By now, you’ve probably heard or read about the young Google engineer who wrote a memo critiquing the company’s diversity programs, and then got fired for it. Initially, the story broke on Gizmodo (a publication I despise–and thus no link), which labeled the memo an “anti-diversity screed.” This headline set the tone for the subsequent reaction, which went viral (something Gizmodo specializes in doing–human consequences be damned) and then things got very ugly very quickly.
If you have not actually read the memo, my suggestion would be to take a deep breath before expressing an opinion about it. And then go read it.
Most of the debate I have read in the aftermath seems to focus on the topic of the memorandum itself: namely, were his critiques of the company’s policies correct? But since he was a mid-level engineer and not a professor of gender studies or a Ph.D. with an emphasis in psychometrics, it’s only natural that his critiques were the highly flawed writings of an imperfect amateur.
If you want to read some smart commentary on the memo for and against, hereareafewpieces written by smart people.
But to me the much bigger issue is: was the public reaction to this memo and the company’s handling of it justified? And I think the answer is an emphatic no.
Whatever you might think about the substance of the memo, I believe the following statements about it are almost certainly true:
It was a sincere attempt by the author to provoke thought and encourage discourse
It was reasonably thoughtful and intelligent
The author seemed to care about the company and its culture
The author did not personally attack anyone
The author did not resort to vulgarity or epithets
The author conceded many points about the need for diversity
The author was not suggesting that the company needed to completely dismantle all diversity programs, but suggested that the current approach could be improved
The author did not intentionally attempt to offend anyone
The author knew full well that he was writing something sensitive, but he wrote it anyway
Let’s assume that every single statement in the memo is inaccurate, stupid, and inadvertently offensive (based on the internet reaction, that does appear to be the case for some). I still think this type of discourse is something we want to encourage.
Do we really want to discourage people from expressing sincere, thoughtful, non-vulgar criticisms on sensitive topics? To the extent that a thoughtful attempt to express a dissenting opinion should be treated as a fireable offense?
I just don’t think that makes us a more open and tolerant society. I side with Julia Galef in thinking that the best response to the memorandum is to openly and honestly discuss its flaws.
There are some truly vile, racist, misogynistic, and violent people in the world. From what little I have read, the author of the memo does not appear to be one of them. If we do not allow thoughtful and well-intentioned people to express dissenting opinions without fear of mob justice and professional reprisal, the end result for our society will not be greater justice and social equality. The end result will be a war of competing forms of intolerance. Strict free speech norms are powerful tools in the hands of authority. And if we get this riled up over this type of writing, it sets a dangerous precedent that will lead to less communication among those with differing opinions.
The memo was sexist and offensive, regardless of intent. Google had an obligation to its female and minority employees to take a stand to show that this kind of condescending language and treatment would not be tolerated. Anything less would have been condoning sexism and discrimination, and could have led to a revolt.
 I am not an expert in either field, and so I will refrain from offering an opinion myself, other than to say that I didn’t think the memo was particularly insightful.
 Compare the language employed by the author of the memo with the language employed by our current president, for example.
 I am well aware that free speech norms are very different from free speech laws. Please note that this post is only about the former, not the latter.
[Disclosure: I am currently a shareholder of Alphabet Inc.]
The ethos of Tim Ferriss’s mega-best seller The 4-Hour Workweekcan be easily gleaned from its subtitle: “Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.” This is the book that made Ferriss famous, and it says we aren’t meant to live chained to a desk. So we should follow the principles explained in his book, and we’ll live a more meaningful life, while working less and living free to travel the world and roam wherever we choose.
That’s what Ferriss means by “the new rich.”
But when I read The 4-Hour Workweek, it occurred to me that the new rich is a lot like the old rich. Because the new rich live a lot like people did more than 10,000 years ago. But back then it wasn’t just the rich who lived like an archetypal Tim Ferriss hero: It was everybody. Back then nobody worked from 9-5 at a desk; nobody lived in the exact same place their whole lives; nobody was stuck inside sitting in a cubicle saving for retirement while wasting the best years of their lives.
Back then every human was a hunter-gatherer. Back then we all wandered from place to place, working only a few hours a day, traveling super light with only a few prized possession.
