Turning 30: An exercise in introspection and purpose

Turning 30: An exercise in introspection and purpose

When I was in High School, our 9th grade history teacher Mr. Holmes asked the class what our plans for retirement were. Mr. Holmes was a spectral wisp of an old man, likely nearing 90 — if not his inevitable confrontation with a balrog — and this was his way of challenging kids like me to think about our future. This was common for my classes. I was always placed with the misfits who needed more direction than simply learning the curriculum. These were the kids who for whatever reason couldn’t stay present for the duration of a single period or plan for anything on purpose. One of my misfit classmates named David surprisingly already had the rest of his life mapped out. He said he planned to join the military and if he was still alive (“for some reason”) by the time he reached 30 he would put a shotgun in his mouth. His dismissive response did not earn any commendations from Mr. Holmes, but I immediately adopted this plan as my own de facto future. Well… I wasn’t going to join the military. I also wasn’t going to put a shotgun in my mouth. I connected with the plan because it expressed how ridiculous the concept of being thirty-years-old was to me. It would require envisioning my life after school where I presumably had a career and a life. It was so foreign and incomprehensible. Being 30 existed as a far off “maybe one day” fantasy I never considered to be part of my reality even as I lived out my 20s.

Today, I turned 30. I cannot understate how unbelievable this is to me. It is made even more surreal by the popularity of Bo Burnham’s special Inside released earlier this year which specifically notes the bizarre experience of turning 30. It’s hyped up as a kind of event. Akin to other notable birthdays like when you’re finally a teenager at 13, or when you can drive a car at 16, or when you’re an adult at 18, or when you can legally drink at 21. Turning 30 is when you start a new decade. Pessimistically viewed as the end of your youth, or optimistically viewed as the moment when you finally have your life together. You have money to spend on things you like. You have confidence in your purpose in life. You know what you’re doing, finally.

The actual moment of turning 30 is much like how Burnham depicts it in Inside. You can recognize it is an event worth noting, but you actually experience it as a dull mundanity — maybe watching a clock tick to midnight and that’s it. Any further meaning from this specific revolution around the sun requires more introspection much like Burnham’s self-eviscerating comedy special.

Introspection

It’s funny Burnham is the messenger to encourage my own introspection because I sometimes muse about a similarity I have share with his career. It’s something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve gotten older. We both started our careers by exploring content creation on YouTube. Burnham made his first video in December 2006. This video is now a historical internet landmark and has over 11 million views, but initially it was a modest ~100,000 or so. I made my first video in November 2007 critiquing the video game Assassin’s Creed by showcasing some of the bad artificial intelligence and other gripes I had with it at the time. I made this video for a video game forum I commented on frequently called Gamewinners.com. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but strangely the video became very popular — at least in terms of YouTube circa 2007. By the end of the year, it had roughly 30,000 views.

I was 15 when I uploaded that video. The idea 30,000 individual people (or even a tenth of that) had seen something I made was incomprehensible. I didn’t know what it meant. No one was making money off of YouTube in 2007 — hell, no one made money off YouTube even as late as 2012 (Patreon wouldn’t start until 2013) — so the concept it might be a career path was never something that entered my mind. I knew I loved watching the video content made by GameSpot.com and later GiantBomb.com. I thought if I kept making this content maybe one day, I would get a “real job” in the industry. A real job necessarily meant getting hired by a company rather than doing my own thing.

To anyone who’s stayed current with industry trends, you may know my thinking when I was 15 was the exact opposite of what happened. Today traditional publications have practically all died. Companies instead rely on co-sponsoring with influencers — social media personalities who have their own audience. This was a key distinction from what I was doing on YouTube compared to someone like Burnham. Comedic musicians have existed before and there has always been a path for them to make a living. You can always do a concert or stand-up special. I was on YouTube pursuing a career path that didn’t exist yet. I didn’t know that at the time and honestly neither did anyone else.

There were also operational challenges for the videos I was making in the late 2000s. For one, there was no industry around making the videos I was doing. I couldn’t google “how do you capture footage” and get an answer. That wasn’t a question anyone was asking. I had to use other tools that just-so-happened to do things they were not designed to do. I ended up purchasing a “slingbox,” which was a device meant to stream cable television to your computer. Think of this device as a kind of caveman-era streaming before “streaming” was a thing anyone did. The device cost hundreds of dollars and didn’t always work. I spent a lot of time troubleshooting technical issues like “what is HDCP?” Or “what is a variable frame rate?” It made it difficult to churn out content since the technical problems were so frustrating.

There was also the problem of interacting with the internet every day. My personality has always been very skeptical of general consensus, and I made videos that were skeptical about the consensus critical acclaim for popular games like Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, or the fighting game genre. My skepticism was not cherished by the internet community. My videos got a lot of views mostly because they thrived on negativity. The negativity of my videos fueled “engagement.” I had a lot of comments and shares, which boosted my videos in algorithms. Of course, all this “engagement” was in actuality hundreds of strangers telling me to kill myself every day. One guy went so far as to make a series called “Reviewing a Reviewer” where he called me by name (which he found online rather than referring to my screen name) and for a five-part series he made jokes about how I was ugly and stupid. I’ll be the first to admit my early videos were needlessly edgy, but I think I got a disproportionate number of personal attacks considering I was talking about video games.

