Nothing happens in isolation. Generally, positives beget positives, and negatives beget negatives. Actions build on top of each other and will either expand the future or constrain it. While some of the constraints are placed on us (i.e. biological/genetic), many we place on ourselves (i.e. how we choose to use our resources, or the degree of our deliberate practice). There is a genetic environment that shapes the foundation of our physiology, and then we interact with our external environment which shapes us further.
To avoid getting into a Nature vs. Nurture discussion, we’ll skip to the part where we have the ability to dictate our own attitudes and actions regarding the things we may not have direct influence over. So, if we want to create as much opportunity for ourselves as possible, what should be do?
In What Technology Wants, in a chapter called “Choosing the Inevitable”, Kevin Kelly shares an anecdote that illustrates how powerful and lasting our decisions can be.
There’s an old story about the long reach of early choices that is basically true: Ordinary Roman carts were constructed to match the width of imperial Roman war chariots because it was easier to follow the ruts in the road left by the war chariots. The chariots were sized to accommodate the width of two large warhorses, which translates into our English measurement of 4’ 8.5”. Roads throughout the vast Roman Empire were built to this specification. When the legions of Rome marched into Britain, they constructed long-distance imperial roads 4’ 8.5” wide. When the English started building tramways, they used the same width so the same horse carriages could be used. And when they started building railways with horseless carriages, naturally the rails were 4’ 8.5” wide. Imported laborers from the British Isles built the first railways in the Americas using the same tools and jigs they were used to. Fast-forward to the U.S. space shuttle, which is built in parts around the country and assembled in Florida. Because the two large solid-fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch shuttle were sent by railroad from Utah, and that line traversed a tunnel not much wider than the standard track, the rockets themselves could not be much wider in diameter than 4’ 8.5”. As one wag concluded: “So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses’ arse.”
While this may seem like an extreme example, the premise is very real. For a more relatable analogy: it takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only an instance to destroy it. Undoubtedly, we’d all like to maintain a strong reputation because, aside from taking pride in who we are, it also creates opportunities for us.
In order to maintain what we have and build off of it, it requires action – even choosing not to act is an action – resulting in either an expanded or constrained future. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some secret sauce for figuring out which actions to take?
There is a fascinating Ted Talk by scientist Alex Wissner-Gross called “A New Equation for Intelligence” where he asserts – pulling from experiments in computer game play, robotic motion planning, strategic logistics planning, and other disciplines – that the equation for intelligence relies upon an ability to maximize future freedom of options and ability to keep future options open over a given time horizon. He also asserts that goal seeking is a product of a need to increase future options (i.e. if I save enough money, I will be able to explore Southeast Asia; or if I get that promotion, I will be able to leverage my skills to earn more or start my own company).
If intelligence is defined by our ability to not constrain future options, how do we move forward confidently toward a preferred future? Aren’t we by definition always closing doors?
The goal is to first establish resilience to help reduce the likelihood that we will be unable to take advantage of an opportunity due to factors outside of our control (i.e. having an emergency fund in cash to cover unanticipated expenses so our monthly cash flow and trajectory in life isn’t disrupted).
The next step is to identify a vision for the future, and prescribe habits or regular practices for yourself that will help increase the probability of that future coming to fruition. For example:
Understand the trade-off in the example above is that these resources (money, time, and energy) will be exchanged for flexibility and opportunity at a later date, which cannot be guaranteed and may not have a concrete repayment date. The near-term uses of those resources are the doors that close when these decisions are made on behalf of the future; however, the long-term uses of those investments are potentially limitless because they are decisions that expand the future rather than constrain it.
For this reason, action in pursuit of a subjectively better future requires that we are in-tune with what matters to us and the notion of our Life’s Work. Without taking the time for reflection and self-discovery, we run the risk of reducing the flexibility of our future options – just like the design of rocket engines were constrained by the width of Roman war chariots.