That’s how everybody used to live, but now it’s the stuff of self-help bestsellers.
There’s considerable debate about this in anthropological circles, but at least some well-reputed scholars believe that humanity’s transition away from a hunter-gather lifestyle was a horrible mistake. Marshall Sahlins first wrote about what he called “The Original Affluent Society,” which described hunter-gatherers as happy people with little to no distinction between work and play, and where most of life was dominated by leisure time. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, went so far as to call the transition away from the hunter-gather lifestyle “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”
Tim Ferriss doesn’t usually describe his philosophy in evolutionary terms, but the values he espouses are nonetheless hunter-gatherer, forager values. His description of the “new rich” feels like a well-to-do version of hunter-gathererism. It’s an indictment of traditional agricultural and industrial concepts of accumulation, and it’s a celebration of the natural, evolutionary call to movement, flexibility, and freedom. To me, that sounds like a form of enlightened anarcho-primitivism.
This isn’t meant as a critique of his work; my comments are descriptive rather than normative. But Tim Ferriss has made a lot of money and created a huge following merely by advocating a lifestyle that more closely resembles the way all human beings lived until not that long ago (on an evolutionary time scale).
It’s a modified version of the Serenity Prayer, oft-recited at alcoholics anonymous:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
The problem with the Serenity Prayer is that, until you try, it’s hard to know what you can change and what you can’t. And even after a quarter century studying philosophy, I don’t pretend to have the wisdom to know the difference between what I can and cannot change. And I don’t think God is quite that straightforward in providing His answers.
So in my version, I just try to accept everything, without criticism or complaint, just as it is.
I’m not perfect or close to living up to that standard, but that’s what I aspire to do. The world has plenty of flaws. My life has plenty of flaws. My government has plenty of flaws. Those around me have plenty of flaws. I have plenty of flaws. But I try to accept them as reality, and I try not to focus on them too much.
But I don’t think you can stop there.
The problem with accepting everything is that it makes it easy for people with negative intentions or those lost in their own fog to make the world a worse place, so it’s critical for people with good intentions and a little motivation to work to counteract those people.
That’s what the second part of the motto is about, trying to make things better. For me, it’s mostly about problems right in front of me. Trying to be kinder to those around me; trying to make a small impact with my words and with my actions. Maybe washing the dishes or taking out the trash. Maybe picking up dog shit in a park, even if it didn’t come from my dogs.
If you want to take on bigger problems, that’s great, too. As long as you’re not an asshole as you’re claiming to make the world a better place (I’ve met lots of those people), then I’m your biggest fan. I respect the hell out of people who dedicate their lives to working on big problems. Lord knows there’s no shortage of problems that need solving. Pick one and dedicate days, or weeks, or the rest of your life trying to solving it.
If you’re serious about it, you’ll never get bored.
But yeah, that’s pretty much it. If had to pick one sentence that summarized my philosophy on how I try to live my life, this would be it:
Accept the world exactly as it is, and then go about your day trying to make it better.
When I remember to think this way, I don’t get too hung up on life’s ups and downs.
Nate Silver’s data journalism site FiveThirtyEight published an article yesterday called “The Worst Internet in America.” The article focuses on Saguache County, Colorado, a beautiful, rural, isolated county, the border of which just so happens to fall about 6 miles south of my house.
The piece starts off by saying:
FiveThirtyEight analyzed every county’s broadband usage using data from researchers at the University of Iowa and Arizona State University and found that Saguache was at the bottom. Only 5.6 percent of adults were estimated to have broadband.
So, it would appear, according to the data, fewer adults use broadband in Saguache than anywhere else.
From this, FiveThirtyEight crafted a piece that is a majestic example of the logical fallacy of ignoratio elenchi, which is Latin for drawing an irrelevant conclusion. Or in this case, conclusions.
