Brain Food #778: When optionality becomes procrastination
Make small bets
Thoughts of the day
A few posts ago, I wrote about optionality, the idea of creating antifragility in life by having more options. But there is also a danger in overpursuing optionality, that eventually the act of creating options itself becomes an act of procrastination.
Consider someone who perpetually moves from one degree and qualification to the next, or follows a safe path in life to then feel free to pursue a specific dream they have in mind, or a person that dates multiple partners without committing, even if one of the partners feels right, because the timing isn’t right.
Harvard professor and economist Mihir Desai delivered a commencement address in which he covered this very topic:
“The shortest distance between two points is reliably a straight line. If your dreams are apparent to you, pursue them. Creating optionality and buying lottery tickets are not way stations on the road to pursuing your dreamy outcomes. They are dangerous diversions that will change you.”
He went on to expand on the pitfalls of optionality, mentioning truths that may feel uncomfortable to many. On covering how someone follows the conventional path to success, by going to an Ivy League university, followed by a prestigious job:
“This individual has merely acquired stamps of approval and has acquired safety net upon safety net. These safety nets don’t end up enabling big risk-taking—individuals just become habitual acquirers of safety nets. The comfort of a high-paying job at a prestigious firm surrounded by smart people is simply too much to give up. When that happens, the dreams that those options were meant to enable slowly recede into the background. For a few, those destinations are in fact their dreams come true—but for every one of those, there are ten entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurateurs that get trapped in those institutions.”
When there is more at stake, we become more risk-averse. But having optionality does not necessarily suggest throwing it all away, nor is it about accumulating as many options as possible. There is only one life; not the one we are constantly planning and preparing for, that hasn’t happened yet, but the one we are experiencing today, with the option to start taking action in the form of small bets, and see what works out.
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