Complicated itineraries

4 August 2014
4 Aug 2014
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

Life. is. complicated.

It’s complicated for two main reasons: One, there’s way too many unknowns. It’s like trying to solve a math equation, when the equation itself is only half written. Too often we find ourselves having to make decisions without knowing much about what it entails. It’s lucky if we can imagine all the different things in life that are affected by our decisions, let alone comprehend what future each decision leads to in life. Two, none of us are separate from the rest of the world. Specifically, the connections that we make every single day in our lives are too complex at best and utterly incomprehensible at worst. And yet, here we are, stuck in this complicated mess of life. So what do we make of it, exactly?

Let’s start with the first one. There’s simply no way to know everything for certain – even if you’re a hypothetical demon who lives outside of time. Without getting too technical, science – specifically quantum mechanics – ensures that the future is perfectly impossible to predict*. In fact, some theories will tell you that the past is equally impossible to make certain.** But all physics aside, it’s obvious to everyone that there’s just too many variables to find in order to attempt to make the perfect decision every day. And this naturally leads to imperfect decisions. But the cool thing about humans is that we can learn from imperfect decisions, and make better imperfect decisions next time. And along the way, it also helps that not all imperfect decisions lead to disastrous endings. In fact, most of them just don’t matter in the long run.

The point is: in the large majority of cases, it’s not about how optimal your decision was, because it probably won’t matter that you could have bought a phone for $20 less or your elective class didn’t turn out to be what you expected; it’s about what you make of that imperfection: you still got a hopefully useful phone, and you can hopefully still do well in the class.

Now moving on to our connections. The problem with connections isn’t that you meet and interact with millions of people in your life; it’s that those millions of people again connect with millions of people each. And those trillions of people have their own share of connections. This only gets worse as interaction becomes easier via the web. It’s not just about who you talked to at Starbucks today or whose shoe you accidentally stepped on in the subway, it’s also about how you tweeted out that random blog you read this morning about baking cookies, and how you liked a birthday wish yesterday from a friend. So you end up having connections of some kind to unimaginable scales of groups of people, many of whom you will talk to (or text, or Snapchat, or tweet at. You know what I mean). Too often, trying to organize and make sense of our connections are fruitless because we have too many of them, and the people we know also know each other. So I would like to make an argument here as well that it’s not about who you talk to or how much you interact. The value of interactions comes from what you gain from the interactions and connections.

Life is complicated. It’s full of unknowns and overflowing with incomprehensible interactions. But it turns out, it’s not really like that half-written math equation, because we don’t have to solve the complexity of life. And frankly, we can’t. We just need to understand that it’s quite complicated, and enjoy the ride. The life’s itinerary isn’t for us to perfectly craft. As long as we find value in following what comes our way, in the long run, it’s probably not going to be as big as it seems.

* Impossible to predict, that is, except for in the most basic, cop-out sense like “the sun will rise tomorrow”.

** In this way: So you think you drank that glass of water this morning? You probably did, but there’s a slight chance your memory’s just messed up and it actually didn’t happen. For the physics nerds out there, this conclusion stems from a time-symmetric interpretation of QM such as Everett’s Many-Worlds view, and therefore does not hold in time-asymmetric, traditional Copenhagen perspective.

Connections and walls

Meaning, not definition

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