climbing ladders to nowhere

This essay may read as a criticism of other people. It is at least roughly a criticism of other people — but it is certainly not a pedestal-framing effort. In other words, much of the essay below is written at first and foremost MYSELF. So I want to make clear (to myself) that as I write this essay, I am not free of making the (what I consider to be) mistakes that I am outlining below. In fact, much of the inspiration for this essay comes from my own experiences (and is a piece of a much broader puzzle which more deeply relates to how I interpret and exist in the world around me). The topic of today’s exploration is the notion of “climbing ladders” which is an analogy of sorts I use to make sense of deciding if and how to spend my time.

I realize, like many others realize, that my relationship with TIME (e.g. how I perceive time, how I understand time, how I think about time) is upstream of many other pieces of my life. For instance, you could imagine my focus on time’s finiteness and scarcity could drive me to making a particular set of decisions and you could contrast that to the mantra of “life being long” leading to a completely separate set or style of decisions.

None of this to say that my relationship with time is static — it’s allowed to and at times encouraged to change. We can call it dynamic to represent it flowing as I flow through life. Sometimes my relationship may change in a way that I did not expect due to an event that I did not expect. For example, losing a loved one or losing health in some capacity may serve as both a sad event and also a reminder about the finality of life (and father time being the ultimate determinate of all that matters (and does not)). Sometimes this happens on a pre-arranged schedule, but more often than not the most shocking impacts happen when you least expect them. In those moments, I, and many others, find that life is far too short. We miss out on things we wish we could have done seen or felt. And all we could wish for was more time. We hear from the old that they would trade everything in their lives to be 20 years old again. Billionaires would give up all their wealth in order to be young again. They would prefer to be young and poor even. All they want is more time. When I hear people talk like that, I feel lucky to have time on my side (relatively speaking) as I have many many decades of good health ahead of me. Or so I think. Because even right now as I type this I think about what could happen. Or not happen. This is not to say I should live life afraid — but it may be to say that I should live life motivated. To not get caught in the things I will not regret.

In these moments, I also feel old. I know I have many years ahead of me, but I feel behind. I feel myself becoming stale. I feel myself becoming lazy in ways I did not predict. Not in the outward way that is obvious. But in the way where I find myself giving up on things. Some may call this wisdom. And at times, it does appear wise. But at other times, I know that the younger me would have thought less and done more. And during those times, yes I wish I could rewind the clocks. Even slightly. Redo 2020, somehow.

No one believes in time travel or really pretends that it exists. At least no one that I talk to or have talked to (at least to my understanding).

But everyone knows someone who has died. Dying is a weird thing, among many things that it is, in that there’s a bit of a cultural prohibition on death. Like people don’t talk about it!

That was the first time I used the d word — death — in this essay. You would think it would have come sooner, right? An essay about the finality of life (at least the beginning of this exploration).

Why did I avoid it? Even now, calling death “it.” Call it what it is — death!

Probably because, at least in my experience of LIFE, talking about death is ~not quite frowned upon but certainly not a dialogue I enter into often. I would go as far as to say I avoid this topic in the day to day but also in the macro reflections. I rarely think about the subject. Like I think a lot of thoughts. Death is rarely on my mind. When it enters, it does not feel good. It feels sad and scary and unknown. I imagine this comes from several reasonable reasons. I mean thinking about no longer existing doesn’t exactly make me feel happy or make me feel good. That is basically the definition of avoidance conditioning — so that makes sense as to why I default avoid. But it’s something beyond that that makes me feel uncomfortable in mentioning death. It’s almost like inappropriate to have conversations about the topic. Feels weird to write about. Perhaps there is a religious or pseudo religious ban on the topic. Because, well, the reality is that none of us really know what happens after we die. When I say really know I mean I do not know how some of us would know. That is not to say some people would not profess to know. Or even merely believing to know. Billions of people probably do, as most religions have some sort of explanation here. Relatedly, I imagine that your relationship with death (perhaps a proxy for how you think about time in general) may also be an extremely large predictor of how you think about how you spend/invest your time.

I also imagine your closeness to death (both growing up and in the present) may drive how you feel about the topic. Ivan Ilyich was reminded of death only late in his life (would recommend the short Tolstoy read). It was too late, then, but it still served as a motivator like no other. You could imagine that if you were destined to die tomorrow, you would be spending your time differently today. And perhaps the proxy is not tomorrow, but if it were reminded in your face rather often, you would think that your time investment thesis may look different.

Like did/do you see death around you often? Do you hear about the word often? What comes to mind when you think about it? Do you think about it for yourself and/or others or how does it immediately appear in your head?

I bring all of the above up because I find myself highly interested in understanding how people spend their time. I bring that topic up — the how people spend their time topic — because I am extremely interested in understanding how I should go about spending my time. And this topic, being quite a big one for myself and others, may also be answered through inverse positioning: in thinking about how I should NOT be spending my time I can better unpack perhaps the best areas to think about investing my own energy. And perhaps the simplest way to frame the most productive version of that question is merely as: “What sort of things am I doing today (or that are being driven by the things I am doing today) that I will not care to think about on my deathbed?”

