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You are not running out of time (rahulbijlani.com)
696 points by complexmango on July 18, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments

In a sense, each of us lives our life in Titanic style, setting forth in the confident assumption that we are unsinkable and placing an unduly high value on our capacity to meet any challenge, panicking (or at least feeling a sense of stoic distress) at the mid-point as it first truly hits us that we are about to slam into the iceberg of inevitable aging and decline, sweating it out over a seemingly interminable period as our vessel creaks and groans its way toward destruction, and finally salvaging what we can from the wreckage and setting it off in a few lifeboats intending to keep hope alive for the next generation of humanity. In the process, we hope to do something more meaningful than spend time rearranging deck chairs as we decide upon our life's focus.

This is not intended as a grim metaphor on life. In fact, I am a supreme optimist about the beauty of living and about having hopes of doing great things and doing one's best to achieve them. But what are those things when the reality is that one's individual life is finite? That is the challenge faced by every human being who has ever lived.

This piece attempts to answer it by saying, in effect, be careful to set your goals on things that ultimately matter. Whether the author, at age 30, has enough perspective to answer this question well is something we can all ponder. But we all need to try, and this piece is a thoughtful attempt to do so.

> panicking (or at least feeling a sense of stoic distress) at the mid-point as it first truly hits us that we are about to slam into the iceberg of inevitable aging and decline,

Maybe a little OT, maybe not:

> Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

> mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

> ché la diritta via era smarrita.

> Midway upon the journey of our life

> I found myself within a forest dark,

> For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

The first three lines of Dante's Paradise Lost.

Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. Milton wrote Paradise Lost.

These are the opening lines of Inferno (first book of The Divine Comedy)

Sorry, I'm stupid, of course :) I blame it on the lack of morning coffee.

I try to humble myself often that I'm not invincible and that I shouldn't take tomorrow for granted but eventually I completely forget about it and I'm back to mundane life. I wish there was an easy way to be reminded without being rudely awakened to the fact that I'm constantly distracting myself from what's important in life.

You got two or three options, as best I can tell.

1) Risk your life. Do something so close to the edge your heart is pounding in your ears and you can taste your life flashing by. (You have to mix it up though. Race cars today, skydive tomorrow, wrestle bears next month. Fear fades with time)

2) Get into shape. Like, really really good shape. The world becomes so full of life it's like it's on fire.

3) Get yourself lost, in the city or in the mountains, with nowhere to go and nothing to do for a day or two. Don't come home until said day or two have passed.

Having done all of those things it just isn't enough and always leaves you wanting more. It's similar to having a customer write you a check (not through some job, but directly to you or your business) for the first time. You want it again and again.

1) Skydived. It was awesome! 2) 4-5 years ago I decided I wanted to be really strong. I can deadlift over 500lbs now. 3) This is a great thing to do, especially by yourself.

If you pick the right activities you can actually hit all 3 at once. A solo wintertime hike of a 14er is perfect (dangerous, physically challenging, lost feeling). A lot of people didn't understand why the CEO who recently died on Everest was on Everest at all. It's because he had to get away from his mundane, which to him was being a successful CEO.

I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center. - Kurt Vonnegut

Note that I'm not listing these things as way to escape mundane-ness, but as ways you can incorporate into your life with some regularity to remind yourself tomorrow is a gift.

P.S. There's more to "in shape" than strong. I was thinking more of the running sort of "in shape" (and the fast kind, not the jog-walk kind). Ramping up the strength of your heart and your running muscles has a very different feeling than bulking up your lifting muscles. If I was to describe the difference, I'd say bulking up made me feel good & more confident, while recovering my running endurance makes me feel like leaping into the air, sprinting up stairs, or running circles in the park with dogs for the sheer joy of it. It doesn't surprise me it feels like that, as I am a believer that we are runners the same way birds are fliers.

There's more to "in shape" than strong.

You're right. Strength is just what got me started. I play a lot of pick up basketball, surf, snowboard, hike, etc... When it comes to just regular running, 5k is about my limit since it bores me so much :)

The life as a gift thing I totally agree. I've wasted a lot of time as a youngster, and only in my 30s have I realized it. My wife is always telling me I'm too hard on myself (and really who isn't?), but there is so much more I want to accomplish. I really do feel like time is running out, and the squeeze only gets worse when trying to plan for a family.

I spent some time at death's door and I have 2e kids in my life and other significant challenges. Some thoughts:

1) Deal with your problems. You probably have some significant problems. But most of us don't want to really face them. For example, you probably have some medical condition that runs in the family that would likely respond well to preventive measures in terms of eating better and exercising. Most people do. If you are American, diabetes, obesity and so on are rampant. Eating right and exercising regularly are personal challenges, especially when surrounded by the way most Americans live. I do this every day and it's really rather exhilarating. I and my oldest son take a 7 mile walk at least once a week as part of our efforts to take care of our health issues. It's a lot more satisfying than spending every other weekend in the ER like I did some years back.

2) Do volunteer work with some charity that deals with some very big problem that hits a nerve with you personally. I have done volunteer work at a homeless shelter and I run a health site (that doesn't really make money, so it's still basically "charity") and spend time on email lists for folks with the kind of diagnosis I have. When I most feel like wallowing in self pity, my awareness that my problems are so much more manageable than that of most folks with the type of problems I have helps keep me grounded. If you are used to living in a more insulated fashion, I think the effect would be to keep you alive and help you avoid sticking your head in the sand pretending you don't really have problems.


For some reason, this reminds me of the Gerald Weinberg story about the optimist and the pessimist. While arguing about philosophy, the optimist cries, "This is the best of all possible worlds!" The pessimist just sighs and says, "You're right."

