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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Future
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?
Don't panic. You have the enormous good fortune of being 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 for so many.
Let's talk about the extraordinary problems first. There will be no cataclysms. The greatest threat of the last sixty years, general nuclear war, has subsided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the integration of China into the world economy. 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 rather than hunger is now 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.) There's no reason to fear for the world as a whole. What about you, the individual?
When you think about death, you should think mostly about the two leading causes, heart disease and cancer. (Stroke is a distant 3rd and accidents are 5th). These are real threats today, but I expect that advances in medical technology will overcome them in the next few decades. In fact, research into SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence) holds the potential of biological immortality — people would die of accidents and infections, but not due to age-related degeneration. I believe that life extension 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. Hang in there long enough and you can still live forever. An early and basic life extension therapy that gives you a few more years of life also gives you a few more years to benefit from continued medical research. When science is able to extend lifespans by one year, every year, we'll have reached "escape velocity" and be effectively immortal.
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, practice good hygiene to avoid infections, and you'll be fine. Enough talk about death. What about quality of life?
Once again, this is a fantastic time to be alive. Life is easier today than at any time in history! 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, not whether you can afford to live at all.
Comfortable, 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, etc.), 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. Sure, it's not a lifestyle that will impress the neighbors, but it's far above subsistence.
Does $45,000/year look too large? An easy way to share most of the costs is to take a roommate, or to get married. Your combined costs may increase to $35-$40,000/year, but individually you'll be spending less and would therefore need to earn less. In a lower tax bracket, you would each have to earn only about $25,000/year to enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. But think twice about having children on such an income; they're expensive.
Even the $25,000/year figure is pessimistic because we haven't even tried to shrink the budget, yet. Live in a smaller home or have a longer mortgage to reduce housing costs. Drive a less expensive vehicle and keep it longer. Reduce subscriptions to expensive services or publications. 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. If you have a college degree in anything mildly useful it should be easy to make $20-$25,000/year even fresh out of school. You can do well even if you don't have a college degree.
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. This strategy is significantly riskier than having your own career, but single-income households used to be common, and the idea 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. Over time your income will grow and you can devote that new money to raising children, improving your lifestyle, or saving for life extension therapy. (If immortality doesn't appeal to you, save for retirement instead.)
You know that the world is doing fine, that you're not likely to die, and that a comfortable living is within your reach. But you're still uneasy, still worried. It's one thing to believe that success and comfort are possible, and quite another to be convinced that they're in your future.
Children are often advised that they "can do anything they put their mind to." This is useful as a message of optimism and encouragement to set lofty goals, but it leaves the next steps unstated. The achievement of goals ought to be the pattern of one's life — but how is this done? The platitude is to "put your mind to it," and in this case it's an apt distillment.
You need to develop a plan to achieve your goals. For example, if your goal is "an exciting and lucrative career," you need to think about the specific actions 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. It is very important to break down your original goal into several sub-goals — the divide-and-conquer approach is an excellent way to approach goals that require a long time to achieve.
Planning is essential, but merely having a plan isn't enough. In order to succeed, your plan must be worked out to an appropriate level of detail. A proper plan consists of sub-goals and actions needed to move between them. The sub-goals and actions must form a logical progression leading to your overall goal. Using the example above, to move between "studying your field of choice" and "getting your foot in the door" you will need to identify potential employers and market yourself to them. Create a list of companies in your field, research them to see which you'd like to work for, write and send your resume, arrange interviews, learn details about the kind of work they're offering, and decide among your offers. Each of these things can also be broken down into more detail. In a proper plan, items in the short term need to be very specific while items farther in the future do not require as much detail. (Indeed, it would be wasteful to work out too many details prematurely, because you would then need to spend additional time modifying your plans to adjust to new information or events.)
There is a lot of apparent similarity between sub-goals and actions, and it may be confusing which is which. There is a simple relationship at work here: sub-goals are the results of actions. As you work out details of your plan, look for instances where this relationship isn't very clear. In those cases your sub-goals, actions, or both may not be detailed enough — or they may be wrong. Failure to correct your plan may mean you waste energy on non-useful actions or waste time pursuing inappropriate sub-goals. It's often natural to focus on actions and leave sub-goals implicit, for instance by not specifically calling out a sub-goal ("ranked list of companies I could work for") between the actions of researching and contacting them. Having an explicit awareness of these milestones is important for the psychological impact of knowing you've accomplished them. Pat yourself on the back, you've earned it.
Worrying is a valuable signal. It's an indication that you are not subconsciously satisfied with your plan. You should pay attention to worry, rather than try to escape it or ignore it. You don't want it to "go away" — if it simply vanished, your plan would still be broken and therefore you're less likely to achieve your goal. The proper response to worry is to introspect, identify the problem in your plan, and improve it. Your worry will subside over time as you become subconsciously satisfied with your improved plan.
Introspection is a learned skill and it gets easier with practice. My advice is to think about the association that triggered your worry. It's important not to be overwhelmed with a sort of general dread. Avoid this by focusing your mind on imagining several potential futures each with different outcomes, diverging from your plan at different points and in different ways, and study your reaction to each. Which case makes you feel most similar to your original symptom of worry? Now think about how you might strengthen your plan in order to reduce the likelihood of that specific outcome.
Embrace your worry so that you may overcome it. The process will strengthen your plans and make you more likely to achieve your goals. This is how you can stop worrying and love the future.