Opportunities vs Potentials
Yearbooks are fairly popular in high school. My friend recently questioned their actual utility, saying something like, “With email and social networks, it’s fairly easy to keep in touch with people. Plus, you can just as easily write your friends personal notes and messages anytime. Why spend almost $100 for a yearbook?”
I think there’s a framing problem going on here. My friend was looking at the yearbook as unnecessary in terms of “potential”– it could have been possible to fulfill the same function of the yearbook without getting one. With some paper and pens, you can get most of your friends to write personal messages to you, at any time you wish.
What the yearbook offers, instead, is “opportunity”– just because you could have gotten all of your friends to sign some sheets of paper, would you have really? In essence, the yearbook gives you a chance to commit to do something you might not have done otherwise.
Yearbook aside, there are a few more examples where I’ve seen this distinction between potential and opportunity show up, and I think the bigger picture is worth exploring:
- That feeling regret after you fail to stop indulging, thinking “Oh man, I could have stopped so much earlier!”, when maybe you really couldn’t have stopped earlier. (See Nate Soares’s post here.)
- Thinking it’s ridiculous to make an action plan at a goal-setting seminar because you could do it at home, even though you probably weren’t really going to make a plan otherwise.
- Feeling like you could be more productive because you have 16 hours to do stuff, and yet you only get in around 8 hours of work, despite the fact that you are a human, who needs rest and respite.
There’s a common pattern to all of these scenarios. In some cases, we regret our decisions, as we consider the multitudes of counterfactuals that “could-have” happened. In other cases, the “obvious” nature of certain activities causes us to discount them initially because “we could do them anywhere/anytime”.
Though some of the scenarios refer to a retrospective, while others are in the moment, the idea’s the same. In general, there seems to be a human tendency to confuse “what could have theoretically happened in principle” with “what was actually within the general realm of feasibility at said time”.
Basically we want to be on guard for “after-the-fact” reasoning supplied by hindsight. Just because other alternatives were possible doesn’t mean they were achievable. The relevant question to ask, when the passage of time grants you crystal clear hindsight is, “Given what I knew at that time, could I actually have done better?”
In addition to considering the relevant probabilities when ruing past decisions, we can apply the same caution to present choices. Though counterfactuals can stab you with regret when used in hindsight, you can also use them to your advantage when faced with an opportunity in the moment. Consider the counterfactual where you don’t get said opportunity, and see how likely you’d be to actually take the action without it. Asking yourself, “If I didn’t take this opportunity, what are the chances I’d actually do this on my own?” seems the be the corresponding “anti-hindsight” question when faced with present decisions.
On one hand, it seems far better to actually plan for these opportunities, like goal-setting, especially if you find them useful, but, too often, I myself have dismissing chances to do helpful things because I thought I could technically do them on my own time, so I believe it’s still a helpful tool to keep in mind.
It seems that it pays to view opportunities as, not just the potential gains they offer versus other alternatives (the typical opportunity cost view), but also as more valuable the more they diverge from your typical habits/routine, as this gives you the chance to do things you otherwise probably wouldn’t have done without them.