1745 Days

255 (0b11111111) days ago, I wrote my most personally significant blog post to date: 2000 Days

In 2000 Days, I reflect on important values in my life and conclude that I am defined by one central theme: control. This may only be partially true. Control, as a virtue, addresses my best logical understanding of my life goals - what the essay misses, though, is my driving pathologies - my revealed preference for a more fundamental goal, optionality. This essay seeks to explore optionality, its relation to control, and how I can realize a life that leaves me satisfied on the 2000th day.

What is Optionality? How does it relate to control?

Optionality is the abstract measure of the choices available to an actor at a given time. What capabilities do I have to influence the world around me? In how many distinct ways can I act to influence this world? The nasty part of optionality is that it is a monotonically decreasing function. Every instant solidifies a choice - even if that choice is idleness - and making that choice, you, by construction, have rejected an infinitude of alternate options.

To find commonality between optionality and control, let's consider what an incremental increase in optionality represents. Say a student needs to prepare for an exam Friday morning. Right now, it's Thursday night. Knowing she needs to both sleep and study, the student only has two options - study now, then sleep, or sleep now, then study. She doesn't have very many options here, nor much control over the situation. Her next few hours are fairly set in stone. Thinking back to last Friday, she exclaims, "If only I had chosen to study then! When I had the option!"

Giving her some extra time to study opens up her optionality, but it also increases her level of control. Instead of only having a single night, she could have been in control of a full week of her time! Reducing the amount of time she has to study reduces both optionality and control. Therefore, if optionality and control move in lockstep this way (inextricably linked), they must be the same. For this reason, I will treat optionality and control as interchangeable and consider my rational mind to be aligned with my emotional mind.

How is Optionality Made Concrete?

Optionality is too abstract a concept to be pursued directly. To maximize optionality, you can instead pursue more understandable proxy goals. In 2000 Days, I discuss three tools to exercise control on your environment: capital, power, and time. As we have demonstrated that optionality and control are directly related with one another, these same proxies apply to optionality.

To improve readability, I rename power to "human influence", at brevity's expense. Additionally, I introduce one additional proxy for control: knowledge. On reflection, its exclusion from 2000 Days was a mistake. Lastly, due to the equivalence between power and control, I use them interchangeably throughout the remainder of the essay.

First, capital. Superficially, capital seems just as abstract as control. However, if you consider capital's effects on your life and the lives of those around you, you will realize it is the most concrete realization of optionality in the modern world. All things held equal, possessing more capital implies greater optionality. Capital is power. Power is the ability to influence the world. The greater your ability to influence the world, the greater your optionality. If optionality is good, the possession of capital is good. The converse also holds true. However, capital is not the only analog for optionality.

Human influence can afford oneself just as much, if not so much more optionality per unit-work as capital can. Love, respect, and fear all are mediums through which a person can give you influence over their decisions, extending your scope - extending your optionality. Having but a single person willing to labor for your benefit is worth a considerable (yet countable) amount of capital, though communicating that conversion ratio is not particularly aesthetic.

Love, respect, and fear are homomorphic to one another. Each emotion, so different from one another, are forms of commitment, from one person to a second. The weight each of these forms of commitment, and thus the optionality they afford you, scales exactly how you might expect.

Love, or admiration, is a devotion, a mind virus, that enables a person to act against their own self interest, preferring to satisfy you over themselves. It is the most powerful form of commitment for this reason. Love will drain you and you will happily let it, because you love the person. For this reason, love is the most important form of commitment to cultivate.

Respect is earned. Through demonstrating your influence over the world, you garner the respect of your peers, giving you more influence. A virtuous cycle indeed. While respect won't lead someone to giving you more than they can healthily provide, respect does inspire. And a person you inspire will gladly give you as much they can give, and what they can give is driven by how much they respect you and your vision for the future.

Fear is power. A practically worthless form of it, but power nonetheless. Fear of a man is the fear of death and since avoiding death is the ultimate policy of any living being, fear grants you ultimate control over an individuals labors. The worthlessness of fear, though, is how little labor they have available to give you. Fear saps a person's mind, body, and spirit. Its only value is how effectively it works as an economy of scale.

You can disseminate fear quickly and widely with extremely modest levels of labor. Demonstrating a willingness, or even a proclivity, to abuse instills fear in the heart of every person adjacent to your demonstration. Slavery is built on fear. Lordship is built on fear. Nations are maintained through fear.

All your influence over other humans is driven by a combination of these three control primitives. This control is influence. This influence is optionality.

Knowledge is a pure form of optionality. Knowledge empowers the individual fundamentally. Capital can become worthless. Human influence can wither. Knowledge can be garnered in secret and cannot be taken from you. This is why knowledge is the core of revolutionary movements. These facts are why the first steps of any authoritarian regime is to limit/control the flow of knowledge.

