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Ask HN: How did you decide what problems to solve in your lifetime?
985 points by amadk on Jan 6, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 439 comments
In other words, how do you decide between what you want to work on and what should be worked on?

I've been stuck with trying to figure what to do with the rest of my life. I can't decide whether I should be working on what I want to work on (Energy, AI) or whether I should work on what I believe should be worked on (Healthcare).

It's a short life, so I want to be careful with this decision, to avoid any future regrets. Because I can't decide on this, I end up not getting anything done. Time continues to march on, while I'm still stuck with not knowing what to do.

Has anyone had any experience with this before? If yes, then what and how did you make your decision? What was the outcome? Is there a middle ground or silver lining, where you managed to work on both cases?

I want to be careful with this decision, to avoid any future regrets

Don't forget to consider that you may regret whatever you do - by human nature, the grass is proverbially always greener on the other side. People who have kids may wish they hadn't, but if they hadn't, they may have regretted that - in both cases thinking they'd made the wrong choice. Socrates and Kierkegaard, among others, discussed this as a basic feature of life - how regret seems 'objective', but it's far from it.

"Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way. ...Laugh at the stupidities of the world or weep over them, you will regret it either way. ...Trust a girl or do not trust her, you will regret it either way. ...Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way. ...This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life." - Kierkegaard, Either/Or

(The Preface of Either/Or even says about the book's chapters "Read them or do not read them, you will regret it either way."!)

This is also (arguably) the point of "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost.


Some clarifying info on how the poem is the most misread & misunderstood poem in America, for those interested (it's actually an ironic poem about self-deception to avoid regret rather then a "triumphant self-assertion"):

> Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

> According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Source: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/09/11/the-most-misr...

edit: whoops, someone beat me to it and already posted the link

Good poem! I think is also the point in the movie “Mr Nobody”

Wow, a great poem.

It is, but like all poetry, its interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. This 2015 article suggests the poem is actually NOT about boldly taking the path less traveled.

" The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. "


Thanks for posting this randcraw. I was about to do the same before I saw your link.

To add to your description: The author of this article suggests that The Road Less Traveled is not about the action of taking the riskier or more adventurous path. It is about how, in the future, we need to justify the decisions we made in the past.

"According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives."

There is a lot of advice on this thread, so I might have missed it, but perhaps what I can contribute to the OP is that they should reflect on what they have the ability to change, and what they can not.

Be realistic about what you can contribute now, and what in the future you will be able to contribute with a concerted effort. Focus on your short-term ability and try to dovetail that with your long-term goals.

I don't really like quoting Tech Barons, but here's a good one from Bill Gates.

"We often overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in ten."

Here's a Socrates reference:

"When his advice was asked whether to marry or not, he said, 'Whichever you do, you will regret it!' "

- Diogenes Laertius, Life of Socrates, from Lives of the Philosophers, ~200AD

There's a great episode of the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders by Dave Evans on "Designing the Life You Really Want" where he suggest applying design thinking to designing your life. Including how to use rapid prototyping for life choice questions such as this.


Thank you so much for that quote from Kierkegaard. I've been trying to put it into words and haven't been able to. It's nice to read it as such.

> Hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way

How does one regret hanging himself?

Same way you wake up dead.

Seriously though, one of the consistent things said by people who attempted to commit suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate bridge but survived were (paraphrasing) "At that moment, I realized that of all the problems in my life, this(jumping) was the only one I couldn't fix".

At that point, when it was too late, they regretted it.

There's a general consensus of immediate regret.


I took it as a joke. It's a very silly and funny book, in parts.

Kirkegaard's existentialism was religious in nature, in contrast to the later atheist existentialism of Sartre. So it's quite possible that from Kirkegaard's perspective, it could be possible to regret things after your death (or maybe it's just a joke - I haven't read Either/Or, so I'm not sure how far along toward his religious phase he was when he wrote it)

Either/Or is noted for presenting two perspectives, with the first volume demonstrating a hedonistic take on life, and the second a more "adult" religious take.

I couldn't personally get through the second volume yet, but I plan to some day, when I'm older. In the meanwhile, I would quite recommend the first volume, which I've read twice.

There is a opportunity for regret in the short moments after kicking the stool away.

Possibly quite long moments, depending on how well you prepared everything.

By failing to do so successfully, or by being saved before the damage is irreversible.

There is no such thing as a successful suicide. Just complete and incomplete.

Seems like a semantic argument to me.

Or, you can understand this and not regret decisions when you look back

I wonder if Kierkegaard being Danish is at all related to Danes being the happiest people in the world.

I'm Danish, I didn't really understand that for a long time. I would say that it doesn't mean Danes are super happy, it's just that the good economy, free education, free health care and strong social benefits makes it much harder to be very unhappy. So just happier on average.

Coming from Sweden I very much relate to this. For what it's worth I've also often wondered to what degree these types of polls control for a societal aversion against / lack of comfort with expressing displeasure and unhappiness.

How's the saying go? En svensk tiger?

So I guess it depends upon what regrets are you happy to live with.


I know very few people who regret having kids, unless they're single parents. Most of my friends in fact say it's the best thing in their life ... on the contrary 100% of people who don't have kids and are over their prime to have any they regret it or give you an unconvincing, hesitant answer along the lines of "maybe it's better" ... Now having children too early that's a different story.

This point of you'll regret it anyway is wrong in my opinion. I believe you are way more likely to regret things you've never done than thing you have done.

And that's why it's wrong, you can make relatively sound decisions using degree of regret as a measure as opposed to assuming you will regret it equally ... when you look at your life and project yourself to your deathbed imagine how you'd feel.

Admitting you regret having children is a social suicide, nobody will be open about it in public. Moreover, saying this is the best thing in your life is the only acceptable answer and anything less would make people look down on you with pity and casual disdain.

Still they exist, just look for them on parenting forums, reddit threads, facebook groups. But yes, a lot of them is about having chrildren too early

It’s social suicide, but it’s just also really, really hard. I don’t really think humans are biologically built to regret their kids until they reach a certain level of independence.

Take it with a grain of salt though, it’s purely anecdotal.

100%? That sounds like a real statistic and not totally something you've made up.

In any case, how you feel on your deathbed is about the least relevant feeling you will ever have in your life.

Well, I think the point is that 'deathbed' scenarios can be useful - what one can imagine regretting - in remembering what's important in life. Proverbially, no-one wishes they'd spent more time at the office. It's just hard to imagine wishing that, given most office jobs. Regretting not spending more time with friends, family, loved ones seems not unlikely. ‘My only regret’, Keynes said, ‘is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life.’


Importance is relative and your personality and values tend to change over the course of your life. The version of you that lies on a deathbed has no future, his mental state is probably not in the best condition and his final regrets aren't going to last for long.

Regretting that you haven't done anything significant in your life is as probable as regretting you haven't had enough fun.

Here is a nice article that made me think about this https://medium.com/@rikardhjort/the-deathbed-fallacy-5e54d96...

>Proverbially, no-one wishes they'd spent more time at the office.

Plenty of people who lost their jobs and opportunities because they shirked on work wish that. I've personally wished I'd spent more time at the office, so it is definitely not "no-one" who wishes that.

The broader point here is not to confuse what we want to be -- either the stories we tell ourselves or chew-on from emotionally inspiring stories -- with what we actually are as animals trying to survive in this crazy world. It's not conventional wisdom that what you think now matters more than on your deathbed, but one shouldn't be a slave to conventional wisdom so severely that they can't conceive of non-conventional wisdom as true.

You also don't need to worship someone's word just because they were famous. If Keynes wanted to contribute to my happiness, he needs to do more than produce trite quotes. Perhaps champagne would have lead to that, but it is doubtful. In any case, real people aren't playing a statistical game; whether or not I am likely to regret something is analogous to whether or not I am likely to live with a German Shepherd. Statistics say "no", but the truth doesn't need to confirm or support that, because the statistics are based on missing information that I actually possess. The information you possess about your own life is a tool you should leverage to ignore such silly quotes.

These fokes devoted quite some time into thinking about your problem: https://80000hours.org/

From their homepage: "You have 80,000 hours in your career. Make the right career choices, and you can help solve the world’s most pressing problems, as well as have a more rewarding, interesting life. We’re here to give you the information you need to find that fulfilling, high-impact career. Our advice is all free, tailored for talented graduates & young professionals, and based on five years of research alongside academics at Oxford."

The 80000 hours podcast can be long winded but is at times also quite interesting.

Before 80,000 Hours started, there was Giving What We Can - which gave me meaning in my life. It reminded me of how incredibly fortunate I am to be where I am: earning even $50k/year puts me in the richest 2% of the world! https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i/

This means giving 10% of my income to cost-effective charities that help other individuals is entirely within my means.

Over the years, within the Effective Altruism (EA) community I have met amazing people - devoting their lives to solving important, neglected problems, people who give 50% of their income to help others, and more. I'm consistently inspired by them to do more - and it makes life a thrill.

On a tangent, but did you bond with any of them?

Sheer amount you make means nothing as your expenses may also be higher. If you live where you are the 2% while making 50k then you would feel it. Otherwise it's dry statistics.

Can you share some blogs, names etc of the amazing people?

I recently watched a TED talk by Peter Singer that went into Effective Altruism pretty well

I'll strongly second this, 80k hours and the Effective Altruism community in general isn't for everyone, but they have great data driven insights into high impact careers and really good resources to help you make decisions (and a really welcoming community). They've got a good quiz that helps direct you but I also recommend you just go through their career guide and if it speaks to you just look on FB for a local chapter and talk to the leader of it, in my experience they're quite helpful about giving you specific advice for your situation


Strongly thirded. I'm not sure I agree with absolutely everything they say, but overall I think they have a far more pragmatic and honest set of answers than any competing advice I hear. For disclosure, I worked there for a year.

The EA worldview takes some getting used to though.

My biggest issue with 80,000 hours is that it's a rational, but radically uninspiring advice in the end. It is a framework for those who buy into "don't follow your passion advice", and try to maximize their utility function instead.

A fair criticism. Personally, I've spent enough time around folks who followed their passion and seen where it got them that I'm 100% on board the utility function train.

It's not binary though. It's a complex weaving dance between passion and utility for most people if you are to be both reasonably happy and well off.

The problem occurs when passion and expectations differ. An artist who expects a good, easy life, to be wealthy as a plumber etc.

Utility is fine. Packing shelves is fine. Do you have time to follow your passion out of work? Can you make your passion pay enough? Most people I've met who gave up on their passion seemed to want praise, fame and/or notoriety rather than the 'art' or whatever they were producing.

Exactly, I know so many part-time artists/musicians... even a few part time scientists. If the passion/art is really important to you, you'll find a way (there's a homeless guy I know who paints and chalks). You may not get what you want, but maybe you'll still get what you need.

Somewhere in here there's the Peter principle that people rise to their highest level of incompetence... it's true in art as well as engineering/business.

