Time to reflect, 2016 edition. One year ago, I decided to start this ritual of writing summaries of each year. This is an opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture. Where did the last 12 months go? What did I accomplish? What mistakes did I make, and what lessons can I take from those? Am I moving towards becoming a better person, as I promised at the end of 2015?
I started the year waking up after a New Year’s celebration at Petr Pávek’s pad, mostly with people from Charlie, the Charles University LGBT organization, and from the Czech Green Party or its youth branch. My private new year’s resolutions were threefold: 1) get to 87.4 kg and stay under that, 2) organize something fun every week, 3) write something every week. How’d that go? The first resolution didn’t go well. Right now, I weigh something like 107 kg. Maybe this year. Fortunately, I got much better at being proactive in doing fun things and socialization. I didn’t ever track how did that writing habit go, but if I intended that to mean “public posts”, then I failed, but I don’t care. I had better things to do than writing.
My dream diary says that in the morning of January 1, characters in my dream included Eliezer Yudkowsky and my crush, which is kind of a premonition of the rest of the year.
At the start of 2016, I felt pretty down. I felt I had no real friends yet, and hence there would be no point in staying in Czech Republic for long. I have been talking with Google and the plan was to get me to Mountain View to start working there in October 2016, and then to climb the corporate hierarchy, earn lots of money, and maybe find happiness somewhere along the way.
How did I feel about this plan? I think even back then I realized I felt sad about it. Mostly about the part where I felt there was noone home who cared about me or who I cared about.
Only there was one loose end I haven’t fixed yet that could rock my sad solitary assumptions. My crush.
What have I been doing about him? So far, nothing - just friendly talking. But I had a plan. You see, I’ve had enough of the pattern where I have feelings for someone, and resolve it by spending months in a cycle of “okay today is the day I say something” / “ohgod I’m so nervous not today”. I planned an opportunity to do something about him. My expectation was that I’d get rejected, which would validate my assumption about having nothing to care about home, so I’d just float on to USA.
In the meantime, I experimented with modafinil, weed and LSD. (Separately. I’m not that crazy.)
Why? Partly probably because I tried to make myself just feel something. Also I wanted some answers. The questions, if I had to guess, may have been: What’s wrong with the world? Why do I keep getting hurt, why does nobody like me? What should I do to fix it?
If you’ve been reading me before, you may have heard that refrain already. Yep, that’s what me being depressed sounds like.
On January 13, I had a really heavy trip while reading Friendship is Optimal. As with other experiences of that sort, putting it into words really doesn’t do it justice. I experienced a blurring of where, in which body and which person, do I reside, and where in time am I. Switching places with other people, moving in time forward and backward, I felt overwhelming grief at the pain of conscious beings everywhere. Looking at my life outside the individual moment and from the outside perspective, I saw myself in a broader context. I have felt pain in the past, and some things are not going as I’d like. Of course, I will feel more pain in the future. But that’s okay, because everything that has happened and will happen has already been set in stone the moment of the Big Bang. My mind is a program running on neural wetware. I have no idea what the world is actually like. Is it real? Is it a simulation, ran by thousands of monks, simulating a Game of Life over eons, one stone at a time? Being a program, only knowing my inputs and outputs, how would I even know if there was no simulation? If all states of the world are set in stone the moment of the Big Bang, how does it differ from a recording? But none of that actually matters. I have something to do here. And it doesn’t matter if all my decisions are already predetermined or if everything I care about is, at the bottom, an uncaring cellular automaton. My enemy is the dragon: aging, death, pain, suffering. And through I may feel fear and pain while I fight, I will not let it stop me.
I did not do anything stupid and this was not a bad trip. But that was only a huge amount of luck. I do not recommend psychoactive drugs. If you don’t know where a door leads, don’t open it. You may not be prepared to see what’s on the other side.
Between January and February, I went to HackCambridge with Petr Hudeček and our project won. Petr was my crush. To my huge surprise and exhiliration, through Petr is into girls, we started a romantic relationship. (If you happen to be in my circle of Charles University friends, this might make a few things click into place for you.)
In the next few months, we dated, talked, and such. I went to school, I researched various rationality-related topics, and for what felt like the first time in my life, I felt happy. This was the first time I attempted to initiate a relationship with someone I loved and I thought I could go on like this forever. I started watching My Little Pony, and I got a nice boost in self-esteem by shoving that into people’s faces and seeing nothing bad happens when I do that.
I found a thesis advisor - Petr “Pasky” Baudiš - and started very slowly hacking away.
Also, very stupidly, I found myself a job. I worked for several months as a software engineer at Factorify. Why was this a mistake? Through I learned some interesting things and met interesting people, I didn’t really need the money, or the experience, or anything. It was probably just workaholism and wanting to have something to do. I should have instead focused on my master’s thesis.
