Thinking About the Right Things

Part I

Many thoughts race through my mind.  I fact, I wish I had more time to think -- in my life, and particularly at work, I often default to my intuition (which, together with common sense, I see as a kind of cache for the thought process) rather than taking the time to step back and think.  It's a pity because (a) I don't think my intuition is particularly strong and (b) I like thinking.

Recently I started making myself think (and use this blog to record these thoughts and hopefully have other people provide their feedback on them).  As I think, my mind naturally collects these thoughts into themes and climbs up the abstraction ladder.  Very quickly I get to the metaphysical, the highly abstract concepts and then I get lost and confused.  I start doubting everything and asking myself existential questions.  This is why I really want to come up with some kind of framework to help me think about the right things, so I don't feel this anxiety.

I mentioned already that I think the most important thing to think about is one's purpose in life.  I still need to prove it (to myself), though, and hopefully come up with a way to do this well.  And perhaps purpose is not even the most important thing to think about, perhaps there is something even more fundamental.

The search for the most fundamental question is on.

The first stage of this search will be for me to sieve through the chaos of my thoughts and extract bits of information which might be useful in my thinking.  For example, I intuitively feel that there are some principles I want to abide by.  Maybe these are the wrong principles, but it's a good start.  Once I have all this stuff written down, I'll stare at the piece of paper and then actually think about the framework.  It's just really hard to do with a blank piece of paper in front of me.


Part II

I think it's much easier to think about the framework you should apply when thinking about your goals and purpose than to actually come up with the purpose.  I'll attempt to provide the framework I came up with.  A nice thing about the framework is that it should be independent of one's values, goals, and purpose -- there may still be multiple different frameworks but they should be equivalent; modulo perhaps some things they are trying to optimize for (some framework may try to help you come up with a design more efficiently than some other, for example).

At the most fundamental level, this framework will help us answer a very simple question: "What should I be doing right now?".  We all ask ourselves this question many times (or wish to, but don't): "Should I be working at my current job or not?", "Should I buy a house?", "Perhaps I should be helping poor children in third-world countries...".  We make some decisions but often we're not sure whether our reasoning for our choices is correct.  Ultimately, then, this will be the framework to guide us in making decisions in life.

Let's start with goals because I think a lot of people viscerally understand what goals are.  Goals are not the most concrete item but also not the most abstract (i.e. they influence other things in our life (for example, our actions), but are also shaped by other things), so we'll have to explore goals in two directions -- down (to the more concrete) and up (to the more abstract).

You may have been taught that goals should be SMART -- specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.  I'd actually simplify this mnemonic a little and say that a goal needs just one thing: to be measurable (i.e. you have to know when you've achieved it).  For now I'll assume that you already have a goal in mind that is measurable.  Most likely it doesn't have a timeline attached to it, and you're not even sure if you can achieve it (other than a visceral feeling you have).  This is fine, we'll handle all these problems shortly.

The next step is to come up with a way to achieve that goal, a design.  This is where art comes in.  There is no formula for coming up with great designs.  There are some properties that great designs have, however, and your design should also exhibit these properties:

  • A good design is not sensitive to small changes in the inputs: if you miss some deadline, or if you catch a cold, a good design should be able to withstand it
  • A good design anticipates any problems you may run into when trying to satisfy your goal
  • A good design can be iterated upon so that it can be fine-tuned and altered
  • A good design is modular -- it consists of a list of subgoals that connect logically

You should be able to prove that your design satisfies your goal.  This is usually hard, which is why having a modular design is a good idea -- you should be able to prove at a high level why achieving subgoals X, Y and Z will achieve your goal G.  We've just replaced our goal with three subgoals and a thin layer of "proof" connecting them all.  Each subgoal needs a design, so yes, it may seem like there is much more work to be done, but these subgoals X, Y and Z are now most likely easier to measure (perhaps instead of a binary -- "Have I achieved this goal?" -- you can come up with a continuous -- "How much of this goal have I achieved?" -- measure).  They may also be more timely (it's good to get early feedback and if all you have is a binary goal and five years to achieve it, you are risking a big waste of time!) and specific, and, most importantly, they feel much more attainable (because they require less work to fulfill).  And so as you come up with your <em>tree</em> of goals, the lower you get, the more SMART each goal gets.  Ultimately, then, to fulfill your goal you just need to fulfill each of the "leaf" subgoals (and make sure that your logic for connecting subgoals is correct at each level).  If at any point you are unable to come up with a design, you have an unrealistic or unattainable goal and you should alter your design.

