The Challenge with Low N Events

The Challenge with Low “n” Events

There are a handful of things we only do once or twice in our lives. Many of us probably aspire to only get married a single time, only select a single school to attend for college, and only take a vacation to a foreign country one time. These low “n” experiences, or low frequency occurrences,  are hard to predict and prepare for. It is hard to know exactly what we will want, exactly what risks we might face, and how we will respond in experiences that we can’t always practice and experiment with. Sometimes the consequences are huge, as in the case of a marriage or picking the right college major, and sometimes the consequences are rather trivial, like picking the right beach to visit during your Spanish vacation (hey, in the age of COVID-19 we can still dream right?).

 

In the face of these one time experiences (whether big or trivial) we seem to fall into two paths. The first path is one of detailed and conscious study. Some of us will agonize for hours over which beach to go to on our vacation, which food trucks we should hit up, what time of year to travel, and where to stop for that hidden Instagram gem of a waterfall. Others of us will follow the second path, giving almost no thought to the decisions we face, big or small. We will just go with our guy and jump into a career, a relationship, or a lake.

 

On the one hand, these low “n” events don’t offer a lot of room for trail and error. If you are not likely to ever get a second vacation to Hawaii, then you probably want to seize every moment of your trip, making sure you check out whales, enjoy the shopping and beaches, and avoid that long road trip to Hana (it just isn’t worth it – trust me). You only get one shot, so you should do your best to prepare yourself to make the best decision. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing.”

 

But at the same time, should we really stress ourselves over a decision that we will potentially only make one time? If we constantly worry about our single decision, will we then second guess ourselves the whole time and wonder if we made the right choice? Will we ever truly move on from that single decision and adjust to the the choice we made and find a way to be happy where we end up? Is it really worth the time to focus all our energy on a single decision point when we know we will have other high “n” events that might be more meaningful than the low “n” event we spend all our time thinking about?

 

Seneca thinks it is worth the effort to think through the big low “n” events, to make sure our decision making is as comprehensive and self-aware as possible. But he, and other Stoics, would likely advise that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make a perfect decision. I think he would simultaneously recommend that we approach low “n” events with an open mind to the outcomes, recognizing that our reactions to the outcomes will often determine whether we find the end state to be unbearable or something where we can still thrive. In the end we should think critically on our decisions, including low “n” events and choices, but we should be flexible in how we respond to outcomes and in how we think the world should be.
Our Few Years on Earth - Joe Abittan

Our Few Years on Earth

Human beings are not always good at planning for the long term, but in general, we do expect to have a long term. I know that in my own life I have always assumed I would live to be at least 100, though I know life expectancy in the United States is not 100 years old and though I know many people who have died in their 70s, 80s, or even much younger from accidents, rare diseases, or from other serious problems. We expect to have a long number of years ahead of us and can make investments to plan for that long future, but we should remember that it is never a guarantee. 

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “There is no fixed count of our years. You do not know where death awaits you; so be ready for it everywhere.” 

 

This is not to suggest that we should live in paranoia, afraid that we might die at any moment. Instead it is a reminder that the long term plans we hope to live out might not come to pass. It is a reminder to make our lives what we want them to be today, rather than assuming that we have a long future to achieve our desired goals. 

 

The wrong response to the message is the modern day (though kinda dying out) idea of YOLO. The idea, “you only live once,” has been used to justify a lifestyle of partying, of short term thinking, and of extravagant opulence. It almost ignores all long term planning in focus of short term pleasure, but it doesn’t really help us to be ready for death as Seneca suggests. 

 

Another wrong response to the ideas from Seneca is to be overly ambitious and push too hard to for achievements. We don’t have to push our bodies to be perfect physical specimens today. We don’t have to push too hard for the C suit in corporate America before age 40. We don’t have to be ruthless in our pursuit of money, wealth, and things to show how successful we are today. That too doesn’t actually prepare us for death. 

 

What we should learn from Seneca is that it is important to plan ahead, but to remember that our plans may never have an opportunity to come to pass. We should make our lives meaningful and do things today that we can take pride in. This means building real and lasting relationships, focusing our daily lives on things that truly matter, so that if we depart today, we have been focusing in the right direction, and would be satisfied with where we leave the Earth. We cannot procrastinate and assume that we will eventually have time to do meaningful things in our lives. We can’t use our potentially short time to simply puff up our own ego. We have to pause, to  think about a meaningful life, and continually adjust our course so that we are living well, and ready to depart at any unfortunate moment.
Ever Present Perils

Ever Present Perils

We live in a very dangerous world, but we don’t always recognize it. Most of the time we move about our lives without feeling too much threat to our own personal safety and to our lives, but sudden events can remind us of how close death can be. We see terrible car crashes, are forced away from other people due to a global pandemic, or reminded of health risks when a relative dies of cancer. These sudden shocks of mortality can shake us out of a routine and rhythm, and leave us feeling fearful for what evil might befall us. But the reality is that we do live with ever present perils – the dangers are not just there when a pandemic strikes or when we see a traffic accident.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “What, have you only at this moment learned that death is hanging over your head, at this moment exile, at this moment grief? You were born to these perils.”

