Data On Being Young, Scrappy, and (Sometimes) Satisfied
Remain forever hungry, or enjoy the tried-and-true? Sometimes, I learned, it’s okay to double down on the life you have.
Our Lord of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, famously told students to “ stay hungry, stay foolish .” This advice, itself quoting from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog , comprised the finale of his Stanford commencement speech, right after a story about his brush with death. Death, he said, is the change agent of life. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
The second part of his instructions I promptly discarded, but the first bit seemed to be a perfectly reasonable prescription from the most celebrated alumnus of my high school. We take the advice that we like to hear, and I had always been ambitious, had seemingly been born dissatisfied. For me, staying hungry meant desiring the new, and that desire itself was protection against decay. I knew that the personality trait of “openness to experience” decreased with age . I knew that people became more conservative over time, took fewer risks, stayed inside more. Complacency awaited everyone who didn’t consciously nurture that wanting, who failed to fight the lure of inertia every minute. Aging was the death of desire, and so staying hungry meant staying young, and staying young meant occupying a world of possibility.
Jobs is hardly the only one to advise the hunger-based approach to life; it is reproduced again and again in our cultural DNA. A decade after his speech, millions applauded a newly famous, larger-than-life character, one who was never satisfied, one who was young, scrappy, and hungry . That’s me, too, I thought. I’ve been hungry all my life.
Whatever you call it—curiosity, lust, aspiration, ambition—hunger invigorates. I believed hunger was the best strategy against regret in a world so big. With so much to do and know, I feared missing out or discovering too late. So I rarely traveled to the same place twice, never re-read books, and pushed myself to choose the fermented shark over the tastier-looking, but pedestrian, soup. My reach exceeded my grasp, always, and only the new and difficult seemed worthwhile. If I felt uninterested in reading a dense paper, if I just wanted to retreat into comfort, I would rebuke myself. I’m becoming so lazy and boring , I complained to my friends. Inertia is winning.
Perhaps I was unusually fearful of inertia, but for everyone there exists a tension between exploring a new (if uncertain) possibility and enjoying the tried-and-true. Each option has a risk and payoff, making this a classic question in computer science called the “ multi-armed bandit problem .” The name comes from casinos with different slot machines, each of which has an “arm.” The arms have different, and unknown, odds of cashing out, explain Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths in their book Algorithms to Live By . The player needs to strike a balance between exploring the machines to see which ones are promising, and sticking with the ones that seem most likely to pay the big bucks. Never explore, and you might be stuck with a dud. Explore ceaselessly, and you’ll waste time fiddling with low-payoff machines.
So what’s the best strategy? One simple solution, developed by mathematician Herbert Robbins , is called “win-stay-lose-shift” and is exactly what it sounds like. Doing well? Stick with that slot. Otherwise, jump ship and try a new one. It seems obvious, but performs reliably better than chance. Of course, more sophisticated solutions exist—but they are statistically complicated , and in real life, payoffs are hard to calculate. The situation becomes even more difficult when the payoffs change over time; if, for example, a restaurant improves with a new owner. (This problem is then called the “restless bandit,” and is so complex it may not have a solution.)
But there is one consideration that can completely change the decision to explore or enjoy, and that is the amount of time until the casino closes.
I had my facts right: As people age, their world does tend to narrow. The elderly spend more time with the same people ; there are fewer new concerts and more evenings with old friends. But my interpretation was wrong, and now I see the trick I played on myself. I believed that this change in behavior was a sad decline, instead of what it actually is: a new strategy for maximizing happiness that is wholly rational given the limits of our lives.
In the earlier stages of life, there’s a lot to explore. But the less time we have, the more the cost of spending time exploring (and running into duds) goes up. We don’t stop hanging out with random people because we become “lazy and boring.” We do so because we are aware of the ticking clock and so we pick the solution that brings us the most joy.
Older people are happier than those who are younger, note Christian and Griffiths, because what an explorer trades off for knowledge is pleasure. Scholar and writer Kate Bowler , diagnosed with incurable cancer at thirty-five, summed this up wonderfully: “When the world shuts down, then you realize, these are my plot points. This is my one job, this is the one man I love, this is my one kid. Infinite possibilities can be exciting, but sometimes even more beautiful is doubling down on the life that you have.”
For me, constant exploration and the forcing of desire didn’t just come from a simple need for knowledge. It came also from a lack of belief in myself. It arose from my conviction that I was behind, and there was something transformational always out of reach.
At nineteen, I started using an RSS feed to keep up with all the writing on the internet. The feed, which ballooned to thousands of subscriptions, began as a duty for a job, but continued as a compulsion. If I missed the churn of a single day, I was convinced I had missed the one weird article that would change everything—reveal the secret that would tell me who I was really was, how to make him love me, what I needed to achieve my dreams. Because I thought myself stupid and eternally misguided, it was easy to hold on to the thrilling belief that one person or event or piece of knowledge could change everything, and all I needed was to explore enough to find it. There was no time to enjoy what I already knew. The world was spinning and I needed to white-knuckle to keep up, or fall off the ride forever.
Don’t be shocked, but there never was one weird article, or person, or book deal, or intellectual framework that fixed everything. There were no easy, instant answers that completely flipped me upside-down. The self is sturdier than that, I learned, for better or worse. When I started deliberately shirking my RSS feeds, I came back to realize that I hadn’t missed as much as I feared. Recently, I spent five days in Cuba without internet, and the world did spin forward, but it was easy enough to catch up. My ability to enjoy, to take breaks, grew out of this new trust in myself, that I wasn’t hopelessly befuddled. Constant vigilance against decay is no longer needed; learning that “always explore” or “stay hungry” wasn’t the best strategy was a revelation.
In the science of decision-making, another common framework is that of “satisficing” versus “maximizing.” The maximizer is the hungry one, always negotiating for the best. The satisficer does with the “good enough.” Once, I considered myself a maximizer on principle. But research shows that satisficers are happier , and only later did it occur to me that maximizing everything would mean wasting precious effort on trivial decisions like what to eat for lunch. Jobs wasn’t wrong: There can be something thrilling in precarity, something energizing in dissatisfaction. Now I’m not interested in either staying hungry or staying satiated—I’m interested in surveying what I have and letting the desire well up of its own accord; in feeling hungry when I find something that is lacking, and satisfied when I have what I need.