This essay is definitely something to keep in mind, albeit it's probably easier in theory than practice.

I'm probably a little older than most of the Y crowd. I've worked at a few very successful startups - pre and post dot com. For one of them, which changed the travel industry, I was literally one of the first people to put down code and my own stab at defining their architecture - I was there before there were any formal employees.

But now, I have a kid on the way, never really made millions (sorta got close), can't seem to find that 'magic' again, and there is definitely that notion that time is fleeting. Over the past decade I studied a lot of philosophy - mostly buddhist and hindu. I meditated, quieted my mind, enjoyed my moments, and felt very peaceful while the world flew by. I dropped out of working for a year to learn how to write electronic music (played music my whole life, got pretty good at the electronic stuff) - this was probably the happiest I'd been in a long time and I 100% did live day to day, creating, constantly getting better.

Lately over the past few years though, life's changed. The thought that I am getting closer to getting older and starting a family adds additional pressure. It seems much simpler when you're by yourself - which is why monks follow that route. Ultimately, we make the decisions we make and we have to learn from them.

As someone who's been programming most of my life, loves technology, and still appreciates the latest and greatest, I'm still drawn to it. At this point, I can see how things should work and feel like I really appreciate things that are designed well. However, there's only so much time in the day and I don't really crank on code for 10+ hours anymore. I keep thinking that I can compete with a lot of people for tech knowhow, but maybe my real potential is to pass all this on to the next generation.

I'm sure that I've been more fortunate that a lot of people on this rock, but I still don't feel I've felt that success I've wanted and, yah, it does feel like time is running out.

I feel exactly the same. Incidentally just today I have to decide between a job that I know at a company I had been at for a while and new job with more responsibilities, slightly lower pay, longer commute, that might boost my carrier from a "programmer" to something more. I am old in software terms and that might be one of my last chances to do that. I have a son, and spending time with him is one of the most important things for me.

I am good and successful at what I am doing, but one always looks for the next thing.

As you I spent a lot of time the past ten developing my spiritual side. I meditate a lot, went to 10 day silent retreat... At this junction my peace fails me, though.

I like your post. Feel really honest.

Perhaps being creative in the teaching field would be the best way to combine all your skills and knowledge, and be the most rewarding to you. Sounds like you have a lot to offer!

I really appreciate your comment.

Beg to differ. I'd say that if you're not feeling pressed, that you have too little time left, then you don't have anywhere near an adequate view of the plausible future. A golden age lies ahead, of glittering marvels to make all that has come so far pale to insignificance. But unless we step up to the plate and master biotechnology a lot faster and better than is presently managed, all of us reading this now will miss both that future and lives of health and transcendence lasting centuries in which to enjoy it.

As I put it here:


"We all express the symptoms of a fatal, inherited degenerative condition called aging - or so the joke goes. It's a dark joke, but there's truth to be found in it, as is often the case in black humor. Unfortunately, all too few people think of themselves as patients suffering aging, and fewer still would call themselves patient advocates, agitating for research leading towards therapies and cures for aging. This is a sorry state of affairs: given that our time is limited and ticking away, the tasks upon the table should always include some consideration of aging. What can we do about it? How can we engineer a research community, funding and support to make real progress within our lifetimes? If you don't spend at least some of your time on this issue, then you're fiddling while Rome burns. Time is the most precious thing we have, and we live on the cusp of technologies that will allow us to gain more of it - but those advances in medicine won't happen soon enough unless we work at it."

I think you missed the author's point. The article wasn't about gaining more (or infinite) time. It was about maximizing your joy in life by living in such a way that you can be proud of your accomplishments without being overwhelmed by the need to continually out-do yourself or others. How long you live is completely irrelevant to that point. And if you are not enjoying your life because you're feeling so pressed and anxious, then living forever won't change that--that's a mentality problem.

Not to mention the disappointment you might feel if you die before the onset of the much hyped biotech revolution, having placed your hopes for happiness in its arrival.

While I can agree with the author's point I think it was poorly expressed (your summary is better) and the way he suggests embodying the point seems contradictory to making an effort against Death. Though I think if people did have a certain expectation to live billions of years we wouldn't have very many hurried people around, though that's just my own speculation.

> Not to mention the disappointment you might feel if you die before the onset of the much hyped biotech revolution, having placed your hopes for happiness in its arrival.

At least the disappointment would be brief since by the time you're close enough to death to feel it you won't be alive much longer. Though I would find it pitiable that a person refuses to be happy their entire life and would only be happy being essentially immortal; it seems like many 'immortalists' are actually quite content in their current lives but want that to go on as long as possible.

They would also take great effort to find black swans and long shot. Living a really long life can make you ambitious.

If you're an old 75 years old, than you might be predisposed to the short term.

The young don't know they have it, and the old don't care.

If you're going to live on the average lifespan of a 100,000 thousand years and improving, than 50 years is no problem to be wasting your time on big projects.

You can wait for your space probes to report to you, make big colonization effort that span centuries, and solve scientific questions that will take decades to unravel.

The unfortunate, but probably avoidable downside: the rich old people most interested in and capable of affording life extension therapy give so much inertia to the status quo that humanity's progress is thrown to a screeching halt.

Ironically, such a world would have to be populated by people born after the epoch, not before, to fully take advantage of the conceptual freedoms it would have to offer.

People change. And they would have plenty of time to get used to it.

Wow. This reads like a Neal Stephenson novel.

If reasonattlm is right, it may be worthwhile for me to work my tail off and sacrifice peace of mind in the short term in order to live forever in the long term. So what he says is somewhat relevant.

You're assuming "working your tail off" has something to do with becoming rich. I've seen little evidence to that effect and a great deal that contradicts is.