 

For Seneca it is important to recognize how fragile life can be and how we are always living with risk. It is interesting to see is how far back in human history these risks have been with us, how they have persisted, and how we have thought (or failed to think) about the perils we face. It is not only today in the age of the automobile that we can be suddenly reminded of the ever present perils of death and destruction. It is not only in a time of changing demographics and social relationships that people may be afraid of cancel culture – exile has been a threat to humans for a long time. And grief over the loss of a loved one is also nothing new.

 

The reality of ever present perils isn’t new, but we all come to the realization of how fragile and risky life can be at our own pace, at different moments, and it seems to be a realization that we all must reach on our own to truly appreciate. It is important that we pause and reflect periodically on our mortality, to ensure that we are focusing our lives in a meaningful direction, and to ensure that we are using our life, our physical body, and our mental faculties in a way that is worthwhile and valuable. We shouldn’t be shocked into remembering our mortality by sudden events, we should be calm and collected as we reflect on the perils around us, confident that we have used our life in a meaningful way, so that when such evils do occur, we are prepared.
Thinking Forward to Prepare for Obstacles

Thinking Forward to Prepare for Obstacles

A useful technique I learned for overcoming obstacles is to think ahead to the challenges you are likely to face and how you can overcome those challenges. If you only think ahead to the success you will have and picture a perfect life once you reach your goal, you will be less likely to actually achieve the success you desire than if you think about the challenges that lie ahead. However, dwelling on only the hard parts and obstacles can also be unhealthy. The key is to look ahead not to the obstacles themselves, but to how you will overcome them.

 

When you think about things that can go wrong in your life, you should picture yourself  getting through those obstacles. You should be realistic and specific in thinking things through. “I might encounter X, and if that happens, then I know I can do Y and ultimately be successful or at least manage a reasonable level of comfort.” If you start your plan for how you will overcome those obstacles, you will be more likely to persevere when the going gets tough. If you only think about how nice it will be once you have reached your goal, then you will be unprepared for the obstacles that you will face along your journey.

 

While this is a much more healthy way to think about the future, it is not the most common way for us to think. Most of us anticipate the things that can go wrong, but never get to the next step of thinking through the ways in which we can prepare for and overcome the problems we fear. What we usually end up doing is living in dread of the troubles ahead.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble—which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.”

 

Seneca recognized the dangers of living in dread. If we think ahead to the future and only worry about what negative things we may face, then we turn our present moment, which might be quite peaceful and enjoyable, into a negative space consumed by the thing we hope doesn’t happen. Seneca encourages us to be more present and grounded in the current moment. I would argue that looking ahead and thinking of how we can overcome obstacles and truly understanding how we can adjust to and adapt to these challenges can help us be more confident in ourselves, and help us ultimately live with a greater sense of presence. It will also help us prepare for those times when we do face the obstacles we are afraid of.
A Craving for More

A Craving for More

There are two traits of humans which were great for ensuring our survival as a species tens of thousands of years ago that combine today in ways that don’t always have good consequences for our lives. The first is that we are highly adaptable. We can adjust our lives and our focus to survive in such extremes as the isolation of zero-gravity space-station environments or in the unimaginable density of Kowloon Walled City. We are geared toward adaptation for survival in many unique, diverse, and challenging circumstances. The second trait, which once complemented but perhaps now is more of a problem given our adaptability, is that we become bored. We are not content to sleep for 20 hours a day like a lion, and as social creatures we are compelled to engage with others in a pursuit of construction and growth.

 

The dangerous result of these two traits is a constant craving for more. We adapt to the lives we have, become bored, and desire more. It is hard to be content and feel as though our lives are enough. We could always have more stuff and bigger and better things. We could always do something different, something new and exciting, and interact with different people. While we might be able to survive in a small space with few items and few of the modern technologies that we take for granted today, once we have those things, we quickly begin looking around at what else we could have, what other things we could use, and what could be better about the time and space we occupy.

