Hard Choices

Imagine you were about to embark on some endeavor, but before you put in your first iota of work, you were magically granted a choice between two scenarios:

  1. A 90% chance of success, but if you fail you’ll be pretty miserable and it could hurt your ability to learn from the failure or be motivated to try again. Or–
  2. A 75% chance of success, but whether you succeed or fail you’ll be happy.

The reason I’m thinking about this particular choice is that I’ve come up against two philosophical concepts, both of which seem sound to me, but are in conflict with one another. I want to either reconcile the two or, failing that, decide on which I think is more helpful.

Concept #1 is a concept rooted in Stocism, which generally tracks pretty well to my normal operating procedures. The concept is that no matter what you try to accomplish, you should try your absolute best – but even in doing so, at least some percentage of the outcome is up to fate. Doing everything right increases your chances for success, but doesn’t guarantee it. So knowing that, you should be okay with the idea of failing because if it’s external to your control then worrying about it is a path of stress and madness. In this way, you can keep your focus 100% on what you can control, which is a more beneficial use of that attention. You take the right actions, and let the outcomes take care of themselves.

Concept #2 is a psychological concept that says once we mentally have a Plan B, we decrease our chances of succeeding at Plan A. For example, if you say “I really want to get all my laundry done today, but if that doesn’t happen, I at least want to get one load washed,” then you’re very likely to only get one load washed. Once the easier path to Outcome B presents itself, you’ll take that path. So a way to stay motivated is to remove any options but success for yourself. This may give you the best chance at success, but you’ve also taken away your safety net – both emotionally and very likely physically as well.

So therein lies the conflict. Pushing yourself so hard that you “burn the boats” may increase your chances of success, but they also dramatically increase the mental penalty for failure. (Sometimes the physical penalty as well, but ultimately this is a post about the mental state associated with this choice.) Whereas allowing yourself to be emotionally okay with failure is definitely healthier if you fail, but also increases the chance of that failure occurring in the first place.

There’s almost certainly a mathematical solution, but I don’t have tight enough data on the variables. If I knew exactly the difference in percentage chance of success between the two mental states, and could quantify exactly the increased mental harm from failure in the difference, and could exactly measure the increased benefits gained from X% more successes over my lifetime… well, if I could do all that I wouldn’t be a mortal man.

So instead, I seek a philosophical solution. On the surface, the question seems almost trivially simple to me: Which is better – to be more successful but less happy overall, or happy no matter what with a little less success? If that were really the question, it seems like anyone with two brain cells to rub together would pick being happy. What good is success if you’re not happy with it – and what use is the marginal extra success if you’re happy no matter what?

But I don’t think the question is that simple. For one, I have children. Children I care about deeply and to whom I want to bequeath a legacy of success. I want them to be set up for every advantage that it’s within my power to grant. I would sacrifice a large degree of my own happiness, present and future, to secure more for them – and as a parent, I’ve already done so plenty! So in one way, choosing a mental state that gives me more happiness overall but less overall success is like trading away their future happiness for my own present happiness.

Then, I think about whether or not any advantages I grant my children will make them happier in the long run – it may make them more successful, but if success doesn’t translate into happiness, then what benefit am I really granting them? Am I sacrificing present happiness for… no one’s happiness, mine or theirs?

But then, I start to question whether success doesn’t really translate into happiness. I know that people with yachts aren’t necessarily happier than people with holes in their shoes. I’ve never been made happier by material things like that. But I am much, much happier when I have less to stress about, and success certainly removes a lot of stressors. I can worry about my children’s future happiness all I want, but today I have to feed them.

And then, another thought pops into my head. About my parents. You see, my own children are too young yet for this to be a realistic question for their consideration, but it’s a valuable question none the less: How much does my happiness increase the happiness of my children?

If my parents gave me a million dollars, it would definitely change things for me. But if doing so caused them to be miserable, I’d hate it. I’d give the million right back if it made them happy again. So assuming my children ultimately grow to feel about me the way I feel about my own parents, then they’d value me being happier over me being more successful, even if that means they themselves have less.

But then, the other voice argues: it’s selfish of me to claim to want to be happier because it will ultimately make my children happier, when you certainly don’t know that’s the case. And besides, one of the values you want to instill in your children is always to work hard, strive, push–

–am I telling them to sacrifice happiness for success?

This is a departure from my normal posts. I don’t have an answer, or even a theory. This might be a question I work through for years. It might be a central theme of my entire relationship with my children. I don’t always know what’s best. But I’m always trying to figure it out, I promise.

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