Lessons from the Twenty-Tens

Reflections on the important things learned over the past decade

This has been a pretty wild decade. Some of my personal highlights include:

  • 🎓 Graduating High School (even though I wasn’t really there for the latter part of it)
  • 🐻 Graduating Brown University (also wasn’t there for a big chunk of those 4 years, but at least I got the piece of paper)
  • 🌏 Visiting 25+ Countries (thankfully mostly on someone else’s or some other organization’s dime)
  • 🧫 Getting Professors and researchers that I’ve idolized as advisors on a project of mine (the project didn’t work out, but it was still a valuable experience)
  • 🏃 Running a Marathon (and I’m probably not doing that for a while)
  • 🖇️ Getting in super early on the whole cryptocurrency wave
  • 🤸‍♀️ Making a successful pivot from Aging Biology to Machine Learning
  • 🤖 Working with the Tensorflow Team at Google
  • ❤️ Dating some pretty amazing people (as for the less-than-amazing, well at least they made for interesting stories)
  • 📑 Getting my first work accepted at a top Machine Learning Conference
  • 🎉 and most importantly, making some absolutely incredible friends

I figured I’d make a record of the most generalizable things I’ve learned this past ~10 years.

Who you choose to work with is probably the most important success factor. This has been more important to my successes in the past decade than having the best resources, the best ideas, or best anything else. Having the right people around you is the difference between success and failure, and this extends beyond just projects.

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

~ Jim Rohn

Your temperment, your habits, your goals, and even some of your vices can be influenced by the people you interact with the most. Don’t hesitate to be picky in this regard.

Nobody does everything well. You’re not an exception to this. There are plenty of generalists out there. You need to make sure you’re enough of a specialist in at least one thing that people will come to your for help with that one thing. For all other task, you are almost certainly not the best possible person to be doing that task. For everything else, cultivate a network of other people that are specialists, and learn how to ask for help. Find the best person for task XX, and then remove any and all obstacles in their way.

“If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”

~ John C. Maxwell

This even extend to skillsets that you may not immediately think as one a person can specialize in, like epistemics. For this reason, being connected with communities like Effective Altruism or the FAT community can also be impactful.

There is an endless treadmill of goals. 3 years ago I was trying to get into machine learning. I thought I’d be happy if I thought I could just make decent money. Of course, after that comes the goals of getting higher-prestige clients, moving to more complex jobs, moving onto full-time work, getting published at a top conference, etc.. The process does not end. It’s not that you shouldn’t set goals, but just keep in mind that achieving them alone won’t deliver permenant happiness. With each goal completed, I would eventually revert to some kind of baseline happiness (or potentially even baseline lack-thereof).

“A true saying it is, ‘Desire hath no rest;’ is infinite in itself, endless; and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill, according to Austin, still going round as in a ring.”

~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1628)

If you want to change your baseline happiness, focus on connecting with other people: Connnection and gratitude are by far the best ways to improve your baseline (or moving average) happiness. Letting go of the fixation on status and achieving goals, and learning to enjoy the journey also helps a lot. I know this from personal experience AND from reading as much research as I could find on happiness.

“The reliable presence of people who love us facilitates our perception and toleration of painful reality and enriches our lives.”

~ George E. Vaillant, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

If you wanted more substantial evidence that the quality of our relationships is the key to happiness, here it is. The quote above was from a summary of the Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal study of 268 physically- and mentally-healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. Throughout most of the participants’ lives, Information was gathered about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality. All of this was done with the goal of identifing predictors of healthy aging.

Sometimes you may need to make an uncomfortable change to move forward. Yes, big things are rarely achieved overnight, and take many years of work more often than not. Still, you want to be sure you’re not making a “sunk cost” fallacy. After all, if you’re walking to the grocery store 20 minutes away, and halfway there you find out it’s closed, you don’t say “well, I better keep walking the rest of the way to the store, otherwise I wasted those 10 minutes”. (You can thank Julia Galef for that analogy)

”████ don’t change until you get up and wash yo’ ███, █████”

~ Kendrick Lamar’s grandmother apparently

Likewise, there can be a silver lining to disasters. Change can be an opportunity to move forward, even if you’re not the biggest source of the change. Shutting down my first real biotech company was an unpleasant experience, but in addition to minimizing what turned out to be enormous downside risk, I was able to at least learn something from the experience. When my mentor died when I was working as an Alzheimer’s researcher, it felt like the end of the world. A career that I had been working towards since middle school was just stopped in its tracks. At the same time, it was a catalyst for me to take a step back, look at how the biotech landscape had changed since I had first set my original goals, and devise new ones. You can read all about what happened next in my post about becoming a machine learning engineer in 12 months with no CS/Math degree.

