May 6, 2015

On the completion of my 29th year of life.

Today marks the end of my 29th year of life. It doesn’t feel like much of a milestone in itself, especially compared with the next one, but this has probably been the most momentous year of my life. I got married, lived in a new city, started an exciting new job here and, just last week, bought1 a house.

All of these changes have been more-or-less uncomfortable, but in the right way. I’ve come to appreciate a bit of discomfort as a sign that I’m moving into unknown territory instead of stagnating. I’m still getting the hang of it, and a few times it’s overwhelmed me, but I see my faint level of disquiet as the old canary in the coal mine. If it ever stops chirping, I probably need to get moving.

I’ve had an interesting new challenge this year. I’ve finally (mostly) conquered my tendency to procrastinate. I no longer agonize over wasting time, but what’s caught me off guard as a result is not knowing how to spend this new time well. Dwight Eisenhower famously popularized the distinction between the urgent and the important:

I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

While I no longer spend hours playing video games or browsing Reddit, I initially mired myself in tackling all of the urgent things clamoring for my attention like responding to email, cleaning the house, and managing finances. These are good things to do, but they’re a steady stream that can occupy you forever if you let them. Meanwhile, I’d keep putting off important but deadline-less things like taking care of my back, nurturing my marriage, and keeping up with friends and family. By the New Year, I finally came around to a workable solution: a file named “priorities.txt” in my default folder listing everything important to me, so that whenever I’d go to save an attachment or begin a task, I’d see it as a reminder of what really matters.

On the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes the best way to spend time is by doing nothing at all. After years of stuffing every spare moment of quiet with podcasts, audiobooks, and lectures, I’ve been experimenting with, and enjoying, just letting my mind wander instead, fingering the texture of life. Speaking of discomfort earlier, I still feel uneasy not doing anything. I’ve tried and failed twice this year to kickstart a habit of meditation. But at least I know that being still is something I have to work on.

This year saw me performing some experiments with what I consume. Back in June, I cut out alcohol, sugar, meat, and caffeine each for a week in a row. My goal was to see whether and how much I really needed these pleasures. For a week each, the answer, I learned, was “not too much,” which inspired me to a longer experiment this past Lent, giving up up alcohol and coffee—my mood-altering drugs of choice—for 46 days. This turned out to be eye-opening: it wasn’t nearly as challenging as expected, but I learned that my relationship to both was far more symbolic than chemical. I’m looking forward to more of these experiments.

Looking back over the past year, my instinct is toward gratitude for how lucky I’ve been. I’ve made some major life decisions, ones I wasn’t at all certain about, yet nothing is on fire; in fact, things are looking pretty good. But the least bit of reflection tells me luck has had very little to do with it. Rather, I have the support of some very good people in my life to thank. My wife, for working through all the messy details and uncertainties with me. My family, for their support and advice as I metamorphose into an adult (ask a butterfly—it’s not at all pretty). The people I work with, for the privilege of spending most of my time in a heady air of giving a damn. Heck, even the family who sold us our house, who turned out to be really nice, a fact which the esoteric and fundamentally adversarial process of home-buying obscured until the very end. I’m grateful to all of them, and hope never to forget this fact: that, despite the escalating madness of the systems that run the world, people are good. And that’s the only reason why life is good.

  1. By “bought” I of course mean “shackled myself to a bank for 30 years to be able to live in”.