We all know how hard making decisions about own own lives can be sometimes, such as decisions about your career, or your relationships.
Here’s a list of several thought experiments I’ve come across over the years that have personally given me more perspective, making hard decision making a little bit easier sometimes. Though they’re all slightly different, they seem to operate similarly, cutting out fear and external influences to drill into what our deepest personal values are.
Ruth Chang’s idea that every hard choice is an opportunity to “become the authors of our own lives”. Watch her full TED Talk (15 minutes), it’s amazing.
I’m not sure if any of these will always give the “right” answer, and I also think that these thought experiments are just part of the puzzle to improve decision making about one’s own life. As Kahneman, Mauboussin, and Munger suggest, we should use a rational decision making framework or even a checklist* because humans are very prone to cognitive biases and shortcuts that can lead to bad decisions. Even as just a piece of the puzzle, these thought experiments have allowed me to think about decisions from different perspectives, which is always valuable.
Please add any other relevant thought experiments, and/or thoughts about decision making!
*I personally use a checklist similar to WRAP, which is simple to remember and covers a majority of the most common cognitive traps we can fall into. The Heath brothers describe WRAP more in Decisive. Using their terminology, the above thought experiments could belong to the “A” step of WRAP, or “attaining distance/perspective”.
I’m always looking to learn and grow as much as I can, and so am now working for myself. I’m currently consulting for other businesses, doing product development and/or data analysis, since I have a generalist software + statistics background. I see it as a great way to work with different, awesome people, on different problems, while learning about different industries: it’s a way for me to take lots of little bets in my journey of doing interesting things, finding my passion/what I want to focus on, and becoming the best version of myself.
Here are some of the biggest things I’ve learned so far, even though it’s only been a short amount of time. Hopefully they are helpful and mostly generalizable, but everyone’s life is different so your mileage may vary.
1. Reflect on when in your life you’ve felt happiest and most fulfilled.
I looked back on my life and thought about when I really felt the most alive, happy, and fulfilled. For me, it came down to experiences where I manifested my dreams, despite any perceived risk. Of course, I could not have done it without the help and support of friends and family and partners-in-crime–I feel life is so much less meaningful without others–but it was not being dependent on anyone but myself in taking action to maximize my potential that made me feel fulfilled*.
For example, one of the first pieces of software I ever developed was a math flashcards application built in Visual Basic, with cheesy cartoon characters and everything. As a middle schooler who had just learned how to program, I was super proud of it and really excited whenever I got to work on it, because I had come up with the idea and it was up to me to manifest and build my own “dream”.
Another time when I felt happy and fulfilled was the period of a year or two of learning how to pick up girls. That itself is a story for another time, but again, I loved the experience of facing and overcoming perceived risk, via action, to become the best version of myself. There’s no doubt that I felt a lot of discomfort in a countless number of situations. But, especially in situations where the perceived risk is high but the real risk is low, the pain of regret usually hurts more than the pain of failure.
As a result, my overarching goal in life is to maximize the time I spend on these types of experiences.
What experiences have made you feel the most fulfilled in life?
2. Think about death.
Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, the ancient Stoics, and many others have used the tactic of thinking about death when examining life.
I like Bezos’s thought experiment the best for decision making, and I use it all the time: visualize that you are old and on your deathbed–would you regret having made decision A vs. decision B (vs. decision C, etc.)?
We all die someday. The inevitability is out of our control. So why not try to live the best life you can live?
3. Do things that make you happy, every day.
About a week after leaving my job, one random a day, I felt like I was in a deep rut: negative emotions like fear and self-doubt were spiraling out of control in my head. I needed to change things up–being in such a bad mood wasn’t moving me forward in life at all.
Taking 10 minutes to meditate helped (Tara Brach has some great guided meditations, Headspace is also great for beginners).
I hadn’t listened to any music in several days, so I put on some EDM, changed my environment a little, and cranked on work for a bit at a coffee shop. Those of you who’ve worked in a library and/or coffee shop before, it’s strangely motivating isn’t it?
I went to the gym in the late afternoon, which also helped because it took my mind off negative emotions and gave me sense of progress.
Later that night, I went to an event met new people. It was great to put myself in their shoes for a little and understand what they’re up to, and what they care about most.
I have not been at all regular with my blog. I also have a bunch of draft posts on various topics just sitting there, partially written, mostly because I started writing and got stuck, or distracted, or ran out of time. Noticing that has made me want to write this, a short blog post about blogging (meta-blogging?).
Trying to blog somewhat regularly forces me to structure my thoughts, to come up with a cohesive, brief story that allows me to get my point across and hopefully get others thinking. This is something that I haven’t mastered yet–as evidenced by my collection of half-written draft posts–but I guess that’s the process of becoming a better writer, and where editing comes in. I wonder: do all the best bloggers edit their blog posts? Because I remember editing and revising essays for school over and over again, a process that took a lot of time. Some of the best bloggers that I follow seem to write off the cuff while maintaining brevity and an easy to follow structure in their posts.
