The murky process of prioritization in a future-less world
Maybe because of the type of work I (used to / will again?) do, or maybe just because of the type I person I am, I have spent a lot of time in my life thinking about what it is I will do. At work I call this ‘prioritization’. I’ve always seen prioritization as a process of working through decreasing subsets of potential candidates of action. For me, I’ve essentially visualized this as a (fairly) straightforward 3-step sequence. To start of with, there is the ultimate ‘super-set’ of all possibilities. This is borne from a master list of ‘things you might do’. This list, particularly in our western and essentially capitalist society, is supposed to be theoretically infinite and only constrained by the limits of our imagination. I think this is particularly important in a capitalist environment because in order to maintain the ‘buy-in’ that we all must have to maintain the system, we have to believe that anything is achievable if enough effort it put in so that aspiration is fueled continually. I’ve never wholly subscribed or believed in that though. In reality, I’ve seen this master list of ‘things I might do’ has having other constraints beyond just my imagination. I can imagine for example being a great artist, and I would very much love to be one. For sure, if I focused all my energy and time to that goal, I’m sure that I would be able to get some level of achievement in that space, over time. I’m also very sure that I simply don’t have the natural talent / flair / gift for art that would enable me to achieve true greatness. My ability to appreciate art would never be matched by my ability to create it. So, my super-set of ‘things I might do’ starts off as a subset of everything in the world, hinged on a layer of pragmatism based on a personal judgement of what is realistic. Having established my super-set, there are two subsets within that which then have to be considered. The first is the subset of ‘things I want to do’, which is very easy to understand and often very easy to sequence in order of ‘things I want to do the most’. There is also the final (and most disliked) subset to consider which is ‘things I have to do’. The final step in the process essentially involved identifying those things that overlap between the things I want to do, against the things I must do, and creating a list of actions which balance personal gratification with other needed benefits. This creates a continually evolving list of priorities which can be picked off one by one in order of preference / benefit in a way which usually allows you to balance need with reward and pushes off any really undesirable / unpleasant actions for as long as humanly possible. The way this is all enabled with via the magic of time. Time is fucking brilliant because it allows you to conceive of a future where EVERYTHING eventually gets done! It’s amazing how I find the capacity to generate additional ‘imagined’ time to accommodate those things that I know I really should do, but are not at the top of the ‘desire to do vs. must do’ assessment list yet. You can pretty much justify any prioritization decision against that reality. The reason I’m banging on about all this is that something profound happened to me when the brain operation I had to go through was described to me at Oxford. Dr. L explained that as with all operations, there were risks, and one of the risks of this operation was that I might die. He said it was about a 1% to 2% risk. I play the lottery every week, and the chances of winning are a lot less than that. It occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, it was genuinely tangible that my infinite pool of ‘imagined’ time could actually run out. The future I’d always imagined where I could get everything done was no longer something I could rely on. I was now going to have to decide what things in the limited time available, I was going to commit to doing and it was a very different internal conversation. I realized that there was going to have to be a reckoning (with myself) to create an uncompromising ‘things I must do’ list. I spent a long time thinking through what I thought I must do before the surgery, in case I fell into the 1% to 2% group and eventually came up with a very short list. 1) Update my Will, 2) Understand the financial implications of my death for my family and 3) Write a letter to my wife, son and daughter. There was another item which was 4) Finish my album, which is something I want to write about in some detail separately. Although I was extremely passionate about this 4th item, I simply couldn’t justify it to myself in this list. I had to reluctantly accept that if I was to die then this wouldn’t get done. Having decided the 3 things that I really had to do in the event that I was going to die, I was faced with the fact that I didn’t really want to do any of them. They were all serious, hard to complete and depressing to think about. I was anxious about the operation and continually distracted by an inner dialogue on what was happening to me and this made it even harder to get stuck into them. However, with the operation date looming I forced myself to work through them. The first thing I tackled was the Will and this was the easiest. My wife and I had already drafted a Will a couple of months before this had all started but had yet to get it was witnessed and finalized. We asked for some help from some neighbors and this item was finished. It was a load of my mind and the first step in building whatever financial security for my wife and kids that what within my power in this situation. The second item was much harder to face as I had to start reading through the fine print on things like my Life Assurance and getting some basic information on my pension. Reading through it somehow seemed like an acknowledgement that I was definitely going to die and I found it very depressing. I got through it though and although grim to digest, the reality was that if I did die then I was confident that my wife and the kids would be OK. It was a huge relief to be honest and on some level it partially eased the guilt and shame I’d been feeling about my illness and its potential to rob me of the capacity to be a husband / father. The last thing I wanted to do was to write a letter for my wife and kids and this felt emotionally hugely important but it was by far the hardest of the 3 tasks to complete. I was OK on what I wanted to say to my wife and I hope you will excuse me if I don’t share that here. On what to write to my kids though, it was incredibly challenging. Initially I tried to identify to myself why it was that I was writing these letters. My kids were 5 and 3 at this point and the letter was intended for when they were older (like maybe 16 or 18). The more I thought about it, the more the truth that had previously occurred to me came home. By the time they were that age, they would likely hardly remember me. How relevant could I possibly be to them by then? I also had to accept that I would not have any way of knowing what they would be like as people, and the idea that I could somehow offer them advice or guidance from beyond the grave was infantile. Why was I doing this? Was it really for them, or was I really doing it for myself? To make myself feel better? In the end, I decided that what might mean something to them would be a simple message to try and communicate two things. Firstly, how much I love them and what joy they had bought to my life. Secondly, to try and articulate not what they should do, but what I had tried to do. I figured that knowing where your biological father was ‘coming from’ would mean something. It was the hardest thing that I have ever written. The notes were only short in the end, but I decided to create and share a list of the most important ‘lessons’ that I felt I had learned through my life. It was a really enlightening experience for me. I was forced to look at these so called lessons and analyse whether I had really learned them or just wished that I had. There are some things that I think we all wish we would live as, but reality is a bit different. In the end, I got to a place where I felt confidence in sharing just 5 things; Trust your instincts and be brave. Make you own determination and show fortitude in your endeavors. In the end, nothing is more important than having your family around you. Materialism and all of its trappings doesn’t make you happy. Art and music, love and laughter, serenity and acceptance of your self is the key to a happy life. Go here to the start of the journey. Go here for next blog entry. Go here for previous blog entry.