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Option vs. obligation
Embracing randomness in life
When high school students asked Morgan Housel how he decided to become a writer, he said “I didn’t, it was never planned.”
I would be surprised if I were among those students, but looking back at the pivotal moments of my life so far, luck did play a major role in many of them.
N. N. Taleb suggests that luck is perceived to be a major driver of scientific success, but in reality, something else may be at play. He argues that the success of science is more due to its nature of having possible high returns with little effort and cost (e.g. penicillin). He calls it a “convex payoff function“ or “convexity bias“. It’s the opportunity to make choices that pay off asymmetrically. 1
This type of opportunity seems to present in many areas — life, business, and investing. But how do we benefit from it?
Taleb laid out seven rules in the paper, but one central idea seems to be creating options, not an obligation.
We take hummus, add an ingredient, say a spice, taste to see if there is an improvement from the complex interaction, and retain if we like the addition or discard the rest. Critically we have the option, not the obligation to keep the result, which allows us to retain the upper bound and be unaffected by adverse outcomes. […] An option allows its user to get more upside than downside as he can select among the results what fits him and forget about the rest (he has the option, not the obligation).
Here are some ideas to consider.
Urgency implies obligation
Most people are always busy and have little time to rest — making free time feel like a luxury.
We have too many obligations that we have to do now. But are they truly necessary?
You probably don’t expect to hear this from a boss, but mine likes to tell me “nobody dies” — he advises me not to panic when software alarms went off. After all, it’s not a manned rocket launch, so nobody dies.
We often mistake urgency for importance. If you feel the pressure to instantly reply to someone’s message at work, wait for a few hours and you’ll find they have already found an answer.
Procrastination is not always a problem because many tasks turn out not necessary.
Plans are options
I used to believe the point of planning is to engineer a predetermined future.
But planning can only affect the present moment because the future has no obligation to comply. Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks,
We treat plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all plans—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future.
This can seem like a disadvantage, but it’s also an opportunity because we have options to pivot when the situations change. Taleb argues you should let your plan be flexible and short-term. You want to have the freedom to choose should a better option arises.
A simple example is choosing what to read. I used to feel guilty about my growing backlog of articles and books I bought yet haven’t read. But they’re not obligations — the larger the selection, the better the decision I can make.
Mindfulness breaks the spell
Before I learned to meditate, I felt as if I was inadequate. I believed I had to solve a myriad of problems to become a better version of myself. But experiencing the blue sky makes me realize I’m already good enough, and other things are fine as they are too.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have a lot to improve, but those issues have become options and I don’t feel overwhelmed. Mindfulness provides me with the capacity to choose what to focus on — without it, every impulse becomes a necessity.
Our thoughts are not obligations. We don’t have to act upon every one of them. Not just little thoughts, but also those to the larger order of life.
We’re often told we have to do something this way or that way, but what if we have the choice to pick different approaches depending on the situation? I quoted Derek Sivers in an earlier post,
Like you might do what the book Atomic Habits says, but only half an hour a day, and then throw yourself completely into one thing for four hours. And you might live for the future for an hour. But then during lunchtime, you’re an absolute hedonist and you indulge in whatever the hell you feel like eating for lunch today. And then after lunch, you do something to keep your past work alive. So you’re kind of living for the past, you leaving a legacy or even just the way that you apply different approaches to life.
When obligations are better
But if we keep options open, we will be less happy, as psychologies have found.
As an advocate for preferring options to obligations, Daniel Vassallo tweeted,
Closing options forces us to accept the reality, rather than just fantasize about all the possible futures ahead. It’s living in the present moment that we find the most joy in our lives.
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