Today’s my birthday. Every year I share a birthday post with some personal reflections. Since this is now the fifteenth year I’ve been doing this, I won’t break tradition.
The idea I’ve kept returning to this year is one of consolidation.
Some of this is simply the changes imposed by parenthood. As I wrote previously, becoming a parent involves both a change in constraints and a shift in values. You have less time, but you also want different things than you did when you were single.
The past year, I’ve worked to cut back. Some of those cuts, like getting off social media, were probably for the best. I don’t miss Twitter drama or browsing random Reddit memes.
Other cuts were tougher. I stopped practicing the languages I learned in my Year Without English. For years after my trip, I kept up semi-regular iTalki conversations to keep them sharp. But maintaining fluency is trickier than I had anticipated. Not just because of decay, but the difficulty of keeping them separate.
I still feel some guilt about this pause in practice. But I’ve reconciled myself to more focused practice efforts when the need arises, rather than trying to keep them perpetually sharp. I still listen to and read Chinese, and I get Macedonian listening practice by way of my wife and her family. But I’ve accepted that maintaining my Spanish, Korean, Portuguese and French is not a focus for now, and they will need some brushing up if I’m going to use them at the levels I had previously reached.
In a similar light, I’ve found my hobbies and activities have gotten more focused as well. I’m trimming down to a few essential pursuits, rather than the sprawling interests I previously maintained.
While it would be easy to claim this is simply a lack of time, I don’t think that’s the case. The truth is, this move toward consolidation is one I have been contemplating for a long time.
Getting the Most Out of Life’s “Seasons”
My friend Ramit Sethi has a compelling idea of “seasons” in one’s career. The basic idea is that what you want out of your job will change as you get older. Ambitions and a drive to prove oneself may get swapped out with a greater desire for flexibility.
I think something similar is true beyond your work. Every season of life affords opportunities and drawbacks. Living well isn’t just about optimizing for some universal good, but figuring out the best way to live, given your current phase of life.
When I was in my twenties, that meant taking a more expansive view. I wanted to try and do everything. In college, I lived in a dorm, joined student council, went on exchange, and partied a lot. The breadth of experience more than made up for the occasional drain on productivity.
After graduation, I took on ambitious, time-consuming projects. These established my career and also let me explore different possible trajectories for my life. While my path started and ended up at writing, there were times when I considered joining a start-up, living permanently in Asia, becoming a full-time programmer, or getting a PhD. I got to simulate and explore many of these paths, even if they weren’t the one I ended up walking down.
More firmly in my thirties now, I see a different landscape of opportunities. I see the possibility of producing meaningful work in my chosen path. I want to provide a stable life for my family and create the best opportunities for my son.
If the theme of my twenties was broadening the scope of possibilities, I imagine the theme of my thirties will be deepening those that already lie in front of me.
From Public to Private Learning
One way I see this theme of consolidation playing out is my decrease in public learning projects. While I can imagine myself doing a few one-month projects for fun at some point, I doubt I’ll return to the year-long projects of the past.
Ironically, this isn’t because I’ve stopped learning things. In some ways, I have more demanding learning challenges than ever. I’ve read nearly forty books and hundreds of papers for my most recent project in the last four months. I’m pushing myself to go deeper than I have in the past in developing an idea.
The difference is that instead of focusing on learning a new skill from scratch, I’m more interested in learning where the outcome is producing meaningful work. Learning is now the background of my writing rather than my central topic as it once was.
Good Problems to Have
Above all, I have an incredible feeling of gratitude. This past year has been hard for many.
I am grateful now more than ever that most of my problems in life are nuisances rather than emergencies. I get to think about what kind of work I really want to do and the life I want to focus on, rather than responding to crises. I am grateful for the stability and opportunities that writing has brought me. For that, I owe a lot to the people who happen to like reading my blog and who buy my books and courses.
Regardless of where the next year takes me, I’ll do my best to share what I think is useful. Thank you for coming along with me.