Memoirs of a Great Show — Birthday Speech
Happy birthday to me,
Birthday birthday it’s me,
Birthday birthday, it’s my birthday,
Birthday birthday, that’s me!
Once more around the elliptical! I thought it could be fun to take stock of my little universe, on this the day of my birth.
First and firstest, thank you to all the well-wishers who have wished me well! I’m glad and grateful and surprised (let’s be honest here) to have y’all in my life. I’d like to be better at being better to you but the good Lord knows I need help. If you need or want help with anything, please ask — I’m want to let you want otherwise. Don’t worry about bothering me. Call whenever you want and don’t let our social media bubbles stop you.
In case you’re wondering, I’m doing really well. Most of my dreams are coming true, V-rus be damned to V-rus Hell. Like, too many to be fair or just. As you know, I left the software engineering life last year (some say they forced me out, but that’s just the ex-job being jealous). I’d been putzing about well before I left, trying to get into the wonderful but impenetrable world of Effective Altruism. I was just a bit too old and a bit too average to break into the limited spaces at the heart of the movement, I think. Still, I was committed to trying to figure out what I could do with my time that would feel meaningful to me. To me, meaning seems to come from tangling with big-picture questions — definitely to the point of being a meme. So I lived the meme and went ahead and applied for a Philosophy Master’s program last Summer. Giving the timing and my status as a random guy in Seattle with okay but not stellar grades, that limited my options to just a few European universities willing to trade my money for their degree. Glasgow University was happy to take this money and so I undid what my ancestors had fought and died for — I headed east, to the land of my genes.
I’ll skip most of my story there — made great friends and terrific enemies and weathered the weather (why would anyone live in Glasgow?) and studied psychedelics, but actually. The Philosophy thing was just a front, anyway. I’d known for several years that I really just wanted to study brains, to crack us all open and see what’s inside. This because I was (and am) genuinely concerned that we’re not building a future that’s beautiful and meaningful. Or, rather, we’re not intentionally doing this. If humanity has some cosmic destiny, we first need to figure out whether there’s something we want to bring with us. To me, that’s meaning. But I’ll get to that in a second.
The Philosophy program was expensive social signaling for my Cognitive Science PhD applications. Yes, that was the current end goal — a chance to work on my personal interests and hopefully save the world, a little bit. Cognitive Science is a neat little field nested between psychology, neuroscience, computer science, and linguistics and I felt at home reading the papers and listening to the people on podcasts. But I had to figure out how to make it it, hence the whole Master’s gambit. I was very fortunate to find some Philosophers willing to rep me on my applications after barely getting to know me (I’m going to pretend that the fact that the most important reference came from a guy who happened to play my favorite game had no effect on his willingness to rep me professionally). I applied for 10 different programs and only heard back from one — The University of California — Merced. One shot, one opportunity. I again got lucky that my interviews went well. Received my offer in February. 5 years, modestly paid.
Of course, the timing was about as late as it could have been. There’s a good chance that I won’t be able to physically attend the campus for a while. It’s even possible they alter the deal somehow (and pray they do not alter it further). I could worry but I won’t. I’m happy and grateful to have been helped so far and I know that life has its own way with us in the end. No matter what, I’m happy now and have good reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Now, are there things I wish I had? I suppose. I’ve got health and friends and family and resources aplenty and it doesn’t help that much to point at the things I don’t have. For example, it would be really nice to have a certain person around to love and be loved by. I’ve had it before and have hopes it’ll happen again — but as it’s not something I can control by myself, it’s better to orient myself around what I have right now, today, you know? The world is a beautiful place, though I don’t think we appreciate that as much as we might. That’s why I’m hoping to publish and promote ideas that will help us consciously harvest that beauty.
My Phil Master’s dissertation is all about the meaning of life and how each of us builds our own from core principles. Roughly, meaning is the ability to imagine having a positive impact on ourselves and others. This meaning ultimately comes in many implementations, but the core is the same. You need to believe that you could help make things better or you won’t have a meaningful life. Much of life is discovering and exploring these things. For me — funnily — I get a lot of meaning from thinking about the meaning of meaning. For others, this is taking care of their ailing parents or attending music festivals. And — tragically — for others, meaning is getting lost in confusion about meaning. The world is a wonderful place but it doesn’t feel as wonderful as it is. We have more resources than ever before, more education, more health — prosperity is, on average, everywhere. Yet satisfaction is flat or negative and depression and self-harm are on the rise. I think that meaning loss lies at the heart of this worrying trend.
I’m grateful and happy to have been around in this lovely era. For all our wacky troubles, we special apes sure have made things interesting. It’s possible we snuff ourselves and everything else out but until and if we do, I’m looking forward to seeing just how much happiness and pleasure we can get out of this strange conscious loop. It’s weird to be anything at all, let alone a birthday boy.