Thursday, July 29, 2004

The writing on the wall

People write a lot of things on the walls of a public lavatory. Some consider this to be vandalism. To me it's occasionally a source of inspiration.

This morning, while in a sedentary position at our office's facilities, I came across the following message:

Think about the future

I'm not sure what the person was thinking when they wrote it, but it got me thinking about a lot of things.

Firstly, how often we think about our future really depends on our age.

If you're in your 20's you probably don't think too much about your future; you're too busy spending money to worry about not having enough of it once you get older.

If you're in your 30's you're probably thinking about nothing but your future; who you're going to be with and how much money you're going to need.

Once you're in your 40's what you do tomorrow is as important as what you're doing today.

In your 50's the future is now.

In your 60's the past has caught up with you.

Above 70 and you're enjoying the moment like you were 21 again.

You're probably going to live a very long life; at least until you're 70, hopefully longer.

You don't know exactly when you're going to die and that's a problem.

It's a problem because you don't know how much you're going to need to see you through. Given this dilemma people tend to overcompensate and put a 'little extra' away. How much extra is determined a great deal by your culture.

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After reading the message on the wall I also though about how much we should be thinking about the future.

Should we always be thinking about the future? Probably not.

Should we never think about the future? Not unless you're over 70.

What if we don't think about the future enough? What then?

I know I don't think about the future as much as I should. But how do I know that? When is it enough?

I fear that it will never be enough. It's hard enough to manage my life right now, let alone my future as well.

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My future is becoming increasingly important as each day passes and so the less I think about the future each day the more costly it's becoming.

I should probably do something about it. Maybe tomorrow...

1 comment:

Iestyn said...

I call this The Starting Problem (computer science reference there - looking up The Halting Problem not necessarily guaranteed to entertain). It was something I thought about back in my early teens while reading Isaac Asimov's robot books ('pon which are very loosely based the current blockbuster "I, Robot", a passable if light paraphrasing/abridgement/reimagining/explotacularisation of this series of sci-fi novels).

So here's how it goes.

If you have a task to do, how long do you spend working on the tools you'll use to do the task and how long do you spend using them to actually complete the task? The better your tools, the more efficient your execution of the task will be, but the longer you spend on tools the less time you'll have left in which to perform the task itself. This is a problem computer programmers such as myself are ALWAYS battling with and it's very rare that we actually come up with a particularly successful answer.

In life, the problem is a whole lot tougher... not only do you have to decide how long to spend preparing (thinking ahead and planning, as per your blog entry), but you also have to decide what you should actually be preparing FOR. Ultimately, a creature devoid of in-built motivations (such as a robot - hence the genesis of these thoughts by the aforementioned sci-fi novels), which instinctively shove them in one direction or another (find food/safety/love, etc), a creature with only logic to rely upon, will inevitably sit there forever never being able to divine enough of the future to be able to gain any degree of certainty as to what it 'should' be doing in any respect at all (should it even be spending time contemplating this? Hmm, let's think about that for a while...).

As humans, we get around this by being entirely sub-optimal in our actions (as children, we follow instinct and never think ahead), only actually *realising* this state of affars once we're reasonably old, by which time we find ourselves stuck (or apparently and, for a heart-breakingly large section of the populace, *effectively* stuck) far down some arbitrary path of action, from which we then find it hard to veer (as adults, we follow habit and rarely think back).

Those of us who are perfectionists (or anal idiots, if you like earthy, mince-free point-making) are pretty much doomed to spend most of our lives wondering and worrying to little positive effect. Unless, that is, we happen to be very lucky and the world is kind enough to give us unexpected, forceful shoves at all the right moments.