearest, or most time-sensitive step that you could take in the direction of creating that ideal world. Further, if the goal might be impossible, make sure that an approximation of it, or significant movement in the correct direction, or a discovery of why it’s impossible, would also make you happy.

Advice #2: Use your advantages.

All other things being equal, the younger you are, the easier it is to change direction, and the more time you’ll have to pursue that new direction once you choose it. Both of these things are the reasons I was urgent with my first piece of advice; your life goal determines your path, which determines how you use what advantages you have.

You have several specific advantages by virtue of being younger. Besides the obvious, here are a few advantages you have as a young person trying to make a change to the world.

If you’ve not yet graduated from high school, you have:

  • AP tests. If your path requires a college degree (ie, involves becoming a doctor, lawyer, financier, accountant, technology consultant, or something else where not having a degree would severely hinder you), AP tests are an extremely cheap way to get college credits. They cost $25, compared with CLEP tests that cost $85 and college courses that cost thousands.
  • Free education. This is, admittedly, a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s also mandatory and frequently pointless, but the fact remains that you don’t have to pay for your education now. If you spend some time poking around, you’ll likely find that the school system is remarkably malleable if you know how to mold it. So, if you do your research and know your life goal you can make the most of this, the last time in your life when your only job is learning. Having a trustworthy non-minor can help you out here, so it’s worth trying to persuade your parents or school advisors to help, but they aren’t necessary. As a starting point, I recommend looking into some combination of dual enrollment (if your path involves college) and internships (regardless).

And if you’re currently in college, you have:

  • The ability to choose your major. If you’ve decided a college degree is indeed critical, what you major in has a significant impact on your career going forward. It determines what projects and certifications you get while in school as well as employers’ impressions of you immediately after you graduate. Because the decision of a major is so critical to your path, however, make sure not to listen to people who tell you to major in whatever you like. Your major should be determined exclusively by your choice of future career.
  • Projects and internships. You will need to actively pursue these – they won’t likely be thrown into your lap – but most colleges have some way to support students working on personal projects or looking for internships. Plus, if you have a full-ride scholarship, you don’t need to worry about whether the internships are paid, only that they give you relevant experience in the field you’d like to begin your career in.

And if you’re a recent graduate, or otherwise early in your career:

  • Employers will expect you not to know what you want to do yet. If you take a job in sales, and then one in marketing, and then look for one in accounting, that won’t seem strange to employers. By contrast, it can be more difficult to change careers if you’ve been doing something for a while: if you’re a senior marketing manager, employers will wonder why you waited so long to make the switch over to accounting. Further, you may have a tough time taking the inevitable pay cut to move to a more junior role. Therefore, doing some experimentation to figure out what you want to build your career in early on is not only easier, but expected.

All of that being said, if you feel like you’ve messed something up, it’s not the end of the world. If you didn’t take any APs in high school, or you have debt from an unnecessary (or unnecessarily expensive) college degree, that doesn’t prevent you from being able to achieve your goals. Fix these problems however you can (drop out of college immediately if you decide you don’t need a degree, get out of debt as quickly as you can, etc), but don’t get upset with yourself for making mistakes or doing things that were suboptimal. Apply whatever lessons you can to your actions going forward, then stop thinking about it.

Advice #3: Soft skills matter. Build them on purpose.

When considering your career path, it can be easy to focus disproportionately on the hard skills. “I need to learn financial accounting, business law, and economics,” you might think, if you want to become an accountant. And that might be true. But you also need a strong work ethic, good social skills, and self-management. The latter three are equally, if not more, important than the former.

Building soft skills is a three-step process:

  1. Figure out what skill you need. Don’t just give a name to the skill, but define specifically what being good at that skill looks like, and decide how good you need to be at it.
  2. Figure out what you need to do to get better at the skill, and start doing that. For most soft skills, it’s a mindset shift combined with an action shift.
  3. Continue doing what you decided to do in step 2 for at least 30 days or until it becomes a habit. Iterate until you’ve fulfilled the requirements from step 1.

As you meet new people and move further down your career path, you’ll find out that you need soft skills you didn’t previously know about. Continuously moving through the above process for every new skill you decide you need is going to be a major part of your early career, and likely also your entire life.

In order to help you find soft skills you might need, make a regular habit of looking at advice given by people further along your chosen path than you are. They don’t need to be on precisely the same path: for example, if your goal is to start a successful technology startup, look at advice given by senior developers, project managers, CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, and COOs, as well as startup founders. There’s a lot of soft skill overlap between these, and erring on the side of gaining too many skills is always better than not having enough.

