What do you Optimize For?

Once a year, I spend a weekend with my “tribe” at the World Domination Summit in Portland Oregon. There are any number of reasons I keep coming back… including exposure to ideas that force me to reconsider my life and priorities.

In 2015 it wasn’t until the closing speaker that an idea seized my mind and wouldn’t let go. Derek Sivers told us about how he sold his company, and donated most of the proceeds. He told us it was an easy decision, because he “always defaults to freedom…” whenever faced with a decision, freedom is what he optimizes his life for.

I’d never considered my priorities in quite that way, so I asked myself… if I had to pick only one thing as the most important, what would it be?

I pulled out my notebook, and wrote “I optimize my life for: impact.” and immediately felt like my soul had just sucker-punched me.

I crossed out “impact,” and instantly felt better. I tried again. I wrote flexibility, freedom, learning, creativity… no adverse reactions. None of them was quite right but I seemed to be headed in the right direction. I attempted a different approach and wrote a few things that I knew I didn’t want to optimize for: money, status, stability, position… this felt good. I put the notebook away and focused on the rest of Derek’s talk, and let my unconscious work on it.

The next day I was talking with friends who were wrestling with the same question when the answer came to me: Exploring. This felt right. Exploring includes important aspects of many of the things I value, including learning, freedom, creativity and flexibility.

Does this mean that I don’t value impact? Absolutely not. Impact is an important consideration, and I want to do meaningful work, but when I have to choose, exploring comes first.

I realized that when I chose to maximize the positive impact I could have, sometimes these choices also limited my ability to explore and left me unsatisfied and restless. I can’t (and wouldn’t) go back in time to change choices I’ve already made, but I plan to use this new understanding to make choices in the future that better reflect my values and priorities.

At the time, I was struggling with some big life and career decisions. This new clarity helped me quickly prioritize my list of options, in a way that I felt really good about.

What do you optimize for?

What do you think?