A paradigm of possibilities

When I was a teenager I adopted the basic stance that I wanted to try everything at least once. I quickly realized that this wasn’t really feasible, since some things would probably end up with me dead and thus unable to try more things. But it worked fairly well as a rule of thumb.

Don't die

Then I matured a bit, made a few realizations. That time isn’t a limitless resource. That certain things require opportunity or skills that can’t be instantly conjured; that you’ll never step into the same river twice. While none of this argues against trying new things, it does shift your perspective a bit: If doing one thing can prevent you from doing another, if you can’t try literally everything, then you need to start making choices.

But which choices? Can we recreate the essence of ‘try everything’ within the confines of practical reality? If we only get a certain number of picks from the buffet of experiences, it would stand to reason that we should maximize the novelty of each choice. But does this extend to trying something new over repeating a great experience of the past? For example, do we order our favorite meal at a restaurant, or one that we’ve never tried before? The latter choice will in all likelihood be less enjoyable, taste-wise, but if we ever want to try something better than what we already know we’ll have to take that risk1.

An interesting choice

Such a choice might be controversial, but not very complicated. It gets trickier when we recognize that our pool of options does not remain constant over time. In other words, some of your actions will expand your opportunities (making money, for example) while others limit you (becoming addicted to heroin, say). With this in mind, I would propose the following as a basic stance for experiencing life:

A paradigm of possibilities    Follow whichever course of action seems likely to allow the greatest number of novel experiences henceforth2.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine that a (superior) foreign power invades your country. Do you resist, or surrender? Dying is pretty much the ultimate loss of options, so if the only way to avoid this is surrender then that’s what our paradigm would propose. On the other hand, joining a totalitarian regime (or the Borg) might represent such a loss of options that guerrilla resistance would offer a life richer in opportunities (albeit endangered). This deliberation may seem Machiavellian and/or cowardly compared to say “make a stand for liberty”, but I wonder if it’s really any different than the underlying motivation of this nobler sounding rationale.

Before anybody brings up Barry Schwartz, let me emphasize that these possibilities are not the same thing as choices. They’re not options that we necessarily have to choose between, but rather potentialities that may unfold during your lifetime. Let’s take a concrete example: if I choose to set aside money in a retirement fund, I might end up spending my sixties traveling or writing, or working regardless. More possibilities than if I had no savings, but my default state would be to continue whatever I was doing as long as I was financially above water. Thus the added possibilities would rather manifest as the absence of forced choices than as a choice of actions suddenly forced upon me.

One final point I’d like to make is that while at first glance it would seem that never making choices would allow the most possibilities, this is not the case in practice. Sure, if you never get around to choosing a major you have every field open to you. But on the other hand you won’t have access to jobs that require specialized skills, nor to graduate studies or indeed to any of the intellectual experiences that require understanding of a specific subject. Similarly, if you never marry you may have “access” to every member of the opposite sex, but perhaps not to being a parent (not to mention that your pool of potential partners will shrink over time regardless). Your actions unlock new possibilities, and while you’re postponing a choice others pass you by. Of all the thoughts I’ve shared here, this might also be the most useful regardless of whether you buy into the unconditional commitment to curiosity or not: Remember that life is not a fixed pie of opportunities. The options you have today might not be available tomorrow, and what is available tomorrow depends in large part on your actions today.


[1] Of course not everyone would prefer this ideology, just as not everyone would prefer entrepreneurship over a stable job. But if we ascribe to the idea of ‘try everything’ then the choice seems fairly obvious.

[2] Correspondingly, Paul Graham talks about staying upwind of promising opportunities.

7 thoughts on “A paradigm of possibilities

  1. Since this is not Facebook, I can’t simply “like” this post. Which means I have a choice….. to make an action…. in the form of leaving a comment.

    But I’m on the job right now and won’t make a carefully considered comment. Besides, I don’t really have any counter-arguments. Just that I like this.

    • Hey Sheri, guess what?
      I like this post too! It brings to mind the perennial question of meat… To cook, or to not!
      Now I’ll leave a separate post…

  2. To be more precise — but likely less clear — I think you need to revise your suggested paradigm on two accounts.

    First, as you mention indirectly yourself in your guerilla resistance example, what really counts is the PROBABILITY of the greatest number of options, i.e., your expectation/ mean value.

    Second, unfortunately it’s mathematically not as easy as just picking the next action that maximized your mean. Analogous, imagine for a second the so-called packing problem. You have n smaller boxes of various volumes v_1, …, v_n that you need to fit into a larger box with volume V. You need to maximize the volume of the large box you utilize (think of packing a truck to minimize number of truck shipments). Notice that you do not get the optimal solution by always picking the largest remaining small box.* The consequence for your paradigm is that you do not maximize the mean number of available novel experiences by picking _the_ next experience immediately leading to a higher / the highest mean. Unfortunately, even in the finite version this is not an easy computational problem and your version is even infinite…

    Finally, I’m not sure that your pool of potential partners are declining. At least it requires an assumption. http://xkcd.com/314/

    Just a few inputs :-)

    *) You do get the optimal solution using this strategy if v_{i+1] / 2 > v_i for all i (XX). This is what every monetary system in the world uses. When you have to pay $14.11 and hand the cashier an $20-bill it’s trivial to give you your change since (XX) is fulfilled: you simply take the largest bill/ coin (=unit) at each step and arrive at the optimal solution. As a corollary, if you want to teach the general population math simply design a monetary system where (XX) is not fulfilled 😉

    • I would suggest the following revision:

      Follow whichever course of action that seems likely to allow the greatest number of novel experiences henceforth.

      The likely here tackles both the problems of existence/uniqueness as well as the probabilistic/uncertain nature of the future. It’s not 100% precise, but I think it’s fairly clear.

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