Difference Wisdom

Seek serenity to accept what you cannot change, courage to change what you can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Imagine that you were thinking of buying or building a house. Now consider various possible hypothesis you might have about your degree of influence over this resulting house.

At one extreme, you might fatalistically assume you had no influence. For example, you might think your spouse will pick the neighborhood, house, and all later home improvements, and that you’d have zero input. If this assumption were mistaken, you might later regret that you’d invested little effort in thinking about what you wanted, or what was feasible.

At the other extreme, you might assume you had budget and approval for a huge estate and mansion anywhere you wanted.   So you might sketch out elaborate designs – the bowling alley goes here, ballroom to the south, the helipad over there, and so on. If your budget was actually far smaller, however, most of this effort might be wasted.

Yes, it can be good to spend a bit of time considering a wide range of influence levels. Sure, sometimes you might think about what you’d do if you won the lottery, or if you were locked in jail for decades. But surely most of your planning should be done matched to the scale of your actual degree of influence. Not much point in shopping for the best private jet if you can barely afford a car.

The same principle applies to our strongest relations, such as romance and friendship. These matter greatly deal to us, and so we’d very much like to control them. We make lists of what we want in our mates and allies, we rehearse what we will and won’t accept from partners, and we analyze our interactions to assure ourselves we understand what is happening.

But much of this is illusory overconfidence and over-reach; we usually have far less control over and understanding of our relations than we think. Sure we can list features we like and dislike, all else equal. And we might be mostly correct about which way those features influence our attraction. Even so, we mostly just don’t know why we like some and dislike others. Sometimes we don’t even realize who it is we like and dislike.

If we calculate that it would be in our interest to like or dislike someone more, we have only a very limited ability to actually make ourselves do this. Even when we decide we’d be better off breaking it off a relation, we can find that quite hard to actually do so. More likely we’ll break something off and then make up reasons about why that was a good idea.

I’m not saying to never think about your relations; I’m saying such thinking is more useful when you are more realistic about your influence. Of course if others get wind of your realism they may respect you less, or think they can walk all over you. So in that way it might be in your interest to be somewhat deluded about your influence. And you won’t get to be a famous inspirational speaker on relationships by speaking honestly about them.  But be careful to not take your confident image too seriously.

The same principle also applies in futurism. It is tempting to think we can remake the universe to be anything we now collectively want, and so to spend great efforts wondering how exactly we would want the universe to be if we had our druthers. But if we are actually very constrained in our influence, most of this effort will be wasted. Oh it might be a helpful exercise in far-mode thinking, to affirm far values and assert confidence in our abilities.  But it might not do much for the future.

When our ability to influence the future is quite limited, then our first priority must be to make a best guess of what the future will actually be like, if we exert no influence. This best guess should not be a wishful assertion of our far values, it should be a near-real description of how we would actually bet, if the asset at risk in the bet wer something we really cared about strongly. And yes, that description may well be “cynical.”

With such a cynical would-bet best guess, one should then spend most of one’s efforts asking which small variations on this scenario one would most prefer, and what kinds of actions could most usefully and reliably move the future toward these preferred scenarios. (Econ marginal analysis can help here.)  And then one should start doing such things.  Yes this approach seems less noble, fun, and optimistic, and talking this way won’t make you an inspirational futurist, speaking at all the hip conferences. Even so, those small shifts are what would actually most help the future.

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