What does 40 years look like?

A visual tour through four decades.

What does 40 years look like?

What does 40 years look like? 2000 931 Looking out Loud

I was born in 1980. So in 2020, I turn 40.

It’s a timeline I share with Kim Kardashian, Jake Gyllenhaal, Macaulay Culkin, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Ronaldinho.

On my 40th birthday, I’m just one day older than the day before. But still, turning 40 feels like a good time to reflect.

What does 40 years look like?

From a clock’s  perspective, four decades might look something like this:

480

Months

14600

Days

350400

Hours

21024000

Minutes

More interesting, though, is what happens in our bodies, minds, and the world around us as those minutes tick by.

What have I done with these years? How has the world changed? How have I changed?

To find out, I dug through thousands of photos, reminisced over an ever-changing pop culture, ran through decades of politics and world events, and was reminded of just how much technology had changed in four decades. Not to mention my face.

You can click around this timeline for a quick preview of what I found. Or read on to start your visual tour of 40 years.

In each decade you’ll find:

  • Top news stories you’ve probably forgotten
  • The biggest pop culture hits you’ll want to remember
  • The state of the art technology that you’ll feel belongs in an ancient history museum
  • A glimpse into my personal experience and developing mind

If there’s a decade you can’t wait to get to, you can break from my temporal destiny by opening the [Time Machine] found at the start of each decade.

If you want to follow the path laid out by my fate, it starts in 1980.

The 1980s: hello world, hello me

My journey started in an apartment in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was late July 1979, just before my parents set off on a road trip to Tetons National Park. A sperm and egg united, cells multiplied, limbs formed, my heart started beating—and 9 months later I started kicking. Hello world.

Birth to babbling toddler

My genes had thus far shaped me into a caucasian male, 21.5 inches, just over 8 pounds, with thick black hair, jaundiced skin, but otherwise healthy. My environment provided me with a loving, hard-working, church-going, middle-class American family who cared deeply about trying their best.

This nature-nurture combo would affect me for the rest of my life, with privileges I didn’t come to realize until many years later.

At first, I focused entirely on my immediate surroundings. I absorbed the sights, sounds, and people around me—Who are these creatures? Can I trust them? I learned to scoot, crawl, then walk—and started exploring the world on my own. I communicated with screams, stares, and smiles—then I discovered the impact of “mama” and “no!”

These symbols—sounds that stand for objects and actions—opened a whole new way of interacting with the world. Still, my reality remained small.

I didn’t care that Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter to become the 40th US President, or about the Cold War that occupied the news. I didn’t care that the global population was 4.5 billion (compared to the 7.8 billion people on today’s planet), or that the global GDP was around $11 trillion (compared to over $90 trillion in 2020). I didn’t care about these distant things any more than I cared about my dad’s 1975 VW Beetle parked outside.

Between birth and my first birthday, my brain doubled in size. By age 3 it was already 80% of my 40-year-old brain size, with around twice as many synapses (connections between brain cells) as I have now. My underdeveloped brain was fine-tuning itself to my local environment. Hello me.

And while my attention stayed local, my influences started expanding exponentially.

Beyond my backyard: The early school years and new social interactions

Very quickly my world grew beyond my mother’s breast, the space around my house, and a ride in the backseat of the car. I started noticing the rural Indiana landscape around me—corn fields, woods, streams, Chevys and Fords. I noticed my dad commenting on gas prices, which typically cost less than 90 cents per gallon.

While G.I. Joes and Hot Wheels still filled my pockets, the wider outdoors became my playground and imagination became my guide. Climbing trees, riding bikes, and building spy forts became daily affairs. A big woods at the end of the street opened adventures to other worlds.

Then I started making friends beyond the neighborhood and Sunday school.

As I moved from preschool and kindergarten into elementary school, social and emotional interactions drew more of my attention. I was increasingly influenced by peers. My heightened awareness of others led to increasing sense of self and how I fit into the world around me.

Formal education began laying the foundation that society deemed important. I moved from basic counting to simple math, from a memorized alphabet to meaningful reading. Geography and history class hinted at other worlds, though exotic lands and past times still felt abstract.

But a bigger world was starting to expose itself in other ways, fueled by the radio and cable TV.

Pop culture in the 1980s

In 1981, MTV launched with its first music video: “Video Killed the Radio Star.” That set off a new era of big hair and hot pink fashion. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, and Guns N’ Roses.