Oh how I would LOVE to know more! Can you give examples?

Join a startup as a soon-to-be father, following your dreams, and have the thing explode in your face, then finally recover and get a job at a megacorp (a week before the baby is due)?

Utility for the win! Following your dreams is fun and all, but the risk/reward ratio is just way out there.

Getting a stable job at a big company to be able to support your family after taking a risk on a startup doesn't sound like a terrible outcome to be honest.

Sounds optimal actually, you want to take risk when allowed and stop taking that risk immediately when your life changes.

So the take-home here is take all your career risks before you take on dependents?

Yes, but probably not while your wife is pregnant.

Acting and professional sports are good examples, but consider anything with very low odds. You hear about the successes, not about those who didn't make it (the 99%). They had passion too.

I've only had a quick look. I really like the idea of the site, almost desperately so. But the lists of top things to work on that I found seemed a bit disappointing. AI safety policy made the top of one list.

My undergrad AI lecturer told us that it was widely "known" AI was soon going to be generally smarter than humans when he was an undergrad. He wasn't convinced evolutionary changes were going to get us there. It was some 15 years ago I was listening to him, probably 20 or more years before that when he was an undergrad. We still seem to be saying it's 10, 20, or some other made up number of years away.

I'm not even sure there's a significant future problem here. Not on the scale of, say, becoming a multi-planetary species or resolving issues with antibiotic resistance.

Fair enough, but consider that a "dumb" AI running the world on incentives that don't match human and planet welfare is already our current condition - it's called The Economy. While the overall system isn't a perfect AI just yet, any specializable part is already operating at an intelligence far past the point of (most) individual human ability, and the tools to control this system (monetary policy, democratic systems) are increasingly being eroded (untraceable/uncontrollable money systems, pay-to-win democracy). There may be some human intelligence amongst the overall system but, even if we never make a Perfect AI to rule it all, the point at which we're not able to really change the incentive/value system is coming near - if it hasn't passed already.

(That probably has nothing to do with the actual AI Safety problems studied today in regards to pure AIs. But damned if this isn't an important-A-F cousin of the problem.)

Is that not talking about general A.I. tho? And sure, many people argue that might never happen ... But we already have many specific A.I.s, and those specific A.I.s are already making lots of big decisions that affect people's lifes. Sounds like some safety policy there could be worth thinking about.

Its not particularly interesting though. A calculator is a kind of specilized AI that can do maths massively faster than a human can.

Well, it's not going to be interesting to everyone. But there are many people who are interested in it; Cathy O'Neil wrote a whole book about it. The main point is I'd argue that it's a big problem that needs people to look at it. (80,000 hours website was actually talking about general AI - https://80000hours.org/career-guide/world-problems/ - but I'd still argue specific A.I.s need attention too)

Yes. But then specific AI safety is an even smaller problem.

Disagree. It's a different problem, not necessarily smaller. It's clearly not yet a solved problem, and as some of the issues interact with many other social issues there are no easy answers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weapons_of_Math_Destruction is the usual starting point referenced here.

My passion is for utility

What is the difference between "following your passion" and "maximizing your utility function"? "Utility function" is simply a fancy mathematical way of saying, "that which makes you happy". Maximizing your utility function is maximizing that which makes you happy, which is pretty close to following your passion, isn't it?

I meant it mostly in a sense of maximizing financial rewards by producing goods and services rewarded by the market. This activity may or may not overlap with what you enjoy doing. A typical example would be working in finance vs making art.

I've been following them for a few years and, while I think there are some good ideas, I find them ultimately too unwilling to part with the status quo. I think real change in our society will require more drastic efforts that don't follow normal college-educated career trajectories.

This is something I care quite deeply about so it is the "problem I decided to solve", as OP puts it. I think what we do in professional life will most likely not involve solving meaningful problems, since most industry is not focused on such things (and can't, because it is often the cause). For me, I try to work on political and especially labour issues outside of work, since that seems to me to be the most likely way to achieve significant improvements in society.

The fact that 80000 hours has seemingly never discussed ideas involving labour unions or grassroots political activism but rather focuses on think tanks and other elitist top-down approaches is pretty telling of their neoliberal bent.

Their career guide does specifically discuss social impact outside of your job, in terms of advocacy (what you've described), support roles, and donations.

Grassroots activism is great, but I think it's pretty clear that a single person at an elite think tank is more impactful than a single grassroot.

Now, if you think you can pull a Nelson Mandela, go for the activist approach, but most people can't, and 80,000 hours is in the business of giving advice to maximize expected utility.

The problem is that the single person's hands are tied because of their position. You can't influence the government from a think tank if you're suggesting prison abolition, banning cars from Manhattan, or even just massive social housing projects. Those think tanks would never get funded or get the time of day in government. Some things really need people power from below.

I think we're both completely correct. Some things need power from below, but those things are almost never the most efficient things to be working on precisely because they're so outside the political mainstream.

This is also the reason EA gets a lot of hate from various quarters. They take picking your battles to an extreme, and essentially come right out and say that many worthy causes are not the right ones to be fighting for.

I occasionally checked on them in the beginning when they were focusing on trying to find their problem to solve.

But it was very anti-climax and frustrating for me when they announced that their problem was to help other people find their problem. Too... comfortable solution I guess, I don't know. Not judging their choice here, just stating that as an expectator, from an entertainment point of view, it was frustrating.

I like 80,000 hours a lot, but I think it should be balanced with Yudkowski's advice to "Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately" https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/3p3CYauiX8oLjmwRF/purchase-f...

Be honest with yourself, balance your desire to do good (utilons) with your need as a human to feel good and recharge your altruism batteries by feeling connected to your good work.

Paul Graham wrote an essay on this topic, aimed towards high-school students. His advice: stay upwind http://www.paulgraham.com/hs.html

> Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.

> Suppose you're a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

> Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind. So I propose that as a replacement for "don't give up on your dreams." Stay upwind.

I did pretty much like he advised, though I haven't seen this article before now.

I got bored at high school and life in general. I discovered programming and thought that it's fascinating. So I decided to learn programming. I self-learned and started building my own projects, big and small.

But now a couple years after my biggest regret is exactly the same, why did I waste so much time at high school and why didn't I start earlier.

There is plenty of time to learn the things we want to learn.

How long does it take to get a bachelors in college? 4 years? How many years do we have in a lifetime? Not including our youth? 60? 70?

All it takes is dedication and persistence to learn the things we want to learn.


You disagree? If so, why?

Persistence is a pretty good quality to have for learning most anything.

as the years go by, one accumulates baggage. if one has lived a life that is. in the form of debt obligations, family obligations, healthcare costs if unlucky, risk aversion and so on.

my own example, i have literally zero free time to pursue any opportunities at all, whatsoever. i work, i come home and take care of family, i sleep for a precious few hours, repeat.

dedication ain’t the issue.

and i’m a highly paid worker. the people that live 2 hours away, the g bus drivers and so on, they do not have opportunities that can be addressed merely be dedication.

I think a better word to use would be "optionality". Keep your options open. You want to maximize your options. Do things that increase your options later.

That sounds like "life your life in analysis paralysis, and never decide to actually do anything"

The contrary, actually.

The future is unknown, and we are actually making decisions for our future self. When you're 18 or 25 you don't even know what interests you will have when being 35 or 40, at least I didn't know.

What Graham is saying is to make decisions that will allow you more choices in the future.

It seems different to me. You analyze and make the upwind decision for as long as you can. Analysis paralysis has connotations of hand-wringing over what to do, and the subjective of experience of what it feels like seems major to me. You still have a course of action you want to execute, a goal of staying upwind a bit, no excessive hand-wringing necessarily required.

Try instead, "Get a minimum viable product out there, and iterate like mad".

Go study math, never get a degree because you haven't studied enough (according to experts) or you weren't talented enough (according to reality), and find yourself in debt, older and with no degree. You'll totally not regret having listened to advices like this.

He doesn't tell everyone to study math. In his speech he mentions that you should be searching within your abilities, and that you need to find out what those are.

> So far we've cut the Standard Graduation Speech down from "don't give up on your dreams" to "what someone else can do, you can do." But it needs to be cut still further. There is some variation in natural ability. Most people overestimate its role, but it does exist. If I were talking to a guy four feet tall whose ambition was to play in the NBA, I'd feel pretty stupid saying, you can do anything if you really try. [2]

> We need to cut the Standard Graduation Speech down to, "what someone else with your abilities can do, you can do; and don't underestimate your abilities." But as so often happens, the closer you get to the truth, the messier your sentence gets. We've taken a nice, neat (but wrong) slogan, and churned it up like a mud puddle. It doesn't make a very good speech anymore. But worse still, it doesn't tell you what to do anymore. Someone with your abilities? What are your abilities?

Not trying to start an argument, but I think most people switch majors rather than drop out in this scenario.

I got some good advice about a decade ago, which I've used for guidance and, on reflection, has served me well. You're not well-positioned to understand the core nature of problems, and which are most important, from the outside. Until you have this clarity, do what you can to become part of the core community driving the thinking in your field of choice. There's a strong case for the social importance of many problems in energy and AI, and likely enough there are problems that would interest you in healthcare. So my answer is to not worry so much about which field you dive into, and focus more on trying to get to the center.

As someone who has been orbiting two poles of education and CS for my whole career, I'd also suggest reflecting on why energy and AI are currently more attractive to you than healthcare. There doesn't have to be a reason, but sometimes I feel like the attraction of pure science fields is that they don't involve the messy human issues that come with social science, like identity and culture, power and your own positionality.

The reason energy and AI are more attractive than healthcare has little to do with "identity", "culture" or "positionality". It has much more to do with the fact that the field is chock full of incidental complexity that makes doing any kind of good work an extremely unrewarding slog. Look at the 834 EDI format [1], for example. Does anyone want to work with a file format as nasty as this? Does anyone want to work in an industry where data is exchanged by uploading files to FTP servers, and waiting a day to see if it was successfully processed? And finally, does anyone want to work in an industry where they have absolutely zero power to change any of the above?

As engineers and humans, we like to do good work, in a field where we have the autonomy to choose best practices. Health care makes it difficult to do that. I don't think it's productive to call people out for choosing not to work in a field where they have to deal with arbitrary and capricious rules, ignorant bureaucracies, and massive amounts of incidental complexity which has nothing to do with the primary objective: keeping people healthy.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ANSI_834_Enrollment_Implementa...

Wait a second... what’s stopping you from changing —this— situation then? Solve the data format problem. Make it easier for everyone to exchange data in meaningful, efficient ways.

Sounds like a terrible pain that you understand well enough to be able to solve. When you have, it might remove a major bottleneck and open the floodgates for more smart people to join, ultimately benefitting healthcare in a massive way.

