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I'm sitting at my desk in my RV. It's nice out, but the RV is in direct sunlight, so it's hot inside. The fan is on maximum speed, which cools me down a little bit at the cost of it being really loud. Two seconds ago I checked my email. I also checked my email ten seconds ago. Thirty seconds ago I thought about how I should make lunch, even though I've already eaten lunch. In other words, my mind is doing everything it can to avoid writing.
I'm not really in the mood to work, but I'm even less inclined to write. When my mind is in programming mode, I find it very difficult to switch from talking-to-computers mode to talking-to-humans mode. Last week, as you may have noticed, I didn't post anything. I slapped together a post, read it over, decided it was really crappy, and just skipped the week.
Now I'm writing, though, and I'll tell you why.
I dropped out of school during my sophomore year of college. I was a little bit scared to do it, but I followed through because I was certain that I didn't want to get a normal job or do anything else that would make use of a degree. Dropping out was one of the best decisions I've made, and it pushed me towards the life that I really wanted to live.
However, just because dropping out was right for me doesn't mean that it's right for everyone, or for you. I think that the school system is trending towards obsolescence and is a far worse value proposition that it was in previous eras, but that doesn't mean that it's worthless or that it's not the right choice for a lot of people. You might be surprised to find out that when people email me to ask if they should drop out, I tell many of them that I think they should stay in school.
When I talk about dropping out of school, by the way, I mean dropping out of college. Unless you are home schooled or have a very good plan for learning useful life and social skills, I think that at least completing high school is a good idea. I also think that taking some college is a good idea for many people. Going for a semester is a fairly small investment of time to figure out if it's a good fit for you, and you can also completely disregard course guidelines and take interesting things like Chinese and scuba diving.
If you're in high school or entering college, the most important thing you should realize is that you alone are responsible for your education and your life, and that you should use the next four years in the best way possible. Forget about labels like graduate and dropout, and focus on what is best going to prepare you for the life that you want to have.
I think that some might be surprised to hear how much I sleep and how important it is to me. I average right around eight hours per day (tracked for a few months), and prioritize sleep very strongly, even over most work.
Once ten pm comes around, I have four options for things I'm allowed to do: I can play violin, read a book, work, or sleep. Computer is off at midnight every day, at which point I usually read for an hour or two, and then go to sleep.
The other night I was tired at ten, but I was really excited about my work so I tried to push through and keep at it. I was stuck trying to fix something, but I managed to try five or ten solutions out before getting in bed. At the time, it felt like a good choice.
I woke up the next morning, took one look at the code, and spotted the solution instantly. Within five minutes it was fixed. Once is a fluke, but I've noticed this pattern over and over again with work when I'm tired-- it feels like I'm working, but often I'm just spinning my wheels.
I love inequality. When I'm on the bottom end of it, I like that there's a scale that hints at the upper bounds of potential, and when I'm at the higher end of it, I like seeing the progress I've made. I have a tough time imagining the function of ambition and hustle in a world where everyone is always equal in all respects.
When I was in high school, I had a few friends who were obsessed with the idea of nanotechnology. I knew nothing about it, but they told me that eventually a machine would exist that would be able to create any physical object the owner desired.
The idea of everyone being able to have everything they wanted struck panic into my heart, as it threatened my beloved inequality. Sure, there were things that I wanted, but I liked wanting them -- it was fuel.
A few weeks ago I was in Salem, Massachusetts. It's a really nice town on the ocean with quaint red brick buildings and lots of trees. It's also full of shops selling jokey witch knick-knacks, cashing in on the Salem witch trials.
The witch trials were three hundred years ago, a mere instant in the cosmic timeline, and we're already over it. he murders and suffering that took place back then are forgotten in any context other than a purely academic one.
We also don't really care about the atrocities of World War One or prior wars. World War Two and the Vietnam war are both recent enough that we can still connect emotionally with them, but that probably won't be true a few generations from now.
In a way, the horrible things that humans have done to each other in the past don't really matter. They mattered a lot to those involved, both directly and tangentially, and some of them mattered to successive generations, but their importance has an expiration date.
The way we make decisions is pretty interesting. Making decisions that are bad for us is easy and effortless. Think about how easy it is to decide to watch TV, eat some junk food, take a nap, and then play some video games. On the other hand, let's say that today you wanted to have a really positive day. To actually decide and convince yourself to prepare and eat healthy food, avoid watching any TV, power through your work even when you're feeling tired, and avoid wasting time on facebook is hard. Not impossible, of course, but just by thinking through these two scenarios, you can imagine how much more mentally taxing the latter is.
The trick to overcoming this is to make decisions once that will have an effect for a long period of time-- in other words, having a standard routine that allows for no variance. For example, I want to have a good sleep schedule. I can do what I tried to do for about 30 years, which is will myself to make a good decision on when to go to bed every night, which didn't work at all, or just say that computer is off at midnight no matter what, and I'm asleep by two no matter what. Now I don't get to make a decision every night-- I just turn of the computer, read, and go to sleep. All I had to do was make this decision once, and then train myself on it for a couple weeks before it became second nature.