I heard my dad talking about M.A.S.H., Star Trek, and Magnum PI. I loved when Cheers was on, just to hear him laugh. I was into Knight Rider, Family Ties, and the A-Team: “I pity the fool.”

The iconic bicycle flying in front of the moon forever sealed E.T. in memory. Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Michael J Fox became household names.

Tech and science in the 1980s

“Daaaad, phone!” I’d yell across the house when it wasn’t for me. We had two phones, both with long twisty cords connecting the handset to the base. ‘How cool if each person had their own phone number with a different ring tone,’ I thought. The first commercially available mobile phone, the DynaTAC 8000x, arrived in 1983. Today, each of us has our own phone number and ring tone sitting in our pockets.

Exactly 5 years before my birth, on April 4, 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft. The following year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. The first Mac launched in 1984, nearly a quarter century before the first iPhone in 2007.

Throughout the ‘80s, personal computing ignited.

In 1980, there were 724,000 personal computers sold in the US. The next year that doubled to 1.4 million. In 1982, PC sales doubled again. That same year, Time Magazine put a computer on the cover of their “Man of the Year” issue. This was much to the dismay of Steve Jobs, who was convinced it would be his photo.

Nintendo games, 3.5 inch floppy disks, and CD-ROMs all made their appearance in the 80s. External storage was a useful addition to machines that often came with less than 10 MB harddrives (yes, megabyte). Much to my disappointment, I wouldn’t get my first Nintendo Gameboy until I turned 10.

There was no public internet. Gasp.

Airplane travel was another technological luxury that most people couldn’t afford in the ‘80s. But for those who could, it was okay to bring booze and knives, smoke on the flight, and show up 20 minutes before takeoff and still board the plane.

Right at the end of the decade my sister and I got a new baby brother.
And then I turned 10.

Eric Johnson 1990s

The 1990s: puberty, peer pressure, and the internet

In the ‘90s, I accelerated through elementary, middle, high school, and into university. It was a time of massive physical, mental, and social change.

Starting with puberty. Over the course of a couple years I grew from 5 feet and a bit tall with a high voice and bald body, to 6’2″ with hairy arms and an acne-covered face.

I was a hormonally charged cauldron of self-consciousness, self-doubt, overconfidence and mood swings, mixed with a wide range of new stimuli.

Expanding spheres of influence: a few foundations

Throughout the preadolescent and teen years, the mind is vacuuming in experiences and filtering values, likes, and dislikes. Three positive influences stick out in my memory:

  • Family. My family was close, including most of my seven pairs of aunts and uncles and 20 cousins. Routines and discipline were established, play and adventure were encouraged. Summer road trips took me to numerous sites across the US, with many nights spent in tents.

Learnings: family is here for you, knowledge is everywhere, Gameboy is essential for long family car trips.

  • Church. Evangelize by helping people in need. Apart from Sundays, I went on missions work camps to build houses for the poor in Appalachia, West Virginia, and Tijuana, Mexico. I also helped renovate an abandoned school in Newark, NJ into a summer Bible camp for inner city kids.

Learnings: some church kids are a lot of fun, others are a little naive, and even the poorest families in my town are crazy rich compared with a lot of people out there.

  • Boys Scouts. Be prepared, help others, respect nature. I went rock climbing, canoeing, caving, camping, rappelling, whitewater rafting, shotgun shooting, and deep sea fishing in the Florida Keys, cooking the lobsters we caught over a campfire. Even flew a two-person plane over the Indiana cornfields. And stuck with it to become an Eagle Scout.

Learnings: wilderness survival, all those things mentioned above, and how to be actively involved in Boy Scouts for six years without any of your friends knowing because you’re embarrassed they’ll think you’re a nerd.

A family night in the woods. Gameboy essential for a 12-year-old.

Peer pressure at full throttle

In the middle of the decade, the teen years were really kicking in.

Social pressures, self-consciousness, and pop culture laid strong impressions on my young mind and helped shape my identity.

Though I kept it in, I felt like an outsider even around my closest friends. My insecurities and self doubt that I carry to this day started to manifest. It led me to mumble my thoughts rather than speaking clearly and confidently. And when I didn’t get the reaffirming responses I’d hoped for when speaking, I became less confident, mumbled more, and was listened to less.

To cope, I often chose to sit back and observe in social settings. I was too afraid of missing out to just stay home. And we didn’t have cell phones and tablets, so online social networking wasn’t an option.

