on choices, arbitrariness, and storytelling

As I think more about applying to grad school and reflecting on my own MIT experience, there’s been a few different themes that keep coming up. These themes have influenced and continue to influence my life, and I figured that it was worthwhile to try and talk about them all in some semi-cohesive manner.

choices

Critics didn’t particularly like If/Then when it hit Broadway, in part because of its lack of strong songs and confusing narrative structure. This happened despite a star-studded cast, including Idina Menzel playing the main character, Elizabeth.

The musical opens with Elizabeth deciding between different directions for her life. Her friend Kate suggests that “Liz” begin trying new things, while Lucas suggests that “Beth” become more focused on her work life. The rest of the musical follows each of these two possibilities and how their storylines intertwine and differ. (Critics complained that distinguishing between the two storylines was too difficult for casual enjoyment.)

In the opening song, “What If?”, Elizabeth monologues about her predicament in choosing exactly how to reinvent herself.

Do I go there with Lucas
Or stay here with Kate?
Why do I do this?
Obsess and debate
I’ve been prudent and cautious
For all my life long
And most of my choices
Turned out to be wrong
Tell me how can this make any difference?
How could it matter at all?
How do I make such a major event
Out of something so small?

See each choice you make as kind of a loss
Each turn that you take
And each coin that you toss
You lose all the choices
You don’t get to make
All the turns you don’t take
And so what if I’d gone there with Lucas?
And then what if I’d answered that phone?
Think of all of the things you’d have done
If only you’d known…

Looking at my own decision-making process about “big” things — choosing careers and majors, discussing with ESP about how to run our programs, MIT’s policies for the fall semester and returning — there are a few parts that I often get “stuck” on, some of which connect strongly to the lyrics of “What If?”. These different aspects, aren’t mutually exclusive nor are they even all that distinct. But I don’t really have a way to organize these thoughts other than a list.

• Not knowing what impact things make. Much like Elizabeth in If/Then, I feel entirely uninformed about many decisions that I make. As one example, let’s think about the process of choosing between colleges. After all was said and done with my college application process, I’d narrowed down my choice to 3 different colleges. Choosing between these colleges was hard. Each college had so many different aspects, from the interests of my peers to scholarship money to required classes to rigor to the weather, not even to mention the intangible aspects like how much I’d grow as a human being at these different places.

Some of the aspects (like money) were quantifiable, many were not; it is entirely impossible for me to make exact inferences about how each college would shift my interests, career paths, and much more. Even if I were able to know each of these aspects exactly, I have no way of comparing them. How can one put a dollar value on the joy of the weather? Or comparing academic rigor to the types of people I’d be around? Even 3 years into college and knowing everything that I know about my own college experience, while I can make judgments about whether my experience at MIT has been positive and worthwhile, I have absolutely no idea how it would compare to my experience at other universities. And I have no doubt I’ll feel this same way when I (hopefully) decide between graduate programs this spring.

• The bicycle-shed effect. Also called Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, the essence of the bicycle-shed effect is that we turn our attention to the familiar, even if they are of relatively little importance. Parkinson gives a specific example of a committee approving a £10 million nuclear reactor and a £350 bike shed1. While the details of a nuclear reactor might pass over people’s heads due to their complexity, a bike shed has much more familiar aspects — shape, size, roofing material — and is discussed much more readily.

I first heard about this effect by name from someone in ESP; while ESP as an organization does many things well (particularly in organizing discussions), this is decidedly a trap that we fall into occasionally in discussions. Whether it’s literal discussions of budgets, figuring out details of what prizes to give out, or thinking about emails, it’s natural that the debates people are familiar with are the debates people feel they have more informed opinions on, and so more likely to contribute.

• Putting too much effort into choices when the net gain is small. At an abstract level, if you know the relative gain from choosing one choice over another is $\varepsilon$, you shouldn’t be spending more than $\varepsilon$ time trying to figure out which of the two choices is better; if you do, then choosing either option (randomly) at the beginning would have been better than spending your time on this decision.