Advice #4: Fail faster.

There’s a software testing process called “shift-right testing”. The mentality is that, since it’s impossible to have zero bugs, your software should fail as fast as possible, with as little user impact as possible. This will make it possible to find and fix errors quickly.

If you tend to be a stubborn person (as I am), applying this mentality to your life will prevent you from beating your head against too many walls. Essentially, if a step on your path is very difficult, check if it’s a difficulty that you should try to overcome or a difficulty indicative of a flaw in your plan. If it’s a flaw in the plan, fail fast, and stop working on the thing.

It may enrage you to hear me say, essentially, “give up.” But giving up because you decided it’s a suboptimal path is not the same thing as giving up because you can’t handle the work required for the optimal path.

Here’s an example. Prior to my current role, I worked a sales job for around a year. I took that job in the first place to improve my social skills, which is an area I’m naturally poor at. After a year there, I had learned a lot, but I felt I could still learn more. Unfortunately, the person who had mentored me for that time quit, and no one else was as good. Further, because I had at that point been commuting to a job over an hour’s drive away, working 10-12 hour days, and being in college full-time, on top of being naturally poor at the central skillset required for the job, I was feeling very burnt-out.

Even despite this, I didn’t want to quit. I wasn’t nearly as good at sales as I wanted to be yet. I still got nervous doing cold calls. I still had a hard time matching the energy levels of my prospects. But after a long and tear-filled conversation with my mom, I realized it was silly to keep beating my head against this: I’d learned plenty already, if I needed to know more I’d have plenty of opportunities to learn, and I was at the end of my mental rope. It made more sense to take some time away from working to finish my degree, then look for a better job. So I resigned.

If you can remember to fail fast, it will also help you to avoid sunk-cost fallacy. Deciding you have to continue doing something, purely because you’ve already spent a lot of time or energy on it, just means you’ll waste even more of your time. But if you can fail fast, and let it go, you’ll be able to spend your future doing something more effective than what consumed your past.

You Are an Incomplete Story

Growing up, I never much liked fiction. It was probably because I knew on some level that, if I thought about it a little too hard, it would break down.

In the real universe, you can ask a question like “why is the sky blue?” and find out the answer yourself. You can speculate from the existence of sunsets and rainbows and prisms the concept of white light refracting when it bounces off of things, and do experiments to confirm your hypotheses. If you keep on asking questions, you’ll find out about the – consistent and universal – laws of reality. And if you ask a question that no human knows the answer to, that doesn’t mean you can’t find out the truth.

In a story, this isn’t true, because at a fundamental level, stories are created by taking human-level understandings of reality and modifying them in a way that makes no sense when considering the underlying universal laws. The real universe is modeled by quarks. Stories are modeled by plots.

I’ve grown to appreciate stories more over time. Although they cannot produce the sense of wonder that I get from reality, they still have valuable training data. The best, most helpful advice I’ve ever had the privilege to give comes dually from two sources: my study of rationality, and my reading of good stories.

But stories still have a major pitfall that’s applicable even to those who don’t derive your sense of wonder from the perfectly unified laws of physics.

A story, by its nature, has to be completed at a satisfying end-point. Once its plot has been resolved and its tension released, the book comes to a close. Sometimes this comes at the end of the main character’s life – and so maps conveniently to a human life’s natural close – but this is almost always not the case. The main character, and the other characters as well, typically have futures that are assumed to continue after the last page. We just don’t read about them.

And we wouldn’t want to. As much as we love to see happily-ever-afters, reading chapter after chapter of our main character’s boring daily life after all the plot has been resolved would be dull. Even fluffy fan-fictions have an end. They don’t depict the complete, uninterrupted stream of a character’s life.

Let’s contrast this with real life. There is no-one chronicling every aspect of our existence, even for a short period when it’s most interesting. Six months of training can’t be skipped over with some motivational music and a montage: you have to literally get up and study or go to the gym every single bloody day for six actual months. And our stories don’t end, not unless we die.

If someone ever writes a book about us, they’re going to have to cut out some pieces and skip over others to fit it into a compelling narrative. And despite this, it’ll still be difficult, because real human lives are messy in a way that good story plots never are. Human lives are chock-full of Chekov’s guns that never fire, plot threads that are never resolved, and a constant stream of experiences that only properly ends at death.