In an adolescent brain, risk, reward, and control centers are thrown way out of balance. Pleasure-craving areas of the brain (like the nucleus accumbens) go into hyperdrive. Brain areas involved in controlling impulsive behavior and simulating future consequences (like the orbitofrontal cortex) don’t fully develop until one’s mid-20s.

The mix was a recipe for disaster at a time when peer pressure was at full throttle.

I started sneaking out at night to roam our rural neighborhood streets with friends. It was mostly innocent trouble: toilet-papering people’s houses, switching dogs from one fenced-in backyard to another, stealing dozens of political campaign signs from yards across the county and leaving all of them in one family’s yard.

I also rebelled in other ways. Like piercing my ear in a girlfriend’s apartment, growing my hair long and lightening it with lemon juice, and trespassing into rock quarries to go cliff diving. I also started to drink, smoke, and took a keen interest in girls.

Yes, that kind of cliff diving.

All the while, my mom’s small town Christian values lingered in the back of my mind.

It was like a game of tug of war between the wholesome lessons I’d learned at home, and the increasing sphere of influence impinging from the world around: peers, pleasures, and the more readily available pop culture.

Pop culture in the 1990s

We imitated what we saw.

We wore baggy pants like MC Hammer, we lip-synched like Milli Vanilli, we shaved lines in our buzz-cut hair like Vanilla Ice. Then we grew our hair long like Kurt Cobain, drove around like the Smashing Pumpkins in 1979, and smoked joints like Snoop Dogg.

The release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was a musical game changer, introducing gansta rap, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and eventually Eminem to the masses. My mom was sure rap music was a fad. Kendrick’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize suggests she was wrong.

In film, the decade opened with T2 and closed with the Matrix. Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Titanic set out to prove that movies should be as long as they need to be.

Here’s your 90s hits flashback:

 

It wasn’t just the engineered entertainment industry expanding my horizons. The wider real world was also making an appearance.

The world beyond the cornfields

Throughout the 1990s, I found out that life wasn’t just about me and my fellow small town Americans.

In middle school we made posters for the Gulf War, triggered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The Oklahoma bombing dropped domestic “terrorism” into the national consciousness.

In my high school cafeteria, we watched the OJ Simpson trial on wall-mounted cable TV monitors at lunch time.

Some other 90s news that rippled the world:

 

For most of the decade, the television was our window to the world beyond our town. No one carried mobile phones, and the news was delivered at whatever time the major cable networks had programmed.

Then everything changed.

Tech in the 1990s

PCs continued to trickle into US homes throughout the 90s. Microsoft dominated the PC market, and Steve Jobs’ mid-decade return to Apple would set the stage for the golden Apple years.

Kids didn’t have cell phones, and the internet-ready iPhone was another decade away. To stay in touch, we carried beepers. A phone number came across the tiny screen, then you found a pay phone to call it back, hoping they were still waiting by that same phone.

My sophomore year of high school, we finally got the internet in our public high school library. You’d click on a link then sit for half a minute for the page to load, the images slowly appearing line by line down the screen.

 

You could learn anything through a Lycos or Yahoo search. Google was still being developed in a college dorm room.

Access to the world wide web remained restricted to big clunky desktop computers connected through slow dial-up modems that sounded like this:

Dial-up modems: this is what connecting to the internet sounded like in the 1990s.

Google, Amazon, and Netflix were all founded in the late 90s. Though Google hadn’t yet learned how to make money, Amazon was just selling books, and Netflix was doing rent-by-mail DVDs and still a decade away from streaming services.

At the end of the decade I went off to college with a new Gateway computer sporting a top-of-the-line 10GB hard drive. Plugging into that dorm room T1 ethernet connection felt like an upgrade to hyperdrive.

Flying the coop: a taste of freedom

As a high school graduation gift, my parents sent me to Bolivia, where my cousins were living while my uncle was stationed in the army. I hadn’t heard of Bolivia before then, and it was an eye opener. A catalyst for future foreign excursions.

But first, was a four-year excursion to Bloomington, Indiana, for my first taste of real independence. I was finally out of my parent’s house and living with total strangers in another town.

I craved the freedom. But I was scared too. My outwardly confident, internally insecure self continued.

My parents let me decide what I wanted to study. But I didn’t want to study anything, I just wanted to have fun. So my parents decided I’d study business because “the stuff you learn can be applied to anything,” they said. They were probably right.

What you study in college is a little bit about job preparation, and a lot more about learning to focus on a particular part of the world and its specialized vocabulary.

