Thirty-three. Another year, same me ±95% CIs. One third of a hundred, give or take.
I read the post I wrote last year when I turned 32. It all seemed so recent. I could, in principle, repost my thoughts from last year and call it ’33’. There is not much of significance, if anything, to report on in my life now that I am 33. However, especially in the context of COVID-19, I guess it is a point in and by itself. It all feels like ‘no news’. It is the experience of waking up one morning and suddenly being a year older. One year of the one life I have to live. Definitely not a year wasted, but not a year “lived” either.
Of course, I have lived another year. In the grand scheme of things, I seriously cannot complain even one bit. I am very much aware of my privileges. I have had a lot of great experiences. I have not had any major setbacks. I have never worked this much. I have never relaxed this much. I have never read this much. I have never written this much. Et cetera. Maybe that’s the reason I felt like this year just … happened?
When I was younger I used to assume that the lifespan of a human being was 100 years, or, that my lifespan would be ~100 years. I knew that most people would not live to be 100, but it made sense to use 100 as a heuristic. That is the only way 33 stands out. 1/3 of 100. Based on the ONS ‘Life expectancy calculator‘, the average life expectancy for a 33-year-old male is 85 years. In other words, 52 years left (meaning that I – all else equal – have lived more than one third of my life now). My chance/risk of reaching 100 is 6.9%. Not 7.0 or 6.8%, but 6.9%:
This is ceteris paribus. With that in mind, I like the 6.9%. However, at this point, I don’t think I can do a lot more to increase my life expectancy at the margins. I live (relatively) healthy and there are no additional low-hanging fruits. What I can do is to have a subjectively longer life. Time seems more subjective as I get older, and if I had to live the rest of my life in pandemic mode, it would feel relatively shorter. New experiences – such as travelling – will make my life subjectively longer. In other words, to make my life as long as possible, I need to plan it in ways that feels longer – not by visiting the gym more often and eating less meat.
That being said, I am not sure I can do a lot. I can’t escape the fact that life, for the most part, is the day-to-day experience, and some days I feel like I am second-screening ‘the real life’. Getting shit done and calling it a day. Or as Stig Johansson formulated it, “All those days that came and went, little did I know that they were life.”
I am taking it for granted that people experience a lot of significant changes in their lifetime, such as technological and societal developments. It was only when I read the following passage from Matt Ridley’s book, How Innovation Works, that I got to think about how this is the exception rather than the norm: “Before the last two centuries, innovation was rare. A person could live his or her whole life without once experiencing a new technology: carts, ploughs, axes, candles, creeds and corn looked the same when you died as when you were born.”
I have lost count of the new technologies that have seen the light of day since I was a kid. Even at the age of 33 I have experienced a lot more new technologies than my ancestors experienced in a lifetime. This and the fact that the average life expectancy was, historically speaking, much lower in the past, made me conclude (yet again) that I should not complain. I have on all accounts already had a longer life, both in objective and subjective terms, than what most people could expect to experience in the past. I guess that puts history in perspective.
I remember watching Good Bye Lenin! in the cinema in 2003. That is 18 years ago now. The movie came out less than 14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That’s weird to me. I was closer to the historic event depicted in the movie at that time than I am to me watching the movie for the first time. At some point in the future, assuming I get to live to I am 75 (the odds are good!), the events depicted in Der Untergang will be closer to when I first watched the movie than the time that has passed me since then. I guess that puts history in perspective, too. I was also reading this article in The Atlantic that makes it clear that 2050 is closer to today than 1990, and significant changes to the climate will happen within our lifetime: “A child born today won’t enter the professional workforce until 2043; under the current timeline, decarbonization will be just about licked by the time they turn 30. Their job will be to live with climate change: They will see Antarctica’s crucial 2050s in the prime of their career.” Damn.
Well, for now we can focus on the present. The pandemic as we know it is (hopefully) over. It has been a weird year and a half, and I definitely lost faith in multiple things during the pandemic. Shaking hands, airports, the United States (or, whatever faith that was left), nine to five, time more generally, John Ioannidis, menu cards, etc. However, there is at least one thing I have gained faith in during the pandemic: QR codes.
