Information overload, inversion, and redefining life

I’m going to state upfront that this is going to be a bit of an ADD post in that it’s likely to be a bit of a brain-explosion – all over the place and without any set structure or fixed moral at the end, so bear with me… [EDIT: It’s also a long one – around 2500 words. I’m not going to write a TL;DR. If you’d rather not read, the back button is a single click away.)


The Big Questions


I just had a chat with a friend of mine about the directions people tend to take in their lives and it really got me thinking, and thinking hard. I think it just resonated with me as I’m sort of entering what I’m semi-affectionately thinking of as my quarter-life crisis, and from the moment I wake up to the second I go to sleep, the question of “what do I actually do with my life?” is at the very forefront of my mind.

The obvious answer is that there is no answer – there is absolutely no fixed way of answering this, and the only answer that there can ever be is: it depends. Depends on what? Well… that depends.


Mental Models and Information Overload


Being the unashamed nerd that I am, I’m constantly reading all manner of material that enables me to view the world in a different way. One of the biggest realisations of the past couple of years has been the discovery of “mental models” (which you can read about here) and one of the models that’s been coming up a lot in my recent thinking is decision theory – specifically, cognitive information overload relating to what’s commonly known as “the paradox of choice” which leads to other very real problematic issues such as analysis paralysis.

Essentially, the argument goes: presented with an excess of choices, we opt either to do nothing, or we spend far longer making decisions than we actually need to. A study written at Columbia University demonstrated that people were far more likely to make a purchase of gourmet jam when there were 6 choices. When the choice of jams went up to 24 or 30, the number of purchases vastly tailed off, because people were presented by so many choices that ultimately they decided not to make a purchase at all. In short: information overload is a real problem.

We see this all the time in real-life situations. It’s a well-documented fact that people making dietary alterations in order to be healthier and lose weight do much better when they eat the same things over and over, and that’s because you don’t have to spend a long time agonising over the choices you’re going to make – you use a smaller percentage of this mental “decision budget” once, and then follow the pattern over and over again. This is why habits work – because the difficult part, making the choice, is already done. This is why people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) wear the same things every single day – so that they reduce the daily amount of decisions they have to make and thus conserve more willpower for their daily tasks – in this instance, running multibillion-dollar companies.


Practical application in real life


I’m trying to use this mental model to make more intelligent decisions and choices in my life – specifically, using the awareness that massive open-endedness is actually a terrible thing – to try to manufacture artificial limitations in my life within which I can work more effectively. This got me thinking: I can approach this both from the perspective of:

  • What do I want to do?


  • What do I not want to do?

This is another way of thinking that Charlie Munger (a big hero of mine when it comes to intelligent thinking) is very fond of using – his infamous phrase is the now well-known “invert, always invert”. The point here: take whatever question or strategy you’re facing, and approach it from the opposite angle. For instance, “what do I want to do in life?” is so open-ended that it’s essentially very difficult to give any sort of meaningful answer. You could just as easily answer “go to the beach” as “be a billionaire” and neither answer will actually help you in the slightest. A reasonably effective way of getting around this is to invert the question and instead of thinking “what do I want to do?”, re-position the question as “what do I not want to do?”

If we’re talking careers here (and I would highly suggest that you field this question within something more specific such as “careers” or “food”, as opposed to “life” which is too nebulous to be of any use), you might answer with hypothetical solutions such as:

  • I don’t want to be employed by somebody else; I want to work for myself
  • I don’t want to own an office, hire people etc – I’d rather keep it to a one-man (or -woman) operation
  • I don’t want to work in a manual capacity (i.e. building sites, gardening, etc)

Whilst these “don’t want” answers don’t actually give you real answers in and of themselves, what they can do is narrow the field sufficiently that you can then begin to come up with realistic answers within your newly-narrowed operating box. For instance, if you answered any of the above when thinking about a career, you instantly know that you won’t be applying for a job as you don’t want to work for other people, so the realistic route is entrepreneurship. Within that, you don’t want to own a business that requires physical exertion, so after thinking about it, you might well come to the conclusion that, say, web design would be a realistic choice.

Whilst I’m not going to give my own answers to these questions in this article (both for personal reasons and also due to the fact that I’m working through a lot of these still), I will give a couple of examples that this method of thinking has triggered in me.