I remember one professor requiring us to read the WSJ In Brief section everyday for a semester. He said at first we wouldn’t get much, but by absorbing the lingo and relationships, little by little a picture of the political and economic world would begin to emerge. He was right.

But my heart wasn’t there, and my juvenile mind was more focused on binge drinking and other late night ridiculousness.

As the millennium came to a close, we followed Prince’s lead and partied like it was 1999. While we did, we also secretly feared that the rumored Y2K bug would take down the internet, the world economy, and our global stability.

We survived. A new millennium arrived. And I was about to set off on a decade-long journey to find myself.

Eric Johnson 2000s

The 2000s: globe-trotting, self-seeking, partner finding

“Lost. Confused. Uncertain. Happy. Sad. Finished. Incomplete. Satisfied. Yearning. Anxious. Curious. No regrets. Confident. Insecure. Love. Passion. Amazed. Involved. Fascinated. Faith. Directed. Afraid. Consumed... All of these words somehow come together to described the thoughts in my head and the squeeze through my heart… One phase—a big phase—is ending. Another will soon be underway. The decision as to which direction I head next must be made in the next few days.”

– Journal Entry (Time Well Spent, brown notebook), 13.Aug.2004, tbc…

In my 20s, I went looking for myself. I searched the globe from top to bottom—traveling through over 30 countries, and living in 4 of them on 3 continents.

It was full of journeys without destinations, loneliness in the company of friends, and a lot of tears.

1. Maastricht & Europe: Hello culture

On the college homestretch my mom suggested I study abroad. I didn’t think I was interested, but she encouraged and I listened. Next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Amsterdam, then down to Maastricht in the south of Netherlands, nestled between Germany and Belgium.

The people in our guesthouse came from all over the world. Many were there to study their fifth or sixth language, most spoke at least two or three languages. Except us monolingual Americans, who were floored at this polyglot eye-opener. One thing we had in common: we were all there to have a good time.

A Eurorail pass put Europe on my doorstep. I snowboarded in Switzerland, drank too much wine in Paris, ran into Marilyn Manson in the streets of Prague, missed a flight in London.

The Euro was just being introduced at the time, which meant throughout Europe you could pay with either Euro or the local currency—Deutschmarks, Lire, Pesetas, Francs. Although the UK never bought into the Euro currency concept, they did form part of the European Union. Less than twenty years later, Brexit would reverse that progress. Way to go Boris.

Maastricht opened my eyes to culture: spoken languages, body languages, foods, values, styles of dress, ways of moving, ways of dancing, ways of spending time. Above all, different ways of looking at the world. I heard perspectives on politics, capitalism, and America that I’d never noticed before. It was like gaining a new set of eyes.

I also started doing something I hadn’t really done much of before: reading. An embarrassing confession, but true.

The written word provided a whole new kind of access to the world. Religion and philosophy, science and history. Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Doug Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach left lasting impressions. (Thanks for the books Uncle John) How had I never found reading interesting before?

I went back to Indiana with the feeling that I’d lost a few years of his life romping in the corn fields. I spent less time partying and more time walking in the woods and reading by the lake. I dove into courses on the philosophy of mind and intercultural communications—previews of upcoming life steps.

That fall, the world changed. On September 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked in midair and flown into the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, VA. It was a moment that no one will ever forget, despite how poorly we remember it.

That next Spring, I graduated with a business degree. But the economy had dropped following the dot-com bubble burst, and a consulting career didn’t feel like the path for me. I still had the cultural aftertaste from Maastricht, and I wanted more.

So instead I fled to Japan, where my airplane was about to go down.

2. Japan & Asia: A time of self-seeking 自己探求

“Brace for impact! Brace for impact! Brace for impact!
– Flight attendants, as our plane descended

Our heads were against the seat backs in front us, hands crossed behind our heads, my new Toshiba laptop hidden under my shirt—because ‘damn it, I just bought this thing, and I’m not leaving it behind like you told me I had to when I go down that inflatable slide.’

Thirty minutes before, the in-flight announcement was this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. The rudder which we use to control the plane has broken in two. We’re turning back to make an emergency landing in Anchorage.”

Those next thirty minutes were tense. But it wasn’t the worst landing I’ve experienced. And it gave me 24 hours in Anchorage, Alaska, to reflect on life’s uncertainty before finally arriving in Japan.

