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Optimizing for the last forty years of your life

"Optimize" is a word I use a lot in my profession, but it's not part of the common vocabulary. It means to make something the best. Optimization is a way of framing a situation as a puzzle. It requires you specify a few things, including how you determine what is best, how much time you have to solve the problem, and how long and under what circumstances the solution has to hold.

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with my wife, who is now in her 40s. I asked her at what age would she want me to appear to her if I were a one-wish genie. She said, "probably right about now." I said, "why?" She said if she had chosen earlier, she would have picked something that she now realizes is less than the best thing to ask for. [1]

I appreciated that response.

As I contemplate the present population, I wonder how many individual and societal problems would vanish if people were honest enough to optimize their choices for the best life from 40-80.

As I contemplate the present population, it seems that almost everyone almost always makes decisions based on a time frame closer to the next year at best, and unpleasantly often, for far less time (often the next few minutes!).

What is best should not be a problem for Christians, though it is in too many cases. What is best is what God would do in your place. How much time you have to solve the problem depends on the specific question. So many choices that determine how the final forty years will go occur very early in life. The circumstances of the last forty years for those presently living is probably the hardest part of this equation. They are going to be very different from the previous forty years, no matter how old you are now.

It's interesting that there is a phrase "the back forty," referring to the part of a farm that is undeveloped and untended due to how remote it is. People tend to treat the latter half of their lives as "the back forty" in that they complete ignore how those might go based on their decisions now because they seem so far off. One of many benefits of faith is it cures the inability to "see afar off." You become much sharper in your ability to impartially weigh consequences over time. It's extremely important! 

How many truly happy people do you know between 40 and 80, and how does the distribution look with age? I bet you don't know many people in that age group who are happy with the choices they've made. As a neighbor recently told me, "if I knew how long I was going to live, I would have taken better care of myself!" Our curation ought to extend beyond the physical. So many choices--from how we earn and spend money to who we marry to how much time and effort we spend improving our character--are seriously occluded by a delusional fixation with the present, no matter how much we have to lie to ourselves to do so.

Unwinding this disastrous cultural pattern would take a miracle. But small steps could probably help anyone with enough faith to try them.

For instance, if you have kids, tell the truth about your choices and their consequences in life, even if that is a "learn from what I did wrong" conversation. I find it humorous how so many parents spend so much more effort on hiding their mistakes from their kids than they do living a life that would be worthy of their kids' emulation. Every single person with kids should have plenty of reasons to believe that their kids are going to figure them out--and at a far younger age than they hope! Truth has a way of breaking out. It can't be hidden for very long. If you are a jerk, your kids are going to find out, even if the whole world thinks you are a nice person. If you are a saint, your kids are going to find out, even if the whole world thinks you are a sinner.

If you have kids, spend time frequently helping them project the consequences of the choices before them onto the final forty years of their lives.

Learn how to choose what is best in the moment and for the long haul. Take a week or so and, each night, go over each moment of the day with God. Ask if you chose the best. Ask how you could have done more, accomplished more, or performed better. 

In all things, realize that both the opportunities afforded us and the consequences of our choices tend to be things we are very, very bad at perceiving correctly. If you were to randomly select 100 people from the populace and sort them by their accuracy in correctly perceiving these things, 90 would probably be cut immediately, and there still be 100 fold difference between the most and least capable in the group. If you think that assessment is harsh, you are probably one of the 90.

Those who can see these things are surrounded by never ending spectacles of terrifically wasted opportunity and completely predictable disasters. Seek the counsel of those who have shown through their ability to improve in life in spite of challenges to help you better learn about opportunities and consequences. 

Some will read this post and wonder what this has to do with the gospel. A synonym of optimize is sanctify. To make holy is the same thing as to make better. And nothing could be more central to the gospel than understanding opportunity and consequence. The fact that these relationships are so foreign to the religious begins to shed light on why organized religions are full of obesity, antidepressants, and porn.

Some will read this post and protest that a guy who keeps saying the end of the world is going to happen any minute [2] is now advising us to take a long-term view. Surprisingly often, the long-term view also yields the best short-term strategy. But since I am not the one who determines what I write about, feel free to take up any issues you have with my manager. He can be reached on your knees.

[1] There is a distinction between maturing in what you desire (the focus of this post) and maturing in your understanding of where you will find what you are looking for, which is not addressed here. These topics are discussed in "Through Faith." 

[2] The end of the world is not going to happen any minute. There is a specified and long list of things that specific people must do before it happens, and they have not done those things yet.