The Year of Perpetual Motion

January 2, 2018

I had a profound experience the other day. In preparation for the new year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and as an exercise I asked myself a question.

“What do I want my life to look like?”

Without missing a beat, the answer came to me.

“Not like this.”

Damn. That’s one hell of a bomb to drop on yourself, but it rang true. As we know, the truth is a gift to always be accepted graciously, and so it was time to face the music. The first step to fixing a problem is to admit that there’s a problem.

After very little soul searching – apparently I already knew the answer – I realized with what I was dissatisfied. For as long as I can remember, my biggest fear has been complacency. Complacency is the culprit who will kill your potential without your noticing. It’s an duplicitous beast that rides under the guise of “comfort.” It’s a life lived pleasantly but not satisfactorily.

I found myself with waning health, caused by working a job full of external and artificial stresses. A job that I liked, but didn’t love. A job that paid in money and experience, though neither of which were things I actually needed. I’ve got enough money, and I’ve got more than enough experience. A job that sucked enough of my energy that I wasn’t capable of creating the things I wanted to be creating in the negative space around office hours.

And so what was the point? I found myself working to acquire resources I didn’t need at the expense of ones I did. It reminded me of a quote that my friend recently shared with me:

“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

-James J. Lachard

Damn. Mull that thought over for a second. I’ll bet it rings uncomfortably close to home, doesn’t it? It certainly did for me.

I don’t want to die having never really lived. Guess I’d better do something about it. And that’s about as good of a segue into my goals for 2018 as there will ever be!

If there’s one weird habit I have, it’s doing math recreationally. If there are two weird habits I have, it’s doing math recreationally and putting taglines on years. These are little phrases to remind me of what I’m supposed to be focusing on during the year.

2013 was the year of doing something with my life. 2014: the year of building infrastructure. 2015 was about consolidating power. You get the picture.

2018 is the year of perpetual motion.

What I mean by that is that I want to spend 100% of my time working on the things I want to be working on. I want to be always moving towards the goal.

What all of this cashes out as is a couple core pillars of fundamentals I feel like I am missing or at which I am not yet good enough. These sub-goals are ambitious as all-get-out, and there is no way in hell I’m going to be able to accomplish them given my current levels of operation. My only chance is to induce an extreme shift in lifestyle. The pillars and their components are the tactics; the lifestyle is the desired result.

Producing Cool Things

I have a role model. His name is Piero Scaruffi. In the internet jargon of today: this guy fucks. Holden Karnofsky, via Luke Muehlhauser, on Scaruffi:

We can start with his writings on music, since that seems to be what he is known for. He has helpfully ranked the best 100 rock albums of all time in order…

If that’s too broad for you, he also provides his top albums year by year … every single year from 1967 to 2012. He also gives genre-specific rankings for psychedelic music, Canterbury, glam-rock, punk-rock, dream-pop, triphop, jungle … 32 genres in all… These are all just part of the massive online appendix to his self-published two-volume history of rock music. But he’s not just into rock; he’s also written a history of popular music specifically prior to rock-n-roll and a history of jazz music, and he has a similarly deep set of rankings for jazz…

So who is this guy, a music critic? Nope, he is some sort of mostly retired software consultant and I want you to know that his interests go far beyond music. Take literature, for example. He has given both a chronological timeline and a best-novel-ever ranking for each of 36 languages. No I’m serious. Have you been wanting this fellow’s opinion of the 37 best works of Albanian literature, in order? Here you go. Turkish? Right here. Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopian, ancient Egyptian, and Finnish? Got those too.

Naturally, Mr. Scaruffi has not neglected film or visual art but let’s move on from this fluffy stuff. Because it’s important for you to know about his:

  • Political analysis – separate sections on Europe, Africa, North America, Latin America, Middle East, Asia, Far East, Oceania and “Terrorism”; a pretty comprehensive “statistics” page that he seems to have assembled himself .

  • World history – timelines of the USA, “black Africa,” Britain, Tibet, Russia, and ~40 more; a rather extensive history of knowledge; a self-published book-length history of Silicon Valley, starting in 1900 yes 1900; a 200-slide History of Women; and much more.

  • Philosophy – he’s compiled a personal database of philosophers, a history of philosophy (of course) and much more (of course).

  • Nonfiction book reviews and science book reviews (“several hundreds”) Thymos, his website on “consciousness, cognition and life,” including a set of essays…

  • Demystifying Machine Intelligence, yet another self-published book, this one on AI His favorite formulas

Does this guy just like sit inside and read and write 24 hours a day? Not to hear his travel page tell it: he’s visited 159 countries and is happy to give you guides to several of them along with his “greatest places in the world” rankings. He also has an entirely separate “hiking” section of his website that I haven’t clicked on and am determined not to.

