The Great War for Your Short, Short Time on Earth


Photo credit: Chris Smith (flickr: cjsmithphotography)

If you ever undertake some project, goal, or quest that requires a serious commitment of time, there will undoubtedly be some point during your journey where you will pause to reflect and find that you’d rather do anything that what you’re doing.  “Pluck my eyes out.  If I can’t see, I don’t have to finish writing my novel.”

Good for you.  That means you’re doing something worthwhile.  The only reason you made this much progress is because you knew it would pay off in the end.  It’s awfully inconvenient now– heck, you’d rather be blind— but keep dreaming about the finish line, because if you got you into this mess, it can get you out.

And that’s what I want to talk about now– why you got into this mess.

You did it because you thought it would be worthwhile.  Not easy, but worthwhile.  And now that it’s living up to your expectations, you’re taking some time to reflect.  And potentially gauge your eyes out.

Here’s something I think.  I think it with all of my heart:

Never, ever evaluate how convenient something is.  Only look at whether or not it’s worthwhile.

Worthwhile vs. Convenient

Let’s look at some definitions here.

If something is worthwhile, that means the costs outweigh the benefits.

If something is convenient, that means it has few costs.

Doing what is convenient is solely cost-focused.  Doing what’s convenient could also be stated as “avoiding inconvenience”.  On the other hand, doing what is worthwhile means you see the downsides and hardships, but you also have a keen grasp on what you and the world stand to gain from the endeavor.  And if something is worthwhile, that gain is more– often far more– than the misery you’re going to have getting there.

The problem is this: not focusing on costs is a really tough thing to do.

Here’s a bit of science for you.  Humans, fallible creatures that we are, tend to over-value our losses compared to our gains.  Would you take the following bet?  I will flip a coin.  If it’s heads, I’ll give you 100 dollars.  If it’s tails, I’ll take away 100 dollars from you.

You wouldn’t take this bet, would you?  Maybe you thought you would because you’re well-off and think of yourself as ballsy.  Good job, champ, but most people you approach on the street wouldn’t, and they don’t need so much as five seconds to arrive at that decision.  Why?  We can more easily and vividly image losing 100 dollars than gaining it, and the threat of its loss means more to us than the prospect of its award, all things being equal (which they are, because this is a coin toss).

Now I’m not saying this bet is a worthwhile bet.  Technically, it’s right on the line.  We should ponder this until we starve to death, but most of us dismiss it pretty easily (time for lunch!).  What we have to lose just is so much easier to imagine than what we have to gain.  The 100-dollar cost sticks out more than the 100-dollar gain.

Here’s the problem.  Costs always stick out.  Not just monetary costs, but time costs, patience costs, attention costs, and not-being-able-to-do-this-other-sweet-thing costs as well.  We’re really good at anticipating them in future courses of action.  It’s built into our brains, and probably does some good at keeping us alive.

Meaning: if you don’t put effort into obsessing about gains, how do you expect to stand a chance?

* * *

Convenience is a measure for misers.  A miser is someone who has spent far too much time imagining how it would feel to lose money.  But in the same way, a miser is someone who has spent far too much time imagining how it would feel to be inconvenienced.  Same costs, different currency.

Instead: dream about what there is to be won.  Imagine how much you could accomplish.  And if you become someone who lives for what’s worthwhile, you’ll notice something amazing: you can take risks.  You’re starting a business, and you need to dip into some savings to get this thing off the ground.  Thinking about costs?  “No way man.  It could fail and leave you poor and starving.”  Thinking about value?  It could be a different story.  “If we do this right, we could be millionaires working for ourselves.  But to get there, there’s no other way but to empty our savings accounts.  Hmm…”

Double down on worthwhile.

* * *

Now, you’d have every right to ask yourself why I’ve been such a monotonous drag in the preceding paragraphs.  There’s really only one reason.  If you know that you are living for what’s worthwhile, you accept the costs.  The misery becomes a signpost– “Worthwhile: straight ahead”.  And knowing you’re going in the right direction, you will willingly spend time doing things you’d rather not, and money on things you’d like to spend elsewhere.  Your patience will be tested and you will look, during the thick of it, at yourself and question why you ever got into this mess in the first place.

Remind yourself once again: this is worth it.  Take a look at why you’re doing it.  Accept that the misery isn’t going away without a fight, and keep plugging away.  The goal you are working towards will be so glorious that no other toll along the way can hold a candle to it.

That’s enough talk for now.  Hop to.  The world is waiting.

  1. February 4, 2012

    Very nice, and thought-provoking. On an day-to-day basis, I often get caught up in the costs of something–frequently running–and let it get away from me. Also, the “pluck my eyes out” bit reminds me of a great saying from sportswriter Red Smith when asked if writing was a chore:
    “‘Why, no,’ dead-panned Red. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.'”

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