I’m 27

Every year, on my birthday, I write a post reviewing the past year in my life and my plans for the future. You can see all the previous ones, starting with my 18th birthday shortly after I began writing this blog over nine years ago.

Unlike most my other articles, where I try to extend an idea with a useful takeaway or insight, this one is going to be pretty self-indulgent, so feel free to skip it. I’ll be back with my more usual writing next week.

A Year Back Home

This year has had a lot more time for self-reflection than many of my previous ones. Near the end of my year without English, I promised myself I wouldn’t start planning a new year-long project for at least twelve months. Part of the reason was to catch up on business projects. It turns out that spending an entire year traveling and learning languages full-time has a negative impact on one’s income.

But part of the reason was also that I was burned out. Korea was country number four and the second Asian language in a row, meaning it wasn’t until the third month where even having simple conversations were relatively fluid. In retrospect it’s not surprising that I was exhausted near the end of the trip, but perhaps somewhat surprising that I didn’t feel tired until country number four. I guess the lesson is that I can do three languages in a row, but not four, without going crazy?

This year, in contrast has been largely free of such stresses.

I haven’t been lazy, though. For this business, I’ve been working hard on two new courses. One, a course teaching deliberate practice for your career with Cal Newport. Two, a learning course to supersede Learning on Steroids. I also redesigned the website and did numerous smaller back-end projects that most readers won’t see but make my job a lot easier.

Despite this, however, my work has felt so easy that I’ve struggled more with feelings of guilt about not working hard enough than stress from working too hard.

I think there are two factors that have made this year feel so easy. First, since the inception of this website I’ve rarely done it full-time. I was a high-school then university student. After I graduated, the MIT Challenge and the year without English. This is the first time I’ve ever had an entire year where there wasn’t some other full-time project demanding my attention.

Second, because of my other projects, I’ve effectively four-hour-workweeked my business accidentally. When you have months, or years, at a time when you can only devote several hours to keep everything maintained, that forces you to eliminate and simplify everything so that the habitual maintenance required is quite low.

Which Goals Should You Set When You Don’t Want Anything?

A lot of the earlier writing of this blog focused on goal setting. It’s hardly a ground-breaking idea—that if you clearly conceive of the things you want and take action towards achieving them—you’re more likely to get it. And, no, I don’t believe the method isn’t without some drawbacks or complications. But good goal-setting and planning methods were a big part of me succeeding in becoming a full-time blogger, doing the MIT Challenge and learning many subjects.

That being said, I’ve had a lot harder time using the same philosophy from my current vantage point in life. I think that’s largely because I already have all the things I want.

I’m earning a more than comfortable income, doing what I love with complete freedom and autonomy. I have great friends, a fantastic girlfriend and I live in a beautiful city. I’ve even gotten into better shape, having had less-than-perfect exercise habits while traveling.

This definitely wasn’t always the case. I think most of my life I’ve felt something was incomplete, to a certain extent. My career wasn’t well established. I was in a new city without friends or a relationship. I rarely felt unhappy, but there was usually something I could easily point to as a goal I could set that would improve things.

I don’t feel that way any more. I’m not sure whether it’s just having achieved most of my past goals, or simply having put myself, often intentionally, through enough struggles to realize how few things are actually necessary for happiness.

That being said, old habits die hard and the desire to use well-practiced tools outside of their domain of usefulness is strong. I definitely spent a lot of time this past year a bit lost, not sure what the replacement philosophy should be.

Future Ambitions

Despite my feeling that there isn’t much more I want, I definitely don’t want to retire. I still want to pursue exciting, ambitious projects, I just might not be able to approach them from the mindset that I had used before.

One of my big challenges has been trying to decide what the general direction I’d like to move my career into. As a writer and blogger, there are three main adjacent career trajectories I could push myself towards, all with some characteristics I like and some I dislike.

One path is of building a large business. I already have a business selling courses related to learning. This would mean expanding along that vector. An example of someone who has done this exceptionally well is Ramit Sethi, who took a one-man blog to become the CEO of a 60+ employee company with revenue in the millions.

The entrepreneur in me likes this path. I’ve always enjoyed building things that people like enough to pay for them. Having a large business also enables you to take on projects with budgets and scope that I can only dream of.

The downside of this path is that having a business sometimes has poor incentives on developing good ideas. It’s hard to be both an expert at the business and of the subject matter you teach. Even if you could manage both, the business constraints of selling a product and the intellectual constraints of finding the truth often conflict, so there is a greater tendency for charlatanism than in journalism or academia.

Another path is trying to become a serious author. I’ve already written a number of self-published ebooks, but going the path of trying to write a popular book with a compelling thesis for a larger audience also interests me. My friend Cal Newport has done quite well on this path, starting with college how-to advice and moving to well-received big idea books.

The writer in me likes this path. Writing, when done well, changes people’s minds and lives. Writing also has potentially the greatest reach, creating ideas that extend their reach far beyond the people who actually purchase your books.

The downside is that a lot of popular book theses simply aren’t true. Even at the apex of this career direction has people like Malcolm Gladwell largely being dismissed by people who study the topics he writes about.

The third path I’ve been considering is more academic. Going to grad school and studying some topic deeply. The intellectual in me likes the idea of rigor in thinking and being surrounded by a community of people much smarter than myself. The downside is that academia can often be bureaucratic, overly specialized and irrelevant to the lives of regular people.