Unfortunately, my happiness in being with the boy of my dreams was short-lived. We broke up at the end of April, and that triggered a full-blown depression.
Just before that happened, I read the book Feeling Good. Recognizing that I’m depressed, I decided to immediately throw away everything I didn’t really want to do and took a few months just to myself.
I started running (with the Zombies, Run app) and I read lots of material (including re-reading Rationality: From AI to Zombies in about 2 days). I noticed that I’m procrastinating while working on my master’s thesis and feeling guilty about it, so I just stopped working on it until I got myself in order.
I also noticed that my comfort zone is really small, so I started expanding it. Most of my life, my idea of fun has been sitting in front of some screen in my room. I started spending lots of time in cafes and tearooms and bought new clothes I liked. I started getting in touch with people I haven’t seen for a long time and developing more authentic friendships.
I noticed a lot of things in my life are not quite in order and slowly started tackling those.
First, I noticed lots of really stupid aversions - instances when I notice I’d like to do something, and then the “inner critic” intervenes and stops me. That feels like an inner prison. I started writing them down and actively fighting them.
Second, I realized these stupid aversions or fears were why I discontinued the only relationship I had before dating Petr, and that those have been mostly running my life for me. Before I went to Dropbox in the summer of 2015, I have been with a boy named Martin for about 3 months. Martin is polyamorous and when we started dating, he had one other boyfriend. In that relationship, I felt afraid of Martin, just because I thought if I were completely honest with him, he might find out something really bad about me, and that would be horrible. I was also afraid of others knowing about the relationships, because I thought it was somehow… dirty or bad to be with someone who has other boyfriends.
I got in touch with Martin again and told him I was sorry for how I treated him, and I told him one of the secrets I thought would destroy me if I told him. Since it’s a sexual oddity, if you’d rather not have that kind of information about me, don’t highlight the following empty space and instead imagine, say, an interest in BDSM.
An overwhelming majority of the porn I look at is furry stuff. The main reason why all my laptops so far had an encrypted partition is I have 18.3 GB of it. I have been fairly unrealistically terrified of how others would judge me if that were to be discovered. My current view is: feel free to judge me, and if you do, I’ll feel free to think of you as an idiot.
I think I’ll actually set becoming friends with someone who identifies as a furry as a comfort-zone-expansion subgoal :)
Also, since you highlighted this paragraph by your own choice, you aren’t allowed to shout “TMI” :)
You may be wondering: Why do I feel the need to put so many personal details online? Several answers. First, this is a way to definitely stop any irrational fears of being shunned by sane people and to expand my comfort zone. Second, be the change you want to see in the world, and I want to live in a world where innocent people don’t feel ashamed for standing outside arbitrary social norms.
The point is that I got my stupid aversions out of the way of actual human connection and we were well on the way to resume our relationship where we left off a year before. I started getting evidence that even if people know icky details about my life, they won’t think of me as a bad person, which allowed me to start feeling safe with someone. A few people now actually know everything about me that I consider important, including things I considered bad about myself, and with those people, I can turn off my mental filter and just tell them whatever I’m thinking. It’s empowering.
Roughly at this point in time, I started seeing a psychologist, because I wanted to ensure the depression wouldn’t come back, althrough, at this point, I felt pretty good.
At the same time when it seemed me and Martin might resume the relationship, I met a girl at the Prague LessWrong meetup group. We clicked and I felt happy with her. Unfortunately, she was not open to me keeping a relationship with both Martin and her.
I had to make a decision: she and monoamory, or Martin and polyamory. Probably because of how I tend to uncritically accept other people’s opinion, I decided to “try” a relationship with her. Part of the decision was also loss aversion. What if I told her “no” and then realized she was the love of my life a week later?
We were in a relationship for about 3-4 months starting late June. I spent most of the relationship feeling bad for still wanting to have Martin as well as her, and I thought I could make it go away by ignoring it long enough and pretending everything was all right. That didn’t work. My relationship with her ended when I told her I would no longer ignore my feelings toward Martin and that I’d start seeing him and that she could to whatever she wanted about it. I admit I was very harsh and didn’t allow any compromise on that point, but I think even if there were more discussion, it probably wouldn’t change the eventual outcome. In hindsight, the fact that my feelings didn’t fit into a monoamorous relationship with her was apparent by week 3. So, why did it take 3-4 months to stop trying to make a pig fly and to stop hurting us both? Two things. A: loss aversion. What if she is actually the love of my life and I’d be throwing a beautiful life together away? B: Low confidence. What if the reason I’m feeling bad is not repressing feelings, but just still being depressed? C: not wanting to hurt her and me by breaking up.
Several weeks after I broke up with her, my depression mostly lifted.
