Being a Badass Programmer

Is Badass Programmer an oxymoron? I don’t think so. There are badasses in every profession. Sometimes it’s very clear that you’re talking to a blackbelt, a guru – and the whole time, wishing we had those enviable skills. You don’t usually break down what exactly are the badass skills in these situations, but rather form an impression of gestalt badassity. But if we want to emulate a guru, we need to collate and organize these into a sort of “curriculum of badassity.” I’ve tried to do that for programming. What skills define a badass programmer? Each skill below can probably be studied for a lifetime. Of course, you have to pick just a few to specialize in – but they form a web: you can learn unix while programming embedded devices, and develop good user interfaces while contributing to open source. At heart, this is a list of skills that I want to have at least summary knowledge of, before I can consider myself an expert programmer.

  • Able to program embedded devices. This is one of those thing… it looks daunting, but I actually suspect it’s simple to get started (I’m hoping). It opens up new worlds for using programming in the real world – programming beyond the monitor. Skills: loading programs into unconventional devices. Writing C. Processing analog input. Programs outputting to mechanical devices. Writing in resource-constrained environments. Uses: all sorts of lifestyle automation, cool artistic applications, bioinformatics, scientific (eg oceanographic) monitoring, ROBOTS.
  • Comfortable writing programs to render and display 3D. Probably the most intensive from a trig/calculus/linear algebra perspective, but 3-D is required for many types of games. Programming a 3-D engine feels like something every programmer should do. Skills: deep knowledge of trigonometry. Understanding of OpenGL/DirectX. Lots of CS-stuff. Uses: 3-D modeling, modern video games, health (eg MRI) applications.
  • Serious unix knowledge. Unix is the programmer’s operating system (family). You can usually do what you want with a few keystrokes. Any self-respecting programmer should have some unix knowledge. But blackbelt knowledge is badass. Skills: comfortable with most standard unix applications (such as netstat, top, ps). Knows the most useful (and some less useful) arguments and flags for these programs. Knowledge of how to run programs in a pipeline, and how to configure them. Can use more advanced command-line file parsing (sed/awk). Knows either vim or emacs in depth. Knows shell scripting and perl. Uses: general efficiency, street cred.
  • Machine learning/AI. Just cool, also puts a lot of CS-theoretical stuff to use. Can be applied to do virtually any automated task in a smarter way. Skills: good algorithmic/data structure knowledge. Knowledge of: Monte Carlo simulations, evolutionary programming, neural networks. Uses: video games, image processing, data mining, robots, uses in most programs.
  • User-Interface Savvy. To bring a program to a broader audience, it has to have a usable interface, programmers make notoriously bad interfaces. Skills: understanding of good design. The visual display of quantitative information. Presentation. Basic knowledge of arts. Uses: Making each program a pleasure to use.
  • Open-Source Contributor. Giving back to the community is important; it also increases name recognition. Probably the most badass known programmers are the serious open source gurus: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman.
  • Multi-paradigm thinking. There are a lot of different ways to program, most notably imperative and functional. Strong knowledge of both is useful, as they each provide benefits. Skills: knowledge of diverse languages (one good set would be C++,Python,Common Lisp,OCaml; I’m shooting for Scala/C++,Python,Clojure,OCaml/Haskell). Uses: write better, more maintainable code. More elegant solutions.
  • Can rapidly prototype. Developing is fun, but developing rapidly is funner! Skills: strong knowledge of a scripting language (Python, Ruby, Javascript). Good math background, ability to visualize shortcuts. Uses: quick fun projects, evaluate many solutions in a short time, rapidly build experience in new problem domain.
  • Builds Enterprise-Scalable. Building a basic Facebook or Wikipedia is extremely simple (Wikipedia in particular has trivial features). But scaling them is hard – in many cases, the entire challenge is making an application capable of handling hundreds of thousands of users. Skills: databases, multithreading, server architecture, load-balancing frameworks, data structures, hot failover. Uses: Employment, ensuring your applications can reach a large number of users.
  • Can deconstruct code. It’s one thing to be able to read code – but then being able to look under the hood and see what happens when that code is compiled – that’s very different. Skills: understanding assembly, java bytecode, hex editing, generating assembly/bytecode, writing assembly. Uses: JVM language design, optimization, analyzing hacks, reverse engineering.

