Friday, January 08, 2010

Survivor Bias

One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is that it's actually very difficult to talk about my life in a meaningful way. I don't mean that I have nothing to say. I mean that it's hard to choose what to say, and hard to know if the choices I make are really meaningful and honest.

The problem is that I tend to think about my life up to the present moment as narratives, and I tend to think about the future as if it were a continuation of that narrative--as if the two were connected. But really, it's nothing like that. The backward-looking narrative is how I explain how I got to where I am. The forward-looking narrative is an entirely different thing - it's baseless speculation, and essentially meaningless.

One example of this is a story that my father told at his retirement party. He was talking about how he got into the business of teaching. My father often tells stories about his former students, some of whom stay in touch with him, and many of whom have contacted him at one time or another to express their appreciation of him as their former teacher. So the narrative you might tell of his life would be about how he'd always been destined to be a teacher, and you could definitely string the events of his life along that thread, so that none of it was accidental, not something he just fell into by chance.

And yet. And yet, when he told his story at his retirement, I came away with the impression that he did fall into it. It wasn't necessarily how he intended to spend his life. He had a mentor who coaxed him along, and as a result of her coaxing an entire successful career unfolded. If you'd asked him at 20 what sort of career he'd be looking back on at 65, I wonder what he would have said.

I'm a published author. I can't say I never wanted to be one, nor aspired to be one, but the way it happened was that a friend of mine, years ago, asked me to do a project for him that I would never have sought out on my own. I agreed to do it, and it became something with a huge amount of momentum that's carried my career for a long time, and it's why I was asked to write the book. It all makes sense looking back, but the sequence of events that led to me being a published author is one that I never would have predicted in advance.

And then look at the stories of people who survived great tragedies. My favorite illustration of this (because it's not something anyone is emotionally involved in) is the sequence at the beginning of the recent War of the Worlds movie that starts out with Tom Cruise standing right where the aliens landed. When he realizes they're hostile, he runs. In the course of running, he dodges around obstacles, left and right, ducks through buildings, and through all of this the alien's energy weapon is shooting in his general direction, and you see people and buildings right next to him disappearing in puffs of dust, but he never happens to be standing in the path of the beam when it fires, and consequently he's still alive when he gets out of range.

If he were to tell the story of his survival, he might say that he was dodging, and that's why he survived, but really the aliens weren't trying to kill him specifically—they were trying to kill everyone. He didn't die because they weren't 100% successful, and he just happened to be in the 1% who didn't die during that attack. His survival had nothing to do with any volitional act on his part other than trying to escape rather than giving up.

So when I look to the future, I do make plans. These plans are based on my past experience. Sometimes the plans work, and sometimes they don't. When they work, I remember them. When they don't, unless they were spectacular failures, I forget them. And so when I think about what works and what doesn't, and how to plan our future, my thinking is polluted with a kind of survival bias.

This survival bias is what allows me to make sense of my past as an orderly thing, rather than the chaotic process that it really was. It's pleasant and comforting to think that I got to where I am (which is a pleasant place at the moment) because I made the right decisions.

But at the moment my life is in flux. Andrea and I are moving to Vermont. We have reasons for moving to Vermont, and a plan for what we're going to do in the short term and even in the long term. Part of the plan is to build a house. The collection of detailed decisions that go into the very beginning of the house-building process is truly overwhelming. You can't even dig the foundation until you have a pretty clear picture of the finished result you're shooting for.

So my situation is completely in flux, really. I have plans for the future, and no idea whether or not they will work out. Fortunately there are no aliens with death rays breathing down my trail, but I pretty much have to run and dodge and hope for the best. What materializes a year from now, or four years from now, is completely unknown, even though I have plans for all of that time.

Why does any of this matter? If I buy into the idea of a continuing narrative from the past leading into the future, all of the unknowns in the future I've planned become objects of stress. The more you worry about the future, the less sleep you get, and the less relaxed you are. The less able you are to run. So by being attached to my plans, I actually make it less likely that they will come to fruition.

So right now I'm trying to find the balance between having plans, which is necessary so that I have something to do to move forward, and being attached to plans, which might make me freeze in place and stop making progress.