Education systems that bias towards vocational professions have better outcomes than ones that sensationalize thinking theater. Thinking on its own is actually a second-order effect, rather than a root cause. People with a bias for action are the ones who create the outcomes that thinkers then have to explain. On the surface, it might seem that complicated frameworks and theories are hard. It turns out they are no more real than the bits and bytes you’re reading this text on. Doing, on the other hand, is easy to describe and incredibly difficult to experience. It’s valuable precisely because it’s so hard. Choosing what to do seems hard at first, but as it’s just thinking, with hindsight it appears how easy it actually was. It’s the doing part that should really set the challenge. Do what’s in your heart, and it’ll all turn out ok.
The achievements of doers built the merits of modern societies. Strangely, many countries have turned out an educational system that lionizes thinkers instead. Most of academia, for instance, is set up to produce more academia. Are you busy regurgitating other people’s thoughts, paying $150k for an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the public library? Or do you have original thoughts of your own, that might lead to something new in the world?
It’s not all that bad, maybe, but it definitely feels like it was a lot less that way in the past. The scientific method was a tool exercised by madmen and raving lunatics who nobody believed, so that others would test for themselves and believe the insanity. Einstein was a simple patent clerk, not a tenured professor, when he wrote down his discoveries. His thought experiments may have been the products of his mind, but his papers and his impact were a product of his actions. Gallileo’s lack of formal academic credentials would have had him thrown out of most faculties today. Ramanujan probably would not have been structured enough for McKinsey.
Some crazies remain, and fortunately, we still celebrate them too. Didier Queloz set in motion the discoveries of literally thousands of exoplanets basically by pointing shit at the sky, and looking (abbr.). Who would have guessed? Unfortunately, today’s system of scientific discovery orients overwhelmingly around certification fetishes and KPI maximization. Scores of students come out of the printer at prestigious universities primed to get into higher-order thinking professions, whether it’s working at more universities or making more PowerPoint decks full of thoughts on what other people should be doing.
Not every educational system consecrates to this perverse bias. Some, like Germany’s or Switzerland’s, recognize the value to society of vocational professions and orient academic tracks towards a trade. Education as a pathway to a lifetime of fulfilling work, rather than as an end to itself. At the fringes people may chafe at the inflexibility but, as nothing is preordained, these rails aren’t as rigid as they might seem like live.
Having gone through this sausage factory myself, I’m all too aware of the time I’ve wasted getting ready for something without spending much time trying to do it instead. The inertia of the simulation we all play a role in maintaining is strong. We are at once in the Matrix and of it, inseparably. Surely, not all of those people who sat 6h multiple choice exams could be wrong, right?
Another paralyzer is the fear of the committing action. Has the word commitment lost its strength over the years? It should be scary. The military still uses it with the right tonality – the stakes are real in war. Commitment is the path of no return. You can’t turn back, you can’t unring the bell. It’s the reason so many people spend so much time keeping their options open. Consulting is great because I have countless potential clients to offer me potential jobs. Investment banking has great exit opportunities. Why enter in the first place, when you want to exit as soon as you arrive?
Occasionally this is hard because two choices appear mutually exclusive. The corollary to commitment is to complete things, but this isn’t always possible. A good rule of thumb is, if you must change courses, to do it as long as it’s to something at least as difficult, if not harder.
I wrongly used to perceive commitment as a reduction in option space. Just being alive is a reduction in option space, as long as the long march of entropy in the universe continues relentlessly. Staying on the sidelines and keeping your options open is a commitment by default, only you outsource the decision and don’t get to experience the full benefits of its failure.
Personally, I think a lot of it was fear of risk and of the impact of failure. Isn’t this a silly hangup to have? Does failure matter because you would disappoint yourself, or because you think you will disappoint others? How many anxious overachievers are really truly clinically OCD about their perfectionism? How many are actually keeping busy living up to the imagined expectations of what they think other people would want of them? There’s so much narcissism in this worldview. Why else would I distance myself with the third person in the sentence above? Narcissism is such a toxic opioid, the act of commitment is largely worth the exorcism for its own sake, let alone the liberating possibilities that ensue. Perfect is the enemy of good only if you delude yourself into believing that perfect matters to others, so it must matter to you.
You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing. @ProfFeynman
Max Durocher, in the movie Collateral, is a taxi driver saving up money to buy a fleet of cars and launch his celebrity limo company. He’s lining up the vehicles, the client lists, the potential hires. But along the way, something breaks. He’s told his ailing mother that he’s taken the leap and found success, but 12 years in he’s still driving the same taxi. “All it takes is a down payment on a Lincoln towncar, so you can get going.” It takes a maniacal serial killer, Vincent, played with the cool insanity only Tom Cruise could muster, to break the spell. Vincent is a doer. He executes his marks messily, barging in through doors, throwing bodies out of windows. He gets hurt, but he gets the job done. To save the woman he loves, Max has to literally become Vincent halfway through the movie. He jettisons the shivering narcissist that held him back for 12 years and becomes a man without fear, ready to do and to make a mark on the world.
Back to the original question – how do you know what to do? Other people cannot answer this for you, but often the answer involves other people. Max Durocher is animated by saving a woman he shared a connection with. Will Hunting stops pushing people away and searches in his heart to know he has to leave a job and go after a girl. Commitment has value in relationships because there is no turning back to the vulnerable intimacy of sharing the air with someone you know completely, "and could level you with her eyes." Both Sean and Will are hiding from themselves in Good Will Hunting, and actualize when they realize they have nothing to fear.
Jeff Bezos describes a simpler regret minimization framework for making choices with high commitment. In 50 years, would you look back at your choice, and regret it? If not, then just do it. It’s a quick way of talking yourself into not being afraid to commit. Do what’s in your heart, and it’ll all turn out ok.
h/t @iamcoinstantin, @broductmanager