Now that you have a design you can start executing on it.  But you won't get perfectly lucky -- problems will arise that appear as outcomes in conflict with the outcomes you expected.  A very smart man Ray (usually I fake out the initials but I hope he won't mind me unanonymizing him) taught me a way to use these outcomes to refine the design (in fact, I owe my inspiration for coming up with my framework to him).  The idea is simple: observe the outcomes, compare them to the outcomes you expect based on your design, and if the outcomes are in conflict, you have a problem.  You can work around the problem, or solve it superficially, but the most effective thing to do is to alter your design based on fundamental, root causes of the problem.  For example, if you're a poor driver and keep smashing into walls, the solution is not to buy you a stronger car; it's to improve your driving skills.  If you alter your design according to the superficial causes, you are likely to encounter more problems that are due to the same fundamental cause.

In fact, in a robust design, you can anticipate all problems, diagnose them and change your design even before you started executing on it!

As you achieve your subgoals, you should make sure that your higher-level design is still correct by re-evaluating whether achieving your subgoals leads to a fulfillment of the overarching goal.  It's possible that your "proof" was weak and you didn't take into account some inputs that have changed since you originally came up with your design.  Or it was insufficient and you actually need to fulfill more than the subgoals you originally came up with.

Hence, assuming you know your goals already, you should be able to successfully execute upon them with a help of a simple design.

Now, to the much more interesting question: how do you come up with your goals?


Part III

Our journey is not yet complete -- since we still don't know what our goals should be.  So let's travel upwards, determining what influences our goals, then what in turn influences that thing, and so on.  Hopefully the framework is a finite one.

Our goals are influenced by our desires, our wants.  At some level there isn't much difference between goals and desires, except that desires may not necessarily be measurable.  Desires are what makes our goals important: the goals then become a way to hold ourselves accountable for getting what we want.

This hasn't made our search much easier, because we can still not know what our desires should be.  At this point a lot of us have an intuitive understanding of our desires ("I want to be rich", "I want to look good", "I want to help starving children in Africa", etc.) but I doubt many of us ask ourselves why this particular desire and not the other.  This is particularly interesting as throughout our life our desires change.

I will single out one desire that a lot of people seem to have: happiness.  I don't like this word because it's not very well-defined and, even worse, as one attempts to define it, one realizes that it's self-referential (we want to be happy but ultimately we and only we decide if we're happy).  I will write more about happiness but I think fundamentally, happiness is linked very much with a concept of an afterlife (people who don't believe in an afterlife want happiness in their life).  If you think that you desire happiness, I'd encourage you to think why and what exactly you mean by this.  Would you rather be content for all your life or unhappy for most of it and incredibly happy at the very end?  Would you prefer to know more but be less happy, or be ignorant and happy?  As you start asking yourself hard questions, I think you'll realize that happiness is a kind of black hole that may actually be distracting from that ultimate question.

Our desires are influenced by our values.  Everyone has a sense of values and based on these values we make decisions in life, specifically what we think is important, and hence what we want.  Here some of us might value mankind, others may value freedom, others still may value human life (as in, an individual's life).

Finally, our values are set by our purpose.  I see the purpose as the singular value that we hold most dear, find most important.  From the purpose we can derive all our values.  Our purpose is usually also something that doesn't change -- once we figure it out in the first place, that is.  This is also another reason why figuring out your purpose is incredibly important -- the entire framework is a kind of a chaotic system where small changes to one layer can snowball into huge differences in the layers below.  For example, if our values shift a little, our goals may be entirely different and so our actions will be nothing like what they were before (often they will be opposites) and they will permeate our lives.  For example, if I start valuing quality relationships over their diversity, I may decide to stop commuting from the City and live in Connecticut instead.

Can we keep going?  What influences our purpose?  I think that we come up with our purpose based on our synthesis of our interpretation of the observable Universe.  In other words, we absorb information through observation, analyze it, and find themes.  As we continue synthesizing, we determine a very high-level model of the universe and with it, our place in it.

The reason this is a useful framework is that it is not infinite -- you can't ask "why" forever, because information is a fundamental phenomenon -- we observe things about the universe, which we can treat as exogenous.

However, this doesn't make thinking about purpose easy.  You still have to take information in, and process it; find themes and reduce it to a model that you can reason about.  You will likely encounter the metaphysical layer pretty quickly.  While you may not be able to reason within that layer, you will probably be able to do some metareasoning.

Specifically, as you start asking yourself "what's the point of all this that I see around me?", you will have to answer an inconvenient question.  I think I found a way to phrase it that gets to the bottom of a lot of the questions people have about the Universe.  Do you believe in an afterlife which can be materially affected by the things you do in this life? (note that you may believe in an afterlife and still answer "No" to the above question!)

If you don't, your purpose in life will naturally be larger than you -- it will be about affecting the universe in a way that's not simply localized to your life.  For example, I believe, your purpose in life should not be to have a house, a well-paid job, and a family -- these things affect mostly you and nothing else.