2012 in Review

Another year now in the books. Was 2012 a good or bad year?

A year ago I was looking to change apartments. I was very unhappy with the team I was working for, and how politically isolated I felt at my company. But I enjoyed the work I did. I was happy that I’d put my financial life in order, that I’d started a blog, that I’d finally started traveling.

Not too much has changed on a macro scale – I’ve moved to a new apartment. At work, I asserted myself and transferred to a much better team, but I’ve become unsatisfied with my work – it feels as though an alarm is going off telling me “now it’s time for something new.” I feel a tension between the desire to embark in a new direction, and my desire to ride the job I’ve got to financial independence. I’ve continued increasing my savings linearly – by 50%, in fact – while building up a pretty strong dividend portfolio (even if that portfolio has suffered some in the past month).

But on a micro scale, a lot has changed. I’ve managed to write semi-regularly. I’ve downsized in meaningful ways: disposed of a bookcase worth of books, eliminated a sack of unnecessary clothes, and given away some furniture. I’ve learned to cook a lot of new dishes, and to experiment in the kitchen. I’ve become comfortable programming in vim, learned to sharpen knives, air-dry my clothes, switched from Windows to Linux full-time, revived my interest in web programming, and built a few cool toy games. I play European boardgames and watch less TV. I’ve traveled to Iceland, and the Netherlands, and Bavaria, and I’ve seen and done exciting new things there. I’m more comfortable with my looks and dress better than a year ago. I keep a somewhat tidier apartment. Some very nasty, tension-inducing family troubles are behind me.

On the other hand, I’ve become less healthy than I was a year ago, as stress and sedentary life bury me further. I do some new things, but never as much as I want to. I still waste time surfing the internet, and I haven’t reduced expenses by nearly as much as I want. I haven’t been as outgoing or adventurous as I’d hoped. I still have room to downsize and streamline my life. I’m less satisfied with my work than ever.

Peering into 2013, the future is a bigger mystery than ever. I don’t know where I’ll be working or living, what my passions will be, what projects I’ll have completed, or what relationships I’ll have built. There are question marks entering every year, but more this year than most. I do know that if I grow and change as much in 2013 as I have in 2012, I can count it a successful year.

Deliberate Practice and Dreams of Sushi

Deliberate practice has been en vogue on the internet for a few years – but it’s been a popular idea for hundreds of years. I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi recently (it’s free on Amazon Prime), and it’s one of the best testaments to deliberate practice I’ve seen.

The movie focuses on the lives of an elderly man and his two sons, who are all sushi chefs. Although the film covers, at various points, the family relationship, sushi preparation, fish markets, apprenticeship, and the environment, the heart of the film is an ode to dedication, routine, and deliberate practice. Jiro is 85 years old, and in many ways he lives in a way I wouldn’t want to – he admits he wasn’t a good father – but he also works constantly to become a better chef. It’s his explicit stated goal to get better at has profession, every day – even after 75 years of study. So, he lives every day following the same pattern, leaving energy to focus on cooking skills. He loves his work – and his dedication has paid off: he’s considered the best sushi chef in the world.

The enemy of deliberate practice is not “no practice,” but rather “mindless routine.” It’s so easy to fall into a routine – and then you learn nothing. Even the littlest things can make a difference. For instance, I frequently export displays in Linux – almost daily at work. Basically, this means that you’re showing the display of one machine on a different machine (to oversimplify). You sometimes need to check which machine will be doing the displaying. I always ran the command env | grep DISPLAY – searching the environment for DISPLAY. But this is imprecise. Recently I saw a shell script and realized (to my chagrin) that I could just do echo $DISPLAY instead. It’s only a few characters shorter, but it’s just correct. It’s simply better than what I was doing before. And yet, I’d never really thought about a better way to find the display – for probably two years! I had something that worked, after all. This is a terrible attitude, but even if you recognize that, it’s still a common trap to fall into.

Hurricane

So this past weekend there was a hurricane in my area. It wasn’t much of an event, for me. I lost power for 3 days, but it could have been much worse. Nonetheless, there were two take-aways: I’m not prepared for serious disasters, and … what am I doing with my life?

