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Should you prioritize stability or acceleration in your life?

Clearer Thinking founder Spencer Greenberg shares some thoughts on two different ways to think about your life choices:

One of the biggest choices we face in life is whether to prioritize stability or acceleration.

By prioritizing "stability", I mean focusing on what you know works well for you in terms of people, routines, location, values, ideas, etc. and working to minimize the risk of losing them. Much of what our society conventionally considers “the good life” falls under this umbrella: forging friendships you can keep for decades, finding work you can master, meeting a life partner with compatible goals and values, buying a house you will live in indefinitely, spending your free time doing the hobbies you love most, and so forth.

By "acceleration," I mean the ongoing pursuit of positive change and improvement in life: seeking out unfamiliar ideas, facing fresh challenges, tinkering with novel ways of seeing the world, embarking on new relationships, taking potentially productive risks, and experimenting with radical ways of reorganizing your day-to-day existence.

These two priorities are naturally in tension, because pursuing them requires opposing approaches to many kinds of life decisions. From what I can tell, a significant majority of people on this planet – even among those who have already met their basic needs – seek a life geared more towards stability than acceleration. Yet in some social circles (e.g. tech folks in New York and San Francisco), people tend to believe that acceleration is clearly more important than stability.

So which should you seek in your own life: stability or acceleration? Read on to get a clearer sense of the answer.

Optimizing for stability may involve things like...

  1. Hobbies: figuring out what you enjoy doing most, and doing those things whenever you have time.

  2. Friendship: figuring out who you like to be around, and turning that group into a permanent circle that you spend almost all your social time with.

  3. Work: mastering some type of work that provides the lifestyle you want, and performing that work at a stable job day after day.

  4. Risk: avoiding substantial risks, even if they offer a high expected value, or avoiding situations that seem very difficult or that provoke anxiety

  5. Romance: finding a reliable partner who shares most of your values and long-term goals.

  6. Beliefs: being skeptical of bizarre or wacky ideas, especially if they contradict your deeply-held beliefs or challenge your established way of doing things.

  7. Location: choosing a city or region you want to live in and putting down permanent roots.

  8. Behavior: developing habits that work well for you and making them permanent.

  9. Self-improvement: working to eliminate behaviors or traits that increase instability in your life, such as those that cause conflict with people you care about or that make you unhappy about your current situation.

  10. Mindset: treating your values as relatively static; treating your talent level as relatively fixed; treating mistakes as something you should seek to minimize; and seeking "good" outcomes that you feel subjectively satisfied with rather than focusing on achieving the “best” or most extreme positive outcome (i.e. “satisficing” instead of maximizing).

A focus on stability may also be associated with: a conservative disposition (e.g. “if we’ve always done things this way and it’s worked for us, why change?”), older age (e.g. “I’ve already explored enough”), and a personal background involving economic or structural instability (e.g. “I want the stability I never had”).

On the other hand, optimizing for acceleration may involve things like...

  1. Hobbies: regularly trying new activities, including ones that you don’t necessarily expect to enjoy much, or adopting hobbies that facilitate perpetual learning.

  2. Friendship: regularly making new friends, and interacting with people whom you don't already know.

  3. Work: switching jobs or pushing to get promoted whenever your work feels too routine or easy, or when it feels like you’re not pushed right to the edge of your ability.

  4. Risk: periodically taking significant risks when you think the expected value is high, or throwing yourself into situations that are very difficult or anxiety-provoking when you believe they will make you better in the long run.

  5. Romance: finding a partner that challenges you to become a better version of yourself, or to do things outside of your comfort zone, or that you can learn a lot from.

  6. Beliefs: taking bizarre or wacky ideas seriously before deciding whether to reject them (at least, when they come from sources you have respect for), even if they challenge your basic premises or lifestyle.

  7. Location: exploring many different places to live (e.g. various cities or regions) and environments to live in (e.g. alone or with groups, around different subcultures).

  8. Behavior: regularly discarding old routines and trying on new ones to see if they offer benefits, or resisting making routines at all.

  9. Self-improvement: working to eliminate any behaviors or mental habits you might have that may be limiting your potential, or pushing to always learn new things.

  10. Mindset: letting your values continually evolve, believing you can improve yourself in nearly any capacity if you work hard enough, treating mistakes as opportunities to learn and a positive sign that you are trying sufficiently challenging things, believing you should strive to do the very best you can and be the very best you can be.

A focus on acceleration may also be associated with: a liberal disposition (e.g. “we should be open to and learn from the ideas and practices of those who are very different from us”), younger age (e.g. “I want to explore all that’s out there”), and a background involving economic abundance (e.g. “I want something even better than what I had”).

Some life choices involve ambiguity between stability and acceleration. For instance, having children drives acceleration in some senses – it annihilates routines, carries significant risk, speeds up your maturity, and challenges you to be a better, more selfless person. On the other hand, once you have a child, you face significant pressure to seek stability for the sake of that child. So I think having kids tends to produce acceleration in the short term, but requires an eye towards stability in the long term.

Of course, you can seek stability in some areas (e.g. romance) while seeking acceleration in others (e.g. work). Prioritizing for stability or acceleration differently across different domains of life is often a good idea. But I think as a simple, compressed model, it can also be useful at times to view your preference towards stability or acceleration as existing along a single continuum.

Some people seek neither stability nor acceleration, but I don't think it is terribly common to seek neither for very long. Exceptions to this rule of thumb include hedonists focused on maximizing their pleasure, and a subset of those with long-term severe depression who have stopped actively seeking improvements to their lives at all.

While the tension between stability and acceleration we're discussing is related to the idea of an "exploration vs. exploitation" tradeoff that appears in the machine learning literature, as well as in recent self-improvement writing, I think of it much more generally – also encompassing ideas like risk aversion, openness to ideas that challenge your lifestyle, and how you choose to direct your self-improvement efforts.

Neither stability nor acceleration is fundamentally “better” than the other. Where you should ideally fall on the spectrum right now depends heavily on what you value, as well as your life circumstances and opportunities. You may choose to emphasize stability at one point in your life, and acceleration during another, or find yourself in the middle, trying to strike a balance between the two. Having a good sense of these two priorities and the ways in which they compete with each other can make it much easier to decide what sort of approach to your life’s biggest choices is right for you.

So what are you seeking most right now: stability, or acceleration? Which specific domains of your life require stability, and which require acceleration?

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