I should note that I write this for nobody but myself. Don’t expect anything interesting here. Feel free to skip this one. I promise there will be another post soon. This is – as always – a personal blog. My goal with this post is not to write anything that will transcend time and be relevant in the future. On the contrary, my hope is that I will read these words some day in the distant future and be unable to remember or even recognise my thoughts. Maybe that’s my biggest fear at the age of 32? To be complacent.
Yes, I am 32 now. It’s no big deal. That’s the thing you learn as you get older, I guess. I am 32 and one day in the (near) future being 32 will be nothing but a distant memory. That’s at least how I feel about being 16 (that it’s a distant memory of a time that, in the grand scheme of things, is nothing).
Time is weird. Life is weird. I was going through some old mails from 2007 the other day and I found a mail from my then-local now-closed library, Bagenkop Bibliotek. They informed me that a book I had requested had finally arrived. The book was ‘Mennesket er en misforståelse – portræt af Johannes Sløk’ by Kjeld Holm, and I don’t remember reading the book. Or seeing the book. It’s even limited what I know about the life of Johannes Sløk. I wonder how much I will remember about life now in 13 years time.
Ryan Holliday wrote a post titled 32 Thoughts From a 32-Year-Old. Inspired by that, I decided to write a blog post about my life when I am 32. It’s not a similar post and I do not agree with everything Ryan Holliday writes. For example, a ‘Top highlight’ in the post is: “You need a philosophy and you need to write it down. And re-write it and go over it regularly. Life is too hard (and too complicated) to try to wing it and expect to do the right thing.” I believe there is a contradiction at play. Life’s too hard and too complicated to have a philosophy. You don’t need a philosophy (or maybe I am wrong and Ryan Holliday is right). However, I agree wholeheartedly with some of the other observations, e.g. “Don’t read people’s long captions on Instagram. They are almost universally inane bullshit.”
The most recent significant change in my life is that I don’t have any academic ambitions anymore (if I ever had any). The more time you spend in academia the more you notice that a lot of your victories are Pyrrhic victories. One of the first thing you notice when you get into academia is also how obsessed people are with playing status games. It’s a blessing not having to care about metrics such as teaching evaluations, journal rankings, impact assessments, h-index, etc. I still care about research and science, but I have reached the conclusion that life’s too short to waste it in academia. My sense is that a lot of people are stuck in academic jobs they don’t like, but a weird combination of useless skills and opportunity costs keep them going strong. What I appreciate about non-academic jobs is the pace, energy and efficiency in which you get stuff done.
I like to multitask and devote time to several different ideas and projects. I rarely procrastinate but I do spend time on multiple tasks with no immediate pay-off. I know all of the benefits of deep work but I find the idea of deep work overrated. I believe most people are in love with the idea of deep work because they are addicted to social media. I am not as pessimistic towards social media. On the contrary, I believe that there are spillover effects of multitasking on various projects – and there is some empirical evidence supporting that claim (e.g. Kapadia and Melwani 2020). I did not like Tim Harford’s Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World but the main message of the book resonates a lot with how I work.
That’s also why I love Twitter. I have (so far) been able to beat the algorithm and have all content presented in the correct temporal order. I don’t want Twitter to present more tweets about American politics because I retweet a new forecast on the US presidential election. I want to be able to mix different Twitter accounts together in different lists. I like the juxtaposition you encounter on Twitter, e.g. that a tweet with a comment on Claude Monet’s late works can be followed by a tweet with a meme about heteroscedasticity-consistent standard errors.
I also try to increase the variation in the non-work related books I read, at least in terms of the topics. Some of the books I have read recently that I with a certain degree of confidence can say are not work-related include The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (about the 200-million-year-long story of dinosaurs), The Monopolists (about the history of the board game Monopoly), Leonardo da Vinci (the one by Walter Isaacson) and Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture (a beautiful book about disposable coffee lids).
The term ‘non-work related’ is technically correct but also fundamentally wrong. I believe that everything I do, even if it completely unrelated to my work, will matter in one way or another at some point in time. Or, in other words, if I only read books that were directly related to my job, I would not enjoy my job. There might not be a high rate of return to everything I do, but I believe it is the most efficient strategy for me. This is not the same as I don’t try to think systematically about procrastination and ways to improve my production function. I am familiar with various productivity methods and I find this overview by Alexey Guzey on how to think about productivity interesting. What I have learned over time is that I have no system, no method, no approach to being productive. I work a lot and find time to write (mostly text and code) every day. And as long as I am having fun and I am not feeling stressed, I’m sure everything will be fine (and I am aware that I might read that paragraph again at some point in the future and laugh).
2020 has also been a great year to reflect about planning – or rather the lack of planning. It’s strange living in the midst of a global pandemic and I don’t really have a lot to add here (see my post in Danish here). The only thing I should emphasise is how happy I am that I am not too affected by the situation and am able to work well from home.
I am also happy about living in a large city. We know that large cities both have pros and cons (e.g. both wages and crime scale in the same way with population size, cf. Bettencourt and West 2010) but from a productivity perspective, large cities are better as research, innovation and industry, concentrate disproportionately in large cities (cf. Balland et al. 2020). As Derek Sivers describes it: “One of the best things you can do for your career is to move to a big city”. That being said, what I like and appreciate the most about a large city is the anonymity. When I look at Edvard Munch’s ‘Aften på Karl Johan’, I don’t see alienation. I see peace and harmony.
As I get older I care more about my physical and mental health. I aim to go for a walk every day (on average), get enough sleep, not drink or smoke, drink decaffeinated coffee, avoid sugar and processed foods etc. I don’t use social media on my phone. The one thing that is not working out for me is playing squash. I haven’t played squash at all in 2020 and I miss that. Another important aspect of my mental health is culture. I try to have non-zero weeks in relation to most cultural activities, i.e. read a book, watch a movie, listen to a podcast, watch a TV show and listen to a music album every week. However, most important for my mental health is the great people I spend most of my time with.
Beyond that, I don’t really have a lot to say or any wisdom to give. That’s what I like about being 32. You’re old but not old enough to give any profound wisdom. Old enough to have learned a lot but young enough to still learn. If I could give three simple pieces of advice, they should most likely be: 1) Save a non-trivial amount of your after-tax income. 2) Give away the books you are never going to read. 3) Avoid flights before 11am and after 8pm (or, avoid flights at all in 2020 – taking the pandemic and the climate into account). Don’t take them too serious though. I am only 32.