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May 2008
June 2008

2008-05-01 »

Logic can only help you achieve your goals, not set them

Today, a quickie on the respective values of logic vs. emotion (intuition).

At one point, a person I know turned down an offer to work for my company in favour of an offer at Google. He had worked both with me and for Google at different points in the past, so he knew a lot about both choices. Our job offer was competitive with Google's in terms of salary and benefits, and as a bonus, he wouldn't have to relocate to a foreign country as with Google. Still, after a lot of deliberation, he went with Google, and I encouraged him to. Why?

Because he felt like it.

You can't argue with logic like that. You shouldn't try. The reason is simple: because doing what you feel like makes you happy. Doing what you don't feel like doesn't make you happy. And that's just the end of it. No amount of thinking it through will change those basic facts.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know what they feel like doing; they don't know what they want out of life, and they certainly don't know why. So they try to figure it out. That's where consumerism, among other things, comes from (weird article about escaping from consumerism). "I don't know which job will make me happier, so I'll take the one with the higher salary." "Maybe if I had a bigger house or a nicer car or whiter teeth, then I could be happy." If those things will actually make you happier (and if you're honest with yourself, you already know if they will), then that's it; you win. But if you don't know anything that will make you happier, and you're trying to choose on an "objective" basis, then you'll lose for sure.

This problem - overthinking your desires - is surprisingly widespread, not just among programmers, but for almost everyone. Programmers happen to be especially stubborn at rationalizing, so they sound more convincing than most, but it's all the same game.

So what is logic good for, then? It's good for achieving your desires. If you're honestly having trouble deciding which of two job offers makes you feel better, maybe you honestly don't like either of them. Maybe, regardless of how objectively great they both sound, neither is subjectively good at all.

When that happens - and this is a last resort for only that case - then you can use logic. First, imagine what you want your life to be like. It can be anything you want. Seriously. Imagine it in excruciating detail. Then figure out, in just as much excruciating detail, all the steps you'll have to take to get there. If you do this exercise properly, all the way back to the present, then you'll know what to do next. You'll have figured it out using logic, but that's okay, because your logic was guided by emotion, not the other way around.


For more on logic vs. intuition vs. several other human attributes you can combine for use in decision making, you might want to read the book On Equilibrium by John Ralston Saul. It has lots of big words, but it's enlightening.

Also beware that if you believe what I've said above, you probably now believe in fluffy emotional stuff called the Law of Attraction. Hope you don't mind. If you're like me, you'll find the traditional explanations of it (eg. follow the link) unbelievable and silly, but what I've said here is just a sanitized translation, honest.

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