Of course, the illusion is that these choices are discrete. I could probably pursue some combination of these paths, or a fourth one which manages to avoid some of the worst drawbacks I dislike in each, while preserving the best. Still, I haven’t figured out what that is yet.

What’s Next?

My next year will probably be similar to this one: a combination of business and smaller learning projects. I’ll hopefully be releasing the two courses I mentioned in the next several months. I’ll also be setting aside a non-trivial amount of time to do more research regarding the possible future directions of my career (particularly academia, since it’s the one furthest from my current trajectory).

I’ve been learning a lot of cognitive science recently. I’m working my way through these set of textbooks which cover the subject from the lens of psychology, linguistics, neuroscience and computer science. I’ve considered making a smaller, part-time challenge related to that which would give me more to discuss on the blog related to learning.

I’m also eager to travel again, albeit for a shorter duration. I’d love to return to China or Taiwan, to continue practicing my Chinese. I already have some shorter trips planned in Spanish speaking countries, so I can broaden my linguistic abilities.

I’ve started toying around with some new programming projects. My recent language project made it harder to work on anything programming related that wasn’t just simple script. Hopefully if other priorities don’t overwhelm, I’ll have some new things to show in that area as well.

Given that I spend a lot of time learning things that don’t explicitly turn into big, year-long, well-documented projects, I’ve been mulling over possible ways to integrate that more in this blog. Especially since smaller side-projects for learning are probably a more replicable example than the bigger ones I undertake.

Regardless of what happens in the next year, I’ll be continuing to write here and share what I find with you. Thanks again to everyone who has accompanied me on this last year, and I look forward to sharing more with you in the future!

The Two Ways to Evaluate Ideas

I recently wrote an article where I changed my mind on speed reading. I had originally read a book on speed reading, practiced it, found it effective and logged my results.

Years later, having had some personal doubts on the practice, I went back and did the research I wasn’t able to do the first time. The result of that research was that speed reading probably isn’t effective, and if it does have any usefulness it’s probably better thought of as a way to practice skimming not as a way to read without comprehension loss.

After writing this article, I got a number of links to this excellent Ryan Holiday piece which is similarly suspicious of speed reading. Many of the people who linked to me said that Holiday had made the same points.

Holiday’s article was well done, but we definitely weren’t making the same points. In fact, I don’t believe we’re even making the same type of argument. Unfortunately, I believe many people confuse these two types of argument, especially when they reach similar conclusions, and, as a result, don’t know how to tell good ideas from bad ones.

Arguing Facts or Values

The main idea in Holiday’s piece is that you shouldn’t strive to read fast. Reading should be done slowly and deliberately. Holiday likens reading to eating, where the goal should be to savor the meal not see how quickly you can consume it.

Holiday appears to mostly be against speed reading from a position of values. Holiday doesn’t much care whether speed reading works or not, he is against the idea that speed is something you should strive for in the first place.

I see merit in Holiday’s argument, but that’s definitely not the argument I made against speed reading. I would very much like to be able to read faster without loss of comprehension. Instead, my argument is that, when you look into the scientific studies done on both speed reading and reading in general, it doesn’t appear to work.

My argument is about the facts. I’d like to be able to read faster if I could. But it just doesn’t look like the facts suggest any of the speed reading techniques can actually do that.

Although both of us reach broadly the same conclusion—that you can wisely ignore speed reading—the reasons why are completely different.

Don’t Confuse Facts and Values

I brought up the comparison between mine and Holiday’s articles because they rather neatly divide between facts and values. Holiday doesn’t seem to pay much attention to whether speed reading actually works or not in his assessment. I don’t pay much attention to whether reading faster is actually something you should be doing in mine.

Most ideas aren’t so neat. People often offer a mixture of both value and factual assessments when proposing an idea. Many values themselves are implicitly based on factual assumptions that the author takes for granted, so some arguments that look like they hinge on values really hinge on unstated factual assertions.

Say you’re an economic conservative and oppose welfare, high taxes or corporate regulations. It’s logically possible to value the welfare of the poor and unfortunate in society, but simply believe that there are no effective ways to solve the problem through governmental intervention. However, often these arguments about facts include parenthetical arguments of value, that the poor deserve their fate or that taxation is theft.

Or consider the opposite: that you’re an economic liberal and support a broader governmental safety net. You could believe that the rich have entirely earned their wealth fairly, but simply believe that it is for the best interest of society that we force them to sacrifice some for those with less. But often those arguments of facts get mixed in with the ideas that the wealth is earned unjustly.

Since facts and values tend to correlate when ideas are proposed, you rarely get the logically possible option where they run in opposite directions. As a result, it becomes easy to confuse the difference between factual assertions about the world and value judgements about it.

Is it Better to Argue About Facts or Values?

You can see, with arguments about facts or values—two different ways to assess an idea. You can argue about whether the idea is correct or not: does speed reading actually work? Next, you can argue about whether an idea is virtuous: should you speed read, even if you could?

There’s nothing intrinsically better about basing an argument on facts or values. Just because something works doesn’t mean you should do it. Just because something would be nice, doesn’t mean it works.

However, I believe that factual arguments are often more useful than ones based on values because they are universal. If the factual argument is correct then there is no wiggle room. The argument is resolved and the only option available is to contest the facts.

Arguments about values are tricky because people have different values. Philosophers can’t even agree between different systems of values, since most of them reach seemingly absurd conclusions in different edge cases. This doesn’t make this line of reasoning less worthwhile, just that it is less likely to persuade people who are already convinced of their own opinion.