 

Our pursuit of more is in the spirit of ensuring our survival and improving our lives, at least evolutionary there is reason to believe that this is where the pursuit of more originates. But, rather than actually making our lives happier, richer, and more fulfilling, the pursuit of more can leave us feeling hollow and insufficient. As Seneca wrote about indulgences in Letters From a Stoic, “you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

 

So while we may recognize that having wealth, money, and stuff isn’t necessary for our happiness, our brain is pushing against that reality. Our brain becomes accustomed to the nice things we have, and starts to look for more, even if we thought we were content with the lives we have. It is important to be aware of how these two separate positive impulses (adaptability and boredom)  that evolved with us humans combine in a way that can be quite negative today. It is important that we recognize and think about how grateful we are for the things we have, and that we consider whether we really need more, bigger, better, and newer things, or if we are just being driven toward an impulse for change. By pushing back against these two impulses when we have reached a reasonable level of success and security, we can do more with our lives to have a positive impact for the whole world, rather than just doing things that will give us more stuff. We can still channel our ambition, but we can do so wisely, in a way that is as likely to benefit all of society, and not just benefit our own lives until we get bored again.
Puzzling Over Wealth

Puzzling Over Wealth

We like to show off. We like to have nice things to impress other people, and we like when people notice our things, compliment us on our fancy stuff, and respect us because of the wealth that we have. It is an instinct that likely evolved as humans lived in small tribes. If you had an ability to accumulate resources, you could be seen as a valuable ally, and you became a more attractive mate. Those who were good at creating allies and demonstrating their value through resource dominance passed their genes along.

 

The problem is that we don’t have an easy off switch for our resource signaling behavior. Finding a partner, having children, and living comfortably might not always be easy, but the way we compete for these things is different in the 21st century than it was eons ago when our early ancestors were living in small nomadic tribes. Today many people have sufficient wealth to live comfortably and are able to get married and have children or even adopt without the need for overt displays of wealth. Nevertheless, all around us is the pressure to have more. We are tempted to spend more on housing, buy new cars,  take more impressive vacations, and signal our wealth through our material possessions. Without a real reason, we still push ourselves in a signaling game to show off our wealth, and as we do, our possessions and wealth steal the meaning and enjoyment from our lives.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it. He collects his accounts, he wears out the pavement in the forum, he turns over his ledger—in short, he ceases to be master and becomes a steward.”

 

The pursuit of wealth for purposes of showing off and signaling leads us to have things we can’t enjoy. We become so fearful of losing our stuff that we lose connections with our communities and fellow citizens. We become willing to subject ourselves to longer work hours, worse working conditions, and lengthy commutes so that we can have nice things. We trade off the qualities of life that make it meaningful and enjoyable so that we can show off to others. In the process we become servants to our wealth, and rather than using the resources we acquire for a positive impact on the planet, we allow our wealth to have negative impacts on the planet and on our very own lives. We should puzzle over our wealth to ask ourselves what is needed for comfort, security, and to have a bigger positive impact on our communities and planet, rather than puzzle over our wealth in pursuit of more for ourselves.
Rivalry Results in Strife

Rivalry Results in Strife

“Rivalry results in strife,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. A quick Google search of strife gives us the definition:
angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues; conflict. Rivalry heightens our disagreements, it clouds our judgments, and creates enemies who will oppose us. When we give in to rivalrous forms of thinking, we compare ourselves, our power, our social status, and our possessions to others, and we also make ourselves vulnerable to others.

 

Seneca explains that life is better when we live without too great a concern over our things, our influence, and our power. If we focus on being the best person we can be, on being actively engaged in a meaningful way in the world, and on how we can be there for other people, we will live well and cultivate relationships instead of rivalries. Focusing instead on what we own and how many people know our names puts us in competition with others. It creates mini rivalries between us and other people who could instead be friends and allies. It creates the conditions for disagreements and struggles for dominance and assertion. Struggles that are often meaningless and harmful to all those involved.

 

Instead of actively castigating others and pushing against anyone we disagree with, Seneca would encourage us to live on our own path. He would encourage us to define ourselves without material possessions, without important titles, and without power. All of those can be taken from us, especially in the face of a bitter adversary. Creating a life that is dependent on the few things we realistically can control (like the faculties of our mind and our kindness toward others) gives us a foundation that can’t be taken away by enemies or rivals.

 

This is not to say that we should treat those who would otherwise be our rivals with undue respect. We should acknowledge them, interact with them, and respectfully disagree with them when necessary. We should not actively avoid them in all respects, or we will inadvertently create the rivalries that we are hoping to avoid. We should work with such people when necessary, and strive for ways to have healthy conversations and compromises where necessary. We must build relationships even with those we dislike, otherwise we risk creating polarized camps which devolve to strife, where everyone loses through rivalry, competition, and argument.
The Value of Difficulties

The Value of Difficulties

“For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us,” writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic.

 

In the quote above, Seneca writes that we can never develop a legitimate sense of self-confidence if we never face difficulties and challenges. If our lives are free from real obstacles and if we never face any real struggles, then we will never be prepared to step up  to take on greater challenges. Growth and preparation for large and important moments in life comes from the struggles we wish we could have avoided along the way.