Make sure your feedback loops are tight. If you have an idea for something you want to work on, don’t just keep it a secret. Make sure you interview hundreds of the kinds of people you would need to persuade/sell to/help out to get the idea off the ground. Even if you think you’ve stumbled onto something that’s robust even in the face of all that feedback, the needs of your intended audience can still change rapidly.

Learn to accept fear: I’ve tried lots of methods to escape from fear (travel, tv, etc.). None of them work beyond temporary distraction. The best policy is learning to live with your fears. When I made decisions like starting my first company, switching out of biotech, or randomly moving, it wasn’t because I was not afraid of the situation. More often than not I was terrified. At the same time I also realized that remaining in my current situation at the time, however comfortable it seemed at the moment, would spell my doom.

Fear, …can make you do more wrong than hate or jealousy. If you’re afraid you don’t commit yourself to life completely; fear makes you always, always hold something back.

~ Phillip K. Dick

Even outside of life-changing paradigm shifts, learning to accept fear also has a lot of other benefits. You can overcome imposter syndrome by accepting that, yes, you might very well be an imposter, but you’ve got much bigger objectives to focus on than that. Being vulnerable with people is scary, but it’s also how we form our deepest connections. Which, brings me to my next point:

To connect with people be polarizing: Growing up, it often felt like everyone had some kind of guidebook for how to connect, that I had somehow missed getting a copy of. For the longest time, I thought usual metrics of success and status-seeking were the keys to connection. But now, I know that this isn’t necessary. Being vulnerable, curious, and the most “you” version of yourself is they key.

Growing up, we often hear plattitudes such as the key to making friends being “Just be yourself”. My issue with this is that, while it’s on the right track, it’s almost too vague to be of any use. No, being yourself isn’t going to make everyone like you. What it will do is separate people around you based on how much they like this version of you. Some will be repulsed, and some will be attracted.

“If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”

~ Frank Zappa

If you want to start a strong community, make sure you have fantastic exemplars. I’ve been part of many communities in the past decade, from school clubs to non-profits to hacker communities to Slack groups. Whenever any of them took off, it was almost always because someone in the group decided to take initiative with an ambitious project or adding some kind of organizational rigor. Others in the group would then be plagued by the fear of missing out, and either start contributing more or drop out when they realized they couldn’t uphold the new standards (either way, this increased the average quality of the overall group). This is probably one of the more ethical use-cases for FOMO.

“Instruction is good for a child; but example is worth more.”

~ Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After

Building something and raising money for something are often entirely different skills. But, you still probably want to learn how to be really good at both. Lasting success is not really possible without being good at both. I would also like to stress that not only is raising money a skill that can be taught, but you’re probably better off learning how to do that than waiting for funding sources to magically become wiser. If you’re a founder/academic, you learning to raise money will probably have a larger impact than investors/donors becoming specialists in every single subfield that they want to invest in.

Make sure you never stop learning Consider the following list (by no means comprehensive) list of technologies that did not exist at the start of the decade:

  • CRISPR (and all the variants used in eukaryotic cells now)
  • Ethereum (and by extension Coinbase, IPFS, Augur, Stellar, and countless other distributed systems projects)
  • CAR-T cells
  • React.js (and by extension, react native)
  • Tensorflow, PyTorch, and all the other frameworks that came into being with the deep learning hype
  • The first easy-to-use Quantum-computing APIs
  • Consumer drones
  • Social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat
  • and to top off this theme of continuous self-improvement, mainstream MOOCs like Coursera

All of these opened completely new doors, and in some cases even made previous skill sets (e.g., TALENs, Torch) near-obselete. And these are mainly just the technologies and skillsets that have been directly relevant to me as a biomedical researcher and a programmer this decade. The important takeaway is that, however good you are at something, you should never rest on your laurels. Always be on the lookout for new developments, and avoid putting up unnecessary resistance to learning new skills. Keep a consistent reading habit, is what I mainly suggest (see my page listing all the books I’ve read, and my at-a-glance reviews).