First, and perhaps most critically, the headline is flat-out wrong. Saguache County does not have “the worst internet in America.” According to the article itself, anyone in Saguache can get 12 Mbps for $90. And—while not cited in the article itself—if you’re willing to pay more, you can get up to 60 Mbps in Saguache County. That ain’t exactly Google Fiber, and it isn’t super cheap, but it’s not bad for a rugged, mountainous county that’s nearly twice the size of Rhode Island and with a population density of less than one person per square mile. According to this article, Saguache’s available broadband speed is only moderately worse than the national average, and more than ten times better than the internet speed in Northeastern Arizona, which, if they had bothered to check, is actually the worst in the country .
If only five people drive cars in a city that doesn’t mean that the city has the slowest cars in the country. The conclusion has no relationship to the premise whatsoever. As with the data in the article and its conclusion, they are two totally unrelated variables.
The article makes no attempt to compare actual internet speeds in Saguache County to those in comparable rural areas. It just made a single, flip comment about how you could get way cheaper, way better internet in New York City. As if we should somehow be surprised that the technology infrastructure in a county with less than one person per square mile lags behind those in a city with population of 27,000 people per square mile.
Second, the authors seem to discount the possibility that some of the residents of Saguache County might actually choose to live there not in spite of its lack of high-quality of internet, but because of it. Believe it or not, some people might actually enjoy going to beautiful places where they can disconnect. One of the main reasons Saguache falls at such an extreme end of the internet-connectedness distribution for adults is that a significant percentage of the population in Crestone and surrounding areas are associated with the various Buddhist retreats and religious get-aways. There are nearly twenty different religious centers there in a county of 5,000 people (http://saguache.org/spiritual/crestone.html). For those Zen monks, and many others, that disconnectedness is a very conscious decision.
Third, the article chose Saguache because it had the lowest percentage of adults who were connected to the internet, but the crux of the article seemed to be how the disconnectedness hurts educational opportunities for youth. That might be true, but, again, it’s a non sequitor. If that were the focus, FiveThirtyEight should have sought out a data set related to internet access for those under the age of 18 (or age 21). Instead, it picked Saguache for one metric (few adults who use broadband) and then wrote a narrative that addresses a very different issue (educational opportunities for those without broadband).
“Data journalism” can be a great thing, but only if the data actually has some nexus to the journalism. Held to this standard, this article failed miserably.
Earlier this year, I was in the habit of waking up at 4:45 every morning. I got inspired by something I found online by Jocko Willink, and I just decided that I was going to will my way to getting up earlier every day.
I’d jump out of bed with the alarm, take a cold shower, meditate, write, and get started. I was a regular Tim-Ferriss-wannabe: productive, hardworking, running high mileage, and generally getting shit done.
This lasted for a little more than a month, until I got sick. Damned sick. Maybe it was a virus, or maybe it was a cold; maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe it wasn’t. But I useless for the better part of two weeks.
I can’t say for sure that my new routine was directly responsible for my body breakdown, but my body made me feel like it was. The first day I was sick I must have slept for 16 hours. In the days leading up to my illness, I could feel that it was getting harder to wake up. My body was exhausted. The combination of running and work was getting to me. But I pushed through. I willed myself to wake up, even when my body didn’t want to do it.
And I don’t think it did me any good. It did the opposite.
By contrast, I was recently reading an article about the great running coach Renato Canova. He’s known for pushing his athletes with extraordinary workouts that go above and beyond what most coaches would consider reasonable. He makes sure his athletes work hard. Canova workouts are synonymous with either sadism or masochism, depending on whether you’re doing it to yourself or someone else. But it was another part of his training formula that struck me as truly unusual: he doesn’t believe in schedules. Same with famous running coach Brad Hudson: no training schedules. These are coaches who are push their athletes to the absolute limits of human potential, but they don’t plan out their routines. They understand that for their athletes to become great they need discipline and flexibility.
The athletes who follow Canova’s and Hudson’s training systems are invariably disciplined. But if an athlete needs an extra day to recover from a difficult workout, that’s what the athlete does. Success in running comes from very hard work plus sufficient recovery, repeated over time (And I think that’s true of most things).
Too often in my past, I have either tried to stick with a perfectly regimented system, often to the point of failure, or I have simply abandoned discipline altogether. It now occurs to me that maybe I was wrong on both fronts. Perhaps the best results don’t happen from oscillating between regiments of discipline or flexibility.