The process of regularly structuring my point of view for writing also leads to the discovery of both holes in my thinking and also areas of opportunity that I can do more research on. Blogging also acts as a sort of accountability tactic: if I blog about doing something, then I feel even more compelled to do it. It certainly is a learning experience for me, and hopefully others can learn (about blogging, and about whatever else I talk about and share) along with me.
He’s brilliant, humble, focused, self-confident, and frugal. He started his own “golf ball” business as a kid, employing an army of friends to fish out golf balls from ponds in local golf courses, and then to clean, organize, and resell them. During his short time at Penn, Buffett joined a fraternity. He would spend parties at his frat house sitting on the ledge by a window, expounding on investing, the gold standard, and other economic concepts–a throng of guys and gals would always gather on the floor in front of him, hanging on his every word. In the early days of running his first fund, Buffett was insanely secretive about his investments, working from his home like a hermit, only wearing t-shirts and underwear, and refused to compromise on his fund’s 6 month lock-up period and $50,000 minimum investment (a lot at the time), even for celebrity investors. Those are just some of the captivating insights into Buffett’s character.
Buffett’s vast amount of wealth does not necessarily intrigue me that much–it is about how he build it: with self-reliance, focus, discipline, and authenticity.
He is also obsessed with “other people’s money”, or OPM, and OPM is essentially how he was able to build such a great fortune. One of Buffett’s first outright purchases of a company was an insurance company–he owns the well known GEICO today–and he used the float to fund his investments. That early purchase is said to be worth half of Berkshire Hathaway’s value today–this insightful post by Noh-Joon on Quora explains that, as well as how Buffett is able to essentially turn a 5% increase in actual investment appreciation into a 15% return (hint: leverage and effectively negative interest rates from insurance underwriting discipline). Not to mention, he’s a great stock picker.
Ever since I got my Kindle 3 years ago, I’ve been reading more. A lot more: before my Kindle, I’d probably average less than one book a year (not including those required for school). For me, it seems that the convenience of reading was a big factor.
Why do I read? As Newton said, to “stand on the shoulder of giants”. So much of mankind’s history, so far, has been recorded in physical writing–not online. Books are still the best way to see into the minds of the greatest scientists, philosophers, leaders, businessmen, etc. of all time.
It’s a balance of course, between actually taking action, and sitting down to spend time learning. The two behaviors are not mutually exclusive: one does learn from taking action, usually skills. Experience–success and especially failure–can teach very important lessons. One can’t meet new people by reading books all the time either. Sometimes though, one can discover brand new ideas and ways of thinking by reading books, ideas that are only talked about in-depth through text, by those in our history who have made a big impact. It is a different way of broadening horizons and gaining perspective.
Onto a few of the favorite books that I am reading, or have read recently, and a short reason why:
The first/original biography on Warren Buffett. Intriguing insight into who he was–and is–as a person, and what characteristics of his personality and events in his life made him so successful, walking the reader from early childhood through the rescue of the Salomon Brothers
Khan, the founder of the successful and impactful Khan Academy, makes convincing arguments for school reform, and talks about his project and how Khan Academy is the start of an educational revolution. He also talks a little bit about his childhood and subsequent path to the founding of Khan Academy. Inspirational and informative.
A very practical and impactful book on building habit forming products, products that have fiercely loyal customers who come back to use the product day after day, from someone who has lots of experience doing so. I’ve heard this one recommended a lot by my start-up friends, and it’s one that I often recommend as well, to entrepreneurs looking for a more practical, “business” book.
Basically, the science behind Hooked. I believe habits are one of the greatest “force multipliers” in life (definitely a post for another time), and in his book Duhigg presents the science behind them so we can better understand and utilize the power of habits.
You can see I prefer non-fiction, the reason why is pretty utilitarian.
Ok so technically I went “around” the world: NY->Vietnam->Cambodia->Thailand->Singapore->Hawaii->NY. But mainly I did my adventuring in Southeast Asia. What did I learn?
I dislike being non-“productive”. I didn’t get to work on my programming projects while traveling, and sometimes I wished I had gotten the chance to.I guess more time spent on traveling, self-development, gaining perspective means less time spent for career goals.
If you fail to plan, plan to fail. The city planners of Singapore essentially play Sim City and plan every aspect of the city’s development, from zoning to sewage systems, to a T. Singapore is also ridiculously well run and efficient. I believe the latter is a causal effect, to at least a large degree, of the former.
