Limiting your options leads to better options

Limiting your options leads to better options.

… when you study the evidence, it’s clear that you’re not likely to encounter real interesting opportunities in your life until after you’re really good at something.

If you avoid focus because you want to keep your options open, you’re likely accomplishing the opposite. Getting good is a prerequisite to encountering options worth pursuing.

From Closing your interests opens more interesting opportunities.

Related post:

Demonstrating persistence

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9 comments on “Limiting your options leads to better options
  1. Michael Knap says:

    This parallels with something my father taught me some time ago. He told me that, “the more structure I have in my life, the more opportunities I will have to be spontaneous .” More poetically, “Structure affords spontaneity.”

    From my experience so far, he (and you) are right !

    Thank you for the reminder and wisdom, John.

  2. Ben says:

    I approach this problem from the other direction. I think you should never be so committed to a path that you are not willing to consider other options, and you should always be aware of your best options.

    Assuming that you have already committed to Plan A, you should have a Plan B & C waiting in the wings. Referring to the C.S. Lewis quote on progress, sometimes it’s time to turn back and try another road.

    That said, anything from Plan D onward is probably falls into at least one of two categories: not that good or highly improbable. To that extent I think you should limit your options – don’t waste time on bad plans or things that will likely never happen.

    Plans B & C are important, so do a good job with them – they have two purposes: first, they are the ruler against you can measure Plan A. Second, they are your escape hatch: when Plan B or C starts to look pretty good relative to Plan A, then it’s time to ask yourself some questions.

    *Is Plan A still applicable, or have events changed things too much?
    *Did Plan A include this rough spot?
    *Are things going to improve in a meaningful time-frame?
    *Is a revision to Plan A going to solve the problem, or is it time to use that escape hatch?

    Sometimes that means making small changes, sometimes it means that it’s time to go back to school for something different, or to pickup everything and move somewhere else. But you should never get yourself into a situation where you have locked yourself out of your best options.

  3. John says:

    Ben: Thanks for tying in the quote from Lewis about backtracking. It’s interesting to consider these two perspectives together.

    Here is the quote Ben and I are referring to:

    Progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

  4. John Venier says:

    Two circumstances in which this might not be good advice are being an undergraduate and being married. I get a chuckle when the first quote is applied to marriage:

    … when you study the evidence, it’s clear that you’re not likely to encounter real interesting potential spouses in your life until after you’re really good at being married.

    If you avoid focusing on your marriage because you want to keep your options open, you’re likely accomplishing the opposite. Getting good at being married is a prerequisite to encountering potential spouses worth pursuing.

    I’ve actually heard this argument used in favor of polygamy. It was expressed by a woman in a polygamous marriage who had actively sought one. She wanted to marry a man who was proven to be a good husband, father, and provider. For her, past divorce was evidence the man was not good at being married, and there are very few single young widowers with kids. So she married a man with three or four wives (I forget how many he had).

    As far as being an undergraduate, well, my issue there is that focusing on just one major leaves little time to examine the wealth of other fields out there, especially if you’re trying hard to become good at it. Besides, most of us would probably not pick the best field to major in while we are in high school. On top of that, in many fields to become really good requires significant real world OTJ experience, and this usually happens long after most people have graduated, by which time for most people it is too late to repeat college from a pragmatic point of view. And even if you manage to repeat college, grad school or med school is basically out of the question.

    Many post-graduate schools (medical schools, graduate schools) don’t want to bother educating someone who doesn’t have a forty year career ahead of them. I recall admissions people saying thirty was too old. Except law schools. Law schools seem to be an oddity. My great-grandaunt got her law degree in her late sixties. I can’t imagine the laughter if someone in their late sixties applied to a medical school or graduate program. They might even refund the application fee out of pity for the applicant or shame at the rejection. But not law schools. I think it is because while more doctors and Ph.D.s means less work per doctor and Ph.D., more lawyers means more work per lawyer.

  5. This is similar to patterns and other constraints on design. Ultimately, they are a source of freedom and a source of creativity.

  6. Paul A. Clayton says:

    Concerning marriage, the quote might be more properly rephrased as:

    … when you study the evidence, it’s clear that you’re not likely to encounter real interesting marital issues in your life until after you’re really good at being married.

    If you avoid focusing on your marriage because you want to keep your options for finding interesting relationships open, you’re likely accomplishing the opposite. Getting good at being married is a prerequisite to encountering a potential deeply interesting relationship worth pursuing.

    But I would be more inclined to agree on undergraduate studies. Even for other areas, a laser-focus can hinder creativity and even understanding. In general, proverbial wisdom does not involve extremely precise rules.

  7. Peter says:

    John Venier: There are exceptions where Australian medical schools are concerned. A friend of mine’s brother won a scholarship to study medicine in his fifties, though the terms of the scholarship specified that he would have to practice in rural Australia once he finished his studies; something he was very happy to do.

    Completely agree with you and Paul on the undergraduate study issue. I focused far too narrowly on pure maths and computer science. Now decades on, I’m starting to study other fields, cursing that I didn’t do it earlier.

  8. John says:

    Regarding starting medicine in middle age etc., here’s a part of the original article I thought about quoting but left out:

    If you collapse [Steve] Martin’s skills into a flat list, he sounds like a Renaissance man, but if you take a snapshot of any particular point of his life, you’ll encounter relentless, longterm focus on a very small number of things.

    It’s true of many Renaissance men, including the the literal men of the Renaissance, that they were sequential specialists. They did many things, but not all at once.

    I think many fields would benefit from the perspectives of people who join the profession later in life. Someone who has worked in a different profession and possibly raised children will bring a different perspective than someone with no experience other than 20 consecutive years of formal education.

  9. A. Webb says:

    Ben / John: I think the two perspectives are reconciled by saying that you won’t get too far in life with a breadth-first search, but if you are doing depth-first search you better be prepared to backtrack from time to time. Note that you only need keep track of where you have been, not everywhere you could have gone. If you have gone astray, back up to where you once were and think anew of where you might go. Different options may be available on subsequent looks. But in moving forward again you do not have to carry with you all the could-have-beens.

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