← Part 3: Adventure

How to live: Iteration

Be a hero

The message from 80,000 Hours was compelling. Use your career to have an important impact on one of the big neglected problems that the world is facing. Yes! Something that I could sink my teeth into. My previous career didn't seem to offer me a path toward helping with anything worthwhile. And I was done just trying to get free. Sailing, building, climbing were fine for a little while. But I couldn't spend the rest of my life just following interests like these, or running away from potential disasters.

Now back from sailing and ready to end my hiatus from work, I had a career advising call with an 80,000 Hours counselor. I came away from that conversation with a todo list that would last me a year. A new path to follow that would let me make a meaningful contribution. I wouldn't have to make my own mission or wonder whether people would care about slight UX improvements on my app. Instead, join up on a mission that is clearly important and fill that void in your soul by working with others that are also trying to be deliberate about improving the world.

Now I've got it. How to live is to solve big neglected problems. Like what though? Here's the one that got me. AI keeps getting better. Seems unlikely that'll stop. How do you control something smarter and faster than you? Maybe you don't. There are horror scenarios in there. Seems important to address that.

So my new goal was set. I'd learn about AI. I'd get up to speed on the specific risks. I could be one of the heroes that would make sure that we had a better answer to that control question. Because being a hero is how to live.

Wait, this is hard too

Except... It turns out that training up as a machine learning research engineer is hard. I felt like a poser. Yeah, I had some of the necessary math background after blasting the rust off of it. But barely any of the computer science. And I was gearing up for competition against people that were smarter than me that had recently graduated from fancy programs that had better stories to tell about why they would be more reliable contributors to the jobs that we'd apply for. The hero jobs. A couple months down this new path, I started applying for bootcamps and classes that could eventually get me a role in AI safety. The rejection from the AGI safety fundamentals course noted that there were over 700 applicants for 150 spots.

Not only did I fail to get in, but James did too. The guy that I felt so far beneath on the first online group that I stumbled into, all self-assured and confident that I'd breeze right through. I had to drop out after two weeks because it ended up being way beyond my ability. James made it through that course. Yet he'd still been rejected. There'd be no chance for me at any of this kind of stuff. It was like, oh, you like working out huh? Come on down to the gym and we'll work out together! But you get there and everyone has 40 pounds more muscle than you and one guy starts stacking too many plates on the bar. Then two of them look at you as you walk in and go silent and pause for a moment. You dismiss yourself.

Maybe all of that would be fine though. I could just be patient. Clearly you can't just set a goal to go somewhere, and simply appear there. I was comparing myself to these other people, which was right to do to some degree. I'd need to see what it would be like to work in that field. But comparing all the time is no way to live. Compare, see the destination, and then work on yourself. Maybe it'll take a few years. But if you think this is important, then you persist.

There's another problem though...


There's a guy in this field that goes around saying there's about a 100 percent chance we'll be killed by this AI business. Everyone. Soonish. Big Yud commends people on their efforts. At least they're helping us die with dignity. But he finds flaws in basically everything, and his arguments sound convincing. That is, everything that the people who are already at the cutting edge of AI safety are doing. The people that are smarter than me, better positioned than me, more helpful than I could ever hope to be. Why should I aspire to that in the presence of compelling arguments that the work will ultimately be useless?

Why bother with anything?

Getting out of bed is getting harder. "Do what gives you energy." Here I am, trying to do something worthwhile. But this path to it is sucking the energy out of me. And it's making me not care so much when I breathe in some concrete dust while pouring a new slab with my friends on the next build. Going to be dead soon anyway, so caution here is a waste. Hmm...

Death isn't new though

Okay, breathe. You're spiraling again. You've been here before. You've been okay before. Even if you're not going to be okay this time, you'll still be okay. Change the definition of okay a little bit, and that's what you'll be. Change it even more if things get worse. Then you'll be that kind of okay. And death is okay too. It's not even new. Death has always been the destination here. You'll be okay. Breathe.

Notice your bias for thinking catastrophically too. It'd be convenient if Big Yud were right about the world ending soon, wouldn't it? If that scenario were true, then it'd go a long way toward justifying the freedom you've been targeting on some level for the last couple years. Consider that maybe it's wrong.

Many need a reminder of death so they get their act together and live instead of deferring life. Some need the opposite though. I need the opposite though. Here's your reminder:


Right, okay, so I might live. But I don't know how to live. I've tried a bunch of different answers to the question. And sometimes I got it right. All my answers have ultimately proven wrong through. Or, more charitably, temporary. Instead of trying to avoid being wrong, embrace it. Keep guessing, keep testing, keep moving. I guess that's how to live.

But first, some distance. Cash in on a little bit more of that freedom that you coveted for such a long time. You're not doing yourself or anyone else favors by letting this hopelessness eat you alive here in Florida. I just saw a blog post about some good tea shops in Tokyo. Hey, I've sort of wanted to see Tokyo. Alright, I'll go check that out now.

Yep, Tokyo is worth seeing.

What have I learned?

The pessimistic side of me latches on to the conclusion that each of my answers has ultimately been wrong, so continued effort is pointless. Obviously that conclusion is flawed. That's how it has always been for me, so it's probably how it'll stay. Constant change. New starts. New experiments. Less than fully satisfied with the results, but reminding myself that the striving was useful anyway.