No one worked harder then the miners and few died poorer.

So how do you recommend becoming rich?

I don't think it's about outdoing others at all, but about outdoing your best self.

If your goal in life is to achieve a logical contradiction, you're going to die disappointed.

That's nitpicking. You get the idea.

Hey reasonattlm, I just read through your comment history and it looks like every single comment is about life extension. While I sorely hope that your optimism turns out to be warranted, I also hope that you're living and enjoying your life today, on the off-chance that it's not.

I hope his optimism is unwarranted. While I certainly would have a hard time turning down the opportunity to live longer, I don't think greatly extending peoples lives will be good for the individuals, society or the planet. Life and death is a beautiful cycle; not something to be defeated due an overwhelming fear of death.

You'll have to explain a little harder how the great suffering currently afflicting hundreds of millions of people due to aging is both beautiful and good for them.

Or the hundred thousand people who died from aging in the past 24 hours: was it good for them as individuals? How about their families and companions?

In short, I don't think you've thought your position through particularly carefully.

Children only come into their own after their parents have left the picture, however it is that happens.

Can you imagine being a part of the younger generation when immortality is discovered or extended longevity? Would jobs ever open up, or promotions be available? Nobody will retire at the top, so there will be extremely little turnover. How can the young hope to surpass the old if the old hold all the keys and never let go?

Sure, aging is scary, but have you really thought through all the implications of curing it? Heck, have you even thought about why it exists in the first place? There are many cancer lines that never age, so why haven't organisms evolved that never get old? If you have an answer, I'd love to hear it.

Evolutionary explanation for the origin of aging: we age because the world changes.


And the fundamental mechanisms of aging got their start in single celled life, very early on.


None of which is a good reason for suffering aging when we could do something about it: it's just the mechanistic explanation for what is.

Interesting articles, sure, but I wish you'd addressed societal and generational impact (you can skip overpopulation concerns).

Sure, we age because the world changes, but in case you haven't noticed, the rate of change in the human world is accelerating. It strikes me as a bad idea to bet on trends that are on a collision course by their very nature. Maybe there is a way to reconcile extreme longevity with human society, but if there is, I sure haven't heard it or found it on that website.

Put it this way, I'd like to see human mortality conquered, but I don't want to be alive when it happens. If you think class warfare is a problem now, wait until only the so-called "rich" get to live forever. The others will tear the world apart.

Why would only rich people get to live longer? Advanced technology has tended to get cheaper over time, often dramatically. I'm not saying that things wouldn't be scary and tumultuous for a while, but the alternative is to slowly sicken and decay into oblivion before you've had even a single century of life. This should not be a tough decision!

     Advanced technology has tended to get cheaper over 
     time, often dramatically
That's because as far as technology in the software industry goes, the bottleneck has been our own knowledge.

That's why space travel to inhabitable planets is nothing more than an utopia right now, because for achieving the speed of light we need efficient fuel that can power a space-ship for several years. As far as this problem goes, our knowledge of the universe is not the only bottleneck -- building such a ship will also be freaking expensive in terms of material resources consumed.

You really shouldn't confuse technological advancements in silicon chips manufacturing with anything else. Moore's law is severely limited to a niche ;-)

      the alternative is to slowly sicken and decay into 
      oblivion before you've had even a single century of 
      life. This should not be a tough decision!
Advocates of immortality are completely oblivious to the social challenges this will bring.

First of all -- nobody will be able to have children anymore, since that will over-populate the planet. It's already happening since humans don't have natural enemies and we live in times of peace.

Yet as a species we feel the need to have children. Personally I would give my life just so my 1 year-old boy could live a happy life. And while it saddens me that one day he too will be dead, I don't want to rob him of one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling purposes in life -- that of raising children of his own.

Of course, this is a problem of humanity in general -- we tend to be selfish mother-fuckers.

Advocates of immortality are completely oblivious to the social challenges this will bring.

Not oblivious to them, but social challenges are so much more fixable than being dead that it should be a no-brainer.

Personally I think fixing death problems is only a matter of technological progress.

And in general technological problems are much easier than social ones as social problems sometimes do not admit technological fixes ;)

With the problem I outlined above, modifying humans to not feel the need for children would make us much less human than replacing our body parts with pieces made from silicon.

It is easy imagining living a 1000 happy years, but would you experience happiness at all if you were less human? And I am aware that happiness could be faked, but then what incentive would you have for living a good life and accomplishing stuff instead of living like a vegetable, as many drug addicts are doing?

And if you can't be happy, since that's the ultimate goal of everybody, than what's the point to all this?

In my humble opinion, cheating death is the easy part.

modifying humans to not feel the need for children would make us much less human than replacing our body parts with pieces made from silicon. It is easy imagining living a 1000 happy years, but would you experience happiness at all if you were less human?

When you rephrase that to: "150,000 people die every day, and you want that to continue because changing the definition of 'human' feels a bit weird" it starts to look like less of a compelling argument.

There are lots of reasons why developing life extension technologies will cause social and economic upheavals and potentially huge ripples, but fear of possible problems is not enough to make me say "well, I'm glad people died to avoid those problems".

And I am aware that happiness could be faked, but then what incentive would you have for living a good life and accomplishing stuff instead of living like a vegetable, as many drug addicts are doing?

Am I a drug addict today? Why would I be more likely to be a drug addict in 100 years?

And if you can't be happy, since that's the ultimate goal of everybody, than what's the point to all this?

Because we can (maybe) and because if we can, it's worse if we don't.

But there are upsides to death -- yes, lots of people die everyday, but death is fair since everybody dies at some point and death also produces renewal, changing the world for the better.