Make people want to work in that industry :)

I used to work with a healthcare company and dealt the 837 file format and FTP batches and wrote a pretty neat-o parser for it, the reason is simple- inertia. And it's not like people aren't trying because there's been a huge push to get REST-like APIs in place, but when you have close to 40 years of software infrastructure in place it's non-trivial to explain to the boss why you need to spend money on something that gets everyone paid either way.

I think it would be truly revolutionary if we could change the format, but what I think would be almost a better step is to write open source parsers that can accurately translate X12 into something sane and keep the interchange the same so that everything can be balanced out like a checkbook. Check out the 835 format for this part as it's supposed to be a data stream of transactions. Too bad the dozens of flavors of X12 are locked behind licensing and thousands of dollars of books for the rules :/

Additional reading on this god-awful data format: https://docs.oracle.com/cd/E19398-01/820-1275/6ncv5s178/inde...

oh man I'm having flashbacks to one of my first jobs after school. I spent a year writing a parser for that abomination of a format. Before I left I'd build a front-end and processing queue that did X12 -> XML and several modules to output the same data in various formats and flavors to suit the taste of various insurance companies... Parsing X12 was definitely among the least enjoyable things I've ever had to do. At the time I did it for way too little pay.

Short answer: hospitals, insurance companies, governments

Long answer: It's not like people don't understand that the current situation is suboptimal. It's that any kind of change implemented unilaterally will leave you unable to communicate with your counterparties. The severe consequences of this (not getting paid, being out of compliance with HIPAA) means that any kind of change to health-care IT at a system-wide level requires an absolutely massive amount of politicking and often fails to improve the situation.

The problem is that health care institutions are so interlinked that driving any kind of global change is a process best measured in decades. Combine this with the fact that the culture in health care is very conservative, and people tend to be hostile towards change by default and you have a situation where it's often easier to leave the industry and save your sanity than to remain and continue bashing your head into a brick wall over and over again.

The more interconnected the greater the energy required to change from the groundup but trivial to change at the top (submit in this format or no payment)

Except that health care has no "top". If an insurance company tried to unilaterally impose a new standard, they'd quickly lose support among hospitals, and then they'd lose their subscribers shortly thereafter.

With a [mostly-]single-payer system (i.e. pretty much everywhere in the world except the US) there is a clearly defined "top" that can unilaterally require particular standards for e.g. electronic health records.

Also, for USA, legal requirements (such as HIPAA) are universal and can impose certain standards on the whole industry, as long as there's political will to do so.

> Solve the data format problem. Make it easier for everyone to exchange data in meaningful, efficient ways.


The whole field feels like such a mess to deal with what basically boils down to text/numerical data. You could probably spend the rest of your life just writing parsers to consolidate different data formats. I truly don't believe healthcare will be solved by technology until there is a single ubiquitous format. It's really a problem of policy, and I won't purport to know the answer or who should be solving the issue, but I don't think it's ever going to be solved by one person at a keyboard.

There are standards such as HL7/FHIR, but in my experience, most companies incorrectly or partially implement the spec, and then it might as well be something else.

this is one of the main reasons I drifted away from healthcare and towards engineering. It's hard to deal with limitations that seem purposefully aimed at preventing you from getting the job done, and done right. My time on earth is limited and so is my patience.

> You're not well-positioned to understand the core nature of problems, and which are most important, from the outside

Great point. What startups that are trying to infiltrate "old/traditional" industries like hospitals or healthcare are realizing. Need to shadow doctors to see their workflow, not just propose a solution based on your observation or reading articles about hospital shortcomings.

More than that, you need to figure out how administrators view your offering, i.e. How much money does it make them. Some things doctors like cause the hospital to lose money -- like actually spending time getting to know patients and understand their condition, or keeping them out of the hospital. Doctors aren't always the people running things

Ive also noticed that even though the industry has done things X way for a long time, sometimes those are done because "well We've always done it that way". It's cargo culting, and nobody has a good reason why its done.

Being an outside can sometimes mean that you call attention to that, and show better ways. And with the internet and publications, can be an effective way to do that.

Most of the times however, there are reasons and you should at least understand why. But for those cases where "why" isn't defined, poke at them.... You're likely to find something interesting.

Agreed. It is very easy to try to disrutpt a process without understanding the reasons behind the current process. A lot more difficult to understand the current process then propose changes that address that processes shortfall.

There is always a reason why things are done a particular way "It's always been done that way" is shorthand for "I don't know why it's done that way". Like history, you need to understand the reasons behind a process before you can effectively change it, otherwise you are doomed to make the same mistakes and very soon your shiny new process will start to look as cobbled together as the previous one.

You mean... make software for the people who use it, not the people who make it?

Following doctors will only provide you with better tools for doctors. You need to shadow the admin side and understand the painpoints they experience because ultimately they pay bill.

The way the system works in whatever country you live in has shortcomings. Finding ways to fix those issues higher up the chain will provide the most value.

I like this. The only worry is that sometimes it can take a long time to get to the center and in the process of making that journey you may realise that you chose the wrong center to go towards.

It is great that you are thinking of this and from my experience, it will continue to come up even after you have solved this one and you become more of an expert in the path you have chosen.

Something to help with the paralysis is to note that you are in a very privileged position. Majority of the world is not plagued by this issue because the problem they have to solve is how to survive. So, in other words, there is no wrong answer here. Whatever you choose will bring positive value to the world. Do not get paralyzed on if it is the most value you can provide because there is no way you can foresee this or measure it.

I will advise that you pick the one that seems to generate the most passion in you, not in the follow your passion sense, but more of the fact that there will be HARD times ahead when solving HARD problems and only the love of finding the solution is gonna take you through it. If you pursue a path for any other reason (except survival), when the going gets tough you will always measure if it is worth the trouble. In your case, your heart seems to be in Energy and AI, while your practical side tells you Healthcare is very important to the world. I will say go with Energy and AI cause who the hell knows. Where I live a major problem health centers have is consistent energy and who knows you may come up with some AI that Diagnoses better than a human can for a specific disease. My point is I have found that following where my interests really lie always lead me to where I am supposed to be. You may start in Energy and AI and somewhere bridge the gap into healthcare or you may jump in and solve problems you never imagined and be fully self-actualized. The most important thing out of all of this is that you start.

"...the love of finding the solution is gonna take you through it."

This. Don't think to big. In the end you will spend your time wrestling problems, you'd better love those problems and the tools there are to go at them. That's priority one, I'd say.

HN guideline says it's okay to comment just to say "Thanks". So, Thanks for your comment :)

haha glad you liked it

> I will advise that you pick the one that seems to generate the most passion in you, not in the follow your passion sense, but more of the fact that there will be HARD times ahead when solving HARD problems and only the love of finding the solution is gonna take you through it.

This is useful and not always talked about.

Whatever you choose you're going to have to deal with crap you don't like: where are you more willing to put up with it?

Also related to this: think about which process (daily grind, slog…) you prefer. Not just the end goal/success.

> Whatever you choose will bring positive value to the world.

This is simply not true.

There are many jobs where the company's profit and your income come from hurting or exploiting others. Yes, you would be "surviving" like everyone else. But I think you have an obligation to do some kind of good, or at least not screw over people less fortunate than yourself. This is especially true if you are coming from a privileged position.

If you have options, pick something that doesn't hurt others.

I don't mean to pick on you. I understand that none of the OP's or your suggestions are actively harmful. It's that I often hear people with options justify choosing careers that are bad for society this way (especially in tech).

"Do what you love" is a common phrase, but I've found an opposite technique. Find the things that bugs you most (that you talk about, focus on, debate about) and allow yourself to become a solution. I've found that the problems I tended to be naturally be bothered by ended up making great career choice(s) for me.

I wouldn’t call it opposite, more alternative technique.

The things that bug you -are- the things you care about.

Some people care way too much about things they shouldn’t but that’s a whole other discussion all together ;-)

I printed this comment out and will frame it (once the frame is delivered).

Can't tell if you're joking, but if you do, post a picture! heh

What problems have you made career choices out of if you don't mind me asking?

No problem.

I started my career in CS with zero knowledge of what I really wanted to do out of college. However back in early 2000s, I was extremely frustrated of how difficult/buggy online banking portals were for managing my finances, so I decided to get into Fintech for a couple years. Eventually that led me to designing a nationally awarded banking portal that was ahead of its time in relation to its online features.

Then I became a gamer as a young adult, and decided to get into social/mobile gaming as I couldn't find any games on those platforms that really catered to a traditional gamer. I ended up building a few real-time action-rpgs and strategy games that ran within the browser and on mobile.

Then I got really technical in driving better gaming/interactivity in the browser, because I was hitting so many annoying limitations. So I joined the Adobe's Flash and open standards team to push these boundaries. We managed to add 3D gpu rendering to Flash, and while making progress with browser standards for better native multimedia-related features.

Now for last few years I've started to expand outside software and dive really into academic political philosophy, and I became really concerned with the current polarization in the US, and it's total lack of real genuine communication between people of differencing views. So (plug) I'm creating a self-funded startup that's a live debate platform called https://DinnerTable.Chat that hopefully provides a helpful communication medium for authentically discussing viewpoint differences (as it is, after all, an emotional journey to change one's mind). I don't know if this will work, but I've always trusted my intuition of following the desire to solve things that bug me.

Hat's off to you and your career path! Very cool.

Thanks, appreciated!

Same question here. It sounds like it could be good advice, but a few sentences is rather vague. An example would be very interesting.

You're asking the wrong questions: you can't know in advance that a breakthrough in energy won't bring about a disruptive impact on healthcare. For example, if you were to able to stabilize a biobattery of mitrochondria, you might incidentally solve a problem related to diabetes (example made up). In other words, because you can't predict the impact of your effort, you can't reliably infer where to direct your effort.

By analogy with machine learning, instead of throwing lots of effort at a non-convex problem, you might instead choose a convex problem instead: e.g. what daily process allows you to achieve high problem solving output? what expertise can you acquire and put to use regularly, which is sustainable (no burnout, pays rent, etc)?

Usually I do not decide what problems to solve. They just come to me and I try to solve them. I have tried to solve some big problems, but that has never worked out for me.

The "problems" that I solve, or try to solve, come mostly from the following sources: academic colleagues asking questions, natural questions that arise during math seminars, finding the optimal way to reach some goal specified by one of my bosses, finding ways to fix or understand ad hock methods invented by my coworkers, natural questions that occur to me while reading astronomy, math, AI, or economics articles, and lastly, answering mathematical or AI questions about games just because I love games and game theory.

Sometimes problems or questions will remain in my head for years before being solved. Many are never solved, but they are fun to think about.

It is very rare that one of my solutions affects more than 100 people.

The focus should not be on "what," but on "why." I just got this advice the other day and it's liberated my thinking. I was (am) stuck in a rut believing that if I just find something I am passionate about it would alleviate the sense of purposelessness that pervades. Not so.

Some people can work just for material benefit to themselves and their families. However, eventually that juice runs out because money is just not useful beyond a point. Depression is a first world problem, generally. Why is it that people who are materially better off than most of their peers in the last century become depressed?

The key, it seems, is to find a goal that is higher than immediate selfish interests of the individual or family. This might even mean staying in your current situation but just realigning "why" you are doing it to something higher. It is very hard to find an unselfish person who is depressed, unsure about what to do or unhappy in general.

The goal makes all the difference.

The focus should not be on "what," but on "why."

So, like a good git commit message :P

Jokes aside, good point and imo the number one answer to the question. Not sure why you got a dwonvote even. If you're ok with material benefits then yeah, anything goes of course. But that only gets you so far and indeed real value seems to lie beyond that. It took me alomost half a life to realize it, but altruism really does give me much more than materialsim.

What does "real value" mean to you?

Good question, not easy to answer. I guess for me it's a state of mind with a general, prolonged, feeling of satisfaction/hapiness. Which in turn makes me feel energetic and creative and keep an open mind.

> Some people can work just for material benefit to themselves and their families. However, eventually that juice runs out because money is just not useful beyond a point.

Admittedly, material benefit to myself and my family isn't the only reason I work. However, the argument that "money is just not useful beyond a point" isn't a strong one in my mind. I'm in my late forties right now and make a reasonable sum of money. I doubt I will ever get to the point where making more money won't get me more of what I want. Right now, I need to weight priorities when it comes to spending money (generator for my house vs something else). Getting to the point where I don't need to do that (for important things) would be my "more money isn't useful" point. I doubt I will ever get there.

Right, let me clarify. Let's define three realms of experience for the sake of conversation: (physical/material), (emotional), (intellectual). For simplicity let's assume that all human experiences may be categorised thus.

Now, what can money buy? Only things on the physical level, that is, _sense experiences_. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. That's it. Money can't buy love or knowledge. Maybe a library, but not knowledge :)

So even in a naive examination money has limited uses which apply at the physical/material level. It's useful to note that happiness/wellbeing is largely a state of mind and thus you might find someone who is equally or more happy than you despite not having the generator. How is this possible?

The point is that as inherent motivation money just isn't good. People who are incentivised inevitably want greater and greater compensation or they burn out. In contrast, those fired up by a higher ideal (which, of course, includes the wellbeing of the family) are motivated by an initiative to work which is not dependent upon something external.

So, make your money, and install that generator. But don't make the mistake of thinking your wellbeing/happiness is dependent upon XYZ externally.

"Now, what can money buy? Only things on the physical level, that is, _sense experiences_. "

This is an oversimplification that detracts from the value of money. Your assumption that money can only buy sense experiences is incorrect. In reality, money can have a significant impact on the (emotional) and (intellectual) realms.

# Example for (emotional):

A couple with two children living together. The couple's emotional bonding is strained by feeling overwhelmed due to house chores. The strain can be significantly reduced by spending money on a nanny, ordering food when not in the mood for cooking, and other forms of domestic help.

# Example for (intellectual)

Working person with a family wants to pursue a second degree as a hobby. Unfortunately, they can't afford university.

It's true that, beyond a certain point, the returns from having more money diminish quickly. And I agree that as an inherent motivation it probably doesn't work for many people - only as a means to an end. But to say that money can only buy sense experiences is untrue.

As the quote goes... Money can't buy happiness. It can, however, buy many things that can make you happy.

> But don't make the mistake of thinking your wellbeing/happiness is dependent upon XYZ externally.

What do you base your well-being or happiness in?

A metaphysical explanation would be lost here. Username at gmail

I don't think it is meant like "at some point you'll run out of things to buy", because, let's be honest, even the richest people still have things they can't buy. The actual meaning is in my opinion that at some point, when you can pay your bills easily and do not need to worry about money every day, increasing your income doesn't make you happier.

Of course, buying more expensive things and increasing your income is still a good feeling, but after some time they become status quo and your happiness is back at the same level as it was before the pay raise (especially since there are now new, more expensive things to seek).

> The actual meaning is in my opinion that at some point, when you can pay your bills easily and do not need to worry about money every day, increasing your income doesn't make you happier.

That’s not actually true though. There’s pretty robust research to show that happiness is correlated with log money. It’s not a function that becomes flat after a certain point, at least not as far as any research I’ve read says. Although the correlation or causation question remains: do happier people make more money, or does more money make people happier, or is there some underlying third variable that affects both? But the fact that lottery winners do end up becoming happier suggests that there is a causal element in the money->happiness direction.

"Depression is a first world problem, generally."

Do you have a source for this? Thank you.

"It is very hard to find an unselfish person who is depressed, unsure about what to do or unhappy in general."

That depression and unhappiness are more difficult to spot in people who are selfless does not necessarily mean that those people are significantly happier and less depressed - it could only mean that they care more about how others perceive them and may, therefore, be more likely to hide their true affect.

Summarized by Nietzsche: "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

I'm all for egalitarianism in the public sphere, but in private I still believe that there's such a thing as natural born talent.

Anyone can probably reach the top 5% in most non-athletic areas given enough time. But if your goal is to maximize your output having already accepted that your time on earth is limited, then the wise thing is to probably steer in directions that have high impact but for you feel disproportionately easy (compared to the general population).

Thus, I'm a big fan of Peter Theils advice to work on things that satisfy the property that: "if you weren't working on it, this problem would not get solved".

Question to anyone reading this: What is your answer to "if you weren't working on it, this problem would not get solved"?

I'll skip over what I'm actively working on because I think this deserves a mention: I'm a hobbyist digital archivist. This is something where most people can likely make a meaningful and long-lasting impact, that nobody else could if they didn't.

Archiving, for me, is a way of travelling forward in time. Think about "time capsules" and what not.

Here's what I mean by this: If you write a message on a piece of paper, and read it the next day, your message has successfully traveled forward in time by a day. But as the days pass, the message's survival chances diminish greatly.

The goal of archiving is to give information the highest chances possible to travel forward in time, as long as possible. It's hard to evaluate how good our chances are now, but 2000 years from now, if archaeologists find information on our current society, is it more likely to be the piece of paper you wrote, or an archive that was given the best chances of survival?

It's extremely rewarding and it truly is meaningful. Archive anything. Sort and order it, index it, describe it, upload it. Do it for something you work on. The odds for you to archive something that was not done by anyone else are very high.

I tend to do the same with all physical pieces of paper I receive, whether or not it feels useful at the time.

Recently added OCR to the process, which makes retrieval a joy.

I have no logical reason for doing this, it feels like a compulsion.

Why do you do it and what tools do you use?

> Why do you do it

To travel in time :) And also because I believe human knowledge is the sum of the past it can learn from. If information gets lost, it can't be part of that. It's the same beliefs that drive me to support open source & free software.

> what tools do you use?

I do a lot of data-mining as part of my day to day operations, in video games mainly. These are the main things I end up archiving, so I write my own tools.

On the flipside of this, thanks to archivists such as yourself, I've saved myself some time by developing a research perspective that first assumes ideas I've come up with may have been independently discovered in the past. This may be obvious to others, but for me it has been a game-changer for getting "to the meat" of problems, so to speak.

Largely, this mindset stems from a group of characters in the book "Anathem"[1] named the Lorites, characters who believe that all knowledge which can be learned has already been discovered, and recorded. While this is obviously fiction, and I disagree with the stance as an absolute, the idea that much of what can be discovered may already have been explored has saved me significant time; no longer do I find myself working on a problem only to find it has been studied and solved. Occasionally I'll find problems which have been studied, but not yet solved, and in these situations I'm pleased to have the fruit of others' data-gathering labors at my disposal as a result of the search caused by my initial assumption.

[1]: "Anathem" by Neal Stephenson, speculative fiction: http://anathem.wikia.com/wiki/Lorite

How do you usually go about doing your searches for prior knowledge?

Which tools do you use to organize the digital artifacts you create? And how do you organize them?

Archive.org! I upload everything. I organize best I can within my own disks/google drive (and sometimes public S3 buckets), but that stuff is too likely to go away within my lifetime to even begin to make a difference long term.

Teaching kids in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) how to build their own electricity generation systems.

Access to electricity is a massive problem and the number of people without access is actually projected to increase [1].

We need more people working on the problem and we especially need people from SSA working on it.

We are working to inspire young people and to provide them with the tools and knowledge they need to go and solve the problem of access to electricity. [2]

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/561428/forecast-of-popul...

[2] https://localelectricity.org/

This problem would remain a problem forever? I'm happy enough if I can help a problem be solved faster. If I can make it happen that some strategic technical solution happens ten years before it would have been without me, I'd be extremely satisfied. But there's no way to know.

I tend to work the other way.

Some day we will have smart homes. How would they look like and how can I work towards that vision? Or, what restricts ubiquity of wearables? In my opinion wireless charging over a considerable distance. Then I contemplate how I would do it. For example embedded in ceiling lights with infrared lasers and a positioning system. And I talk about it in case someone else also finds it an interesting idea, because I've so little time on this planet...

> Anyone can probably reach the top 5% in most non-athletic areas given enough time.

I seriously doubt that. People who have no aptitude in a field, even if they are dedicated, will be competing vs people who are also dedicated, but have the aptitude. I'd say maybe that "almost anyone can reach top 50% of most non-athletic fields", but definitely not top 5%.

Depends on what you base the percentage on. If it is the global population, then 5% of 7 billion is 350 million. So to be in the top 5% there must be at most 350 million people better than you.

Now consider a niche sport, say Ultimate Frisbee. I would guess that much less than 350 million people even know the rules. So invest an hour to learn the rules and play it a little with your friends. Voila, you are in the top 5%. And that is for an athletic sport.

You are probably talking about 5% of the people actively doing it like being registered in an association. In this case, 50% sounds more realistic to me.

Assuming the potential performance of actively engaged people is roughly normally distributed (even if, as a group, they come from the upper end of the general population on that axis), then I think 50% is too conservative. Nobody can perform above their potential by definition, but lots and lots of people will fail to live up to their potential, making room for their below-average colleagues to outperform them with enough work.

there's about 20 million people who know programming to the level that they can fizzbuzz, according to the rough idc estimates. if you know fizzbuzz, you know programming better than all the rest. (the rest don't know how to program at all)

Then, of course, the challenge is to identify overlooked problems which actually are real problems and therefore worth solving. It's easy to succumb to a fallacy of thinking that if no one else is working on a problem it's not a real problem or is not worth solving.

>Anyone can probably reach the top 5% in most non-athletic areas given enough time.

At any given time, only the 5% of the population can reach the top 5% in any area.

If anybody could do it and e.g. just 10% did it, then there would be a new 5% (the top 50% of that 10%), and the rest 50% wouldn't be in.

>Thus, I'm a big fan of Peter Theils advice to work on things that satisfy the property that: "if you weren't working on it, this problem would not get solved".

Which is a self-aggrandising way for Theils to say that he helped solve some problems that wouldn't have been solved otherwise.