Emergency Preparedness

I’ve always considered coolness under pressure, and being prepared for unusual situations, to be among my skills. (I suppose many people feel the same way, the same as everybody considers themselves an above-average driver). My presumption made my unpreparedness for this hurricane all the more jarring.

When I say that carrying myself well in serious situations is my strong point, I mean that I’m pretty proud of the way I’ve handled the few difficult or emergency situations I’ve been in. I’m also an Eagle Scout, I’ve backpacked for over a week at a time, I know basic first aid and so on. I try to think about different eventualities, and I’m very careful when hiking.

Nonetheless, after the hurricane, with stores closed and no power, I was left with some pasta and beans. Most of the other dry food I had was expired. So I subsisted on chili, macaroni & cheese, a can of pineapple chunks. I didn’t have candles or even a true flashlight, but I did have two little single-LED lights that I was able to use. Without those I would have been in bad shape once it got dark out.

I need to keep more supplies at hand. Although for the NYC metro area, this was a major disaster, I feel like many places, even in the US, can have much more serious disasters (earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida/Gulf Coast, Tornadoes in Kansas). Personally I think that disasters are going to become more frequent, and I’d like to be able to weather any disaster without having to worry about rushing to buy supplies. Such desperate actions indicate a softness that I don’t find appealing. I’d also like to be able to draw on fresh knowledge if I’m confronted with a serious medical problem, or whatnot. In my daydreams I’m all set for a survival/post-apocalyptic situations, but reality doesn’t bear those dreams out.

I Stepped Into a Hurricane

I had no electricity for three days, and absent that, much of my identity disappeared. There were only three things I did without power: sleep, read, and feed myself. That’s pretty much it, and I find that disturbing. I have essentially no non-electronic hobbies. When I think about life in the 19th century, this is what I find most confusing. There’s some evidence that people were a bit bored back then: for instance Edward Everett’s speech preceding Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was about two hours long, and people considered it short. Can you imagine people wanting to listen to a single speech for two hours today? Still, it seems like people kept busy.

Overall it seems people worked about the same hours as people today, or had seasonal hours – such as when farming. I’m sure people read, maybe played a musical instrument or knitted. Letter-writing, conversation and drinking were popular past-times, much more than today. But what else were people doing? I find it baffling, they must have done other things. What could I do, that would keep me occupied and engaged if I had no power?

At this point, I’m looking to institute a “no electricity hour,” where I’d shut down everything electric except a light, and then figure out how to keep myself occupied.

I’m also distressed at my lack of worthwhile skills. I’m re-reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, and it resonates as much as the first time. I’m totally disengaged from the real world. I can barely feed myself, fer chrissakes. I’m not mechanically inclined, can barely repair anything, or build things on my own.

To remediate this, I’m planning on starting a series on this blog called Skill a Week, where I’ll describe some skill I’ve taught myself, why it’s useful/interesting from a self-sufficiency and frugality perspective, and provide tips/instructions for people also interested in learning that skill. Don’t expect any skill to be particularly complicated; the idea is it’s something to pick up in a short amount of time and use with regularity. It could be a recipe/cooking skill, a way to repair something, a new way of learning, and so on. I want to be forced to push my boundaries and maybe help other people learn as well.

Travel Kitsch

For travel (and I suspect for many other things), it’s important to have some memento of what you’ve done. This is biological: I think it’s impossible to store all memories in an easy-to-retrieve way, but I think most people can remember some bit of everything. However, it’s difficult to retrieve things in a sequential fashion (ie, Two years ago, first I did this and this happened, and then I did this where I saw that). Furthermore, some memories are ‘lost,’ in the sense that the memory is there but there’s no way to retrieve it. At least, that’s the way it works for me.

So, looking at pictures from travel, I remember things that I’d be unable to retrieve on their own.

The desire to remember is really strong; who wants to ‘lose’ experiences? I think people’s memories also turn sunny in the long-term, so it’s nice to always be prompted “hey this was a pretty good time,” or alternately “listen to this miserable experience I once had!” That’s the only explanation I can think of for the popularity of souvenirs, which are useless kitsch that prompt memories. Or maybe people want a subtle way to show off how well-traveled they are.

It’s probably clear that I think souvenirs themselves are worthless.

I keep pictures. And I keep ticket stubs and brochures, which don’t take up much space and provide a detailed record of travel. But these usually just sit on the computer hard drive, or gather dust in an old box.

