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.
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.

Preparing for Challenges

In November of 2018 I wrote a post about planning for resiliency. Michael Bungay Stanier described the importance of planning for failure, looking ahead and anticipating obstacles, and thinking through the ways we could recover from a drastic blow to our plans. It is not easy, but preparing ourselves for hard times will make it more likely that we can successfully manage setbacks when they occur.

 

This idea seems pretty clear and while we all familiar with saving for a rainy day, there has been relatively little focus in our society on preparing ourselves for other non-financial hardships. Interestingly, the idea from Michael Bungay Stanier is not as new as I thought when I first encountered it. In Letters From a Stoic Seneca wrote, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.”

 

Stoic philosophy advises us to take advantage of the times when things are going well so that we can ready ourselves for times when it all falls apart. Rather than simply relaxing and enjoying our comforts, stoicism suggests that we pause, evaluate what is truly needed to live a good life, and consider how we would move on if all our comforts were suddenly stripped from us. It asks us what could go wrong and forces us to think about how we would still move forward, a skill that is hard and gloomy, but has a lot of upside.

 

I don’t think we need to overwhelmingly focus on death, loss, and hardship. We can still enjoy our comforts and our pleasures, but at least once every day we should stop to consider what things we have, how we live our life, and what is truly important for us. By doing this, we can enjoy our hobbies, relationships, and comforts more fully. By recognizing that things could fall apart we can better appreciate what we have now. Additionally, seeing the potential obstacles before they arrive allows us to be better prepared to overcome them when we must rise to the occasion. We don’t have to be on guard at all moments nor do we need to constantly look over our shoulder for danger, but we should be prepared to work for what is important or move in the direction we want when something shows up to block our path. We will be more successful and sound if we have been considerate and acted accordingly along the way.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.