I lived in Tokyo for a year, then Nagasaki for another year. I met other globe-trotting souls I finally felt a connection with—a few I count among my closest friends today, including one who married my sister and became my brother-in-law eight years later.

My introduction to mindfulness began here. I re-read the story of Siddhartha Gautama and the history of Buddhism, and I started meditating in local Zen temples. I became obsessed with writing Japanese Kanji (漢字). It was a route to focus and mental peace—two things I still need a lot more of.

Geisha, sumo, sushi, cherry blossoms, tea ceremonies, manga, origami. Everything done with precision. The expression “出る釘は打たれる”—The nail that sticks out gets hammered down—revealed a societal conformity that sharply contrasts with the American ideals of individualism and self-expression.

Different views of Japan

I traveled Japan, snowboarding in Hokkaido, sitting naked with strangers in onsens (Japanese hot springs), climbing Mt Fuji when my parents and brother came to visit. I explored Asia, from the DMZ on the North Korean border to the Southern Thai islands.

I was both truly alive, and truly alone.

Deep tears came often, as my search for some unknown left me empty. I sought relief in longer sessions of meditation and later nights in clubs. I became aware of how much my parent’s love and support gave me confidence to travel, and wondered if I’d ever find someone to settle down with. To distract myself, I wandered.

The 2000s tech explosion: go mobile, get social

In stark contrast to my Zen temple time, I loved to wander the Akihabara electronics zone on the north side of Tokyo, especially at night when it was all lit up. Back then, high-tech electronics tended to appear in Japan a few years before they arrived in the US, making it all the more exciting.

In the early 2000s, technology was still a convenience, not a distraction. This changed as the decade progressed.

The 2000s saw massive growth in computing power, along with miniaturization and sophistication of devices. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter all launched in the 2000s. So did the iPod and iPhone. The internet was making its way into our pockets.

But while others started hyper-connecting via social media, I dumped my phone and hyper-disconnected. With nothing but a backpack, I set off again, still searching to fill a persistent void.

It was time to leave Japan, but it wouldn’t be a straight-shot home.

Interlude I: a boat to China, train across Russia, and future wife in Barcelona

How do you transition from two years in Asia back to the US? I took two months, moving slowly across land from East to West.

I took a boat to China, rode horses through Mongolia, and took a freezing cold dip in Siberia’s Lake Baikal before the Trans-Siberian Railway took me across Russia. After a short Scandinavia stop, I met friends from the Maastricht days for a magical road trip around Northeast Italy and the Dolomite mountains.

Then I shaved my 3-month-old traveler’s beard and headed to Spain. I stopped to visit friends I’d worked with in Tokyo, who were now living in Barcelona. Unbeknownst to any of us, they were sharing an apartment with my future wife. I knocked on their door, she answered. Hola.

It would still be a couple of years before it all came together—rings, kids, shared photo albums. Meanwhile, I returned to Midwest America, after two years wandering the globe.

3. Returning home—and knowing that place for the first time

“… If I am to follow through with the idea to return to Japan to study Zen, the preparation must be made immediately. The next direction is important for a far greater reason than the decision and direction itself. I feel this may be a change in how I actually move through life.”
Journal Entry (Time Well Spent, brown notebook), 13.Aug.2004, tbc…

Back in Indiana, I worked for an environmental consulting firm, learning about land development laws and restoring native ecosystems to offset the impacts of new construction.

Working outdoors gave me the space and time to continue meditating. I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh while working in wetlands during the day. In the evenings, I meditated under Bhante Devananda at the Indiana Buddhist Temple.

One evening while watching the sunset on the flat horizon of the Indiana cornfields, I caught a glimpse of something I’d seen countless times, yet never noticed.

It was the first time in two years that I’d seen the sun set so far in the distance. The whole rainbow of colors prismed across the sky. It’s a common site in Indiana, but it’s not something you see in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, or in the coastal mountains of Nagasaki. And it was the first time I realized just how beautiful the flat, previously boring landscape of Midwest of America was.

It reminded me of a T.S. Elliot quote I’d recently read:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

– T.S. Eliot (1943)

So often the things we see the most are actually the hardest to see. Familiar habits and routines easily slip from consciousness. It’s only when routine is broken that awareness of the obvious is restored. It takes contrast to open our eyes to our basic realities.

We’re seeing this through the current coronavirus pandemic, as normalities like commutes to work, trips to the store, and visits with friends are altered. Our reality has changed, and things that we blindly took for granted have become exposed.