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

~ Isaac Asimov

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”

~ Henry Ford

Your mental model of the world can change almost unrecognizably, and do so much faster than you expect If you want a bigger appreciation for how much change can occur in one lifetime, and by extension what to prepare for in the future, consider the following picture:

“Uncle Bill” Lundy, one of the last confederate Civil War veterans, posing at Eglin Air Force Base in January 1955.

One man in his lifetime witnessed both the early days of conical bullets on the battlefield, as well as the advent of nuclear weapons, ICBMs, Computers, and jet aircraft. If you’re reading this, chances are you can expect to see even larger changes in the world (both positive and negative) in your lifetime.

On a smaller time-scale, let’s consider some of the changes that happened in just the past decade:

  • Chinese companies like Alibaba started to become major competitors to US companies like Amazon.
  • AI went from being a far-away sci-fi trope, to becoming commonplace in everyday life, and a subject of policy debate.
  • Longevity research became a much more legitimate area of research, both in industry and academia
  • Vaccines for many diseases like Malaria and Ebola have come into existence
  • Technologies like electric cars and immitation meat changed dramatically in terms of price and quality
  • Space technologies like reusable rockets and SUV-sized mars rovers became a thing. We have the ability to coordinate telescopes well enough to do things like take the first pictures of black holes. And then there’s also the paradigm-shift caused by the first real-world use cases of gravitational wave astronomy.
  • In the political space, the overton window seemed to shift pretty dramatically on matters such as LGBT-rights, Drug policy, and Global warming
  • And also in the political space, many countries saw a surge in nationalist movements
  • Countries like China, Vietnam, and Ethiopia saw pretty amazing increases in quality of life (while others like Venezuela and Syria saw the opposite).

Whatever your mental model for the world order looks like, make sure you’re ready to change what you previously thought was immutable.

Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.

~ Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (2013)

Given the emphasis of the last two points on continuous learning and needing to update priors about the world, where do we go from here? Where might we need to move these priors to? If I had to guess, I’d say these are my top 10 predictions for what’s going to be important in the coming decade:

  1. With Millenials and Gen-Zs running the show in many institutions, we will begin to see a sharper divide between organizations that quickly adapt, and those that behave more like gerontocracies.
  2. The climate catastrophe will become increasingly important, especially as farming subsidies, the insurance industry, infrastructure, fishing, and other critical parts of society begin to strain under it’s weight. This will likely result in massive redistributions of capital by markets and funds by governments.
  3. Automation will continue to become an important factor in the economic divide, this time driven by more sophisticated and general AI, as well as more versetile robotics.
  4. Decentralized internet technologies will become more prominent, but the biggest leaps will only happen with hardware improvements (like increased disk write speed) and most often in response a massive political or economic crisis.
  5. More countries will need to compete with digital currencies more, in some cases creating digital versions of their own fiat currency.
  6. Commercialization of space will see a massive boom
  7. Genetic engineering for everything from terminal to chronic diseases will be much more widespread
  8. China will outpace the United States in technological development, ironically using many of the same strategies the United States used to achieve it’s position (e.g., attracting foreign talent, improving legal protections for entrepreneurs)
  9. Plant-based diets will become much more mainstream by the end of the decade
  10. Mass surveilance will continue to get much cheaper and easier for governments and companies. We will likely see privacy encroachments by governments much smaller than the U.S. or China, and companies much smaller than Google or Huawei.

Outside of any kind of black swan event such as a nuclear weapons accident triggering a war, an unexpected repeat of the Solar storm of 1859, something triggering the Yellowstone Supervolcano, or the asteroid 99942 Apophis getting close enough for a collision, I do believe human civilization will survive the 2020s.

In any case, if you’re reading this, congratulaitons on making it through the 2010s! A lot of people did not make it this far.

I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.

Cited as:

  title   = "Lessons from the Twenty-Tens",
  author  = "McAteer, Matthew",
  journal = "matthewmcateer.me",
  year    = "2019",
  url     = "https://matthewmcateer.me/blog/lessons-from-the-twenty-tens/"

If you notice mistakes and errors in this post, don’t hesitate to contact me at [contact at matthewmcateer dot me] and I will be very happy to correct them right away! Alternatily, you can follow me on Twitter and reach out to me there.

See you in the next post 😄

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