​​The Stats Guy: Two quick data games to help you rediscover what life is all about

Your life didn’t begin with your birth or your conception. It began with your parents, your grandparents, an endless line of ancestors really.

Your life didn’t begin with your birth or your conception. It began with your parents, your grandparents, an endless line of ancestors really. Image: Getty, TND

An occupational hazard of working as a demographer is to think about death a little too much. To balance things out, demographers think about life a lot too. For today’s column, we will play two simple number games. One game will help you appreciate how big and magnificently far-reaching your life is, while the other will make you question your life choices.

Let’s start with the fun and life-affirming one.

My older grandfather, long passed, of course, was born in 1904. My father was born in 1953, I was born in 1983, and my son was born in 2020. I might have another kid in say 2024. This potential second kid might have their last child in 2064. Assuming I eat enough veggies and make it to 2064, I could spend a handful of years with my youngest grandkid. This kid could easily live until the age of 90 and die in 2154.

This means I directly touch 250 years of history – all the way from 1904 to 2154. From my grandfather to my grandchild. Imagine how different 1904 will be from 2154, yet I am directly linked to these two points in history.

Do the calculation for your own circumstances. If you met your great-grandparents or are a great-grandparent, your life can easily touch 300 years of history.

Your life didn’t begin with your birth or your conception. It began with your parents, your grandparents, an endless line of ancestors – all the way back to the Big Bang if you want to follow the Big History approach. In the same way your life doesn’t end with your death. The people you touched are keeping your memory alive and you become their link back to the past (the ancient year of 1983 in the case of my grandchild).

This exercise always elevates my perspective and allows me to see myself in a bigger context.

Our second number game is a bit more morbid. The idea comes from an old blog post by Tim Urban that is totally worth reading.

Let’s assume that you will live to be 90. That gives you 4,680 weeks to make something of your life, to live, to love, to chase your dreams, to leave a legacy.

For full effect, you will want to print out the graphic below and cross out all the weeks you already lived through. It’s a rather confronting experience. As your pen moves across the paper, you relive milestones. My first active memory (at least that’s what I tell myself) is my fourth birthday. The pen races through my childhood years. Memorable family holidays are reduced to a square or two. My first love only gets a few boxes. Character-shaping hiking trips with my best friends only get another few boxes. Studying abroad in the US, half a line. I moved to Australia 15 years ago. That’s more than a third of my life and yet it takes almost no time to cross out these boxes.

The pen races through 13 years of relationship. Has it been so long already? How time flies! My son turns three this month – he has way more boxes ahead of him.

You can’t do this exercise without questioning your choices. I find myself taking stock as I move the pen across these empty lines.

Ultimately the remaining few white boxes feel rather precious. You promise to not rush through them. I did this exercise years ago and repeated the fun in preparation for this column. Turns out I am still rushing through my little white boxes.

A 90 year human life

Source: Tim Urban on

Why is this Stats Guy talking about what working with data feels like? Because data is boring. It’s always the stories, feelings, opportunities, and pain hiding behind numbers that are of interest.

The German Romantics were a group of thinkers in the 18th century who saw science enter mainstream thinking. Everything was analysed, catalogued, and explained. The Romantics didn’t turn their backs on science but pointed out that nature must be felt and experienced to be fully understood.

Collecting samples for scientific study is important, but so is climbing mountains and being overwhelmed by the experience. The world must be felt and measured. The same is true for working with data. You gotta collect good data and get those calculations right, but you also must feel and empathise with the stories that emerge.

Topics: Demographics
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