On the Cyclical Nature of Things

(Originally published on September 16th, 2009) 

I’ve been meaning to write about this for quite some time because I think it’s one of the more fundamental concepts I’ve come across, if not the most fundamental. I think it’s also pretty obvious to people but this fact has implications which are incredibly useful to think about (because they may not be intuitive).

It has become quite clear to me that as many things around us, the decisions we make in our life follow a sort of circular pattern: at times we decide on something, only later to revert the decision. The strangest thing about this is that each individual decision seems like it was made deliberately, rationally, and with a careful consideration of all the pros and cons. If that is the case, why on Earth would the decisions we make change so fundamentally? Do our values and philosophies change as fundamentally as well?

Let me give you an example that I think illustrates this best. Over the past three years that I owned a car, I would frequently (at least once a week, sometimes twice or more) go to New York City to meet up with my friends. Each time I was faced with a choice: I could drive to the City, or I could take the train. Over those three years, I must have reversed on my decisions three, maybe four times. I found it difficult to believe — each time it seems natural to me to do A; I know I didn’t use to do A but that’s because I didn’t know better; now it definitely makes sense to do A. Only to, a few months later, think it obvious that I should do B.

What is going on here? I believe that the system that connects our philosophies (and the system of our values–so the most fundamental building blocks of our reasoning) to the decisions we make every day is a chaotic one, that is, small changes in our philosophy may lead to large changes in the ultimate decisions. Our philosophies change slightly, but as a result we may end up turning our life upside down — in my case, I may decide that the only reasonable thing is to take the car even though two weeks ago I thought it obvious to take the train. Such “reversals” may happen multiple times, in fact — in my case, I’d switch between taking the train and driving several times over the three years. Specifically, if you’re interested, here is an abbreviated version of the reasoning I would go through:

  • 9/06: Take the train. I don’t like driving to the City, it’s stressful. And parking is expensive. Since it takes about the same amount of time, I’ll just take the train
  • 11/06: Drive. Well, actually driving is kind of exhilarating. And parking is $15; if you include the cost of the train ticket, it pretty much ends up being a very similar amount. And if I drive, I have the benefit of staying in the City much longer — I’m not bound by the schedule of the train
  • 3/07: Take the train. I can’t drink if I have to drive, and if I happen to miss the last train, I can always crash at my friend’s place until the first train in the morning, which is at 5am, which is usually around the time I’m done for the night
  • 6/07: Drive. First of all, I can find free street parking. I still have to drive to the train stationso the drinking immobilizes me pretty much regardless of the method I use. If I drive, I’m not bound by when the train leaves — I don’t have to rush at all to make the train into the City
  • 5/08: Take the train. I can read a book when I’m on the train, or even use my computer, and don’t waste 45 minutes each way
  • 12/08: Drive. I’m usually tired anyway so I don’t get anything done on the train. And when I drive I can listen to audiobooks.
  • 5/09: Take the train. I like sleeping in my own bed, and leaving with the last train will give me the much needed discipline.

I think the nature of changes is, strictly speaking, more like an outward spiral rather than a circle, because with each new decision, we have the benefit of the decisions we made in the past, so even if the decision may seem like one we already made, it was made by incorporating all the prior reasoning. It’s not the outcome (the specific decision) that defines your reasoning, it’s the entire baggage of reasoning you have acquired over time leading up to your decision.

In retrospect, what happened to me with the whole car v. train debate is very interesting. For one, all the arguments were true from the very beginning, I just chose to include some and not the others. The weight I attached to some (usually one) arguments was much higher than before, and it’s this difference in weights that caused the balance to shift from one decision (take the train) to an entirely opposite one (drive, i.e. don’t take the train).

The reason why these differences were so frequent is that as I later found out, most of these arguments boil down to “it doesn’t really matter”. In fact, there is a workaround for every one (Stuck to train schedule? Crash at your friend’s place. 45 minutes driving feels like a waste of time? Listen to audiobooks). I think the cost one was the most obvious instance of this — it seemed that one way was “overwhelmingly” better than the other until I included some other hidden cost — at first it was parking garages being expensive; then I found cheaper garages (thanks to nycgarages.com). Then it was all the tolls and gas; then I realized that I’m paying for parking at the train station.