This isn’t to criticize Jocko Willink or anyone else who is capable of making 4:30 am and four hours of sleep work for them. I just know that it doesn’t work for me.
Willink is right to emphasize the importance of discipline. Discipline does, as a rule, improve our lives and help us live in ways that are consistent with our real values. I agree that is a necessary pre-condition to living well in a modern environment. No argument with him on that. But sometimes discipline means taking an extra day off or not pushing your body or mind to the limit. Sometimes sleeping in is the disciplined thing to do. In many ways, the hardest form of discipline is making the right decision in the right moment—knowing when to push and when not to push. And unfortunately, there’s no formula that can answer that question for you.
It isn’t easy to maintain discipline and flexibility—to accept uncertainty and maintain focus while always striving to make consistently good decisions based on new and evolving information. It’d be a lot easier if I had a simple formula.
And maybe the formula is simple enough.
Perhaps the simple formula for success is discipline plus flexibility. The only problem is that’s nearly impossible to get right on a consistent basis.
Some political debates have proponents on one side who are incredibly passionate and forceful, and advocates on the other side who don’t care as much, or at least aren’t willing to risk as much. When this happens, you can expect the policies surrounding those issues to reach an extreme point of equilibrium, one that is probably not healthy for society.
It occurs to me that this is one of the inexorable weaknesses of democratic and republican forms of government. Like the fireman problem, it’s an irrational process that’s baked into the system.
One easy example of this is criminal punishment. When running for office, it’s an easily defensible position to be tough on crime. It is much harder to take the position that is sympathetic to convicted criminals who face extreme sentences.
In each election cycle, more politicians get elected by claiming to be tough on crime, and put into place more extreme policies.
Eventually, you get to a point where it is not abnormal to have a case such as Ewing v. California, where the Supreme Court, a group of nine Ivy-league educated judges, decided that it is not cruel and unusual punishment to sentence someone to life in prison for writing a forged check for $120. This is now the law of the United States, which has few constitutional or moral limits on the extreme nature of how we punish even minor crimes.
I fear that the same is now becoming true of immigration policy. Those who favor anti-immigration policies are much more passionate than those who support a more moderate immigration policy. The anti-immigration camp is willing to go to war over the issue, and most who support a liberal immigration policy often prefer to pick other battles.
Before 1921, the United States didn’t have much of an immigration policy at all, other than a few haphazard racist and exclusionary policies aimed at the Chinese and other groups in particular disfavor.
But, given the passion of those against immigration and the relatively mild response for those in favor, I think we can expect a trend toward more restrictive and draconian immigration policies. This will happen until eventually our immigration policies resemble the punishment regime in our criminal justice system, where an extreme position has become normalized.
I think human interactions make a lot more sense when you realize that we are not naturally hardwired to be happy.
We’re built to survive. Or perhaps more accurately, we were designed to ensure the survival of our genes. The genes of those who weren’t as well designed for that purpose perished from the earth long ago. The fact that you and I exist means we were fairly well designed for ensuring that we continue along that path.
As E.O. Wilson wrote in The Social Conquest of Earth, “Consciousness, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival.” (emphasis added).
Ensuring the survival of our genes and trying to attain happiness are competing goals. And while most reasonably intelligent people believe in evolution, I don’t think that most people appreciate quite the extent to which our evolutionary purposes get in the way or our modern goals and desires. Our evolutionary purposes don’t want us to be at peace or to be happy or to be satisfied with our lot in life.
Instead of a mechanism that maximizes for happiness that focuses our attention, we have have consciousness, whose primary purpose is to constantly remind us of all the things that could go wrong. To keep us worrying about things that could endanger the survival of our genes, and to continually seek ways to improve the likelihood of our genes’ survival.
Consciousness is designed to keep you worrying about all the things that could go wrong. So that’s what we do.
Consciousness also causes us to obsess more than is healthy for our own lives about our status. Status matters for evolutionary purposes, because high-status humans easily find at least one mate, and perhaps more. Those who mate with the healthiest and highest status mates and/or that mate often have genes that are much more likely to survive.
But there’s plenty of evidence that status comparison leads to unhappiness. (See Arrow and Dasgupta (2009) Courty and Engineer (2016)).