It’s natural to think about your current self as at end of your story. After all, it’s the end of your experiences thus far, and if your life is a story, you are at the end of it, right now and always. But you have a future that you haven’t experienced yet, where events you haven’t predicted will happen and plot threads you haven’t imagined will start. Most of the things you’ve experienced so far will be completely irrelevant, maybe totally forgotten, in twenty years. That would make no sense in a story, but it happens all the time in real life.

So this is your reminder that you’re not defined by anything you’ve done so far, and that anything you don’t like about who you are right now can be changed. Your character has so much more room to develop.

This is also your reminder that your life is not comprised of the highlights that will be picked out in your possible future biography. It’s comprised of your day, whatever your day is – get up, go to work, come home, go to sleep – over and over forever. If you don’t like your day, that might sound terrible, but the only way to make it better is to improve the little things you do every day, and be a little happier in every moment, instead of waiting for some massive plot twist or new character introduction to fix everything.

I suppose I could say that your life is an incomplete story, and it always will be. You can think about it that way, if you like. It’s mostly correct if you think about a story that never ends. Still, it’s more accurate to say that your life is not a story at all. Comparing the two is, somewhat literally, comparing the output of a human brain to the contents of the universe. Your life is a life, which can be molded into a story only if you cut a lot of it out.

Ditch Pros and Cons: Use a Utility Function

If you’ve ever met me in person, you know I talk a lot about utility. My close friends are used to answering questions like “does this have net positive utility to you?” and “is that a strongly weighted component of your utility function?”. Every time I make a decision – what to do with my evening, or what to do with my life – I think about it in terms of utility.

I didn’t always do this, but I’ve adopted this way of thinking because it forces me to clarify everything that’s going on in my head and weight all my thoughts appropriately before making a decision. When I decide things this way, I genuinely feel like I’ve made the best possible choice I could, given everything I knew at the time.

What on earth is utility?

Utility is just a fancy word for “value”. If you enjoy chocolate ice cream, then eating chocolate ice cream has positive utility. If you don’t enjoy carrot cake, then eating carrot cake has negative utility.

One action can have multiple kinds of utility. You can add together all the utility types to get the action’s net utility. For example, if I assign positive utility to eating ice cream but a negative utility to gaining weight, there will be a certain optimal point where I eat as much ice cream as I can without gaining weight. Maybe, if I assign eating ice cream +5 utility, not gaining weight +5 utility, and exercising -5 utility, then it would make sense for me to hit the gym more often so that I can eat more ice cream without gaining weight.

The set of utilities I assign to all outcomes also tells me the optimal possible outcomes, with the highest net utility. In this example, that would be either modifying ice cream so that it doesn’t make me gain weight, or modifying my body’s energy processing system to get it to process ice cream without storing any of it as fat.

Having numbers that are consistent is helpful sometimes, but isn’t strictly necessary. When I need to make quick, relatively straightforward decisions, I typically just make up some utility numbers. Utility calculations in a small isolated system are basically matters of ratios: it doesn’t matter exactly how much utility I assign to something, but if outcome X has 5 more utility points than outcome Y, X is preferable.

Forcing yourself to make up numbers and compare them to each other reveals what you care about. If you initially thought you didn’t care much about something, but then realize that if you calculated net utility with a low number assigned to that thing, you’d be unsatisfied with the result, then you care more than you thought you did.

It might be somewhat unclear, with my super-simple examples so far, what you can assign utility to. So, here are some examples of things that I assign positive utility to:

  • Reading good books
  • Doing new things
  • Increasing utility according to the utility functions of people I care about
  • Building neat software
  • Drawing and painting
  • Writing stories and blog posts
  • Improving/maintaining my mental and physical health
  • Having interesting conversations
  • Improving the quality of life of all sentient beings
  • Running
  • Riding my bike
  • Taking walks with my girlfriend
  • Eating ice cream

If you enjoy doing it, if you think you should do it, if it makes you happy, if it’s a goal you have for some reason, or anything else like that, you assign it some amount of positive utility.

If you’d like to figure out how much relative utility you assign to different options, compare them: if I had to either give up on improving the quality of life for all sentient beings, or give up on ice cream, the ice cream has gotta go.

You can even assign positive utility to things you don’t end up doing. That’s because the net utility, after accounting for circumstances or mutually exclusive alternate actions. Knowing that you would do something, barring XYZ condition, is a useful thing to know in order to dissect your own thoughts, feelings, goals, and motivations. The converse is true, too: you can assign negative utility to things you end up doing anyway, because the net utility is positive.

