October 20, 2008

Those Five Days Matter More Than Anything, Except The Other Days

Guys, remember that time when you were 24 and you were on the subway, and you saw that girl  with the glasses reading a book wearing a black leather coat, and you were obsessing over whether to go up to her or not but then your stop came, and you were like, screw it, she'll probably mace me, so you got off and went to the library to study for your chem exam?

You chose wrong.

In the Atlantic appears First Person Plural, an article about the growing evidence that identity is more complex than a simple collection of traits and beliefs.

The view I'm interested in... accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control--bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.
Examples from the article include the hidden zero effect, in which choices are made differently depending on how far in the future are the payoffs.  We can't imagine well who we will be in that future, so we choose what is better for the person in the now.

Personality also changes according to situation; even the most thuggish teenager is not the same around his buddies as he is when having tea with Grandma.... In the 1920s, Yale psychologists tested more than 10,000 children, giving them a battery of aptitude tests and putting them in morally dicey situations, such as having an opportunity to cheat on a test. They found a striking lack of consistency. A child's propensity to cheat at sports, for instance, had little to do with whether he or she would lie to a teacher.

With rare exception (of personality structure), who we are has a lot to do with what's going on at that moment.  Hence the Nausea-- the feeling when you understand that there is no "you"-- at any moment you can decide to do or be anything.  You didn't murder that guy because you're not a murderer.  You didn't murder him because, well, it didn't come up.


Yet there are an abundance of studies showing character traits are inherited; that behaviors are often predictable; and our own daily experience that there is at least a common thread to our identity.  What of that?

Bad faith.  It appears there's a commonality because, simply, we are not tested.  But, more accurately, one is never tested; only parts of his identity are tested at a time.  That's why the loving family man who then becomes a Nazi is still a loving family man-- that part was never strained.  He is a good person and a bad person.  Multiple selves.

The question is not whether traits are heritable-- they are-- the question is what self you are going to let dominate.


Here's an example, from Barron's:

But such gloomy sentiments aren't a reason to get out of the stock market... Consider that $1 invested in stocks from February 1966 through May 2007 would have grown to $16.58 in that period. That's a 7% annual return.
Awesome, and by awesome I mean what a complete waste of one's life.

Somehow people demote investment income over any other kind of income.  It's important to go to work every day, or clip a coupon, but it is nigh impossible to people to open a Roth.  The money, I guess, doesn't seem real. 

That's money; but if I grabbed the average teenager and told him his life and happiness would grow at 7% a year, he'd probably kill himself.  7% to the young is basically telling them not to even bother.  To be young means you still have hope, that your energy and talents will eventually payoff, in a big way.  The difference between a mature adolescent and an immature adolescent is not their expectation of massive success-- they both think they're going to rule the world-- but how they see it happening.  Mature kids see a steady climb to awesomeness; immature kids see it happening one day, all at once, at some arbitrary point in the future.  I know this because I see them in Starbucks, laptops open, staring out the window.  I was one of those kids, too.

7% a year financial growth isn't good, it's a pacifier, a hoax (it serves, therefore, the same social function as psychiatry.)  Furthermore, it can be wiped out in one week.  If you bought and held over the past ten years, you made nothing.  It was all a waste.  Don't believe me? Go ask a retiree.

And you shouldn't accept 7% growth in your life, either.  Every day must be a struggle for self-improvement in the service of improvement of the world.

Well, it turns out it is much worse than all that.  Barron's again:

By contrast, investors who were out of the market in the five best days each year during that span were left with only 11 cents.
The implications for money management are obvious, but for life they're nauseating:  if you take out the five most significant days of each year, then you are basically a completely different person.  By money analogy, taking out those five best days made you massively worse off.  You would have been better off not even going through the year.  Studying for the chem exam always seems like a good idea, but there's an opportunity cost.  And you have to measure that opportunity in real time, because in retrospect it will be too late.

The old generally think themselves exempt from this, but they are not; a day can alter their entire existence and legacy.  November 4 will change how we remember John McCain forever.  Nothing beside remains.

Who you are is a product of your experience, and also a product of the experiences you did not have.  You didn't talk to that girl, now that's part of you-- you are the guy who was too scared/angry/self-absorbed/whatever to talk to her, and that is an entirely different guy then the guy who does talk to her and it works; and an entirely different guy from the one who gets maced.  That was one of the most important days of your life, and you didn't even know it.  Which brings me to the real point: every day is the most important day of your life, and you don't even know it.

there are worse things than
being Alone
but it often takes decades
to realize this
and most often
when you do
it's too late
and there's nothing worse
too late.
-- Charles Bukowski