“… For the first time in my life, I want something—I feel directed beyond the moment and in a purposeful embarkation. I’m pushing for something; I see not an end, but a point further ahead than usual.”
– Journal Entry (Time Well Spent, brown notebook), 13.Aug.2004

The longer I spent in the Midwest, the stronger my conviction to return to Japan to study Zen grew.

And then those plans were fully derailed.

Remember that girl I met in Barcelona? We stayed in touch, and met again in Chicago, New York, Indiana, Barcelona, and Madrid. And then she made the move to Indiana. Some months later, we got married.

I didn’t expect the actual marriage to change our relationship much. Just a symbolic ring exchange, right? Not in my experience. Elsewhere I’ll try to explain the unexpected shift in feelings and identity it had on me. For now I’ll just mention the unexpected disappearance of my random but frequent tears.

And then we were off.

Interlude II: a trip through Southeast Asia and the South Pacific

On January 1st, 2007, my new wife and I set off with a couple backpacks and very few worries.

Friends were getting married in New Zealand. So we made the logical decision to spend a few months backpacking in Southeast Asia en route to their wedding, a test of our new marriage.

At that time, much of Thailand was already tourist tinsel. But Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were still backpacker paradises. I’ll leave for another day these tales of trekking, tubing, passport theft, food poisoning, militia invasions, and $3 lodging larger than my current house.

The wedding on Waiheke Island was a fairytale. While the bride and groom went honeymooning, we borrowed their house, car, and tent and explored New Zealand’s North Island. We then visited old friends in Australia and Hong Kong, before returning to the flat where we met each other in Barcelona three years before. We’re still here.

The 2000s pop culture that I missed

Despite the new connectivity brought by the internet and social media, throughout my 20s I was nearly oblivious to the pop culture that captured popular attention. I didn’t watch TV, do social media, or own a smartphone.

But of course a lot of stars twinkled at the start of the new millennium. Brittany Spears, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton, Beyoncé, and MTV reality shows commanded the world’s ears and eyeballs. Slide through a few other reminders here:

Looking back at the pop icons from this decade, I don’t feel I missed much.

4. Back to Barcelona: beginning again where we started

When my new wife and I arrived in Spain’s largest Mediterranean city, the global economy was entering a new financial crisis—the Great Recession—fueled by the US housing market crash. For work, I turned to the most valuable skill I had in my new Spanish- and Catalan-speaking community: English.

Speaking English is a skill that native speakers take for granted, and non-native speakers yearn to acquire. From kids as young as 4 and 5 years old whose parents want to prepare them for the future, to adults wanting to understand music lyrics and watch movies in their original versions, professionals trying to advance their careers, and retired adults trying to keep their minds sharp.

As I taught language, and studied Catalan and Spanish myself, I became fascinated with the dual ways that language is learned. One is through the explicit attention paid to words and rules. The other is the implicit absorption of patterns through repeated exposure. Studying and immersion.

I needed a deeper dive. And I found it in a master’s program in Cognitive Science and Language (Ciència Cognitiva i Llenguatge) at the Universitat de Barcelona.

Cognitive Science is an interdisciplinary approach to mind and brain that spans lots of spaces: psychology, linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, artificial intelligence, and childhood development.

And childhood development was about to become very personal. In the fall of 2009, the pregnancy test turned blue.

The 2010s: becoming a dad, diving into mind, growing a tech startup

At 30 years old, my brain was running reasonably well. I was finishing a master’s degree, slowly learning Catalan and Spanish, and exploring Europe with my wife. Then all of a sudden the most important thing in my life, which was previously non-existent, appeared. Boom.

I’m a new dad

No, it’s not like babysitting your neighbor’s kids. That ends at midnight. Learning how to become a dad would become the major narrative of the next 10 years of my life.

My firstborn son arrived in 2010. To say it was a challenge would be the understatement of the decade. But we tricked ourselves into thinking we were getting the hang of it. So we had another one. Second son. Back to square one.

When you have kids, your brain doesn’t simply make space for the new arrival. Kids create an entirely new center of gravity in your universe. You want to sit on the sofa, but you have to change a diaper. Your friends are going out for dinner, but the kids need you at home. You want to go to the gym, but you’re exhausted after spending last night comforting a child who couldn’t sleep.

You’re no longer numero uno. Your priorities shift. Your identity shifts. And to be honest, it’s hard AF. And expensive.

To be fair, though, it is a lot of fun. It also endows a new empathy for parents, and opens an entirely new feeling of love.

