The Life of William Ryan from 2008 to 2013

I wrote a very long email about the events of my life during the past 5 years, and sent it to more or less everyone I knew. This will serve as a great introduction to who I am circa September 2013, and I want to refer new people back to it frequently, so I am posting it publicly here on my blog. Enjoy!

Dear friends, family, and associates,

I admit that I have not been the best at keeping in touch with you over the past several years. Some of you I have not spoken to since graduation! Many of you I have only met subsequently, and may not know the earlier parts of my history. Events have been happening in very rapid succession, and I keep thinking I will hold off on sending an update until I get over the next hump… which usually leaves me waiting perpetually for a time that never quite arrives. This email is my attempt at correcting this trend. Due to the ground I need to cover, it will be quite a long email, and I will try to be as brief as possible while hitting the critical details.

I realize that many people do not like to read long emails, so in true internet tradition I will include a “too long; didn’t read” summary now. If you want to know more details of my life, skip the spoilers in the next paragraph and then read on – I think you will enjoy the story. :)

tl;dr: I graduated from Dartmouth in 2008, moved to NYC, and worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis. I got very interested in cognitive science, joined and helped form a community centered around those ideas, and completely overhauled my life. I met the woman of my dreams, moved to the Bay Area, and plugged into Peter Thiel’s libertarian-futurist circle. I worked for a research institute briefly, then a mobile health startup, and now I do communications for Peter. Divia and I got married, changed our last names to Eden, and had a beautiful baby girl Lydia last year. Drop me a line to get in touch! :)

I graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008, with a BA in economics, with honors and cum laude. This was the worst possible time to be going into finance in at least a generation. As the financial crisis unfolded, I found myself in NYC with a very uncertain future. Fortunately, there is a growth sector during a financial crisis: the central bank. Thanks to my professor Douglas Irwin, I spoke with the International Research department of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and sure enough they were urgently looking to hire.

Experiencing the response to the financial crisis from the inside was both fascinating and terrifying. That is worth an entire book on its own, and I am trying to keep this email to a reasonable length. For those of you who are curious, I am happy to expound at great length in person or via phone/Skype. While I did not agree with many of the decisions the Fed and others made during this period, I will say that I liked many aspects of the job qua job. I got to work on some interesting problems, particularly in how the US dollar is used internationally and understanding the international dimensions of the financial crisis, and I coauthored a paper that is currently in submission at top journals. You can see examples of some of my work here:

http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/global_economy/IRCTimelinePublic.pdf

http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr400.html

During this time my thinking was beginning to change dramatically, in ways that have now shaped the course of my life forever after. It is difficult to encapsulate exactly what was so important and so different about me, but I will do my best.

Starting around the beginning of senior year I was becoming more and more interested in cognitive science, very broadly speaking. I wanted to know everything from how receptor sites in synapses worked, all the way up to the heuristics that our brains use for decision making. I realized that there was an entire literature about how human brains work by default, and sure enough when I introspected it was clear that my mind functioned in much the same way. I felt like someone had just given me an instruction manual for my own brain. Sadly most of the literature treats these heuristics and biases as inevitable. I did not believe that for a second. I have watched my mind change enormously over the years, and I knew that with introspection and feedback and effort I could change these patterns too.

I can’t emphasize enough how different it is to go meta and create internal feedback mechanisms like this. By default, we go about our lives… by default. If we never choose to look under the hood, we develop intuitive models of the world that determine the course of our lives. This process works well enough to keep most people alive, but I look around me and see a lot of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. I do think everyone has the power to take their cognition – and by proxy their lives – into their own hands, to figure out what they want out of life and optimize for that.

I started spending more time on self-improvement. In addition to overhauling my cognitive processes, I also studied metabolism and completely changed my diet, lost about 50 pounds, started weightlifting and sprinting and added muscle, revamped my wardrobe, learned to read microexpressions and nonverbal communication, learned psychology and a huge range of useful mental hacks, learned how to program… the list goes on, and continues to this day. The person I am now is unrecognizable to the me of 2007, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So it turns out that there is a well developed community built around this idea of using cognitive science to influence our own thinking. They self-identify as “rationalists”, and despite having many connotations that are misleading, I will use that as a convenient term to refer to them. It was originally organized around the blog Overcoming Bias, where economist and futurist Robin Hanson and AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky were co-blogging, and has now grown and splintered into many related organizations.