Why it’s not compulsory to flip burgers if you don’t want to sight-read


A couple of months ago, there was a Facebook post doing the round, written by somebody with whom I am vaguely familiar. It was an article shared about how plenty of musicians still have to support themselves with part-time work, and the accompanying comment by this person on the share was essentially “don’t want a bar job? Well, maybe you should develop your skills and get your sight-reading together, then” (massively oversimplified, but that was the general gist).

My initial reaction seemed to be one of repulsion and I had to stop for a moment to analyse why – because ordinarily, I’m a big fan of acquiring and developing skills, and growing up as a musician, I certainly support the idea that the more you can do, the better and easier life generally is. (I’m not one of those people that thinks, for instance, that understanding music theory is a negative thing, and I’m generally of the opinion that idiots who decry its use and value are generally the people who are frantically making excuses to cover up the fact that quite frankly, they can’t be bothered). So why did I feel so annoyed?

I think it’s because of a few of the following reasons. Firstly, the writer seemed to think it was a binary choice between “being a [working] musician”, or “bar job” (also interchangeable further in the comments section with “flipping burgers”).

Why does this come up all the time? If you’re a musician, it’s never a binary choice between a) generic awful job and b) doing a sight-reading gig. The artificially-constructed implication here seemed to be “if you don’t want to learn to [for example] sight-read, then don’t bother being a musician and get a bar job instead”.

Absolute bullshit. If somebody is working on a career of original music, then it’s going to be a given that it’s immensely difficult and it’s very realistic that you’re probably going to need to support yourself in some way as you’re doing the work, whether at the beginning or not. My point here is: the person in question might absolutely feel that they want to reserve music purely for their creative efforts and may have absolutely no interest in generating that required side-income from function gigs or reading in theatre pit productions. For them, the whole joy of music may be in their original creations and they might be perfectly content to keep it separate to prevent any potential loss of enthusiasm from “going through the motions” musically in order to generate money. I know I’ve certainly lost a great deal of initial enthusiasm myself for playing music since I began viewing it as a “job” so I feel I’m speaking from experience here.

Essentially, I was annoyed that this person was projecting his or her own views on what people “should” be doing and seemed to be giving very little consideration to what the person in question may actually “want” to be doing. Furthermore, he wasn’t speaking of himself – he was essentially being evangelical about “this is what you should be doing” for other people, and it was far too much of a one-size-fits-all generalisation – and thus, of course, doesn’t work.

This, in fact, seems to be the biggest elephant in the room in terms of careers and life direction in general that I’ve ever come across, and I’m speaking from personal experience. I spent literally years feeling guilty because I wasn’t working on things that I thought I “should” be doing, versus stopping to be brutally honest in examining my own feelings on the matter. In fact, it wasn’t even that I thought I should be doing these things – it would be more accurate to say that I felt that I “should” be wanting to do those things when in fact I was deluding myself and ended up beating myself up mentally and feeling permanently guilty when I felt the cognitive dissonance of knowing, truly, at the back of my mind, that my interest in certain subjects was in fact minimal at best. In fact, I didn’t even realise for quite a long time that I was kidding myself – self-delusion is very powerful and it took me quite a long time to realise why I felt so permanently uneasy.


Monitor your thinking for subconscious influence


A large part of this has to do with your peer group – if all your friends are accountants and you’re the only musician, you may not realise it consciously, but you’ll be subtly influenced in several different ways in terms of the way you think – especially so if you’re following similar (but not identical) paths. (Of course, if you’re the only accountant in a sea of musicians, you may also feel equally uncomfortable.) In other words, if a large percentage of the people you see regularly are doing a certain thing, it’s very likely that you’ll be drawn to that too, regardless of whether you consciously realise it or not.

In my specific example, I realised – after several years – that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life teaching guitar or doing function work. (I’m speaking in a longer timeframe here – doing function work for the time being is exactly what’s enabling me to write this post from the Netherlands, having had the entire day free to do exactly as I please, and I’m also getting paid for it – but longer-term, I would consider myself a failure if I were doing similar things at the age of 40 because of my own rising standards. Nevertheless, I’m in a much better position now than I was, say, two years ago – but I don’t feel I have the luxury of sitting back on my laurels and relaxing. There’s too much to do.)


