It’s trade-offs all the way down

Sonnie Bailey

4 December 2020

The word “decide” has interesting origins.

Compare it to a few other words, like homicide, suicide, and genocide.

The suffix, “cide”, can be traced back to Latin: “to cut”. Or: to kill.

Making a decision brings about a death. That death is to other options you could have taken.

Decisions require options

If you only have one option, then you can’t really make a decision.

You can only make a decision when you have one or more alternative options to choose from.

In order to decide, you need to cut yourself off from other options.

It’s trade-offs all the way down

Every decision we make involves trade-offs. There are always opportunity costs: options we forego when we take one path over another.

One aspect that informs our decision-making is scarcity. Without scarcity, we can keep our options open.

One area of scarcity is time. Many options are only open for a limited window of time. If you choose not to take that option, then you’re making a decision not to take advantage of it.

Similarly, we only have so much time to take up the opportunities that come our way. We only have so many heartbeats.

As difficult as I find it, I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything I’d like to do in my life. I’d need 10 lifetimes at least. Instead, I have to choose from a more narrow range of options.

Another thing that is scarce is money. Before you say that’s not true for you, or for certain people, consider that even Bill Gates has to make trade-offs with what he does with his money. For all the billions at his disposal, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can only deal with so many causes at a time. Bill and Melinda and his other benefactors and trustees have to choose what to do with the funds that they have.

When you spend money on one thing, you are cutting yourself off from spending it on other things.

With time, or money, or anything else that’s scarce, it’s trade-offs all the way down.

Freedom is only meaningful if you act on it

There’s a positive aspect to acknowledging the limits to what we can do.

For one: it’s something that we all have to deal with. If Bill Gates has to ration his time and money, then I feel less impoverished when I have to do the same.

Another is that I even get to make these decisions at all. We live in a world where we have freedom to make choices based on our own unique, idiosyncratic circumstances, objectives, and values, rather than have them imposed on us.

It’s nice to have a sense of “freedom”. But ultimately, freedom is only meaningful if you act on it.

Ultimately, the exercise of true freedom involves making decisions. The true manifestation of our values and priorities is in the decisions we make – the options we breathe life into, and the options we kill.

A rich life usually involves making commitments. We enter relationships and deepen them. We start families and we invest in them. We pursue professional pathways. We follow passions. (Or some combination that is true to ourselves.)

In doing so, we open doors. But we can only do this by closing other doors.

Every single one of these decisions involves trade-offs, whether we like it or not. We might as well acknowledge this reality.


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