And I'm not saying that we shouldn't fix it. Heck, it may even make us less selfish; we may end up for example actually caring about our planet.

But in order to do that, there are more hard problems to solve first -- tyrants will be the first to achieve longer lives, capitalism will not work anymore, we need won't be able to have children, yes we do sex for fun but we also feel the need to reproduce so doing sex will be a lot less common, we'll have to work for all of our lives as wealth will become static, there will be no more entrepreneurs, whatever brain we'll have will have limited capacity so we'll forget meaningless details like our childhood (the happiest period of life for many people).

Even seemingly simple problems are actually big -- for example, right now death is fair, but what will happen after living 1000 years with your loved one until one day when she'll get hit by a bus? Then it won't be fair anymore and you'll most likely go mad.

And the biggest problem I'm seeing -- once the genie gets out of the bottle, it stays out. People need to at least make an attempt to fix these side-effects before solving death, not after. We cannot then say -- oops, this is was a bad idea, we'll just revert.

I've had family members die. It's painful, but at least you can live with it. And if the problems that I'm thinking about won't get solved first, I'm pretty sure that fixing death is a bad idea.

Let me humbly suggest this video: http://vimeo.com/17513355

Yeah, it gets cheaper over time, but there will probably be at least a few years during which the technology will be more like private space travel.

Imagine if the few people who've been able to book passage to the ISS were instead the only ones who could afford immortality. Those are not going to be fun years.

Death can never be defeated - besides accidents and catastrophes, there's always entropy - but life can have some interesting twists if your life extends longer and your mind extends further.

However, I think even a few small changes to mental capacity or an extension of life expectancy beyond 2-3x will make the recipients something other than human. Our brains have many quirks that limit our ability to reason, understand, or act rationally, but those quirks are essential to our humanity and our ability to love. I think for this reason alone, few will elect to have very drastic changes made to their minds or their lives.

Would you have said this back when human lifespan averaged 40? Thanks but I think I'd sign up.

Life and death is a beautiful cycle

Octogenarians wasting away in nursing homes unable to feed themselves or remember their children is the polar opposite of "beautiful".

Forest for the trees.

Let me put it this way: Octocentarians clinging to life and hoarding resources to themselves would be a tremendously ugly thing in my eyes.

clinging to life

Curse those doctors and cancer researchers.

hoarding resources to themselves

The economy is not zero-sum. If we cure aging, 80 year olds will be producing goods and services of value rather than living off welfare.

I was talking about 800 year olds.

Am I not living the HN dream? A challenge and a market so large as to be beyond most people's daily conception, a time in which the trillion dollar engineered longevity industries of the future are digging their first tenuous roots, and here I am doing my bit to help right at the start.

Just for your first line, feeling pressed is different from feeling depressed, and I think that the article is referring to "feeling depressed". It is more or less trying to convey the same message as yours which conveys doing something instead of sitting idle. It's just that you want to get things done in a hurry. See the analogies to believe - Gordon Gekko, Bill Gates.

We already live in a golden age. Many people spend their time wishing they had lived in some romanticized past; you seem to take the opposite approach. Each new technology brings with it both novelty/convenience and a nostalgia for the past. Because of recorded music, we had a long stretch where few people knew the joy of creating and sharing music themselves.

The whole point of the article was to enjoy the journey. I hope you don't spend yours with your sights set on a distant (perhaps impossible) goal and miss out on the joys of living your life as it is today.

Your advice, while technically good, is a remarkable non-sequitur. We live in some pretty amazing times, and personally I have a happy life. Why would I want to become increasingly frail and infirm, and then die? It is precisely because I place such a high value on my life that I don't want to have it cut tragically short.

Everyone and everything dies/decays/is destroyed eventually. Does it really matter if it happens after 100 years or a 1000 years or even a million? The universe will continue existing and existing and whatever time you were alive will become less than a speck of dust in relation.

¨Life is preparation for death¨ no matter how long it lasts. We are beings of transience and impermanence. If you aren´t satisfied with 80 years, you won´t be satisfied with 8000.

We are beings of transience and impermanence. If you aren´t satisfied with 80 years, you won´t be satisfied with 8000.

Satisfaction and permanence are not binary attributes. One needn't find complete contentment in any arbitrary lifespan to conclude that one could be more satisfied with a long life span than a short one. Plus, the longer one lives, the more likely it is that some true form of permanent conscious existence may be discovered and/or invented.

While living longer certainly benefits the individual I don't think it's a sure thing that would benefit society as a whole. Certainly it's a debate that would have to go hand in hand with any major breakthroughs in the area.

We'll never live for ever due to entropy. Obey physics, it's the law!

I would happily settle for a few thousand years. Even a few hundred would be a major improvement over the grim darkness of the current wither-and-die-young system.

It's all a matter of what you do with the time. Back a couple hundred years ago our lifespans would be undreamed up, we're living roughly twice as long as your average medieval peasant. But it is still too short! I'm skeptical we'll ever have enough, given that we also live in the most affluent society in all of history yet we complain about not having enough.

This is exemplary of the materialistic mindset that some people will get wrapped up in at times, missing the real point.

Disclaimers: I am an engineer, materialist, and a nihilist.

The sort of mentality championed here is important to keep in mind, but it can also be dangerous if implemented the wrong way. I keep this in mind, too:

"The ninth virtue is perfectionism. The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice. As your mind becomes more silent, you hear more noise. When you notice an error in yourself, this signals your readiness to seek advancement to the next level. If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors. In every art, if you do not seek perfection you will halt before taking your first steps. If perfection is impossible that is no excuse for not trying. Hold yourself to the highest standard you can imagine, and look for one still higher. Do not be content with the answer that is almost right; seek one that is exactly right." http://yudkowsky.net/rational/virtues

That link is really cool! Thanks for posting, it will be going on my cube wall at work.