This seems sub-optimal. I don’t want to be weighed down, trapped, by a bunch of useless crap. But I think it’s cool that you can have something sitting in plain view, prompting you to re-live magical experiences.

I thought I’d come up with a solution: buy useful things when traveling. If a place is known for something, buy a good version of that there; if you can’t think of anything it’s known for, buy something generally useful. So, in Iceland I bought a wool sweater and wool gloves. In Köln I bought a plain T-Shirt. In Amsterdam, jeans; in München, a beer mug. The jeans were 15 euros, the t-shirt, 7 – they weren’t even a local brand. But because of where and when I bought them, they were extra-meaningful. I was satisfied with this solution: I thought it was clever.

Now so fast! It also means that I’ve infused everyday objects with meaning. It’s hard enough to get rid of crap you don’t need; it’s that much more difficult if it has sentimental value. For instance, if a relative gave you a book, it’s tough to discard it. You’re throwing out smoe piece of your relationship with that relative; if they’re deceased, it’s an irreplaceable part.

So it is with the jeans from Amsterdam. A pair of jeans is simply an object; even if it’s expensive, it can be replaced. I lost a button-down shirt on my trip, and although it was a nice shirt, I shrugged my shoulders. One dollar at a thrift store, so what? But when you associate a t-shirt with that crazy bike ride down the Rhine, through driving rain and howling wind, the object assumes new meaning.

And that’s the last thing I want, to get desperately attached to objects. If I outgrow the shirt, I’d have to throw away the physical embodiment of my memories, or hold onto a useless piece of crap. If I break the beer mug, I’ve destroyed a link to the past. I already own enough crap, without wanting an extra reason to hold onto something I own.

I don’t have a solution for this – some way to remember happy times without getting bogged down in useless crap. Maybe I can put pictures on the wall and collage ticket-entries across the refrigerator. But is that the same?

Travel

My last post mentioned I was going to be away from two weeks; I just returned. It was the longest vacation I’ve taken since college, 2 full weeks.

I enjoyed myself – I saw a lot of cool sights, did a lot of cool things and met a lot of cool people. But in the end, I think I’ve decided that it’s not my type of travel. Basically my vacation was staying in 4 major cities for, on average, 3 days each (Reykjavik, Amsterdam, Köln, and München).

Now, maybe I have peculiar interests. I’m not a huge fan of museums (I enjoy them but find that I reach a ‘tolerance limit’ after about 2-3 hours). I’m not into clubbing at all, and prefer quieter bars/pubs/beer gardens for drinking. I’m not a big restaurant spender, and I don’t enjoy travel shopping too much (more on this in a later post). What does that leave? I enjoy seeing historical/architectural landmarks, churches/cathedrals, parks, random streets, boat tours, farmland, forests, strange/different cheap restaurants, and drinking/talking – if I know somebody.

I’ve now done a one week and two week backpacking trips to Europe. And my verdict was the same each time (though more firm after the past two weeks). First off, I’m not a huge fan of large cities. 3 days is a strange time limit. It’s enough to see the bulk of notable landmarks, and a few museums and restaurants. But on the third or fourth day, I sort of wonder what else there is to do. At the same time that I’m pondering this, I feel a really intense pressure that I *MUST* do something new and exciting, as if just sitting around would be admitting my travel was a failure. I feel this sometimes in NYC as well, a strange feeling like “I’m near all these people who are doing crazy stuff, and I’m mostly sitting around. I’m being so lame!”

Now, my personality is not suited to the things that 80% of people do; many of them are probably at nightclubs and so on, which hold no appeal. But there’s still this foolish voice whispering these things to me.

I feel much better in small towns/smaller cities. Because the number of options is more limited. It’s the same as going to a huge grocery store, and there are 40 kinds of peanut butter, and you freeze. The number of choices available is just painful. You’re confronted with this horrifying possibility: what if you buy a sub-optimal peanut butter?! As a matter of course, when confronted with 40 kinds of peanut butter, I select the store brands, reducing the number of options to a manageable 3: low-fat/normal/chunky. I feel much better, it’s like frugality is a defense mechanism against the huge variety of choices. Brand loyalty is probably the same.

