Optionality cost

I talked to my parents last night, and my mom was telling me about how she thought about my book while she was practicing her nagomi art. It was an awesome feeling. Obviously, that conversation wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t write the book. 

And I almost didn’t. I’d wanted to write a book throughout the 2010s, and I’d even edited a sensational free book, but I never got around to writing my own book. I was busy keeping my options open; I ran an editorial studio, I did a ton of side projects, I wrote at Medium, and that’s just my professional life. I’d write a book when the option seemed alluring enough, when it was a sure bet, when I got a great agent and built up an audience.

So I figured.

In March 2020, my full-time work contract expired. I hadn’t used these words, but looking back, I had planned on taking a sabbatical. In June 2020, I decided it was time to stop waiting around for the ideal position, and to just start writing the book. I would write a short, 15,000-word, book independently. I published it as a PDF at Gumroad in November 2020. I didn’t know what would happen next.

I promoted the book, leading to fun conversations like this one with Chris, another with Nick, another with Brian, and another with Wioleta. I wrote a guest post for #the100dayproject.

I also had something I could show a publisher, who was interested in working with me to expand and revise the work into what’s now Creative Doing. Available in print and Holloway’s great digital reader. 

Back to the process: from March 2020 till December 2020, I practically dropped all other professional commitments to research and write. I wasn’t available to even consider full-time jobs or consulting work. I deliberately paid an expensive opportunity cost, and it hurt to even think about it. In spite of all that, I managed to do what I couldn’t do in my 2010s:

Actually write a book.

Committing to writing a book was the key. Somewhere during this time, I came across a tweet from Hank Green, which has become one of my favorite quips, “You aren’t just working on the thing you’re making right now, you’re also working on everything you will ever make in the future.” In other words, whatever you’re currently working on helps unlock the possible futures that are inaccessible to you right now.

It’s the opposite of opportunity cost; it’s optionality cost. When you keep your options open, you’re living a sub-optimal life, betting that you’ll come across the assuredly best option that you’ll eventually commit to. 

That’s one small problem though: you’ll never know if an option was the best! I had no idea how my book would turn out, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen for me tomorrow.

To live life to the fullest, you have to commit. You have to cut off the other paths and options. You also have to give up on trying to control the outcome; you’re making a bet, with the understanding that things will inevitably change, and your worst fears might come true: the outcome won’t turn out as you’d hope. Committing is terrifying and it requires courage, but it’s also immensely rewarding.

I’ll indulge in some quote-ception (Burkeman paraphrasing Robert Goodin’s On Settling), which illustrates this point well:

You can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first “settling” on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them. Likewise, there’s no possibility of a romantic relationship being truly fulfilling unless you’re willing, at least for a while, to settle for that specific relationship, with all its imperfections—which means spurning the seductive lure of an infinite number of superior imaginary alternatives.

In an age where everything is a marketplace, it can feel like the options are endless. Another quip I like, from David C. Baker:

Don’t wait to have kids. Don’t wait to get married. Don’t wait to start that business. Don’t wait to write that book. This “if _____ happens, then I’ll be ready for _____” nonsense is not a great way to make progress in life and work.

You and I are at a crossroads, every day; should we keep our options open, or should we pick one to commit to? 

This is really related to focus, because commiting goes hand in hand with it. As Ami Vora writes, “It’s not prioritization until it hurts.” As Jony Ive says, ““What focus is, saying no to something that with every bone in your body you think is a phenomenal idea. And you wake up thinking about it, but you say no to it. Because you are focusing on something else.”

Focus involves quitting.

Getting better at commitment and focus is probably not unlike getting better at anything else: it gets easier with practice.

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