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In three years I will be homeless. More on this later, but in news that you might actually care about….

FACEBOOK IS DOOMED. In 2014, two Princeton University professors predicted that the mammoth social site would lose 80% of its users within three years. As this headline screamed around the Web, major problems in the study quickly became obvious. For starters the authors were engineering professors attempting to simulate social behavior using models designed for disease prediction; this is the rough equivalent of an auto mechanic using a kitchen blender to spread butter on a piece of vinyl siding. Choose the wrong tools, get messy results. The researchers simply measured how often the term “Facebook” was searched for on Google, noticed that the trend was downward, and extended the trend line. From this they boldly predicted that the number of Facebook users would plummet, thus transforming a genuinely useless observation into a global media event. Facebook apparently ignored their findings and continued to gobble up new users faster than a lazy professor snarfing up cheese puffs. Full disclosure: I am a college professor and I like cheese puffs.

The most sublime critique of this shoddy work came from Mike Develin, a data scientist who noted that by applying a similar analysis we could conclude that Princeton University itself will have a total enrollment of zero by the year 2021, putting the original study authors out of a job. And while the world would clearly survive the loss of Princeton, it would not survive the loss of “air,” which the same formula predicts will run out by 2060. You may want to begin taking shallow breaths to delay this outcome as long as possible.

Now that I have totally soured you on the whole idea of research let’s go back to my original prediction: I will be homeless in three years, a conclusion that I reached by applying the Princeton study model. In 2004 we moved into our “dream house” which included 2700 square feet, over an acre of land, a swimming pool, and a 3-car garage. It was painstakingly created to work perfectly for our family, including our son who had mobility issues. Designing it took over a year and building it took over a century, and we lived there for seven years and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Jump ahead to 2012, and a co-worker innocently asks me, “Have you ever considered living in a residence hall on campus?” My immediate answer was “no,” which meant, “have not considered it, will not consider it,” so it won’t surprise you at all to learn that we soon moved most of our treasures into a large storage unit and ourselves into an 850 square foot apartment in a freshman women’s dorms. We lived in this apartment and a similar one for four wonderful (seriously) years. And now, by the magic of bad analysis, I had my model. From 2700 square feet to 850, from a 3-car garage to none, from four bathrooms to two, and then to one, I simply extended the trend lines, and concluded that by early 2019 we would have no square feet and no bathrooms at all, and we would be homeless. Could we maybe crash at your place for a few weeks?

Once we moved into the dorm, weird things started happening. After a year in the apartment we realized we were paying more to store our used furniture, our garden tiller, and my Olympic medals than they were worth. Even more shocking was the recognition that we had just lived for an entire year without many of our “necessities,” so after some discussion and hand-wringing we found creative ways to store a few more things in our apartment, sold or gave away all we could, and trashed the rest.

We’ll revisit this story in our next installment, but I want to stop here and answer the critical question that I always try to get around to: “so what?”

First, you have trends in your life right now: your income is falling, your work hours are rising, the quality of a relationship is improving, or your frustration with your dog is spiking. Remember that trends (good or bad) don’t usually go on indefinitely; our family income over the years resembles the top of Bart Simpson’s head far more than a steadily climbing line, so if you have rising income today, don’t spend like it will rise forever, because it probably won’t. If things are getting better with your spouse, take five minutes to figure out why and do more of whatever is causing it, and if your trend line is bad (like if you are doing things that are anti-happy), bite the bullet and take steps to change the trend. Chances are your past choices set your current trends in motion, and your future choices can reverse them. If you see a truly self-destructive trend, like drinking more and more to cope with other trends, find someone to help you get help.

Second, get an outside opinion. Ask your spouse if he or she thinks your work hours are climbing, or your joy is declining. Don’t just focus on income and expenses, but talk in terms of happiness, contentment, fulfillment, and faith, and find out where he or she sees the trend lines heading.  Predicting the future is hard, but sometimes it’s pretty obvious that the path you are on is going to end badly.

Finally, if you are working more and more or chasing the dollar harder and harder because you are convinced that somewhere out there on the upward trend line is a plateau where you can back off and thrive and live your life out in unending bliss, you are fooling yourself. Trend lines tied to increasing your income or prestige or possessions never level out, and each brief pause is followed by another inevitable climb and another session on the treadmill. Remember that you cannot fix “being too busy” by doing more.

In our life as a family we have been sad and we have (much more often) been happy, but these states were in spite of our living arrangements, not because of them. While we enjoyed the big house and originally planned to build another one, we eventually concluded that it would be more than we need. Today we live in a modest house built in the 1950’s, share one car, and walk to work most days. We have discussed living in the residence hall again some day, and I would not give you fifty cents for the difference in life satisfaction between our oversized mansion and our undersized apartment.

Life is a series of choices and decisions, and the sooner you own them (and the trends they create), the better.

(to be continued)

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