It's early and the whole day is in front of me. How will I spend my time?
When I was in middle school, frozen yogurt was served during recess for fifty cents. Sometimes I had fifty cents, other times I had to borrow it, and other times I didn't get to have frozen yogurt. Back then, it seemed like a pretty big deal. But now, looking back, whether or not I had frozen yogurt had no impact on my life. I don't really remember how it tasted or any particular times that I ate it. If there's any impact, it's probably that I lost a few hours of expected life by eating it.
It's interesting how things that seem like good ideas, or even seem important, can turn out to be completely irrelevant. The anguish over young love, which seemed so strong and so important back then, yet now isn't much more than a blur. The hours spent in school learning things like biology, which have now been totally forgotten. The acquisition or denial of that amazing gadget that we just have to have for Christmas. I waged a yearlong campaign to get an Atari Lynx, and considered not geting one to be one of the toughest struggles I had gone through back then.
I don't bring all this up to say that what happens in childhood doesn't matter, though. Not at all. In that same era, I think about how I met my childhood best friend, Charlie, who taught me Chinese and took me to Taiwan with him. Even today, those experiences (along with many others) are with me. We were issued TI-85 calculators back then, too, which was the first device I ever programmed on. I learned a lot. My parents never really let me watch TV back, and that, amongst so many other good decisions they made, have shaped me in positive ways.
So while we can get emotionally invested in a great many things, many of them will be forgotten or rendered irrelevant through the passing of time. That makes them, in a sene, wastes of time.
Whenever I do anything now, I try to think about how it will affect me in twenty years. A friend today asked if I wanted to have a cheat day on my diet and go eat at a good burger place half an hour away. That sounds really good-- I'm about due for a cheat day and french fries are one of the only junk foods that still taste good to me. But long term, will I even remember what the burger tastes like? Probably not. Even if I did, would that really be beneficial? If I make a sandwich in my RV, I can eat in about twenty minutes. If I go for a burger, it will take about two hours. I expect that work on SETT will benefit me and others in the future, and I'd rather not give up an hour and a half of it. I didn't go.
Almost all of my time now is spent on stuff that will help me in the future. I write because I want to connect with people, and be a better communicator. I program because I want to build something that could help communities form. I eat healthy food to preserve my health. I've found that recently I've become a lot more selective about who I hang out with, trying to spend more time around people I really respect. I play poker because it sharpens my mind and earns me money. I don't own very much stuff because I can think of very few posessions that impacted my life long term. I read every day, almost all non-fiction, to learn new things that will help me in the future. I travel because pretty much every trip I've ever been on has stayed with me.
Before you say it, I'll admit that even trivial things that we do add up to create the atmosphere in which we live. Maybe having the frozen yogurt was a social experience that made me a little more personable, maybe pining over some crush in middle school built my emotions. To that I'd say that we are going to be shaped by our environments no matter what. By eliminating "wastes of time" and substituting new activities, we're going to, on average, have a better environment. Yes, there's variance in that, and we'll miss out on some things that would have been beneficial, but we're adding even more of those experiences than we're losing out on.
I like the term "spending time", because it is actually a finite resource that is being spent. A person who spends all of their money on fun things with no intrinsic value will find himself broke and desperate as he gets older. Someone who invests his money will be in a much better position. It's the same with time-- waste it away on frivolity and you may someday find yourself with regret. But invest your time, and you'll find that it pays dividends in the future.
By the way, if you like hashtags and brevity, you can follow me on twitter.
Photo is a cool iceberg sculpture in Oslo near the opera house.
While I agree with a lot of this article, I also believe that we need to appreciate the little things. Going for a burger shouldn't be thought in such grand terms. It is what it is. If we continue to over think every life decision we will end up confused and letting a lot of possible experiences pass us by.
Now if you genuinely didn't want a burger, then I understand but if you didn't go just because you didn't think it was worth it in the grand scheme of things, then I find that a little odd.
Sometimes it's good to forget the future and just think 'what the hell' and do something off the cuff.