So if that’s utility, what’s a utility function?

A utility function is a comprehensive set of everything that an agent assigns any utility to. “An agent” is anything capable of making decisions: a human, an AI, a sentient nonhuman alien, etc. Your utility function is the set of everything you care about.

The inputs to a utility function are quantities of certain outcomes, each of which are multiplied by their respectively-assigned utility value and then added together to get the total expected utility of a given course of action. In an equation, this is:

Ax + By + Cz + ...

Where A, B, C, and so on are individual facets of outcomes, and x, y, z, and so on are utilities.

Say I’m with my sister and we’re going to get food. I personally assign a strong net positive to getting burgers and a weak net negative for anything else. I also assign a positive utility to making my sister happy, regardless of where we go for food. If she has a strong net negative for getting burgers, and a weak net positive for sushi, I can evaluate that situation in my utility function and decide that my desire to make her happy overpowers the weak negative I have for anything besides burgers, so we go get sushi.

When evaluating more complex situations (such as moving to a job across the country, where positives include career advancement and increased income, and negatives include having to leave your home and make new friends), modeling your own utility function is an excellent way to parse out all the feelings that come from a choice like that. It’s better than a simple list of pros and cons because you have (numeric, if you like) weights for all the relevant actions.

How to use your utility function

I don’t keep my entire utility function in my head at one time. I’ve never even written it down. But I make sure I understand large swaths of it, compartmentalized to situations I often find myself in. However, if you decide to actually write down your utility values, proceed to make them all consistent, and actually calculate utility when you make decisions, there’s nothing stopping you.

In terms of the optimal way to think about utility calculations, I have one piece of advice. If you come out of a utility calculation thinking “gotcha, I can do this”, “alright, this seems reasonable”, or even “ugh, okay, I don’t like it but this is the best option”, then that’s good. That’s the utility function doing its job. But, if you come out of one thinking “hmmm… I guess, but what about XYZ contingency? I really don’t want to do ABC…”, or otherwise lingering on the point of decision, then you’ve forgotten something.

Go back and ask “what’s wrong with the ‘optimal’ outcome?”. It might be something you don’t want to admit to yourself, but you don’t gain anything by having an inaccurate perception of your own utility function. Remember that, in absence of a verbal reason, “I don’t wanna” is still a perfectly valid justification for assigning negative utility to an action or outcome. In order for this process to work, you need to parse out your desires/feelings/goals from your actions, without beating yourself up for it. Your utility function already is what it is, and owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.

Once you have a pretty good handle on your own utility function, you can go ahead and mentally model other peoples’. Humans are calculating utility all the time in the form of preferences and vague intuitions, so even if other people don’t know their utility functions, you can learn them by a combination of watching their actions and listening to their words.

The discrepancy between those two, by the way, is indicative of one of two things: either the person is choosing an action with suboptimal utility, or they don’t actually assign utility to the things they say they do aloud (perhaps for social reasons). You can point out this discrepancy politely, and perhaps help them to make better decisions in the future.

Once you begin to use utility functions for both yourself and others, you might be surprised at how much easier it is to make decisions. When considering possible courses of action for yourself, you’ll be able to choose the best option and know it was the best. And, in a group, having an accurate model of other peoples’ utility functions can let you account for their preferences, perhaps even better than they themselves do.

Having It All Figured Out Is Overrated

I’ve pretty much known my purpose in life since I can remember.

So far as I can tell, I just had a really strange reaction to the concept of death. I first heard about it and I basically thought, wow, this is a problem, this really sucks, someone should do something about it. But as a kid, I just thought the grownups would take care of it, just the same way they would take care of my skinned knee.

As I got a little older, though, being very vocal as I’ve always been about my thoughts on death, I realized the grownups weren’t going to fix it. In fact, they seemed pretty damn complacent about the regularly-occurring permanent destruction of human consciousness. And so, being the egomaniac I am, I decided to personally fix this problem.

As I started high school (and college), my first classes were in lab sciences. After all, mortality is a biological problem and would likely have a primarily biological solution. But as I soon learned, much to my dismay, I suck at lab sciences.

Frustratingly, knowing your purpose doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

I immediately changed my focus from biology to computer science. The basic idea was very vague – I think it went something like, “since I’m no good at the science, I’ll make a ton of money and pay somebody else to do the science”.

But I went after it for four years, taking every computer science class my college offered. By the end of that, my new goal had developed into something slightly more cogent: I would create a series of technology-focused startups and become a billionaire, then use the money to fund a nonprofit research company. As soon as the nonprofit produced something promising, it could spin off into its own for-profit startup and start selling it.