Unless you have tons of means to contribute (e.g. billions) to some cause, the idea starting out as some e.g. college student that "this problem wont be solved without my help" is 99.9999% BS.

There aren't very many axes along which >5% of the population actively try to improve themselves. This makes it easy to reach the top 5% if one is trying.

>> Anyone can probably reach the top 5% in most non-athletic areas given enough time.

> At any given time, only the 5% of the population can reach the top 5% in any area.

I believe the GP is saying you can be in the top 5% of a chosen field, if you try, because other people are pursuing other things. So 100% of the population could be in the top 5% of something.

I strongly agree with this. So much antagonism in society, however, arises when people aim for the wrong 5%, e.g. a 5’6 basketball player aiming to make the NBA. Now, such a baller is more directly confronted with his low outcome, but most of the world is not so apparent with people’s preconceived objectives which are often ego-emergent.

This is where I find deep meaning in the Cervantes quote, “The road is always better than the inn.” Accepting the outcome of the admixture of own’s controllable action and the infinitely greater uncontrollable action of the world as positive can go a long way to a kind of stoic peace and ultimately happiness with one’s worldly produce.

The ratio between goals and people is not 1:1.

With enough specialization, everybody can become the best in one specific topic. That's the game most phd students play.

That’s reasonable. Also, solved goals entice new goals to be created for others.

>With enough specialization, everybody can become the best in one specific topic. That's the game most phd students play.

Given the rapid devaluation of Phds (never mind the big debts), it doesn't serve them very well in most areas of science...

Just because something is social signaling (which it undoubtedly is in Theils case), doesn't mean it isn't true, and that you shouldn't follow the advice.

Just because a "virtue signaling" statement can also be true, doesn't in any way infer that his advice is good.

If anything, it gives him a motive to say it (virtue signal) which is not "to tell the truth".

So, the advice might very well be true and we should very well follow it. But thus far we have absolutely no arguments as to if that's the case.

You're prematurely moving the debate one abstraction layer up, making the issue about the whether a general virtue signal can ever contain truth. (That's an interesting discussion and I agree with you that it's definitely likely that virtue signaling statements are less truthful in general than "honest" statements.) Had you looked down on the concrete statement we're discussing, clearly no argument would be needed. Clearly it's good advice to "do things which wouldn't be done if you wouldn't be there to solve it", what's there even to argue about.

> Which is a self-aggrandising way for Theils to say that he helped solve some problems that wouldn't have been solved otherwise.

Exactly, I started reading his book Zero to One and quickly dropped it into trash-bin after scanning randomly. I am not sure why it got rated so high. In my view entire advise boils down to create businesses in uncharted territories and create a monopolies around them.

I don't think it's about money. One example I immediately think of is the various free software projects that are short on people who care and have time to work on it. Often I find something that seems interesting to me but hasn't been worked on in months. I can't yet program, but I always think "if I had the skills, I could just work on this myself right now". It's not that I'm special in this, except that I care and not everyone does.

I don’t think it matters much whether or not it’s actually true. What matters is that you believe it.

Also, there’s a ton of fairly specific problems that haven’t been solved yet, so chances of someone working on it are small.

If it helps, energy really really should be worked on. Do that.

Also, that's not really how regrets work. You will be comparing the path you took to what you imagine to be the roads not taken. It's very dependent on your own unique experiences and outlook, and very hard to safeguard against. Your way of evaluating your life will change over time, so optimising for your current values gives no guarantees. Best thing to work on is stoicism and self forgiveness in my opinion.

My philosophy: make the best choice given the information you have at the time. If you do, you have no cause to regret anything in your life.

Thinking of alternative paths you could have taken might be a fun exercise or could yeild insights to make better future choices, but if you chose the best you could, there is no sense in regretting a choice, even when that choice hurt.

Reminding myself of this has helped many times in the past. It’s always easy to critique in hindsight. It’s thus even more easy to criticize harmfully in hindsight. Just yesterday I got to regretting how a few dates failed to pan out...almost 12 years ago!

I think of this concept as similar to the excluded middle in logic. In hindsight, a decision is apparently either good or bad depending on the outcome. But it’s impossible to know the outcome with certainty the vast majority of the time. So a decision needs to be judged in the context of the information known at the time of decision - which does not include the information about the decisions outcome.

Replying to myself,

The value of a decision before uncovering its value is similar to the value of a lottery ticket before the draw. Before the drawing a lottery tickets value is nonzero-the aggregate value of the expected payout. But after the draw the lottery ticket is worth its realized value. When the pre-lotto expected value of the ticket meets or exceeds the cost of the lottery ticket the purchase of the ticket is rational. After the draw, the monetary value of the ticket is whatever the ticket won or did not win. Most likely the value of the ticket is 0$. That doesn’t make the purchase of the ticket irrational before the draw.

As a corollary, your brain tends to imagine things towards the happy end of the probability space. Choosing the uncertain path means you’re comparing against a reasonably accurate alternative instead of an imagined utopia.

It's a short life indeed and narrowing it down to a few specific, namely goals is a good way to make yours miserable. If in doubt, don't.

Find one thing that you do want to do: something that is silently but persistently pulling you in. Ideally, something you just couldn't not do.

I'm not a religious person but I really like the tone of the "$god works in mysterious ways". You never know what your choices and path will expand into: it might be something that's related to all three energy, AI, and healthcare but you never would've guessed in the start.

You can always out-smart yourself and convince yourself to do the thing that makes sense but the sensible thing often doesn't mean something that truly fulfills you.

Because future is extremely hard to know, or even predict, all you can do is follow your light.

I found this advice from Jean Yang resonated with my experience:


> Been having many conversations with people in their 20s about the paralysis that can arise from having too many life choices. My advice: commit to something and commit hard. Doesn't matter if you switch later. It's easier to prove yourself if you've had to do it once before.

> The quarter-life crisis can go on for quite a while--and you don't want to come out having little to show for your self-exploration. You learn just as much, if not more, about whether you like something by actually doing it, rather than thinking about if you might like it.

and then the somewhat morose conclusion:

> At one point in my mid-twenties, a friend observed that we were nearing the end of getting opportunities because of our potential and would soon be evaluated on what we've actually done. This was a real turning point in my thinking on how much space I should take to find myself.

I think you can't really consciously decide what you want to do with your life. Life happens to you:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever." - Steve Jobs

You can however increase the odds of things coming on your path that you'll be passionate about:

- Pursue a wide range of interests, jobs in different industries

- Fearlessly trying lots of different stuff, for ex. go skydiving, go rock climbing, go travel if you can, go from the beaten path of life

- Socialize and stay open and curious to different people, so you hear different viewpoints and get different interests

Hear hear. Life happens to you. All you can do is try to make sure you enjoy the ride. When you are younger you think you can have it all, but that isn't the case. So many things can disrupt your path, the list is endless. Best advice is to follow your instincts, not your rationale. Life isn't a choice. It's some sort of roadtrip. You don't know how or where it will end and what will happen along the way. You may decide what to do and what to pursue but you can never steer your emotions. Just try to enjoy the ride.

This is not the mindset that people who achieve anything have. It's a defeatist attitude. Many people have, to use the saying, had it all, and many have fought past roadblocks to get there. People who let life wash over them never get anywhere.

You both are right. The secret is to balance both world views according to your values. It's never a black/white decision.

Yup. Pick the battles that matter to you and that you have a choice of winning.

There will always be forces beyond your control that affect your life - be they natural disasters, other people's decisions (from personal choices like whether to date you and small-scale professional like whether to hire you; to which departments to cut in a major layoff; to enormous political/social upheavals), market forces and scientific breakthroughs that you can't predict, etc. If you don't roll with the punches on those, all you'll accomplish is to make yourself angry all the time.

But there are also choices you can make - such as how to spend/invest your money; what jobs to apply to; whether to start a business, and which one; whom to try to date or ask to marry you; where to buy or rent a home, etc. that will have massive, compounding effects on your stress levels and happiness.

Why do you feel the need to work on a "Big Problem"? Do you feel the need to leave a legacy, or do you really want to make things better by working on paridgm changing enabling technology?

I think there is a problem with trying to target your attention on world changing technology, in that it is very rare for the world to be changed in a big way by direct effort towards change. I think this is related to both the difficulty in identifying what will really provide benefit and also the difficulty in actually achieving anything beyond incremental change to mature technology. Ideas that really make a difference tend to come out of left field and are almost completely unexpected.

If you are looking for something to do that you will look back from your death bed and say "I did that", then you need to select something that you can actually achieve. This will not be the thing that everybody else is working on, because unless you are truely remarkable your effort will be lost in the noise of what everybody else is doing. You need to find something that your both enjoy, and after honest evaluation you have the ability to excel in and take to the next level.

If you were living in the early 1900's I would suggest working on the field effect produced when electricity is passed through centain types of silicon. No one will know your name, but transistors certainly changed the world. How in 2019 do you identify what will have a similar impact? Simply put, you can't. All you can do is pick something interesting and work at it. If you try to solve the big problem you will almost certainly get drowned in the problem, you need to work on something small that can be leveraged to make the big thing.

Sorry I ramble.

History is full of people who made big changes to the world. Those who made a positive contribution seem to mostly have emerged from obsecurity after spending years labouring at improving something small and succeeding in a remarkable way.

> History is full of people who made big changes to the world. Those who made a positive contribution seem to mostly have emerged from obsecurity after spending years labouring at improving something small and succeeding in a remarkable way.

Very interesting. Can you give a few specific examples of this for me to look into? How have you come to the conclusion that this is a trend?

James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed" series. A history of inventions, how one led to another, often in stupid tiny ways brought about by pure luck - or the right person working on the smallest thing at the right time. Fantastic series if you're into old british documentaries that you can put on in the background while tinkering btw.

Every series he ever did is worth a watch. Connections were of the same mould, but even more random chains of events of how something ancient led to something modern.

A digression, but topical today is "After the Warming" from the 80s about climate change. Quite remarkable if a little optimistic about our chances of doing something. Lots of 80s VR and CGI, which you have to forgive a little. Pleasingly free of dumbing down.

Probably some of these on Youtube.

There’s a good book called Mastery (Robert Greene) on this topic

28 words written, with the expectation of many many orders of magnitude more in response.

This is a social zip bomb, and it's not very nice. Don't spend other people's time like this, do some research yourself if this genuinely interests you.

We got you covered. Or rather - other media has you covered. Just gotta link requests like these to some book/series/etc they might (but probably won't) read/watch ;)

Yeah, and thanks, but it's sometimes hard to see comments like, "Hey cool, could you just give me a brief 10k word essay on what you're talking about?" and not get a little frustrated.

Well it's not a thing with a particularly obvious term to search for -- "small thing worked on over long periods that brings great change" doesn't really provide good results on Google despite it being a rather specific idea. So I'm grateful for any pointers to resources I can look into further for this kind of thing. The other person's reply with an explicit book name doesn't seem to have taken up all that many words, and presumably they know what they're talking about and them dropping a book name like that would save me a lot of time compared to me searching around the internet based on a very vague phrase.

