On Limited Time

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Since turning 40s, I have been thinking about my life from now to the end. If I adopt a statistical thinking about my own mortality, this is a dangerous period of my life, because I can hit by any illness. Hence I have the impetus to sketch out my thoughts on the limited time and where I want to be heading.

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”

Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Screenplay

By October 2019, I will be 45. By conventional wisdom and how macroeconomics work out, my professional life will end by 65 if the retirement age will be extended. It means from 45 to 65, I have only 7300 days to really execute the remaining days of my life. I have often told myself that I will never retire. Even if I am not able to work on what I would wake up every day and be passionate about, there are still side projects which I have abandoned earlier in my life that I want to do. As a matter, as family life creeps in, I have discovered that I have been less engaged with the world and strangely since I have my first kid, I have very few meetings in the evening. When you have children, your priorities have also changed in the process.


Suppose if I turn 65, what will I do then? Chief among them is go back to theatre production. In my younger days, it has been one of my passions and going back to theatre production and changing the user experience with technology from how we can re-design the backstage to the front stage is something that I often want to do. Either I develop a script myself based on life experiences or work on existing material and port it to the stage. The beauty of theatre is similar to a startup. You assemble a production team and a cast of characters and you rushed to put a viable product on stage and then either it works or fails. It’s simplistic and there are many analogues between a startup and a theatre production. 

If my analytical abilities are not failing, I will like to return to theoretical physics. The beauty of studying theoretical physics is that even you have left the field for a while, you can still come back and work with a pen and a piece of paper. Theoretical physics is an osmotic subject, and as I age, my understanding has evolved and in fact, I have stopped thinking about difficult problems but looking at problems which are simple to state but require longer time to think and work it out. There are three problems which I want to look at if I have the opportunity.

The first is the two body problem in general relativity. For those who have studied Newtonian theory, the two body problem has an analytical solution meaning that you don’t need to resort to numerical approximations to determine the trajectory of the physical bodies such as stars out there. Unfortunately, general relativity is a non-linear theory, and hence finding that exact two body solution is not a simple feat. It sounds like a simple to state problem but it’s rather hard to solve, but there are some ideas which I like to tap on and figure it out.

Another problem is something that I often think that it’s a conjecture or an educated guess on my end. What does quantum tunneling mean in physics? One outrageous idea is that maybe in the quantum scales, there might be ways of tapping into extra dimensions which might be very small. What if quantum tunneling is actually a manifestation of extra dimensions? We have seen experimental evidence of quantum tunneling and that powers the transistors which power the modern computers. Yet, we don’t have a clear idea what it really means. The idea is to reconcile quantum tunneling as a manifestation of extra dimensions and it looks extremely seductive but I will try to rule it out.

The third problem is about energy. As one grows with a deeper understanding in physics, energy is an interesting problem. One simple problem which I want to understand is to calculate the amount of energy generated during photosynthesis of plants. Unlike animals, plants are much more complex and demonstrated interesting processes that drove modern molecular biology today. You might be surprised that RNA interference was known in plant biology before it was shown in animals such as mice. Thinking about energy problems in plants might be a way to devise interesting solutions in food sustainability for the future. 

How about now? I have been thinking about how to optimize my time better. I have a corporate day job, a side project and a family. Each demands a reasonable amount of time. I have started to exercise a lot more and putting hacks to myself so that I can focus on the tasks at end. Till now to 45, I am thinking how to cut more stuff out of my schedule so that I can focus. That’s the trade off which I realize that I have to make. During a stage of my life, I hoped to get onto honors from young global leaders to Forbes list, and then into prestigious organizations out there. As my age becomes the barrier given the age limits in these things, I realized that it helps me to think less about them and more about the work. In fact, those used to be distractions but lately, I think that maybe it’s good for me in the longer term. 

I often think that I am far too ambitious for my own good. What I am often worried lately, is to lose that self-belief that I am meant to do great things in this short life within the vast Universe. Recently, Sam Altman from Y Combinator wrote an interesting essay entitled “How to be Successful” (and anyone who wants to be successful should read this) based on his experience and learnings about successful people who he has access to. I find one lesson from him particularly useful for myself, that is compounding yourself.

As I have indicated earlier in an essay I wrote about the simplicity of business, Warren Buffett’s success is built on simple principles but hard to follow unless you are very disciplined. Warren Buffett often talks about the effect of compounding in your own investments, and hence aspiring to be the exponential curve might also be important as well. 

Hence this quote from Sam Altman’s article might be useful for why the individual needs to think about compounding ourselves.

“Compounding is magic. Look for it everywhere. Exponential curves are the key to wealth generation …

You also want to be an exponential curve yourself—you should aim for your life to follow an ever-increasing up-and-to-the-right trajectory. It’s important to move towards a career that has a compounding effect—most careers progress fairly linearly. …

As your career progresses, each unit of work you do should generate more and more results. There are many ways to get this leverage, such as capital, technology, brand, network effects, and managing people. …
Most people get bogged down in linear opportunities. Be willing to let small opportunities go to focus on potential step changes. …

I think the biggest competitive advantage in business—either for a company or for an individual’s career—is long-term thinking with a broad view of how different systems in the world are going to come together. One of the notable aspects of compound growth is that the furthest out years are the most important. In a world where almost no one takes a truly long-term view, the market richly rewards those who do.

Trust the exponential, be patient, and be pleasantly surprised.”

Sam Altman’s “How to be successful”

From now to 45, I want to focus, plan and work out probably what I would like to spend the next 7300 days of my professional life.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist