Wear Sunscreen (and other thoughts for the year ahead)

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If I could offer you but one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Mary Schmich

I’m not one for New Years Resolutions. In fact, the last resolution I made wasn’t even mine; I stole it shamelessly from Skud, and it was “Never Refuse an Adventure”.

However, today I feel like dispensing advice, reflecting on the year that was, and making plans for the future. I’m going to share these with you, and I’m going to start with my outlook on life.

One lifetime is not enough.

I have too many things I want to do, want to learn, and want to be. Heck, even ten lifetimes would not be enough. Since I can’t do everything, a lot of my thought goes into maximising the area under the curve; making sure that when I die, I’ve squeezed the most out of life that I possibly can. Our axes here are age (horizontal), and enjoyment (vertical).

To get the most under the curve, you need it to stretch as far to the right as possible. You need not only to live as long as you can, but to have both the brains and the body to make the most of being alive. Without brains and body, you’re placing limits on the vertical height of your graph.

That, as much as you may not like it, means doing exercise, both mental and physical. A lot of the people I know are good at one, but suck at the other. My only advice here is to find exercises that you enjoy. Mentally that might mean a problem you want to solve. Physically that may mean combining exercise with transport (eg, cycling), or gaming (eg, StepMania), or social activities (sports or martial arts seem to work well here).

For most of my friends, it’s physical and not mental exercise that is lacking. In this case, sites like SparkPeople can be useful in tracking food and exercise, although they could do with an API. If you’ve got sufficient money, you may find investing in a personal trainer worthwhile.

I’m not going to talk about money, but instead I’m going to talk about utility, in the economic sense of the word. Without going into lots of theory, utility is the satisfaction you derive from something, and it can vary across individuals. For example, I have friends for whom watching sport is a high-utility activity, even though it’s not for me. Those same friends may consider giving a presentation in front of a large audience to have negative utility; whereas I’m positively thrilled at the prospect.

Utility is going to have a strong correlation with the vertical height of your life-graph. Hopefully everyone grasps (at least at an unconscious level), that the utility of something isn’t fixed. A glass of water has a greater utility to someone dying of thirst in the desert, than it has to the average office-worker. The +3 sword you’ve just looted is worth a lot to adventurer without a magic weapon, but has very little utility to the adventurer who already owns a +4 blade (unless they’re a ranger and can dual-wield).

A lot of our decisions come down to trading things of different utilities. If you purchase something, that’s usually because you believe that your purchase has greater utility than the money you paid for it. The big mistake I see people making is they take good deals now, but do so at the expense of taking great deals later on.

One example of this is time. A person may spend their evening playing an MMO, and that’s arguably a good use of time, because they enjoy it. However ten evenings of study may allow the same person to learn a new skill, and with that skill achieve some greater goal. If the satisfaction of that goal is worth more to them than ten evenings of online gaming, then they’ve taken a good deal, but potentially forfeited a better one.

That brings me to the concept of investment. In short, do it. I’m not just talking about investing money. I’m talking about investing in skills, health, friends, relationships, tools, mental discipline, cybernetics; anything where you forfeit utility in the short-term for a much greater gain of utility in the long-term. Be aware that not all investments are good ones, or what is a good investment for you may be a poor investment for someone else. But in order to really maximise the area under the curve, you’re going to need to do some investing.

What naturally falls out of this is the concept of goals. Identify the things which hold a particularly high utility for you. You want lots of goals; they’re what allow you to identify good investments, and high-utility events. For some people, myself included, there’s even utility in the sense of achievement when accomplishing a goal. Goals can be very short term (like making a person smile by sending them an SMS), or very long term (continue to be mentally and physically fit at age 75).

Don’t be afraid to add new goals, and don’t be afraid to discard old ones. Life is a process of continuous change, and there’s no shame if your priorities or circumstances don’t remain static. However when evaluating your goals, try to be aware of why they’re changing; that can often reveal insights into yourself you may not otherwise notice.

Your goals may involve taking risks, and that should not scare you. Many pay-offs more than justify the risks you need to take to get them. When making decisions, get into the habit of trying to analyse both the most likely and the most significant outcomes from those decisions. Try to associate both probability and utility with each of these; this should help you gauge the expected value (EV) of a decision. You should using this matrix to help you make the most beneficial choices; sometimes they won’t be the obvious ones.

Thinking about the possible consequences of an action helps you plan better for the future, and usually helps you both better utilise good outcomes, and mitigate bad ones.

A lot of my goals focus on things that I know will be highly memorable experiences. I cherish my memories, and being able to look back and smile about the things that I’ve done has a high utility to me.

So, what are some of my goals that I’m willing to share with you? Well, that’s a hard one. Well, let’s start with some history.

Most of you know me as a geek. I do a lot of programming, especially in Perl. I poke around with privacy issues, I play RPGs, I dissect network traffic streams, and I do a lot of speaking at technical conferences. Stereotypical geeks are poor with people, and that included me. It still includes me in many situations. However I’ve discovered that more than anything else, I love people. For a while now, I’ve been studying how I can become a better people person.

For me, 2009 was a year about people. I made a conscious effort to meet new people, to attend more social events, and to form new friendships. This has really paid off, and some of the risks I’ve taken have definitely been worthwhile.

I want to get better with people. I want to better understand how they work, how they think, and most importantly, what makes them happy. I’m not just being altruistic here; making other people happy is a very good way to get things done, and one that usually beneficial to all parties involved. So one of my goals this year is to put more points into cognition, telepathy, empathy, and bard.

I’ve also discovered that while I’m excellent in broadcast (presentation) and multicast (storytelling) communication, I’m lacking in unicast (personal) skills. I find this ironic, because I used to be the reverse. I think my unicast issues relate to what I’m willing to discuss. I generally hold my cards a little too close to my chest at times; I fear my conversation topics can be a bit too formal as a result. I seem to be most popular in unicast when talking about my most recent topic of inspiration, but when that’s computer-related I’m concerned my conversational partner will find it boring, and when it’s people-related I fear they’ll find it weird. This is an area where risk-taking is definitely needed; the advantages of finding someone who’s genuinely fascinated by my thoughts outweighs the risks of scaring someone away with whom I’d otherwise hold a specious social relationship.

I have a couple of mental models that I use for other people, but I’ve discovered not everyone fits nicely into these models, although they’re a relatively small subset of the whole population. The mental models I use for everyone else are woefully incomplete. To solve this, I suspect I’ll need to do some dedicating reading, research, and experimentation.

I need more points in arei’mnu, a Vulcan word that roughly translates into “mastery of emotions”. There are many times when my emotions are in opposition to my logical and well-reasoned thoughts. In fact, this is something of a conundrum for me, as I feel that emotions are core to the human experience, and removing emotion strips life of much of its meaning. Usually I embrace and revel in my emotions; I even find value in sadness and tragedy, as they often provide a focal point for reflection on good times and fond memories. Usually my arei’mnu is excellent, but there are a few tweaks that I need to make, most of which relate to specific circumstances and triggers.

Finally, in 2010 I want to experience new things. I jokingly refer to this as “gaining XP”, but it’s one of the things that I really believe in, and one of the things that too many people stop doing. After a while, XP is addictive. People, food, places, thoughts, ideas, activities; they all hold such amazing and unique possibilities. My real question, and the one that’s driving me nuts right now, is how to prioritise them, along with the very real awareness that I’m not even aware of the tiniest fraction of the experiences which life has to offer. In this regard, your advice is very much appreciated.

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