We’re designed to worry about everything that can go wrong in our lives and to obsess over status, even though the empirical data shows that both of those things cause unhappiness. And it’s a problem that’s not designed to go away, no matter how much status or success we have. Our brain is still designed to seek out more problems to avoid and more ways to increase status.
For a fuller discussion of this “happiness problem,” this post is excellent.
So what to do, right?
I think some people find this “happiness paradox” depressing. No matter how much we seek happiness, it will forever elude us. But I don’t see it that way. To me, it helps me understand why it is so hard to remain content, regardless of life’s circumstances.
To me, the most effective technique to achieve happiness isn’t to constantly try to seek happiness, but to rather stop obsessing over the things that make us unhappy—namely, life’s problems and status. The best way to control our conscious attention, so that we’re not obsessing over life’s problems and status, is through meditation.
Regardless, when, as creatures with prehistorical adaptations, trying to make sense of our modern lives, we wonder to ourselves: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not happy?” The answer is simple: that’s just not the way we were designed.
Most of us have heard the stories about how more than 90% of new businesses fail (as a lawyer who works with startups, my anecdotal experience suggests that estimate might be low). But most of us tend to think we’re above average, and failure won’t happen to us. But now there is a new book that provides mathematical support for why innovation is such a poor strategy.
Kevin Leland, author of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, created a crowdsourced competition, based on the model of Robert Axelrod’s prisoner’s dilemma competition, to test the success of various evolutionary growth strategies.
The three basic strategies that were tested were “observe,” “exploit,” and “innovate.” To observe in the competition means to follow and copy the strategies of those around you. To exploit means to try to profit from the strategies that seem to be working. To innovate means to try to come up with a new strategy. The winners of the game were surprising:
The most successful strategies did not play learning moves often, but almost always played OBSERVE when they did. This seemingly straightforward relationship between copying and success, however, belied a degree of complexity that emerged only on closer inspection. Among the top-performing strategies that progressed to the melee, by and large, the more the strategy learned through OBSERVE rather than INNOVATE, the better it did. However, among the poorer performing strategies we actually witnessed the reverse relationship—the more they copied the worse they did. That told us something very interesting—copying was not universally beneficial. Copying only paid if it was done efficiently.
By contrast, innovation turned out to be a total loser strategy: The innovate-only strategy came in dead last!
To summarize, the strategy that produced the best results was “observe-exploit.” Learn how to make a living, and then make a living. Don’t oscillate unless forced to do so by your environment. The strategy that produced the worst results was the one that tried to invent the wheel every turn. Try to invent the wheel every turn, and you will almost invent nothing that anyone will value.
It might be hard at first to reconcile this with many of our romantic notions of innovation, but the companies and people we celebrate as great innovators often aren’t really that at all, but rather the best copiers and exploiters of recent innovation. It wasn’t John Englebart who profited from the mouse. It was Steve Jobs. It wasn’t Tim Berners-Lee who became a billionaire off the internet, it was Marc Andreeson.
Microsoft is one of the wealthiest companies in the world. But while their business involves technology, their historical business strategy has had little to do with innovation and is much more akin to the observe-exploit strategy. Almost all of their profits derive from an operating system that was copied from Apple (which was copied from Xerox), and then successfully exploited through licensing deals with all the major PC manufacturers. Bill Gates was undoubted an excellent programmer, but the success of Microsoft comes not from their stellar software, but rather from the shrewd licensing decisions it made at a pivotal point in the development of the personal computer.
Similarly, Apple did not invent the smartphone or the tablet. It just copied the best elements of what other people did, tweaked a few things, made it easier to use, and then has been exploiting the market ever since. To an extent those were innovations (again, not all innovations are a bad strategy—just too-frequent attempts at innovation), but each new iteration of the iPhone is slightly less original than the previous. Apple has made marginal, incremental improvements consistent with other manufacturers to stay up to date with the newest technology, but at a glance, an iPhone 6 is indistinguishable from an iPhone 7.
