What’s changed

Some reflections from turning 30.

Wes McKinney


March 23, 2015

I turned 30 on Friday.

I threw a party. Nearly all my favorite people in the Bay Area (with some exceptions, travel and life and so forth) came to wish me well and be merry. It was wonderful.

The decade I just completed has been quite the personal journey, with growth and change in my perspective on life. I’ve been incredibly lucky in more ways than I can count. And it’s probably true that, as Thomas Jefferson said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, and more I have of it.”

And I have worked hard. That MIT thing. Three years at the financial data mines during the financial crisis. Countless lines of code. Writing a book. Dozens of public speaking engagements. Two startups (one failed, one moderately successful). Raising venture capital. Lawyers, paperwork, legal settlements, negotiations, deals, and so forth. Hundreds of plane flights. I’ve lived in 10 distinct addresses since college graduation.

I went after the volatile life path, and I sure as hell found it. In May 15, 2011, I had just finished the first year of a statistics PhD at Duke and less than 3 weeks later I surreptitiously upended my life and found an apartment in the East Village and was back in New York, hacking away on pandas and figuring out what to do with myself for the next days, months, and years.

I try to live a life without regrets. If I feel I might regret not doing something, I usually do it, professionally or personally or otherwise. I like to be available to serendipity and spontaneity whenever possible. So, despite all the stress, turmoil, heartache, lost sleep, and so forth, I regret very little of it. In fact, I feel like I needed to put myself through these trials to learn about myself and the role of work and other vocational activities in my own happiness and long-term life goals.

Having lived in SF and New York for 7 years collectively, it’s been interesting being surrounded by a money- and achievement-oriented culture and seeing how those values resonate with my own experience. In New York, you’re walking around and the city’s screaming at you “you’re not making enough money! Oh, and that person next to you makes more than you do!”. In SF, the city says “you’re not changing the world enough! And you’re not cool enough either! Oh and, you need a couple of successful exits to not suck at life!” Add on to that the fact that, you stick around these places long enough with a decent enough memory and you accumulate all the stories of “dummies” around you making way too much money and having way too charmed and glamorous lives. It’s easy to get bitter or cynical and let these stories drag you down.

Reminds me of a story:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, the late Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, the author Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch 22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . Enough.”

Perspective on these things is key if being happy matters to you. It’s easy to get caught up in that and forget about what’s important.

When I just got out of college, and certainly continuing for many years after that, I was burning with passion to make my mark on the world. Other people’s naysaying and casting doubts on my efforts only fueled me further. And so I worked, and worked, and worked. Often at the expense of my own health, personal relationships, and emotional well-being.

I can hardly claim that it turned out badly. I learned a lot, mastered some skills, made some objectively awesome stuff, and met a lot of wonderful people that I probably never would have met otherwise. I wouldn’t trade those things for anything. But the more surprising thing was how I would feel, at least now in retrospect, about my professional accomplishments.

I might have thought that achieving things professionally, or making money (as was the cultural value where I lived), would be more emotionally rewarding or a more significant source of happiness. That turned out to not be true at all, at least for me. And it worries me sometimes about the people in my life who are still running full-speed on their own respective hamster wheels, in hopes that “the future” built by their present and near-term efforts will bring them sustainable happiness and the kind of life they want. As they say, how you spend your time is how you spend your life.

Sometimes people (ahem, like me) overload themselves so much that it’s not even possible to be making decisions that will necessarily lead to long-term happiness in the future.

I haven’t exactly figured it all out, and can’t claim to. To cope with my own stresses, responsibilities, and so forth, several years ago I started making an active effort to understand my own mind and emotional processes and start working through feelings and experiences closer to when they happen rather than keeping them bottled up inside (like the fine Scots-Irish stock I come from). I gave up some of my 20-year old stoicism and got a lot more touchy-feely, and let the tears flow when they need to. A fair trade, I think.

Anyone who knows me well knows that hard work and making an impact on the world are an integral part of who I am, and unlikely that I’ll deviate too much from that path. I have learned, however, that love and friendship and being available, emotionally and otherwise, to the kindred spirits in one’s life are the most reliable and long-lasting sources of happiness that I know of. We all end up in the ground eventually, and at the end of the day, for me at least, the lives-of-the-living we touch matter more than the paper trail of intellectual accomplishments we leave behind us. One of my favorite authors said it best:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

It’s good that I learned this relatively early in life; the perspective is useful in making decisions about how to spend our time, one of the things there’s no way to get more of. As Lao Tzu wrote, “Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’”

Anyway, here’s to the next decade. I reckon it will be a good one.