I like chocolate. All else equal, I’d prefer eating better chocolate. However, the utility I get from better-tasting chocolate levels off pretty fast. There’s no way I’d pay $100 for bars of 99.9999th percentile chocolate – it just wouldn’t be worth it. And no matter how good the chocolate is, it won’t really affect anyone besides me.
I also like having money. But the goal of “make money” is different from the goal of “eat chocolate”, in that there’s practically no upper bound on money’s utility. If I were 99.99th percentile rich, I’d still really want to be 99.999th percentile rich – it would be a big step forward. If I made enough money, it would also start to reshape things in a big way. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison made awfully big splashes, in the course of earning their billions.
This is an example of what I call the distinction between bounded goals and unbounded goals. A bounded goal doesn’t go anywhere – you have the goal, you satisfy the goal, you’re happy, and you’re done. An unbounded goal, on the other hand, can be pursued arbitrarily far. It’s unbounded goals that give you the feeling of an aura of formidability around champions. Unbounded goals are like open-ended quests – you can train, and improve, and win thousands of times, and still have much to learn. You can always do better, at least in a trivial way – there’s always a better chocolate bar. But unbounded goals allow doing better in a way that really matters, that can change the world. The artist, the athlete, the poet, the businessman, the scientist… at least for some of them, the sky’s the limit.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with bounded goals. I like chocolate, and warm beds, and a clean house, and all the other nice things. However, my guess is that as a matter of Fun Theory, people and cultures should have at least some unbounded goals. I think that’s why stories like this are so depressing – it’s the story of a bounded life, with no unbounded goals at all. In that particular video, all the usual bounded goals are satisfied – the characters have college degrees, stable jobs, good health, kids who don’t hate them, and no one gets run over by a truck. But it still sounds depressing as hell.
In an earlier post, I mentioned a “lack of vision” on the part of American politicians. What that means is that, on a societal level, most of our leaders have no unbounded goals. Contemporary American politics is mostly about trying to give everyone a stereotypical, 1950s middle-class life – “everyone should go to college”, “everyone should have health insurance”, “save Social Security”, “support equal rights”, “create American jobs”, all the usual slogans. One imagines that, if aliens came by and gave every American a nice, disaster-free middle-class existence, most of Congress would go home and eat pizza. There’d (apparently) be nothing left to do. This kind of government isn’t inevitable – it isn’t that way in China, it isn’t that way in Singapore, and it wasn’t that way a hundred years ago – but it’s what we have now. That’s probably why some people like Silicon Valley so much; it’s far from perfect, but people there are trying to build the future, instead of perfecting the past.