There are infrequent occasions when innovation is a good strategy. In rapidly changing environments, for example, some innovation may be essential to survival. As a society, we would be stagnant without innovators. But most innovations are simply failed mutations, doomed for the evolutionary dustbin. In most environments, the vast majority of players are better off observing the innovators to see who succeeds, and then copying their strategies, rather than trying to innovate themselves. In short, innovation is good for society but bad for most individuals who choose it as a strategy.
The vast majority of startup founders toil for years making less than market wages working on projects that will never go anywhere. There is a power law with startups where a small fraction makes all the money. The most notable startup founders do very well, but nearly everyone else underperforms.
For those looking to start a new endeavor, strategic copying and exploitation is a far better strategy than pure innovation. If a business or technology has worked once, there’s a good chance that a similar, well-executed strategy can succeed again.
If a business strategy has never worked before, there’s a high probability it hasn’t worked for a reason.
If you want to be recognized as someone who knows a lot about a lot of things, you should become famous for just one thing first. This will give you a better platform to give your opinion, and be respected for your opinion, about more things. This is true, even for people who like to emphasize the importance of a broad range of knowledge in a variety of fields.
The book Consilience, by famed evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, is about this very idea: the concept of uniting different fields of knowledge. Too many academics and specialists, he says, are stuck in silos where they learn the jargon of their fields and write papers and do research that appeals to others in their fields. But most real-world problems defy such easy classification as we might find in academic departments. The world needs more people who can connect the pieces among different disciplines, because the meat of nearly all real-world problems lies at the intersection of different areas of study. Of course, the reason this opinion comes with such weight, is because Wilson is well respected in his field.
EO Wilson wrote this book nearly twenty years ago. But since its publication, the tendency toward specialization has only increased, rather than decreased.
So why aren’t there more experts in consilience?
It’s easy enough to appreciate why consilience could be valuable. Take the problem of global-warming, for example. It’s an atmospheric chemistry problem (to what extent is there compelling evidence that recent changes in climate patterns can be attributed to anthropomorphic causes?); it’s a policy problem (how can we coordinate different governments to address the problem?); it’s an economics problem (is it possible to incentivize private firms to reduce anthropomorphic climate change without sacrificing job growth?), and it’s a legal problem (how do we draft effective laws that reduce climate change?). One would think that if there were an academic or scholar who were well versed in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, that this person would be an invaluable resource and a leader in addressing issues of climate change.
So to be a true expert on climate change, it would be advisable to have a broad range of knowledge in these different disciplines.
But if such a person exists, I’ve never heard of her. Instead, who are the biggest figures in the debate right now about climate change? Some possible candidates include: Al Gore, Bill Nye, Pope Francis, Michael Bloomberg. Ban-Ki Moon, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Matt Ridley, Donald Trump, and the Koch Brothers. This is a list of people who rose to high status for something other than specialized knowledge of climate change.
There’s an absence of high-status experts in atmospheric science, policy, economics, and law, and so high status people in any particular, unrelated discipline are free to chime in and influence the debate to fill in the vacuum. Without more informed, high-status experts at the intersection of these fields, the public debate is susceptible to uninformed far-flung expert debunkery by non-experts.
I see two patterns driving this phenomenon:
Professional disciplines do not easily welcome influence by outsiders. If you’ve spent ten years studying a specific discipline, it’s understandable that you would not be receptive to feedback from those who haven’t spent as much time studying that discipline. If you’ve studied the arguments and counterarguments of the greatest experts in your field on the most important issues, a person who is unfamiliar with those arguments may seem bumbling by comparison.
It’s nearly impossible for generalists or multi-discipline specialists to obtain clear status indicators in multiple fields. To acquire terminal degrees in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, you’d have to spend at least 15 years going to school after graduating from college. And today, given the degree of specialization of most academics and professionals, there would still be additional post-doctorate research and further publication necessary to acquire the hallmarks of genuine expertise in each of those fields. And even if you did somehow manage to do that, you’d be branded as an egghead academic with no professional experience, and it would be unlikely that you’d have the political or professional skill to influence the debate.
The challenge of consilience is the inherent difficulty (near impossibility?) of convincing experts in any specific discipline of the merits of your ideas and arguments, when you have a sub-expert’s degree of sophistication in every specific discipline.