> what do I want to see grow? What do I want to build?

The problem is that in the vast majority of cases, unless you managed to build something successful by the time you die, then your work will die with you and nobody will care.

The article makes the tempting assumption that progress is monotonic, and that the work that you do will eventually find its use. I don't think this is right -- the vast majority of stuff ever created gets thrown away or forgotten. In this sense, you are running out of time: you have only so much time left to accomplish something which will really survive you.

(Note that this applies to intellectual achievements, not so much to building a family and the like.)

That's very difficult to predict, though! There is some correlation with short-term success, but not that great correlation; there are plenty of people "famous in their day" forgotten 20 years past their death, and a substantial number of people whose work only seemed important in retrospect, or after it was recontextualized by a later writer who somehow dug up some obscure work and took a liking to it. I have a minor personal hobby of translating encyclopedia entries from the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, the main German-language biographical encyclopedia of the years 1875-1912, into the English Wikipedia, and it's amazing how the space that the writer of the time saw fit to devote to a person often correlates badly with a 21st-century assessment of the person's importance.

Of course, that doesn't quite tell you what to do about it. I personally tend to lean towards, do something that seems interesting to me, with the caveat that I also need to eat. I'm not as worried about making a name for myself 500 years from now, although "seems interesting to me" probably includes some part of that evaluation in it (things that seem likely to outlast me probably get a boost in my personal evaluation of interestingness).

your work will die with you and nobody will care

You should care, while you are alive. Whether your successors care or not is optional, and frankly is their problem, not yours.

There are many recorded instances of work that was generally ignored by the creator's immediate successors - or even by contemporaries - but was eventually appreciated decades, even centuries later. Classic examples: Bach's fugues went terribly out of fashion even during his lifetime; Shakespeare's biography is obscure mainly because his works went through a period of obscurity; Mendel published his work to no acclaim whatsoever, went on to have a completely different non-science career, and died before other scientists (two of them simultaneously!) discovered his work. Johannes Vermeer, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson...

Other artists were hailed as legends during their lifetime and then promptly forgotten. Maybe they will remain forgotten. More likely some will be rediscovered next year or next century. Make what you want to make. Let the future take care of itself. It probably won't listen to you anyway.

Good advise. The takeaway from your advise is that you should make sure that your work can be discovered in the future several decades or hundreds of years after your death. Contributing to a reputable science journal is a good way to make your work last for a long time.

Or making your content public domain and spreading it as widely as your marketing skill can.

I like this quote by Isaac Newton

"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Sums up the futility and the selfish enjoyment of a life of intellectual pursuit for me.

I read it as saying that throughout his life, he continued to experience child-like wonder at the richness of the world, and is trying to be humble about the size of his contribution to history. YMMV.

I think my interpretation wasn't well put. I also see the child-like wonder, but what it does the most for me is remind me that even someone as great as him feels insignificant compared to the marvels of nature, so I don't need to stress if I don't get everything. I may be lucky to find one smooth pebble or touch an interesting shell.

'Nobody will care' is missing the most important person's opinion - your own!

I don't agree that most stuff created gets thrown away or forgotten, especially in the sphere of intellectual achievements.

We live in the age of the internet, or as I think of it - 'perpetual memory'. Storage is cheap, communication is free, search is instantaneous and context is being built through sites like Hacker News, for example.

So the real question is, in my opinion, are you proud of your choices? Are you proud of how you spend your time? Do you meet your own standards? Do you want to attach your name to your work, your intellectual achievements?

If the answer is yes, how can it not make you happy? We live in an age where our needs for food and shelter are easily met (at least in the US), and we can afford to pursue the higher elements of our hierarchy of needs. If we achieve self-admiration, then does outside validation even matter?

Adopt the Egyptians approach, pass it down the generations. "Son, I have this water engine here.." or "Daughter, I have this water rocket here.." etc.

A key mental transition to make is from asking the question "am I winning?" to asking the question "am I doing something worthwhile?"

Your point reminds me of Colbert's speech at Northwestern this year. Towards the end (the more serious part) he says something along the lines that, you don't really "win" at life. I'd say more, but Colbert says it better: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6tiaooiIo0

Awesome speech. Thank you for posting it.

I generally agree with the sentiment, but it seems like the author never really shed the dependence on having an arbitrary material goal.

I think a more Zen-like direction is to just apply the "friend in a pub" test - if you can describe your motivations and actions to an (intelligent) peer and have them nod in approval, then that's it. And yes, there are many such choices, which is the whole point - it doesn't really matter beyond that threshold!

I remember that moment of epiphany for myself, when I realized that nobody else really gives a shit what specifically I do, as long as it's a reasonably fine decision.

And no, that does not mean slacking/etc. Wasting one's potential is definitely not reasonable.

Let's not get mixed up by calling it the "Game", the right term is the "Rat Race". Comparing ourselves to others excessively is the highway to unhappiness. The secret to the rat race is that you can never win... as the author says, the goalposts keep moving. There is always someone richer, someone more recognized, someone happier.

Do your best at the things you enjoy doing, and make time for the things that are really important you.

Who would have thought a key secret to happiness is found in the 10 commandments: "Thou shall not covet"

My econ professor in undergrad did some interesting research on utility and happiness: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mkimball/pdf/uhap.pdf

I think the sooner you figure out exactly what your utility curve is (e.g. what really drives you and what you're looking for out of life), the more successful you'll be at maximizing it and living a fulfilling life.

The meaning of life is to make the most meaning out of it.


