What are my personal goals?
From a very broad perspective, my goal is to live a good life. A life that, in retrospect or review, will have seemed worth living.
Exploration of a good life
I set out to write out the principles I’ve tried to follow, but so far I can only think of one: never regret a decision. There’s an important piece of this, which is to remember that there are many decisions that I make, including my attitude towards decisions that others have made or circumstances that I come upon – in a sense, owning the fact that I am the decider of my life.
It seems a bit weird to define this in terms of a negation – to not regret something. Maybe another way is to say, be happy with my decisions – but happiness brings another quality that I’m not sure I agree with. Let’s explore the possible emotions or attitudes I might want to hold towards the decisions I make in my life.
Happiness – this word has a brightness to it, a glow or a anticipation of future happy events. I don’t think it’s quite the appropriate term.
Contentment – this word feels too passive.
At peace – to be at peace with one’s decisions. This seems close. Being at peace with something suggests the opposite, which is to be in conflict with it, and I would agree that my attitude is not one of conflict, but instead a conflict resolved or prevented.
Peace – let’s go with it. It suggests a calm. And being at peace with decisions also provides a useful tension or contrast – it’s not about being at peace, which, although pleasant, also suggests a stillness, or an adjacent apathy or passiveness. But deciding is an active verb, is something that requires effort.
At Peace with Decisions – Abstract Exploration
Let’s accept for the moment that we have agency. (Causality, the mind-body problem, and a number of other things object to this viewpoint, so it’s a large premise to accept. If you’re likely to reject it, perhaps you can accept a form of parallel agency, where we feel like we have agency and that’s all that matters, regardless of our effect on the external world (if there is an external world, you solipsist).) If we have agency, that means we are able to make decisions. For myself, I appear to have an internal mental life in addition to the one that others can observe – perhaps the side effects of my mental life are visible to others, but no direct observation. In addition, this mental life appears to respond to my direction – I can decide to think about certain things, or not dwell on them, as the case may be, with some degree of mental effort. This means that outside of manipulation and suggestion, I have direct control over at least part of my own mental thoughts.
If we have this kind of internal mental agency, the ability to exert our will over what we want to think about or how we want to think, then it follows that we actually make decisions constantly – about how we will mentally tackle or engage with whatever external inputs we’re receiving, the “things that are happening to us.” So even if you are in a position where you have no external agency, it is likely that you still have internal agency and therefore are able to make decisions.
Digression – it’s a daunting prospect that there are people or conditions where you no longer even have mental agency. This seems somewhat likely given the existence of psychological conditions like PTSD, or depression, or psych/physical conditions like dementia. It’s my fervent hope that even with one of these conditions, mental agency of a sort persists, but for now I will proceed while acknowledging that I am currently privileged to not have to contend with such obstacles.
What does it mean to be at peace with a decision? This is likely a personal question for each mental agent. For someone who has little regard for consequence, being at peace with a decision could mean very little – they don’t care about consequences, so the decision, how the decision was made, and the impact of the decision will not affect their ability to be at peace with it.
I think that the opposite extreme is to care a great deal about the consequences of a decision – for this kind of person, in order to be at peace with a decision, the eventual outcome must be known, and the state of being ‘at peace’ is contingent on external factors and may change over time.
For myself, I like to think I’m somewhere in between. To be at peace, I want to know that I would not have done differently, given the chance to re-make that decision at the time. Importantly, this position is not contingent on outcomes, because outcomes are always unknown at the time of the decision. Put a different way, in order to be at peace with a decision I must believe that I made the best possible decision I could have at the time.
What does a ‘best possible’ decision look like? For me, ‘best’ applies along a few axes. First is a moral component – I separately believe that I should do no active harm to anyone. A decision that I make to do so would easily fail this test. A decision that chooses between harming different groups is either a false choice, or one where I will likely apply my own moral standards to others as a rudimentary metric to evaluate who may be least deserving of harm. Additionally, the best possible decision has a degree of thoroughness. Did I collect sufficient data on which to base the decision? The key word here is sufficient, which involves an additional decision – I must decide what sufficient means in each case. That decision (like the decisions based upon is) is rooted in experience: in previous decisions similar to this one, how much data did I have? Was it sufficient? Was it excessive, allowing for a lower standard of sufficiency this time around? Does this decision look a lot like the previous ones, so there is an acceptable risk to under-examination if we collect less information? (You’ll notice each of these questions requires an additional decision – decisions all the way down, baby.)
So if I’ve satisfied the moral component and the thoroughness component, I can be at peace with a decision. And if I’m at peace with a decision, I can accept the outcomes – because what would I have have done differently, at that time?
What has this looked like in practice? I can think of a few examples where someone has asked me if I regretted a decision and I could comfortably say “no,” and I think it was due to this principle, or something like it. The obvious examples are when a I make a change that substantially affects my subsequent day-to-day life, but ideally there are examples every day, and even in my decisions about the attitudes I will have towards things happening to me, or minor events.
One such instance was when I decided to suspend my pursuit of a degree at Stanford, and instead move across the country to live with someone who mattered to me. This was a long and involved decision, and one where I collected a lot of data, but once I had collected the data and the decision was made, I have thought to have decided any other way, even if there were rough spots here and there.
Another is deciding to volunteer for managing the Stanford Band
Another is electing to take a management position (or the one after that, where all I’m doing is managing!)
Exceptions that prove the rule
Even if I can come up with examples that seem to go along with this idea, it’s perhaps more important to identify some cases where I was not happy with the decision I had made. These are the cases where, upon reflection, I did not make the best possible decision I could have at the time. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy for cases like this to go unexamined.
One component to identifying these cases is probably taking the time to reflect on consequences of decisions, whether those outcomes are positive or negative (or neutral). It would be paralyzing to analyze the outcome of every decision I’ve made, but I do try to take stock now and again and get a sense of how I’m doing.
In the case of a positive outcome, my goal is to analyze whether I was sufficiently prepared to make the decision I did, or if instead I was fortunate enough to achieve or receive a favorable outcome without doing my research. Those who invest in equities on public stock markets may be familiar with this type of analysis. The goal is to identify whether or not subsequent decision-making needs to be more thorough, or if I am making the best possible decision in a given category and therefore should be at peace with those decisions.
Analyzing negative outcomes is very similar. There have been and will be negative outcomes in my life; the only question I’m trying to answer in the analysis is whether or not I was sufficiently prepared that I can be at peace with the decisions I made. If so, then I can be at peace with the outcomes as well, at least from my own perspective. This doesn’t prevent me from being hurt by harm done to me by others, but in this case I can still be at peace with myself.
Conclusion, for now
I think I’ve written enough on the subject for the short term, but in the longer run I will probably try my best to analyze situations like these from time to time. Admittedly, this was a mostly abstract exploration of what my personal goal is, which has a normative moral component and is best described as being at peace with the decisions I make.