Tag Archives: life advice

How to Win the Lottery

…or rather, why playing the lottery might make sense, depending on your utility function.

I once had a math teacher who proudly proclaimed that she played the lottery every week. She justified this by saying that her ticket had just as much chance to win as any other ticket, and someone often wins, so why couldn’t it be her?

Ignoring the logic here, I do believe that it can be worthwhile to play the lottery, provided that you have a clear understanding of why you play. Here lies a recurring theme: the key to being efficient here is understanding your utility function.

If you’re playing to get rich, you need to be incredibly risk-seeking for this to make sense.

But if you play for entertainment, then it should be treated like any other form of entertainment. Some people like to go to movies, some people like to knit, some people like to play the lottery–all are perfectly reasonable forms of entertainment, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to spend your discretionary income. To each his own.

For myself, I spend far more time and money on miles and points than most would think is rational, but it’s one of my main hobbies, so I think it’s worth it. What sort of things do you do that seem irrational to others but make sense for you?

How to Date Efficiently Part 3

…or more reasons why you should ask people out.

Here’s a writeup of a psych study that attempts to discern differences in how men and women respond to sexual offers. In the study, confederates went up to random students on campus who they found attractive and asked them one of three questions: 1) would you go out with me tonight; 2) would you come over to my apartment tonight; or 3) would you go to bed with me tonight.

You can read the paper if you’re interested in the results, but here are what I think are the two most interesting results to the study:

  1. “Ratings of the confederates’ attractiveness were found to have no effect on the results”
  2. 50% of people said yes to the request to go on a date.

My takeaway: asking random people out on dates worked for these people 50% of the time, and it didn’t even matter how attractive the asker was!

Granted, the study took place on a college campus in the 1980s, but mathematically, taking initiative in dating is the optimal strategy, and this study provides empirical evidence that the odds of getting someone to say yes to a date are actually pretty good. So if you were previously convinced that you should be asking people out but perhaps were too scared to pull the trigger (and my advice on dealing with rejection didn’t help), be emboldened by the knowledge that random strangers had a 50% hit rate for asking people out.

How to Make Flossing a Habit

I personally love flossing, and I have strong opinions about what kind of floss to use, but a friend who had read that post asked me, “Edward, how do I make flossing a habit?”

I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and Duhigg repeats throughout his book that a habit has three things: a cue, a routine, and a reward. In my friend’s case, we want to introduce the new routine of flossing, so we need to establish a cue and a reward to make this habit stick.

Food is prone to getting stuck between my molars (I blame having braces as a kid), so for me, the cue might be feeling that there’s food stuck between my teeth, the routine is flossing, and the reward is the great feeling when there’s no more food stuck between my teeth.

For others, I’m going to suggest the following: the cue will be your inclination to brush your teeth (which I’m going to assume is already a habit), the routine is flossing, and the reward will be letting yourself brush your teeth. Thus, in order to brush your teeth, you need to floss first. If you don’t floss, then you don’t get to brush your teeth.

In his book, Duhigg talks about the success of Pepsodent; in large part, Pepsodent was successful because it was the first toothpaste to provide a cool, tingling sensation. This sensation was the reward that drove the formation of the habit of regular tooth brushing. So why not try to co-opt this reward to establish the new habit of flossing?

I’d love to hear how this works if anyone tries it. Did this help you establish flossing as a habit? Or do you have any other ideas about how to make flossing a habit?

How to Slim Down Your Wallet

This is my wallet:


I love my binder clip wallet. It’s frugal, and it forces me to carry as few things as is reasonable. My wallet contains the following:

  • Clipper card
  • Driver’s license
  • Credit card
  • Work badge
  • Gym membership

That’s it. Occasionally, I’ll carry $20 clipped to the back if I know I’m going somewhere where I need cash (like the farmer’s market), and I often switch out the credit card depending on my spending requirements at the time, but I try not to carry anything else.

If you want to slim down your wallet, for each item in your wallet, ask yourself the following:

  1. Did you use this item in the past week?
  2. If not, would it be really, really bad if you were caught without it?

If you answered “no” to both questions, take it out of your wallet. This means that you definitely don’t need to carry receipts around, you probably don’t need more than two credit cards, and most of your membership cards can be removed.

I use every single thing in my wallet at least 4 times a week, except for my driver’s license, but I figure it’d be really, really bad if I didn’t have my license in some situations. I used to carry around a debit card as well, thinking that there might be situations where I would need cash since I usually don’t carry any cash with me, but after months of never using it, I determined that it wasn’t necessary. And if I’m ever really desperate for cash, I can always get a cash advance on my credit card. For everything else, I stash them in a drawer at home, or if I use them at least once a month, they might find a place in my day bag. I only put things into my wallet as needed.

What do you carry in your wallet? Do you have any favorite tips for slimming your wallet down?

How to Haggle Effectively

I hate haggling. It makes me anxious, and I often feel like I get ripped off. But I have a new strategy that I effectively used on my last trip abroad: figure out how much I’m willing to pay before I even ask for a price, and then stay firm to that price. Why does this help?

By coming up with a price before you even ask how much something is, you prevent yourself from being biased by anchoring. Here’s an experiment: ask someone if the Mississippi river is longer or shorter than 5000 miles. Then ask him how long he thinks it actually is. Then try it again with a different person, same questions, except instead of 5000 miles, ask if the Mississippi river is longer or shorter than 500 miles, and see how the answer to the second question changes. If you ask enough people, you should find that people usually guess around 3500 miles for those who are anchored with the 5000 mile number, while those anchored with 500 miles usually guess around 1500 miles. This effect is particularly potent when we have very few other data points to help us shape our answer, like in the case of estimating the length of the Mississippi river or when we’re trying to buy a wooden animal figurine as a souvenir in Greenmarket Square.

