Well, it’s finally arrived.

The big Three-O.

The score-and-ten.

My twenties passed in a blur. I can hardly claim them as my own — I feel as though my memories belong to other lives. Some points of reference that I have difficulty grasping:

• Ten years ago I was a Mormon missionary in Tasmania.
• Five years ago I lived in Santa Monica and worked at RAND Corporation.
• Three years ago I rode my bike across Europe and started grad school in Madison.

It was an eventful decade. So much has changed in my life. I’d like to think it’s in a positive direction, on balance.

The experiences that shaped me most during this decade:

• My Mormon mission. A shy, nerdy guy was forced to have very uncomfortable conversations about Jesus with strangers. He remains shy and nerdy, but he does know how to speak with confidence in uncomfortable situations. (They aren’t usually about Jesus anymore, though.)
• My undergraduate education. I leaped from Mechanical Engineering to Physics, and then from Physics to Mathematics. I embarked on my grand tour of the STEM fields. It was very stimulating, and I even picked up useful skills along the way. My internships—at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories—were probably more valuable than my coursework.
• Leaving Mormonism. A lesson I can never forget: the extent to which someone can be wrong, while fully convinced they’re right. Seven years later I haven’t recovered from it. I’m not sure I ever will.
• Working at RAND Corporation. I entered an idealist; I left somewhat jaded. The idea of “speaking truth to power” sounds good in the abstract. The problem is that policy analysis usually goes ignored by policy makers—meanwhile, the rent-seeking smells pretty bad. If someone wants to make a positive impact on the world, then they’re probably better off engaging in business and entrepreneurship, rather than policy or politics. (I believe that the entrepreneur who employs a dozen people in meaningful work is more valuable than most politicians.)
• Biking across Europe. When I wasn’t riding I spent most of my time reading books, walking around beautiful old cities, and thinking. I probably resembled a homeless person. By god, it was wonderful. I might do something similar when I graduate.
• Being president of SACM. I was president of Madison’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. It was a fascinating and extremely valuable experience. I conceived of an organizational structure; recruited people to fill it; and saw it run. I think of organizations as information-processing entities. A good manager builds and maintains a machine, whose parts are humans. This requires some understanding of human nature—humans can be a difficult medium to work with.
• Taking up triathlons as a hobby. I joined UW-Madison’s club triathlon team during the 2018-2019 school year. It was a lot of fun! (Probably too much fun—I’m not participating this year, since I want to focus on research.) I found the practice of swimming, biking, and running intrinsically rewarding; the variety and intensity of the exercise got me into better shape than at any other point in my life. I never had the experience of high school sports, so the idea of working out with a team was pretty new to me.

Some of the books that most influenced me during my third decade:

• Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand). I read this when I was 21 years-old, a recently-returned missionary. It shattered my religious faith. In my opinion, Rand made a persuasive case against religion in general (and Christianity in particular). I was always an individualist; Rand took my individualism to its logical conclusion and suggested that religion was an abdication of personal responsibility. I managed to wrap my faith in bandages for another couple of years… but the damage was done.
• Antifragile (Nassim Taleb). I’ve listed only one of his books, but I’m really referring to his entire Incerto collection. Taleb probably influenced my thinking more than any other writer. He is a philosopher and a statistician. He calls on all of us to be more intellectually humble. He was my gateway to stoic philosophy (and Nietzsche).
• Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). Most Americans read this book in high school, but I didn’t read it until I was 26 years-old. Unlike most teenagers, I immediately understood its value. It validated what I already knew: that I strive for meaning, something that goes deeper than mere comfort. I want struggle, not soma. I read this shortly after living in Santa Monica—it articulated, in literature form, my contempt for the decadence of Los Angeles.
• 12 Rules for Life (Jordan Peterson). I don’t buy every idea Jordan Peterson sells. But he gets some very important things right: the human condition; human nature. The image of chaos and order, with mankind standing astride their boundary, persists in my mind—an extremely useful conceptualization. This book should not be dismissed lightly.
• Thus Spake Zarathustra (Friedrich Nietzsche). I would almost refer to this book as scripture. It articulates (in a literary fashion) the spiritual crisis of western civilization (“God is dead”), and reexamines the human condition under a new light. A very Darwinian one.

Well, that’s enough for one birthday.

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