You can eavesdrop as I learn to be a better dad over in Dadspace. Or take a peek at some things we’re trying here:

Having kids makes you think differently—longer term—about lots of things: job, income, stability, routines, habits. I’d been teaching, editing scientific papers, and successfully defended my master’s thesis.

A next step was needed. I rolled the dice.

Doing a p(H|D): how does the mind work?

What do you do with a masters degree in cognitive science and language? In my case, I thank Elisabet Tubau for encouraging me to apply for a PhD grant and patiently taking a new dad under her wing as I began a doctoral program in experimental cognitive psychology. But specializing in what exactly?

I was interested in how our minds work. But you can’t get a grant to study “the mind.” So I told Elisabet, I’d study the relationship between language and thought. How the mind chops up reality, labels these concepts, and strings together words to direct attention to particular slices of the world.

Elisabet listened carefully, smiled politely and said, “How about probabilistic reasoning?” I hardly knew what that meant. But I was curious enough, and very determined. “Sounds good,” I replied.

Doing a scientific PhD means becoming an expert on some tiny detail of a world. It means getting hand-on experience in scientific methodology: admitting ignorance, formulating hypothesis, collecting data, comparing reality to a proposed explanation. Repeat. You might call it highly competitive storytelling.

I ran dozens of experiments with hundreds of students and collected tens of thousands of data points. We studied things like reasoning biases, how to improve critical thinking skills and mathematical problem solving, working memory, executive control, math anxiety, and we measured brain activity using those funny looking caps with all the wires sticking out.

Simultaneously I helped teach a couple of courses at the university: Pensament i Resolució de Problemes (Thinking and Problem Solving), and Cognitio Mathematica (Mathematical Cognition). I feel sorry for the students who had to listen to me bumble the material in Catalan and Spanish, but I hope they learned something useful and had some fun.

I also hope they didn’t pick up on the fact that I was often on the verge of a breakdown. I was trying to teach a topic I hadn’t fully mastered in a language I didn’t fully dominate. With two young kids at home and an unclear vision of where I was going, there were plenty of days I wanted to quit. Anxiety and self doubt were frequent visitors. I struggled, but I persisted.

After a few years, and a handful of papers published in scientific journals, I’d made it.

My thesis was titled “Computation and Comprehension in Bayesian Problem Solving.” Bayesian reasoning is about finding optimal ways to combine prior information with existing evidence to predict—the probability (p) that a hypothesis (H) is true given some data (D) = p(H|D). I’ll spare you the details, but you can find a summary of parts here. And you can try your hand with one task I explored when collaborating with Wim DeNeys during a study abroad period in Paris here:

So what now? Getting a PhD is like getting a blackbelt in karate—it doesn’t signify that you’ve become a master, it only shows that you’ve put in enough work to begin your journey. The typical next step was a post-doctorial fellowship.

But I was a dad of two toddlers, and moving a family of four out of the country for a post-doc grant wouldn’t be easy. Plus, after five years of diving into details of numerical thinking and reasoning, I felt this urge to reconnect with the real world.

Pop culture in the 2010s: on-demand entertainment

For some people, pop culture is Netflix binges and social media influencers. For others it’s indie films and niche bands.

For me, pop culture in the 2010s was whatever my kids were into at the time: Elmo, Paw Patrol, Cars, Minions, Lego, Pokémon, Dog Man. And other nightmares, like Donald Trump.

As a new dad x2 who was trying to defend a PhD, the rest of the world became radically smaller once again. I didn’t go out, rarely met with friends, never watched TV (or newly exploding Netflix), and only occasionally snuck in a weekend movie from my sofa. I still don’t pay for Spotify or Netflix.

I learned about Justin Bieber in 2016. I first heard about Taylor Swift when Kanye grabbed her mic. I found out Jay-Z and Beyonce got married when he cheated on her (she took that sour and made award-winning Lemonade).

Pop culture continued as pop culture does—beautiful, intriguing entertainers making millions off our attention. What changed was the availability and delivery.