Possibly its best to use this reasoning (" Whenever I do anything now, I try to think about how it will affect me in twenty years.") for daily recurring habits, rather than the occasional burger.
Yes, I think that's it. I will ask myself "why?" (as in "why do i do this?") more when going about my daily life.
I get what you're saying, but it sort of reminds me of how sometimes people don't want to make more money because then they'll be paying too much tax.
There's a difference between being paralyzed by decisions, and thus never doing anything, and using a simple heuristic (will I likely be glad I did this in twenty years) to make better decisions. I probably should have used an example besides work to make the point more clearly though. Last week a reader tweeted me a deal to go to Peru for $390, so I booked it immediately, knowing that it's something I'll be glad I did twenty years from now.
Thanks for writing this, although there are little things that I didn't think of much at the time that stayed with me to this day. Like when one day I woke up with my then girlfriend early and went to get baguettes on my bicycle and freshly ground coffee for her Cafe Au Lait. It didn't mean anything at the time aside from making her happy, but I figured out how much I like serving people. Today, I love to cook, I made many a meals in college with nothing but 99 cent chicken breasts, but I always gave it my best trying to follow recipes and serving extra food to my roommates and that's how they remember me. I was not the only guy in college who cooked but the only one who cooked for people and treated them like family.
Actually, I wish that I emphasized more in the article the idea of serving others. Because if you forget it entirely but it has a big impact on someone else, I think that's actually BETTER than your remembering it, because the impact is magnified.
I visited a friend in New York once. She worked the night shift, and every night would come home while I was sleeping, take a bath, and then go to sleep. One evening I got dinner at a deli, and I picked up a bottle of POM for her, because she loved those things. I put it on the side of the bath and went to sleep.
The next morning she was in tears, telling me how much that meant to her, and how it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for her. Probably to this day she remembers this and is glad it happened. So a lot of times very small gestures can create these 20 year memories for other people.
Thanks for the comment... I'm glad you brought up the point.
I had an experience recently that really drove this point home.
I've eaten a lot of great food. It's kind of a pastime. When I travel that's one of the things that gets me most excited: the regional cuisine, finding awesome stuff to eat, whether that's getting the best pad thai I've ever had for twenty-five cents from a street cart or paying $120 for a beer and a few small pieces of the world's best beef at a yakiniku place in Tokyo.
While I was living in San Francisco I decided I really wanted to eat at the French Laundry, which at the time was regarded by many as the best restaurant in the world. I don't remember exactly why, but I decided to make it a Christmas present to my sister Stephanie and my aunt Nancy, the two family members I could think of who I thought would most appreciate an experience like that. In retrospect, it was probably at least somewhat motivated by not wanting to just go eat there by myself and feel silly.
Right around the time I got the reservation, Per Se, the sister restaurant to French Laundry, had just opened in New York. My aunt Nancy lived in Connecticut just across the border and would often go into the city for dinner and an opera with friends, so they'd all heard about Per Se opening, so when she told them that her nephew was taking her not to Per Se but to the French Laundry itself, apparently they were all amazed.
She bought a new dress just for the dinner, and when she and my sister came out to my place in San Francisco a few days before driving up to wine country, she kept doing things like scrubbing my bathroom floors and otherwise cleaning my apartment, much to my horror. "I gotta sing for my supper!" she kept saying, when I'd insist, mortified, that she stop.
We stayed at a bed & breakfast one block away from the restaurant. Dinner was five hours long, and was absolutely one of the nicest meals of my entire life.
Today, I can't really tell you what I ate. I remember the experience and cherish it as wonderful, but would I say the money I spent on it was worthwhile for the experience of eating the food and sitting in those chairs? No.
A few months ago I was in Connecticut for Nancy's funeral. I was standing in line behind some of her long-time friends at the reception, waiting to get some food. One of them introduced herself, and we started sharing some memories. But within a minute or two she interrupted me.
"Wait - are you the nephew that took her to the French Laundry?"
"Yeah, that was a wonderful trip."
She started crying and turned to the rest of the friends standing there. "This is the man that took Nancy to the French Laundry!"