What did I learn from that? The importance of honestly listen to my feelings and the extensive damage that comes from insincerity. Even if it’s driven by a need to protect yourself or someone else.
In the meantime, I have started taking antidepressants and dealing in therapy with various other baggage (which I might also write about some day). At the end of summer, I gathered the motivation to start working on my thesis again. Because it has been going so slowly (due to the depression and due to losing several months to work at Factorify and to depression recovery), I asked my recruiter at Google to move my start date to March 2017. Also, unfortunately, I didn’t make it through the H-1b visa lottery, so I’m not moving to Mountain View. I’m moving to Zurich.
Me and several of my friends from the Czech rationalist subculture decided to organize EAGxPrague in 2016 and to start a Czech effective altruism chapter. Organizing EAGxPrague took a pretty big amount of my time between August and December. For the last month or so, I basically worked full-time on it.
Visiting Chernobyl and Ukraine with my girlfriend and my friends from high school was also very nice.
I got more involved in the broader rationalist community. I visited meetups in Vienna and in September, I went to the LessWrong Community Weekend in Berlin. This let me meet rationalists at a much higher level than myself. I got social proof for several views I wasn’t brave enough to enact in my life myself. First, hugging and cuddling is nice and it’s okay to be hug-positive among your broader social circle, not just your closest friends. Second, polyamorous relationships work, even if they may be harder than monoamorous relationships in some aspects. And IMO, they are worth the work for me. Third, it’s okay to think EA is a worthy project to work on and to actually devote your time to it. It’s not a law of nature that you shall spend a third of your life exchanging your time for currency.
I ran two 10k races this year. Unfortunately, at the end of September, I mostly stopped running. I’ll have to get back to it some day.
I attended an 8-week mindfulness meditation course between October and December. I didn’t keep a daily habit of formal meditation, but I do fairly frequently find the time to notice my feelings and I think mindfulness is a valuable skill for dealing with negative emotion.
For the last 2 months, Martin and I resumed our relationship and it’s going so much better than the first time around. I’m very happy to have someone who I trust so fully and who can support me so well, and who is so good at cuddling :)
I’ve also had my hands full of EAGxPrague and it exceeded all my expectations.
2016 was a year when I found out I was actually in control of my life. I opened up about my feelings, fears and beliefs, and started acting on those. I let down my defenses and I put my real me out there. I got hurt, but I also experienced valuable moments of sincere, real connection. Putting down my defenses also exposed the fact that I don’t feel good spending time with my close family and our relationship is far from close and sincere, which hurt both me and them. This is unfortunate, but I’m not about to waste time beating myself up over how much of a bad person I am for that.
So, a year ago, I said:
I used to tell myself I’d do all kinds of things if only I had time. I will contribute to projects and causes that actually matter. I will develop deeper relationships and fight my social awkwardness. I will get back in touch with old friends. I will do the things I used to put in my bucket list. Urban exploration. Geocaching. Meditation. Jumping out of airplanes. Soft drugs in moderation. I will become healthier and stare at fewer screens. I will lose weight, and for good this time. I will learn about things I want to learn about. I will think things over and figure out how do I imagine my twenties and maybe thirties. And I hope this will not only make me happier, but that it will also help me become a better person.
How’d it go?
- I co-founded the Czech Association for Effective Altruism and led the organization of EAGxPrague. “Contribute to projects and causes that actually matter”: Check.
- I developed deeper relationships and fought my social awkwardness, and while it’s still an uphill crawl, I’m winning.
- I got back in touch with old friends, especially my friends from high school. Thanks to dropping all the stupid fears of not being liked, I am now much more proactive.
- I didn’t do urban exploration or geocaching. I did not jump out of any more airplanes, because nowadays I’d want to calculate the risk much more explicitly since I started valuing my own life. I learned mindfulness meditation and meditate a few times each week. I don’t think I’ll be touching illegal drugs anytime soon.
I do, on the other hand, feel much happier nowadays, without necessarily doing anything extreme.
- I was pretty healthy the first half of 2016, but somehow, my weight crept back up and the habit of running didn’t stick. That’s something for me to keep working on.
- I did learn lots about things I wanted to learn about. I read 45 books in 2016, coming short of the goal of 50. I’m toning that down to 40 in 2017. I started building a stack of Anki cards (currently at 1549) from books and articles I read, English terms I don’t understand, constants and concepts I want to learn and so on, and I think it’s very useful for me. I also revamped my personal note-taking system – see http://github.com/MichalPokorny/public-notes for the public part.
- Did I think things over and figure out how do I imagine my twenties and thirties? The answer to this question is “just stop worrying and enjoy life”. Through my long-term plan is still uncertain, I now spend too much time being happy to worry about it so much.
- Am I happier? Quite. Am I a better person? That is in the eye of the beholder. In my view, yes.