Now granted, my Google-fu could stand to be a lot better.

My approach has been to only engage in activities where I can get a lot of value out of failure. Personally, I chose to work on Open Source projects because there are a lot of possible upsides:

- It gives you an opportunity to learn a lot about a specific field and become an expert in it.

- Better job opportunities and career security (being the founder of a moderately popular OSS project can help you to build your personal brand).

- You may be able to monetize your project by offering consulting, fremium model or add-ons; OSS can help you get your foot in the door at a lot of companies.

- You can use your own generic open source project as a foundation to create your own commercial projects. If one such project fails financially, it's no big deal, you can just refocus your energy on a different commercial project and still use your OSS work as the foundation so you don't start from scratch.

Also, the cost of participating in OSS are pretty low since it only uses up your time; you don't need to invest any money for marketing. The other thing about OSS is that sooner or later, smart people will figure out that your free solution is superior to commercial alternatives and this will give you an opportunity to form meaningful professional connections with these kinds of people. Better to have a small community of highly involved and intelligent people than a huge community of apathetic people who are only there because of marketing.

I've always struggled with how if I want whats best for my resume rather than fix a project that has gone unmaintained / slowed down / is popular but just needs more hands on deck it makes more sense to start from scratch so you can "put your name on it".

I've made dozens of FOSS contributions over the years but usually its "I want X fixed / working, I'll spend a week learning the codebase and fixing it". Sometimes I can find 2-3 of those in sequence on a project, but while I'd love to hang around in one large codebase (I was active in the Clementine music player for quite a while) a lot of the larger issues in a project like that are structural and would take months to develop and would require your commitment of time in the long term to support and maintain it.

Which I'd be all for, but employers really don't give a crap if you are only the #8 comitter in a project with 10,000 commits. Even if your ~500 is twice as much as you would have made developing your own stripped down clone of the project to call "yours" and get your foot in the door.

Just over the holiday break I was doing some patches for Krita - I'd never worked in the codebase before so there was a lot of exploratory work involved. I implemented the feature I wanted and left dozens of questionable design decisions and undocumented behavior untouched / refactored not because I wanted to but I realized if I want "resume cred" I can't be doing trench work like that. I implemented arbitrary button support for action events because thats something I can bullet point easily. "Refactored the input system to avoid memory leaks, wasted cycles, and streamlined the ergonomics with C++17 features" doesn't turn heads.

It just feels wasteful to have spent probably ~10 hours just reading ~5,000 lines of C++ to learn an entire subsystem of a program and to just leave it at that when you can tell there is a lot more room for improvement but its also much more nuanced. Its why everyone gets feature pull requests and none of the bugs get fixed because most bugs worth fixing are structural ones that would take a lot of effort for little "payoff".

> since it only uses up your time

Not sure about you, but time is my most precious resource. Having kids does that to you fast. Also being involved in the local community, having friends, hobbies - oh how I wish I had another 20 hours a week.

Being a serious OSS contributor is almost like having another full time job.

The best advice I can give on this subject is to see your life as a series of well-executed five-year plans.

First, I am doubtful that we have the capacity to imagine what the world will be like at the end of your life. If you were asking this question in 1907, you wouldn't be able to anticipate the disruptive transformation and opportunity of automobiles. Cory Doctorow always says that good science fiction doesn't predict the future so much as it anticipates the present. That said, there is strong anecdotal evidence that the gadgets you see on today's Star Trek will be real things people aren't impressed by in 50 years. Maybe get working on food replicators. ;)

The second thing about five-year plans is that five years is a perfect amount of time for a chapter of your life where you really focus on something that excites you. I could be learning a skill, building a company, having a child. (Yes, apparently a child takes longer than five years, but the first five are the most involved.) The result is that you will be what others describe as an interesting person with broad, colorful experiences that give you lots to talk about with your friends and life partners. Incidentally, the #1 complaint of unhappily married women is that their husbands are too predictable.

Ultimately, nobody ever gets to the end of their life and things, "man... I wish I had made fewer interesting decisions!"

The likelihood of you being able to decide today what will be the most productive and exciting use of your entire life is extremely small. The key is to make sure that the next five years is as interesting as possible. Rinse and repeat.

"Follow your heart [rather than your wallet]" is generally a bad advice [1], but if both tracks are equally well paid you might as well indulge, if only for long enough to get a feel for it.

Meaningful work is one of the pillars of mental health, don't take that away form yourself unless you have to trade it for another pillar.

[1] It's a bad advice because it often turns people to soul-sucking cafe ownership, hand-to-mouth musician careers, and other loveable but hurtful things. A much better advice is to find an intersection of (things you love) and (things that pay well enough for it to not be a bother) and (things you might be good at) and (...).

I agree with this. The OP addresses the issue as if the fields are inherently mutually exclusive. There may be areas of the ven diagram of life where they overlap.

For example, you could work on AI to help radiologists identify abnormalities in imaging or robotics in surgery. Or address energy issues in hospitals by optimizing building automation or enterprising with energy performance contracts implementing renewables. The right intersection can keep you motivated by relating to your interest and keep you fulfilled by relating to a noble purpose.

If you can't find an intersection there's nothing wrong with finding a job that allows you the ability to investigate as a hobbyist. Maybe in time you'll build the skills to contribute to those intersection points.

Owning a cafe is soul sucking?

Yes. I vaguely recall some research indicating it's the most likely venture to fail. You might be used to this in the startup world, but here there is no outsized upside, and you're not cultivating a valuable skill.

Business aside, there is also a huge discrepancy between the romantic image of happily hopping about a cozy little shop and the crushing burden of 18-hour workdays for near-zero pay, demotivated or thieving employees, obnoxious customers, flaky suppliers, rising or unexpected costs, your own failure to plan for this or that, and all that with no hope of things becoming different in the future. There were profiles in the NYT which I can no longer find, but here is one I did find just now: https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/why-to-never-open-a-res...

If you are contemplating this nearly-suicidal move I highly recommend interrogating an acquaintance who's been that and done that before investing any further effort.

YMMV but on average - yes. Restaurants and cafes are very cutthroat industry, with a lot of churn, long hours, lots of regulation etc.

My life is an interesting train of consequences and decisions. The decisions led to some consequences, and I was able to leverage them to decide the next step.

My computing life started with Commodore64 when I was ~4, and I loved the text interface. Then I got a 486DX w/ DOS when I was 7. This led me to decide to "Learn what computers are all about and learn to program these beautiful things".

Then Windows95 happened. I didn't like the GUI first interface. This led me to find Linux. Around the same time, I found demo scene. This made me to appreciate "the raw power of computers". I decided to write programs which leverage this raw power.

At the university, I was unable to leverage my Linux knowledge, and I was getting ready to be a Windows programmer, then my second internship threw me to one of the best Linux shops in existence in my city. I've learnt low level Linux programming, and decided Linux is a requirement for me in my career. Learning Linux and loving low-level and high performance tasks formed my graduation project, which earned me the best project award. I got a call from a different department of the company that I've spent my second internship before I graduated, and I'm working there for 12 years as an HPC system administrator. As a side academic gig, I write high performance code and publish papers. What I've learnt from my job is feeding my academic gig, and my academic gig is feeding my office work. I also got Master's and Ph.D. during the process.

So, let the coincidences and events happen, then try to leverage them to my best interests. You also learn during the journey. Nothing is set in stone in the first day. I wanted to be a pure programmer in my day job, but it's much more stressful and not always enjoyable. I do what I enjoy (R&D, programming high performance stuff), and have an interesting and cutting edge job (building and managing HPC systems with latest hardware), so life is good for me. Hope everyone reading this have an even better life at the end. :)

"Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation." ~Aristotle

There is debate whether the above is really from Aristotle. The idea behind it works however, and it works in a way that --at least anecdotally-- is satisfying. I was lucky enough to encounter it by accident.

In 2005 my grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. His hand often shook with a slight tremor and it made using his computer nearly impossible. I built software[0] to stabilize the mouse and give him back control.

I created many things between then and now. Most of them have faded away into obscurity. The works that really lasted and retained meaning always involved others. The meaning is not really in the software itself, or the technology, but in the people tangled up in the journey and in being needed. The excitement, once in a while, when the talents we have honed over the many years actually apply -- nothing compares.

[0] https://www.steadymouse.com

Work on the problems you care about and are interested in solving. The reasoning for that is that when you are both interested in and care about a problem you will give it all of your attention. When you work on a problem that you think "should" be worked on but that you don't deeply care about, then you won't give it all of your attention. That leads to less job satisfaction and solutions that aren't as good as those that would be come up with by someone who is really invested.

The meta question is one that is more important, do I work on a problem that pays me a lot of cash or one that is important. Bill Gates showed you can earn a lot of cash and then work on important problems, but I don't think the odds favor that approach.

I always went after the hardest unsolved problem I could find. This has often ended in pain and heartache but that taught me about some things to look for in a problem. Some key bits of advice:

1) Prepare like your life depends on it. It does. Your time may not come for 40 years, but if you're not prepared, you'll never know. So study hard. This is where Paul Graham's "swim upstream as long as possible" comes in.

2) Knowing how to code makes you a code monkey, human materiál, an interchangeble part. Same with doctors, lawyers, etc. They're essentially interchangable. If you know something else, (medicine, geology, rockets, whatever) then knowing how to code makes you a magician. In both realms.

3) Develop a 5,000 year old mind. Understand where you are in the world, and where the world is, so when your critical opportunities arrive, you will recognize them and know what to do.

4) Most successes come around age 50. If you're 20, 25, 30, 40, and think you've seen what there is to see, you probably have.

> Most successes come around age 50

What do you mean by this? Don't most of those who make it big do so while young?

I decided in my mid-30's I wanted to work on energy, so after some career manoeuvring I found a job working in the IT dept of a renewable energy company. I was there two years, and would have stayed longer, but the salary wasn't that competitive and with my large family I ended up returning to contract work. (Towards the end pretty much all of my salary was going to our monthly costs, I had nothing left).

I don't regret doing this at all. I feel like I contributed (not for as long as I'd have liked to), and I learned tons of stuff working there.

I think AI is also pretty interesting as something that "should be worked on", and the pay is possibly also better than it is in the energy sector.

The answer depends very much on the context. Are you a high school graduate look for a field to study? A mid-career person looking for a hobby? Someone considering a career change? A end-career wealthy person looking for a place to dump money on?

Personally, I believe the most important problems are mostly relationship problems in other words politics. The solutions there are simple but not easy. For example, world peace is simple: Everybody just stop killing each other. However, getting everybody to agree on that is ridiculously hard.

My general thoughts are:

1. I have a certain set of skills and strengths that I can contribute. I should use them instead of doing stuff I'm not good at because that should optimize the global productivity.