I’ve met someone who had an extreme way of solving this problem; simply giving up the choice process entirely. He lets other people choose his orders at restaurants because the effort in deciding on something good is not commensurate to the gain of actually choosing the best option. I personally believe that goes a bit too far, but the idea at the core of this behavior is important to remember. I think it’s very hard to evaluate the costs (mental energy, time of decision making, potential gains lost by delaying decisions), but they are there. It’s very easy to fall into this trap — over-engineering slides, trying to choose between different job offers, etc. I think the problem is particularly worse when the “stakes” of the decision are bigger, like jobs or colleges.

• The “closing off doors” feeling. I’ve repeatedly been told advice that roughly follows “Don’t worry too much about choosing X; it’s not a permanent decision, and you can always change it later.” Throughout my life, X has been many different things, from majors to careers to what clubs I want to join. In an objective sense, this statement is true. No matter what path I go on, I can always choose something else at some later point should I wish to change. Particularly for first jobs out of college, I hear this advice especially holds; I’ve often heard that most people change workplaces within a few years of leaving college (assuming they enter the workforce). Most things in life are not binding, not lifelong decisions; they’re choices you have to optimize for in the now and then reevaluate later.

At the same time, there is a real opportunity cost to making some decisions. Consider a problem I had freshman year: deciding what to major in. Let’s say I was choosing to major in economics or physics. While the two do have some similarities (analyzing complex systems, differential equations, tough math), they aren’t quite the same. In terms of real terms, choosing one decidedly limits your ability to choose different things down the line, in terms of research experiences and summer experiences. At a practical level, me graduating from economics makes a pivot into physics later on (probably a Ph.D.) seems incredibly difficult. There’s this feeling of wanting to keep all possible doors open as far as you can, to put off choosing until some unknown time in the future where you’ll actually know how to choose. But that day still hasn’t come, and trying to keep all doors open just simply is a case of “jack of all trades, master of none.”

When talking about this problem in choices, a lot of people bring up the sunk cost fallacy. This is definitely an important fallacy to keep in mind — it makes no sense to continue with a path solely because you’re already on it. But there is one condition that makes a version of the sunk fallacy exist: time. In college, there are only 4 years for me to study things. The more time I spend in one major, the less time I have to take classes, read papers, do research, and enjoy my time in the other one. In an “economic” sense, as I spend more time in one option, the relative benefits of other options decrease when there are finite time horizons. The decrease in relative benefits makes staying the current course appear more attractive. Essentially, it’s hard to change courses when there’s only so much you can do in a day.

I would not say I am a person who knows how to make choices well — the fact that I keep observing these fail-points in my own decision-making processes should be testaments to the contrary. Of course, I still try to think hard and come to “correct” decisions, even when one might not exist, while trying to not overthink the problem at hand. But at the end of the day, I still find myself falling into each of these traps (if not more).

arbitrariness

When I lived in Iowa, one of my teachers recommended I take an online AP Microeconomics class to fill up my schedule and keep myself busy. That led me to take even more economics courses after I moved to Nevada, starting research, and eventually applying to MIT as a mathematical economics major. Now I’m planning to go to grad school and keep doing economics for the rest of my life, all because my teacher recommended one class to me a very long time ago.

When I went to a math camp after my sophomore year, one of the instructors said my way of explaining my reasoning was really good. That led me to teach at a (different) math camp the next summer which sparked my love of education. Coming to MIT as a freshman and scrolling through the list of clubs, I tried to find a club I could do a lot of teaching at. Lo and behold, I found ESP; description made me feel like I should go to their Tuesday meetings in the Student Center to figure out how to teach and connect with others who wanted to do the same. It turned out to be a bit of that, but also a club of juice fanatics, people excited about organizational behavior, and counting t-shirts. Now I’ve spent 3 years and found a great family in ESP, all because of a few words a teacher once said to me and a description on a website that I didn’t quite understand.

Many things in my life have happened by seemingly random chance. Choosing clubs in high school off of the basis of small interactions with people I just met. Getting randomly assigned roommates at MIT. Running a science bowl because the previous coordinator happened to live on the same floor as me. Becoming close friends with someone after 3 years of knowing each other because we sat next to each other and wanted to play an inside joke on a mutual friend. So many more details of who I am, the people I’m close to, the things I care about have seemed like they happened because of random chance.

It’s so interesting to look back at what makes us and small actions that caused them to happen. Some of them feel like active choices: coming to MIT, choosing my major, and deciding to be friends with someone. But so many of these important decisions have been impacted by happenstance occurrences in my life.

As much as I’d like to feel like I am the person “in control” of my life, so many fundamental things about my life have been caused by sheer randomness. In an ever-so-slightly different world, my science-y friends in high school would have led me down that path even more and made me a physicist instead. Or I’d have a different set of friends because I ran into different people during my freshman year. So many of my close friendships have resulted from me randomly running into someone and deciding that that moment was a good time to start having a conversation.

For those who believe in a fully deterministic universe and have already accepted that there is no free will2, these statements are already obvious. But for others, the fact that randomness and serendipity can have such a large impact on one’s life is not a notion that is easy to reconcile with traditional notions of free will. Sure, we may be individuals with a sense of agency in our lives, but that sense of agency can only go so far because much of the rest is up to luck.

I hope you don’t feel like I’m trying to argue our choices don’t matter because life is a stochastic process and we’re terrible at making choices, perhaps “theses” of the past two sections. On the contrary, the fact that precious few things actually are within our control (whatever that means) means we should spend time to make sure those things happen well.

But how do we then reconcile the fact that so many things truly are due to random occurrences? For me, it’s hard to realize the impact of arbitrariness until well after the fact; it’s only during reflection I realize the influences which have led me to who I am. Further, not every single random thing that happens to us truly does end up impacting our lives; my choice of breakfast, the million other things I did during high school, and so many other things have ended up having much, much smaller impacts on my life. I personally feel that randomness, particularly the kind that shows up in the examples I gave above, ends up doing things that open doors, but it still is up to me to make the most of them.

storytelling

When I took Relativity (8.033), the professor ended the class by giving us four pieces of advice. One of those pieces of advice was to “learn how to tell a story.” This skill would be invaluable, he said, for figuring out how to get people to listen to you.

A few months ago, I called the Distinguished Fellowships Office at MIT to chat with them about programs like the Fulbright, Rhodes, Marshall, and others. One of the key pieces of advice they gave was to craft some narrative to explain why it is I wanted to do things.

I’ve heard the same advice for applying to grad school: explain how everything that you’ve done has helped you narrow down your interests and decide on a certain field. It doesn’t matter if you’re still not sure, because what you say isn’t binding. You just have to be able to say you’re interested in something and explain why.

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but when I make decisions, I don’t do so in a way to achieve exactly my goals, and my world never changes in exactly the way I expect it to. Random things happen that push me in one direction or another. I find myself liking certain things coincidentally, just because something happened at the right time and right place. Not to mention that any choice I make is done on incomplete information and without knowing what would happen.

I’ve had to do my fair share of storytelling in my life — college applications, consulting, even research — all try to paint a certain picture, tell a story of how something came to be. In a sense, it feels insincere to try and tell stories like this. Sure, I can always look back at my actions and make arguments for how different actions and circumstances led me to the person I am today. But I certainly didn’t (and don’t) have the foresight to know exactly how the choices I made would create me.

In my acting class (21M.600) this semester, we read Everybody, a play that touches on many themes, from friendship to materialism to the meaning of life itself. The play begins with Death telling the main character, named Everybody, that they are dying, but God wants to hear an account of their full life. After Death leaves, Everybody begins contemplating the nature of their existence. (As part of this assignment, we each had to record a monologue from the play — I chose this one.)

You weren’t even fully aware of yourself as a self until what? Like early childhood? And then you certainly did not have some sense of life as a thing which could have a purpose until what? Late teens? And then your sense of self wasn’t really even solidified until all of the gray matter in your brain has been used up which was what? Twenty six, twenty seven? So this assignment is sort of like a trap! This seems like entrapment! Like human life is entrapment!
It’s like you are expected to have had those instincts to pay attention to yourself just buried inside yourself — like a natural thing? Like it’s supposed to be coded into your DNA? So you know what? No. You are not going to beat yourself up for not having been genetically programmed to care about your own life beyond the necessity of survival and to the point of obsessiveness — to the point of pure, paralyzing self-consciousness. Tracking your every move, day in and day out, from birth onward, attempting to rationalize everything into one whole airtight personal macrophilosophy of being? No!

“One whole airtight personal macrophilosophy of being.” The norm we try to hold when we try to show off some “image” of ourselves in interviews, applications, and the like. Don’t talk about the flaws, the missteps, the mistakes. The right choices made for the wrong reasons (or for no reason at all). The arbitrary factors that lead someone to stumble into the person they are today.

At the same time, I look at other people, their resumes, what they’ve done with their lives. Sometimes, it does seem so pre-packaged and airtight and fully planned out. It’s probably some form of imposter syndrome. It seems pretty likely that no one really does know what they’re doing and are just fumbling around like I am. Or maybe it is the case that some people really do just have it all together.

I’m feeling this feeling a lot more as I look back at what I did at MIT and prepare to apply to graduate school. A different person would have known what they wanted to do after graduation since they started MIT. Taken all of the math classes they needed to and more, try out various fields of research, and so the list goes on. Granted, the things that I ended up doing at MIT put me in a good position for applying to graduate school. But it’s far from the “optimized” that I see some people have.

A piece of advice I’ve heard a few times and have found helpful is to simply do what I’m interested in, do what makes me happy, and the rest will fall into place. My choices will be vaguely in the right direction. Enough arbitrariness will lead me towards my goals. It’s the mindset I tried to take through college applications, and hearing the same advice again from a few people has helped me as I think about this process of applying again. But I still can’t help feeling that I’m not doing enough by optimizing for my current state, and not optimizing for some future goal. In a sense, I want to be able to tell stories in the present, not just in hindsight.

At the same time, I also feel like I’m not doing enough to follow through on this idea of “doing the things I want to do in the moment.” When I look back at my last year or so at MIT, I feel like there are so many more things I could have done to follow the things I actually wanted to do in the moment. Especially given coronavirus and the fact that I don’t really get a senior year of college, I can’t help but wish I had the chance to make better choices.

These two forces in my life — one pulling me towards over-planning my life in pursuit of some end goals (not to mention I don’t even know what these are), and one pushing me towards just doing the things I love in the moment — combined with never being to figure out what to do without the benefit of hindsight, just makes me feel like I’m not doing either of these two things well. Jack of all trades, yet again.

To be honest, I’d rather be on the side of doing the things I love; I just can’t figure out why doing that is so hard. Shouldn’t doing the things I want to do be the natural default?

Or maybe it’s just that I just can’t decide what I want to do, and I’ve just been spending my time in the in-between. And we’re back full circle to choices.

I don’t think there really is a conclusion to all of this. I can’t end this with a “solution” or even “advice” — obviously, I haven’t figured out how to deal with these in my own life. Some of these things aren’t even well-defined problems, much less problems with well-defined solutions. I think I just mostly wanted to acknowledge the existence of these forces in my life, these things that constrain the things I do, these things that change the paths I go down in life.

1. His example also goes further, and includes a £21 budget item for coffee. The idea is the same, but just more extreme.

2. I don’t think I’ve actually made my mind up on this question yet. I think that at my core I do believe in some notion of free will, but I don’t feel like I’ve thought about this all long enough to feel solid in this idea.

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