What’s up for the next year? I don’t know. More of the same, I guess. I don’t have big dreams and mountains to climb. I definitely don’t seek or need fame – or convince the world of my individual brilliance. More importantly, I really enjoy working within a great team. In general, at least in my case, I believe reliable consistency beats occasional brilliance. However, my biggest fear is still to be complacent, especially because that is what I gravitate towards.
All this also confirmed that it was a good move to leave academia. Actually, this has been the first full year without an academic job since I got my PhD. I found it surprisingly easy to give up a permanent academic position and I have not considered even once looking into ways of getting back. None of my parents are academics, and I never had the feeling that being an academic was part of my identity. More importantly, I do not look at my academic friends and see lives that inspire me. That’s totally fine. I am sure it is great for a lot of people, but it did not do it for me. I also found John Williams’ Stoner depressing when I read it years ago and I doubt that would change upon a second reading.
More than anything, I enjoy that I am 33 and not 23. I don’t miss being younger. As I get older, I am quite confident that I will develop certain peculiar quirks (as most people do). Hopefully, I can do that with a certain level of open-mindedness and self-awareness. The good thing about getting older is that I am much more selective in terms of what I spend time on and what I care about. I do not let trivialities live rent free in my head to the same extent as I did ten years ago. I think I think a lot more about what I think about. What do I remember? What do I forget? I obviously don’t see hyperthymesia as a good thing, or even an option in my case, and I don’t want my memories to be a random sample of what I experience – but a carefully curated selection (to the best possible extent).
The bad thing about getting older is that it will be a slow process characterised by physical and cognitive decay, at least at some point and to some extent. The body I am in now will be the body I have to stay in when I am 43. Accordingly, I have to prepare for my 40s in my 30s while still enjoying my 30s. And I have to do that in a way that I did not have to do when I was in my 20s. I have to hit the gym and think about exercise in a different way. I am not there yet, but I could sympathise with, and maybe even relate to, the following lines from one of my favourite albums from 2020, Open Mike Eagle’s ‘Anime, Trauma and Divorce‘: “Started doing more pushups, back pain when I look up/ taking down what I put up, knee hurt when I stood up”. I had a few osteopathic appointments this year – not because I needed it, but because I want to do what I can to make sure that I will not need it in the future.
To reiterate what I said in my previous post: I write this for nobody but myself. I write this primarily to have something for myself to go back and read in the future. In some ways this is pretty similar to the FutureMe service where you can send a letter to your future self. I read old blog posts and I don’t recognise the person writing them, and I fear that if I don’t write a post like this, I will not be able to recall what was on my mind at a certain point in time in the future.
I know I shouldn’t care but the numbers tell me – for reasons beyond my comprehension – that people read my posts. I do sometimes think about the impression people (might) be left with if they only read my blog. The irony is that I read a lot of great books and articles, talk to a lot of interesting people, and have an overall positive outlook on things. This is ironic as I am more inclined to write about something if I have some critical, and often negative, remarks to a piece of research or the media coverage of opinion polls. You can call it a negativity bias. I have tried to reduce this bias by design over the recent years to make the blog more aligned with – and representative of – what I care about. For example, by sharing more of the interesting stuff I find in blog posts with links to interesting studies, potpourris, assorted links, etc. And by framing my blog posts in an explicitly more constructive way, e.g., to say “How to improve your figures” instead of “What I do not like about this figure”. However, I am sure there are still many ways in which I can become better at this in the future (and maybe it will come naturally as I get older!).
Well, again, not much to report on. A year where I existed but did not necessarily live. This can sound pessimistic but it is not. Actually, it is quite optimistic. It is only upon reflection now that I reach this conclusion, and it is from a point of optimism, i.e. that the next year will be even better.
Last, this is the second year in a row I write a post like this. I don’t know whether I will write another post next year. Maybe, maybe not. Let’s see. Maybe I will wait a few years before I pick up on it again. In the best of all worlds I can break the average life expectancy and write a blog post titled ’86’ in 2074. In the grand scheme of things, it will happen before I know it.