Tool 2 — Realize the omnipresence of decisions

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Think about the last restaurant you ate at. That exact moment was the result of countless decisions, more than you may realize. The city you live in is one big decision (which of course is the result of many other small ones). Because you live in that city your restaurant options were limited to that area. Did you decide to walk, drive, or take public transit to the restaurant? When you arrive and start glancing at the menu, you may start to decide how much money you’d like to spend. This is based on how much money is in your bank account, which is of course the result of all past decisions to earn and spend money. Now you order, another decision. Now the money left in your bank account is the result of that decision.

Just about every point in your life is the result of the last decision you made, and the decision before that one, and the decision before that one, and so on (later I’ll clarify points in life that are not the result of decisions). Reading this page is the result of your decision to pick up this book, continuing from the page you last decided to stop at.

In software design engineers create what are called State Diagrams to represent every potential state that the program can be in. In a state diagram, states are what the software is currently doing. The program could be:

  • Waiting for a user to enter text into a form
  • Signally that a page is loading
  • Displaying an error message because something went wrong

In these diagrams states are represented by boxes. The boxes are connected by lines that show how the system travels from one state to another. The lines represent logic, also referred to as decisions, that either the program or the user who is interacting with the program makes:

Did the user enter the correct password?

  • If yes, travel to the “Log in” state
  • If no, travel to the “Display error” state

Does the computer have enough space to download this file?

  • If yes, travel to the “Download” state
  • If no, travel to the “Display error” state

Imagine you’re logging into Facebook. At a very high level here’s what the state diagram looks like for this.

Our lives can similarly be modeled as state diagrams. The boxes represent each moment, i.e. state, that is possible in one’s lifetime. The lines that connect each state represent decisions. They show the mechanism for traveling between states. And if each decision is a mechanism of transportation, a road perhaps, then a series of consecutive states and decisions represent a path. A path could be short, showing states and decisions within a single day. Or a path can be long, spanning years or even a lifetime.

Here’s a state diagram we can all relate to that spans one morning. In this example the initial state is “In bed”. From the initial state each path ends up leading to the same end state. However in the bottom path you’re late, hungry, and smell like shit by the time your first meeting starts.

(insert state diagram spanning years)

With this framework we can see that birth is the initial starting state of any life. Every possible end state of that life, i.e. the state one is in at death, can be traced back through a series of paths (when you hear “path” from now on think combinations of states and decisions) to the initial state. So realize that every starting state, every birth, has an infinite number of possible end states.

This is also true for any middle state, which is any state between birth and death. Every middle state, except for those where one is in their final months, also has an infinite number of possible end states.

There are an infinite number of states in life, but only a tiny fraction of them are states of true happiness. Which means for any life there exists a subset of paths which lead to these ideal states.

Now we have the most high-level answer to the question: how does one achieve true happiness? Since every state in life is arrived at via paths of decisions, and for every life there exists the possibility to reach a state of true happiness, then we arrive at true happiness by creating a path of decisions that lead there.

More simply: we arrive at the destination by executing the correct series of turns.

In life the possible turns in front of us are infinite in number, and happen just about every minute of every day. That’s what I mean when I say that decisions are omnipresent. They are the primary determinants of what states our path will lead to.

Maybe you already understand the omnipresence of decisions. But also think about the importance that many decisions hold. I’m not one to believe in alternate realities, but I do believe almost every decision makes a fork, and each option will send us down a different path in our state diagram.

Deciding what cereal to eat in the morning is not a very important fork, meaning the decision doesn’t have much effect on our path. But deciding what city to live in has a huge effect on our path.

Ok so this answer may seem obvious and not at all useful. You’re basically saying we have a lot of decisions to make, and those decisions will determine where our lives end up? This is like the “your actions have consequences, Billy” speech that every 12 year old gets their first day of middle school.

But trust me, billy or no billy, truly understanding the omnipresence of decisions is a fundamental concept that not everyone fully accepts; whether consciously or unconsciously.

In this book we’ll talk A LOT about locus of control. It’s a concept used to classify the amount of control a person feels they have over their lives and what happens to them on a daily basis. Having a strong external locus of control means believing the things that happen in our lives are caused by external forces beyond our control. Having a strong internal locus of control means believing we are in control of what happens. It’s basically “bad things always happen to me” on one extreme and “everything is completely my fault” on the other. Most people fall somewhere in between.

A couple examples of strong external vs. strong internal locus of control:

“I know I set my alarm last night but it just didn’t go off” vs. “I forgot to set my alarm last night”

“Everyone at my job is out to get me” vs. “I’m not meeting my job’s expectations”

“McDonalds french fries are addicting, they’re just impossible to pass up” vs. “I’m addicted to McDonalds french fries”

“Everyone I date thinks I’m a shitty person, there’s just something wrong with the people in this city” vs. “I’m a shitty person”

We’ll dive much deeper into locus of control later but here’s the important takeaway for Tool 2. People with a strong external locus will not immediately see the omnipresence of decisions. For the most part they will believe their current state is largely the result of forces beyond their control. They will see the many states of their life, but not what connects them. Those with a strong internal locus of control will clearly see how each of their decisions will take them to the next state in life.

Throughout this book you’ll learn how important it is to realize the role decisions play in the path to true happiness.

The other important takeaway of this tool is that in no way can this idea be absolute. By that I mean of course not every state in life is a result of a decision you control. In fact for most people, much of our first 18 years are controlled by our parents. Throughout childhood we slowly move from complete dependence as infants to generally independent as we leave the nest. For the purpose of discussing state diagrams we’ll assume the initial state is not actually birth, but the point in young adulthood when general independence is reached.

Even after this point we can point to so many states that are a result of another person’s decision. You may have had nothing to do with a company’s bankruptcy, but this leaves you in a state of unemployment. You may have had nothing to do with a roommate moving out, but this leaves you in a state of moving too.

Much more darker examples need to be talked about too. Victims of sexual assault certainly don’t have control of the state they’re left in after the attack.

And of course mental disorders will affect decision making daily, something almost entirely out of our control.

The list of these examples go on. So we need to realize that our life’s state diagram will contain states not under our control. The amount of these points will vary from person to person. How to deal with these instances will be a separate discussion for another day. Just know for now that we need to recognize the limitations of this idea.

The purpose of this book will focus on the infinite number of decisions that most people have control over throughout their lives. Generally speaking, the amount of life states under our control will outnumber the states we are subjected to by other forces.

The first tool was to internalize true happiness as our highest priority. The second tool is to internalize the role decisions play in navigating our path to states of true happiness. The next two tools will establish a framework for how to make decisions that get us there.

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