With arguments that are easily fixable, and decision that is highly sensitive to those arguments, it’s no surprise that my mindset at the time (which is a combination of the ever-so-slightly changing factors in my life philosophy) would make the decisions downstream oscillate like this, even if I happened to make the exact opposite decision in the past. And as the arguments are found to be moot, we tend to pick out subtler and subtler ones to guide us.

Another example from my life is fairly recent: what should I listen to when I run? Should I listen to music or podcasts/audiobooks? For the longest time I’d listen to songs because I liked that. Then I switched to audiobooks because listening to the same songs seemed wasteful; surely I could utilize the time better if I listened to a book. I recently switched back to music for two subtle reasons: for one, music strangely motivates me to work out better; it has something to do with the beats or the symmetry. Secondly (and this one really is subtle), listening to music (as opposed to audiobooks) actually allows me to think about things. In a way, I can multitask better because the resources I need to think (high level) are different than the resources I need to enjoy music (low level).

This rapidly changing set of outcomes brings me to an important principle which I’ll call “the answer is somewhere in the middle”. The principle helps us make decision in the face of uncertainty and says that the right answer is likely to be in between the two extremes so so long as you are by and large in the ballpark, you’re optimizing your use case. For example, take the problem of finding your purpose in life. One extreme says that you have to expose yourself to as much in life as possible: go climb mountains, pick rice in China, hang-glide, go to missions in Africa. Only then will you be able to figure out your purpose in life. Another one says that it’s all random — you could be doing nothing and the purpose could just randomly come to you; and hence, it really doesn’t matter what you do — you may just as well relax and do less. People have many philosophical wars about which one of the two is the “right” answer. The principle which I’m evoking says that the answer is somewhere in the middle (in other words, there is no “right” answer) and you’ll maximize your chances of finding your life’s purpose if you do a little bit of both — explore and experience some, but not too much — give yourself some time for serendipity.

I like this principle because it’s very close to the philosophy of “there is no right answer”. Of course the extremists will believe that being in the middle is a bad idea — if you’re doing something, you should do it fully rather than half-assing it — so they are likely to dislike this principle as well (since they often think there is a right answer). There’s no point arguing with them because of the feedback problem: if they believe there is a right answer, they will not let you convince them that a “there is no right answer” philosophy is just as good as “there is a right answer” one because that would contradict their belief!

I recently realized that instead of being frustrated by the ever-changing decisions I should embrace them. The outcomes as not nearly as important as the path I took to arrive at all of them (even if they seem circular — which is also why I prefer to think about this process as an “outward spiral” to show the same outcome — the phase — but a different point in space — due to the increasing radius). My philosophy will change, there is no point to spend a lot of time on making decisions because they are bound to change in the future. Instead, delay the making of decisions to a later day (when you know more) and pick something in the middle to minimize the probability of investing too much in a decision that won’t be that instrumental to your future life.

This eliminates many frustrations from my life (in fact, I do feel that the purpose in everyone’s life should be to reduce the frustrations one feels in life — if you reduce them to zero, you have succeeded in life!). Some Eastern philosophies probably agree with this to some extent…

The knowledge that most arguments can be tweaked to tell whatever story you want can also be liberating. I used to think that I can no longer stay up at night working on small projects — I must be getting older. Until I stayed up all night two nights ago. Then I realized that recently I just haven’t worked on an exciting enough project, and that there is nothing wrong with me being able to stay up all night (however, I should avoid doing this often…). As a consequence, I strongly believe that we’re all capable of changing regardless of age and the phenomenon of older people being relatively fixed in their likes and habits is simply an artifact of them liking a particular set of outcomes and decidingto stop analyzing the decisions.

Finally, it’s simply good to see that some of the approaches I took in the past are valid today. For example, early in my childhood I was taught the value of humility. This continued until I started working with a bunch of alpha males. Humility no longer seemed like such a virtue. Recently, though, I’ve been realizing that being humble is a good thing (and others–yes, those alpha males–are realizing it, too). I happened to be right but, again, the outcome doesn’t matter as much as the approach–I have a much broader understanding of humility now that I’ve gone through a few cycles of it. Besides, this may all change again soon…