Advanced Existential Dread

October 30, 2013

One of the most scary moments in most young adults' life is the realization of mortality. Teenagers and younger children often understand on an intellectual level that people die, but emotionally that’s something that happens to other people. There’s very few things quite like the moment when an adult realizes that they must die, there’s nothing they can do to stop it, and there’s not a lot they can do to delay it.

Most people stop there. But if you move beyond the “go to work, make money, enjoy weekend” stage of your life, you’ll get to experience what I call “Opportunity Cost Fear”.

Every action you take prevents you from taking another. Spending $10 on a lunch means you can’t spend that $10 on anything else. This is called opportunity cost. It applies to every limited resource in the world. Your time, attention, money, emotions, energy, and physical strength are all subject to opportunity cost, even though many people and organizations do not think about it.

Those who wish to accomplish many things can suffer a crippling fear because of it. Spending time on this blog post means I’m spending time not reading blogs, writing software, or talking with Leah. It also means I’m not spending my time going to the gym to be healthy, or trying to make friends in a new city. And the fact that I can’t have everything I want, just like the fact that I can’t live forever, can be deeply terrifying if you care about doing multiple things.

Just like the fear of death, the best way out of opportunity cost fear is to press forward. The big risk with both is that the fear will cripple you to the point where the worst might as well have happened. Are you really living if you spend every moment terrified of your own end? What’s the point worrying about opportunity cost if the fear prevents you from executing on any of your plans? In both these cases, the fear alone can be just as bad as the actual outcome.

Now, I’m not saying that the rational choice is disregard for the objects of your fear. If you’re afraid of death, riding a motorcycle without a helmet on will neither eliminate your fear or increase your lifespan. You should be aware of why you feared a thing, and take the most rational steps to reduce it. Nothing you will do can ever eliminate opportunity cost, but you can make sure that you’re spending your time as best you can. You’ll never do it perfectly, but it’s better than nothing at all.

The Best of Lisp

Time, Attention, and Pairing