Wanting it all

Yes, this post is at least tangentially related to that Atlantic article. And yes, my friend beats me to the punch. But no, this is not about my demands against society, or, important as it is, how the entire system must change in order for us to experience a work-life balance that more closely aligns with the realities of human labor, lifespan, and reproduction. Instead, this is about wanting it all.



Lately, I’ve come to the realization that a lot my problems would be classified as “1% problems”: that is, issues only those who have already have means and stability would experience (or complain about). Things such as the free food cooked for you at work seems to be going downhill, or the fact that all the massages at work get booked up weeks in advance. Okay, so these are mostly Goog-world problems. But still, there are things like not being able to afford to purchase a house in this area, and the lifelong quest for The One.

My friend a.l.’s blog post, though, made me re-realize that in reality these problems are just manifestations of problems that everyone faces. We as humans all confront the same classes of obstacles, just of varying degree. And so despite the fact that Ms. Slaughter’s article is nominally about “having it all” for those women who are in professions of power and flexibility, I think everyone wants to have it all — for some definition of “it all” — independent of their socioeconomic status.

My Econ 1 professor once stated that the field of economics — the economic problem (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_problem) — deals with the allocation of finite resources among our infinite desires. Much like the quip that states that the term in biology for a system in perfect equilibrium is “dead,” it’s against human nature to be satisfied with our current state, no matter how objectively good it is. We can’t settle for an equilibrium when we know there is more out there.

In almost any measurable respect, our lives in 21st century, middle-class America are much better than those of royalty a few centuries ago. We have incredible access to water, food, clothing, and shelter. We have the ability to travel anywhere on the globe in days, access to tremendous amounts of information, all sorts of medical procedures that can save our lives, technology that can keep us connected, an endless amount of entertainment. In short, everything’s amazing.

Interlude: Louis C. K.’s “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” clip:

But we do not measure our lives in absolute terms. We compare ourselves to others, and in this interconnected age, we can compare ourselves to a lot of others. There’s always someone smarter, taller, stronger, richer, more beautiful than us, and that knowledge makes us unhappy. No matter what metric of success you strive towards, chances are about 1 in 7 billion that you’re at the top. And to compound the problem, those at the top are also more visible to the public.

As I see it, there are three possible options: we can stop comparing ourselves to others by self-imposing some sort of solitude; we can attempt to have a mind frame where we lower our expectations and settle; or we can consign ourselves to always wanting more, to get more, and to still want even more. Although the first two don’t appear palatable, I can only hope that there’s some way to break out of the third’s vicious cycle.

It’s easy to suppose that we can just take a Zen-like approach and tell ourselves to be satisfied with what we have. This is a difficult thing to achieve. Without our desire to strive for more, progress would be nonexistent. Yet, I believe that a large part of the unhappiness of modern society is due to our demanding too much out of life.

I sometimes (only mostly) joke about how work never stops, and that in search quality we should just define a point at which we believe the search engine is good enough and just call it quits afterward. Or that adding an extra weekend day provides 50% more weekend at low cost of 20% of production. Neither of these will happen. There is always work to do, always things to improve, always things that will take up our time.

So we continue our lives never fully satisfied. Maybe this is the way things should be. Maybe the aspirational nirvana we think should exist couldn’t possibly exist. We already have so much, but our wants are always more. Just like if we have an injury we feel pain in the injured part and not the healthiness of the rest of the body, we see what we lack more than what we have. Perhaps the only thing to do is to constantly remind ourselves that “everything is amazing” and that “this is water.”

Bezos, Mom, Life

I remember having lunch with Jeff Bezos back when I was a senior in high school. This was just a couple of years after he won the Time Person of the Year award, so no big deal. I remember that trip because it was kind of awesome (the rather self-aggrandizing Academy of Achievement Summit, although they did get quite a collection of notable people there). This event was also where I shook hands with George Lucas; it was also about a year after Episode 1 came out, so screw that guy. Unfortunately, after the dot-com bust, money went dry and I think nowadays only Rhodes scholars are invited to that event. Kids: there are some perks for getting straight As and acing the SATs.

This post is not about name dropping; in fact, I pretty much despise the cult of celebrity that our modern culture fosters. But I do think there are some useful lessons that can be learned from famous people, and this is hopefully one of them.

In this lunch with Mr. Bezos, he talked about the early days of amazon.com (the world’s largest rainforest website), and how it grew to become the behemoth that it was. Which, incidentally, is tiny compared to what it is now, a decade later. Anyway, what I remember most from that lunch was that he said, in response to someone’s (my?) question, yes, it does take a certain amount of luck for a startup to get off the ground because there are a lot of risks involved in starting a company. But after the initial phase of success, a company thrives precisely because (and only if) it can systematically eliminate risks. So after the first set of risks pay off, you use the windfall from those returns to get rid of any current and potentially future risks.

This seemed quite profound back in high school. Despite the fact that I have zero desire to do a startup, I think it still is a lesson that I keep to heart.

There are a lot of risks we face in life. The vagaries of life are such that there a zillion things that can go wrong in any day. In the course of our everyday habits, it’s sometimes easy to forget how fragile we are. Egoism makes us believe that we are immune to the tragedies that befall others.

My mom, who was basically the architect of my life and my education up through high school, also chose what I view as a very conservative and low-risk, moderate-reward path for my sister and me. I think both of us have strayed somewhat from the path (neither of us became doctors), but in essence we still abide to this conservatism with regard to our lives. Right now, I’m not sure if this is a desirable outcome. Although I do have her to thank for talking me off the cliff of becoming a professional poker player during college.

I was also talking to a colleague/friend, and she also reiterated the same position. We somehow ended up at this job because we sought out a low-risk field. After all, we are statisticians — one gains a certain awe of randomness after studying and working with it for so many years. And it’s our job to eliminate all its vagaries.

The trajectory is somewhat unexciting, though. You study hard throughout grade school to get into an elite college, and then you maybe also go to a strong graduate school. You can then find comfortable employment at one of the best companies to work for. But you won’t found your own company or pioneer a Kuhnian revolution. You become confined to a narrow band of possibilities. Certainly the worst outcomes are avoided, but the spectacular ones are as well. In some sense, I think I’ve optimized my life according to some cosmic minimax, and now find it insufficient in expectation.

So sometimes I wonder if I am not taking enough risks in life. Maybe I won’t ever have trouble finding a well-paying job, but I also won’t ever be in the one percent. There are much, much worse fates than being stuck in the upper-middle class. Life without any risks, though, might be life without any meaningful rewards.

Part of this is practically tautological: something is special because it is not common or a given. Someone is interesting because they are different from others. But I think there is something more here. Our striving towards betterment necessarily involves some failures and setbacks; in other words, some risk. And our constant desire for more means that, after the low-hanging fruit are cleaned, the only way towards being better is by incurring more risk.

Recently, I found it impossible to find friends to try skydiving with me. We have these fears, probably justified, that prevent us from doing things that we might want. In our mental calculus, the losses outweigh the gains. Conquering our fears involves large perceived risks. But in the end, we hopefully are better off. I still haven’t gone skydiving.

My guess is that the solution here, like most everything else, is that moderation is key. What’s puzzling me, though, is how to know when I’ve hit that sweet spot. These days, I feel polarizing forces: a constant need to shake up my life, a claustrophobia of the status quo; which is countered against the knowledge that I have it pretty good and should have no reason to be unhappy. I hope that I still possess the wherewithal to do something a little crazy and unexpected, that I still have a little bit of, as my friend says, the impetuousness of youth, where we just did shit and said fuck everything.