That sort of framing — while imperfect in many ways — feels practical. Like I could directly apply it to my calendar and walk away with potentially different answers.

Over the years, I have collected a bunch of experiences that have helped inform how and where and with who I think about spending my time. The other thing that has happened, at least anecdotally, is I find my bullshit meter for spending my time with/on things that do not “meet my bar” has decreased (meaning I more quickly cut things out of my life where I have the option to not participate in them). This meter is dangerous in the capacity that cutting things that do not meet the bar can also mean missing out on opportunities and experiences. So the bar is challenging to get into — and should not, at least for me, be considered a completely static tool. It can also be extremely powerful because the more in-tune I am with my bs meter, the more likely I can spend as much energy as possible on the *right things*. The disclaimer though of course is *right* is a very not obvious thing to approximate in the moment as is generally a product of what abstraction layer you are looking at. There are situations where the variable TIME (not at all really related to the discussion of time above) is the single biggest influence on what ends up being the *right* answer. So anyways this is all to say that my bar has been tuning over time and certainly fluctuates.

Being in tune with this meter has proven to be extremely helpful. And, tying it to much of the discussion above, a way for me to really drive home the accuracy of the meter (in terms of regret minimization at least) is to better familiarize myself with the finality of time. That is not to say I should think about death every moment, or even every day. But it is to say that some element of understanding that this life thing is not forever and that in some ways (a bit dramatized but you’ll still get it) it is my duty to maximize my time here while I have it. I do hope that I can be proactive enough with this reminder to myself that I do not need some large external event to trigger me back to remembering that life is short such that it is too late and I end up regretting not having adjusted my time portfolio sooner.

This brings us to perhaps the main idea of much of this exploration, none of which I have gotten to yet but really is the point of this long pre-amble which is to say that I think there are ways and methods to tune your meter that can really sharpen your decision making. And one such way of doing this, beyond or at least adjacent to the above of familiarizing yourself with the finality of life, is to familiarize yourself with the “traps” of life that take tons of time and energy and consistently leave you in a neutral/worse off place than where you started.

I call these ladders to nowhere of sorts because they do not help you make forward momentum but do take a lot of your energy as you climb. The thing I think about here is wondering whether it is possible for me to recognize that I am on a ladder to nowhere before I climb up too high and waste a bunch of time and energy (time and energy that would be better spent in areas actually headed somewhere I want to go).

Sometimes we see signals that we are headed on a route to nowhere (which we will get to in a second) but instead look past those signals. Why? Like we see the obvious signs and yet we cling to the path we are on. My intuition is that much of this is the product of fear. We are afraid to need to start over. To find a new path. To potentially be wrong again. That scares us to the extent that we rationalize the current path we are on. Beyond fear, we are embarrassed. We have fallen for the sunk costs. We have fallen prey to their weight and rationalized our current situation because, again, we are afraid to do things again.

This happens in nearly every aspect of life. We start a job we can tell we won’t like but we continue. We start a relationship we can tell we don’t like but continue. We start a book…etc. etc.

The sunk cost fallacy is extremely powerful. Even when we understand it well, so many of us cannot see the expected value equation ahead because we are so blinded by our emotional sunglasses.

We get caught on these ladders. Climbing for our lives. Hoping things will get better and we will be able to move forward. We create these stories in our head. But they are wrong. Because they are not reality.

Sometimes we need a third party perspective to see the signals. The signals are actually a lot more obvious when you do not have your emotional blinders on. Only then, really, can you see what is obvious.

You can see that things are not going to get better. The job is not going to miraculously start to become interesting. The people you work with are not going to all of a sudden start to become really smart. Your manager is not going to just start listening to you out of the blue. People do not really change is the thing. That is the core of this. That is the core of our hope. Like we think people will change. We think they are capable of doing so. But they are not really.

If we make a bad hire, we think they can rise to the occasion. Why? Why do we believe that to be at all possible? We have no evidence that they can do a particular type of work, yet we think they are capable of doing so. That is our own idiocrasy speaking loudly, not theirs.

A lot of this stems from our own misunderstanding of how systems work, and thinking that we can optimize a small part of the system without understanding how the bigger levers, towards the foundation of the system, actually work.

An interesting example of this that I am just now coming to that may be worthy of an entire separate essay is the notion of city planning and earthquakes.

Imagine you build an extremely sturdy building. Like it is best in class levels of sturdy. But then an earthquake comes and the building is right on the fault line. That earthquake is going to absolutely destroy the building and there is no amount of sturdiness that can protect the building. The bigger piece of the system wins out.

The same is true in your day to day life. You think you can make micro optimizations but all of that is trumped by the bigger systems around you.

So your misunderstanding thinking that you can get other people to change dramatically without the system level changing dramatically is rooted in the same misunderstanding as to why you cannot get yourself to change without your system changing dramatically. Much of our misunderstanding around coordination stems from a misunderstanding of how we ourselves operate.

This is all related to climbing ladders to nowhere because once we recognize we are on a ladder, climbing to nowhere, we should immediately start looking for a new system.