To Run or Not to Run

May 18, 2021

Let’s start with a thought experiment:

You enter a subway station. The train you are about to take has arrived. The door is open. There’s about 50 meters between you and the train. You have no idea how long the door has opened or when it will close. Now, do you run for it or not?

Untether Effort and Outcome

You can run, but there’s no guarantee that you will catch the train. The door can close as soon as you are about to board. Or you can walk. You are not doomed to miss the train if you walk at your normal pace.

The nature of an unknown outcome is the same. You can choose how you act, but you cannot control what you get. Hence, a better way to think about it is to untether the causal relationship between efforts and outcome.

While the outcome is out of your grip, the process is what you can trust. You know if you run, the time spent will be shorter. You know you will feel a spike of heart beat and the air swooshing by your ear. You know the hype of hope, pluck, and ambition in you. The merits are embodied in the dash.

Therefore, so many people run to the door without a clue. They don’t run because they know for sure that they will succeed. They run exactly because they don’t.

Stop envisioning how your goals come true and enjoy the moment of dashing. As Steve Jobs said: “The journey is the reward.” This applies to every opportunity in life as well.

Bigger Chance Is An Illusion

It’s tempted to think that running will make it more likely to catch the train. It could be true, but since you have no way of knowing what amount of efforts will lead to what kinds of outcome, there’s no point thinking in probability.

It may look gloomy. If we can’t believe that our action will make a difference, what’s the point of making a choice? Isn’t this deterministic? Well, yes and no.

Take job application as an example. You have a dream job and you work hard to shape your application materials. Although there are myriads of other factors in play that affect whether you will get an offer, the evaluation process only occurs after you submit the application.

Being determined doesn’t mean it’s determined beforehand. It just means it’s determined by not merely you.

Your actions will still have immediate consequences. Let’s say (although we can’t be sure), the time left is just enough for you to dash to the train. Then if you caught it, it’s your dashing that made it happen.

When you make a choice, you have to believe you are completely free–even if you are not, you have to act as if.

Either Way Is Fine

Dissociation between effort and outcome provides ground for both running and walking. The key here is, you got to decide if you run or walk.

If you choose to run, you operate with hope; if you walk, you choose to be hopeless. Either way is fine. When someone plans and reaches for something, there’s always hope. It’s almost impossible to strive for something hopelessly.

However, hopelessness is not wrong at all. You can still go for it, you just don’t drain yourself to fight so fiercely. You are calm and open and inquisitive about where life will lead you. It’s completely fine to take your time and say: “The train has its own pace, I have mine.”

It’s even better for you, when everyone is dashing to the door, to pause and reflect on if the train is right for you. You might want to go in a different direction, or you might choose to take another line just for a better view.

Indeed, everyone keeps alternating between running and walking. On some days, when you have energy and you are short of time, you run. But on other days, when you sprain your ankle or are so exhausted after work, you relax and walk.

The underlying curiosity for either choice remains the same: let’s see if we can catch the train. If yes, great; if no, no big deal.

Compassion with The Past Self

If you miss the train, you won’t blame yourself. You won’t think: “I could have run a bit faster” or “I could have left home earlier if I didn’t forget my garbages.” Because you wouldn’t know back then.

You will neither blame the train–“How unfair!”, “Why the door closes at the last minute!”, “Why me!” Because you know, the train (or the driver) doesn’t do this on purpose to anybody. It just comes and goes. It has its own rhythm.

You’ll say: the timing is just not right.

In the same vein, there’s really no need to worry about whether something will work out or not—though we all secretly pray that our efforts pay off. Remember: there’s no guarantee. You don’t have to blame yourself or agonize over the seemingly unjust fate.

When the door closes in your face, you simply acknowledge the fact and accept it. You tell yourself: “I’ve tried.” And stop there—don’t continue with “I could’ve tried harder”. Instead, replace with “I will try harder.”

We should all be more forgiving to ourselves. While it’s easy to connect with the higher, rational self when you look back from afar, it’s much harder to reconcile with the “lower” self and say: given a second chance, at that time and in that position, I would probably still do the same.

Moving forward requires more compassion—and appreciation—with our past self.