I didn’t worry too much about not having any grand ideas for tech startups. I knew I would first have to become the kind of person who could actually execute successfully against a great startup idea if it fell in her lap. So, I made a list of stuff I would need to know to create and run a successful business, from programming to finance to business law, and set to work on ticking items off the list.

By the end of high school and college (which I completed simultaneously for efficiency), I headed across the country in lieu of completing my four-year degree, content with an Associate’s in Computer Information Systems. Toward the end of my schooling, I’d worked full-time at a sales firm for six months, and now I was headed to work in marketing for another six months.

I can’t elaborate past this point, since I’m still living it.

This all probably makes me sound very cool, but that’s only because I conveniently left out all the bad bits. I left out the part where I sobbed into my sister’s arms over the B in chemistry that I squeaked out with all my effort. I left out the part where I had a three-week-long existential crisis over my decision to not attend a four-year college. And I left out the fact that I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing a lot of the time.

It matters how you spin things.

Knowing your purpose is useful, but it’s hardly the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t magic away your insecurities or your problems. It doesn’t make you a good person. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you actually know your purpose: you might just think you do.

Becoming a sociable, mature, capable, hardworking, understanding, responsible, reasonable, rational, good person has not been any easier just because I’ve known my life’s purpose since I was 3. In fact, being a socially awkward egomaniac with a really weird impossible goal has made some of that stuff harder. And knowing my purpose hasn’t made any of those things less important, either: it’s made a lot of them more important.

There is no amount of awesomeness that makes you immune to insecurity. People I’ve met around here, with more raw talent and chutzpah than I’ve ever mustered for anything, are still insecure. It’s common to every human. And at least in my opinion, there’s solidarity in that.

On Letting Down Your 10-Year-Old Self

I have a friend who’s a mechanical engineer. The startup he was CTO of recently fell apart, so he’s been looking for a new job, and was discussing with me yesterday the idea of working for Amazon doing something involving data centers. It would be a fine job and would pay well, but he didn’t want to do it – for a number of reasons, one of which stood out to me.

He said to me, “If I went back in time and talked to my 10-year-old self, and was like ‘Yo, you’re going to grow up to be a Senior Data Center Engineer II for Amazon’ I think myself would slap me. Just, that’s fucking lame.”

I asked, “What would your 10 year old self want you to be doing?” and he replied, “Building spaceships.”

This is where most people would have said something about how we’re destined to disappoint our younger selves, because we had ambitions and dreams unchecked by reality, so we should console ourselves with the Deep Wisdom that having a good life is what really matters, after all, and stop feeling so bad about it.

That’s not the advice I gave my friend, and that’s not what I’m going to write here, because I don’t believe that. If you want that advice, you can read it from a million other sources. But I, personally, am a big believer in being cool by 10-year-old-you’s standards – and this comes from someone who, at the age of 10, wanted to take over the world.

Even so, I am going to say that you need to appreciate how hard it was for you to get where you are. In my friend’s case, he grew up poor, to the extent that he told me writing emails as a part of his job makes him “bourgeoisie”. And yet now, in his late twenties, he’s living in SF and was just working as CTO for a startup that died through no fault of his. I mean, I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I would call that a hell of a success.

Still, I can sympathize with the thought of “this isn’t want I wanted to grow up to be, I’ve failed myself”. I think if I grew up to just work for Amazon – if that was actually the best I would ever do with my life – my 10-year-old self would also think I was lame. But that’s the point. Your life isn’t over yet. What you do in your 20s, 30s, 40s… that’s not “what you grew up to be”. Until and unless you decide your career is over, it’s not over.

If you were one of those kids with a dream like “be President” or “be an astronaut” or “build spaceships” or “cure mortality”, fulfilling your dream will be really hard. But if you do choose to do something your 10-year-old self would approve of, put in the effort and make it happen. Don’t give up on it, and don’t give up on yourself.

I’m a great believer in luck. And I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.

You Have Enough Hours in the Day, You’re Just Not Using Them

I’ve recently realized that my workflow can be a lot more efficient.

I thought it was fine, but as it turns out, it was just what I was used to. Humans can get used to anything, and if we don’t have anything outside us telling us that these conditions are unacceptable, we tend to just, well, accept them.

I started feeling like I didn’t have time to do anything shortly after I arrived in SF. While it’s gotten somewhat better, it still feels like I want to get more done than there are hours in the day.

