When a side project takes on a life of its own

I just published a working paper at CESifo on climate-economic risk, and how modeling risk explicitly leads to stringent mitigation policy. Feel free to slog through the 50 pages if you dare.

I thought I’d reflect momentarily on the experience of it all, given that the conclusions we made in the paper are pretty intuitive. (TLDR: climate change is not good, and it could be very bad, and we should do what we can now to make sure the very bad doesn’t happen.)

The story begins in May 2021, when I was still deciding what I wanted to do in graduate school. I had two options at the time: write my PhD in astrophysics or in climate science. I was already working on projects in both fields and my climate science advisor pitched me a project in climate economics that he assured me would be a “side project” and “would take no more than 2 months” so I could “get back to doing work that’d be relevant for my PhD”.

Then a bunch of stuff happened. To name a few significant events: I published the astrophysics work in The Astrophysical Journal and left the field soon thereafter, the TA who was supposed to do the other half of the climate economics project disappeared leaving me to do the rest of the work, I read way more economics papers than I’d ever thought I would in my life, and finally, I sort of got tired of math.

Each of these events brought with them a level of surprise. When I was a wide-eyed undergraduate student applying to graduate school in physics, I thought I knew that I wanted to be a theoretical astrophysicist. Then I stopped working in astrophysics after only focusing on it for a year.

Then I switched to climate science, where thought I’d be doing “hard science” for the rest of my career as well, just of a different sort; instead of focusing on other planets, I’d just focus on my own planet. Then my interest in “hard science” – that is, the study of physical science for the sake of studying physical science – started to dwindle as well.

And what filled this void of passion that physical science left? Wouldn’t you know, it was the “dismal science” itself. That field of study I spent plenty of time dissing on as an undergraduate: economics.

I used to make fun of the business school kids in undergrad (mostly out of jealousy that they got to have fun while I was slogging on problem sets) and now I appear to have become one of them. (Albeit, without the fun. My introvert tendencies seem to have come along for the ride.)

After such a massive turn of events in such a short amount of time, I often find myself asking: how did I get here?

Well, I think the answer is: I don’t know. Or at least, I don’t fully know.

This experience has been anything but planned. And while I can map out individual events that have led to my being here, it doesn’t exactly form a clear narrative. What has been revealed to me, however, is a rather insightful reality about my life, and maybe even life in general: I have less control over the outcome of my life than I thought. Much less.

Now that doesn’t mean that I have absolutely no control. Leaving aside the issue of free will, if nothing else, I can always control my reaction and posture towards whatever life throws at me.

But the key lesson is that when it comes to life’s overarching narrative – where I’m going to go to school (both undergraduate and graduate) and what I’m doing to write my PhD on, as examples – I have far less to do with the outcome than I would typically like to believe.

My choice to go to the University of Arizona for undergrad was determined by a chance interaction I had with a stranger in my high school physics teacher’s classroom. Where I chose to go to graduate school was determined by US News rankings, as during the pandemic I wasn’t able to tour any graduate schools and decided to go with the most prestigious school that accepted me. My PhD topic came from a side project that grew into my main project, primarily because another graduate student quit and left me with the remaining workload.

This lesson has really made me question the value of planning for the far-future. Of course, it’s always good to orient yourself; to set a goal and strive for it. But what I’ve been thinking about is, functionally, is reaching the goal ever the point? Or is the orientation component of planning – that is, the narrowing down of an infinitely many options for infinitely many decisions one has to make – the true function of planning?

Without some level of planning and goal setting, our lives feel like they don’t have direction or meaning. In response to the anxiety this provokes, we might set some goals or make a five-year plan to properly orient ourselves. But what happens when, in year two of one’s five year plan to run a 100 mile race, they break their leg and can no longer run?

Obviously I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But I think this thought experiment does shed some light on the reality of our lives: we don’t pull the levers of our lives the way we think we do. There is much, much more at play.

At least once during a weekly call with my Grandma Josephine, she’ll say to me “Adam, God has the plan!” And while she still hasn’t convinced me to go to church every Sunday, I think my experience with this project (and my PhD more broadly) has given this phrase new life that I don’t think I truly appreciated before.