Do not control your thoughts and emotions. Become aware of them. The harder you try not to think about something, the more you think about it (study). What matters is not what you’re feeling, but how you feel about what you’re feeling. Awareness of your thoughts and emotions is a powerful ability to have, and is one of the main goals of meditation.
You can learn from every situation. My monk instructor in the two-day meditation workshop that I took taught me this too. In the context of meditation, he taught me to not be so hard on myself when I catch my mind wandering during meditation, and to learn from the situation (e.g. what my mind liked to think about, how I felt about what I was thinking about, etc.). I feel it also applies to the greater context of life: we can always learn something about ourselves, other people, or the world in any situation, good or bad, success or failure. Learning, and self-development, is a never ending journey.
Appreciate the things we have in life. There are the little things, like drinkable tap water, and air conditioning, but what impacted me most was my experience teaching English in a rural Cambodian village for a week. I met an American philanthropist (http://anywayfoundation.org/) named Ray in Phnom Penh and he invited me to teach for a little bit at an elementary school he had just built. In a place where cassava farms and rubber plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, where electricity is a luxury and daily temperatures rise above 100 degrees F, the kids I taught English to bubbled with enthusiasm to learn. They were so eager to learn, definitely much more so than I was when I was 9 years old, but before Ray donated his time and money, they had no pens and paper, no textbooks, a shortage of teachers, and no school building. Education means so much to them, but they did not even have the means to pursue it. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunities that I’ve had in life so far, for example access to education, and I hope to help those who don’t have them yet experience them.
People make the experience. My traveling experience could not have been nearly as fun and educational without the people that I met and befriended from all around the world: other fellow backpackers, the locals (restaurant owners, tuk tuk drivers, hostel staff, etc.), random people on the streets or waiting in line. Everyone has a unique and interesting story, and one can learn a lot from others.
Live life with authenticity. Because in the end, it’s between you and yourself; it was never between you and them anyway. When you are on your death bed, you will judge your own life. Will you judge it based on how well you lived your life the way others wanted you to, or how well you lived your life the way you wanted to? I learned of the following poem from Ray, the American philanthropist who I met in Cambodia:
The Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent M. Keith
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
I hope to travel abroad more. Traveling, and taking the path less traveled, provides something that is easily lost in the hectic and fast paced city that I live in: perspective.
Mind, one part of it is memory, another part of it is imagination. Both of them are, in one way, imagination, because both of them don’t exist right now. You are lost in your imagination, that is the basis of your fear. If you are rooted in reality, there will be no fear.
The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present. ~ Master Oogway, Kung Fu Panda
My brother and I just got back from a week long vacation in Florida, driving from Orlando to Miami to Ft. Myers to Tampa and then back to Orlando.
It was the first time I had seen my father in a while (he has lived and worked in China for the past 7 years). After having been reminded of the art–and power–of the now by this Psychology Today article, I wanted to make a conscious effort to live in the present as much as possible and enjoy every moment with my father and brother.
I remember the day the three of us spent a beautiful, warm, cloudless afternoon on Sunny Isles Beach. We each built a sand castle, digging with our hands like dogs, scooping hand fulls of soaked sand to use as structural support, and carving our castles with the small plastic shovel.
I was completely in the moment, in a state of flow, focusing only on the task at hand–digging the moat, carving the sides. When I wasn’t building, I would take breaks by sitting on the sand at the edge of the water, letting the waves flow over my feet and legs while I stared at the horizon, just appreciating the sun’s warmth on my body, the muffled talking and excited shouts of the other beach-goers around me, the crashing of the waves–the present moment–and thinking of nothing else.
The Now, gratitude, and happiness
Through this experience and many others, I’ve learned that living in the moment begets gratitude. And the attitude of gratitude is a powerful one. On the beach, I felt gratitude for being able to spend time with my father and brother, for the luxury of being able to travel to somewhere so beautiful, for the warm water, sand, sun, air–for being alive.
Fears and worries are predominately rooted in the past or future. None of that is happening in the present moment, and the present moment is reality, it is all that one has.
I remember being nervous about going to my first few days of work two summers ago (it was my first real “office” job). Every morning, before I left for work, I meditated. I focused on nothing but my breath, the only thing that was actually happening in the present moment, the thing that reminded me of the life that I have; however, my mind would wander to worrying thoughts of the future and I would get that “butterflies in my stomach” feeling. Then I did one thing: acknowledge it. The simple act of acknowledging that physical feeling, that I was feeling it right now in the present, and labeling it as anxiety, removed it. The feeling melted away.
Neither the past nor the future exist yet. There is nothing to fear or worry about, because those things are derivatives of thoughts about the past or future. Regardless of what situation one might be in, we all have a ton to be grateful for, especially what’s happening in the present (even if it’s something as simple as being alive). What’s something about the current moment that you can be grateful for?