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What to optimize for in life?

by Henrik Karlsson1 min read6th Jun 202122 comments

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I listened to an interview with Patrick Collison were he claimed that when coding one should always optimize for speed - even when speed is not an issue. (Presumably because it leads to good coding practices, clean code, less build up of unnecessary functionality etc.)

Assuming that is correct - and I think there is something to it - it makes me wonder: is there something similar that one could optimize for in life? Life is such a multivariate thing that it can at times be hard to know what to prioritize.

What parameter is a candidate for having most positive side effects on your life when optimized?

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In my opinion, optionality is something worth optimising for. This would apply to any domain: optionality in health (i.e. maintaining a base level of fitness so you can jump into most activities, maintaining a healthy diet to stay in shape and improve longevity), social optionality (having a good amount of reliable and trustworthy friends), financial optionality (saving for, and eventually obtaining, financial freedom), skill and career optionality (learning a wide variety of hard and soft skills to enable transition into different roles). 

Basically, in absence of any clear direction, take the set of actions which opens more doors than it closes.

I completely disagree! Nothing has brought me more happiness in my life than committing to a particular wife (first with marriage and then with children), a particular career, etc. No longer having to assess other options has freed up so much energy for desired ends.

Sometimes, you have to burn your own ships so that your soldiers can't consider retreating.

3benno13dI agree with you, and I don't think our positions are in conflict. I think optionality is worth pursuing, but its ultimately only instrumental. You have to actually choose an option to get value from it. Optionality gives you more options to choose from, and hence a higher likelihood of selecting the best option. It's important to explore before you exploit. You will end up with a better spouse if you explore different potential partners instead of settling for the first who walks through the door. Same with your career.
1Daniel Morgan10dExcellent synthesis. Every virtue lies between two vices.

Maybe it is a little unpopular and a bit blunt, but I think one candidate for having the most positive side effects on your life when you do not have it already is money. If you prioritize money without overdoing it, then you can take time off and focus on all the different areas which were previously locked. You cannot afford a nice home? Just buy it now! You do not have good relationships, because you did not have the time or the abilities? Just take your time now or hire someone who helps you! You have bad health? Take a plane and get help from the best doctors in the world!

Of course, this only applies to a world in which money is a universal trading unit and where you can deal with the negative side effects (like people trying to be friends with you, solely to get some of the money; not knowing when to stop prioritizing money, because your life cannot get better with more; or supporting an exploitative system in general). But I think money is a straightforward goal for most situations to increase your happiness.

I think Patrick is giving bad advice.  Almost always optimize for readability and future updates, all other considerations are specific to need.  Idiomatic and efficient implementations are a a very good habit, but "optimize" implies making tradeoffs.  

Other aspects of life are similar - almost always optimize for the long-term, but the specifics of what that means is individual.

One possible answer is "maximize win-win trades with other people", explained a bit more in this comment.

"Premature optimization is the root of all evil." - Tony Hoare by way of Donald Knuth.

See also: https://m.xkcd.com/1691/

Aren't we keeping the search light a little bit to narrow here? Overgeneralizing a bit, I'm sensing most answers are seeking what to optimize for in life in the direction of individual effectiveness or something like that. Some other possible areas:

Quality of conversation. That would probably be a lot of fun, lead to a healthy marriage, good parenting, a focus on developing skills that give you access to interesting people, a good network, probably an above avarage pay.

The wellbeing of your community. That is a known predictor for life-satisfaction, which is one reason why active Christians tend to outperform atheists (like me) in happiness surveys. It would also lead to more win-win-transactions, and other possible good things to optimize in life.

These are not necessarily my answers - I don't have one right now - but I feel they point in another, possibly fruitful direction.

Slightly different than optionality, optimize for Pareto improvements. The more you can achieve efficiency across the entire frontier the better off you'll be and the less you'll be forced to make tradeoffs along that frontier because you keep expanding it.

I'm not following why a larger Pareto frontier would mean fewer tradeoffs on the frontier, could you elaborate on that?

The state of flow seems like a promising one. Lots of good things follow from it.

Life Satisfaction. Some people name this "tranquility" and I think the name is very common in the "minimalism" community (because they try to optimize tranquility as far as I can tell). Life Satisfaction is very complex. It's not "maximize amount of friends" or "maximize amount of money" but instead requires constant introspection & skills related to introspection.

Ataraxia and Aponia.

If the eudaimonic state is unavailable, or likely to become unavailable in the future, determine what obstacles exist to achieving it, and conquer that obstacle, maintain a eudaimonic state while doing so if possible.

Thanks go to: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus

It has been fun so far

Aponia sounds like the state of wanting a pony, but not having one.

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I've heard that interview but I'm having some issues finding it back. Would you mind sharing a link to the Patrick Collison interview?

I didn't put a link in because I wasn't sure. My best guess is this one.

Did a quick search on the episode transcript and couldn't find it.

I'll probably re-listen it though! That said, would you be able to confirm this is the episode by quickly taking a look at the conversation transcript? I'd love to dig deeper if that's not the episode!

I tried searching too, but couldn't find it. I can't remember his wording exactly. I do have that episode downloaded to my mp3-player though, so it seems likely. If I haven't hallucinated it all.

Patrick Collins might not think that is the only thing to optimize for - just one that is underrated.

I assume he meant it as a heuristic. It's hard to weigh hundreds of variables at once, but when you optimize for speed, good things follow from that.