Today is my birthday. Continuing a tradition I’ve had on this blog since I was 18, I use this opportunity to write about myself. If you’re a new reader, or otherwise uninterested in my self-indulgence, feel free to skip it and I’ll have more useful writing next week.
Side note: Cal Newport and I are launching the first session of our new course, Life of Focus, in two weeks. Next week we’ll have some free lessons drawn from the course. Stay tuned!
2020 has been a big year for most of us. For me, this was especially true as in January I became a father.
The timing of becoming a new father has been interesting. With a baby you go out to eat less, take fewer international trips, stay at home more evenings. Strangely, the entire world has been pushed into the largely same routine.
Obviously there are stresses to becoming a parent in a pandemic. But I think if these world events had happened to me at any other moment in my life I would have noticed a much larger disruption.
Thoughts on Fatherhood
When I first told people my wife and I were having a baby, I got an interesting split reaction. Those who had kids already were extremely enthusiastic. Those who didn’t, were polite and congratulatory, but definitely with a hint of anxiety about it.
“I’ve heard you stop sleeping for a year.” “My friend’s baby cried for ten hours a day.” “I know someone who [insert terrifying delivery story].”
The contrast suggests that parenthood is one of the few experiences that’s really hard to predict how you’ll feel about it until after it happens.
Part of the disconnect might be that the difficulties of parenting are concrete, but the joys are so hard to put into words. It’s easy to understand diaper explosions or marathon crying sessions. It’s harder to relate to the experience of watching your son laugh for the first time or his gradual transformation into a person.
For my own part, I’m really happy. I am also quite fortunate. My work has been largely unscathed by the current crisis. My wife has a year of maternity leave. Our son is a fairly calm and content baby, which has made everything easier.
Learning Progress and Setbacks
The past twelve months have had some learning progress as well as some setbacks.
As for progress, I completed a new project—spending a month learning Macedonian at home. My level is below where my Spanish was after three months in Spain, but is good enough for simple conversations. I had wanted to extend the project to three months, but my wife and I ended up switching back to English after only a month and a half.
There were two reasons for the change of plans. First, I got to the level I wanted quicker than expected. Second, after fourteen years of conversing in English, it’s definitely more comfortable for my wife and I to speak in English. This is particularly true for more intimate relationships—I didn’t have quite the same pressure to switch back to English with Vat, for instance.
I expect I’ll work through other bouts of Macedonian immersion in the future. But I don’t see it supplanting English for our normal conversations at home.
In addition to Macedonian, I took quite a few courses (even if just auditing the lectures, rather than diving into homework):
- Systems Biology — This class is an interesting intersection between computer science and biology—showing how many biological systems have adopted design patterns in order to work. A particularly interesting section was in how Type II diabetes arises as a downside of a mechanism designed to prevent hypersecreting insulin cells from running amok.
- Chaos and Nonlinear Dynamics — I found this course much more enlightening than Gleik’s book. Math seems to be one of those subjects that can’t be understood except by learning the math. This is unfortunate as math can often be hard, but I think it’s often preferrable to the false understandings that come when it is seen through literary prose.
- Heidegger via Dreyfus: Being and Time — Two courses, for each half of Being and Time. The second is a bit of a mess and I don’t recommend it. I have mixed feelings on Heidegger—for one, his ideas are provocative, and I’m drawn to things I don’t understand. On the other hand, his style of communicating makes it incredibly hard to see whether there’s anything worth understanding underneath. I wrote up a deep dive earlier this year.
- The Modern Intellectual Tradition — I listened to two courses, one covering ontology and epistimology (which is how I stumbled onto Heidegger), and another on political philosophy. Really good survey courses in case you wanted to get an overview of philosophy—especially considering the actual philosophical texts are often terribly opaque without enormous background knowledge.
- Chinese History — Another Audible/Great Courses survey course, covering Chinese history. Also fascinating, although the covering large areas of history is often difficult to get a real feel for what happened. Still I think it’s a good course for getting a rough picture.
- History of India — I enjoyed the content, especially nearer to the end, even if the presenter’s speaking was choppy and disfluent. India is harder than China to summarize because it has so many disparate threads. I gave up on a similar “history of Europe” book, as with too broad a scope it was nearly impossible to understand anything.
- Immunology — Ironically I did this before the pandemic struck. The course is a bit too detailed for most, but I generally prefer meaty courses like this one to the glut of watered-down curricula on Coursera.
- Watercolor with Joseph Zbukvic — On a lighter note, I’ve been doing more watercolor painting, and been watching some shorter courses from painter Joseph Zbukvic (and others on YouTube). Art is generally an area where I’ve gotten immense value from video courses versus other media, as you reading isn’t a substitute for watching how a person does it.
I also read quite a few good books in the last year. A Distant Mirror is a surprisingly gripping read about life in the 14th century. Entangled Life, about fungi, was fascinating. I also read a bunch of books on motivation, which I’m hoping on turning into another Complete Guide if I can chew through all the notes and follow up all the research threads I’ve left open.
Despite making some good progress in some areas, I feel like I let some other areas slip.
My other languages were the biggest sufferers. As I mentioned before, trying Spanish after Macedonian was a brutal setback. Similarly, I’ve been off the habit of regular iTalki.com lessons for my other languages for over a year, so some repair work is probably needed. I’ve continued with Chinese, but as my ordinary meetup was cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s been mostly input-based practice.
Programming is another area I haven’t done much with in the last year. I had started with Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and Tensor Flow late last year, but stopped. While I find ML interesting intellectually, I didn’t have any compelling ideas for projects to do with it. I think I’m more interested for how it parallels neuroscience than making something directly.
Next year I’m hoping I can do something with programming and restart language maintenance.
Work and Writing
This year was a good year for work. I published Ultralearning just over a year ago, which was able to crack the WSJ bestseller list. In the spring, I released a second edition of my popular course, Rapid Learner, updating many lessons and adding new ones. Now, I’m getting ready to launch a new course with Cal Newport, Life of Focus.
I’ve been trying to improve my writing too this year. Although, after fourteen years of posts, such progress isn’t always visible to the outside. The major improvements have been in the images, which I only started doing in 2018.
As for the next year, it’s the first time since 2015 that I haven’t had a major project outstanding. Before this, I was always working on a book, a new course or some other major effort that I knew would consume my time. My next year’s schedule is wide open.
This space has caused me to think a lot about where I want to go in the future. A second book might be a possibility. I found writing a book to be a great forcing mechanism to really learn deeply about a topic that writing essays rarely does. However, given that the last book was an encapsulation of my life for the preceding decade, finding an idea worth dedicating the next couple years of my life is tricky.
I’d like to take on something fresh and exciting, I’m just not sure what it might be yet. This is also an area where advice from others is next to useless, as people mostly pattern match things you’ve done in the past and try to extrapolate it into the future. The first time is adventure, the second time is nostalgia. If you want the former, you really can’t look for templates from your past.
Above all I feel gratitude. Dreaming up the next challenge is quite different from being crushed by the current one. Having spent time in the latter position, I don’t take my life today for granted.
All of this is possible, of course, because there happen to be a few of you who enjoy reading what I write. Thank you for sticking with me. I don’t promise I’ll figure it all out, but whatever I find, I’ll be sure to share with you.