Sunday, April 23, 2017

Confessions of an Optionality Maximizer

I confess, I am an optionality maximizer. When life gives me a choice, I habitually choose the path that leaves open the most future possibilities. I am a qubit that refuses read 1 or 0, a cat that refuses to be dead or alive. 

In college, I chose my majors (Economics and Mathematics) based on my estimation of which would leave open the most career prospects, thereby delaying the time for choosing. In my spare time, I am acquainted with many hobbies, but I am a master of none of them. To invest my time in one hobby would mean to give up the possibility of pursuing greatness at another. So I find myself a mediocre writer, a mediocre guitar player, a mediocre painter, and an okay counselor with okay physical fitness. I meditate far more than the modal human but far less than anyone who dedicates serious time to it. 

Yes, the bane of the optionality maximizer is dedication or commitment. Without coincidence, I am 34 and unmarried. I have lived in five different cities in my adult life, and I have a hankering to add a sixth. 

My physical surroundings mirror my inner life. I stockpile goods and clothing used once, which may someday be used again. My introduction to Burning Man and festival culture has exacerbated this trend. I have boxes full of colorful costumes, wacky shirts, and light-up furry vests that I am saving to wear in some future year. Many are the delightfully quirky jackets (red suede!) that I have never worn. Besides the clothes, I own an impressive assortment of miscellaneous electronica, aspirational books, and seldom-used tools, despite several bouts of simplification. 

I met a fork in the wood, and I chose the path that would lead to the most future forks. Or, I walked a few steps down each of them, in order to make sure I didn't miss out on anything. 

What drives this impulse towards maximizing choice? Part of it is surely a greater-than-average drive for novelty. The life I chose has successfully provided plenty of it. Call it the “FOMO-driven life” (Fear Of Missing Out, for the unhip). 

Like all character classes, the FOMO-driven individual has strengths and weaknesses. The upside is a certain “wisdom-of-breadth”. I can form analogies across many fields and disciplines. When I run into a new idea, it reminds me of this concept from Plato, that concept from music, or some model in physics. Based on a person’s current interests, I can almost always direct them to a new fascination. 

The downside of the FOMO-driven life is that it carries with it the emotional tone of discontent. There is always, and will always be something that I am missing out on. I have never learned a new human language, or traveled very much, or.... done many other things.   

But I am beginning to suspect that the FOMO-driven life may be self-limiting. I sense a growing meta-boredom stirring in my soul. I have had enough shallow snacks of newness that I doubt how much more is to be gained out pursuing them further. Deepness, commitment, expertise, long-term projects - these are the things that I currently fear missing out on. I feel ready to face a great deal of boredom-the-emotion in order to alleviate the meta-boredom with the meaning of my life. 

Looking at my habits with a different model, perhaps my novelty-seeking was rational when I didn’t know much about the world. Now that I have more information about what it is like to do and be so many different things, I no longer have to gather as much breadth of information. It is now time to go deeper.

This is an unfortunate impulse to be having at this moment in history. Most of the new developments in the social landscape in my lifetime encourage breadth over depth, explore over exploit. Fortunately, I am also an incorrigible contrarian.  

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