14 Billion Cupcakes, Or: Why You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life

So here’s an alternative two-step method for understanding the universe.

Step 1: Remember: Six thousand years ago, God created the Heavens and the Earth.
Step 2: Repeat as necessary.

Isn’t that a whole lot easier than analyzing electromagnetic background for evidence of some “Big Bang” fourteen billion years ago? Fourteen billion is a pretty big number, and God didn’t create us so we could waste time trying to picture fourteen billion cupcakes. (DON’T TRY THIS!)

One, Two, aaargh!

-Stephen Colbert, I Am America (And So Can You!)

You have a stronger mind than Stephen Colbert. If I ask you to picture 14 billion cupcakes, you’ll say, “No problem. Doing it right now.” Little do you realize that the ability to deal with 14 billion cupcakes is the heart of not knowing what to do with life.

So you claim to be picturing 14 billion cupcakes? That’s not what you’re really doing. Instead, you are (perhaps) imagining two cupcakes for every person on Earth. So I ask you to picture every person on Earth. “Okay,” you say, “sure.”

But you’re not. You’re picturing a map of the world, or maybe you see a crowd of faces with different ethnicities. The details vary, but in general your mind constructs a much simpler, more concrete idea that takes the place of “every person on Earth” – you create an icon.

For me, the interesting thing is that I know I can’t picture a billion cupcakes but it still feels as if I can. Our minds can build very high-level abstractions, and we’re so good at it that the process is transparent. That’s where the problem comes in.

What do I want to do with my life?

It takes me only a second to read this question and ten or a hundred seconds to ponder it before my mind wanders. Perhaps I can go a thousand seconds if I’m particularly melancholy or my pet chinchilla just died. But the expanse of time I am considering is a few billion seconds. I cannot imagine them all. The icon I construct for “the rest of my life” inevitably becomes distorted: idealized, homogenized, and definitized beyond reason, and this happens without my conscious recognition.

This isn’t just my personal affliction. The people we overestimate most are our future selves. In 2006, Netflix offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could improve their algorithm for predicting users’ film ratings. Their goal was to make better recommendations for what to watch next. The prize was won in 2009, but it turns out the Netflix didn’t use the improved algorithm.

Over the years the contest ran, Netflix’s business model shifted. In 2006, users were mostly getting new movies by mail, meaning they were placing orders for movies they wanted to watch several days from now. Why, me? I’m a connoisseur! A few days from now, I will be very interested in watching an intellectually- challenging cinematic landmark.

By 2009, Netflix users had shifted most of their watching to streaming over the internet. Suddenly, well, it’s certainly true that I’m a connoisseur, but I didn’t get too much done at work and I feel bad about not calling my mom enough. It’s a bit too late to turn a new leaf today, so I guess I’ll see what Steve Carell is up to in his latest movie, but tomorrow it’s Ingmar Bergman all the way. The difference was so striking that the algorithm based on the 2006 challenge was out of date by 2009.

And this goes on. Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes tomorrow, Rush Hour 3 tonight. Vegetables and whole grains tomorrow, pizza and beer tonight. Ulysses tomorrow,Grand Theft Auto tonight. See the world in a grain of sand tomorrow, masturbate to fetish porn and fall asleep with your shoes on tonight.

When I’m thinking about the future, I occasionally write a To-Do list. It will start off with a mix of errands and the important stuff: go to seminar, visit to the bank, read the latest chapter, grade these assignments, get some exercise, check out this paper, etc. But when my list is long enough to fill up the day, I always have a few extra things in mind, so I write those down too. That brings more stuff to mind, and before long my list has items like “learn quantum field theory” and “overthrow the evil empire”. Even though the time scale would be the same, somehow my list never has “buy groceries two thousand times.” My future apparently consists of nothing but pure ideals and great achievements. Every mundane detail is excised, leaving only deep, meaningful stuff. It’s like I expect to start living in an Ayn Rand novel.

So any time I have tried to think about the future, I’ve never been close. Worse, I don’t realize how delusional I am. I can’t see the tricks my mind is playing on me. I become obsessed with the wonderful, abstract existence I’m about to create for myself.

How many times have you thought, “once I find a new job, everything will get better?” And if not that, we fantasize the turning point will be moving to a new place, graduating, falling in love, breaking an addiction, finishing a project, having a successful IPO, etc. Once I get over this hump, it will all get better.

That’s not true. “Happily ever after” isn’t how it works. I don’t mean we can’t be happy. I mean it’s an insufficient description of “ever after”. Our brains can’t hold an entire, rich future in view at once, so we compress it down to something like “let’s grow old together”. That’s a bad icon, but brains basically work like a man stumbling around a dark garage and grabbing things off the shelf at random. It’s the first available solution, not the best one, that gets thrown at the problem. The result? Three months after the Disney movie ends, the princess is homesick and Prince Charming is eyeing the chambermaid. The grass is always greener…

At long last, we find what we sought, only to realize it is not quite how we imagined.

Cruelly, the more optimistic you are, the harder you’re hit by this. Don’t trust your retirement portfolio to a happy person.

We tend to handle the big questions with small answers: aphorisms, epitaphs, haiku, koans, parables, quotations. The briefer the wiser. This seems backwards of how it ought to be. Beware of any medium in which the message seems to say more the shorter it is. It’s a sign you’re not getting advice so much as having your far-view blindness hacked by a platitude. It’s the journey, not the destination, man.

You can’t act on a wise saying, but I don’t have any more-specific advice for you either. Once I start claiming that such-and-such thing will solve this problem, it’s a lot easier for me to be wrong. The best you can hope for in this business is to get people to pay thousands of dollars before you tell them what to do. That way they’ll be sure to convince themselves it worked; it’s the only way they can keep from having wasted their money.

Even writing this essay has not released me from my poor grip on the future. Somehow, I still have that same feeling. Once I find what to do with my life, it will all get better. But I wouldn’t bet 14 billion cupcakes on it.

Further Reading:
Cobbled together from stuff in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, and Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias.

My apologies to anyone reading this the night before their wedding.

taken from my answer on Quora: http://www.quora.com/Life/How-can-I-figure-out-what-I-really-want-to-do-with-my-life

4 Responses to “14 Billion Cupcakes, Or: Why You Don’t Know What To Do With Your Life”

  1. clotildajamcracker Says:

    Ahhhh! That rainbow is just insane!

  2. Assorted Links « azmytheconomics Says:

    […] Time consistency, scale, and 14 billion cupcakes. Related […]

  3. Jim Says:

    Interesting site. I found it while reading an answer to a physics question on another site. In you answer you consistently made the error of using further instead of farther. Further is degree, farther is distance. Several science people made this mistake. Does further have a special meaning in physics?

  4. Mark Eichenlaub Says:

    No, I’m just American. Americans do not generally make that distinction. In fact American dictionaries define “further” as meaning “farther”.

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