Request: help on over-optimization. Reward: a story from Thailand

My email for The Listserve

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Listserve is an email listserve with about 25,000 subscribers, in which one person every day is selected to email the entire group. A few days ago, the random number generator smiled upon my user ID (or some such). I didn’t know what to write about, and I didn’t want to give some obvious life advice—so I asked for some, and told a story to add some value.

Published January 3, 2015, copied here, with a photo for context.

Hey Listserve,

I’m Mark Bao. I’d like to ask for some life advice. And tell you a story.

1. For most of my life, I’ve been trying to optimize things as much as possible. Optimize the things I’m working on. Make sure that I’m learning exactly the right things, to build the mental structures so I can be different than others. And above all -- make sure I’m working on something that I think will have the most impact on the world -- which right now I think is behavioral science. But lately, such a focus on optimization, and perfectionism, has gotten difficult -- in part because I realize that there’s so much uncertainty and I can’t predict things, and trying to make sure things work out while not knowing everything has been overwhelming. Has anyone else dealt with this? I’d love to chat with you.

2. I’m starting a group of people who are interested in psychology, thoughtful topics, life-long learning, and understanding things on a deeper level. If you read Farnam Street or Raptitude or Less Wrong or are interested in understanding behavior and improving personal growth, it would be rad to have you in the group! Just shoot me an email. The goal is to have a collaborative discussion among thoughtful people trying to make the world a better place.

And now a story. Northwest Thailand. During my round-the-world trip. T and I decide to take a day hike into a valley, between two mountains, to a waterfall, crossing a river a few times, climbing boulders, walking through idyllic paths through damp forests and brushes teeming with weird bugs we’ve never seen before.

We get to the waterfall, and eat our sandwiches in victory.

3 hours to sundown - just enough time to get back home before things go dark. But when it does go dark... It gets below zero. If you stayed in the valley, things aren’t looking great for you. We had no more food. No water. Hiking in shorts and a t-shirt. No worries, plenty of time to go.

Walking back, T spots an upper trail. I’m thrilled -- I hate backtracking and always like to take new trials. We walk up and see a whole new view of the valley, almost reaching the top of the mountain. But...

“Hey, T?”


“Did we lose the trail?”

We look down. What was the trail now was a few leaves on the ground.

“Uh, weird.”

1.5 hours to go before sundown. We tried backtracking, trying to find the leaves on the ground we followed before. It was all shrubs and trees and weird bugs.


1 hour to get out. No trail. Getting dark. No food. No water. And already feeling chilly.

Panic. But after a moment: we remembered we crossed the river at the bottom of the valley. So we thought: well, maybe we should try to get down to the river.

We found a relatively flat incline with some leaves, got on our butts, and slid down the side, getting scratched, bit by bugs, dodging tree trunks, and trying to control ourselves going down.

We didn’t know if that would lead to the right place. We didn’t know how far we went up and if we had enough time to get down.

But then we caught a glimpse of the river. We got up, jumped over a bunch of boulders, and ran over to the river, ridiculously happy that we made it down. Followed the river for a while, found the path again -- and found our way back, walking back home just as the sun set.

Mark Bao
New York, NY

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.