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Decisions as a Barbell (Also a Very Meta Post)
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
At the end of this post I announce some significant changes to my blog, so make sure to stay till then.
I. Habits vs. Big Decisions
A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast. (I forget which one.) The guest was dismissive of the idea that having a good life is all about cultivating virtuous habits. As evidence of this he pointed out that so much of one’s life ends up hinging on a few big decisions; the impact of those few decisions overwhelm whatever small gains one gets from daily habits.
I’m a big fan of habits and normally I would not have paid much attention to this claim. To start with, it’s tautological. Yes, big decisions are substantial and important by definition. Also I’ve been evangelizing about the impact of black swans for many, many years. In other words, tell me something I don’t know. However, recent circumstances led me to pay closer attention. In particular, I thought of my friend Mark getting scammed out of an enormous amount of wealth. His frugal habits powered the accumulation of that wealth, but it only took one spectacularly bad decision to undo years of good behavior. It raises the following questions:
Did his habits somehow contribute to making that one poor decision?
I have money, I can give a little bit of it to Becky, and a little bit more. Oh shit! I’m ruined.
Did they create a financial blind spot?
I’m good with money, I don’t need to worry about being scammed…
The same phenomenon might explain the time I was sued. (Which I also blogged about recently.) It followed a similar pattern. In the time leading up to the lawsuit I was very focused on my habits, while I basically ignored the pending disaster.
Look how healthy I am, I'm lifting twice a week, and playing squash every Friday. I’m reading lots of books, and using the pomodoro system to be productive.
The flaming, engineless airplane I call a job? The one that’s spiraling towards the ground? I’ll be fine. Now leave me alone, can’t you see I’m reading War and Peace. Back off man, I’m an intellectual!
Defenders of habits, of which I am one, would offer another rejoinder: that there are habits which would have helped in both these situations. Put simply, you protect yourself from black swans by being antifragile. Mark had saved money and been prudent for quite a while, but as we talked about it he admitted had gotten complacent. My doubts about my job had lead me to consider my own fragility. I was well positioned to go six months without a paycheck, I wasn’t prepared to go two years, while simultaneously funding a lawsuit.
There are things that could have been done, general prudential measures you could recommend to everyone. But what are the specific habits Mark or I should have been cultivating?
Mark could have cultivated the habit of skepticism, and I could have cultivated the habit of trusting my gut when I had misgivings about the contract (and Jean-Ralphio). But are these truly habits?
Consider the following: You can decide on a habit of “walking outside for thirty minutes every day”. With this habit it’s crystal-clear whether you’ve done it or not. If instead the habit you decide on is “be healthy” that’s not something you can check off. Sure you can break it down into things that can be checked off, like the aforementioned habit of walking, but then those are your habits. Being healthy is too nebulous to turn into a habit. Also health involves striking a balance between many competing priorities.
You’re searching for the golden mean, not flipping the “health” switch.
Skepticism and knowing when to quit are the same way. It’s just as dangerous to be too skeptical as it is to be too trusting. While I would have been better off if I’d left my job before it crashed, the best timing for that decision was far from obvious. Moreover, it wasn’t something that could have been turned into a habit.
So, to the extent I’m remembering this guest’s point correctly, I disagree that habits aren’t important. I think they’re super important. You wouldn’t be reading this very sentence if I hadn’t developed several habits around writing. The epiphany I had was neither about habits, nor prudence in general, nor a realization that black swans happen. All these things were known to me already. No, it was a revelation about the space in the middle.
II. A Barbell Strategy of Attention
Many of you started thinking of Taleb the minute I brought up black swans, given his book of the same name. Let’s bring in another of his ideas. Taleb got his start as an investor and most of his thinking flows from that discipline. He recommends a barbell strategy, 80-90% of your money should be in super safe assets, and 10-20% of your money should be in exceptionally risky assets, with basically no money in the middle. The safe part of the barbell protects you from negative black swans (gold is still valuable even in the event of a zombie apocalypse) and the risky side of your portfolio pays out on positive black swans.
The epiphany I had while listening to that podcast was that a similar strategy should be applied to where you place your attention. 80-90% of your attention should be on developing virtuous habits, doing the work day in and day out, and 10-20% of your attention should be focused on identifying truly consequential decisions and making sure you nail them. Very little attention should be placed in the middle.
Of course most people place quite a lot of their attention on the “middle things.” The recent push to focus on habits is an attempt to correct this misallocation of attention. But to adapt the point of the podcast to our analogy, this focus frequently takes attention not from the middle, but from the other end of the barbell — the end where all the consequential decisions are made. It would be much better if it pulled attention from the middle, the non-habitual, non-consequential space where most people spend all of their time.
You might already have a clear picture of this “middle”, but let’s get more specific. It’s all the time you spend worrying about the latest interaction you had with your boss. The anxiety you feel trying to discern whether they’re faintly pleased with your latest TPS report or vaguely annoyed. And if it’s not worrying about your boss then your attention is focused on the daily annoyances of life. The guy who cut you off. Or when you get home with your take-out only to discover that an item is missing.
Whether it be the interactions with your boss, or the daily annoyances, these things should mostly be dealt with by habits.
You should develop habits of doing good work.
You should have a habit of saving money, so if you get laid off in spite of your good work, you’ll be okay.