Somewhat off-topic, but this struck me as an incredibly American comment. The idea that it's getting "too late" to achieve "impressive success" or whatever you call it before you have even finished your university education -- or even high school, that is. None of the richest men (counting the more-or-less self-made men) in my country seem to have achieved any success until they were well into their 20s.

Really that's the way it is in the US as well. There are a few outliers who made a big splash at a young age. Most people aren't really taken seriously until they are at least 40.

Since you talked about accomplishing a decent company, here is the argument - http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/28/peak-age-entrepreneurship/

I remember when that issue was a current topic. I kept thinking that the "peak founding age" had been pushed low by the generation gap between people born before-and-after ~1980. The fact is that there would be relatively few technology start-ups being founded by older people since the skill set was much more rare for them. But from 1980 on, I'd think that it is much better represented in the population.

"What that quickly meant to me was that wasting time and opportunities were criminal, with my own potential achievements as victims that needed to be rescued from the assault of lost hours and non-productivity."

Beautiful writing.

It never gets easier, you just go faster. - Greg LeMond.

That reminds of a similar quote from F1 racer Mario Andretti:

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."

I recommend reading about Buddhism for anyone who was inspired by this post, as I was. Anything by Pema Chodron is a good place to start. For HN'ers in the Bay, the SF Zen Center cheerfully welcomes walkins.

The way I read the essay is different stages in life require different perspectives. All night hacking sessions on Red Bull and ramen work until your mid 20s. In your 40s it'll kill you, quick and you're knowledge or ability will not be any better for it. You need to spend time to sit down and absorb the knowledge.

Games like golf and I don't know skeet shooting show how you can do more with less. However, that doesn't mean the foundation you built in youth with intense practice or an unforgiving drive to achieve is now worthless.

Rahul can say "you are not running out of time" because he stepped on the pedal damn hard. To each their own. I'm pretty sure that if Rahul went bankrupt tomorrow he'd be back to his 17 year old self hustling with everything he's got but if he did that now he'd be putting more at risk than he has possibility to gain.

“What I realized was that playing the game the right way isn’t good enough – it needs to be played for the right reason: it has to be played to build something, to see something grow. Gordon wasn’t building anything at all, not even a family, and his emptiness showed dramatically.”

Gordon suffered because of split personality: one was enjoying the game he played, another was generated by social pressing – goals like family, relationships and so on. When you see something grow, you are measuring that. When you measure something, you compare that with similar things. When you compare, you trace your progress balance. When you trace, you predict wanted future. And whole this way leads to “moving goals”.

Author began from right point – it’s all about feeling and enjoying moment. That’s all.

I am reminded of what C P Snow wrote about the beautiful piece of writing called "A Mathematician's Apology" by G H Hardy:

A mathematicians apology is, if read with the textual attention it deserves, a book of haunting sadness. Yes, it is witty and sharp with intellectual high spirits: yes, the crystalline clarity and candour are still there: yes, it is the testament of a creative artist. But it is also, in an understated stoical fashion, a passionate lament for creative powers that used to be and that will never come again. I know nothing like it in the language: partly because most people with the literary gift to express such a lament don't come to feel it: it is very rare for a writer to realise, with the finality of truth, that he is absolutely finished.

My parents made me memorize a poem at a young age:

I have only just a minute, only sixty seconds in it, forced upon me, can't refuse it, didn't seek it, didn't choose it. But, it is up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it. Give account if I abuse it, just a tiny little minute - but eternity is in it."

Which I interpreted to mean that life is really about process. It's very distracting to focus on long term goals in many cases, as it can cause you to overlook the steps that need to happen each minute, especially if you think that you can make up that minute later. Long time scales also force you to make impossible predictions about how long you'll even be alive(which can be underestimated as easily as over estimated).

Very good post, I like the use of two themes: playing games and building things. I think he places too little emphasis on the importance of games though, and to my ears, he is advancing a false dichotomy between game-playing and thing-building. Playing games to win them can be very satisfying.

There are a couple of games that are somehow larger: the great game of empire and the money game, measured by net worth, but others such as the tour de france and nascar provide the winners with substantial social status. As an aside, not sure where musicians fit into this world-view.

The separation of concepts of game player and thing builder are useful, but it is easy to go too far. Bill Gates is well known to be intensely competitive, and to suggest that he was somehow building something for the good of mankind is deluded. In fact, this paragraph is pure confusion regarding Bill Gates' leadership of Microsoft:

'''Even Bill Gates seems to have an opinion on this. “I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.” And sure enough, he’s been building these tools all his life. All the money he made doing it? He’s giving it away. And he’s enjoying that process too!'''

Philanthropy is somewhat common behavior among highly successful people, at least in the USA, but to suggest that fortunes are made for the sake of giving them away is to confuse life trajectory with motivating beliefs.

The game is to win! Empires are built to crush other empires, and athletes build their bodies to defeat their opponents! This is Drama, and it is stuff of Life.

To win big one must build big, but if the aim is simply to build big, it is easy to drift off into cult territory like this guy: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/07/25/110725fa_fact_...

I am suggesting that the competitive context is useful not only for germinating the building of things but also for integrating them into the rest of society once they have been built.

Great post- definitely one of the most insightful that I've read on Hacker News.

The other day I was thinking about why humans seem to be conditioned to ignore the failures, both their own and those of the people around them, often to their own detriment, while at the same time often quite accurately seeing the deficiencies of those closest to them. I concluded that there must be something evolutionary in that behavior, given that it is so prevalent in society.

But in any case, what is the alternative? To give up before you start? I know a lot of people who have gone that route, and overall it doesn't seem to be a recipe for success or happiness.

While we're all sharing..