Cities are like peanut butter. I most enjoyed the city with the least (IMO) to do, Reykjavik. Things got quiet at night, people were mostly chilling in pubs and cafes, just as I was.

I also found excursions outside of large cities much more memorable. I mean, seeing the Kölner Dom (I believe it is the largest cathedral in Germany) was cool. But in the end it was just a huge cathedral, filled with hundreds of tourists just like me. It’s a dusty relic of memory. I experienced the building, but what kind of experience is that – if you’re not an architect? I suspect that 95% of those who visit stay for 20 minutes and then are on their way.

Compare with the top experiences from my trip (unordered):

  1. Traveling by small fishing boat to a windswept grassy island off the coast of Reykjavik, where there were some horses roaming free. Hiking 5-10 km around the island, looking at distant volcanic mountains and the Atlantic ocean in the distance.
  2. Riding the transit system to the end of the line in München, then hiking 4-5km to a monastery/brewery, drinking a liter and a half of beer, talking to the bored German working the beer garden (and some other tourists), and then hiking back.
  3. Taking the train from Amsterdam and getting a guided tour of Leiden (charming medium-sized Dutch city) … and Dutch blood banks with ERE member DutchGirl.
  4. Renting a bike in Köln and pedaling along the Rhine for 35-40km; enduring miserable rain and intense winds to get back to the rental place.
  5. Taking a day trip from Köln to the small town of Brühl, seeing a huge Baroque palace, and then especially seeing some tremendous parks/walkways around the grounds.
  6. Drinking 3 liters of beer outside a pub and then talking to a never-ending stream of thousands of drunk people (Australians, Americans, Germans, Swiss, English, Russians) as they left Oktoberfest.
  7. Meeting this old filmmaker who captured all the volcanic events in Iceland over the past 40 years, and watching a movie in a little theater he set up in his garage. Surreal scenes of people moving & evacuating mattresses as cinder rains from the sky, as their houses are swallowed up in what looks like black snow.

Only one of these was a ‘big city’ thing (Oktoberfest). Everything else was in smaller towns, or smaller cities (under 150k people). Much of it was outdoors.

My conclusion after 3 weeks of this type of city-hopping travel, is that I don’t particularly enjoy it. I don’t remember too much about the big landmarks in cities, and much of museums. They’re functionally dead, I remember some of the pretty sights but they’re not the same as the experiences or the people. The schedule of 3-4 days per city is enough to get bored, but not enough to really get to know the place. In fact it feels like the only thing it’s good for is to take the same tourist pictures everyone else will take and be able to brag to your buddies about the sheer number of cities you’ve visited. This is a really superficial way to travel (though I admit I’ve fallen victim to ‘city-collecting’).

On the other hand, I’m still enthusiastic about long-term travel, 2-3 months per location, even though I’ve never tried it. I’ll need to wait until I’m financially independent to have time for that.

In the meantime, over the next 2-3 years, I’d like to try some different things. One would be a week (or longer) hiking trip, seeing the natural environment and tiny hamlets in a foreign country. Something like hiking for a week in Patagonia or New Zealand. Another possibility is going to some big city, spending a day or two there, and then going to stay in some smaller nearby town for a week. This probably sounds a bit strange, but it’s appealing to me (this after never having tried it…). A third possibility is a longer stay centered in a smaller (but notable) city. Reykjavik was absolutely perfect for this, with a population of 120k, very unique culture, clean and friendly, and the possibility for cool day trips or overnight camping.

In the end I’m sad that the common way of traveling is not so appealing to me. But I’m glad I learned this after only two trips and now have the opportunity to find a new mode of travel better aligned with my nature.

Why I Want To Get Fit

If you’d asked me why I wanted to get fit a month ago, the number one reason would have been simple vanity. And vanity is still a big motivating factor.

But my focus has shifted. Partly that’s because I now realize that if I want to get strong, I’ll have to gain some fat as well as muscle. But also I’ve had a growing realization about the psychological importance of fitness.

I work a lot. I learn a bit at work – how to handle myself, how to communicate, and technical aspects of certain programming languages… but mostly it’s “wasted” time. That wasted time extends into my personal life. I don’t hang out with friends much, I’m too mentally exhausted to learn much after work, I sleep a lot or just waste time because I have no energy, etc.

