April 7, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 11: Odyssean self-control, true wisdom, and myopic discounting

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1. Where are your current actions leading you?

"Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.

​"If you want to predict where you'll end up in life, all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny gains or tiny losses, and see how your daily choices will compound ten or twenty years down the line. Are you spending less than you earn each month? Are you making it into the gym each week? Are you reading books and learning something new each day? Tiny battles like these are the ones that will define your future self.

​"You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results." — From Atomic Habits by James Clear

The days are short, but the decades are long. Occasionally, we may feel like failures, falling into a rut for a few weeks and feeling guilty about our lack of progress. However, if we zoom out and look at the trend for the last five years, have we made any progress? Are we healthier, happier, kinder, smarter, and wealthier than five years ago? How about ten? By zooming out and considering the trend, we can gain a broader awareness over our micro-perspective.

2. If you're not feeling "Hell yeah!" then say no

"Most of us have lives filled with mediocrity. We said yes to things that we felt half-hearted about. So we're too busy to react when opportunities come our way. We miss out on the great because we're busy with the mediocre. The solution is to say yes to less. If you're not feeling 'Hell yeah, that would be awesome!' about something, say no. It's an easier decision.

"Say no to almost everything. This starts to free your time and mind. Then, when you find something you're actually excited about, you'll have the space in your life to give it your full attention. You'll be able to take massive action, in a way that most people can't, because you cleared away your clutter in advance. Saying no makes your yes more powerful. Though it's good to say yes when you're starting out, wanting any opportunity, or needing variety, it's bad to say yes when you're overwhelmed, over-committed, or need to focus. Refuse almost everything. Do almost nothing. But the things you do, do them all the way." — From Hell Yes or No by Derek Sivers

​Many of us overcommit ourselves thinking we can somehow accomplish everything, making a millimeter of progress in a million directions rather than a mile in one.

Sivers's advice doesn't just apply to verbally accepting social invites but also to the metaphorical yes that we say when choosing to allocate our time.

When setting goals, we're choosing something to commit a disproportionate amount of our time to in order to achieve a desirable outcome. Yet, we tend to overlook this fact. We believe we can make progress across the board when, in truth, we must sacrifice to succeed.

We must choose in advance what cost we're willing to pay to achieve a goal. While we engage in the pursuit, what are we willing to overlook, give up on, and forget about? Failing to answer this question will result in “the fear of missing out” (FOMO). Developing FOMO for one area of life often undermines our ability to make progress in others.

Perhaps I'm crushing my career, but my health is slipping. I begin to carve out more time for my workouts, which means I'm no longer on top of my work. I try to rebalance by cutting into my relaxing time, which leaves me drained after a couple of days, resulting in lost progress across the board.

We can eliminate the fear of missing out by accepting in advance what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve our goals.

Practical Advice

1. Myopic discounting

“There's a second way in which we irrationally cheat our future selves, called myopic discounting. Often we're perfectly capable of delaying gratification from a future self to an even more future self.

​"When a conference organizer sends out a menu for the keynote dinner in advance, it's easy to tick the boxes for the steamed vegetables and fruit rather than the lasagna and cheesecake. The small pleasure of a rich dinner in 100 days versus the large pleasure of a slim body in 101 days? No contest! But if the waiter were to tempt us with the same choice then and there—the small pleasure of a rich dinner in fifteen minutes versus the large pleasure of a slim body tomorrow—we flip our preference and succumb to the lasagna. The preference reversal is called myopic, or nearsighted, because we see an attractive temptation that is near to us in time all too clearly, while the faraway choices are emotionally blurred and (a bit contrary to the ophthalmological metaphor) we judge them more objectively.” — From Rationality by Steven Pinker

Myopic discounting can also be exemplified by accepting an event in the distant future to appear polite, but dreading it when it comes around. One option could be to only agree to events in the next few weeks. For anything further out, ask to be contacted closer to the appointed time to see how your schedule looks. This advice applies to any event that doesn't immediately make you think “Hell yeah!”

2. Ulysses contract & Odyssean self-control

"One of the legendary trials on (Odysseus') journey home involved the island of the Sirens. Sailors passing the island became so entranced by the Sirens' song that they would steer toward the shore, crashing to their deaths on the rocky shoal around the island. Aware of the fate that befell any sailor who heard the song, Odysseus told his crew to tie his hands to the mast and fill their ears with beeswax as they approached the island. They could then steer safely, unaffected by the song they could not hear, while he would get to hear the Sirens' song without imperiling the ship. The plan worked perfectly. This action—past-us preventing present-us from doing something stupid—has become known as a Ulysses contract.

​"It's the perfect interaction between past-you, present-you, and future-you. Ulysses recognized that his future-self (along with his crew) would become entranced by the Sirens and steer toward the rocks. So he had his crew fill their ears with wax and tie his hands to the mast, literally binding his future-self to better behavior. One of the simplest examples of this kind of contract is using a ride-sharing service when you go to a bar. A past version of you, who anticipated that you might decide irrationally about whether you are okay to drive, has bound your hands by taking the car keys out of them." — From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Note: This practice is also referred to as Odyssean self-control. Ulysses is the Latinized form of Odysseus, and Odysseus is the hero of Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, from which the above story originally comes.

Rather than relying on momentary willpower, which often fails, the goal is to identify our irrational behavior and erect roadblocks to prevent us from repeating it. By pre-committing to desirable actions, we are warding off our foolish behavior from occurring.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Anaïs Nin on how our perspective colors our perception:

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

2. Sam Harris on true wisdom coming from within:

"On one level, wisdom is nothing more profound than an ability to follow one's own advice."

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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