Because this has had a major influence on me, I want to spread these ideas to others who might be interested. There are many points of entry depending on your preferred method of learning:

In-person seminars: http://rationality.org/
Philosophical essays: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences
Fiction: http://hpmor.com/

When I originally stumbled upon these ideas online, I didn’t know anyone else who thought like this. I developed these ideas and modified myself in isolation, and I didn’t really believe that I would ever meet the other people with the same interests. This changed when Robin Hanson came to NYC in April 2009 and hosted an in-person meetup. Needless to say, I had more in common with these complete strangers than I did anyone in my life up until that point. I handed everyone my business card, told them to email me, and thus the Overcoming Bias NYC meetup was born.

In retrospect, I have clearly been seeking community for many years. I’ve come to identify this as a universal, fundamental human need, one which oddly enough many people seem to be lacking and sometimes not even realize it. At Dartmouth I joined a fraternity (as the majority of undergraduates do), and later a senior society. The ritual and traditions, singing, gathering around a fire in the woods, living in a house with people who were around constantly… many aspects of the experience appealed to me. It was not until my experience with OBNYC that I came to understand just how important it was to have a tribe.

I learned a lot about how to organize groups during this period. These lessons are critically important, but once again exceed the length of even this long email. However, a brief timeline of what happened in those days, and what I think other people should know, is encapsulated in this post that I wrote:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/4ul/less_wrong_nyc_case_study_of_a_successful/

Writing that post spawned several dozen new rationality groups to form across five continents. This was an incredibly rewarding experience, and I still help new organizers get their own groups rolling to this day.

It may seem like I am spending a lot of time talking about the rationality community, and this is because my involvement with them leads to all of the major developments of my subsequent career and personal life.

One of the people looking to start a new rationality community was a woman named Divia Melwani, and we began an email correspondence. She was a born and bred Manhattanite, planning to come back to visit her family in NYC for the 2010 holidays, and wanted to stop by the group to see a meetup. We first met on November 30th, 2010, when she was attempting to finish a 50,000 word novel in one day, before midnight. She almost did it, too.

I was instantly captivated by her, and we started spending most of our time together, getting to know each other and exchanging everything we knew about the world. Both of us were growth-oriented, and had identified very similar directions we wanted to go in. Despite starting with very different backgrounds, we had converged on the same values and ideas. I did not ever think I would meet someone who confirmed my entire worldview so completely. Just a few months prior I had made a list of everything I wanted in a partner, and I truly believed that the intersection of those sets was empty. She was the most surprising thing that ever happened to me. I knew that I wanted to spend my life with Divia from almost the very beginning.

She overstayed the holidays by a couple glorious months together, but eventually returned to the Bay Area. Even then we were spending 3+ hours/day communicating via phone and writing, and we knew this situation was unsustainable. The only question was which one of us would up and move first.

By this point I had been working for the Fed for almost two and a half years, which is a standard tenure for an assistant economist, and I was not entirely sure what I wanted to do next. I knew that I was ready for some kind of change – my pro-growth heuristics told me I was getting too comfortable there, and that I needed to shake things up. Fortunately, my work with the rationality community was beginning to attract notice in the Bay Area, and folks at the Singularity Institute were interested in bringing me to the west coast to work more closely with them. They ultimately offered me a temporary position with a small stipend, and that was enough for me to take the plunge. The exit interviewer at the Fed was shocked at my decision. I told her that I was following my passion. Within a month I had uprooted my entire life in NYC and transported myself to the Bay Area with only two suitcases and two boxes.

I don’t have remotely enough space here to do my Bay Area adventures justice, so I will mostly stick to my personal and professional developments. I moved into Divia’s room in a large intentional community called Tortuga, in Mountain View. For those of you who are not familiar, this was a community founded in part by Patri Friedman: the grandson of Milton Friedman, the father of the Seasteading movement, and one of my long-time heroes. When I first found out about Tortuga, I was sad that I would never get the chance to live there. It turns out that intentionality is a powerful thing…

This is relevant because the Seasteading Institute created an annual water festival called Ephemerisle. I attended my first one just a few months after moving to the Bay Area, and this proved to be a pivotal moment. As many of you know, I have identified as a hardcore libertarian for quite some time now, so it was only natural that I would plug into libertarian circles here in the Bay. One of the key figures in west coast libertarianism is Peter Thiel: one of the co-founders of Paypal, the first investor in Facebook, and a notable investor and philanthropist. He is the primary donor to several organizations that I care about deeply, including the Singularity Institute and the Seasteading Institute. An entire ecosystem has developed around Peter, his investments, and his charities, and Ephemerisle is a central gathering place of those people. I met some of my closest friends here in the Bay during that event, and this led directly to my subsequent career choices.

