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What to do with your life

"Should I work hard, be frugal & miserable now so I can enjoy life later, or should I enjoy life now, but work more & harder later?" Everyone faces these questions at some point in their life. What would you say if I told you there was an answer?

Do I do the hard thing now, or do I do it later?

This is a question everyone faces at one point in their life. Whether it's a small thing like procrastinating some work that's due in a few days, or a big thing like deciding what job to take or where to live, it's a universal dilemma. At some point, you're going to have to do the difficult thing.

Sometimes the problem comes to us in the form of doing the tough thing for a brief period of time (becoming a stock broker, going to medical school) vs. over a long period of time (taking a lower stress route, but being forced to do it longer). Sometimes it concerns how we should spend our money - big screen TV, stereo, high end computer, lots of gadgets vs. a simpler life, but an earlier retirement. No matter what the case, there's a decision to be made.

The problem seems to come down to this: Do I do the hard thing now, or do I do it later?

In both scenarios, you suffer. You try to figure out how much & which is worse, but the two options seem proportional. The plusses and minuses balance each other out.

Something interesting happens, though, if you regard your current & future selves as two players in a game.

Game Theory

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that concerns itself with how people make decisions when there are opponents vying for the same goals. Wikipedia has a good entry on game theory, which you can read for more information. I won't expand on it too much here, mostly because I don't know enough about it and I don't want to sound like an idiot, but also because I want you to continue reading with interest.

The model that most people seem to use when thinking about this stuff is that there's a winner and a loser. Since both of the players are you, you don't want either one to lose. People who are frugal now and work hard are frequently ridiculed by the "you could get hit by a bus tomorrow" crowd. On the other hand, everyone wants to know "how soon can I retire?"

Life turns into a game of Chess. Most people seem to compromise into a stalemate where neither your current nor future selves are fully satisfied, but neither are fully miserable either.

Under this scenario, very few people win consistently - how can you: if you win now, you lose later. Most people fall in the middle, never really winning and never really losing. So what is it that the few know that the rest of us need to learn?

A Beautiful Life

The answer comes from a scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind, about the mathematician John Nash who redefined game theory in the early part of the 20th century.

"Adam Smith said, the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself, right? That's what he said, right? Incomplete. Incomplete! Because the best result would come from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself and the group."

What if life isn't about winners and losers, what if there was some third path that could satisfy everyone? Salesmen, negotiators, and specialists in conflict resolution call this the "win-win situation." A position where neither side compromises, and both sides get what they want.

The revelation came to me in the form of a question. "What if there was something I could do now that would make me happy today and make he happy 10 years from now?" Instead of fighting with myself, can I ally with myself and think of something that will make both of us happy?

Know Your Opponent

The other player in this game isn't a stranger. As much as we change, we're surprisingly stable over long periods of time, and the things that make us happy now, will probably make us happy in the future as well.

Not everything fits this criteria. I'm much less enamored with my video tape collection than I used to be, but movies still interest me. Some of the people I used to know & enjoy spending time with, I simply don't anymore, and some of the things I used to enjoy doing, just don't get me as interested as the stuff I'm doing now. But the broad strokes are the same, and the interests I pursue now will probably still be interesting to me later, or at least something related to them.

I learned a lot simply by glancing at my bookshelf. What are the books I read 10 years ago that I would want to be able to reread if I got amnesia? Which are the books that are obvious precursors to the ones I'm more interested in now? The threads of our life weave a discernable pattern, and by learning to pick up on those patterns, we can learn something about who we are, and who will likely will be.

If we start thinking now about what makes us happy and what will continue to make us happy, in 10 years we'll be even more prepared to understand who we will be in 20 years, and we'll continue to make decisions that will make us both happy. In other words, by starting to think this way now, your future self will be an even stronger player in the game.

Imperfect Knowledge

All decisions are made with imperfect knowledge. Nobody knows what the future will bring, which is what makes life interesting. Predictable is boring, torturously so, and there's plenty of research to back that up. (Just look at how gamblers get addicted to unpredictability. I also recently heard about a study that suggests that when placed into sensory deprivation chambers, within a couple of hours, people respond as if they're being physically tortured.)

At the same time, you do want to feel like you have some control over your situation. (Seligman, et. al.) Things can't be completely random or nobody would be able to function. In other words, we need at the occasional reward to keep us going.

A life of continual compromise and boredom is a life of slow torture. No wonder so many people are looking to escape.

In other words, there is no right answer. There is no formula for the perfect choice and whether sticking "with the devil you know" or jumping ship and trying something new is the right choice will always be a tough call. I just hope the statement Do what will make you happy now, and what will make you happy 10 years from now can guide you perhaps a little better than before.

