Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thought Experiments

Nicoleandmaggie had a post this week about how silly the advice to live every day like it was your last is. I agree- I don't find that particularly useful advice, even for provoking thought.

As I mentioned in their comments, though, there are some "thought experiment" type questions that I do find useful, albeit more as sources of information about my true preferences than as guides to how I should actually live my life.

One such question is the popular "would you keep doing your job if you didn't need the money?" There have been times in my career when I would have answered "yes" to that, but now is not one of those times. This is interesting information, but it doesn't mean that I should quit my job, or even that I should try to find a new job. Right now, the work that I think I'd be doing if I didn't need money is researching and writing non-fiction books that examine interesting questions using a variety of approaches- similar to what Michael Pollan does in The Botany of Desire, but probably quirkier and far less commercially viable.

So yeah, I'm not going to toss my current career overboard for that. But maybe I could think about why the idea of writing that sort of book appeals to me, and see what that tells me about how I should be spending my life.

I recently came across another useful thought experiment question in Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (Yes, I will probably write a post about my reaction to this book and my reaction to some of the other reactions to it... but not until I finish the book. Spoiler alert: I'm really liking the book so far.)

A fear I won't be conquering
The question is from one of those hokey motivational-type posters, which are apparently plastered on the walls at Facebook- which, given the fact that people apparently like posting hokey motivational quotes on their Facebook walls is probably cosmically appropriate. It is: "what would you do if you weren't afraid?" One of the passages I've highlighted in the book is Sandberg's own answer to this:

"Writing this book is not just me encouraging others to lean in. This is me leaning in. Writing this book is what I would do if I weren't afraid."

While I was out for my lunchtime walk yesterday, I realized that I know the answer to that question I want to be a "maker" even if that means exposing myself to the nastiness of the "haters" in this world. My answer to that hokey Facebook question showed me that I still have some fears holding me back. Having that information is quite powerful. Now I just have to decide what to do with it.
for me right now, and that was very, very interesting. I am not ready to blog about it, because I haven't decided if I'll act on it. After all, sometimes our fears are quite rational and deserve to be respected. In some ways, I have already started to stare down some of my fears, in that I've decided

Do you have any favorite thought experiment questions? Share them in the comments.


  1. I don't like the "live every day like its your last" either but I do use a variation on that "if this was your last day, what would you want to have accomplished or done?"

    Also, from my Lululemon bag (I think): "Do one thing that scares you every day." Honestly, "every day" is a little excessive. But the sentiment of trying on new challenges on purpose, I do like that part. I'm doing something like that soon and as much as I'm hating myself for agreeing to do it, I know that in the grander scheme of things, I will not like myself very much if I kept chickening out.

    1. I agree, being scared every day is probably a bit much.

      I think Dove chocolate wrappers are another good source of hokey thought experiment questions/sayings. I may have to buy a bag to check that out....

    2. Alexicographer6:13 AM

      There's also some beverage firm or other, isn't there? Snapple? In the interest of science, I think you should buy some Godiva/Lindt/Ghiardelli chocolates together with the Dove chocolates so you have a control ;) .

    3. Well, I take two squares from a Godiva dark chocolate bar for my dessert after lunch every day....

  2. The only thing I can say on the plus side of the brutally hard times I faced in my late teens and early twenties is that they taught me early the lesson of conquering fear - or rather, living with fear, with an emphasis on the *living*. It was helpful to learn the lesson young, I think, at least for me. (Although I don't think that's the lesson "life" taught me, that's the lesson I made out of the events that happened. Sorting through it all helped me learn how to create meaning for myself at a relatively young age.) For me, conquering fears is less about pushing myself to the limits physically, but rather psychologically, because those are the places where fear limits us. Like, I'm afraid of roller coasters, but that's not a fear I feel like I need to conquer because I don't care. It'll never be on my bucket list. But fear of flying is a different animal, because if I can't fly, that limits my life in ways I find unacceptable.

    I love Sandberg's answer to the leaning in/fear question. It makes me respect her even more. Team Sandberg!

    I would definitely keep doing my job if I didn't need the money. If I had lots of money, I might buy myself out of some teaching, though. I'm especially loving my work right now, as I start a new project.

    1. You should read the book- even though the research she quotes is not new to me, I am really enjoying the personal stories, and yes, they are making me respect her more.

    2. Amen, after I finished her book, Sandberg had even more of my respect. She really put herself out there in a vulnerable way - i.e. the story of what happened when she took her kids on a business flight - whoa, so brave for sharing anecdotes like that.

  3. I tend to do cost/benefit analysis on everything - which I guess is true for the work question also. Are you getting something out of it that makes the negatives worth it? Only reason I stuck it out through grad school, I kept telling myself I had already paid the cost in time and tears I was NOT leaving before I got the benefit...

    Slightly off-topic, I saw this in HuffPo yesterday about working/stay-at-home moms and who would make a different choice if given the option, and I just couldn't stop thinking that more than half the population (male/female, kids/no kids) would choose to quit work if given the option but if a mom says it then she has to be a representative for work/life balance and "having it all."

    1. Anonymous9:39 AM

      You had me at cost-benefit analysis. :D

      (Though with the grad school decision, I hope you considered sunk costs!)