2. I should work on things where return of investment is best. So do not work on things where a return is unlikely, e.g. intergalactic travel or fixing email, or where the return is not worth it, e.g. cheaper ice cream or a flappy bird clone.

3. Keep track of big problems where the time/opportunity has not come yet. This is inspired by Hammings talk on research. It also applies to lots of free software though. For example, if Twitter would shut down tomorrow, then the Fediverse would be there to catch the fallout. So it is of some importance to work on open alternatives to popular services. The iPhones success was mostly waiting for the right time, when mobile Internet, mobile computing, and app-store market structure all were ready enough.

Unfortunately, in terms of my hobbies I'm still mostly suffering from the Paradox of Choice. Too many options to make a decision, so I don't do anything. Let check Hacker News again...

I think it’s more practical to think on a per-decade scale, as trying to plan for the future 25 or more years ahead makes you less flexible to take advantage of changes in the moment.

I decided two years ago (33 now) to devote my 30s to creating telepresence, narrative entertainment with live actors.

I think I want to spend my 40s on hobbyist prosthetics.

50s: I don’t know yet. I hope we’ve made contact with aliens by that point so that I can devote this decade to building systems that help us collaborate with them.

I finished a PhD when I was 31, and the most useful piece of advice I got from my advisor was “do the thesis that only you in the world would be able to do”. My 30s project is a mix of stuff I have special expertise in, that I get repeatedly told is weird in unique. So I’m chasing that for a while.

I'm doing a bullshit job¹ and would be happy to find anything meaningful that still pays ok². Other than that I'm trying to reduce work days to work on side projects.

If I had more choice I'd choose things that interest and fascinate me anyways and serve some good. This would be (socially beneficial) science and empowering information tools for the web.

¹ https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/

² Need a product manager for a cool product? Please let me know.

I am one of those bullshit jobs deniers. Would you like to explain why your job is bullshit? Feel free to change details to protect your privacy.

My employer is a big fin-tec company, the product does not work well, revenue comes from long contract times where people can't get out again (even worse: selling dreams that usually burst), if anything we can provide some sort of e-commerce optimization which either makes people buy more s* or makes them buy it at one instead of the other vendor.

So, if I understand correctly, the source of bullshit here would be some sort of soft coercion/engineering of consent? Over something that people don't need/shouldn't need? I.e. something like working on ad campaigns for cigarettes?

there are multiple layers of bullshit:

- big player fin-tec: it only makes numbers grow for rich people

- selling dreams: preying on peoples hopes, knowing they probably won't come true

- broken product: not selling value

- long contract times: just shady

- e-commerce: Coercion in to buying stuff they wouldn't have bough otherwise or simply funneling the money to our clients instead of others. No benefit for society either way. It doesn't even have to be cigarettes, could be butter or anything.

> It's a short life, so I want to be careful with this decision, to avoid any future regrets. Because I can't decide on this, I end up not getting anything done. Time continues to march on, while I'm still stuck with not knowing what to do.

Your situation reminds me this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buridan%27s_ass

Start small! Make any move, even not ideal one. Just leave your comfort bubble and try each idea.

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to work on things that there aren't any design patterns for yet.

Any potential client/startup that comes to me asking for help with their e-commerce business, unless it's something truly unique, I always say, get a Shopify/Squarespace account first don't waste time on designing for something that has so many established design patterns already.

Whereas if someone comes to me for help with robotics, crypto, trading, AI, complex services in healthcare etc, that's where I want to help.

I have recently further decided to focus on industries with jobs aren't desk related (i.e. where you don't sit in front of a computer).

These make up 80% of the just that exist out there yet only get around 1% of the actual investments from ex. Sillicon Vally investors. So our venture studio is now also focusing on that which is a very interesting space and kind of allow me to come full-circle with the kind of jobs my parents had (cleaning lady and plumber).

You’ll never regret choosing something you want to work on. Especially when what you want to work also makes money like energy or AI.

Also, these fields are not evil or useless like weapon design or hedge funds. They are actually useful to society, so you feel like contributing to the general good.

Don’t worry about healthcare, there are thousands of people who work on healthcare.

And, if I may, if you did work on healthcare, your very own contribution to solving this problem would most likely be very small. Unless you somehow become the Elon Musk of healthcare... which you know, may or may not happen.

Hedge funds can also be a good testbed for technologies, while “do good” companies can use it as an excuse to be bad on the inside. I am fascinated with the potential of large scale crowdsourcing in data science, and finance seems the most natural domain for this, which is why I’m now at Numerai.

Why do you think Hedge Funds are useless or evil?

The only good quality of a hedge fund is promoting "market efficiency." I can understand how most people don't buy that as an excuse for the havoc they can wreak.

How does hedge fund add value to normal people?

I have a lot of sympathy for your position. I have worked in many situations:

* Contractor just in it for the bucks

* Contractor in it for the freedom

* Working with a great team on interesting consulting projects

* Start-up co-founder in a space I really believed in

* Comfortable job that provided for me and mine while working on interesting projects and having autonomy.

I suggest that you pick a direction and go for it (given my extremely limited understanding of your situation, probably in the energy or ai field--better to pick something you want to do than something you feel like you should do). Better to have some movement than to idly tread water.

While every decision had consequences and closes off some options, every situation has good lessons (and that no place is perfect, at least that I have found). It's also worth realizing that not many decisions are irrevocable, if you are willing to make sacrifices.

As a general rule in life, you should enjoy the process, not just the outcome. The joy is in the journey.

1. Do you have something that gives you the flow effect, when you forget the time and just keep working because it's so interesting? Try to find a professional income based on that activity.

2. If the first thing is too hard - e.g. few novelists can live off their writings -, don't despair. Keep your passion as a hobby, find a stable source of income and have fun.

Assuming that you're still somewhat young, here is one additional advice from someone who has made a mistake in that respect: The older you grow, the more important financial security will become. You may think you're immune to this effect, but you're not. You'll want to have a fairly decent, constant stream of income when you're 40+, no matter what you think about that now.

The world is not short of people who want to work in healthcare. Because of high barriers to entry, professionals in the field are very well paid and young people are desperate to enter it. Given this vast army of the aspiring, you can be confident that nothing that really needed doing went undone because you chose to do something else with your life.

this is true for applied healthcare, but not so for research in healthcare. Research jobs in healthcare aren't anywhere close to as prestigious and don't pay anywhere close to as well, yet we would all benefit very much from top talent dedicating their lives to them

Science isn't short of brains. It's short of money. There's an overabundance of clever and highly trained people chasing too little funding, which is why you find so many young scientists in their thirties grinding through second and third postdocs for crap money.

I suspect you could do more good for science by working a lifetime in some well-paid career and donating a hefty portion of your profit to some science-funding organization than by trying to do science yourself.

Science needs your money far more than it needs your brains.

I kind of rolled into every job I had (didn't want to work after bachelors, did a master (old Dutch system), was asked to do PhD, finished it, was unemployed for 10 months got a nice job (but would have taken anything). But I wanted out of the lab (I am/was a molecular biologist), my heart is with computers. So I was not really content, but I got paid ok and had fun mostly. But then I had a career coach (company provided) who told me: Be very, very precise about what you like about your current job. And be very active in maximizing the amount of time you spend on the fun parts, the parts that give you energy. And so I got more and more into data analysis, slowly, I took 7 years! Now after about 9 years I'm about ready to call myself a bioinformatician and I love it.

Sure Oncology is nice but I really only like the genomics/bioinformatics part and to be honest I could probably do this type of work in another field (what I love is Linux clusters, open source software, not worrying about details but using other people's algorithms and glue them together to do cool things, that other people (colleagues) appreciate).

I would not pick something to work towards, I would try to find out what problems you like to solve and the methods you like to use, and try to do it/them as much as possible. Then, organically you will end up in the right place. How exactly? By pulling fun stuff towards you (project manager is ill? You lead the meeting, give yourself some fun work!)

I am 36 now, I feel I just got into a field I truly love, it combines my (irrational) love for Linux and computers with my training in Biology and it is that being in a unique position (with a unique background) that I can do thing my colleagues appreciate. I think that is also a big part of what fuels me (colleagues that say: wow that is really nice and you did that so fast!). It took a lot of time and it also takes some conscious attention but you'll get there.

My advice: Don't work on what you feel you should work on, think hard on the kind of stuff that makes you forget time, that gives you energy. Don't have any? Try other stuff until you find something.

Coming from exactly the opposite side, could you weigh in on opportunities to pivot into bioinformatics for a regular software engineer? From what I've seen most biotech companies don't actually have a lot of software engineering in-house, and if they want anyone who can code it's usually R/Python data scientists with PhDs, and I feel like even a senior Python software dev is a poor fit for their requirements.

I find myself increasingly drawn to biology and medicine over the last few years, considering going back to university for a second degree in fact, but the ROI on that doesn't seem great.

> It's a short life, so I want to be careful with this decision, to avoid any future regrets. Because I can't decide on this, I end up not getting anything done. Time continues to march on, while I'm still stuck with not knowing what to do.

I loved most of the advice other people have given you. Follow the advice that you think is the best, but remember, You are more than the work you do.

You are being too hard on yourself - take care of your mental health as well. Talk to someone you trust.

Your life goals and priorities will change throughout your life. In the end, everyone will have some regrets (for different reasons). You just get to choose your own.

> I've been stuck with trying to figure what to do with the rest of my life. I can't decide whether I should be working on what I want to work on (Energy, AI) or whether I should work on what I believe should be worked on (Healthcare).

1. How about AI for Healthcare?

2. I don't believe you can do great work in an area you're not personally excited about. So, if the thought of spending the next 30 years working in the healthcare sector is not exciting to you at the moment, then, chances are that if you were to pick this path, you'd be OK at it at best, and that's not good enough to make any difference on a larger scale.

I'll second AI for healthcare.

Medicine is the killer app for AI, and yet not nearly enough people are working on it. I suspect it has something to do with the relative difficulty in accessing data (although this is changing), and the relatively lower pay compared to working at Google, Facebook et al. But in my opinion, if you're the sort of person who's searching for meaning and opportunity, this is the place to be.

Full disclosure: I work in AI for healthcare.

My problems picked me. I'm just trying to make my life work.

If I make a difference in this world, it will grow out of solving my problems, basically.

Re your actual conundrum: If you can do something like create/promote clean energy, a lot of health issues are rooted in pollution. People who aren't sick because they aren't breathing polluted air will need less healthcare.

So you can potentially kill two birds with one stone by addressing energy and then tracking how that positively impacts health outcomes for your own personal edification.

This is a very utilitarian approach, I don't recommend it if you really want a productive and satisfying life. It took me decades to realize what I'm actually good at and what not and my values changed often, so a life devoted to one cause that seemed important at the age of 20 wouldn't do 20 years later. I would have been a very bad monk...

My projects evolved primarily based on personal interest and needs and they eventually scaled to between a few 100 and a few million users. All gave me some amount of satisfaction, but none of them was my ultimate "life project" or the fulfilment of all desires.