I didn’t actually realize that was a warning sign for a while, because I had no reference group. I don’t succumb to the usual time traps: I open social media approximately twice a year, I don’t watch TV, I don’t make a habit of being intoxicated, I have no time-consuming hobbies that aren’t contributing to improving my career.

But I realized that not succumbing to the obvious time-sucks doesn’t mean you’ve evaded them all.

I’d previously learned that when something about your life feels chaotic, you’re probably just bad at predicting it; it feels from the inside like the thing is inherently unpredictable, but it isn’t. In the same way, I realized, when you feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, you probably have some energy/time sink somewhere. That’s what an inefficient system feels like from the inside: not having enough time.

That was what I was missing: there is a difference between being actually good at efficiency and simply not shooting yourself in the foot. I had to do better than just not screwing up. I had to actively work on being better.

I’m currently in the process of optimizing my workflow and trying to get stuff done faster. There’s a decent amount of up-front work to make it happen, turns out.

Instead of taking notes in my plain-text no-frills Notes app, I’ve started taking notes in Vim. Learning the keyboard shortcuts for navigation, then forcing myself to actually use them, took an hour or so. I’d be reaching for the mouse to highlight and delete something, or reaching for the backspace key, but then I’d stop myself, push caps lock (which I remapped to escape for convenience), and type the shortcut instead. After I got the knack of it, I felt myself working faster as I laid out the steps I’d need to take to build an iPhone app I’ve been working on.

I also recently forked my friend Lahwran’s dotfiles repository, which downloads (among many other very useful tools) an excellent window tiling program called Amethyst. No more switching between tabs while trying to hold something in my head!

I’m making better use of my train rides to and from work now, too. I’ve found that physical books are good, because they don’t require wifi, so I’ve been steadily reading through the small collection I brought with me on the plane, plus borrowed a biography of Elon Musk from my boss, which I’ve been reading for life trajectory inspiration.

Finally, I’ve felt like I had no time to sit down and write blog posts on here. But I realized, I don’t have to. There are other methods of documentation that are faster to jot down: for example, Twitter. I was hesitant for a long time, because I was worried it would be a net negative for time, but I’ve been posting quick updates about projects and publishing quick thoughts on there, and it seems to work out well. (My handle is @JenyaLestina, if you’d like to take a look.)

The moral of all of this is that if your life is hard for some reason, it doesn’t have to stay that way. People like to complain about life, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck. If your life is difficult – even in a minor way – don’t stand there and take it. Fix it.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

Another Reason to Get Straight to the Work World

I’ve discussed in previous posts some reasons you should get a real-world job either before or instead of going to college. For one thing, college has an extremely high opportunity cost, in both time and money. For another, the purpose of college has become muddled to such an extent that the reasons people tell you to go are almost entirely desynchronized with the actual reasons you may want to go.

Today, I have another reason that you should at least take a gap year to work a bit first. And this one applies even if you’re 100% sold on college.

When I took a marketing job, I expected to do, well, marketing. Yeah, the job was in San Francisco, so I expected (and wanted) to do marketing for tech companies, but that didn’t change my fundamental assumption. My job title was “Digital Marketer” and so I thought I was going to do digital marketing.

As I found out over the course of the next few months, an employer will use any skill you have if they can find a use for it. By the four-month mark, I had done everything from graphic design to sales to web design to JavaScript programming.

This isn’t just because I work for a micro-company, although this probably happened faster and more thoroughly because of that. Any company will do this. And that’s the key distinction between the work world and college.

If you sign up for a college class in marketing, you won’t accidentally end up programming in JavaScript or creating website wireframes. You’ll do the coursework – nothing more, nothing less. When you go to college, you get exactly what you sign up for. When you get a real-world job, your responsibilities may start out as what you expected, but eventually you’ll probably end up doing a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the original job description, based on a combination of what the company needs and what you can do.

In short: College is static; the work world is flexible.

Often, the fact that college works this way feeds the harmful “that’s not my job” mentality, which will poison your career and dampen your options. If you’re reluctant to take on any responsibility beyond the bare minimum of what you were hired to do, you’ll never be given any additional responsibility. Even if you avoid this mentality, getting some real-world work experience early on will serve you well, in or out of college.

If you’re in the sort of profession where you need a college degree, or you’ve otherwise decided you’re Going To College, consider taking a gap year, or getting a part-time job in your field early into your degree. The flexibility you acquire from doing real work is worth its weight in gold.