The article focuses on macro level time; I often stress about micro level time. I read so many stories about startups getting funded, aquired, launching products and so on. I constantly feel like I just need to code a little longer, work a little harder on my startup; like everyone is on my heels, and I'll be left behind if I don't launch sooner, iterate sooner, expand sooner, etc.

It's irrational, but I constantly have these thoughts. I don't mean to go all self help but I get the feeling other people must feel like this. Am I alone or does this ring bells? :)

Interesting - that's close to what I understood of Nietzsche philosophy : define your own goals, try to reach them and that's the process where happiness is found - not in some temporary "status" like money/vacation/home etc.

I could be wrong, but so far it seems to work.

My method : I keep a list of objectives, which are defined after some introspection about what I like and enjoy. They are then redefined as "goals to tend to".

I guess I could say I let my reptilian brain decide on the goals, and the advanced cortical functions design the strategy and plot the right path :-)

Essays like this are good, and this one was good too, but I wonder how such essays boil down to the lower strata of the society, for example - janitors. Nobody wants to be a janitor, but the world needs janitors to function. Same for other thankless jobs. How does a janitor adapt this essay to his/her life ?

Otherwise, reading this essay provided me with a temporary sense of calm, like so many other inspiring essays do - i only hope I'm able to inculcate some of the ideas mentioned in this post in my own life :)

I doubt Bill Gates agrees. You do not get to be the richest man in the world (without being the monarch of an oil-rich country) without a strong streak of competitiveness.

Your comment reminded me of this awesome story about Bill Gates.


Existence precedes essence

I came to similar conclusions of this author after reading Camus' The Stranger (and many other Existential books thereafter) in high school.

There's no meaning to life other than what you make of it. This author finds meaning in building things, seeing things grow. Other people find meaning to their lives by shining shoes and are just as happy. Or at least they find contentment in what they do, which in many ways is better.

I think this only applies when your actively pursuing your dreams. Ie you keep challenging yourself and are never in autopilot mode. As soon as you become complacent I think you are again running out of time.

If you've never taken the time to pursue your own goals is another situation in which your definitely running out of time. For example: If you've always wanted to start your own company but you've never tried because of the fear of failure.

It's hard not to compare with your peers, colleagues, and classmates. I was a year into my first job as a developer before being laid off and am now planning my next steps. At 23 this sounds fairly ridiculous but the feeling of running out of time weighs heavily on my mind. Here's what I'm struggling through.

1. Following the steps of alumnus a tried and true path seems to be going back to grad school for a masters degree, studying something that requires advanced mathematics (i.e. graphics programming) and then getting that job at Google. But what if <insert dream company> is not cracked up to what I imagine it to be? When I graduated I was head over heels about working full time as a developer. However the actual experience of working with a very large & complex legacy C++ codebase was more frustrating and painful than I could have possibly imagined. Velocity and skills development was slow (it was not uncommon to spend several days investigating a single bug) and most of my time was spent slogging through very complicated and undocumented code, trying to figure out the intent of the original authors. Not having other jobs to compare it to, <dream job at dream company> could be much the same. In any case if I don't upgrade my arsenal or credentials I feel like I will always doomed to work at second-rate dev shops where employees are ever susceptible to unpleasantries like mediocre salaries/advancement and layoffs. Companies here cannot just cannot compete with tech giants.

2. Find another job. I have a 2-3 month window to quickly find another job as there seems to be some stigma associated with unemployment. The city I live in is a technological wasteland and opportunities for pure software development are relatively limited, so realistically my next employer is likely to be an Oil and Gas company. While that certainly pay the bills it kind of limits your career to other oil and gas companies.

3. Forget about societal pressures and do my own thing. I have enough savings to take a year off, develop my skills, fill in gaps in my knowledge and work on toy projects. Unfortunately this means having to explain a gap year where I might have very little to show for it. The skills I develop will probably not be directly applicable to a job.

Like many I aspire to become the best I can be and like to think of myself as somewhat respectable but at the end of the day I'm just an average developer. I guess the point is if you aren't a genius/wizard you have to deal with your inadequacies and "running out of time" is always in the back of your mind.

I think you're overestimating the difficulty of getting a job. It's your life and no one else's. You don't have to fit someone else's mold of an ideal employee just to get meaningful work.

Take that year. Meet some people. Talk to business owners and other money creators. There's always opportunity to improve someone's life and improve or build on existing solutions using your skills. You might even find money in that.

Build your projects. Download the source for an open source tool you use. Learn how it works, write some documentation, and add functionality for yourself. Find problems that frustrate you and others and solve them. You might even find money in that.

Get a job as a freelancer, a server, a valet, a bartender, a hotel front desk overnight receptionist. You'll extend your runway, gain a lot of perspective and insight, pick up useful skills, and meet people entirely different from those you've met up to this point. You might even find money in that.

If none of that "works out" at the end of a year or two, start looking for a traditional programming job. The gap year(s) and lack of a Masters won't be detrimental; in the programming world, it's all about what you've done. Any company worth working for will take one look at your projects and start recruiting you to work for them.

As the article said, enjoy the journey. As Randall Monroe said, "...the solution [to seeing what each moment could become] doesn't involve watering down my every little idea and creative impulse for the sake of someday easing my fit into a mold. It doesn't involve tempering my life to better fit someone's expectations. It doesn't involve constantly holding back for fear of shaking things up."


Shake things up. Make your own path in the world and enjoy yourself along the way. Good luck!

I don't have the answer to your problems but here's a friendly reminder that your life is not defined by an illustrious career or the size of a bank account, unless that is your personal choice. Richard L. Evans said it best:

"May we never let the things we can’t have, or don’t have, or shouldn’t have, spoil our enjoyment of the things we do have and can have. As we value our happiness, let us not forget it, for one of the greatest lessons in life is learning to be happy without the things we cannot or should not have."

