I'm terrified of old people

I used to be extremely confident in myself.

I was barely 20 years old and I would tell people how to sleep, how to make friends, and how to live their lives. I started a nonprofit aiming to literally rebuild the institutions of science from the ground up. I was dismissive of everyone who didn’t impress me in the first 7 minutes of talking to them. I was especially dismissive of old people.

I’m 26 years old now, I (hope that I) got a tiny bit wiser but I’m pretty sure I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m embarrassed for having published all of these articles giving people advice on how to live their lives; I’m amazed that the nonprofit actually managed to run great programs and fund dozens of young scientists; and I’m absolutely terrified of old people.

I’ve always wanted to prove myself to the world; if I were a 60 year old, trying to impress a random 25 year old would be the last thing I’d be trying to do.

First, wanting to impress people is the result of not knowing what you want and by the time you’re 50 or 60 or 70 you do know what you want. Second, the stupider people think I am, the better. I just want to do my thing and I don’t want anyone to think highly of me and start actively interfering with whatever it is that I’m doing.

I’ve always thought that I was very competent. Now I at least realize that I have no fucking clue how anything works.

Which makes me think: I have like 5 years of experience of real life. What kind of tricks under their belts do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s have? What kinds of crazy heuristics and meta-heuristics they’ve got in their minds, hearts, and muscles after decades of poking the world? I have no clue and this is what makes me really worried about them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if these decades-in-the-making lessons are so qualitatively different from whatever I believe now that even if someone tried to tell them to me I simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend them.

I also suspect that the declining intelligence measurements of old people are mostly attributable to slower-lookup and “shallow” reactions rather than any actual decline in quality of decision-making.

There’s exactly one person who I suspect might be running the simulation and he’s not 30 or even 40. He’s in his 70s.

People ask me why I don’t publish much these days. How about because I have a bunch of stupid shit on my blog that’s going to follow me into the grave now and because now whenever I talk to someone they usually “remember” me writing something even dumber than what I actually wrote (“oh, Alexey, weren’t you the guy who thought that sleeping 4 hours a night is totally fine?” “No, I wrote that sleeping 4 hours a night didn’t make me dumb AND that it was absolutely terrible, please stop asking me about this”)?

I think about Sam Altman’s “honestly, i feel so bad about the advice i gave while running YC i’ve been thinking about deleting my entire blog” a lot.

I do think the majority of my pieces stood the test of time and I’m very proud of them (for example Every productivity thought I’ve ever had, as concisely as possible which is nearing its 6th anniversary), so maybe I’m overreacting. But it’s still unnerving.

(Ok, back to old people.)

Many things just take time.

Having 0 close friends is qualitatively different from having 1 close friend from having 5 close friends. Just as knowing them for 1 year versus 5 years versus 25 years. So much stuff in the world can only be achieved via close long-term connections. Probably most of the important stuff. Again, the only way to get these connections is to literally just wait. No other way.

My biggest problem running the company, for example, was simply not knowing enough people to be able to hire for the roles the organization needed the most and instead burning through many months and enormous amounts of nerves figuring out if people I just met were (1) right for the role, (2) work well with me, (3) I work well with them. If I’m starting a company today, I’m simply not doing it until I have an incredible operations person on board from day 1.

I understand why you need to be at least 35 years old to become President.

Patrick Mackenzie once noted that “people consistently overestimate how widely distributed individual technologies are, even where those technologies are clearly better than alternatives, easy to implement, and have minimal downside risk or cost to reverse adoption.”

How come? Again — things just take time. A huge portion of life is simply about building years-long and decades-long muscle memories for “simple” technologies. To stop the brain when it gets into over-analyzing spirals. To error-correct appropriately when things go wrong. To ask for help.

No amount of reading insights or writing will get you to truly learn this stuff. In fact most of it sounds like empty platitudes & the more you read and write the less time you have to apply it with your body and with your muscles. If I told this to my 16-year old self, he’d tell me to go fuck myself.

And, sure, no 80-year old is going to be as idealistic or energetic or attractive as when they were 20. But if you ask me if I’d rather have a President who is 20 or who is 80, I’ll pick the 80-year old in a heartbeat.

Friends comment:

  1. “I will say, and you should not repeat this and I feel bad about saying this, but I often interact with friends who I’ve known for 10 years, and I feel like they did all of their growth in the first couple of years. But you’re right that some people do just learn and grow continuously and that this is crazy, I just think they are fairly rare.”
  2. Boris Johnson: “As a general tactic in life, it is often useful to give the slight impression that you are deliberately pretending not to know what’s going on - because the reality may be that you don’t know what’s going on, but people won’t be able to tell the difference.”
  3. “this is just a cope for you getting older”

Thanks to DL, TT, AB, KS.

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