But if you have enough weight in your own discipline, you have a better chance to influence those in other disciplines as well. When the Elon Musks, Jane Goodalls, Albert Einsteins, and Warren Buffetts of the world talk, everyone listens. Reasonable or not, because Warren Buffett has been so good at making money, something nearly everyone wants, many people are interested in knowing what he thinks about everything.
Fair or not, if you want to be famous for knowing lots of things, it’s best to become influential for just one thing first.
Having spent the better part of my life obsessing overwhatmakesagoodlife, I’m afraid that the high-level summary of what I have learned is: I don’t know. Sure, there is some data on the types of choices that are likely to make us more or less happy, but in general, when we think something will make us happy, we are wrong.
What’s more, there’s evidence that the very act of trying to make decisions about what will make us happy makes us even more unhappy. As Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice, “[T]here is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”
(Spoiler alert: when he gets to the taco place, they’re out of tacos)
We know we aren’t usually good at knowing what makes us happy, and we know that the very act of making decisions might make us unhappy.
It would seem, then, that our lives might actually be improved by eliminating many of the decision-making processes from our lives. By liberating ourselves from the responsibility to make decision after decision, we may be able to make ourselves happier. With that in mind, I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself lately.
I call it the “Random Life Experience Generator.” It’s basically just a process for introducing a certain degree of randomness into my life—and eliminating the need for making decisions in areas where my decision-making is unlikely to improve my life.
I have an app on my phone called “Pretty Random,” which is just a random number generator. Often, when I’m faced with a trivial decision, I assign each of the options a number, and then I let the app decide.
Et Voila! I’m making a lot fewer life decisions.
Sometimes it’s easy to apply the Random Life Experience Generator (RLEG), and sometimes it’s a bit more work. The RLEG works particularly well at some Mexican restaurants, where each of the plates has a specific number. It takes a bit more effort for something such as selecting the trails where I might run on any given day, as it’s required me to generate a list of all the trails I run and assign them a number. I’ve also done this with clothes, games, and meals.
From where to eat to what to order to how long to meditate to how long to run to where to run, the things I do every day, within certain parameters, are decided by a random number generator. This has had a bigger impact on me than what I would have expected. In a very good way.
Here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ve found:
Relinquishing control and letting go feels fantastic.
[T]o concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection.
Shunryu Suzuki and David Chadwick, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
When you see a menu with 50 items, there’s an inherent anxiety about trying to pick the best thing. But does it really matter if you pick what is objectively the best item on the menu? Not a bit. It’s just food. Your consumption choices don’t define you. As a handsome, wise man once told me…
Life isn’t about finding the world’s greatest taco. Whether you’re talking about your consumer choices or your random personal choices, happiness is much more about our reactions to life’s vicissitudes than constantly trying to control life’s vicissitudes. You can fret over every food choice and try to over-optimize for every second of your life, or you can let life happen, and just appreciate the experience as it occurs. I vote for the latter.
It forces you to be nimble.
Even when you do try to control things, life doesn’t always play along. Going into the day with the mindset that unexpected stuff is going to happen, and that you’re going to be ok with it, is just a good way to approach life. Because that’s how it is even if you do try to maintain the illusion of control.
You have life experiences you would not have had otherwise.
I had tentatively planned to go on a trip this fall to Zions and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But when I really thought about the trip, it didn’t seem that exciting to me. Perhaps because it was very similar to a number of other trips we had done recently (to Moab and the Grand Canyon). The scenery isn’t all that different from where we live now, an area with lots of majestic canyons. I’m sure it’d be a great trip, but the reason we picked it was because it was consistent with all the other things we had used to make all of our other routine life choices.
And this is just the issue. When you formalize your opinions, your preferences converge and start to result in redundancy in decision-making. The very act of randomizing your decision-making forces you into a wider variety of rich life experiences. The RLEG gets you out of your comfort zone. And I think that’s a good thing.
It makes your life more representative of what life is really like for all people.
Also, as any statistician could tell you, one of the main benefits of randomization is that it gives you a more representative sample of the population.
