In order to spend on one side, nature is forced to economize on the other side. — Goethe
Tradeoffs are the compliment that compromise pays to possibility. Any decision you make or action you pursue inevitably means missing out on something else. You may have experienced an exhilarating career, but your domestic sphere resembles the Sawyer family. You may have enjoyed the life of a bon vivant, but your physical health has forced you to prematurely join the choir invisible. You could be spending time outdoors or engaging in an afternoon of unbridled intimacy, but you really have to finish that project for work. And so it goes. Every move on the chess board comes with the potential of ignoring the center. The paradox of choice is the gateway to unremitting vacillation, and time management becomes increasingly significant when one realizes that time itself is a non-replenishable resource (all Tommy Shaw clichés aside).
The body itself is an evolutionary amalgam of jury-rigged (and jerry-rigged) patchwork built upon layers of microbiota. Beneficial traits in our genetic makeup often come with an owner’s caveat as they negatively influence other traits. For example, sickle-cell anemia and childhood onset diabetes are the unfortunate side-effects of genes that evolved to be beneficial in other ways. Adaptive features are assembled at the expense of less functional attributes, and the primary force of remediation is trial and error over time. While we can thank our hominid ancestors for the ability to walk upright, we should also thank them for the painful legacy of lumbar aggravations.
The American scientist Jared Diamond offers a comprehensive perspective on the dynamism of tradeoffs in his transdisciplinary magnum opus Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Diamond boldly explores the influences of geographical leverage, longitude, and latitude by showing how ecological differences, cultural dominance, and death sculpted Eurasian civilizations while making it possible for others in convenient positions of power to experience life. Every “glorious manifestation” of human civilization has been established in the wake of a non-fortuitous funeral procession—echoing Saul Bellow’s metaphor that death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything. Flourishing and extinction are two sides of the same coin.
Modern culture tends to view tradeoffs through the lens of economics and investments (expected returns versus risk analysis). The economist Adam Smith optimistically assumed that most people are rational actors who maintain ethical responsibility when it comes to monetary transactions, but Karl Marx knew that profit was often accomplished at the expense of others. Tradeoffs create opportunity costs; whatever you choose closes opportunities for other choices as you try to avoid a surplus of remorse by maximizing your advantages. Opportunity costs are the price we pay for consolidating decisions as one robs Peter to pay Paul. Behind every success story exists a trail of undisclosed outsourcing.
In relation to human psychology, an arms race of ideas and competing urges can overwhelm a person’s ability to focus on the present moment as the contents of our thoughts are trading space in the neuronal pathways of our cranium’s electrified tapioca. A natural selection of cognition is determined by subconscious brainstorming, and prioritizing is subject to an internal game of discursive pinball. No matter how many potential outcomes we could experience, the unlimited desires of the id are constrained by the physics of locality, available energy, corporeality, and practicality. What we could do is always replaced with what we can do, and multitasking is most certainly better imagined than practiced.*