Rationally choosing a life: part I

Having made myself unemployed and uprooted, I now need to make some decisions about what to do next. Since I spent much of the last two years reading about bias and rationality, it makes sense to try to apply what I've learned to this decision.

I'm publishing this because I've seen very few concrete examples of in-the-wild rational decision making. I don't particularly expect this to be a shining example of such, but it is at least an example :)

The inputs to a rational decision are terminal goals. Rationality has nothing to say about what those goals should be, only how to effectively pursue them. My goals are to be happy, excited and useful.

To make a good decision I have to explore the search space, make predictions about the outcome of each option, evaluate how well that outcome matches my goals and then pick the best outcome. So, the likely reasons for making poor decisions are:

How can I protect against these mistakes?

Poor evaluation of outcomes

Specific reasons I can recall for making poor evaluations of outcomes are:

To correct these, I need to figure out what concerns are important ahead of time.

Inside view: in what circumstances have I been happy in the past? This is easily distorted by individual strong memories, so I broke it down into roughly 6 month periods and for each period tried to recall several typical work days, several typical weekends and who I regularly spent time with. It's pretty personal, so I won't include the details here, but once I wrote it all down there were some clear patterns, some of which surprised me:

Outside view. What does pysch research have to say?

So far I had mostly been thinking about what kind of work I want to do, but this suggests that it is at least as important to figure out how to maximize my chances of making good friends and collaborators. I notice that almost all my close friends came from repeated meetings within some not-purely-social framework (eg work, climbing, RC alumni) so it's worth focusing on those.

Poor predictions of outcomes

Specific reasons I can recall making poor predictions about similar situations in the past:

The last can be avoided by pre-committing to not making a decision until some set point in time.

The first three, and many other mistakes like them, are examples of attribute substitution. One way to combat this is to follow an explicit, external process. For each value that I've decided is important I've come up with a short list of questions.


Culture (specifically the density of the kinds of people I want to meet)




Purpose (and rationality)

When answering these, I want to focus on the outside view and limit the impact of self-reporting, motivated recall and reference group effects. For example, rather than asking 'do people get to choose their own projects' I could ask 'of the people I met today, which of them are currently working on a project that they chose'. In theory this will lead to more accurate answers.

I'm not going to attempt to make some kind of scoring system - I'm using this structure mainly to ensure that I actually pay attention to all of the important areas.

Over-narrow search space

The search space has to be narrowed to be tractable, but I need to be careful not to make unnecessary assumptions.

To avoid succumbing to inertia I need to actively investigate choices that are completely different from what I've done in the past.

So the search space is something useful, in an english-speaking area, most likely in the EU. Now I need to generate ideas.

Having an explicit process for exploring options prevents motivated stopping and helps expose potential gaps, such as the fact that I don't have a starting point for finding out what non-tech jobs are open to me.

Stopping too early

The easiest to solve - I will publicly pre-commit to not making a decision until March 26th at the earliest. During that time I will continue to actively generate ideas, meet new people and visit companies/labs even if I already have a compelling option. (Some companies/universities might demand a decision sooner, but given the wealth of choices I think the risk of making a hasty decision outweighs the risk of exploding an offer).

On March 26th I'll post a condensed description of the process and any decision I may have reached.