Think About Being Old
February 20, 2020,
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being old. It’s not just because I’m getting closer and closer to it - I’ll hit 40 this year - although that’s true as well. But it’s actually a wonderful, glorious way to shape how you think about decisions in your life.
That might seem strange. After all, most of us don’t really want to think about the idea of our own death (or we shudder a bit when we do). The only thing we may like to think about less than our death is the idea of what we might be like right before our death.
So I don’t think a lot about the old, gray, doddery and wrinkled physical version of me. But I do think a lot about the memories that guy has. And the memories I hope that guy has are really something else. They’re all daring and exciting and visionary and sexy. They’re compelling. And the idea of those memories compels me today to make them true.
Some of us know this idea as Jeff Bezos’s Regret Minimization Framework. The idea is to think about what your greatest regrets will be when you’re 90, and use that knowledge accordingly. It turns out that most people’s greatest regrets end up being acts of omission. We look back at the risks we didn’t take and wonder about counterfactual futures.
Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘It might have been.’ -Vonnegut
So thinking about being old is a thought experiment that helps us manage the potential of riskier decisions in our lives.
One thing I think can be missing when considering risk is context. In other words, the risk we’re considering has to be in context with the question we’re asking.
Here’s an example, if we consider the idea of whether we’ll regret having too much sex in our lives when we’re 90, the answers will probably vary quite a bit. But if we contextualize that question around marriage and place it in the framework of our lives, the answers probably become more obvious for everyone.
In other words, almost everyone would regret having too much sex before they were married, as opposed to too little. And almost no married couple will look back and say, “Gosh, I wish we had less sex.” On the other hand, a lot of married couples will (unfortunately!) look back and say, “I wish we had more sex.”
This kind of context doesn’t inform us about risk, it informs our behavior instead. It makes us more conscious of the tradeoffs that we’re making and the things that are important inside of a context. Sex is a pretty important thing inside of marriage, so it’s important we remember to make the most of it.
So in addition to helping take more risks, thinking about being old helps to think about what behaviors are important for which contexts. Like: if you’re married, work on having more sex.
Thinking about the memories of old age can help us value the things that provide richness in life too. To describe that, weirdly, I’m going to talk about some economic concepts.
I just finished Tyler Cowen’s excellent book, Stubborn Attachments. The subtitle is “A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals”, and Cowen walks through a lot of philosophy and economics in less than 200 pages. But the big central theme is the value of growth. Cowen describes growth not just as a positive good in society, but as a moral imperative. Growth rates over time are exponential, so the returns over a time period get very big, very fast. We also all have trouble understanding exponential growth. As Cowen points out:
“Economist Russ Roberts reports that he frequently polls journalists about how much economic growth there has been since the year 1900. According to Russ, the typical response is that the standard of living has gone up by about fifty percent. In reality, the US standard of living has increased by a factor of five to seven, estimated conservatively, and possibly much more, depending on how we measure prices and the values of outputs over time, a highly inexact science.”
We can’t comprehend 500-700% growth. And a hundred years is long enough that we can’t actually experience it in the same way. But pick a sufficiently long time slice anywhere in the last several hundred years and you’ll see an exponential change in living standards between the beginning and the end.
Humanity has been lifted out of the gutters and unharnessed from a short and brutish life on the back of strong economic growth rates. Understanding this is a moral imperative because, if we want less human suffering in the future, the best historical way to drive this is to improve economic growth rates.
“The problem with Washington DC is that it’s made up of a bunch of politicians who still believe there’s a 1% difference between 2% and 3% growth.” -George Will
Another concept that Cowen introduces is the idea of future discount rates, also called time preferences. The idea here is that it’s very hard to compare an outcome we want now to an outcome we want in the future since the future is full of unknowns and probabilities. So instead we apply a discount rate to the future outcome. As an oversimplified example, the chance of making $110 tomorrow with a 10% discount rate is the same opportunity as making $100 today.
Cowen argues that because of the exponential character of growth rates, most economics apply too high a discount rate to far future outcomes. Instead, he says, we should pay close attention to a far future vision of the world and weigh that more strongly in our decision making processes today.
Ok, enough economics. But this really is relevant in thinking about our lives too. Cowen’s far future vision of the world is us when we’re old, or possibly our families and loved ones after we die. His argument is the same as mine, that we should consider strongly the far future when thinking about the choices we make now. The new twist here is that we should consider growth rates and exponentials too. And we do have growth rates in our lives. And some are exponential!
The most obvious example is the number of children we should have. Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids has long been a recommendation of mine to friends. The idea of grandkids and great-grandkids is a great reason to have more kids too. Parent’s preferences for number of children is correlated strongly with the number of children their parents and friends had. So parents of two kids are likely to have around 4 grandchildren. On the other hand, parents of three kids will likely have 7 or 8 or 9 grandchildren. And parents of four kids will likely have well over ten! The idea of being a doting grandfather fifty years hence with 10 grandkids crawling all over me is incredibly fulfilling.
Knowledge and wisdom accumulates the same way, even as neuroplasticity and memory intensity declines. In some ways, wisdom is derived by the connections that we make between knowledge. This is the power that outsiders have to see creative solutions that insular experts can’t. David Epstein covers this widely in Range, and expands on it to describe why generalists win.
If we consider nodes in our knowledge graph, the connections between nodes scale exponentially, like this: . So if we keep reading, if we keep thinking, and if we keep learning at a linear rate, the effect is compounded. It accumulates more and more rapidly over time.
It’s hard for me to fathom what it would feel like to be a happy old man with a lot of very strong memories, few regrets, loads of grandchildren, and heaps of wisdom, still struggling to learn more about life and the world. When I was 20 I definitely couldn’t understand the nearly 40 year old I am now. But what I can imagine feels like the conclusion of a full and happy life filled with love and learning that was informed by imagining what that conclusion should be. It’s an oddly circular method of understanding what matters now and keeping it central for years or decades at a time, but it seems to work.