Most of you will know it already, but Steve Job's commencement speech at Stanford speaks in essence about finding the 'right' path as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

(for those who haven't seen it: it's a must...)

Ah, the game of life, where nobody ever ends up alive. What a stupid game to play, yet we all play it betting all our hopes on being the only winner this time. Thank god I got my loaded dice somebody sold me in a dark alley for a kidney. My turn to roll...

I thought the exact same thing yesterday, 'Am I running out of time?'.

This essay is like a godsend.

A friend of mine once told me she was too old to leave her cult-like religious group. She was 22.

That was 25 years ago and it seems she's still with them. I think her estimates were a little off.

Funny to see this at the top right before StayFocusd (chrome xt) warns me I have 5 minutes browsing left!

Yes and no.

The good news: if you're in your 20s now, you have 60 or 70 years of life left, and scientific advances being what they are, they'll probably be mostly good years. That's a lot of time. Also, the common trope about poets and mathematicians peaking at 20 is the exception, not the rule, and doesn't apply to modern times anyway (mathematics is so specialized that modern mathematicians are just getting started at 25-30). The actual cognitive peak is somewhere around 50, and the drop-off after that is health-related rather than hard-coded, so if you stay healthy, even into your 80s the decline will be slight to nonexistent. Using vocabulary as an example, you probably won't gain many words from 50 to 80, but if you're healthy, you won't lose many either. So yes, if you're 25 or even 50, you have a hell of a lot of time left.

The bad news: society is incredibly ageist, and as you get older, the amount you need to have achieved in order to be taken seriously ratchets up. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg (who is as much a VC invention as most celebrities are Hollywood inventions) would have gotten the support, mentoring, and funding that he did if he were 36 instead of 20? Almost impossible. Being young is a hard-to-tap (if you're not perceived as being exceptional, you'll be typecast as a "young pup" and not taken seriously) but extremely powerful asset in business: the "boy wonder" archetype. Perhaps it's utterly moronic that it works, but it is very powerful when it hits.

This is even worse in the big-box corporate world than in technology, where your age and job title define who you are as a person. In big-box corporate, VP at 35 means you're serious, whereas VP at 50 is a consolation prize. This is why people in that world bump their college degrees up 5 years and pay for plastic surgery, the latter being an investment that pays itself off immensely. It's not just that people want to appear younger; it's that they benefit immensely by the appearance of being in their current position at a younger age.

So, you are running out of time, not because of biology, but because of the general shallowness of most people. At age 40, you have one-fifth as many options as you did at 22. It sucks, but that's the way the world works now.

Great comment.

As a 27-year-old who has had several false-starts in my career, I'm already feeling some of that pain.

It strikes me that, since there are some important elements of human personality that can change over time, there are some 'geniuses' that blossom later or who are late to really get going for some reason.

This might be a point worth reflecting on for hiring in competitive fields. You could find some A+ candidates that have slipped through the cracks.

26 years old today. Definitely reflecting on this. I recall once reading that there are two kinds of breakthrough successes - younger "rockstar" successes driven by narrow, intense passion, and older "masters" who have accumulated an unmatched breadth and depth of experience. While I can see elements of both in myself, I can see the door for the first closing rapidly.

Good points, but I disagree. Mark Zuckerberg is the exception, and not the rule. People were founding and running businesses long before Facebook, at much older ages, which is why Facebook is such an incredible story in the first place.

I do agree that his lore is almost entirely due to his age, and that VC's would have had a harder time investing in a social network that was intended for college audiences were the founder well out of college. However, that is something that I think is limited to social networks, and not more common, dare I say, relevant businesses.

Whatever your age, calm down, enjoy your life, and realize that we humans suck at predicting. Do what makes you happy and ignore the outside pressures.

I think you missed the point of the essay. You're comparing success to other people, just like Julius Caesar comparing himself to Alexander the Great. You're playing the game.

If you want to climb the corporate ladder, you better enjoy every day working late nights, striving for great reviews, etc. Your title means only as much as you want it to. Life doesn't have to be a race to the top. Your Startup doesn't have to have a billion dollar IPO for you to be happy. Enjoy refining your product, providing great service to people, the struggles and stress of acquiring funding, the ups and downs.

Interesting post, but no one enjoys the "struggles and stress of acquiring funding". Everyone I've talked to says its a degrading and consumptive process.

On the other hand, if you're bootstrapping your startup, then age may be a benefit. Especially in B2B sales are easier when you're not regarded as a "kid".

And obviously VP at 50 doesn't matter when you have your own company.

good online experience,should save it.

I am counting on longevity as my most worthy talent.

I think this site could be brought by Cosmopolitan some day. ^_^ Top stories are exactly fit for it.

This seems really inappropriate for HN, to be honest with you. Please, with all due respect, leave this stuff for digg or reddit.

> This seems really inappropriate for HN, to be honest with you. Please, with all due respect, leave this stuff for digg or reddit.

I'm always curious upon what basis comments like this are made.

I mean, if the test for HN-worthiness is "nerds think it's interesting" and you have evidence that, say, 87 nerds find it interesting enough to make the top post, what's missing? Is this an odd myopia/literalism thing where everything must be startups and compilers and funding and nrghlhmm?

That's sort of the theme of this site, no? We have reddit and such for this kind of writing.

"If your account is less than a year old, please don't submit comments saying that HN is turning into Reddit. (It's a common semi-noob illusion.)" - http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

There is much more interesting (and useful) to hackers than pure startup and tech news.

Too bad you wouldn't know anything about that.

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