Another huge benefit of rigid scheduling is that the schedules can be tweaked. I wanted to eat more Omega 3 fats. How do I do that? Well, if I just know that's a goal, maybe I'll go grocery shopping and figure out which foods are better, figure out how to prepare them, and make them. Or maybe I'll just dial it in by eating a couple more walnuts here and there and order salmon on the rare occasion I go to a restaurant. In my case, switching to eat more Omega 3 was simple-- I eat the same thing for lunch every day, so I just substituted a sardine sandwich and tuna sandwich for my nut/fruit sandwiches. One decision and my whole diet is improved.
Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle. On one hand it needs to be exercised regularly to be effective, but on the other hand it's strength can become depleted through short-term overuse. If you're trying to eat healthy, exercise, work effectively, write, be financially responsible, and sleep well through micro-management, you probably won't be able to continue indefinitely. Instead you'll have a burst of a week or two where you crush it, and then you'll deplete your willpower and regress back to old habits.
It might surprise most readers to know that I actually had a pretty great time in school. I learned a lot, made great friends, and had some very good teachers. There are a lot of positive aspects of school that should be preserved even in alternatives.
What I don't like about school, though, is the incentive structure it presents to students. School teaches all sorts of bad things like doing work to please others, submitting to arbitrary authority, and my least favorite of all: doing the bare minimum.
The first two I dodged somehow, but doing the bare minimum is ingrained somewhere in my brain. It doesn't rear it's head all that often, but when it does, it's ugly.
And, to be clear, I don't blame school for it. It's my own responsibility to condition my mind and to not fall prey to bad habits, and I failed to do that in school. So maybe I was out in the cold, but it was my own fault I didn't bring a jacket.
I was walking through the mall a couple days ago. My path took me past a bunch of stores and kiosks, including the Nike Store. I walked past it and looked at their window display. They had a really nicely photographed poster and some cool looking shoes in a bunch of different colors. The store was beautiful and looked like a fun place to be. At the same time, their shoes aren't particularly great, they aren't actually innovative, and they're made of cheap materials. There are many shoe companies that are way lower quality than Nike, but I don't know if there are any with such a disparity between their presentation and the actual product.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn't just nike or most of the clothes in the mall-- it's how our culture works now. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to a cobbler. He would design a pair for you, or use one of his existing designs, pick out some nice leather, and make you a pair of shoes. His design work, his execution, and his materials could all be leveraged about equally, so I'd guess that you'd tend to have either poorly designed shoes that are poorly executed and made of poor materials, or well designed shoes that were well executed and used good materials.
These days, things have changed. Design can be leveraged almost infinitely, which has changed the whole equation. Mass manufacturing ensures decent execution, but supplying top quality materials is difficult. A cobbler who makes a hundred pairs of shoes a year can take the time to pick out the best hides to get the best leather. That doesn't scale to making thousands of shoes a day, so material quality drops. Execution has become more consistent, but the benefits of cutting corners is magnified. Saving a penny on making a pair of shoes didn't matter to the cobblers, but it matters to Nike.
So these days, most of what people buy is well designed, decently and consistently executed, and uses relatively poor quality materials. In the mall I walked past a kiosk of phone cases. There were some that were blinged out. Pretty good design in that they fit perfectly on the phone the're meant for, the rows of fake diamonds are all uniform, etc.. Each one looks the same and is okay quality. But the materials are crap-- cheap plastic painted to look like metal covered in lackluster plastic "gems".
A few days ago I'd heard that my paternal grandfather, Gramps, was diagnosed with Lymphoma and was going to have some tests done to see what treatment was required. Today I woke up and found out via email that he had died. I gather that it wasn't terribly unexpected to those around him, but it took me by surprise.
He lived to be eighty-eight, which was probably a good decade over his life expectancy. When I last saw him around a year ago, he had definitely slowed down, but still had a good quality of life. I visited him and my grandmother in Palm Springs, where they were spending the winter with my aunt and uncle. He had five kids, tons of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and had a good relationship with every one of them. He had a very good life, probably died with few if any regrets, and left all of us better off.
While there's some sadness that I'll never get to see him again, mostly I feel happy that he did have such a good life, and I feel grateful for his influence on me. In that spirit, I thought I'd share a few little stories.
As a kid, my favorite time of the year was summer, specifically the couple weeks I'd get to spend with my grandparents out in rural Vermont. My three siblings and at least six of my cousins would all come visit at the same time. By any measure I had a lot of freedom and independence as a kid, but Vermont was the pinnacle.
Imagine a story. Maybe it's a novel or a movie or a long running TV show, whichever you prefer. The beginning of the story is your life so far. It's been compressed a lot, so it's not too long, but it has all of the highs and lows, and some of the key moments that put you on a trajectory between those extremes. Maybe it's no Shawshank Redemption, but it's a good story.
The story isn't finished, though. It's only a third of the way through, or maybe half if you're a bit older. Lots of blank pages or film, waiting to be imprinted with events of your future.
And now imagine the final scene. You're about to die, unfortunately. You're the hero of this story, so it's one of those bittersweet death scenes, where it's sad that you're going, but you did so much that no one can blame you for dying. He (or she) had a full life; squeezed just about as much juice out of it as possible, they say.
When you think of that last scene, think of what made that life so full. The goals that you achieved by then, the people who made up the cast of your life, and the amazing things you saw and did.