By the time I got to college I had been making videos for this weird thing called YouTube for almost 5 years and it didn’t seem like I was getting any closer to an actual job. I had an unpaid position at a video game coverage website called TalkXbox.com, but the site’s content demands made creating videos impossible. They were too time-consuming and didn’t attract enough attention compared to the dozens of articles we put out every week. I kept my personal YouTube channel, but I was tired of the pervasive negativity so I focused on analyzing things I liked. Unsurprisingly, these positive videos were watched by absolutely no one. Despite having thousands of subscribers, my new videos would get roughly 200 views total each. Meanwhile my negative videos from years prior continued to get 200 views every day. It is now conventional wisdom social media incentives outrage which plays into what videos are successful. The more controversial or disruptive a video is the more popular it will become. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I assumed my videos were just bad. I shifted my focus to school which led me down the path of traditional journalism. There were some minor detours, but I eventually got my job as a city reporter at The Malibu Times. From there I got an opportunity to travel back to the east coast where I became a business reporter. Then I eventually ended up in political communications which is what I claim to do now.

Much of this happened more than 10 years ago, but it’s what I think about when I reflect on what I’ve accomplished in my 30 years of life.

Purpose

I’ve come to appreciate a term in economics known as “revealed preference.” It’s part of an economic theory that suggests a consumer’s action more accurately communicates their preferences rather than asking them directly. A consumer may tell you they want the product with the highest quality, but their revealed preference shows they purchase the cheapest product most of the time. This theory is so uncontroversial it is an integral part of why capitalism functions better than other moralizing types of governance. We may all think we want X public good, but if no one is willing to pay for it then no amount of arguing about it will change that reality. We appear to exist in some constant state of self-deception. Our desires are illusory and distinct from our actual wants. This dynamic exists in understanding ourselves — perhaps best summarized by the proverb suggesting everyone has three faces: one for the world, one for our family, and one we never show to anyone. It’s that last one we never quite understand.

I’ve come to understand this self-deception better than most through writing about politicians. As a journalist attempting to be objective — or as a communications person attempting to maximize a person’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses — you stop seeing personality traits as innately good or bad. Instead, every person must be viewed holistically. In my experience, people in power don’t have any interest in exploring the alternative narratives about themselves — they’d rather stick with the rosiest interpretation. What this misses is the crucial reality that every “good” trait necessarily contributes to their failures and every “bad” trait necessarily adds to their success. What is the difference between someone who is stubborn and someone who has integrity? Nothing. They’re the same personality trait interpreted in different ways. When a person isn’t prone to changing their mind you might say they have integrity if you’re happy about it, or you might say they’re stubborn if you’re pissed about it. It is the same personality trait in both.

When I examine my own life for my revealed preferences, I discover a clear affinity for analysis. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I have an affinity for criticism. This is unsurprising to anyone who knows me as I am often described as critical, but I think this negative interpretation misses the intent behind the action. My actions are propelled out of a desire to understand my own relationship with whatever it is I’ve focused my attention on. What I’ve learned through my history making YouTube videos is there are some things people not only appreciate analysis of, but they desperately seek out.

My original YouTube channel stopped updating more than 10 years ago yet to this day I receive emails from former subscribers who’ve rediscovered my work. They’ll share with me how they remembered a half-forgotten memory of one of my videos and decided to look me up. My old content remains online — though much of it has aged poorly and isn’t enjoyable to watch outside of a historical curiosity — so people have the ability to rediscover my channel and follow the breadcrumbs to this website or my social accounts. Former subscribers will share with me how they liked my videos as a teenager and were curious what happened to me. These messages are partly what contributed to my decision to resurrect my YouTube presence during the pandemic and review movies (movie reviews are faster than video game review). My new videos are nothing like what I used to make — other than the fact no one watches them. They’re focused on analyzing things I like rather than deconstructing things I don’t like. It has been fascinating to read comments on these videos from people who seem to express a sense of relief after watching them. These viewers have maintained some fondness for a movie I reviewed but it was only after they watched my video that they felt equipped to explain their own enjoyment of it. There appears to be a desire to foster a deeper connection with art that has affected us, but often we find our own ability to develop that connection lacking. I think this desire for a deeper connection is what people discover through thorough analysis (mine or anyone else’s) and finding that connection is the origin of the relief viewers express.

I’ve discovered art is really the only appropriate thing to analyze… well, maybe mechanical systems and equations are appropriate to analyze too but I’ve never been good at that. A person will be rewarded for analyzing things, but analyzing people is rarely appreciated or wanted. In my experience shaping the image of public individuals, no one wants to hear how they might be perceived outside of their own narrative about themselves. People don’t like the prospect of losing control of their life’s story. I would argue if you’re in a position of power someone is going to be critical of you. Wouldn’t it be better to be prepared to figure out a response among your colleagues? In my experience, apparently not. Maybe there’s a reason psychologists are told not to psychoanalyze their friends. You can be good at something but you don’t have to apply it all the time. I think you could say many of my worst traits are the flipside of wanting to analyze things.

I may not have figured out what’s going on with this life I’ve got going on, but I think this daylong musing about the past 30 years has gotten me closer. Everyone has things they’ll do better or worse than others. By the time you’re 30 maybe you’ll have figured out what some of those things are. I think that’s the closest you’ll get to a purpose these days. That’s what I’ve got to show for the past 30 years… well, that and a lot of YouTube videos.

I wonder what David is doing these days.

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