I wanted freedom. But I also wanted a stable path. I wanted to contribute. I was skeptical about whether I could contribute from any of the traditional paths. People didn't value my attempt at a contribution right away, and I had gotten used to the stability of the actuary's cube. I almost let the tension between these two parts of myself rip me in half.

If you feel yourself falling apart, step back, breathe, step toward something that's likely to work. I was grateful for the hand out of the hole I'd dug myself in the summer of despair. I stopped caring about contribution and freedom and just worked the sure thing for a while. And I engaged with people that believed in me. It doesn't take much. I had a good attitude and I stayed grateful.

Freedom or a stable path? Turns out that I didn't have to choose. Instead, I took the hybrid approach with FIRE. Just work that plan in a disciplined way, and freedom is just a matter of time. Discipline equals freedom. But once you get there, then what? That's a tough one. For me, questions of whether my life has been or will be worthwhile took over. Is this it? What, you just gonna sail and climb and build stuff for yourself and ignore the possibility of making the world cooler for everyone? It could be so much better than it is! And it stands to get so much worse if people that have the capacity don't do anything about the decay!

I don't know how to live. I don't even know how much longer I will live. But I might live.

So keep trying new answers. No, you won't get it right, but maybe it'll be interesting. Anyway, the other option is pretty boring.

How to live, starting now?

Where could I go from here? What answers to how to live might I test next? What timescale should I use when answering such a question? How to account for the uncertainty that the likely rapid change over the next few years will bring? How aggressively should I pursue fatherhood if at all? When?

How much to care about status? Or contributing to human flourishing? Or alleviating suffering that exists now? Far away suffering? Nearby suffering, even if less severe? Potential future suffering? Small probability, high-magnitude risks?

Be a jack of all trades and opt out of the specialization that has been the driver of progress? (But how worthwhile is that kind of progress anyway?) Work on ironing out my own wrinkles? Focus on my health? Focus on building friendships? Commit to a certain place? Move closer to my sister and make it a priority to stay near her? What about Mom? What is my responsibility to her?

How seriously should I take the possibility of the US quickly crumbling? Push hard on getting myself to the safe refuge of another country? Get serious about learning another language so that I can more deeply integrate into another country and beat the refugee rush? Would I even be able to live with myself if I left? What about the people that I left behind? Is that path an illusion?

Get married? A lifelong commitment seems so long. Maybe there's something to it though.

What gives me energy anyway? How much risk to take? I could learn to rig sailboats and consciously lean into a vocation that explicitly is not poised to make a big impact, but just do my job well anyway and see if looking at myself in the mirror gets easier that way. (Not that it's too hard now, but, you know, could be easier.) Get away from the world of knowledge work like how I've dismissed ever being a soldier or a rock star or physicist or actua...

Wait, should I swallow my pride once again and resume as an actuary? They don't only work on life insurance, you know. There's that enterprise risk management thing. Maybe there's something there. Could I have a better attitude about it? Could I care? Would I just find silly and immature reasons to dismiss that work as a joke? Would I find justified and frustrating reasons to dismiss that work as impossible? Could I even get a job like that, given how long I've been doing my own thing? Would I just be filtered out of every job application simply because I've been away from that world for so long? (Come on, I'm sure you could figure out a way around that.)

Do nothing? The world doesn't need me, but that doesn't have to mean disappearance. I could float a few feet above the world for a few years. Become a monk and meditate all the time?

How seriously to take the prospect of life extension? What about cryonics? Freeze some swimmers, hold off on fatherhood until some cool fertility treatment comes out that ensures ideal initial conditions for my kid(s)? (That sounds expensive and similar to trying to save up just to get your kids into an ivy league school.)

For a while there, you wanted to build out a van to live in. It was fun to do that in the Element for a little while. Could go deeper into vanlife. Or if not living in it, then at least have a van to get more into outdoor camping trips and the like. Could be fun to organize rock climbing trips for friends, leveraging a cool van like that. That way you could have a balance between adventure and work.

How about a coding bootcamp? Seems like a pretty reliable way to get a fresh start, and you're good at following paths and being a good student. Or you could go all in on the student thing and aim for a master's or even a PhD. In what? Computer science, something related to ML, physics, some kind of engineering, philosophy, economics.

Or you could do the Steven Pressfield plan and rent a shack out in the middle of nowhere for a while. What to do in your shack? Write? What would you write anyway, more lists of questions about how to live? I don't seem to have much to say, so I don't think writing is in the cards. Maybe read, and figure out something to say.

What about Shopclass as Soulcraft? You resonated with that one line, something like ~"when you work at a thinktank, your salary really does feel like compensation". You could lean into that part of yourself you've been developing on and off for the last two years. The part that likes to work with his hands. (Yeah, you'll get hurt along the way. Just accept it when it happens and take reasonable steps to mitigate stupid and huge risks like falling off of ladders.)

What about getting a social media account? Coming out of hiding? Why hide anyway? At least do something with the website you just started. You've wanted to do that for a while.


I don't know how to live. But I'll keep guessing, making estimates.

Make an estimate, start testing it. Make an estimatt, then testing that.

Um, that pun would work better if my name were something like Hope Thesius, but it's what I've got.
← Part 3: Adventure