I enjoyed my brief tenure with the Singularity Institute. I was largely focused on the same community-building work I was doing from NYC, plus helped develop and teach their new rationality training seminars that summer. Shortly thereafter the Singularity Institute sold their name (and the Singularity Summit) to the Singularity University, and split into two new and related organizations: an AI think tank called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and a rationality training organization called the Center for Applied Rationality.

Ultimately I decided that I wanted to make the jump into the startup world, and so I went to my friends at Founders Fund (Peter Thiel’s venture capital arm) and asked them where my skills would be the most useful. I ended up landing at Azumio, a mobile health app company, as the Chief Analytics Officer. It was fascinating to be a part of both the mobile trend, as well as the big data trend, not to mention the general Silicon Valley startup zeitgeist. In the interest of space I will not say too much about the experience, though I enjoyed the flexible hours and the ability to work with big data sets. I was with them through the end of 2012, when they informed me that they had not raised another round in time, and was scaling back to just a handful of developers. The company still exists, and occasionally puts out a new app, but it appears that its fate is not to be the next big venture-funded startup.

At that point I again put out the word that I was considering my next career move, and this quickly attracted interest. In particular, Jim O’Neill (from the Thiel Foundation and Mithril Capital) decided to put me in touch with Peter Thiel directly, and we had a series of conversations about how I could help him with his mission. Ultimately there was an available opening as his Director of Communications – which while it did not fit with my formal training and work history, it did jive very nicely with my interest in psychology and writing. I am still very happily employed at Thiel Capital now. This is the first time I feel like I have had a job that feels like I am doing something important, something deeply aligned with my goals, surrounded by people who share in that common mission. Now that I have such an environment, I can’t imagine working a job where I did not fully believe in my work.

I saved the personal thread for last, since it contains the most important and momentous news of all. Divia and I continued to grow closer after I moved to the Bay Area, and in 2011 we decided that we really were right for each other, and that we wanted to forge a life together. One aspect of that that was important for us was the decision to have children. So in January 2012 we set a wedding date for that May, and decided to start trying immediately… and we succeeded on the very first try. :)

The wedding took place on May 27th, 2012, in the beautiful Tilden State Park in Berkeley. The wedding was presided by none other than Eliezer Yudkowsky himself, in a nod to the community that brought us together. We also decided to cut the Gordian Knot on the whole last name question, and we chose a new last name together. That is why you are receiving this email from William Eden instead of William Ryan. Perhaps I should have put that part up front…

For those of you who enjoy that sort of thing, pictures and videos of the wedding are here:

https://plus.google.com/photos/108192357728138477755/albums
http://www.youtube.com/user/EdenWedding

Our daughter Lydia Ariadne Eden was born at 8:53 AM on October 10th, 2012, after 30 hours of labor. She was 8 lbs at birth, 21 inches long, and perfectly healthy. We did a lot of research and ultimately decided on doing a home birth. Having now had the experience I would highly highly recommend the same for anyone else, as long as you don’t have any complications during pregnancy.

It is hard to believe we are coming up on her one year birthday now! There is so much I could say about the experience of parenting, but this email is already long enough as it is. I will say that I enjoy it far more than I expected, having a sense of awe and wonder at creating a new human being, and watching her change and grow literally by the day. I feel like I have a sense of deep seated well being, that never quite seems to fade away. I still wake up in the morning and look at her face and think about how adorable she is and how lucky we are to have her.

And the story continues. Just days ago we got the most adorable Golden Doodle puppy named Argos. :) Our little family is still growing… If you want more updates (and pictures/videos) about our family, the best thing you could do is to add me on Facebook if you haven’t already: https://www.facebook.com/william.alexander.eden

That brings us to the end of this update email. If you’ve made it all the way through this, I want to thank you for your interest. I like the idea of trying to keep in touch better in the future. In practice this probably means the occasional update email when big news comes along. I don’t yet know what has been happening for most of you, either! As you might expect, I have a very full schedule these days, but I want to make the time to catch up with you if you are interested in maintaining our connection. Please do feel free to reach out to me – at least to write me an email and tell me the highlights from your own past few years, if not to find a chat via phone/Skype sometime in the coming days.

Thanks again for reading, and I hope to talk to you again soon! :)