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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Future

UPDATE 2006-05-08 05:38:24 UTC: This post has been edited and extended to an essay here. I'd prefer that you read and link the essay rather than the post below.

Shit happens. And it happens to good people. Will it happen to you? How worried are you, and how worried should you be? How can you adjust an inappropriate level of worry?

I'll begin with a couple soothing words: Don't Panic. You have the enormous good fortune to be alive today, at what is (so far) the absolute pinnacle of human civilization. There has never been a time in history when the future looked so good to so many people.

Let's get the big things out of the way first. There will be no cataclysms. The greatest threat of the last sixty years, general nuclear war, has subsided due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the integration of China into the world economy. And the odds of a world-altering natural disaster — such as an eruption at the Yellowstone caldera or a substantial asteroid impact — are extremely remote. The threat of famine has been definitively ended by the green revolution, which has been so successful that obesity, not hunger, is the larger problem. We can similarly discount the threat of plague, at least in the Western world, because today we have both the knowledge and the wealth to prevent widespread damage. (Witness how SARS fizzled when it spread to the West.) So let's not worry about the world as a whole. Let's worry about you.

The leading causes of death are heart disease and cancer, with stroke a distand 3rd place, and accidents in 5th. When you think about dying, you should think most about heart disease and cancer. But I expect that advances in medical technology will largely eliminate these threats. In fact, research into strategies for engineered negligible senescence holds out the potential of biological immortality — people would die of accidents and infections, but not due to age-related degeneration. I believe that realistic therapies will emerge over the next few decades and that today's young and even middle-aged people will be able to benefit.

You don't have to "not get heart disease" or "not get cancer". You just have to not get them soon. And even if you do, traditional medical research has and will continue to lower the mortality of these conditions, hopefully so that you will survive long enough to reach "escape velocity" where science can improve lifespans by at least a year, every year. (We don't have to solve the problem of immortality before you can become immortal. If you get a mere extra decade of life, that same decade will also be a decade for further medical research … to extend your lifespan even more, and so on.)

When it comes to death, the young don't have much to worry about. Avoid dangerous situations that could get you into a fatal accident, and you'll be fine. So enough talk about death. What about quality of life?

Once again, this is a fantastic time to be alive. Life is easier than it's ever been! We live in a technological utopia almost unimaginable to our grandparents. We have more and better labor-saving devices, easier communication and travel, and an almost bewildering array of exciting things all competing for our leisure time. The primary concern here is whether you can afford the type of lifestyle you'd like to have.

Basic living is cheaper than you think. I'll illustrate this with some figures that are reasonably close to my actual situation: if you pay $1,000/month for housing, $3,000/year for transportation (a $30K vehicle amortized over 15 years plus $1K/yr for insurance), and pay $1,000/month in miscellaneous expenses (utilities, gasoline, food, …), you're spending less than $30,000/year. Even assuming that you pay a third of your income in taxes, you'd only need to make $45,000/year to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. It's not a lifestyle that will impress the neighbors, but it's still very comfortable!

$45,000/year looking too large? Take a roommate (or get married…) for an easy way to reduce the income requirement and have only a modest increase in cost. Your costs may increase to $35,000/year, but with two incomes and a lower required tax bracket, you'd each have to earn only about $25,000/year to enjoy a very comfortable (albeit non-impressive) lifestyle. But think twice about having children; they're expensive.

You may have noticed that we haven't even tried to shrink the budget, yet. A 15-year mortgage like mine is too aggressive on a lower income; monthly payments could be several hundred dollars lower. Also find a cheaper vehicle and don't subscribe to expensive services. These simple trims could easily take $5,000/year off the budget without a substantial quality-of-life impact. Does life look affordable, yet? If you have a college degree in anything mildly useful, it should be easy to make $25,000/year even fresh out of school. And saving for retirement shouldn't frighten you because you'll get raises as you become more experienced and more productive. In time you can move into a more expensive lifestyle; don't rush it. (Stress the "don't rush it". If you're interested in life extension therapy, it's going to be expensive. Plan to save for it.)

A notable alternative to working for a living is to find someone who is wealthy enough to support you in a manner to which you would like to become accustomed. These people do exist; I would know. This strategy is significantly riskier than having your own career, but it used to be common. The idea of a single-income household has a large measure of nostalgic charm, especially if you want to raise children.

The remarkable thing about being alive today is that you don't need very many things to get bootstrapped into a comfortable life. If you live in a generally capitalist country and have a good education, all you need to do is to be a good employee. If you're productive and thoughtful you'll be noticed and rewarded for it. You don't need a huge income in order to live comfortably, as long as you're committed to living within your means — and there are lots of personal finance bloggers illustrating that point and writing the how-to guide every day.

So why are you still worried? You're unlikely to die and it's not that hard to earn a comfortable living. Of course there's more to it than that. It's one thing to believe that success is possible, and quite another to know in detail how you'll achieve it.

Children are often advised that they can "do anything they put their mind to." This may be a fine way to encourage people to set lofty goals, but it omits the next step. To achieve any substantial goal you must develop a plan that involves sub-goals. For example, if your goal is "an exciting and lucrative career" you need to think about the specific steps you'll need to take to get there. Studying your field of choice, getting your foot in the door (at possibly an entry-level position), and developing the skills that will advance your career. And each of those sub-goals can be further divided.

You need to develop a plan to achieve your goals. Because substantial goals are met over long periods of time, the divide-and-conquer approach is a natural fit. It is important to continue subdividing your goal until each step in your plan is reasonably detailed. Items in the short term need to be very specific, while items farther in the future may be more general as they'll be influenced by events as you pursue shorter-term items.

Your sub-goals must be connected in a logical progression from the present to your ultimate goal. If any step along the way is too vague, as evaluated by your subconscious, the result will be worrying. Worrying is a valuable signal — you don't want it to "go away". If it simply vanished, your plan would still be broken, and you would likely fail to achieve your goal. The proper outcome is for you to think about your plan, improve it, and then for your worry to subside as your subconscious becomes satisfied with the new plan.

My three-step program for changing worry to contentment is:

  1. Accept that shit happens, but realize that it probably won't happen to you. Take common-sense steps to reduce risks. There's no benefit in obsessing about things outside your control.
  2. Understand that in this era a comfortable life is well within your reach. You're not worried about survival — you're worried about happiness.
  3. Introspect about your goals and your plans to achieve them. Worry is the emotional signal that your plans are unrealistic or need more detail.

(I don't have any advice to give at this time regarding goal-setting itself. One of the issues I personally struggle with is making my goals important enough to trigger a worrying response in the first place. It's very easy for me to leave goals in a "nice-to-have" status that doesn't motivate me to achieve them. I welcome advice on that matter.)

— for S.

Tiny Island