If you meet 50 different English majors at a liberal arts college, they will not be representative of the population, because English majors at liberal arts colleges are not like most people. Same with businessmen on Wall Street or lawyers in your hometown or people you meet at your local bars or restaurants or people you interact with on Facebook. You’ve already selected your social circle based on people who think, act, talk, and look like you. And that’s ok. That what people do.
But it’s also good to get outside those bubbles on occasion.
Randomization makes it so that your actual life has more representation from parts of the planet that aren’t exactly like you. For most of us, that’s sorely needed.
It gets you out of your ruts.
I spent the better part of my 20s buying, collecting, and learning to play a bunch of musical instruments. Banjo, mandolin, harmonica, bass, even the baglama saz. But over the years, I stopped playing most of them. I just got out of the habit.
But I got all the instruments for a reason. It’s fun to pick up a banjo or ukulele and be able to play. It’s a wonderful mental contrast to working as a lawyer, and I enjoy it. And in the last few weeks, I’ve started playing them all again. I’ve assigned each of my instruments a number, and then each day I have the RLEG decide what I’m going to play, and for how long (within certain pre-selected parameters).
I go into each day not having any clue what it will look like. I can’t know. It hasn’t been decided yet.
It frees you from the obsessive TripAdvisor, Yelp, Peak Taco mindset.
When I was studying abroad in college many years ago, one weekend I took my Eurorail pass and hopped on a train from Barcelona to Genoa, Italy. I had my handy Let’s Go guide, and I used it to pick a restaurant.
They had a list of options they recommended, but the one that stuck out to me was this restaurant that was tucked away in some remote, isolated corner of the city. The guide described the place as a local favorite, a tiny mom-and-pop shop unknown to the outside world.
And of course, when I got there, it was filled with tourists with Let’s Go guides just like me.
The tools and guides we use to shape our choices homogenize our lives and actually change the experiences we seek. It’s like a quantum physics observational effect that actually changes the result of the experiment itself.
The only way to get out of that trap is to stop using the exact same decision-making processes everyone else uses.
It’s just easier.
Setting your parameters, plugging in the numbers, and letting randomness decide what you’re going to do takes precious little effort.
Life is hard enough. Some choices matter very much and some don’t. By letting a randomizer handle some of the less significant life choices, I now have less mental load in my days. I just don’t waste any energy planning things most of the small things in my life any more. And I think that’s usually a good thing.
Humans weren’t meant to have perfectly designed lives.
Hunter-gatherers did not evolve in a world of 200 types of gelato, 25-row grocery stores, and 70-aisle superstores. Throughout most of human history, we ate what we could find. We did what we could do to survive on a daily basis. Which means most days we didn’t know what our lives were going to look like at the beginning of the day. We didn’t have an alarm clock and calendar guiding us on rigorous, inflexible routines.
Over-optimizing our lives is an inherently unnatural process. We’re meant to experience randomness, variation, excess, and scarcity. The RLEG replicates a tiny bit of that natural, inherent uncertainty.
It’s not about “peak” experience. It’s about diverse and richer experiences.
Some might say that this is just another way to make banal bougie consumption choices. But it doesn’t have to be about consumption at all. It can be about going to a different park with your kid. Or driving (or walking or biking) a different way home from work. Or about socializing with people you never would interact with otherwise. Going places that aren’t on your bucket list.
In general, it’s about living a life that isn’t already on what seems to be your currently pre-ordained path.
Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to try to introduce randomness into all aspects of life. There are some circumstances where it would be a very bad idea (hemlock for breakfast?!?). As an attorney, for example, I wouldn’t last long trying to practice law that way (random number generator gave me a 7, looks like we’re going to have to litigate!). And even when we do introduce randomness, best to do so within reasonable parameters (today I’m going to eat 13,000 calories). But I think that our culture is so biased toward personal choice and consumption and its deep connection to personal identity, that introducing some degree of randomness, however trivial, is healthy.
I’ve heard about some people who take this practice to extremes. The exact degree it might be helpful to you probably depends on the specifics of your personality and circumstances. But I’d encourage anyone who has made it thus far to give it a shot, even if it’s just in a few small things. I think most of us could use a little more randomness in our lives.