Apparently it had been a real highlight of her life. Of all the trips she took - and she was very well-traveled - it was one of the things that touched her the most and she shared it with all her friends and kept and treasured the photos she took there.
It's probably the kind of thing that drives people to dedicate their lives to charity work: At that moment I stopped and thought, the impact I made on Nancy's life with a plane ticket and a nice dinner is so astronomically greater than the impact it has on my life when I go eat a good meal, and the joy I get in knowing how it affected her and knowing I was able to do that for her is tremendous.
Always been a fan of your blog and your books. I found you in Neil Strauss's book. It's cool I'm talking to one of the characters of a NY Times Bestseller. :p
I been practicing programming like I mentioned last time but I'm still trying to get all of the HTML basics down. I haven't made a habit of it yet but I am trying to be a champ and do it when I'm not feeling it and it's a great focus to have.
Where do you find the ideas for creating stuff like SETT? Is it because you been an internet consumer (Facebook, MySpace, Reddit) for so long that you know what the internet needs? I am new to programming so I cannot think creatively thru it yet, right now I'm just copying the syntax line by line but trying to be creative with it and stuff. One day, I hope to have the lightbulb light up in my head. Like 'I love Reddit, here is how I can make it better' or 'I love SETT, maybe I'll do one for foreign exchange students' or something. :)
The idea of SETT came from blogging for so long and feeling like it wasn't all that effective. I'd somehow organized this congregation of 12,000+ readers, but there was no real sense of community. No one knew each other. No one contributed anything back. I saw SETT as a way to access what I already had-- a group of really smart like-minded people.
When you become halfway decent at programming, which will happen faster than you think, you start seeing things through a different perspective. When you see things that would have previously made you think, "Hey.. that should be different", you start to think, "Hey... I could MAKE that different." So you'll naturally see opportunities that you don't see now.
I don't fully agree nor do I disagree with this post. My biggest concern would be the reduction of randomness I'm exposing myself to.
I haven't experienced a reduction of randomness, or at least in any negative sort of way. It's mostly just a reduction of low expected value activities. Still a lot of variance, but skewed towards more worthwhile experience.
Also, are you working on optimizing the mobile version of Sett? I didn't respond to your survey but that would be my biggest feedback.
It's on our list, for sure. Not a high priority at the moment because I think reading on phones works pretty well, although replying and such does not yet work well.
I'm on an iPhone 4 (only mentioning it because the platform is relevant to testing/debugging). The problems I see are that it loads the page twice, and the text is about 50% of the available width of the screen in portrait mode. And it lags whenever you scroll. Also I can't see what I'm typing anymore but you already said gay :)
The double pageload is unavoidable at this point. It's because Safari doesn't allow cookies to be set remotely, so you wouldn't be able to log in without that quick reload. On a desktop Mac it's barely noticeable, but on a cell connection it can be annoying.
I appreciate the feedback, though. At some point I'll be spending some serious time to make sure the iPhone / Android experience is up to par.
"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let others spend it for you." - Carl Sandburg
It seems from your writings that you're not trying to maximize your own well-being, but you do keep it in mind. I'd be curious to know how you resolved this attitude with Kahneman's warnings:
(Or read the transcript, since videos take forever.)
I was just coming over to mention Kahneman! Here's a good blog post today (on a great blog) about something similar:
Kahneman was the first person I read talk about the distinction between the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self", and I think it's a huge, huge deal. Essentially what Tynan is saying is that he tries always to maximize the benefit for the remembering self. And it sounds kind of noble when people talk about not wanting to have regrets on their deathbed or whatever, but when you actually stop and think about it as "I am always preferring the remembering self over the experiencing self" it doesn't seem quite as cut-and-dried.
I especially like Kahneman's point about the little study they did where they asked people, "How much would you pay for this amazing vacation?" and then asked, "How much would you be willing to pay if we told you that you couldn't bring a camera and your memory would be wiped of the event immediately afterwards?" It's so much less, and when you think about that, it makes sense viscerally. It's almost like, why bother doing anything I won't remember later?