Practical advice, extras, caveats, etc.

I tend to think theoretically, and I have no real way to explain how to do this other than how I've done it, but I'll try to give you something to take away from this that will stick better than a greeting card sentiment.

  1. Money isn't always the answer. Too many people are caught between "doing what I hate briefly or doing what I simply dislike for a longer time" but never consider that you can do what you love for a long time too. If you think that doing what you hate will pay off big, allowing you to retire early, and doing what you simply dislike will pay decently but force you to work longer, why not do what you love even if it means doing it for a really long time? Don't you think you'll be happy doing it 10 years from now too? Do you think you'll be happier doing what you love for 20 years or doing what you don't like for 10 years and then doing nothing for the next 10?
  2. Then again, money is important. Don't kid yourself, having a safety net is a beautiful thing and it can really help you make decisions based on what you want rather than what you need. Spending it all now and having nothing later is part of the win/lose mentality and assumes that money is what will make you happy. It isn't. Money is a powerful tool, but it isn't happiness.
  3. Develop a plan B and a Plan C. The greatest successes seem to come from those with the greatest safety net. Donald Trump & Bill Gates were both rich kids. The reason they could take the risks they took - and just as importantly, learn the lessons they learned taking those risks - is that they knew that their Plan B would be there to bail them out if things should go horribly wrong. Those are the rare examples of people for whom the Plan A worked, or who had the persistence to turn a failed Plan A into a wildly successful Plan B. So develop a Plan B. An alternative that's not as risky as your Plan A, but will still make you happy.
  4. Don't turn your back on anything. Paradoxically, the greatest happiness can come amidst the greatest suffering. You'd be surprised how often it's the things that scare us that can actually make us happy. I don't know whether it's socially conditioned taboos, catharsis or what, but there can be tremendous happiness in facing your fears and then living in them. You may find that the tears of sorrow turn into tears of joy and the precise reason you can't see the third path is that it was an unacceptable option to your old way of thinking.
  5. The most important thing is people. I know there are some folks out there that claim to hate everyone, but for me, I'm happiest when I'm with other people. I don't like crowded bars or large parties, but I love meeting new people regularly just as much as I love to spend time with old friends. If you're anything like me, you should try to find ways to do this - maybe take some night school courses or try online dating. Do whatever will get you out and meeting people. Work is appallingly bad at this, you meet about a dozen new people and spend the next few years with them, so you'd better like them. Of course, the more satisfying the work, the more satisfied the people you'll be with, the more you may end up liking them.
  6. Be honest. Yeah, I know, pithy, and I'm glad the central revelation of this article is about game theory and not simply "be true to yourself" but being false is just difficult, and if you're not enjoying what you're doing, you're probably being false. It's amazing how artificial so many things can seem when you separate yourself from them - if you feel that way when you go on vacation, you know exactly what I mean. Be honest with others and yourself.
  7. Just go for what you want. I used to have this neurotic need to know that if I wanted to be with someone, they also wanted to be with me. So I'd do all the usual stupid games of hinting and waiting for them to make the first move. Then someone I know just came out and said "I want this, you know I want this, please give it to me" while I was saying "Yeah, I sort of want it, but not really, and I'm going to try and play it off as being cool and above it" and I realized what a moron I was. So now, if I want something, I pretty much just come out and say it. You'd be surprised how many times the other person wants it too, or is more than happy to give it to you because you're functional enough not to play stupid games.
  8. Don't worry too much what they think. This builds on the last few items. If you're going for what you want, connecting with people, being honest with yourself and others, and not turning your back on things that make you uncomfortable, this one should start to come naturally. The more you realize other people are the same as you, the less you worry about being judged by others. We're all flawed, and as far as I can tell, the most important part of life is connecting to other people and letting them know that it's okay to be flawed too.

What to do with your life

Joseph Campbell says you should "follow your bliss." Other people say "do what you love and the money will follow." I think both of those statements are incomplete because they leave the question of whether or not you will be happy in the future up to fate. You can take can take an active role in your future happiness today, and you don't have to compromise your current self to do it.

Do what will make you happy now, and what will make you happy 10 years from now. The two options aren't mutually exclusive.

Addition Jan 21, 2014: Research shows that we imagine our future selves as strangers, which scientists believe is why we procrastinate. The more we see our future selves as being closely connected to our current selves, the more we'll treat our future selves better. Learning to see our future selves as a close friend, as ourselves not "years from now" but ourselves "soon to be" may help us make better life long decisions.

page first created on Saturday, April 01, 2006

© Mark Wieczorek