Brian Kitano

Compromise Creates Values

As someone chronically privileged, being an overpaid, underachieving skilled "laborer" with no debt, dependents or real responsibilities, I basically led a life where I could afford everything I ever wanted, and still had plenty of days free, each day filled to the brim with hours to be bored. Free time and objects are so relatively cheap for privileged people like me today, that many have stopped valuing anything. In those long, long moments, I fancied a lot of things but didn't really have a vision for my life; I wanted stuff, but didn't want for myself.

On the flip side, most people cannot simply "have everything." People love traveling AND having dogs, but it's hard to take a dog on the road, so they travel less. Athletes love donuts AND winning, but it's hard to run the Boston Marathon on Boston Creme. Some artists have passion and debt, and they've not all necessarily made peace with it, but the ones that keep prioritizing art over debt choose not to pay off their debt. That can be a really hard choice, and they make that choice every day, and the world is filled with people who make hard choices. [1] It was only when I was laid off that I realized that everyone else was not so oblivious.

Humans are constantly forced to choose, constantly closing one door to open another. In the vast majority of decisions, we are taking on real opportunity costs, which we negotiate with ourselves. In this way, almost every choice we make is a compromise. [2]

Let's look at choice from another angle. In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes: “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become." Said differently, given that all decisions are a form of action, and that votes, when made conscientiously, represent our values, then every choice is a reaffirmation of our values.

When we put together the big picture, a unified perspective emerges: given that each choice is a compromise, and that choice is also a reaffirmation of values, then compromise itself is a reaffirmation of our values. This is not even that mind-blowing, really: it should be obvious that the means by which we negotiate opportunity costs is by measuring our options against our values and ranking them, and that by making the choice, we have voted for that ranking of values as the one we want to continue embodying, that this is the person we want to become.

And yet, for people like me who were rarely forced to make hard choices, this perspective was inaccessible. Because I could always have whatever I wanted at little to no real cost to me in terms of time or money, I never had to make compromises. As a result, I never had to reference my values, and eventually began to navigate life without any. Without any values, everything to me became, in a word, cheap. Abundance begat valuelessness.

Since then, I've done a lot of reflecting on my values, and in a crazy turn of events, the hard decisions don't feel so hard anymore. It's become easier for me to make decisions because I have these values not merely as a guide, but as something that naturally pulls me, and the hard choices are still hard, but I'm not indecisive about them. And I think it's the same for those other folks: the nomad settles to build this relationship with a dog. [3] The artist, though still stressed, keeps painting. [4] The athlete runs past the donut, and every day it gets easier to keep running.


[1] I don’t mean to be shilling hardship bait here; a lot of the time you can do both things. But when you can't, good to confront it.

[2] Also, I think there's a distinction between having a hard choice and being indecisive: hard choices usually between options that have clear and high stakes, whereas indecision seems to be when the stakes are not so clear (or, trivial).

[3] Definitely going to write about dogs and their amazing emotional capacity.

[4] Reminiscent of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth