2010-08-20

Game theory of life

In my lifetime, I've wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to finish college and be a mathematician, and I wanted to be a runner. I wanted to be a traveler in Italy and conference participant in Australia. I wanted to be a homeowner and a valued employee. I wanted these things, but I never would have called them my "goals".

Goals are hard to attain and risky to pursue. A goal has to be--let's say, conservatively--less than 80% certain to happen, and it must require sacrifice. Winning a race was my goal, just like becoming extraordinarily successful in my career, publishing an article in Science, or seeing my short story in The New Yorker.

There are two main ways to achieve a goal, two directions in which to focus my efforts. One is the narcissistic path: drop everything else and focus on the goal. The other is the holistic approach: build myself and my capabilities until the goal becomes a simple matter of reaching out and taking it. If the goal were, for example, to help poor and starving people, we might contrast a lifelong member of the Peace Corps with Bill Gates. The former gives bread to the hungry with his own hands while the latter becomes a notorious billionaire before founding one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world. It's not easy to say which way is better. By age 50, who has fed more people?

Warren Buffett said that his time should be spent where his talents lie: earning high returns on capital. He'll let the people who are good at feeding the poor feed the poor. Buffett's talents cannot be disputed, but perhaps his motivation can be. What else is someone whose lifelong goal is to earn money, if not greedy? Or, is he simply preparing himself to do the most good he can possibly do in this world? Buffett has been astoundingly thrifty, considering his former status as richest man in the world. Another former richest man, Gates, spends a bit more freely on himself, but apparently intends that his life's work be--ultimately, like Buffett--to give aid to millions of underpriveleged and impoverished people.

I don't know if Bill Gates has ever handed a piece of bread to a starving person. There are certainly many people who have, people I've never heard of and who are very good at what they do. The world needs both kinds of individuals, but which kind am I?

Do I drop everything now and try to take what I want, or do I try to take over the world first and then bend it to my bidding? Buffett says it depends on where my talents lie, which way is easier for me. It's hard to decide. Goals take time, and the thought of dropping everything feels like a sprint and a flying leap as the floor falls out from under me; I don't know if I'll make it across. If I never jump, though, I'll never know, and preparation is never a goal unto itself.

I've always followed my talents, and I've been pleased wwith where they've taken me. I'm extremely lucky in that way. But I've found that sometimes my talents cannot take me to the places where my talents do the most good, or the place I want to be, and I have to find another way around. It becomes a question of strategy; how long will I have to fight my way through unpleasant territory before I get to where I'm going? I can always turn and head to the goal straight on, albeit weaker, less prepared, and more likely to fail. It's a flying leap, but I just might make it.

2 comments:

RM said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about goals. Setting them, achieving them. We talk about goal races and life goals. I would call doing a 5 mile race back home one of my goals for the year, but it's not really a goal so much as just me doing it. Within that race I may also have a goal. I work towards it, but because I'm only capable of doing what I'm capable of doing. I can figure out what is reasonable for me to accomplish based on the steps leading up to that race.

The only goal I've had for, well, ever, has been to race at Hawaii. While I'm sure it will happen one day, it's never a sure thing. In fact, it may never happen.

One thing I have started to understand, though, is that my goals are exactly that - MY goals. No one else's. Who am I to judge why someone else is doing something?

For instance, if MGP doesn't want to run anymore, or he makes his goal each year to run one 10k as part of a triathlon relay - that's up to him. I can be sad that he chooses not to run with us, or jealous that he is "wasting" his talent - but it's not me.

If Warren Buffett doesn't want to help others, okay cool. Does it make him a dick? Maybe. But he does the things that make him happy, presumably, and that's fine.

Everything we do is selfishly motivated. From the person that helps others (he benefits with a good feeling from helping others) to the person who makes a lot of money.

Do what you want to do because you want to do it. If I complain about how tired I am from training, or how much races cost or how I never have time - I have the choice to not do it anymore. I know I'll never win an Ironman, or be the best triathlete, but I like it. It makes me happy. I'll keep doing it, and find a way to reach my goal.

I think following your talents is good, but as a smart person, and talented person, you can really do well at anything you please. I was really good at music but in the process of choosing things, it got bumped in favor of sport. Although, neither was ever going to pay the bills.

Just be a renaissance man BG, do everything. Be good at everything. Nothing says you can't be.

The Other BG said...

Thanks, man. I do indeed want to be a kind of renaissance man, and I hope things turn out better for you in the next few years when compared to the last couple.

Goals are goals, but it seems that somehow the world has been conditioned to believe that some goals are better than others. Like you said, if the goal affects only you, all goals are created equal. Running a certain time is no nobler than attaining a certain level in your bank account. Whatever floats your boat.

I know what I want, and I'm going to get it sooner or later. You got my last email, right, in response to yours?