But that supposes that the time I spend experiencing it isn't worth anything at all. And in the video (assuming this is the same video I'm thinking of) he points out that the pleasure we derive from the remembering self isn't as big as we think it is. Maybe we only actually reflect on a past experience for... what, a total of a few hours for the rest of our life?
I do think there's a kind of holistic quality to the remembering self, though, where it's not entirely about the minutes I am actively recalling the experience from my memory, but the gestalt of all experiences and the way they shape my self-identity and give me ground and confidence and whatnot.
I'll say that travel in particular is a case where experiencing vs. remembering self really conflict sometimes for me. Like, a lot of travel is not constant pleasure in the moment. I remember having that insight. I was right here:
It's the most canonical tropical beach I've ever been on in my life. Crystal-clear aquamarine waters, millions of tropical fish, beautiful soft sand, mango smoothies and umbrellas.
And at some point I noticed I was getting kind of annoyed at having to move to stay in the shade of the umbrella because the sun was moving so quickly across the sky, and how it'd disturb my relaxation when the light came in my eyes.
And an instant later I noticed that I had just thought that, and marveled at how even in an amazing tropical paradise, all my usual little tendencies stick with me.
The reality of my experiencing self was that trip entailed a lot of time on cramped buses and super uncomfortable boats, time getting hassled at border crossings and a week where all I could bring myself to eat was yogurt because the regional cuisine with its intense heat seemed to have killed all the flora in my gut. It's also the case that southeast Asia's climate is pretty rough, super humid and super hot. A good chunk of the trip was finding ways to fight mildew in my clothing. Also one of the nights on the Perhentian Islands, our "chalet" (shack) was dive-bombed by a huge colony of bats who kept swooping through all night and flapping around inside our little 9'x9' hut on stilts. That was more like an episode of Fear Factor than a paradise island.
There was plenty of pleasure for my experiencing self, too, to be fair, a lot of marveling at the beauty of things and drinking in new experiences and the like. But my point is, to my remembering self, it's ONLY good. It's almost entirely positive. I think back on that trip and it's one of the most life-enriching, perspective-broadening trips I've ever taken. I remember the tough parts but they don't come back up as viscerally negative. If anything I laugh about them now, like the bats. At the time we were completely terrified.
I don't really think about that particular trip all the time. Like Kahneman says, maybe I'll spend... ten hours, total? reflecting actively on it through the rest of my life.
But I think a good portion of my sense of well-being comes, overall, from identifying as someone who is "worldly", who "has traveled" and "does travel" and being able to come up with exciting stories by drawing on all of this stuff, put together. And I do think that it passively influences my perspective. Even if I'm not constantly thinking about it, the exposure I've had to developing nation living conditions (meager, to be fair, probably a few months total spent in developing nations, but spread over several trips) relieves me of a lot of worry about status and gives me a basic sense of safety, knowing not just in my head but also my heart that I can basically do whatever I want because I'm not going to just end up destitute in a ditch somewhere. It's very liberating. Having spent time with many different people and having worked in situations where I didn't speak the language and was reliant on the kindness of strangers gives me a much deeper sense of gratitude, humility, and compassion than I would probably otherwise have.
This is really a great perspective. If I had built the feature to promote a comment as a new post, I would have done it.
I wrote most of my thoughts above, in reply to Nick's post, but I'll add a few here as well. Reading your story, I don't really think it's about happiness. Knowing you, you're the kind of person who will be happy all, or almost all, of the time. That doesn't mean that life will always be easy or comfortable or bat-free, but I know you're one of the few people I know who always sees the good side of things.
And, in that way, I think that for people like us the pursuit of happiness is basically irrelevant. We'll find it wherever. We can't get experience and perspective anywhere, though, which is what makes trips like these so valuable, and I think it's the real reason we go on them.