You should also have a habit of checking your order before you leave the restaurant. And for those instances where habits might not help — sharing the road with bad drivers — it’s important to recognize that the annoyances they cause won’t matter in the long run. (The accidents they cause are a whole other story.) It has been said that if it won’t matter in five years it doesn’t matter now. The middle is composed of all those things that won’t matter in five years.
III. Identifying the Consequential (A Metaphor of Violence)
You can find many guides to creating habits — at this point the process is fairly well understood. That said, the other end of the barbell — identifying the consequential — is much more challenging. Consequential decisions are obvious in hindsight, but difficult to identify beforehand. Fortunately I have a couple of ideas that might help.
For the first we turn once again to Taleb. This time I’d like to examine his treatment of via negativa. I guess I shouldn’t say it’s his idea, it’s actually a key component of apophatic theology. This way of thinking points out that fully describing God’s positive qualities is impossible. How do you capture omnipotence? So instead they attempt to describe God by pointing out what he is not.
But I digress…
Taleb recommends applying this technique more broadly. That in all areas it is more beneficial to focus on what we need to eliminate than what we need to add. In the barbell theory of attention we eliminate the middle. Once we do that all that remains is the habitual and the consequential, and distinguishing between those categories is easy. In two easy steps we have identified what’s truly impactful.
As with so many things that’s easier said than done, but it’s definitely a start.
The second idea comes from science fiction author Neal Stephenson. In his book Anathem, his main characters are all monks, and while not all of them are martial artists, some are. These martial artists are not only skilled at violence, but also very concerned about using violence only at the right time. In most media which feature martial artists there are plenty of opportunities to fight. Everywhere they turn there are other martial artists primed for combat, just waiting to be defeated by physical violence. This is not the case in the real world and it’s not the case in Anathem. In both settings violence is exceptionally rare, and also very consequential. You must not use violence when it’s not needed, but you must not fail to use it when it is.
Consequently, as part of their martial discipline, these monks have developed the doctrine of emergence. They spend as much time training themselves to identify when to use violence as they do training themselves to commit that violence. This consists in noticing the precursors to violence so that they will be ready. Situations which truly call for violence feel different, and develop differently, and things can change rapidly.
I feel there’s a lesson there. Namely, it’s possible to do something similar with consequential decisions — to recognize when they’re emerging. If we can manage this, then it gives us the opportunity to apply all of our wisdom at that critical point, rather than wasting our attention on the quotidian middle — on the things that really won’t matter over the long run.
Often, truly consequential decisions don’t unfold quite so rapidly as instances of violence. That’s good news and bad news. Good in that we have more time to think and plan, bad in that the consequential decision may be far removed from the actual consequences. In my lawsuit the consequential decision was signing the contract, which happened three years before the actual lawsuit. For my friend Mark, it may have been the very first time he helped Becky out. It took quite a while before he was completely out of money.
Another good thing is that we get far more practice with consequential decisions than we do with violence. One would hope that this makes identifying “an emergence” even easier, that we would get better at making the right decisions. Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
I don’t think any of what I’ve said will allow one to perfectly avoid lawsuits or scams. There will still be consequential decisions where we make the wrong choice, but given the enormous impact of these decisions anything that increases our odds of success has to be good.
IV. My Own Set of Consequential Decisions
I mentioned in my last book review roundup that I was planning to move to Substack. Since then, I’ve been silent for an unusually long time and I’m still not on Substack.
So what happened?
Well, I think I’m in the middle of an emergence. I was recently offered a column in the Technology and Religion section of Patheos.com. Deciding whether to accept the offer and what to do about my other writing feels like a consequential decision, and so I wanted to take my time and make sure I got it right. Also there was some other stuff slowing me down as well. There always is.
After thinking it over, and yes, praying about it. Here’s what I decided to do:
I’m going to accept the Patheos offer. In order to make sure I give it my best shot, I’m mostly going to stop putting out original content on wearenotsaved.com.
I am still going to move things over to Substack. I remain convinced it’s a good idea.
Going forward, every Wednesday I will post something from my archives in this space. I will still continue to post my monthly round up of book reviews, and I’m hoping to occasionally publish something original that’s not religious enough for Patheos, but no promises.
I say from my archives, but the plan is to revise each piece, take another editing pass, and update it to reference anything that’s happened since I originally wrote it. So I’m hoping even those of you that have read all my old stuff will nevertheless find something new and interesting.
I do not yet have a link for my Patheos blog, but as soon as I do I’ll post it here. My plan is to post there every Friday. I expect those pieces will be shorter, so I figure it basically takes the place of my newsletter The Eschatologist.
If you listen to me via podcast, for the foreseeable future, audio versions of everything will be released there, both the Patheos columns and the wearenotsaved.com stuff.
Part of this plan comes because I want to make sure I come out swinging on Patheos, and part of it is due to the fact that I have a very busy summer. I intend to revisit things come the end of August. I don’t intend to put out stuff from the archives forever, hopefully it will just be for a few months.
Thanks for your ongoing patience, and hopefully, when it comes to this consequential decision, it will be obvious that I made the correct one.
I’m not sure what to do about my Patreon with these changes. If you are one of my patrons (and I couldn’t be more thankful to you) I’d be interested in hearing from you.