When Nothing Matters

[A look at how sometimes, you really should just make a decision and keep going because the choice itself doesn’t really matter.]

There’s lots of rules in life. And one of them is the rule “A rule never applies fully to every situation. Except maybe this one.”

I think one of the most important skills to pick up is the ability to discern when to follow which rule. For example, when should we follow the rule of “Defer to expert opinion on matters you know little on” and when should we follow the rule of “Trust your gut and make your own conclusions”? Or, when is it appropriate to follow the rule of “Always follow your own rules” vs “Break your own rules whenever it is expedient to do so”?

More interestingly, perhaps, a rule I’ve been noticing myself thinking more about is the rule that “Your choice really doesn’t matter. Just pick A”.

Here’s an example I recently bumped into with a friend: He was applying for a software position and found himself hung up on a question that asked him to explain how his viewpoint would add something new to the team. I pointed out that his resume, which he’d submitted, was probably more important. There were also several other short answer questions which he’d already composed well-written answers to.

At this stage, I reasoned, the actual content of the answer didn’t actually matter that much because most of the influential parts had already been completed. Whether or not he mangled the one question probably had less impact on the overall application than he thought, and he was likely giving it undue weight.

From one angle, this is a natural extension of things like power laws and the Pareto Principle: Some things are just going to be disproportionately responsible for whatever thing you care about, and you really will just have the luxury to skip over the rest off the stuff.

And from another angle, this is just a natural expression of the inside vs outside view: The attitude to complete a task is conducive to a mindset that hones in on the problem, such that completing it is the main goal. The mindset when looking at all the interlocking pieces is to model their relationship to one another, and it’s here that the apparent frivolity of the first attitude is apparent.

I’m claiming no originality here, and maybe this is an insight most people already have. I do think it’s worth restating obvious stuff in new ways, so that’s what this mini essay is for.

There’s a lot of things our choices can get us, but it’s not always worth our time to think all of them out. We’re probably biased towards thinking our choices have more effect than they actually do. (See here and here.)

So, say, you bump into a shiny new decision, and you’re wracked with indecision about what to do…  

As a rule, you may want to just pick the first option and keep going.


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