Tuesday, January 17, 2023

On Solutions versus Distractions


I was invited to read this excellent article by Mark Manson on cheat codes for the Game of Life and wanted to think deeper about the differences between solutions and distractions. The key idea from Mark Manson is that solutions put us in a better place, and distractions don't. So you can do well in life if you plan to eliminate distractions and replace them with solutions.

But the reality is not that simple. 

Take Dungeons and Dragons, which I consider one of the most significant assets in my life that shaped my approach towards work, school, life and personal finances. A cursory examination would make RPGs more like a distraction than a solution to my problems because many judge gaming as frivolous. 

But we also want to avoid using hindsight and results to decide. A D&D player who becomes a billionaire obviously used RPGs as a solution, but a fellow player who becomes an artist-bum-cum-welfare-queen does so because he was distracted by RPGs. 

That does seem fine to me.

Alternatively, there is the subjective approach, which is a problem or a solution based on what went on in my mind when I did it. So if I played D&D to cope with being a failed novelist and use the game to create a narrative that I would never have been able to do in a manuscript, this might be a distraction. If I play D&D to widen my network of geeky friends and relax so that I can be more energized in my workday, it's a solution. But that makes me uncomfortable, too, because folks in the FP spectrum of the MBTI will be able to reframe everything as a solution in an RPG, and to them, fucking a unicorn can be a solution to a problem too.

One nifty way around this is to imagine life as a game played in four phases, each lasting a quarter of your lifespan:

  • Spring - In this phase, you get a great score if you can learn many things, get exposure, or attain paper qualifications from prestigious institutions.
  • Summer - In this phase, you get a high score from high earnings and income.
  • Autumn - You get a high score from your accumulated net worth in this phase.
  • Winter - In this phase, you get a high score from your relationships.

This looks like a cookie-cutter way of defining success, but bear with me for the moment.

You get a more modest score if you achieve something from a later phase, but you score nothing if you achieve something in earlier stages. For example, if you can accumulate wealth in Spring, that could count in this game. But if you get a windfall in the Winter stage, you don't get credit for it because you won't have much need for money in the later stages of your life, but you need lots of love, connections and family. 

With this gamification of life, it becomes more objective to determine whether what you are doing is a solution or a distraction. It's a solution if it gets you a score in your current life phase. Getting an MBA is a good solution for someone in Summer, where the human capital boost can be very high, but once you hit Autumn, it becomes less valuable unless you can monetise it quickly to raise your net worth. If you ignore dating in your Summer, you lose out on relationship points in Winter compared to friends who decided to settle down earlier. Victory in the Winter phase does require careful planning in the earlier phases. 

Okay, so once we have a clearer idea of what's a solution versus a distraction, we will find that many things we do in practice are distractions. But this would mean we must depart from Mark Manson's approach to self-help. 

I believe that our aim is not to eliminate all distractions from our lives. Exercising in a gym does not score in any phase, but it keeps you healthy enough not to drop dead before Winter. Getting a six-pack, however, is clearly a distraction. You could be trying for a six-digit annual cash flow instead.

Many activities we engage in can be intrinsically fun (atelic), and you do not need to organise your life behind one big agenda. In such a case, a large part of self-help is simply removing some distractions and replacing them with solutions until we reach an equilibrium that will make life more comfortable. 

A life without the occasional distraction would be pretty drab, and you might become depressed and not even play out the later stages of the Game of Life. 

Of course, I'm not an authority on how to design the game of life. I merely took a traditional view of what success looks like in modern society and gamified it. Feel free to invent your own phases and come up with a scoring system of your own. But once you do this, ensure that you are consistent with yourself when deciding which habits to adopt and which vices to discard. 

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