08 May, 2017

Obligations By Accident

I've often found myself falling into new habits by accident.

In 2002, I was working at a call center hawking credit cards. I would regularly outperform most of my peers using a strategy that differed greatly from what they taught new hires. Rather than attempt to sell to each person that answered the phone, I did my best to get each person answering the phone to hang up on me. This greatly reduced call times and allowed me to reach far more people in a given workday. In the rare instances when someone did not hang up, I reasoned that they must have some minimal interest from the first few keywords I said in my initial boring spiel, and so used that hook to get them to sign up. In a work environment where my colleagues were getting an average of one sale each day, I was getting 3-5 daily.

I was not much interested in working long hours, so I told my manager at the time that I'd rather work 2-3 days each week than the full 40 hours. I figured that since I did more sales in those 2-3 days than others did in a full week, it would be an easy pitch. But they were limited by corporate rules and didn't really have the leeway to let me do as I wanted. I then asked, somewhat jokingly, what if I just quit halfway through the week; would they be willing to rehire me the next week since I'm skilled at the job? To my surprise, they said yes. And so I would work until Tuesday or Wednesday each week, quit, and they'd rehire me the following Monday. It was their way of keeping me while still not going against what corporate had mandated.

This rather strange situation resulted in a happy circumstance. One Tuesday, I quit, as I did each week, and I drove past Spring Hill College on my way home. Because I had technically had no work obligations for the future, on a whim I decided to stop by and see if they'd let me start classes. The first day of classes had been that Monday, so I would be entering rather late, but they were excited to accept me anyway, and I went to my first class the very next day.

In 199X, I was driving across the country to someplace new to start over. I wasn't yet sure where I'd go; I had contacted two places announcing my intention to move in: one in Utah and one in Colorado. I was halfway there when I reached the intersection of interstate highways where I'd need to choose one destination or another. There was more traffic in one direction, so I chose the other. This small happenstance resulted in my living in Colorado for a few years.

In 201X, I had been living long-term in a hotel. A fire came, burning several of my possessions, and convincing me that I should perhaps move to a real house. On a whim, I did a nationwide craigslist search for the cheapest rent home that included all utilities and had hi-speed internet access. The cheapest ad at the time was in Tennessee, so I sent them an email, had a quick call over the phone, and moved in three days later.

A few weeks ago, I had to stay a little late after work. It was a Friday night, and by the time I was ready to leave, the Uber fares had surged through the roof. I was unwilling to pay the extra price, and didn't really feel like taking the metro, so I instead decided to use the gym downstairs. I worked out for two hours and so thoroughly enjoyed myself that I decided to workout after work more often. Now I use the gym 2-3 times each week for a couple of hours after work.

When I think of the many choices I've made in life, I often wonder about what might have been. How easily I might have moved into an academic career in philosophy, or stayed as a high school dropout for my entire life. How I came to identify with the effective altruism movement even while I was working for an extremely ineffective charity. How I came to have a relationship with my father when I could have so easily not contacted him or interacted with him at all. And yet so many more things in my life came about just by chance, not choice. Not just the above items, but the chance that allowed me to be good at math, rather than sports. To be born in relative affluence, rather than in a developing country. To have met such wonderful people in my life, mostly because I happened to be born and lived near them.

It is because of these many accidents that I really think hard about how I should negotiate with my future selves. I fear value drift, and yet they deserve consideration as much as I. So much of who I am and what I value is just from chance. Should I be multiplying our vector values so that we can work toward the same goals? Or is it enough for me to just allow them to be different, even if I disagree strongly with their beliefs? What duties do I owe them beyond what I would owe my neighbors? What duties do they owe me?

Even more keen is the past: What obligations have I been ignoring that have to do with my past selves? I clearly remember making a promise to build a theme park centered on dinosaurs when I grew up. Yet I don't see any chance of my ever fulfilling such a strange promise. What about that earlier intent to earn a PhD? Or the prejudiced leanings of someone who used to use the word "gay" as a derogatory term?

I see the moral arc of my life as trending upward, but it is perhaps unfair for my present self to be the one judging that. Would my earlier self see it trending downward? What of my far future self? Am I justified in just being a bad neighbor to my temporal selves? I tolerate Trump supporters in my community, but not really among my close friends. Am I being hypocritical here?

These are tough questions. I need to think on them more. This is the least I owe to my other temporal selves, both past and future.

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