    2. Huh, just went and read the HuffPo piece. You are right, they needed a control group of non-mothers!

    3. Although I wouldn't be surprised if even with a control group they found that WOHM wanted to quit more than men who worked out of the house, if only because women who work out of the house still do most of the child care and home care, and it can drive some women to the brink. It's not about "balance" but desperation - which is also what makes me angry about pieces like that. Yet again the false idea of "choice".

  4. Your children's book is definitely something that meets your goal of being a "maker"!

    1. Indeed! And I have more projects in the pipeline. The first one out will be my productivity eBook. The publication date on that slipped to May. On the bright side of that, it gives me time to add a bit more to it, which I'm working on now. Or more accurately, which is on my to do list to work on soon.

  5. What it more thought-provoking for me is to live in the Now.

    Every day can't be my last. I can't just jump out of an airplane, or do wild crazy things all the time. It costs money, and I plan to live until 90, at the very least.

    The interesting thing for me to think about, is how to live my life in the Now and the fullest extent of it.

    Rather than spending time with people I don't like just to be polite, or going to events I'd rather avoid.. I just do what I want within reason.

    I say "No" if something is going to be boring for me. That's the hardest.

  6. Anonymous1:58 PM

    It is eerie how the twitter conversation you're having with AskMoxie is mirroring the conversation I just had with a coworker about an hour ago... a coworker with whom I am working on a project about gender discrimination! I also pointed out that the primers we're working from are about 10 years old and it seems like a pretty painless way to get those mental stats updated. Our RA asked if she could get paid to read the book. :)

    1. I'm fine with people not reading the book if they don't think its relevant to them, but I just do not get how angry it seems to have made people.

      As you say, if it gets people "updated" on the research, then it has done us all a huge favor. I also thought she had some good practical pointers for women like me (granted- women like me=a small percentage of women in the workforce). I wish, for instance, that I had read it before I had the unfortunate "falling off the thin line between being too assertive and not assertive enough" incident. I might have responded better and recovered more gracefully.

      I'll probably write a real post on it soon.

    2. Anonymous2:59 PM

      Agreed. And it does make me upset that she gets this kind of pushback just for being successful (particularly from people who haven't read the book), whereas if she were CEO Sam Sandberg giving advice to men who want to get ahead, she'd be heralded. Maybe more men secretly think they could be CEOs of major companies. That's not what I said to my coworker though. I just said that most of the things she was repeating to me from articles were from people who hadn't actually read the book but were writing based on what they thought the book was about before they got a copy, and that people who had read the book said those issues were not a problem (true).

      Now, I have not read the book, so I still have to be agnostic! But I can spot an unfair characterization based on no evidence and can keep an open mind. (I'll get to it this summer... we're in the crazy part of the semester.)

      One of these weeks we'll put up a post of all those 10+ year old primers that we recommend. There's a lot of good literature on this topic, even if the stats are a little out of date. But the long-term picture is also important.

  7. the milliner8:01 PM

    On the "live every day like it's your last" school of thought, agreed that taken literally, it doesn't make much sense.

    But I have to admit that living and sharing your life with someone who has in fact lived what came very close to being his last day (he actually died for a few minutes before the transplant took effect...white tunnel and all), well, it changes your perspective a bit.

    He has gained a lot of insight, undoubtedly, from going through and living with this. But I've gained a lot of insight as well. As someone who was typically always thinking of the future, he's shown me, by example, how to live in the moment more frequently. Sometimes I'm successful. Sometimes not.

    Though we generally live our lives day to day like he'll be around forever, the more likely situation is that he'll go too early. With this in the back of my brain, I find it's really important to me that we don't let too much time go by before righting wrongs, that we find time daily to connect, that he spends time daily with our son. I just feel like we don't know how long we'll have together, and I want to make sure that these things (along with a few other things) which are truly priorities take priority in our lives.

    Of course, these things can be, and are, priorities in the lives of people who do not have particular medical circumstances. But I feel like having been close to the other side (both with the transplant and other medical anomalies that have popped up over the years), the sentiment of 'living everyday like it's your last' especially rings true.

    Having the constant reminder (often a distant lurking in the brain, some times or some years a more persistent thought in the forefront) that the end could happen at any time, well, it makes it a bit easier and more compelling to keep your priorities (which can include work if that's part of the mix) at the forefront, and to make sure that the things that are truly priorities for you make it into at least part of your day, every day.

    I find this whole question is a bit similar to telling non parents or people about to be parents to sleep and to enjoy their free time. It's hard to understand until you've been sleep deprived for months or years and you don't even have even 5 minutes to take a shower. You understand it intellectually before you live it. But once you live it, you have a different perspective.

    Anyhow, just another view on the whole "live like it's your last day" thought.

    1. the milliner8:06 PM

      Oh, and FWIW, for his last meal, before his transplant, he, gourmet guy who loves food, really wanted a Big Mac from MacDonald's.

      I think I read somewhere once that people tend to want the comforts of home (people, humble food rather than extravagant, etc.) in their last days/hours, more than extravagant things. I'm sure there are exceptions. But if that is the case, it's kind of interesting.

    2. This is a great comment. Thank you for sharing your perspective.


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