This is the first in a series of essays exploring my personal philosophy on life, and decision making frameworks I am using to guide myself through it. While I pull from many sources, my views are my own and only describe how I am attempting to live my life. I make no prescriptive recommendations to others.
I will preface this by saying that my thoughts and feeling are derived from and applicable to only a subset of the millennial universe, those who have come from lower middle to upper class households and attended university. While generalizing can be dangerous, this qualification allows me to use my personal experiences as evidence and still retain a shred of legitimacy.
Further, I acknowledge that I am speaking from the station in life of a single, childless, 24-year-old white male, thankfully thus far able to avoid the vast majority of the trials and tribulations experiences by many others.
There are many aspects of Millennial life that are unique to this generation, outlined very saliently by Anne Helen Petersen in her article. Two such aspects are “errand paralysis” and “adulting” as a verb, checking mundane tasks required for life off a list, as opposed to “adulthood” as a state of being. These are widely felt by my peers and myself. At times, such adulting can seem overwhelming, especially when one feels constantly strung out by a job that is unfulfilling or constant financial distress. These are undeniable and touch almost every moment of daily life. However, I believe these represent symptoms of a larger problem facing this generation: Lack of direction.
The American dream is an idea that was established decades ago in a time very different from today. Hard work and a ‘nose to the grindstone’ attitude allowed an ascent of the corporate ladder, summiting to find a plateau complete with a house and picket fence. Over time, that ideal morphed from a journey to a destination, an expectation that as we became adults, everything in life should “fall into place” and we should arrive at our own proverbial plot of land. Social media has perpetuated such an idea through a curated selection of Instagram models, extravagant trips by friends living their best lives, and relentless advertisements of products that will help each of us live our best life.
A subtle implication lies in that paradigm shift: for the first time, a large cohort of Americans entering the work force were not primarily worried about finding a roof over their heads or food on the table. This progress manifested a profound lack of purpose.
Lost Purpose and Self-Actualization
Our parents’ generation and those prior found meaning in all the quintessential forms: stability, family, ownership, providing for dependents. In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they strove for and attained the first four base tiers: Physiological sustenance, physical safety, quality relationships, and feelings of accomplishment. This was the world into which Millennials were born. For most of us, these first four tiers remained attained through our childhoods and into secondary education. We were generally able to secure stable, well-paying jobs out of college, continuing to fulfill the basic needs. This privilege is historically unique to our generation, which has been spared global conflict on a large scale, came of age directly after a severe economic depression, and has benefited from a wide array of social reforms (to remind, I am speaking of only a specific subset of our generation). As such, we are left with a simple question: What now?
The top of Maslow’s pyramid, self-actualization, is all that remains to be conquered. But what is self-actualization, and how can it be attained? This question is simple, pervasive, and terrifying. And yet, many around us seem to have the answers. A quick look at Instagram or Twitter surfaces dozens of friends and celebrities living what they will have you believe is a self-actualized life. It must be easy, if so many people can do it. Why can’t I? Why can’t you? What is wrong with us?
Work harder, longer, and more efficiently and it will all fall into place. Buy the right things, and it will all fall into place. Get a job that is cool, sexy, interesting, and it will all fall into place. Society thrusts these ideas onto us unrelentingly, suffocating each of us in a blanket of inadequacy and hopelessness.
Part of the soul-crushing pressure comes from the litany of possible choices available to us. No longer must we take the path of our parents, and in an age where work is often accomplished online, geographic boundaries matter little more than their tax implications. This creates decision paralysis. How can I choose from the endless list of jobs on LinkedIn? Which one will fill this void? In a world of endless opportunity, how can one find the single path that will lead to self-actualization?
Decision Making and Avoiding Paralysis
In my view, this wandering of the mind can be guided through shifting one’s perspective. Instead of imagining one’s self in 5, 10, or 20 years and asking “what do I want to be doing?” I propose starting from the other end. When old age sets in and the best of life is behind us, what will enable us to look back at our lives and say, “I am satisfied”? Instead of looking to optimize every choice, try to reduce regret. In decision theory, this is known as “minimax regret,” minimizing the maximum regret one may feel in the future, regardless of what happens next. Such a framework does not seek to know the future, but rather strives to create a present from which any future can be dealt with successfully.
By aligning each decision, large and small, with whatever personal embodiment of satisfaction one is seeking, we may find meaning. This is not to say that every job will then be enjoyable, or that every errand will be effortless. Indeed, quite the opposite is likely. Risks will need to be taken, sacrifices made, and plans redrawn. However, by using this paradigm, each action taken will have what I believe we desire most: meaning.
I believe that such a model can be combined with a dynamic goal theory to produce a robust decision making model to guide us through life. It is as follows:
Imagine an aluminum tube, wide at one end and smoothly narrowing to a small opening at the other. Now, imagine tossing a small rubber ball into the tube. The elastic sphere will bounce from side to side, catapulting to and fro across the tube as trigonometry and gravity take control. The path the ball takes is trivial, as are the number of impacts it makes with the sides of the tube as it descends. Yes, these factors affect the time it takes the ball to complete its journey and may affect its physical condition when it reaches the other end. But the ball will surely exit the tube from the other end and fall directly to where the tube is pointing. By correctly orienting the tube, you can ensure the ball will always reach its ultimate destination, regardless of the duration and path taken to arrive there. This point, the ultimate destination, I believe is ascertained through answering the question, “what will allow me to minimize my maximum regret, when I look back in old age?”
This is easier asked than answered and will take significant introspection and dedicated thought to conclude. It is almost certain to change at one, if not many, points in life. However, if you adjust the tube’s orientation as the ball makes its way through, it may disrupt the trajectory, but the ball will nonetheless emerge at its new destination. This is the beauty of such a framework: nothing matters but correctly identifying the best destination at the current moment. Should the answer to that question change, the tube reorients, and nothing is lost but a bit of time and energy.
In this way the speed, frequency, and force of impact (e.g. life choices large and small) need not be labored over, as one can rest assured the destination will be reached in time. The journey can be sped up or slowed by taking more care with such details, but the important distinction is that they need not be. This allows us to benefit from unexpected moments of serendipity, without risking making a ‘wrong’ choice and ‘ruining the plan’ along the way. In the words of Taleb, we want to gain from uncertainty in life, not live as its slave.
Thus, meaning may be derived from any and all choices in life, circumventing the millennial ‘burnout’ feeling as each and every choice will be taken for a reason. Such choices can be infinitesimal (do I watch a TV episode and let my mind rest so I am fresh tomorrow, or spend my time reading an article?) or relatively impactful (do I change jobs, or stay in my current role?). The answer, as previously stated, is whatever choice will reduce the maximum regret you may have in the future. Life’s destination can be path independent, provided we are always moving forward, towards whatever end that may be.
Future essays in this series will explore many aspects of modern life and decision theory mentioned or alluded to above. These include the impact of debt on decisions and society, implications of Taleb’s idea of antifragility, and a discussion of historical events that led up to this unique time, among others.