Vulnerability as filtering

I’ve shared an idea several times recently, and people have been finding it useful, so I’m writing it up for the blog to make it easier to reference in the future.

Let’s imagine that you’re in a situation where you are looking for a job. You have some ideas of what you want, but you’re nervous about eliminating any options, so you say you’re open to anything. Now you start sorting through all of the companies out there, and it feels overwhelming; most of the jobs are missing at least one thing that you think is important, but you imagine that you could make them work. You do your best in applying to all of the jobs that might work because you never know – it never hurts to have more choices. In the end, though, you can only choose one job at this time, and you spent a lot of time trying to get jobs that weren’t quite right.

Now let’s imagine a different scenario, where you are dating and looking for a relationship. You have some ideas of what you want, but you’re nervous about eliminating any options, so you say you’re open to anyone. You go on a lot of first dates where the fit is not quite right but you think to yourself, “Well, maybe this could work”, so you keep going for another several dates. In the end, though, you find a life partner, and you realize that you wasted a lot of time on partners that never felt right.

To take another scenario, let’s say you’re looking for a new home. You have some idea of what you want…you get the idea.

In these cases, and in many other cases in life, we are afraid to be clear on what we really want. We worry that by being too picky, we’ll eliminate the job/partner/home that would have been really great, if only we hadn’t been so picky. We have all heard tales (or seen a romantic comedy) where somebody says “When I first met X, I didn’t think much of them, but now I’m madly in love with them.” And if we are too picky, we might settle on one choice, and then that potential employer or partner rejects us. That would be devastating. Better to have lots of choices and be the one rejecting.

The problem with that approach is that there is an opportunity cost to sorting through all those other options. We spend time and effort on checking out all of our options before deciding “Nope” and rejecting all but one. And yet, the one thing that is absolutely limited in life is time, so why waste time on options we know we don’t want?

One reason is that much of the time, we don’t actually know what we want. Checking out our options lets us figure out what matters and what doesn’t to us. Most of us start dating anybody who will go out with us; we might have a list of “requirements”, but over time as we meet people, we figure out what we actually need, and what is more of a preference. Or when looking for a new home, we’ll go to lots of open houses initially to gauge what’s out there; we see what is common to the places we like, and start to hone in on what resonates.

The critical question is what happens after you’ve figured out what you really need and want. If you put that out there in the world, it opens you up to criticism for being too picky or demanding. Worse, it reduces the number of options available, putting you in a situation where you might get rejected by the option you’ve set your heart on.

On the other hand, such vulnerability and openness about your needs can be an effective way of filtering through the overwhelming number of options out there. If you can be clear about what you actually need, you can eliminate vast swathes of possibilities instantly, and then focus your attention on really sifting through the options that remain, and figuring out how to make one of those options work.

The other benefit of vulnerability is that by showing who you truly are, it filters out the options that actually want somebody with a different set of qualities. If you pretend to be outgoing and social while dating, it makes it hard to transition later to your true introvert self with that person, whereas if you are honest about who you are from the start, you don’t waste either person’s time. If work-life balance is critical for you in a job, then why waste time interviewing with a company where the culture is to work late and have your job be your life? Both sides save time when they are clear and up-front about what qualities are important to them – this is what I mean by vulnerability as filtering.

I need to note here that this advice only applies in situations where you have the luxury of not being desperate. If you need a job so you can pay rent, then you don’t have the luxury of being picky, although I could argue in that case that your only critical need is salary, and it helps to be honest about that. Similarly, if you are getting kicked out of your apartment, and you need a new place to live, you can’t afford to be picky. This advice is meant for people who have many options and are looking for ways to cut through the clutter.

Another way to look at this is that there are two phases to any search like this: exploration and selection. In the exploration phase, we try lots of options to see what’s out there, and get a sense of what matters to us. In the selection phase, we narrow down to what we really need and stop wasting our time with options that don’t quite work. But many of us have been trained to keep all of our options open and stay in the exploration phase forever – we worry about missing out on unexplored opportunities. These are the people for whom I’m writing this post, because I want them to be more aware of the opportunity cost of keeping all of those options open. It requires a ruthless form of self-awareness to take what you’ve learned in the exploration phase as to what you really need, and apply that to saving time and effort by being clear to the world about those needs.

This difficulty with transitioning to the selection phase is especially apparent in many of my career coaching sessions – as people have advanced in their careers, they have been through several jobs and are now much clearer on what matters to them in a job; in other words, they have gone through the exploration phase. But they are still afraid to apply what they’ve learned in their next job search, for fear of missing out on a great possibility. Hence, I’ve been giving out this advice to several people – to take what they’ve learned from their exploration and apply it and stop wasting their time on options that aren’t quite right.

It’s scary to take a stand and say “this is who I am, and this is what I need”. We don’t want to be perceived as too demanding or too self-important. The self-talk often sounds like “Who am I to make these demands? I’m nobody special and don’t deserve special treatment.” And others may question or criticize you for stating your needs clearly, especially if your needs don’t entirely conform to societal standards (“Why would you walk away from a well-paying stable job?!”). Social forces and peer pressure are arrayed against us being vulnerable and open…and yet it may still be worth it, if it means wasting less of our valuable limited time in sifting through options that don’t fit.

