I believe a desire to try new things is one of the most valuable mindsets a person can have, is incredibly underrated and deserves far greater reverence in our society.
Many people view the prospect of trying new things as a question of how likely they are to enjoy an activity; will I enjoy Ethiopian food, will I enjoy going on that roller coaster, will I enjoy skiing, will I enjoy that book etc.
I believe this framework is incomplete.
Our decision to try new things should be based on an action’s expected value, not whether we are likely to enjoy it.1
Amazon offers your first month of Prime free, Uber offers $10 off your first ride, and Airbnb offers $40 off your first stay. Even though these promotions fail to convert many users, the ones they do convert provide so much business, they’re still great promotions.
One’s framework for trying new things should be akin to how Amazon views their free trials; it doesn’t matter how many misses there are so long as the overall expected value is positive.
When we contemplate trying new things, it is not enough to only think about how likely we are to enjoy the experience, but to contemplate how trying the activity will impact the rest of our lives. Bear with me for a moment.
I really love eating ramen; I expect to eat 100s of bowls of ramen over the remainder of my life. In a very simple sense, my life is better because of discovering my taste for ramen.
There was a time in my life before I knew I enjoyed ramen.
At some point, I had to make a decision to try ramen. I might have hypothesized there was a minimal chance I’d enjoy it and pass. This would be a mistake. The correct framework was to think about the cost of trying ramen once, and if I did not like it, never eating it again, versus trying ramen and enjoying it, and then eating delicious ramen hundreds of times in the future.
Here’s this same framework applied to a current problem in my life:
I am scared to bike on major streets in Toronto. Due to my fear and anxiety, I believe I will likely have an awful experience attempting to bike in downtown Toronto. On the other hand, there is a small possibility I will get over this fear and find it very enjoyable. If i enjoy the experience, I may start biking often; if I bike often, I may consider commuting to work by bike; if I enjoy commuting to work by bike, I may do that for the rest of my career and in the process, save money and live a healthier life.
Even though there is only a small chance of enjoying my first experience biking in downtown Toronto, the expected value of trying is enormous.
For all the things we contemplate doing, it’s not just a question if we will enjoy it, but if we enjoy it, how may the enjoyment impact the rest of our life.
In the 17th century, lobster was viewed as unpalatable; in 2018, it’s viewed as a delicacy. What changed? In the 17th century, due to its availability, lobster was cheap and associated with poor people. In 2018, due to its scarcity, lobster is associated with wealth.
While everyone has their own preferences, we often fail to appreciate how influenced our preferences are by what’s around us.
My favourite parable is the opening to David Foster Wallace’s This is Water:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Trying new things is one of the most effective ways of discovering the “water” around us, to discover what our true preferences are, and separating ourselves from what society makes accessible and attractive.
If you lived in the Maritimes 400 years ago, would you see the “water” and give lobster a chance? Or would the association with poor people be enough to scare you from giving it a fair chance.
If trying new things is one of the most underrated mindsets a person can have, by extension, status-quo bias is likely one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
There are three seemingly unrelated studies that fascinate me.
After a strike closed 2/3rds of the tube stations in London for two days causing commuters to experiment with new routes, a significant number of commuters kept the new route, having found it faster than their old, preferred route.
What’s the connection between these findings? When people were forced to make changes to their lives, they were often better off. The fear of trying something new, of being uncomfortable, of failing, is so significant, we are often scared to try anything different, even when the benefits are significant.
The bottom line is it is very easy to try new things.
If you want to try playing tennis, cooking gourmet meals, reading novels, eating vegetarian, waking up early, biking to work, making your own lunch, stand up comedy, dieting, quitting facebook, salsa dancing, painting or even more abstract things like being more social or charitable, all of these actions have such a low cost, and potential to have such an positive benefit.
Even if you nodded your head along with this article, looking back, how much have you experimented with your life this year? It is not enough to tacitly agree trying new things is valuable; we should actively try to experiment with our lives on an ongoing basis and work to incorporate all of the positives into our routines
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1 The actual decision matrix is slightly more complicated. It should be represented as:
Likelihood of enjoying new activity X benefit of doing new activity (as measured by how many times you do the activity in the future, minus the enjoyment you would have obtained from the activity you would have done in the alternative) + benefit of being a more diverse person in tune with their interests after trying something new + benefit of knowing from the experiment that you either like that activity or don’t like it, and don’t want to try it again) – (Likelihood of not enjoying new activity X cost of doing new activity.