What's the best thing I could do with my life?
I turned 30 this year, which brings with it certain thoughts about milestones, mortality, straddling the past and the future, that sort of thing.
I've been unbelievably fortunate in my life to date. By any objective measure, I'm doing great. I've got a promising career, a great relationship with my wonderful wife, I've got loving family, all the money I need, leisure time, etc. On Maslow's pyramid I've stopped having to worry about anything except the very top layer.
Naturally, this makes me think two things. One is, "There's nowhere to go from here but down" which is pretty depressing. My health is certainly never going to be as good again as it is now. I'm growing more and more white hairs, did you know that?
The other, possibly more useful, thought is "With all my own needs met, how can I help others?" Followed by, "If I can think of a way that I could plausibly make the world a better place, do I not have a moral obligation to act on it - as soon as possible, and with all the force I can muster?" Awareness of the finiteness of my remaining years and the infiniteness of things I could possibly be doing, I must then ask myself: "What's the single best thing I could dedicate the rest of my life to doing?"
Writing internet software probably isn't it.
Like, writing software is totally a fun job. I'm really lucky to have some skills in a field where I can do fun things and get paid (let's face it) ridiculously well for it. And I want open source software to succeed, and I want the Web to stay as free and open as possible, and I want web browsers and software in general to have better user interfaces. So it's not like what I'm doing now is something totally frivolous. I agree with everything in the Mozilla manifesto and I like working for a place that has a manifesto. I just think that, all things considered, web standards probably ain't the overriding moral issue of our time.
What is it, then? I don't know, exactly, but I look to the future and see scary, scary shit on the horizon. If technologically advanced human civilization is going to last the next hundred years -- and I hope it does, because I kinda like technologically advanced human civilization -- then there's some stuff we need to figure out fast.
How we're going to feed the 10-12 billion humans who will be living on this planet by the time population growth levels off, for starters. And how those people can raise their standard of living without rendering the atmosphere unbreatheable and the seas toxic, maybe that too. And whether they're going to live in systems with freedom of press, speech, and religion. What the hell we're gonna do with all these nukes left over from the cold war, and the new nukes that Iran and Pakistan and North Korea made / are making, and how to stop having crazy dictators and terrorists who want to use them. How people of different religions can live together and stop killing each other so much, maybe. How we're gonna prevent, or adapt to, melted ice caps, if global warming is real. How we're gonna make electricity and go places when the fossil fuels are used up. How to get safe drinking water for the third world. How we stop fisheries and other ecosystems we depend on from collapsing entirely. You know, that sort of thing.
Whether Firefox loses market share to Chrome just doesn't seem that important, comparatively speaking.
I don't believe in any religion. So I think this life is probably all we get. And there's probably no guiding hand pushing the world towards a happy ending. No cosmic justice, no reward for good behavior, no prize for trying hard. No Rapture or Singularity to save us from ourselves. Just human beings, our decisions, and the effects our actions have on each other. Some religious people describe my worldview as an evasion of moral responsibility, like I decided to be an atheist so I could have a hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and promiscuous sex, or something. I see it quite the opposite way. If this life is all we get, all the more reason to make the best of it. If all we have is each other, all the more reason to treat each other well. If there's no absolute standard of right and wrong, all the more reason to think through the consequences of our actions. If there's no cosmic justice, all the more reason for people who want justice to work towards building it on Earth.
The inescapable conclusion of my philosophy is that I have a moral duty to figure out my optimum strategy for reducing human suffering and/or increasing the probability of long-term human survival... and then to act on it decisively. Even if I fail, I'd rather look back on my life and say "At least I tried".
What all this means in practical terms is that yes, I'm thinking about a career switch. Not necessarily this year, or next year (there's a lot I can still do at Mozilla to position myself for the leap) but soon.
Soon, before I get too comfortable where I am. And I am getting too comfortable, I think. Writing code is less and less of a challenge as the years go by. As the year 2000 recedes into nostalgia, the computer/software/internet industry feels less and less like a frontier, a place where visionaries and madmen come to hew form out of chaos. It feels more like a place where professional certified engineers come to ship product, so that rich kids can go down to Fry's and buy a pocket gadget that's slightly better than last year's pocket gadget. Being a non-profit, Mozilla stands a little bit apart from all that. But we're still really focused on, like, how do they say this, "having a presence in the mobile space".
(I can't believe I used to care what operating system people used. God. Silicon Valley is so disillusioning. It's a snake pit of sell-outs and phonies, all chasing each other's tails. I gotta get out before I turn into one of them.)
I need to switch careers before me and Sushu have children, that's the really important thing. Once I have financial dependents counting on me, it will get a lot harder to switch and a lot more tempting to just, you know, do what I'm told so I can keep climbing the corporate ladder and get raises to put towards the kid's college fund.
The only real question is, what to switch to? Science, business, politics, social work - how to have the best chance of making a difference? Maybe I should become an artist of some kind. Start an artistic movement with a manifesto and followers and stuff. Fuck up people's complacency. Try to shift the culture a few degrees in a less stupid direction. They're doing promising research in nuclear fusion energy on the other side of the hill in Livermore. Fusion could save us, if we ever get it working. I wonder if they need programmers. I wonder if they're even going to stay funded with all the budget deficit. Maybe I should move to another country. Maybe to the developing world, where the action is, where a small group of ethical technologists could make themselves useful allies to the downtrodden. Is there an organization I could join doing good work like this?
I'm not ruling anything out at this point. I'm open to totally crazy ideas. Shoot me a proposal.