I remember being in Kagoshima, Japan, a few years back. It was pouring torrential rain, my waterproof shoes had suddenly stopped being waterproof in any way, and my friends and I had decided-- for no good reason-- that we were going to find a dot on the map that simply said "cave" and sleep there for the night. We had four people and one mummy sleeping bag, and it wasn't mine. We get to the cave, and it's open on both ends, so it's a wind tunnel. It's freezing in there, but at least relatively dry. From a nearby store we snag a stack of boxes, and only in the confines of the cave do we realize that they're soaked in fish juice. We sleep on them anyway.
We were all super uncomfortable and freezing, but all happy, too. I don't think any of us would have accepted a hotel room if it were free. I'm sure I learned something that night, too. I don't know what-- I don't think learning or character building can always be fit into a nice labeled box, but in the end I traded some temporary comfort for some long term learning. Good trade.
This would indicate that travel is good mostly for the challenge and the new experiences, and that while normal tourist travel is counterproductive in the way that Kahneman hints (neither enriching nor that pleasurable on net), you actually want to court Fear Factor travel. Volunteer to sleep with bat raids and eschew the hotel for the fish mats--but only as long as it's new and challenging.
I think there's some merit to this. I'm heading to Peru next month, and thinking about trying to do one of the usually-guided 5 day hikes solo. Just because it will be hard and probably worthwhile.
One of the things I find most valuable is the range of experience. After the fish box night we took a ferry to Yakushima. On the ferry was a full Japanese bathhouse, including a sauna. I washed my clothes and took a shower and sat in the sauna, and really fully appreciated how nice it is to be clean and warm. If I hadn't been cold and dirty, the experience wouldn't have stayed with me.
I don't know that it really works like that for me. It's like when you have to deal with challenging people, I've found it productive to think about it as opportunity to learn patience.
That does not mean I'm going to start choosing my coworkers by picking the most difficult ones.
Some Tibetan monks wake up every day and pray first thing in the morning, "May I encounter the appropriate difficulties today." Kind of the same thing. You can be glad for the challenges you encounter as opportunities to learn valuable skills, and you can cultivate the intention that you meet your challenges well, but I don't know a lot of people who deliberately put themselves in harm's way just to reap the silver lining!
If my whole trip had been bat attacks and fish juice let's just say I would probably not remember it quite as fondly.
And more to the point, if I had deliberately chosen a trip that entailed only masochism I think it'd get old fast. The mere knowledge that it was something I'd deliberately chosen would make it all seem like a bad illusion and ruin the effect.
Going to reply on this topic to Brian, too, but the short is this: I believe that happiness is 99% controlled by the mind, that it has very little to do with actual events and everything about our interpretation of those events.
Happiness is a skill, and for whatever reason, it's something I'm very good at. I actually don't think the two types of happiness are that different if you're working on them... both are just the skill of putting things in perspective and seeing the good. Experiential happiness might be having thought loops like "It's raining every day, but man... how amazing is it that I'm in Thailand?" and remembering happiness would simply be defining your memories using the high points, like "In Thailand we rode elephants, pet tigers, went to the beach, etc."
So in terms of happiness, all I really care about is my ability to be happy. I could eat hamburgers every day, or program every day, or just sit in jail, and I believe I would be roughly equally happy.
But you're right in noticing that I'm not maximizing for happiness. I see it as a very tiny component of life, just a skill to get proficient at. If I die as the happiest man in the world....so what? I'm still dead. I maximize for having the biggest positive impact on the world. Right now that takes the form mostly of working on myself. I need to be stronger, smarter, more empathetic, more vulnerable, more strategic, etc. to increase what I can do. At the same time I write, because people have told me my writing has had an impact on the, and I build SETT because I believe that it will contribute to the conversations taking place between people around the world.
I'm pretty good at the skill of happiness, too, but not as good as you are. I'd like to hear more on how well it works. Here's a question: can you pull this off when you are physically ill, too? What about when you realize that you've been unproductive and living out of line with your ideals--can you feel happy then, or do you feel bad and react against this negative feeling to propel yourself back toward your goals?
Yes, when you're not feeling well, use it to set a baseline so that you'll appreciate your health when you return to it. I remember when I murdered my ankle before going to China, and for months it hurt to walk. The whole time I thought about how lucky I was that none of my other joints hurt, and how eventually my whole body would be pain free.
