Heuristic – Given a Set of Decisions, I will Choose the Decision that Leads to a Better Story

Heuristic – Given a Set of decisions, I will choose the decision that leads to a better story

(from Wikipedia: Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision.)

Growing up I always wanted to be a writer and after reading The Four Hour Work Week and hearing Ryan Holiday’s repeated message that, “if… you want to be a writer…. Go do interesting things,”,  I began to understand that the best way to tell an interesting story is to live one.  Diving deeper into this idea, I started realizing that I value having a life worth writing about more than I value writing itself.  I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling, and have loved telling my stories in ways that I find interesting, compelling, or demonstrative.  As I experienced moments that I knew would become some of my best stories, I realized these were often the most memorable and fulfilling moments of my life.  Since then, I’ve used this as a metric to measure the overall quality of my live over a given period.  The metric works as follows;  The quality of my life over a given period is proportional to the mass density of the stories from that period of my life, where the mass density is found by weighting each story by it’s intensity then summing over the weighed stories and dividing by the length of the time period.  Since realizing this, I began using the heuristic above as a means to improve the quality of my life.

With any rule there arises questions about where it holds true and how it can be applied.  I think it’s best to answer these questions with a series of anecdotes from my personal life, in which I’ve stuck strong to the heuristic.

In practice, how can this be applied?  One of the most memorable experiences in my life was crashing an Up with People reunion when I was 20, and it all started with my response to a question.  I was swimming at a resort with my best friend when an attractive woman in her mid 20s approached me and asked if I wanted to come back to her room for drinks.  Although: I was already having a nice night, I was not planning on drinking, I was intimidated by the offer, and I had other potential obligations (I needed to wake up early ect…) I showed no ambivalence and said yes immediately, so that I could follow the story.  While there we played a game of truth or dare with the group of (all 5-25 years older than me) people in her room where I continuously reminded myself of my rule.  If I made a fool of myself it would certainly make a more interesting story than if I said no when asked to step outside my comfort zone.  I recognized: 1. If I own my actions I have nothing to be embarrassed of and 2. It was a relatively low stakes environment, I was a complete outsider and this would be my story to tell (or not tell) as I pleased.  I closely adhered to the heuristic and what followed was a two night cathartic experience which has permanently molded me as an individual, and created one of my better stories and best memories.

How does it work?  Recognize choices when they are presented to you, then think, if I were were viewing this as a scene in a movie, and the protagonist were given these choices, which option would I be secretly wishing they’d take?.  I find I’m more inclined to make provocative or risky decisions when I am able to view the situation from an outside perspective.

In 'Fight Club' the (unnamed) main character is so bored with his life he invents a new person so that he can hear an interesting story. After my first experience reunion crashing I realized that by stepping outside yourself for a second you gain a sense of objectivity about your current situation.

In ‘Fight Club’ the (unnamed) main character is so bored with his life he invents a new person so that he can hear an interesting story. After my first experience reunion crashing I realized that by stepping outside yourself for a second you gain a sense of objectivity about your current situation.

Does this heuristic break down at a point where situations can become too risky or dangerous?  No.  I have plenty of stories that are too high stakes to write about this publicly (that I love to tell in person ;)), so instead I’ll tell the story of how I made an important decision after months of anguish.  After my freshman year of college I was equally split deciding between 3 of the most difficult and time intensive majors in my school: Astronomy, Physics, and Mathematics.  I entered college so far behind in math and science that it would be a feat of it own to finish any one of these majors individually.  Plenty of my peers were combining two of them, and I wanted to do the same, but I was having trouble choosing my two favorites.  At this point in my life it was very important to me that I earn a high GPA and participate in plenty of research so that I would be in good standing when I applied for graduate schools.  After a year the paths started to trifurcate from each other and a decision had to be made.  I reached out to the smartest person I knew, a true polymath, who agreed to help me.  He told me that if I was interested in all three I should complete all three degrees.  When I explained that I was worried that taking more classes would hurt my GPA he told me to just get A’s in every class, that way I would never need to worry about my GPA.  When I said I had a four year scholarship and no interest in staying longer, he told me to complete all the courses in four years.  When I told him I was uncertain if anyone had completed the specific triple major in four years, he told me to be the first.  When I asked him what to do if I felt like I was in over my head or if I couldn’t handle it he told me to wait until I proved that I was overwhelmed (e.g. Seeing a significant drop in performance) and that I could revalue my situation at that point.  It never happened, but knowing I could revise my decision in the future gave the confidence to move forward and recognize that I was in control.  When I look back at my academic experience, I find myself feeling the strongest sense of pride around how different (and therefore interesting) my path was, and caring much less about the details of my performance.  Instead of being one of the many hundreds of graduating math majors, or one of the six Astronomy/Physics double majors, I found myself in a category of one with a combination that only I completed.

Lives that spiral out of control end up being more mundane we tend to naively predict.  I rarely hear the word fascinating used to describe the life of an active drug addict.  The self destructive stories and patterns we create for ourselves are usually obnoxiously repetitive.  When following the heuristic you will start the learn the dose dependence of high-risk behavior.  Should I have canceled the rest of my day when I was fifteen to get an energy healing from the girl who lived on her own?  Yes.  Should I have continued my pattern of breaking my foot every four months doing gymnastics moves that were far beyond my level?  Probably not.  Should I have remained deeply embedded in my high eccentric additions?  No.

What if you aren’t intrinsically an interesting person?  Then follow the heuristic to become one.  I rarely went to college parties because I often found myself, getting bored, and feeling like a boring person.  When people found out I didn’t drink or ‘party’ they would often ask me “well then what do you do for fun?”, as if those are the only available nighttime activities for an 18-22 year old.  I turned away from the obvious answer, and was forced to learn to find my own fun and to create my own stories.  I taught myself to skateboard.  I snuck into the pools at fancy resorts after hours (which led to the first anecdote).  I explored the unseen sides of my city.  I found vantage points and places to resonate with almost any mood, I rode ice blocks down what seemed like vertical golf course hills.  I went places I shouldn’t have gone to with people I should not have been with.  I freed myself to follow the energy of the people I met, which allowed me to spend full, uninterrupted nights talking and exploring with with someone the instant they stood out to me.  Once I’d fallen deeper in love with my city and further explored my surroundings I was able to return to the parties with an understanding of how to turn them into an enjoyable experience for me and for others.  As I explained to a friend I met at a party the day after I graduated, I come to parties to leave the party.  I’m here to find someone else to explore with, to show my favorite parts of the city to and learn a new perspective from, a practice that has served me well.

You are the author of the story of your life, so make it an interesting one.