Learn many skills and tricks, try a lot of different things (not only job-wise), invest more energy in what interests and motivates you most and don't be afraid to move on.

It's better to regret something you have done than something you haven't done! ;-)

Be happy. A happy man will help your neighbour. And your fellow people.

You may be good at something but if you are not happy ... I think mao and hilter could. R said quite good in their deeds and mao is even now has no problem in killing 30m+ (more than 1 time - Great Leap Forward and cultural revolution).

Both are not happy men. May be they have sming pic but I have not aware much.

Be happy. Do no harm.

Assume that we are not in Olympic but we are always in the game of life. With that may I quote the motto, the most important thing in life is not about winning but about participation and you have tried your best.

Good luck.

Define healthcare. If you want to follow the traditional path of getting a medicine degree as I did( currently 2nd year in a hospital, the system in my country is different so I don't know exactly how this translates into USA terms), I can tell you right now that the day to day life can actually be really satisfying depending on the choices you make inside. Every specialty( assuming you even chase one) has a unique way of thinking and many many sub-specialties inside where you get to wrestle with the current cutting edge problems. Then of course there is research( poorly paid for the cost) that's it's own thing. So 1) you are postponing your decision until you have more data to decide and 2) you still keep yourself open to many possibilities from more practical specialties like the various surgical ones to more theory-heavy ones like pathology/ID/hematology or being buried in a lab( microbiology etc) to a medium in between( cardiology) or even a more humanitarian one( psychiatry). Each with their own unique feel and algorithms. Ultimately you will still have to choose between what you like and what's important. I am lucky that I like something I consider also extremely important( cardiology). Then you can choose if you want to have a broader view of the subject or specialize a lot into something and becoming the best on it( extra specializations e.g. arrythmiology etc). Ultimately whatever one might choose will always have a very strong feedback loop of improving other peoples' lives and the value of this can't be overstated. Plus the pay is good.

I think money is the great enabler, assuming you don't spend it. Making a nice chunk of it early on makes the rest of your life better--you can choose exactly what you'd like to work on, relationships are statistically better, and your blood pressure will be at lower levels for the rest of your life. Freedom is the one thing that money can buy, and the great thing about it is that it never has to leave your bank account in order to buy it. :-)

When you work on something you love, it isn't work anymore. You'll be more passionate about the subject and more productive around getting things done... Not to mention orders of magnitude more creative.

So I think you're asking the right questions but you need to look at it from a slightly different angle.

I'd also agree with you that life is short... But it's also long. You can always switch fields, learn new things, reinvent yourself. There are no rules...

I switched from software generally to software for energy. I had a software job and my friends were always making fun of me for working for "the man", i.e. banks and large consumer product companies (Coke, McDonalds, etc.). So I sat down and looked at all the major industries that seemed to help people and that I could have an impact in as a software engineer. I figured I'd try energy first, since climate change was probably the worst thing happening at the time, and I took a 1 year contract to build an app for utilities. 6 years later I'm still working on it, training another generation of engineers. So hey, it worked out.

The nice thing about work skills is that they're frequently portable. So if I had to go back in time and give advice to old me I'd say: don't worry, just work in some industries where you think you can do things that are important to you. And while you do that you'll be building your skillset. For me, it was my software skillset, but I've also learned some stuff on raising funding, event planning, budgeting, accounting, hiring. It also doesn't hurt to save money.

Good luck! Have fun!

It's a short life indeed, worrying on what decision to make and postponing will only make it worse.

Consider the statistics of decision, in general and simplified. In any abstract decision, there is a 50 percent probability that the correct or constructive choice will be made. If the correct path is taken, obviously no problems will exist. If the incorrect selection is made, it will become evident. When it does, there is a 50 percent probability that the choice can be reversed and the constructive path substituted in its place.

Therefore, there is only one chance in four, at the most, that an irrevocable direction may be taken in decision making. All vital decisions in the history of man have been made on much worse odds than three to one. Some were as high as one in twenty and came out positively.

To move away from the null point of indecision, take the position that any action or decision is better than none at all, based upon the odds of three to one.

More here https://pastebin.com/1tF3gqre

Money amd free time.

I won't work on things I fundamentally disagree with but what's important to me is life outside of work. I try to maximise my income and the availability of non-work time.

As a contractor this is what I get to do, make a packet and take a few months off here and there.

People with a drive to achieve in a particular area may be after a different sort of satisfaction in life I guess.

that's a defeatist attitude. If you had unlimited money, how would you spend your time? that's how you will find what to work on.

> that's a defeatist attitude.

It really isn't. I have a great life, and I also get to work on some interesting stuff because I'm good at what I do. I help my clients to deliver, and get satisfaction from that.

> If you had unlimited money, how would you spend your time?

Travelling and seeing the world with other people, in luxury.

I usually toss the ideas around in my head for a little while and then I will write it up and keep it in Google Drive. It may be a page or a few pages, or a half a page. I create a folder for the idea and then put the document inside that.

What I do not typically do is go over my old ideas, which might be a good idea. But I think the act of writing the idea down goes a long way towards crytallizing it in my memory, for is I ever want to revist it. (Back in college, I would take notes in class, but never review them.)

Most of the ideas get touched only the one time. Some I come back to and expand on. And some actually become projects (which is what I call the root folder where I keep all these, "projects").

If the idea does become a bigger project, I will often have many more ideas and they will get written up in the same folder.

EDIT - oops, this comment is in the wrong post! This was supposed to go under the :How do you take notes" post.

Find a problem that you are interested in and have the capacity to make progress and enjoy at least most of the grind (and it will be a grind). If you choose something simply because it's a big problem but not something you have a natural affinity for, you may not end up making a difference because you won't be effective. If you're not effective, it'll be really hard to find someone to pay you to work on it, regardless of the problem.

Given the options that you have stated, progress with energy will produce progress on a wide variety of other problems because it's a physical and economic limiting factor for almost all activities. Creating cheaper, cleaner and/or more available energy will have an impact on human health and well-being, because it makes society more affluent and able to channel more resources into healthcare. Making progress on healthcare doesn't itself produce the same sort of spillover effects into as many other sectors, though it is undoubtedly beneficial. It also seems that many of the biggest challenges in healthcare are regulatory or policy-oriented and not necessarily technical, whereas many fundamental problems in the energy field are technical in nature.

I, personally, am a geologist and work for a seismic hazard and risk nonprofit that works with governments, insurance companies and other parties to better assess and ameliorate earthquake risk. My training is in more fundamental geologic research (not societally oriented at all) but I have veered towards earthquake hazards in my career because I find it to be more satisfying, both in terms of the societal benefit and in terms of my day to day effort and existence.

Earthquakes aren't anywhere as dangerous as cancer or heart disease or drunk driving, but I don't think I'd be nearly as good at solving any problems with those things. I deeply love the earth and think it's beautiful, and this motivates me to work hard at understanding it better and translating that understanding into useful information for people who want to make safer buildings and communities.

I started with only one goal, and I have come to only two conclusions.

Goal: Learn how to do even that which I can't properly understand at face value today.

Conclusions: I do not want to work in hardware. I do not want to work in life-dependent hardware.

Hardware is hard, and I want the freedom to experiment with new software ideas without having to consider who may die / be injured. You can usually undo mission critical faults with money but you can't replace a life.

Unfortunately, I don't know how I came to these conclusions other than meeting with lots of people. I get a bad taste in my mouth when I see people who go off to location X in the world to help solve Y. I just don't see myself committing to that location and would prefer to attack things in a way that can solve them worldwide.

Having some experience with working on things I thought were "important" and failing due to lack of passion, my advice is that you should work on interesting problems to you and find the path within those area to do good. It's possible to do good and evil, to be greedy or altruistic, to work on harmful or helpful things, in any domain. Life has a way of presenting the right doors to you to walk through if you are prepared to see them, but the way to start is to follow your natural interests and keep your eyes open. Luck favors the prepared mind.

Along the way the main error to avoid is letting others define your thoughts and opinions -- if you remain your own person then you will find your own way to make a dent that nobody else could.

I experienced this with my PhD topic decision. My focus generally is VR/AR and I was considering looking at health care applications or haptic tech. In the end I decided on haptics because it seemed more interesting however I have often thought my research could have had more impact had I chosen healthcare. Since starting, my haptic research has subsequently opened up doors into possible health applications and research anyway. This was effectively a middle ground because my research is what I want to do but I can still contribute to something that feels objectively more important.

So based on this, my suggestion would be to do what you want, and see if you can find applications in things you think should be worked on.

What I found in my experience is that an idea is great but until you start working on it, you will not know if you're passionate/interested/capable/ready for it.

I have a lot of projects/ideas that I am working on or want to work on. I jump from one project to the next until there is one that really grasps me, then I try to finish till completion. Most people have shallow understandings of a lot of things. Only with deep knowledge does innovation or sparks of it come to being. So with your interest in a lot of subjects (Energy, AI, Healthcare) try to learn a little of them in the beginning beyond shallow understanding. MAybe you will find something from that.

I just feel like we really need to fix climate change, thus energy, if we want to preserve some semblance of the world that we grew up in.

Regarding personal happiness, consider that how you work is much more important than what you work on.

I think you should work on what you want to (day to day) with an eye towards solving bigger problems that you believe should be worked on.

So if I believed that healthcare needed to be worked on but that energy and AI were what I was interested in doing day to day, I'd look at applying AI to healthcare and who is doing that and I'd look at how energy impacts healthcare. Maybe there's a NIH group studying power grid reliability or something.

And then I'd try to find a way to work with many teams to provide that side-expertise in AI or energy if I was already an expert with those, or I'd try to find a full time job working on it.

Energy, AI, Healthcare: none of these are problems. They are all ways to solve problems, or at best domains that constrain thinking.

Energy is a field/domain, there are problems you can solve here, but they could tend towards optimization or soln looking for problems

AI is overloaded, but again is more tool than problem. Healthcare the same, very wide, not often problem fixing.

an interesting observation is find where domains intersect. this allows you to focus on an area where few have/are venturing. giving you a rich seam to mine, and ROI on your time.

as always choose your own adventure, who are we to say what is 'right'. good luck!


I find myself constantly drifting toward entertainment. I made mobile games for about 4 years, and now I run an escape room business. I guess I'm trying to get rid of sadness one small bit at a time.

I value entertainment immensely but saying that it solves unhappiness is like saying that prostitution solves loneliness. Unhappiness is a core element of the human experience. It is not solvable because it is not a problem.

Totally agree.

I suppose I decide on a whim or follow inspiration. Among the list of interests is at least one that's practical/money-making. On the other hand, the job took up the entirety of my life while I was working many years ago and was absolutely pointless. In eating up all my time, there wasn't any left to do anything else. I worked during 2008-2010 and it was so bad there wasn't even time to go to the grocery store. If such a situation can be avoided, then you may be able to make it all happen.

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