Best books I read in 2016
- Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit. This book touched on several very important topics and was very important for the development of my current view on morality and personal identity.
- Worm by Wildbow. This is an epic rationalist fiction about superheroes, which tells the full story of Taylor Hebert, a bullied high-school girl, who develops superpowers and has to deal with often having to do bad things for good reasons. It totals roughly 1,680,000 words; roughly 26 typical novels in length. I absolutely loved it.
- More than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert. This book explains all the ins and outs of polyamory, frequently with personal stories collected by the authors. Reading this book was the last nudge I needed to publicly come out as polyamorous. Polyamorous relationships are not about wanting to sleep around or fear of commitment. They are about open communication, about the courage to trust the other person not to hurt you even if you allow them to, the strength to stand up for yourself and the wisdom to make your own decisions even when it’s not easy. 5 stars.
- Friendship is Optimal by iceman. It’s a fanfic crossover between My Little Pony and the Singularity. I highly recommend it if you’re rationality/futurist-minded. It also has very nice recursive fics - I read Caellum est Conterrens and Always Say No.
- The Hedonistic Imperative by David Pearce. This is an enlightening and persuasive manifesto advocating a program to reduce suffering in sentient beings until, at some point, nanotechnology and genetic engineering allows us to eradicate suffering altogether.
- Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom. Many thinkers (and many EAs) believe that developing a superintelligence not entirely aligned with our interests is likely to happen and that it would have catastrophic consequences for the human race. This book explains, in accessible language, the nature of the problem, some proposed options for dealing with it and long-term strategical concerns.
I’m starting work in Google in Zurich on March 6. Until that happens, we at the Czech Association for Effective Altruism will work on establishing a viable EA chapter, and other projects (which I will highlight in a public strategy document we’ll be releasing shortly). I will try to get my master’s thesis as far as possible before March, and then I’ll finish it on my own in Zurich. I committed a bunch of money to it. I’m also seriously considering taking the Giving What We Can pledge for life. There was a pretty successful pledge drive on Facebook in December and taking the pledge would probably inspire others around me - like other members of the Czech Association for Effective Altruism. Making giving to effective charity a social norm is the point of the pledge. In February, I’ll be taking the master’s final exam, and I have some studying to do for that, too.
Unfortunately, moving to Zurich will probably impact the relationships I’ll be leaving behind in Prague. At least the first few months, I’ll be coming back fairly frequently. But it’s not the end of the world. I can come back any time I want. The people will still be here and I’ll be there, at the other end of any screen. Relationships don’t end. They change. And if I approach it with a smile on my face, Zurich will be an awesome place. I expect I’ll find new friends in the local EA/rationality groups. And I also expect I’ll love the work at Google.
My longer-term plan is to move to Bay Area to engage in the EA/rationality community there. I would like to surround myself with people of my tribe. Ideally, I’d also like to work in an EA organization, to blur the artificial lines between personal life and work, but I’m not certain if that would be the best decision, when it comes to long-term career strategy. Until a better opportunity than Google comes along, I will work there on things I like (computer science) and I’ll aim to develop my career capital. If I stay there for 1 year, I plan to apply for a transfer visa to USA, or, later, for an H-1b.
What would a better opportunity look like? Maybe being a software engineer for 80,000 Hours or the Centre for Effective Altruism. Maybe, with a bit of repositioning, becoming a researcher, director or project manager. I am also considering becoming an entrepreneur or AGI safety researcher.
I still feel a bit uneasy thinking “I would rather work at 80,000 Hours for $30k a year than at Google for $200k a year”. That’s probably an atavism of back when I thought being rich alone would buy me happiness. I should get rid of that kind of thinking. And I again feel a bit uneasy thinking that sentence. I still seem to have remnants of judging my own worth by size of estate and number of accolades.
So, what goals do I set for myself for 2016?
I will reach and maintain a healthy weight and change my eating habits. I will use all tools in my rationalist toolkit for this. Changing my nervous eating habit will probably take a long time, but it can be done. If people can quit heroin, I can quit overeating.
I will build general and transferrable skills, especially in managing teams and research.
I will work on myself, on being more like the person I want to be and less like the person my fears think I must be or the world will fall apart. I will not fall back into the pattern of running from anxiety to anxiety. I will not let them run my life for me anymore. Life is far too valuable to waste. There are too many people to love, too many beautiful experiences to be had, to yield even a single second to the dragon.
As they say in CFAR:
Addendum: I redid the chart from last year when I visualized how much of my life has passed and how much do I have left. Each box is a single day.
The bright yellow is the time between then and today.
Look at how much you can experience and how far you can level up in the course of that thin bright yellow band, and how many more yellow bands are up for grabs. Imagine the possibilities.