Optimization Problems

How does one optimize one's life? In my case, "optimal" is synonymous with "maximize time spent working on interesting projects."

Optimization problems attract me greatly. From the simplest of them, like how to get from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible, to more complex ones, like how best to break down a very complicated process into a series of discrete, simple steps. I find automating tedious repetitive tasks particularly delightful. And then there is the optimization my family comments on most often: how to maximize the economic gain or minimize the economic loss of every transaction. Which I like to call being "thrifty," and they like to call being "cheap."

But of late I have been having a problem. No, not with my optimizations. At least not in and of themselves. The problem I have been having is answering the question, "Optimize for what?"

Not being much interested in material things, beyond a bare level of sustenance and internet access, I tend to see money as stored free time for the most part. Not free time in the sense of time to drink beer and watch TV. No; free time in the sense of time to work on interesting projects.

The problem with working on interesting projects is a basic one: supply and demand. The people who are willing to work on interesting projects will always be high. Who wants to fly a rocket ship, show of hands? Also, this is why there are so damned many humanities grad students and post-docs (harrumph).

What then is one who aspires to work on interesting projects to do? One option is to split time between an uninteresting project and an interesting project. Or in other words, have a day job. This is what I have been doing for the past nine months or so. Let us call this stage 1.

Stage 2 revolves around the supply side of the supply-demand curve. Many people may be willing to work on interesting projects. But there are a great many projects they are not able to work on. Spaceflight is probably the best example, but the modern world is positively teeming with instances of this.

This limited supply of people both willing and able means that one can both work on interesting projects and be compensated for it. This is stage 2. It is far superior to stage 1.

Stage 3 is even better than stage 2. Stage 3 is the freedom to simply ignore supply-and-demand in choosing work. I am pursuing this stage at the moment, by studying computer science full-time. Sadly, I only have the means to live the dream for about the next year or so.

The question then is this one: does one devote oneself wholly to stage 1, year after year, then jump straight to stage 3? This is the stereotypical American way. Does one pursue stage 2 exclusively? And how does one get to stage 2, if one does not have already have the skills needed for a job that both pays and is interesting?

It seems like most of the stage 3 jobs I find most interesting (open source benevolent dictator for life included) do tend to provide at least a minimum level of sustenance. So building up a huge nestegg with a lot of stage 1 work seems dangerous, because the only truly limited commodity is time, and said nestegg might never materialize, no matter how hard one works.

So instead, I'm going to try to ride stage 3 as fast as I can to stage 2. And then, upon reaching it, slowly grow toward stage 3.

Someone with a different relationship to material things seeking different stage 3 work might come to a very different conclusion.