 

Seneca continues, “It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.”

 

By learning from mistakes, overcoming obstacles, and finding strength during difficult times, we begin to be able to step back and become more objective in how we view ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves. Wild successes and crushing failures lose their influence on our lives when we have faced difficulties and survived. Instead of placing all our happiness in a certain outcome, instead of living with constant fear of something negative, we are able to be more calm and centered, accepting that things may not go well, but confident that we can make it to the other side in a reasonable manner if things don’t go well. In this way external pressures and outside considerations of our lives cease to have influence over how we live and how we feel from moment to moment. Only by facing obstacles, learning about ourselves, and surviving difficulties can we develop the mental fortitude to reach this level of self-confidence.
Living Under Constraints

Living Under Constraints

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus in writing, “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.”

 

Quite frankly, Seneca and Epicurus are wrong. The stoic thinkers make two arguments in the short quote, and both fail to live up to the reality of humankind’s existence. The sentiment shared is noble, and certainly rings true in my American ears, but on closer reflection, proves to be a fiction.

 

The first argument, that it is wrong to live under constraint assumes that human beings can somehow exist separate from society with all needs and desires fulfilled. Stoic thought focuses on our mind and what is within our direct control. Stoicism hinges on the idea that our thoughts and reactions are the only thing we can possibly have true ownership and control over. It encourages us to move beyond our ego, which drives us to acquire possessions, build a reputation, and always bolster our social status with things beyond our control. Stoic philosophy encourages self-awareness and a sense of self-contentedness that comes from controlling one’s mind and being satisfied by simply experiencing life, whatever life is presented to us.

 

However, having constraints in our lives is important, and might actually be better for us than unlimited choice and possibility. A famous study on jam selection and satisfaction from 2000 suggests that people who had a limited selection of jams were more satisfied with their selection than people who picked a jam from a more broad and expansive selection of jams. With unlimited choice, options, and opportunities, we are unhappy. We can’t make a selection when we are not living under constraints, and we are constantly unsure if we truly made the best choice when our choices are unlimited. Constraints play a powerful role in helping us understand who we are, where we fit in society, and by creating bounds for our decisions, actions, and lives. Without constraints, we do not always flourish, sometimes we flounder.

 

What we see is that our lives are guided by and defined by constraints. Therefore, the second argument of the two stoics, that no man is constrained to live under constraints, is clearly wrong. We might not be actively constrained by another human being, but we are constrained by our governments, our home owners associations, or our bosses or customers. We are also constrained by nature and our physiology. There is a limit to how fast we can run, what forces our bodies can endure, and much we can eat. Our brains are incredible machines, but they too are limited in how long they can operate without sleep, how difficult of tasks they can work through, and how much they can remember. There is simply no way to escape constraints, and living in a complete freedom, as Seneca seems to be suggesting with the rest of his letter after the quote above, will not lead to unbridled happiness. It is constraint, and how we learn to live within constraints, which brings forth our creativity, our imagination, and makes life actually possible.
Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

Our Opinion Shapes Our Experience

A funny thing happened with people’s thoughts about the economy following the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Supporters of Hillary Clinton prior to the election had strong feelings about the economy, while Republican supporters of Donald Trump thought the economy was terrible. In the days and weeks following the election, perceptions of the economy switched. Nothing economically speaking had really changed in the immediate days after we discovered that Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, but suddenly those who voted Republican in 2016 had a positive outlook on the economy, while those who had voted for Clinton thought the country’s economy was in trouble.

 

Our opinion of a circumstance can shape the experience we have of many aspects of our lives. The economic outlook of people following the election in 2016 demonstrates this ability. We can experience a great economy based on whether our favored candidate wins an election, or we can experience an economic downturn if our candidate does not, even if actual economic trends don’t change. We don’t exist in an independent or objective place outside of the world around us. Instead we take in cues about how others are doing, about our identity relative to others, and about the position of groups like us and start to create the reality we experience. Whether we want to or not, we measure our social standing against other people that we see or interact with on a daily basis and the stories we tell ourselves matter to how we feel about our place in the world and our future.

 

Being aware of this, however, can help us tone down negative impulses and thoughts that might be triggered by this type of social comparison. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “what does your condition matter, if it is bad in your own eyes?” If we constantly look around and see others who have more than us, who look better than us, and who in one way or another demonstrate a higher social status than us, then we will never be content with ourselves and our position. A solution is to step back and consider ourselves without defining ourselves as successful or as a failure relative to others. We can consider ourselves more fully, redefining what we need to be successful in our lives, and basing success on factors that don’t involve our relative social position to others. Through self-awareness and reflection, we can begin to focus more on what matters, on the things that actually make people valuable, and change how volatile our notion of good or bad can be.