Should one be sad when an opportunity is lost?

by diegocaleiro 1 min read11th Mar 201416 comments


There are many ways to tackle this question, but I mean this in a homo economicus, not biased perspective. If we were great optimizers of some things (experiences, states of the world, utility in the emotional sense), should we be sad upon hearing we lost an opportunity?

The intuitive answer, to me, is yes. But for many things, for most things I have begun to believe otherwise. This is because we combine two distinct meanings of opportunity

Opportunity1 = Something good in the future that is uncertain at the moment and could happen to you, frequently depending on environmental factors outside of your control and some factors within your control in the time between now and the opportunity taking place. Ex: 


  • Getting a promotion
  • Finding a romantic partner
  • Having a really good friendship
  • Having a large H index (for scientific publications)




Opportunity2 = Something good in the future that is uncertain at the moment and could happen to you, but all the actions you could have personally taken that could influence this are in the past, and now only time and chance will determine if it will be the case. Ex:


  • Being approved at Google after the entire interview process has happened
  • Being accepted at Harvard
  • Avoiding wine in your clothing after it has been dropped
  • Being accepted to work with CEA after filling in the entire application. 


I think it is very reasonable to be sad when you lose opportunites1 but completely pointless to be sad over the loss of the second kind, opporunities2. It feels obvious to me, but in case it isn't I'll try to make it explicit:

When you lose opportunities1, you change the course of your future actions, each of your actions, your time and your effort has become less valuable, since you have to do more to get the same odds or even less. 

When you lose opportunities2 you are only being notified of an indexical property, you learn in which of the possible universes you could be you happen to be. You have gained knowledge, you can tailor your future actions regarding other things accordingly. Nothing has become pricier for your efforts, in fact, now you have a better map, and can navigate with ease. 

So let us be neutral or happy with the loss of oportunities2, and gain strenght from the loss of opportunities1. It seems right to allocate emotional and psychological resources to things you can act on, when you are not in flow. Otherwise, you may end up in the hardest death spiral to overcome, learned helplessness.

For political reasons related to my prospective adviser's academic history, all applicants who wanted to study with him didn't make it to Berkeley University.  But hey, I didn't care... That just means I'm in the fun universe in which I actually have to do all the crazy stuff like moving into the unknown, that is a universe of adventure right?

Loss aversion be damned!