Knowledge, alongside physical labor, is the backbone for turning any objective real. More than just the backbone, actually. Knowledge, combined with physical labor, is the only way to turn an idea real. This makes knowledge special. It is only through this knowledge-labor combination that we can affect change on the world around us. Exercising capital purchases the right to use another's knowledge-labor for a period of time. Exercising human influence affords you these same rights. Therefore, knowledge is the ultimate form of control. It is irrevocable, disseminatable, and behaves like a multiplier for optionality through capital and human influence.

If knowledge-labor is the mechanism though which we exercise our optionality, what is the domain? Time. Time provides you the room to use knowledge-labor, as a lack of time renders you no domain at all to labor within. Similarly, you need time to exercise capital or human influence. There is no control without time. Idleness wastes time and is the singular driver of the corresponding loss of optionality. However, time exhibits a special characteristic - it is entirely dependent on the availability of capital/human influence/knowledge-labor. While a surplus of any one of the former control providers, with time, affords you optionality, time itself is worthless without at least one of them.

Is time, then, a realization of optionality or simply its domain? Is this distinguishment necessary? How should time be valued relative to all these other control providers? I argue now, as I have before, that time is the single most important resource you have at your disposal.

Another Interpretation

Previously we have considered time the domain of control and capital, human influence, and knowledge-labor the mechanism. However, another interpretation is available. Deploying capital requires personal knowledge-labor. Exercising human influence has this same requirement. And as previously established, knowledge-labor can only be performed within the time you have available.

Does this mean that knowledge-labor is the only mechanism for change? A mechanism that must be deployed in the time domain, and optionally the capital and human influence domains? Possibly so. However, this configuration still has potential issues because exercising capital and human influence both also take time, even if you invest no additional knowledge-labor. Some future work can address establishing an exact taxonomy for these elements. For now, we can work with the original set of categorizations.

How Should I Prioritize Accumulation of These Instruments of Control?

Right now, I have some fixed amount of capital, human influence, knowledge-labor, and time available. Let's focus on the three that are conventionally considered controllable: capital, human influence, and knowledge-labor. What should I do?

Capital

As a software engineer at Google, I have effectively no more efficient method of accumulating capital. By efficient, I specifically mean the effective hourly rate I am compensated for my work.

Being in the Bay Area, one must consider the canonical alternative, startups. It is well understood that the EV of startups is lower than FAANG. The exchange you make participating in startup culture increased variance in your financial outcomes. Despite my absolute conviction in my abilities, I am no betting man. I have seen highly skilled people fail, and low-skill people find great success. Put simply, the risk on the basis of capital upsides is nonsensical.

Human Influence

Due to the sheer size of my workplace, there are few places in the world so ripe for accumulating human influence. In this relatively meritocratic environment, human influence can expand alongside the accumulation of knowledge-labor or capital. People, in this social group, are influenced by these other control proxies.

It is fuzzy whether the best way to exercise this sort of rent-seeking on your knowledge-labor/capital is best done in a corporate environment or a more free-form environment, but in both, people will tend to respect someone who has demonstrated high knowledge-labor.

Knowledge-Labor

How should one best learn? Through the workplace, personal study, a return to academia? Personal study most certainly is the most rapid way for an individual to accumulate knowledge, but is it the most consistent? Working with peers, either in the workplace or in academia, can prevent long-duration roadblocks that inhibit your personal knowledge accumulation journey.

I have put a lot of work into building my professional software skills outside of my day job. However, I think I have been overly focused on building things that already fall within, or very close, to my domain of expertise. If I want to accumulate knowledge more quickly, I need to reach to other domains and learn how to translate their knowledge to my work. This is exactly why I have focused to much in recent times on reading and writing. Clarity in writing is clarity of thought, and clarity of thought echoes through all technical work. For me, the best way to accumulate knowledge is personal study. Is this knowledge sufficiently more valuable than capital that I should leave my work behind to focus on learning?

I have under-addressed labor. The ability to labor is a function of one's physical health. If I want to best apply the knowledge I have accumulated, I need a healthy body and healthy mind to work with. Improving physical fitness is trivial, when compared to the benefits it offers. I have made this one of my top priorities in my life now. Everything else carries through.

Conclusion

This essay is a rendering on how I see the world. It serves as a platform for me to think about what is important to me, and how I can pursue these things that I find important. I hope that someone who values control/optionality as much as I do finds this essay to line up with their way of thinking. I don't intend for these prioritizations to be universal. A person can have different fundamental goals, and as a result, invent different proxy metrics to pursue. However, these, right now, are mine.

Thank you for reading. You can contact me at contact[at]thornewolf.com.

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