Tech in the 2010s: always-on, always-connected

Over the past decade, the roots planted in Silicon Valley at the turn of the millennium blossomed, then spread like weeds. Here are a few of the biggest trends:

  • Digital devices. Huge memory and power packed into pocket-sized slabs of glass. 300 million smart phones were sold in 2010. This jumped to 1.5 billion in 2019, with nearly 20% of the world’s population owning a smart phone today.
  • Streaming content. Ubiquitous, high-speed internet means access to anything and everything at any time.
  • Personalization. Search engines and social media study your past behavior to tailor your online interactions.
  • Social media. Americans spend an average of 2 hours a day on social media. Personalized newsfeeds encourage niche content and loss of a shared reality.
  • IoT (internet of things). Hyperconnected smart devices–watches, lights, electrical outlets, home security systems, and home appliances–controlled through your phone.
  • Subscription economy. Apps work like your neighborhood gym. You pay a recurring fee for anytime access, even if you never use it. Think Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon Prime.
  • Attention economy. You pay nothing for the infinite use of the world’s most popular sites. Actually you pay with your most important resource: your attention. Think Google, Facebook, and YouTube.
  • Artificial intelligence. No robots and Her-like intelligence yet. But under-the-hood, devices, vehicles, and business algorithms are wisening up quickly.

And here are a few of the gadgets, apps, and other technological achievements that will continue to shape our future:

I’d missed the Silicon Valley heyday during my previous world-wandering decade. But working for a startup still seemed like an experience I had to have. And as a parent of quickly growing children, I wanted to refamiliarize with the interconnected world my kids were growing up in.

Turns out I was in luck. A small but healthily growing startup scene was spawning in Barcelona.

Goodbye academics. <Hello Typeform>

Could a small company making online forms really make the world a little more human? I believed so, because through three months of interviews I saw first-hand the human-first culture that Typeform was already building.

I came on as a writer to help start Typeform’s original blog: A little more human. I got to be part of all kinds of fun stuff. I interviewed the original voice of Siri and created an interactive article and podcast: Siri is Dying, Long Live Susan Bennett. It won a Content Marketing Institute award for best “blog post of the year,” which was generous. Here’s a short sample of my chat with the real Siri:

Another fun one was co-creating an interactive video in less than two days on an all-night writing and filming spree. You can read about getting LockedIn here. But can you get out?

In an early startup you wear lots of hats, and you learn a lot very quickly, because you have to. Brand positioning, product research, data analytics, customer interviews, customer tickets, content of every kind, marketing of every persuasion, and countless acronyms.

I also wore the imposter hat. I came in a confident editor but relatively novice writer. Sure, I had just written a 120-page PhD thesis on improving thinking and reasoning skills, but I honestly felt like the dumbest guy in the company. I was surrounded by incredibly clever and motivated people, half of whom had already started their own companies. Welcome back anxiety and self doubt. Later I became a manager—imposter alert, self-doubt to rescue. Luckily I’m stubbornly persistent.

The craziest part, though, is observing the changes in people, product, culture, and focus as a startup moves from cofounders with an idea, to a 50 person team (when I joined), to a venture-backed company of nearly 300 employees with millions of users everyday.

My journey with Typeform continues, so I’ll save the juicy details for a later date. It’s a conversation worth having.

The talk of the town: top news stories from the 2010s

“Fake news.”

When it comes to news, these days we are quite literally not on the same page. People hear what they already believe, and seek what they want to see, or what the algorithms have learned to feed them.

Although social media and personalized newsfeeds have led to a degradation of a shared reality and a universal questioning of truth, there were some things that actually happened. Here’s a few of those bigger events:

And then, that reflective mile-marker came nearer.

Approaching 40 and Looking out Loud

At the end of 2019, I became increasingly conscious of turning 40. Over the decade I’d accompanied my kids from helpless newborns, to talking toddlers, to social school kids, to unique and remarkable pre-adolescents. So what’s next?

I set some goals to guide my transition into my 40s:

  • Start this website. I’d been thinking about it for years, and it was finally time to start Looking out Loud.
  • Run a marathon: Actually two: Barcelona before turning 40, and Valencia after turning 40. I’d made decent progress on the half-versions of those races, and I knew I had more to give.
  • Complete an olympic-distance triathlon. I did a couple sprint triathlons the year before, it was time to double up.
  • Do a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat. I’d been practicing forms of meditation and mindfulness for years, and I was ready to expand this experience.

But 2020 had other plans for all of us. COVID-19 reared is ugly head, while Donald Trump continued showing his. Yes, this year has been fucked.

And though it’s just one year out of 40, it’s the only year that matters to me now.

Eric 40 years 1980 2020

→ If you’ve made it this far, I recommend you continue to the bird’s-eye wrap-up of this 40-year journey, aka: My 40-year Truman Show.