In the end, I mark off days on the calendar based on how much cash I was able to save for the future. A month of my life is thus converted into a few more digits in my bank account.

With fitness, I’ve found at least one thing that I can see some tangible (objective) improvement on. I can lift more weight now than before. I’m a little bit slimmer than I was. I’m a little more motivated and excited about broadened horizons.

I can see myself improving, so each night, I can go to sleep knowing not just that I saved a little bit of money, pulled myself a little bit closer to my dreams – but that I’m also more prepared for when those dreams become real.

Early Retirement as a Theology

There’s a peculiar sort of parallel between the broad ‘belief’ of early retirement and Christian theology.

Broadly speaking, the popular understanding of a ‘Christian’ life, is one of someone striving to be virtuous. This entails cultivating various positive characteristics, such as charity, faith, tolerance, etc., and resisting various temptations, such as lust, gluttony, anger, etc. Should one successfully cultivate and resist, there is a reward: heaven. On the other hand, succumb to temptation, or remain uncultivated, and there is only agony in the future.

Broadly speaking, those in the early retirement community have an understanding of a ‘good’ life. One must strive to be virtuous, while avoiding sins. Virtues include self-reliance, frugality, creativity, etc., while sins include gluttony, lust for objects, sloth, etc. Should one successfully cultivate virtues and abstain from sin, there is a reward: retirement. On the other hand, succumb to temptation or remain unvirtuous, and there is only work stretching into the future.

There’s an awful lot in common between these views of the world. One difference that stands out, though, is that most religion actively shuns evidence, and makes a fetish of faith. On the other hand, the early retirement community tends to seek concrete evidence: numbers in spreadsheets, active calculations of cost reductions, factual stories of retirement dreams achieved.

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.

An End in Sight

When I first started thinking about retirement, it seemed really far away. Once I understood my expenses, I knew I had at least 3 and probably 7-8 years to retirement.

As I brought my expenses down, that number dropped a bit – but it still seemed uncountably long.

I naturally focused on retirement more whenever things were tough at work. When I had to work long hours, or had a demoralizing shift, or felt unrecognized, I wanted an escape.

Through all that, I never put a timeline on a quitting date. Counting the days felt morbid, and 2000 days (or whatever it would be) is an awful long time to count.

I recently had a change of heart, established a quitting date, and started counting days. This isn’t necessarily a retirement date, although I’ll have enough saved to be comfortable doing work that I want to do, rather than work that I have to.

There were two drivers for deciding to count days: one, preventing myself from getting into a rut. Two, appreciating what I have.

What terrifies me most in life is the older guys I see on the subway each morning. Overweight, balding, sweating in their suits at 7:30 in the morning every day. I don’t want to judge these guys, but I do. If they had different priorities, they wouldn’t have to do something so miserable. They’re not poor, but prisoners of their own lack of imagination.

And yet – I can see myself becoming one of these guys. Afraid of jumping and embarking on something new, I would continue doing the same work. Nose to the grindstone, letting years slip by. Maybe I’d get some promotion, enough to feel as though I had accomplished something. But finally, I’d wake up, blinking, with the most vital years of my life behind me.

So, I set a quitting date. April 1, 2015. Three years, give or take, and then I start anew. Maybe not retirement, but a new job, a change, a graduation from this phase of my life.

The other motivation for ‘counting the days’ is so I can take advantage of what I have.

I live in New York City! Most people get to experience that over a few miserable days, going to Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. And yet, the real charm of the city is the tiny restaurants and grottoes, underground theaters, hidden parks, ethnic communities. That’s what gets featured in movies, and you have to explore it slowly, methodically, over weeks and months and seasons.

To be completely honest, I’ve seen the same amount of stuff in four years as an industrious person could in two weeks.

Mostly, I sleep on weekends, or procrastinate, or waste time online.

But now I know I have about 150 weekends, roughly, until I do something else. I might not be living in the city in 3 years. 150 is a large number, but also frighteningly low. I want to extract as much meaning aspossible, so that when I do move somewhere else, I don’t regret living in a place for 7 or 8 years and never knowing it.

Since I started counting down days, I’ve been much more active. I’m sure the warm sunny late-spring days have something to do with it as well, but I’ve seen more of the city over the past month or two than over the previous year.

So, I think counting the days is a good thing. 1045 days until I quit my job.