2: The Buffet and the Supermarket

A surprising path to depression, and my escape from it.

Inspired by a post from Derek Sivers, I once decided to be much more critical of what I spent time doing. He argues that people too often fill their time with things that are only mildly exciting, leaving less time for the really interesting things - the ones that make you say “Hell yeah!” As I applied his rule - to say “no” to things which weren’t a “Hell yeah!” - I found myself dismissing more and more. I started saying “no” to most articles I came across and project ideas I had. Eventually, I found myself saying “no” to everything. Ironically, my attempt at having more fun led to having no fun, and spending all day in bed.

Just as there is no way of speaking such that you cannot be misunderstood, there is no way of offering advice such that it cannot potentially hurt those who take it. A missing or misunderstood idea could spell trouble. More generally, there is no attempt at improvement which is guaranteed to succeed, whether in personal life, public policy, or anything else. Subtle-but-crucial misconceptions may always be lurking beneath the surface. So, we must always be on the lookout for mistakes.

In this case, I’d made two.

First, I’d been dismissing anything that wasn’t immediately super-interesting, based on a snap judgment. But, it takes creativity (and therefore a little time and effort) to understand or imagine why something might be interesting. It’s not always immediately obvious. So, I was effectively saying, “I’m going to ignore any idea that doesn’t seem ultra-valuable within five seconds of first hearing it.” That is a recipe for ignoring many worthwhile ideas.

Second, I gave up exploring new options, since they all met with rejection anyway. But, if you dismiss ideas without creating new ones, you’ll soon run out and be left empty-handed and bored to bits.

So, to correct these two mistakes and escape my depression-by-dismissiveness, I first needed to take ideas much more seriously when I came across them. I needed to put some real creativity into understanding what might be interesting about them. Second, I needed to actively seek out and create new ideas - new opportunities for exciting things to do.

In culinary terms, my mistake was treating life like a buffet rather than a supermarket.

At a buffet, a limited number of dishes are on offer, and a customer can only accept or reject them. They are at the mercy of the cook. If a buffet-goer dismisses every dish as unappetizing, they go hungry. By trying to apply the “Hell yeah or No” rule, I’d dismissed every dish at the buffet, and was left starving for options.

A supermarket is entirely different. It mainly contains ingredients, not dishes. From that vast collection, a customer can create an infinite variety of dishes. Only an insane shopper would expect to enjoy an ingredient by eating it raw. Imagine someone complaining, “I bought this flour and ate a bowl of it. It was terrible!” Come on, you’re supposed to make things with it! In my case, I should’ve been looking at every idea I came across as an ingredient rather than a dish - an opportunity to apply my creativity rather than something to accept or reject as-is. If one goes hungry in a supermarket, there is no chef to blame - just a failure of imagination.

So, a buffet only allows selection from existing options while a supermarket allows for the creation of new options.

Though my experience may seem like an isolated incident, the buffet view of reality dominates many areas of life. It is present whenever you are told to choose a class, course, or career rather than create one. To choose a friend or romantic partner rather than create a relationship. On this static view of the world, there are no new subjects to study, no new jobs, no new kinds of relationships - nothing new at all. If all the existing options are unsatisfactory, then you must pick the least worst, for you cannot hope for anything better. If there are evils, they are here to stay. If your job is horrible, then you may as well settle in, because “that’s life.” This is the attitude that would have boots stamping on human faces forever and people describing their relationship to their job with the motto “eat shit, cash checks.”

Thankfully, that attitude is false. It is always possible to create new options - to choose the “new option” option. There is no guarantee you’ll find one worth taking, but better options are always in principle available. The screen you’re reading from, the words I’m writing, and the freedom to share them - these once did not exist. Now they do, and they’re a testament to the possibility (and necessity) of creating new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of life. To the epic history and future of progress, I think only one response is rational: “Hell yeah!”

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