Curb Your Enthusiasm

Mek, January 19, 2013 - Edited by Drew Winget

I learned what should be the goal of this essay after receiving valuable feedback from Drew Winget who explained:

"Frustrations with shape are less painful than formless frustrations."

How can anyone focus on a single problem for years when life is so short and there are so many exciting and worthy projects/problems to work on? If you are an ambitious person who wants to make the most of your life, you've possibly been overwhelmed by this concept before. Here are my thoughts on winning the battle of greatness by learning to understand, and control your enthusiasm. The secret is remembering, life isn't just about optimizing for success, it's also about managing failure and sticking to your game plans.

People have an inherit need to be good at multilple things, perhaps, in part, to compensate for the fact that, in our age of specialization, it is increasingly challenging to be the best in the world at any given thing. After all, there's a lot to be afraid of in only attacking a single problem. Without perspective from other problems to guide your initiatives, it's easy to succumb to tunnel vision and find yourself lost or at an impass. Imagine how often you've relied on examples from other fields to learn a new topic (see: Levi-Straussian Semiotic Analysis). Now imagine how much harder it would have been to learn that concept had you not had those experiences and learnings to refer back to. In the same way that smart economists tell us to diversity our investment portfolios, hedge our bets, and mitigate our risks, we're naturally compelled to do the same with our personal skills. But how do we tell when we're spread too thin or overly focused? Better yet, how can we guarantee a balance?

There's always going to be that frusterating day when you scream, "I should have invested more in Google!" or "If I had only taken that job, my stock would be worth millions!". That's because, when we win, we want to win big. We want others, and ourselves, to realize the extent of our confidence and capabilities. Winning big often requires you to take a risk, even if that risk is implicit. You must outperform competitors by thinking and responding more quickly. Sometimes in an attempt to win big and think quickly, we make decisions we later regret. But at the same time, when we lose, we don't want to lose hard. We want to know there's a safety net to catch us if we're falling. There are few feelings worse than being pressured to recover from a fall as you're still in full plummet.

One answer is to control your enthusiasm by spending time premeditating on problems and arriving at terms / limits you're comfortable with. These limits could manifest as many things; time spent on a project, a monetary limit on investments, thresholds for decisions making (e.g. if my checking account goes under 20k, I'll go to get a job). The goal is to ask yourself, "how hard do I want to win, how hard can I afford to lose, and how does that translate into numbers or decisions in my life?" If you're not sure what limits to try, or you're worried about deceiving yourself, use metrics and past experiences to justify your decisions, or ask someone you identify as objective to help you. Next, test your limit strategy for a certain time period. As you learn more about how the outcome compares to your expectations, or as your position changes, you can re-evaluate your limits and make adjustments accordingly.

Try to break your goals into different contexts (dating, finance, work, etc.) and choose different personal limits for each of them. The advantage of this strategy is, if you know what your limits are beforehand and important decision comes, you'll be able to quickly make a decision while protecting yourself against the risk.

The final step is the hardest -- when things don't go your way, stay objective and resolute to your strategy. The world is stochastic and there's no guarantee you won't lose, frequently. There are usually many more ways to lose than to win.

Why will many not follow this advice? For two main reasons. First, we all want to be exceptional, and following a plan to hit our goals (no matter how audacious) often seems unexceptional. We want to root for the underdogs, the lotteries, the cases which defied the odds.

Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
- The Joker, The Dark Knight

The thing to keep in mind is, having personal limits won't change the world from being random and won't prevent you from making it big. What this mindset will do is prevent you from losing bigger than you can afford to lose by empowering you to make more educated decisions.

The second reason many won't take this advice is due to social stigmas. Whenever we redirect our efforts from seeking opportunity to mitigating risk, we are often labeled negatively as playing it safe or being afraid. My job isn't to steer you towards one direction or another, only to offer an accountability framework wherein you can make these important decisions for yourself. Once you have a better understanding of enthusiasm and how to control it to your advantage, I trust you'll make the best decision for you.

Mastering Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm is a powerful feeling. It can empower us to overcome shyness, frusteration, or even sadness, driving us to persevere in conditions under which many others may give up. It can act as an amplifier, affecting not only us, but others by influencing their decision making and intensity.

Enthusiasm is a necessary ingredient of greatness. With it we reach new heights and gain the courage to step outside our comfort level, to experiment with and find exceptions (or deviations) within our belief system. The courage to test our belief system and challege our assumptions, especially at the expense of suffering ridicule, is imperative in discovering our flaws and re-affirming or finding faults in our current beliefs. The world is constantly changing and so too should our beliefs be retested; both to ensure they are still applicable in the current times, and such that we may review them under the light of new knowledge and experience we gain over time.

However, enthusiasm, like a drug, comes in different doses and has side effects; both good and bad. The nature and degree of its impact are inherintly dependent on its wielder, their intentions, and their rationality. In order to be a successful wielder of enthusiasm, one must be aware and conscious of both its existence/presence, as well as the severity of its effects. Enthusiasm gives us only the drive to accomplish things and does not prescribe in what manner or why we do them. One must learn to understand and control their enthusiasm or is likely to act impulsively in ways that do not ultimately serve their (or others') best interests. Like driving a vehicle at high speeds, submitting to enthusiasm without premeditation can result in the boundaries which define our principles to bend, bleed, and distort. It can also drive us to lose perspective, act hastily, become desensitized, and impair our ability to think objectively.

In some regards, the core of the human thought process mirrors theories of mathematical symbolic logic in that our decisions and perceptions of reality are governed by an evolving set of axioms. These axioms represent our fundamental beliefs of how the universe works; they are the resulting derivations of our entire knowledge base of experiences and learnings. As our knowledge base grows, the axioms must evolve to remain relevant and consistent with our new learnings. We acknowledge our core axiomatic beliefs to be self-evident truths, in that we have personally tested and tried their soundness to an extent which satisfies our trust/faith in their correctness. From these axioms, we derive truths we use to make decisions; to establish and evolve principles, morals, and ethics which we use to govern and justify our actions.

Controlled enthusiasm gives us the drive to challenge these axioms while maintaining perspective. With each new piece of information we encounter, we test its consistency against our axioms and are forced to make judgement calls regarding their soundness. An example of such an axiom may be that the Earth is flat. While this may not be an axiomatic belief you and I share, there was once a time when this conclusion not only seemed consistent with all the available knowledge of the time, but also seemed to be the most logical result.

When we are overly enthusiastic, we are acting under a personal bias which doesn't necessarily follow from our axioms. We're doing something because we like it, because it enthuses us. It's similar to the phenomenon of eating chocolate cake because we enjoy it, even if we know doing so may be detremental to our heath. Such behaviour can cause our knowledge bases to become poluted; (in the form of the mutation or introduction of axioms). An enthusiastic politician may exagerate the severity of an issue and cause a law to pass containing problematic or damaging oversights.

That isn't to say enthusiasm is a bad thing. It is rather, a form of stochasticism which allows us to be unique individuals, resulting in the exploration of topics which interest us. However, like any scientific experiment, our goal when modifying our principle system should be to understand each modification to our system, as well as the implications that come with it. When too many changes occur at once, it becomes challenging to verify and reaffirm our existing axioms. As a result, I believe it perimount that one learn to control their enthusiasm and to seek a balance, as to maximize its benefits without jeopardizing one's (or others') principles.