Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opportunity Costs: Doing as Not Doing

I learned about opportunity costs in one of the several degree programs which combined to keep me off the streets for years.  Basically, the term represents what we forego in making a choice between options--like choosing "what lies behind Door 2" on "Let's Make a Deal," and thereby losing out on whatever was behind Doors 1 and 3.  I haven't seen the show since long before Monty left, but I still remember the audience's unison "Awwww!" which attended the revelations of what the contestant could have had, had she or he chosen differently.  Of course, sometimes the contestant lucked out, and chose the best of the available prizes.  

In life, things are seldom so clear cut.  For one thing, there are way too many freakin' doors.  And we don't usually get to see right away, or ever, what we missed out on.  And there are costs as well as benefits that accompany each alternative.  And the various consequences are not, as I learned to say in planning school *commensurate.  Unlike Monty's offerings, we can't easily put a price tag on the value of our outcomes.  It would therefore be difficult to evaluate, even if we had all the information about the end results, whether we had won or lost.

But still the concept is intriguing.  You might say I have been haunted by potential opportunity costs since learning to consider them.  That's a fairly classy way to explain my trouble with decision-making and with moving ahead.

And still, it's true in more than the abstract that doing something means not doing something else.  Elementary, yes, but track-stopping nonetheless.  And fairly overwhelming in retrospect.

My two-year-old grandson and his mom are working on this.  My wise daughter will attempt to gain his "buy-in" by presenting him with simple, dichotomous choices, like "Do you want to walk to the house or be carried?"  When he is not moved to articulate his choice, or to begin walking, she will say "You are choosing to be carried.  Is that what you want?"

It could be a useful tape to have in one's head, if not overplayed.  Where was the voice when I needed it, the one that would have calmly confronted me on many distracted occasions, that I was "choosing not to do my dissertation," or to work on my novel, or to get a life?

While it's important, I believe, not to mistake ourselves for mostly rational beings, it doesn't hurt to attempt rationality from time to time.  It's good to keep opportunity costs in mind, though this rational tool won't play a lead role in our "decisions"--some made at other than a conscious level anyway--of what to do.  But it's good, too, to keep this tool on a leash, or it just might lead to paralysis.  Imagine trying to think about the universe of what we aren't doing in initiating a single act, let alone every act!

* I know, I know.  Yes, I really went to a highly regarded planning program, and got a master's degree in urban and regional planning, for all the good it did my personal organization style.

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