The next time you are in this situation, and you hesitate in stating what you really want, I encourage you to think of being more vulnerable and open about your needs as a filter on the world. And when you’re in the exploration phase, checking out homes or jobs or even life partners, I encourage you to be more critical in trying to tease apart the common patterns that make one option sing to you when another doesn’t, so you can apply those patterns later to lower your opportunity cost in making decisions.

11 thoughts on “Vulnerability as filtering

  1. I feel like there’s a whole spectrum of this same trap. Sometimes you say no to something perfectly good because you have this hope that something better will come along and you really don’t want to miss that because you were doing this other, less-ideal thing. But in waiting for the ideal thing, you miss tons of opportunities.

    Other times, it’s like this, when you can’t say “no” to something, and end up in this storm of possibility because you didn’t know what you actually wanted and couldn’t articulate it.

    For me, a lot of the time when that happens, it’s because I want to leave myself open to possibilities I don’t yet know existed. I don’t want to say, “I don’t want X,” because realistically, I don’t *mind* X *if* Y is good enough to justify it, and I don’t know for sure that Y doesn’t exist.

    But really, for all practical purposes, I know that Y isn’t actually out there, and I really *don’t* want X under any circumstances that actually exist. The problem is I can’t actually say that with certainty, so I leave the door open.

    So in a way, it’s not necessarily “vulnerability” – it’s uncertainty about the breadth of my experience, and the hope that there are alternatives. And as I get older, and my experience gets broader, I realize that there are fewer and fewer times where some possibility comes out of left field to shake up my current value structure. Which gives me more confidence in that value structure, which lets me say “no” earlier. But without that experience, I don’t know that there’s a useful way to shortcut the process of getting to that point. After all, I have been wrong in the past. 😀

  2. Yeah, there’s a number of different forms of this stuck-ness. And, yes, the younger you are, the more I think you should just go try anything, because you’ll learn something no matter where you go (even if it’s just “Boy, I never want to do that again”). But as you move on in life, I think many of us want to stay in the exploration phase of trying new things, rather than honing in on what we know we like. Math guys call it exploration vs. exploitation in the multi-armed bandit problem. So I’m not saying there’s a fixed time to explore vs. exploit (despite the math of the secretary problem), but to consider shifting more towards selection as you gather more info about what you want.

  3. I love this.

    It reminds me of the Derek Sivers quote,

    “If I’m not saying HELL YES! Then I’m saying no” (so that i have time/space/energy for the Hell Yes’s)

    I do have to say, I can’t even begin to tell you how many ways in which Brian does/is things that I said I would NEVER ever ever date. And we are going on 4 years in December! I feel like the whole all is fair in love & war… maybe dating is a tough one to include where logic is concerned 😉

    But outside of that…
    I think the ideal for me is being able to get really clear on what I want (which is always a weirdly huge challenge for me) but still being open minded to serendipity.

    I also wonder how often we THINK we’re being really clear on what we want – but it turns out that we’re using the completely wrong set of metrics. It’s so easy to go to the obvious/surface level stuff (money, title, company prestige) when sometimes it’s something we didn’t even realize we should be thinking about that’s going to make the biggest difference to our enjoying the job (like working with amazing people).

    1. On dating, I don’t know if it’s about logic, but more about your last paragraph – using the completely wrong set of metrics. For a long time in dating, I had a list of attributes that I thought were important or essential to me, and yet, whenever I dated women with those attributes, I was unhappy. After getting dumped one time, my therapist and I spent a few sessions going through what I actually needed in a partner, and I realized that if I had a partner who was self-aware enough to take responsibility for their own emotions, communicated well what they were thinking and feeling, and compassionate enough to listen to me when I was struggling to express what I was feeling, I could work around basically anything else. And once I put that into the world (I literally put that in my OkCupid profile), I found somebody who has been stunningly great for me.

      So getting clear on what you really want is more about trimming away the obvious/surface level stuff and focusing in on the deep human needs you have, and figuring out what you need to be happy. For some, it’s purpose and meaning. For others, it’s community (great coworkers) and acceptance and belonging (I think we all need this). For still others, it’s work where they can enter the flow state. And it can’t be a laundry list – if it’s more than 2 or 3 things, I think that you are not being ruthless enough in prioritizing what you _really_ need. But if you can get to that point, it becomes much easier to evaluate options, since you only have to think about 2-3 things.

  4. YaY! I’m so happy for you!

    And wow, I never thought of Flow as as an option but I like that!

    I always think of my most important things as learning and creating and.. I’ve always said sharing, but your list is making me think sharing isn’t quite right. That it’s maybe more about connecting with others…

    What are yours?

    1. There are three dimensions along which I currently evaluate a job:
      1) What am I learning? What skills am I developing?
      2) An I working with a good team and manager? (This makes a difference with belonging, and potentially with connection)
      3) What impact am I having? Both personal impact (the difference I make to the team), and global impact (the I the team’s work has on the world).

      I can’t necessarily get all three in a single job but it helps me be clearer on what I’m trading off e.g. a nonprofit may be good for global impact on the world, but might not be as great for learning. For me, what I’m learning is really important – when I get bored, I leave. Having a good manager is critical for me also, since I’m totally a pain in the ass to manage. Impact I go back and forth on.

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