You Are an Incomplete Story

Growing up, I never much liked fiction. It was probably because I knew on some level that, if I thought about it a little too hard, it would break down.

In the real universe, you can ask a question like “why is the sky blue?” and find out the answer yourself. You can speculate from the existence of sunsets and rainbows and prisms the concept of white light refracting when it bounces off of things, and do experiments to confirm your hypotheses. If you keep on asking questions, you’ll find out about the – consistent and universal – laws of reality. And if you ask a question that no human knows the answer to, that doesn’t mean you can’t find out the truth.

In a story, this isn’t true, because at a fundamental level, stories are created by taking human-level understandings of reality and modifying them in a way that makes no sense when considering the underlying universal laws. The real universe is modeled by quarks. Stories are modeled by plots.

I’ve grown to appreciate stories more over time. Although they cannot produce the sense of wonder that I get from reality, they still have valuable training data. The best, most helpful advice I’ve ever had the privilege to give comes dually from two sources: my study of rationality, and my reading of good stories.

But stories still have a major pitfall that’s applicable even to those who don’t derive your sense of wonder from the perfectly unified laws of physics.

A story, by its nature, has to be completed at a satisfying end-point. Once its plot has been resolved and its tension released, the book comes to a close. Sometimes this comes at the end of the main character’s life – and so maps conveniently to a human life’s natural close – but this is almost always not the case. The main character, and the other characters as well, typically have futures that are assumed to continue after the last page. We just don’t read about them.

And we wouldn’t want to. As much as we love to see happily-ever-afters, reading chapter after chapter of our main character’s boring daily life after all the plot has been resolved would be dull. Even fluffy fan-fictions have an end. They don’t depict the complete, uninterrupted stream of a character’s life.

Let’s contrast this with real life. There is no-one chronicling every aspect of our existence, even for a short period when it’s most interesting. Six months of training can’t be skipped over with some motivational music and a montage: you have to literally get up and study or go to the gym every single bloody day for six actual months. And our stories don’t end, not unless we die.

If someone ever writes a book about us, they’re going to have to cut out some pieces and skip over others to fit it into a compelling narrative. And despite this, it’ll still be difficult, because real human lives are messy in a way that good story plots never are. Human lives are chock-full of Chekov’s guns that never fire, plot threads that are never resolved, and a constant stream of experiences that only properly ends at death.

It’s natural to think about your current self as at end of your story. After all, it’s the end of your experiences thus far, and if your life is a story, you are at the end of it, right now and always. But you have a future that you haven’t experienced yet, where events you haven’t predicted will happen and plot threads you haven’t imagined will start. Most of the things you’ve experienced so far will be completely irrelevant, maybe totally forgotten, in twenty years. That would make no sense in a story, but it happens all the time in real life.

So this is your reminder that you’re not defined by anything you’ve done so far, and that anything you don’t like about who you are right now can be changed. Your character has so much more room to develop.

This is also your reminder that your life is not comprised of the highlights that will be picked out in your possible future biography. It’s comprised of your day, whatever your day is – get up, go to work, come home, go to sleep – over and over forever. If you don’t like your day, that might sound terrible, but the only way to make it better is to improve the little things you do every day, and be a little happier in every moment, instead of waiting for some massive plot twist or new character introduction to fix everything.

I suppose I could say that your life is an incomplete story, and it always will be. You can think about it that way, if you like. It’s mostly correct if you think about a story that never ends. Still, it’s more accurate to say that your life is not a story at all. Comparing the two is, somewhat literally, comparing the output of a human brain to the contents of the universe. Your life is a life, which can be molded into a story only if you cut a lot of it out.

Ditch Pros and Cons: Use a Utility Function

If you’ve ever met me in person, you know I talk a lot about utility. My close friends are used to answering questions like “does this have net positive utility to you?” and “is that a strongly weighted component of your utility function?”. Every time I make a decision – what to do with my evening, or what to do with my life – I think about it in terms of utility.

I didn’t always do this, but I’ve adopted this way of thinking because it forces me to clarify everything that’s going on in my head and weight all my thoughts appropriately before making a decision. When I decide things this way, I genuinely feel like I’ve made the best possible choice I could, given everything I knew at the time.

What on earth is utility?

Utility is just a fancy word for “value”. If you enjoy chocolate ice cream, then eating chocolate ice cream has positive utility. If you don’t enjoy vanilla ice cream, then eating vanilla ice cream has negative utility.