Being 26, copying people, and contacting heroes (Bonus: Not being dead)


Having also recently celebrated my 26th birthday, I’m becoming more and more aware of how I spend my time (as there’s less of it with each day that passes, as morbid as that sounds) and I’m giving some serious thought to the things that I feel I want to accomplish. At the moment, I’m obsessively reading about certain people whom I respect immensely, and I’m effectively mounting case studies on each of them. How did they get where they are? What are their habits and traits? How do they spend their days? What are the mistakes that each of them has made? What underlying principles can I derive from what they do?

What I’m essentially aiming to do is to deconstruct how they reached where they are so that I can “stand on the shoulders of giants” (in the words of the great Isaac Newton) and use that knowledge to accelerate myself along the various paths upon which I’m trying to travel. There is absolutely no need to try to work everything out myself from scratch when these existing frameworks already exist which I can use to leverage my own development.

If I want to become an accomplished polyglot (multilinguist), will I do better by taking well-meaning but essentially useless advice from people who only speak English, or will it be more productive to study people who have successfully learned 12+ languages and use their wisdom to accelerate my own?

If I’m studying people who have had a great deal of financial success, should I listen to the hints dropped by somebody who worries each month about paying the bills, or do I pay attention to the guy who retired comfortably in his early 20s?

You get the picture.

(A side note: why not contact the people who are where you aspire to be? Provided that you’re respectful of their time, it’s very often a very achievable option. I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to plenty of people who I respect immensely and they are living proof that it’s possible to accomplish things which I hold in very high regard. For instance, I met Benny Lewis (of Fluent in 3 Months) and he gave me some helpful language advice and was a genuinely wonderful person. I also recently this week contacted somebody who is very successful in their chosen field, and received a reply within 24 hours. As an exercise, why not try contacting somebody who’s already doing what you want to do? Of course, keep it brief and don’t waste their time.)


The crux of the matter: the two main questions


Essentially, it comes down to two things:

1) What is it that you want to do?

2) How can you then accomplish that?

I find the first question to be at least 85% of the struggle. Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, you’ll be genuinely excited about it and thus the “how” will be much less of an issue because you’re committed to doing that specific thing, and thus you’ll move heaven and earth to make it happen. The “what” is what I struggle with on a daily basis.

So, how to find the “what” ?

Narrow your choices. Invert. Be sure to actively think about it and don’t let the days slip passively away. Remember the old adage: failing to plan is planning to fail. Don’t just go along with what others are doing just for the sake of it – the chances are pretty fair they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Study examples of excellence, and model those in your own life to vastly accelerate your own plans. Use the 80/20 principle relentlessly to eliminate redundancy and clutter.

I am in no way preaching from a soapbox – I do not claim to be some sort of authority on any of the above. However, the above material is what helps me through the days when I’m severely struggling with any questions of identity or direction. It’s not perfect, but – of course – nothing is.

What helps you? How do you go about carving your own way through life? I’d love to hear about it. Drop a comment below and let’s get some discussion started.

  • Henry Hopkins

    A very interesting read Harry, and covers many areas (far more eloquently!) that I have been thinking about a lot lately!

    I would certainly agree that choice muddies the waters- I have so many things that I am interested in, and want to pursue, but none seem to take enough precedence over everything else so that it becomes my main focus.
    Teaching is a route I didn’t want to go down, and still don’t, but that has led me away from both my original degree route, and music, but music is still something I very much want to be in my life- it just becomes 10 times more difficult to encorporate alongside everything else when it isn’t no.1. Frustratingly, in recent times a degree/ masters route has come into existence that would be perfect for me! But at my age I don’t feel that I can realistically explore it from either a time perspective, and most certainly not a financial one!

    t think as I get older I also become more aware of where my peers are at- their achievements, whether personal or within their work, education, or getting married/ starting a family/ getting on the property ladder. I know what I do (or don’t want from that list), but I think I sometime struggle with the what fundamentally boils down, to have I done/ am I doing enough with my life, and does it mean anything. It is that sense of purpose that led me down the path of exploring career options within the RAF (data analysis- what I currently do, just in a different field)- but something that I felt could give me a greater sense of purpose.

    I believe I am coming to terms with what my priorities are in life, what I want to experience and achieve- and what that subsequently means for me work wise but the doubts (choices!) never quite subside fully.

    • Henry – I did see your reply but as I had (and have) limited time, I don’t feel that dashing off a couple of lines will do it justice. It was a very thought-provoking answer and I want to reply properly as I can absolutely identify with a LOT of the points you made. I promise I will try to answer this coming week if I can!