See what I mean? This dude is prolific. This dude is the dude I aspire to be.

So I’m going to make it happen. Along these lines, here are the quantifiable things I’m going to accomplish in 2018:

  • Publish 3x as many words as I did in 2017. This works out to roughly one blog post per week.
  • Contribute one major feature to an open source project. I have a few potential projects in mind and will report back later.
  • Read 52 books.
  • Work my way through every problem in the Awodey Category Theory book.
  • Publish an academic paper contributing something novel to the field of computer science.

Sounds like I’m going to be a busy boy, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more!

Fostering New Relationships

I met a guy in Chiang Mai during my travels. His name is Samer and during the two weeks we were bunk-mates, it became more and more obvious that I need to be a lot more like Samer than I am today.

Hear me now, rude boy. Sam has this amazing knack for people. He was friends with literally everyone I ran into during the course of my stay. Need your hair cut? Oh, Sam is going hiking with the hairdresser next week. Want some pizza? Yeah, that waitress is Sam’s girlfriend – despite the fact that he never eats pizza and they met at the pizza place. Random guy at the computer? Yeah he went to school in Texas with Sam. The list goes on and on and on and on and seriously it just keeps going on.

What the hell. How does he do it? I asked. Ready for the secret?

He talks to people.

Crazy, right? Okay kind of stupid in retrospect, but I guess I hadn’t realized how many people I was missing out on by not going out of my way to meet people.

I’ve lived in Denver for like eight months now, and I know, what? Maybe 20 people? No wonder Denver hasn’t been jiving for me; people are what make a place and I don’t know nearly enough people.

So let’s fix that in 2018. My quantifiable goals in this domain are:

  • Have two five-minute conversations a day with people I don’t know.
  • For every week that I’m not in a serious, committed relationship, go on a date with somebody new.
  • By the end of the year, have brought together a community of people that meet regularly, even without me acting as a catalyst.

It’s hard to overstate how excited I am about this pillar. I don’t think I’m bad at these things, but neither am I fantastic at them. Fostering new relationships I suspect will be the most important skill I develop in 2018.

Tactics and Mechanics

Okay fine, so it’s well and good to have a bunch of new year’s resolutions. But I’m sure we’ve all set some goals on January 1st and haven’t entiiiirely followed through with them one hundred percent all the way.

Clearly more is needed than just good intentions.

The first and foremost tactic I will be using is the idea of having a key habit. The idea is to set one thing every day that should be my primary focus – to the extent that I’m allowed to drop everything else on my plate in order to accomplish it. If I’m terribly behind on any of my quantifiable tasks above, they’ll be the key habit for the day, and I’m allowed to go out and spend the day meeting girls, or whatever.

If the key habit is nothing urgent (like getting back above the yellow brick road of succeeding at being the person I want to be), it’s up for grabs. I’ve been doing this for a few days, and some of my key habits have been:

  • Build systems for 2018 (cashed out as this key habit idea)
  • Figure out goal tracking. Start blog post (cashed out as a beeminder-esque spreadsheet and the post you’re reading now)

(I’m only a few days in, so there are not a lot of examples, but I expect they’ll all look like this.)

Once I have my key habit in place, I look through my GTD list for any tasks that I want to make progress on that fit the theme, as well as add anything ad-hoc to this list from my brain. Finishing everything on the task list isn’t crucial, but I’ve found that having a daily checklist of things to do helps with motivation. It’s helpful both in that I don’t need to think about what to do next, and in that I get a little jolt of dopamine every time I cross something off of the list.

I don’t want to commit any money to this year, but we can do one better. If you’ve made it all the way through this post, I urge you to hold me accountable to it. Like, to the extent that you’ll commit to stop being friends with me if you’re not satisfied with the progress I’ve made towards these goals by the end of the year. I would be honored if you’d commit to be disgusted by any failure of mine along these lines.

To sum up my commitment mechanisms, I have a very low-energy planning strategy for generating daily motivation. The hope is that this will be able to generate enough chutzpah to keep me honest about making progress on a day-to-day basis. And, if that fails, I want everyone I like to lose respect for me. Neurosis-inducing, to be sure, but nuclear options are pretty effective.

See, the real cost of failing a goal is not the loss of your Beeminder pledge money. It’s the loss of confidence that you will meet all future goals that you perceive as similar to the current goal. You will trust yourself less. And because the motivation to pursue a goal is largely based on your confidence of success, that blow to your confidence will demotivate you, making you more likely to fail.

-Nick Winter

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