If you'e unproductive and living out of line with your ideals, you SHOULDN'T be happy! Happiness should be derived from elements within your control, and that qualifies. That sort of unhappiness would be a good thing, because it would drive you towards being happy, as long as you're self-reflective enough to realize it.
I agree with your sentiment that it's important for us to consider the long-term benefits of our decisions. It's also good to keep in mind that all we ever really have is right now. Life is just a ton of Nows. So while we should definitely plan ahead, we should strive to do so in such a way that we're not sacrificing the Now for the Future, which may never come.
This is basically just what Jamie said above.
Great post, Tynan. As a busy medical/graduate student, I can definitely see how important it is to spend limited time on something worthwhile. I also remember many events that seemed so very important to me during childhood, which no longer matter now :)
Keep up the good work!
Dude this doesn't even make sense - save now for a future point, yet you don't have a future point. There is only ever presence. There is a difference between 'I will delay gratification now to achieve a better gratification later', but a general 'pay dividends in the future?' without a defined point? I'm not suggesting that we should be wasteful of our time and resources, and sometimes it's better not to have the burger in order to save for some yet-to-be-decided moment in the future, but that is different than a 'Work hard now, and then it will pay of later', when the later never comes (think Zeno). Your insistence on ignoring presence and only looking forward appears to have missed the whole point of delayed gratification - to maximise presence at a particular point. Nor have you made the delayed gratification some kind of spiritual exercise (think Aurelius, sorry all Classic examples today), a possible justification for this refusal of gratification (and one often going with 'minimalism'). You instead seem to advocate utility - reading non-fiction (Heidegger?) so that you can be a better person at this undefined point.
Yet, your life seems to contradict this strange view you are advocating. The poker, the travel, the work, the healthy food, these are activities in the present, they are both about now, (enjoyable, stimulating) and the future (building something, be it SETT or skills). But I believe that what you are missing, and what this post should be about, is the choice, the choice to work on your SETT project, because you get something out of the work (it is surely rewarding, if not immediately but later), rather then getting a burger. There is no problem with getting the burger, unless you will horribly regret it later (it stops you doing what you really want ie SETT, so is what we might call procrastination), because that would be a bad use of time, a waste of the present, a waste of now.
Long story short, I think you are trying to say we should make choices to better use our present, yet advocate some kind of undefined restraint.
This is something I've been struggling with myself. My take is a bit different though.
In the end it's about happiness.
There are the "Wow this was such an amazing experience, I'm going to cherish the memories for the rest of my life!" days. Why are they important? Because you get to relive them once and awhile and -feel happy again-. But the reliving itself isn't going to create a memory (yeah, I remember that time when I was thinking back to the great trip I had to...). So, amazing things help to create further moments of happiness in the here and now. As such they can be seen as an investment. But still the pay-off will be the moments when you enjoy the fact that you invested, the -here and now-.
But there is another way of enjoying the here and now. By doing simple but enjoyable things. Like eating a hamburger...
Why is your experiencing self less important than your remembering self? It's true you rarely access the memory of frozen yoghurt, but then you rarely access the memory of most things, even the ones that are deemed significant. Life is just a series of nows, and doing things to enrich the texture and quality of your experience is perhaps the most important thing you can do in life. That includes eating frozen yoghurt. Of course, if your smart and in persuit of The Good Life you'll stick with the quality now, quality later dictum and do things which enrich now and also give your greater quality stream in the future - like learning skills.
Many years ago I decided that when I died I would become cryogenically frozen when I died.
Of course, that decision carried no weight - the procedure costs more than one hundred thousand dollars, money which I didn't have to set aside.
A couple months ago I walked into Style's living room. Mystery was there.
Right now, I might be lying frozen inside a slab of ice.
The year is 6442, the planet I call Earth was destroyed a thousand years ago. I have been lying here for 2595 years, on an extended space flight, piloted by a robot programmed to search for a place that can support human life.
What I think of as “reality” is being piped in like elevator music.
Even if you knew that, how would you tell the difference?