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In any situation that you find yourself in, you have some number of choices, or options. Here are three closely related ways of thinking about those options.

  • Preserving options is the opposite of closing options prematurely. An action that you take may have the effect of closing options; to the extent that it doesn't, it has the effect of preserving options.
  • Flexibility is a state of mind that allows you to take action in the face of multiple options without overcommitting yourself to any one.
  • Easy deflection is a question of how bad your existing options have to be before you spend time looking for new ones.

I already wrote about easy deflection at some length, so here I'm just going to talk about the first two, which anyway are much more closely related.

This is all very abstract and general, so it might help to have a specific example in mind as you read. The example I'd suggest is the game of go, which is all about having lots of options. You might even want to re-read the above with that in mind.

Or, if you like, you can think about driving … I have a few things to say about preserving options in that context.

Having done it myself, I can report that it's pretty easy to confuse yourself and imagine that flexibility and preserving options are the same thing. But, really they're not. For example, consider my first few years in graduate school. I didn't have to be there, I had plenty of other perfectly good options, but I was so fixated on the idea of going into academia that I couldn't even see them. It took literally years of unpleasantness to make me look around for other options, but when I did, there they were … they had been preserved without any action on my part.

That proves there's a difference. I only considered one option, so clearly I wasn't flexible; nevertheless, the other options were preserved. Therefore, preserving options is different from flexibility. (Incidentally, I wasn't easily deflected, either.)

The way I see it, flexibility is a balance between two extremes: rigidity, where you fixate on a single option, and indecisiveness, where you jump around from option to option, and either fail to act, or act in ways that don't lead anywhere.

Another point I wanted to make about flexibility is that it really is a state of mind, as I said above. It feels like something to be flexible. I imagine I can recognize it when I'm playing go … sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes I just can't get hold of it.

I haven't done a very good job of it, I'm afraid, but there's another distinction I wanted to make, between options and actions. In the simplest cases, the two are the same … if you're in a restaurant, looking at the menu, you have some options, you act to choose one, and that pretty much closes all the other options. In general, though, the two are different. An action can have multiple purposes, promote multiple options. That happens frequently in life, and also happens fairly often in the game of go, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. It can happen in chess, too, but it's rarer; most of the time a move there has a single clear purpose.

Just to have a real example, suppose you're getting in the car to run a bunch of errands. What's the purpose of getting in the car, in that case? There's no single purpose; the action furthers multiple goals.

Also, there are lots of shades of gray between preserving and closing options. Getting in the car doesn't close the option of taking a nap, it just makes it more difficult to pursue, because first you have to get back out of the car.

On the other hand, even in the most general case, sometimes you really do have to commit to a single option. That is, as in a restaurant, you'll have a set of options, each of which essentially closes all the others. Is it possible to make that kind of choice while remaining in a flexible state of mind? I think so … that's why I put those caveats in the definitions above, about prematurely closing options and overcommitting.

And yet, once you're committed, there's not much left for a flexible state of mind to operate on; it seems like you'd naturally tend toward rigidity. (Just as in a world full of cooperation, “tit for tat” tends to relax into “always cooperate”.) And, indeed, that seems to happen. I can see it in my own behavior, but the best example I have comes from my dad.

Some number of years ago, he left his job to become an independent consultant. That required some flexibility; it was also a key factor in my later decision to do the same thing, but that's not important right now. Later, he went back to work at another company, then just recently he retired. He and I were talking about that … I figured that after having the flexibility to become independent, retiring must have been pretty easy; having a job, or not, was no big deal, right? But, actually, it was … he'd been just as settled in the new job as he had in the old one.

Since I've been talking about only having one option, there's a meme I ought to pass along so that you don't get the wrong idea. No matter what, you always have more than one option. The other options may all be unpalatable, or even unthinkable, in that you don't even want to admit that they exist, but they're there all the same. And, I think it's good to be aware of them … there is some truth to that idea from The Matrix, that people are happy as long as they have a choice.

I've seen that meme about options in various places, most recently in the book Getting Past OK. I'm in the middle of it right now. So far, it seems like a good book; I particularly like the way the author (Brodie) acknowledges that what he's done is gather useful memes from various other places, and put them together in some kind of organized way. (Does that sound familiar? See The Good.)

Another relevant meme from the book is that failing to decide is itself a decision, or, more generally, that failing to act is itself an action. The way I see it, that's a fact about time: if in the timeless abstract you have choices A, B, and C, then at each instant of time you have an additional choice, D, none of the above. (That leads to the infinite series of decisions that I mentioned in Accumulated Notes.)

I know I'm rambling, here … sorry about that. I wish I could lay it all out as in a math textbook, as a logical sequence of definitions, axioms, and theorems about options, goals, actions, processes, time, and values, but I just don't understand it well enough yet. In the meantime, maybe I can at least sting your brain a little.

Finally, I'd like to come back to the main point, flexibility and options, and talk about two related concepts from the game of go.

One concept that's very closely related is the idea of playing lightly. I already said something about it in Easy Deflection, but really light play is part of the exact same tangle of ideas as flexibility and preserving options. If you want to make distinctions, I guess you could say that flexibility is the state of mind required, light play is the action that results, and preserving options is one of the consequences.

The other concept I want to talk about is yosu-miru. There's a nice quote that explains it toward the end of Wait and See, but it's so perfect that I'll repeat it here. (It's from the book Strategic Concepts of Go.)

When making a yosu-miru move, one maintains his own flexibility and options but forces his opponent to settle on a particular shape before he is ready to, thereby reducing his options.

As an example of yosu-miru in a more general context, imagine that you're a girl in high school, and there are two guys you like, but some other girl is getting all their attention. Wouldn't it be yosu-miru to arrange for all three of them to be in the same place at once?

One last point. Since I'm writing about flexibility, you might guess that I'm good at it. That would be a mistake. It's just something I think about, and aspire to. In fact I'm not even especially good at go.


  See Also

  Cruise Control
  Easy Deflection
  Foolish Consistency
  Preserving Options
  Restaurant Effect, The
  Some Memes (Tempest)
  Who Is Passing Whom?

@ June (2004)
  September (2004)