An Infinity of Choices
Belated thoughts to kick off the new year
One of the best pieces of life advice I got came from a college professor who said, “You have to choose what’s important, and not everything can be important.”
Like all good life advice, it’s obvious. Of course you can’t choose everything — that’s the opposite of choosing, dummy. It’s obvious until you’re in your late 20s and realize shit, I’m trying to date and socialize and meditate and read, like, intellectual books and get promoted and go camping and become really good at pickleball for some reason and a million other things, giving you enough time for none of them. It’s obvious advice, until you realize somehow you’re not following it.
If it’s obvious that we can’t choose everything, why do we?
For one, I suspect we’re not tuned to handle the volume of choices the modern world presents.
People seek novelty and progress. We’re curious creatures, so we want to try new things. We’re ambitious creatures, so we want to improve at the things we try. Above all, we’re social creatures, so we especially want to do the things we see other people enjoying and mastering.
But evolution wired our brains for a world with far fewer options. There are both more options available now and, worse, we constantly see everyone else doing them.
Technology, cultural cross-pollination, and millenia of human development have made possible bottomless new experiences and activities. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors couldn’t surf, read Slaughterhouse Five, bake a soufflé, ride a rollercoaster, see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, or do acid while dancing to the White Lotus theme club remix. There are just more options now than there were before.
But I think the real rub is social: the modern world shows us all the possibilities enjoyed by everyone else, all the time.
For most of our evolutionary history, any one person met at most a few hundred other people in their life. Anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherer societies maxed out at 100 people; even assuming a hunter-gatherer somehow came across every member of multiple large societies, they wouldn’t meet 1000 people. With limited travel and no quick means of long distant communication, people’s social networks were capped by physical distance for most of human history.
In that old world, it was a viable strategy to think “I should do that” anytime someone did something interesting. If you only see 12 other people on a regular basis, there’s not that many people to copy. Moreover, looking to other people is a great heuristic for finding worthwhile things to do — everything’s been vetted.
But in our world, we encounter way, way more people. You might meet more new people in the first week of college orientation than our hunter-gatherer ancestors met in their entire life. Hell, you might see more distinct people in one night of infinity scrolling through Tiktok than our ancestors ever saw. Cars, planes, TV, the internet, smartphones, and social media have exploded our social circles. Technology blew off the caps.
In seeing all these people, we learn all the alternatives to whatever we are currently doing. We learn the hobbies we could pursue, the books we could read, the places we could visit, the experiences to add to the bucketlist. We get them from our friends, our family, people we met one time, people we’ve never met, people we’ve developed unhealthy parasocial relationships with. Our minds, ready to consider 12 options, are flooded with thousands.
There’s a great, although unfortunately apocryphal, piece of career advice from Warren Buffett. It goes as follows:
Write down your top 25 career goals.
Circle the top 5 goals in that list.
Cross off the remaining 20 goals. As the article describes them, those 20 goals are your “Avoid-At-All-Cost list”. They only serve to distract for the top 5; you must avoid them entirely. You can only revisit these once you’ve finished your top 5.
Step 3 surprises people. They’re not your tip-top goals, but they’re still important, right? There’s something counterintuitive about saying “those 20 things that you want to do, don’t do them at all.”
That Warren Buffet never gave this advice isn’t, you know, great for its credibility. He’s not following it — after hearing the advice, he responded “I can't recall making a list in my life” — so you can become a hundred-whatever-bazillionaire without following it.
Still, I think the advice gets passed around because it tells us an annoying truth: to be good at some things, you have to give up other things.
Personally, I have never been good at this. I’m a dabbler by nature. The new hobby is always shiny and beautiful, but it gets scratched up and smudged by the reality of doing it. It’s easy to discard in favor of the next shiny new one.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I have gotten better at sticking to hobbies. The benefits became clearer. For all the joy of the new experience, there is a subtler but more substantial happiness that comes from sticking it out. It becomes part of your identity, builds you up. But sticking it out requires not being distracted by every new hobby, experience, or activity you see.
Anyway, I was thinking about this in the wake of New Years.
I was talking with a friend about New Year’s resolutions, who said one of his was “to listen to fewer podcasts.”
This struck me as funny. Outside of goals about eating less, New Year’s resolutions (at least mine) are about doing more, not less. They’re about achieving great and ambitious goals over the next year. All the interesting things I saw other people do over the last year get added to the list. Resolutions can spiral into meditating everyday and weightlifting four times a week and reading a new Thomas Pynchon novel every month and waking up at 5 AM to do all three at once.
Not only can we not live up to these goals, but they crowd each other out. You can’t commit to any one goal because you’re too busy task-switching and feeling guilty about the goals you’re not doing.
So I like the idea of being stingy with our goals for the new year. Make that New Year’s resolution to listen to fewer podcasts, to travel less, to never go camping. Pick things you explicitly won’t do. Your time is finite. A new year is not the time to pursue infinite goals; it’s a time to pick the important ones. And not everything can be important.
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Cool and interesting post! Happy to see you back.
Anecdote perhaps apropos to the Buffett (mis?)quote: I try to have about 3 main goals/activities per year - at least one left-brained, at least one right-brained, and a flexible third slot. If I try to do only one thing, I inevitably get distracted because I get agitated about what I'm *not* doing. Two simultaneous streams of activity work (much) better than one for me. Beyond three, I start feeling spread too thin.