21 January 2015

Few days ago, I landed in Paris. My original flight was delayed, and I missed my connecting flight. The next flight was in 12 hours, so I had to figure out what to do in the mean time. I could stay at the airport during the whole day. But that would have been lame, I would have missed out on exploring Paris. I am lucky to not need visa for France, and I had no real excuse not to go out. Yet, several times I gave up on going out and several times I convinced myself again to un-give-up.

First, I had to find the transfer desk. Paris’s airport Charles de Gaul isn’t optimized at all for the case of missing a connecting flight. I had to navigate to the a separate terminal that had transit desk not by following signs, but by following conflicting instructions from the various people I asked, who worked at the airport. Eventually, I found it and I got my new boarding pass, then I needed to find my bearings. I just found a comfy spot to try to get online and figure out if the weather outside is bad, what transportation options are there, etc. I kept hitting hurdles such as being confused about which ticket to buy, being confused about whether I’ll be able to see good stuff, being cautious about my luggage and documents, not having much euro exchanged due to bad rate, considering to stay inside and to work on a few personal errands, etc. These weren’t major hurdles, but they were giving me excuses not to go out in the city.

On the other hand, for positive motivation, I didn’t have much of a specific reason to go out except “to explore Paris”, possibly seeing the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and trying the French cuisine locally. These were remote possibilities, not very tangible a priori, so their fun-ness was underestimated by me. I knew that it would be fun to see the Eiffel tower, or climb its stairs, or stroll around the Louvre, but I there was a lot of uncertainty about how exactly would it feel. I imagine this is similar to the “unknown unknowns” problem where we don’t know some of the things that we don’t know. We don’t know what we would have been missing out until we don’t miss it.

There I was, in Paris’s airport, wondering whether to go out or not. That was the question.

Every day, I tell myself to enhance my positive expectations and to bound the negative consequences. To be anti-fragile, and take advantage of new opportunities, seeking positive surprise. It is great when I have a positive surprise, but if I avoid taking decisions that are exposing me to the chance of a positive surprise, then I am way less likely to encounter such serendipities. Going into an unknown place, or trying a new game or a new challenge is always at least a little bit scary because I don’t really know how it would feel. This is especially true when I am doing something completely new, where the goal is to have a new feeling. Beforehand, I have nothing to compare the feeling to, so I will most certainly be completely wrong in my estimate of how I would feel when doing it. I wouldn’t know if it is just “meh” or if it is truly life-chantingly amazing. So if I am too conservative in my expectations, I might decide to miss out on an experience that can be life changing.

While there are a lot of things that slowly and gradually improve life, I firmly believe that there are experiences, knowledges skills and mindset that are way out on positive side. Having such outstanding experience, or skill would improve the life in qualitatively new way by a lot. For example, just to illustrate these life-changing skills, lets consider learning a new language. Learning a new language might allow you to immerse yourself into a completely new country and environment, with different culture and outlook to life. The positive implications of it are too large to accurately know and estimate beforehand. While learning a new language can often significantly affect one’s life in a very positive matter, and there is not much risk in learning a language, the question of which language to learn is more complicated as learning the different languages would expose that person to different culture and would affect the life differently. For example, if I French I might also learn a lot about art, or cuisine or whatever the French culture is, but if I learn Japanese, I might learn about attention to detail, about being respectful and strong, about raw fish and whatever else the Japanese culture brings.

Which one is better? I believe neither one is better in the abstract, yet each of them is better depending on the person. Figuring out which of these to explore is a very personal question.

So, assuming that there are many amazing things to do, see, or experience in life, how do I decide what to miss out and what not to miss out? Coming back to the Paris airport example, I had a few options. Going out to explore Paris is an obvious option, yet there are other options that aren’t obvious and require me to ask myself “Why don’t I do X?” Some other interesting options would be to read a book for most of the day, or to learn something about programming, or to prepare for my upcoming vacation by researching the things I could do, or to use the 12 hours to catch up on administrative errands thus freeing time in the future, to spend the time online talking to friends and reconnecting.

I didn’t ask myself about all of these options. I got so distracted by the idea that exploring Paris is an “exploding offer” that I mostly thought whether to do it or not. I evaluated it in the absolute sense and not in the relative. I took my decision to go out by deciding that overall, it is nice and fun to go out and explore. I didn’t really fully ask myself - is this the best I could do with my time. I bet there are other options that would have been even better. For example, I could have tried to book a sightseeing tour - this could have given me a larger coverage of the city, and I could have learned more. I could have spent more time asking my good friends who had lived in Paris about recommendations and or connections - I didn’t think of that.

I didn’t optimize for getting the most out my time in Paris. Instead, I wanted to go wandering, and it seemed like a nice thing to do, so I roamed the streets of Paris for a few hours. I followed the path of least resistance that day when I was deciding which street in Paris to walk, but also when deciding what to do that day. I don’t regret it because I think it is often necessary to just relax and do whatever I feel like in the moment. But I also think that if occasionally I ideate better about what options I have and ask myself “Why don’t I do X? Or Y? Or Z?” I would make my life much more interesting, because I would have a higher chance of stumbling on a serendipitous life-changing experiences.

Taking decisions solely based on FOMO, the fear of missing out, is how we get stuck in a situation, profession, relationship or obligation that isn’t the best for us. We think that if we don’t strive for this promotion, or don’t develop our hobby or don’t go snowboarding this weekend we will be missing out on something fun. And we are correct. We will be missing out on something fun, but just because this fun activity is made visible to us doesn’t mean we should prefer it. This is visibility bias, that given everything else equal about two alternatives, we tend to prefer the one we have seen more often.

FOMO is just visibility bias. Suppose we are given an option, asking us if we want to do activity X, such as going out for a walk in Paris. This option could be given to us by somebody else such as marketer or campaigner trying to promote X as the best option, but could also be given to us by our own brains, if it is the most obvious option. If I am climbing a staircase, the most obvious option for me is to climb the next step, and I do it even without thinking. But there are other options - see if there is an elevator, or maybe just decide to stay at the bottom or go to a different staircase, that goes down. Why do I have to climb the stupid staircase? I climbed a couple of steps and it felt good, so I just kept doing it, but is this really the place I want to reach, the top of this staircase? Maybe I should be climbing the staircase in a different building, or go to the escalator. Or even better, the elevator. Or maybe even better, I can get lifter by a balloon, or an airplane.

If I have a fear of missing out on climbing onto the next step, then I have bullshit. I should really be thinking about how do I get in an airplane, not how do I push myself up with my muscles. Similarly, in the other aspects of life, I shouldn’t only think about what I have immediately in front of me and how to best achieve it. I should occasionally think about what is the best thing I could be doing. Keep asking myself “Why don’t I do X?”, “Why I do Y?”, “Why don’t I do Z?”.

Really, I’m not asking myself enough, why ain’t I? Because it takes effort, and is often hard to remember. Even knowing how beneficial it is I still forget to ask myself “What else could I do?” I still don’t know how to solve this problem, but at least I am aware of it now.

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I write these posts to clarify my thoughts and improve my communication. They are mainly written for myself, and my future self, but I'd love to hear any comments you might have, especially if you disagree with what I've written, or if you've found it valuable in any way. Message me on Twitter @themitak or email me at comments@dimitarsimeonov.com.