A Different Tree of Life

A new perspective on life recently snuck up on me. That’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true. Looking steadfastly in one direction, I’d sometimes hear a twig snap, or a leaf rustle, and I’d spin around, but the new perspective would dash into the shadows. When I turned forward again, it would take a step or two closer to me. Just now, I turned around and there it was, right behind me: a new perspective on life.

My first realization is that you only live once; this means that you only live each phase of your life once. Supposedly childhood ends when you understand everyone dies. But I’d always shied away from the implications of that.

I’m in probably the fourth phase of my life. I would classify them like this:

  1. Early childhood: Birth through age 6-7. Very few memories.
  2. Childhood: age 7 through age 12. Distinct memories, but jumbled & difficult to interpret.
  3. Institutional Education: Age 13 through 21. Memories distinct and sequenced. Defined by “grades” of high school & college: institutionalized life.
  4. Adult life: Age 21 – present. Better perspective. No forced demarcation with other phases; no official graduation or sequencing.

My memory is really terrible: I really don’t know what I was doing or thinking before age 12 or 13. I have memories, of course, but they’re really jumbled. I remember my family traveling here, and going to a birthday party there. I know I spent a summer vacation obsessed with this or that, but I can’t fit it all to a narrative. Everything blended together. That leaves me with two phases of life which I can recapitulate and review. What I can now say definitively, is that there’s no going back. I’m not going to be a teenager again, and if I was to experience college again, it would be through a different lens.

You can’t step in the same river twice.

When people decide on something life-changing, I don’t believe they have this perspective. At least, it’s not the way that I used to think.

We make a decision, and it’s rooted in an instant of time. The opportunity disappears when time passes. In this way, life forms a tree. It’s not a web, it doesn’t loop back. We start out on a sort of auto-pilot, climbing straight up the trunk. As we climb further, we reach branches: we must choose a branch in the tree. Following these branches through the years, we eventually end up at a leaf. Maybe it’s a healthy leaf on a strong branch, or maybe it’s a sickly leaf right near the roots. That leaf is the end of the line: there are no other decisions. We can’t jump to a new leaf, or climb back down this tree. There’s no retracing our steps.

You always hear that “life is a journey.” But it’s not true. You can go backwards in a journey, or turn around, or make a round trip. But in life, you can only move in one direction. If you decide to start a company now, it won’t be exactly the same company that you would have started a month ago. If you travel now, you won’t meet the same people, or be confronted by the same decisions, as if you flew across the ocean a week ago.

If you’re shaking your head and thinking “this seems awfully obvious to me,” you’re right: it can be blindingly obvious. But I promise that I didn’t think this way before.

A clear decision point is when a young person approaches high school graduation. There are a lot of options then: you can take time to travel, or go to a trade school, or go to a college, or just about anything else. I never considered anything but going to college. I did choose a university. But when I considered my choice, not once did I look at it with prospective retrospection. I thought about how prestigious the university was, how cheap or expensive it might be, whether the campus was nice, whether the location suited me (not too close or too far from home). But I never once said “When I’m 40, or 60, or 80, and look back at the college I chose to attend, will I be satisfied? Do I think the memories will be happy ones? Will the degree be worthwhile? Was going to college the right choice?”

College is an obvious decision point. And there are plenty of others. Each one determines what branch on the tree you’ll continue to climb towards.

I realized this, as I said earlier, quite gradually. I began thinking about how my body is slowly aging: this closes off certain avenues that were previously open. My weighting then and now was towards my job: I’m continuing along the ‘career’ branch of the tree. But making that choice, it’s now absolutely clear to me that each day I’m making a decision: to forfeit the branches of the tree that lead towards World Travel, Entrepreneurship, or Family. Of course, I can focus on those things later. But they’ll be different parallel branches I’ve taken, branches which fork off of career at a specific point in time.

I was recently faced with a decision at work. Do I want to switch teams? The question was posed to me, and I needed to give an answer. It was an extremely difficult decision. I honestly didn’t lean either way. But it helped to frame it in the long term. “Is this a decision that I’ll respect myself for making, when I look back in 20 years?” It’s a tough question, it requires a lot of prescience: what would the person I become in 20 years admire? I could look back and think “Wow, I really made a gutsy decision there.” Or I could look back and think “Wow, I really made a conscientious decision there.”

I don’t know what type of person I’ll be in 20 years, but I know which type of person I’d like to become. Hopefully by making the right decision, I’ll end up a little more like the person I want to be.

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1 Comment

  1. Matt

     /  June 12, 2012

    Beautifully written! At the end of the day, you just have to make the best decision you can with the perspective you currently have. One heuristic I’ve learned from Paul Graham is to choose the “most difficult” of the opportunities. It’s really only laziness that is causing you to consider the other options. I’ve found that really helps me push myself to be the best I can be.

    One habit I am very glad I have is to take a lot of pictures/video throughout my life. I often go through them to remember the big events from the past.


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