“What do you mean he quit?” I asked my Nana.
“He hasn’t had a cigarette in three weeks now,” she responded.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My maternal grandfather, who I call Papa, had been smoking his whole life. And I mean his whole life. He started smoking at age 12 and recently quit at age 74. That’s 62 years of being a smoker. 62 years! His nicotine habit could qualify for Social Security.
He smoked across 8 different decades starting in the late 1950s and ending in the early 2020s. And though my Papa only smoked a few cigarettes a day when he started at age 12, by the time he began working around age 20 he was up to a pack a day. That pack a day continued for 43 years while he was working and only slowed once he retired.
I ran the numbers and he smoked over 333,000 cigarettes in his lifetime. That’s 16,650 packs of cigarettes. And if we assume that it takes six minutes to smoke a cigarette, that means that my Papa spent nearly 2 million minutes, or about four years of his life, smoking. Malcolm Gladwell famously said in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. My Papa had mastered smoking three times over.
I don’t blame him though. Back in the 1950s smoking was all the rage. By that point it had been pushed onto an unsuspecting American public for decades. For example, consider the ad below suggesting that smoking was good for your health:
If over 20,000 physicians support Lucky Strike cigarettes, how bad could they be after all?
It wasn’t until 1964 that the first definitive report was released linking smoking to lung cancer. But by then, it was too late for my young grandfather. He was 18 years old and had been hooked for years.
But the truly amazing part of this story isn’t that my Papa smoked for so long, but that he somehow was able to quit. Think about how difficult this must have been. He is 75 years old now and was 74 when he quit. How many memories do you think he has before he started smoking at age 12? Can he even remember a time in his life when he didn’t smoke? I doubt it. His entire life was smoking.
Yet, somehow, he gave it up. But I’m pretty sure I know why he quit—he’s a great-grandfather now. My cousin recently had a baby boy who is also the first child in the next generation of our family. Seeing that has to do something to you as a great-grandparent. It has to make you want to stay around longer. As a result, the smoking had to go.
A similar thing happened to my Nana over 25 years ago. Though I don’t remember this now, apparently I came home from kindergarten one day and told her, “If you keep smoking you’re going to die.” She hasn’t touched a cigarette since.
For both my grandparents it was like a switch flipped in their brains. One day they were smokers and the next day they weren’t.
This illustrates just how powerful the mind can be. If you can change it, you can fundamentally change the course of your life. This also might explain why taking psilocybin (i.e. magic mushrooms) has an 80% success rate when helping people quit smoking. Compare this to the 35% success rate of the leading nicotine drug.
It seems like people need profound realizations to drastically change their behavior. Whether that is a new baby, a dire warning from your grandchild, or a psychedelic journey, they can all lead to a similar place.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as I’ve been reflecting on my life over the past few years. I still remember feeling so lost after moving to Boston in 2016. I had a good job and was making good money, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know where to turn. After all, would I be happy just being an okay data scientist for the rest of my life?
No. Absolutely not.
So I committed to make a change. I don’t remember the exact moment it happened, but I knew I had to pursue my first intellectual love—finance. So I started this blog. It wasn’t easy at first. In fact the first nine months were probably the hardest nine months of my life. They were the purest form of rejection and hell. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
This isn’t a flex, but a reminder that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to take a different path in life. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to stop a bad habit, you can. If you want to build a new habit, you can.
Maybe you have been procrastinating on something that you know deep down you need to change. Maybe you haven’t had the courage to take the next step. But I’m telling you, that you can change whether you believe it or not.
Trust me. I did it. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. In fact, I still doubt whether I can change myself from time to time. I still doubt whether I can continue to progress in life. I still get that little voice in my head that says, “Maybe this is the best you are ever gonna do.”
But I have to fight back against that little voice almost every day. Thankfully, that fight has been getting easier. Because if I ever start to doubt myself, I can remember those that came before me and what they had to overcome to get here. I can think of my Papa. Because if he can quit smoking after 62 years, what’s my excuse? What’s yours?
Thank you for reading!
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This is post 263. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data