One action can have multiple kinds of utility. You can add together all the utility types to get the action’s net utility. For example, if I assign positive utility to eating ice cream but a negative utility to gaining weight, there will be a certain optimal point where I eat as much ice cream as I can without gaining weight. Maybe, if I assign eating ice cream +5 utility, not gaining weight +5 utility, and exercising -5 utility, then it would make sense for me to hit the gym more often so that I can eat more ice cream without gaining weight.

Having numbers that are consistent is helpful sometimes, but isn’t strictly necessary. When I need to make quick, relatively straightforward decisions, I typically just make up some utility numbers. This is still useful, though, because utility calculations in a small isolated system are basically matters of ratios. It doesn’t matter exactly how much utility I assign to something, but if X has 5 more utility points than Y, X is preferable.

Forcing yourself to make up numbers and compare them to each other reveals what you care about. If you initially thought you didn’t care much about something, but then realize that if you calculated net utility with a low number assigned to that thing, you’d be unsatisfied with the result, then you care more than you thought you did.

It might be somewhat unclear, with my super-simple examples so far, what you can assign utility to. So, here are some examples of things that I assign positive utility to:

  • Reading good books
  • Doing new things
  • Increasing utility according to the utility functions of people I care about
  • Building neat software
  • Drawing with markers
  • Writing stories and blog posts
  • Improving/maintaining my mental and physical health
  • Having interesting conversations
  • Improving the quality of life of all sentient beings
  • Running
  • Riding my bike
  • Taking walks with my fiance
  • Figure skating
  • Eating ice cream

If you enjoy doing it, if you think you should do it, if it makes you happy, if it’s a goal you have for some reason, or anything else like that, you assign it some amount of positive utility. You can even assign positive utility to things you don’t end up doing. That’s because the net utility, after accounting for circumstances or mutually exclusive alternate actions. Knowing that you would do something, barring XYZ condition, is a useful thing to know in order to dissect your own thoughts, feelings, goals, and motivations. The converse is true, too: you can assign negative utility to things you end up doing anyway, because the net utility is (perhaps barely) positive.

So if that’s utility, what’s a utility function?

A utility function is a comprehensive set of everything that you assign any utility to – aka, that you care about in any way. The inputs are quantities of certain events, each of which are multiplied by their respectively-assigned utility value and then added together to get the total expected utility of a given course of action.

Say I’m with my sister and we’re going to get food. I personally assign a strong net positive to getting burgers and a weak net negative for anything else. I also assign a positive utility to making my sister happy, regardless of where we go for food. If she has a strong net negative for getting burgers, and a weak net positive for sushi, I can evaluate that situation in my utility function and decide that my desire to make her happy overpowers the weak negative I have for anything besides burgers, so we go get sushi.

When evaluating more complex situations (such as moving to a job across the country, where positives include career advancement and increased income, and negatives include having to leave your home and make new friends), modeling your own utility function is an excellent way to parse out all the feelings that come from a choice like that. It’s better than a simple list of pros and cons because you have (numeric, if you like) weights for all the relevant actions.

How to use your utility function

I don’t keep my entire utility function in my head at one time. I’ve never even written it down. But I make sure I understand large swaths of it, compartmentalized to situations I often find myself in. However, if you decide to actually write down your utility values, make them all consistent, and actually calculate utility when you make decisions, there’s nothing stopping you.

In terms of the optimal way to think about utility calculations, I have one piece of advice. If you come out of a utility calculation thinking “gotcha, I can do this”, “alright, this seems reasonable”, or even “ugh, okay, I don’t like it but this is the best option”, then that’s good. That’s the utility function doing its job. But, if you come out of one thinking “hmmm… I guess, but what about XYZ contingency? I really don’t want to do ABC…”, or otherwise lingering on the point of decision, then you’ve forgotten something.

Go back and ask “what’s wrong with the ‘optimal’ outcome?”. It might be something you don’t want to admit to yourself, but you don’t gain anything by having an inaccurate perception of your own utility function. Remember that “I don’t wanna” is a perfectly valid justification for assigning negative utility to an action. In order for this process to work, you need to parse out your desires/feelings/goals from your actions, without beating yourself up for it. Your utility function already is what it is, owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.

Once you have a pretty good handle on your own utility function, you can go ahead and mentally model other peoples’. Humans are calculating utility all the time in the form of preferences and vague intuitions, so even if other people don’t know their utility functions, you can learn them by a combination of watching their actions and listening to their words. (The discrepancy between those two, by the way, is indicative of the person choosing an action with suboptimal utility. You can point out this discrepancy politely, and perhaps help them to make a better decision.)
You might be surprised at how much easier it is to make group decisions once you know how everybody’s utility calculations will go.