If I wait until after hearing a price to determine my maximum willingness to pay, then I subconsciously allow myself to be biased, which means that I’m likely to overpay and regret my purchase. By coming up with the figure before engaging in any haggling, I know that if I end up buying the item, I should be happy, since I paid no more than my maximum amount that I had predetermined, and if I don’t end up with the item, then I’m still better off since I wasn’t willing to pay any more than I had predetermined.

Of course, this all relies on the assumption that you can accurately gauge how much you’re willing to pay for something. This is often hard, so sometimes it’s easier just to say how much you’re willing to spend on someone (in the case of a souvenir), and you’ll only buy it if you think the person you have in mind would really enjoy it.

My real-life example: in Korea, I saw a hoodie that I wanted. Before I even started haggling, I had predetermined that I would be willing to spend 20,000 won on it (roughly $20). When I asked the price, the first number the salesman showed me was 40,000 won, twice as much as I was willing to pay. I said that that was too much, and he dropped his price to 38,000. Again, I told him it was too much for me, so he dropped to 36,000. When I refused again, he said that he could give it to me for 33,000 won if I paid in cash, his final offer. Since it looked like we wouldn’t come to an agreement, I just started to walk away. He then asked me what I was willing to pay, so I told him 20,000, and he accepted. I walked away happy.

What have been your experiences with haggling? Do you have any favorite tips that I didn’t cover?

How to Date Efficiently Part 2

…or why you shouldn’t settle down until you’re at least 27.

Another of my favorite math problems is the secretary problem. Let’s say that you’re trying to hire a secretary. You have n applicants for the job, and you know a priori that you have a strict ordering of the candidates once you’ve seen them (i.e. if you’ve seen m candidates, you can rank them in order), but you’ll see them one by one in a random order, and for each applicant, you have to decide to hire him/her or else reject him/her forever. What’s the strategy to choose the best candidate?

It turns out, the optimal solution is to automatically reject the first n/e candidates (where e is the base of the natural logarithm), and then to accept the first candidate who is better than everyone you’ve already seen. In essence, you recognize that you need to have a training set of a certain size to learn what’s out there, and then you hope that you can find someone who’s better than everyone in your training set.

This means that you shouldn’t settle down with your first boyfriend/girlfriend since he/she is probably not the best person out there for you, even if he/she seems wonderful at the time. You don’t have anything to compare to, so you don’t know if your first is the best match for you. This seems to be supported by the fact that the younger you marry, the more likely you are to divorce.

Applied to real life, let’s say that you start seriously dating at age 20 and you have 20 years of prime dating years (okay, this maybe isn’t practical for woman). But 20/e ~ 7, so you should date until you’re 27, and then marry the next person that you find who’s better than everyone else you’ve dated so far.

Of course, there are caveats to this: this strategy maximizes the probability that you choose the best candidate instead of optimizing the expected value of your mate (you wind up with the last person you see the 37% of the time that the best person was in the first n/e that you automatically rejected); in real life, once you say no to someone, you don’t necessarily say no to him/her forever (see the reasonably enjoyable romcom What’s Your Number?); you can’t necessarily provide a strict ordering of your mates, etc. You can also learn about relationships from observing others, so you don’t necessarily have to date someone to know if he/she’s good for you, and you can potentially get your training set vicariously, so maybe you can know whether or not the first person that you date is better or worse than the average relationship that you’ve observed second-hand.

Anyway, I know this strategy is likely to be much more controversial than my first tenet of dating efficiently, but personally, I think it means that I won’t be completely comfortable settling down until I’m at least a little bit older. What are your thoughts about the need to wait until you’re older before settling down permanently?

How to Deal with Rejection

I lied. This post isn’t about how to deal with rejection; it’s about how to make sure our fear of rejection doesn’t hold us back.

I’m a strong believer that taking the initiative is the best tack in most situations. For example, you should always ask people out instead of waiting around for someone to ask you out, but this means putting yourself on the line and making yourself vulnerable to rejection, which is understandably a terrifying proposition to most. Rejection hurts because humans crave social acceptance and inclusion.

But time and time again, I’ve found that the pain of rejection goes away. And in most cases, I’ve built up my fear far beyond what was realistic. So now, when I feel like the possibility of rejection might hold me back, I ask myself, “What’s the worst likely outcome of this?” Rationally, what’s the worst thing that’s likely to happen?

Generally, the answer is not much. For example, let’s say that I like someone and want to ask them out. The worst likely outcome is that they’ll say no, and I’ll be mildly embarrassed for a bit. A worse outcome might be that they’ll laugh in my face and tell everyone to shun me, but that’s not a likely scenario.

Or take this blog. It’s scary writing down your thoughts for the world to read because you’re putting yourself up for evaluation. But the worst likely outcome is that nobody will read my blog anyway because what I’m writing is inane, so no one will criticize me anyway.

I’m not going to lie and say that rejection doesn’t suck, but by asking ourselves what the worst likely outcome is, I think we can put our fear of rejection into perspective and recognize that it’s often not as bad as we expect it to be. And once we’re okay with putting ourselves out there, we can reap the benefits of taking the initiative in all aspects of life.

When have you let your fear of rejection prevent you from taking the initiative? And if you overcame your fear of rejection, did you find that your fear was justified?

How to Date Efficiently

…or why you should always ask people out.

One of my favorite math problems is the stable marriage problem. Let’s say that you have n heterosexual men and n heterosexual women where each man has ranked each woman in order of mating preference, and each woman has ranked each man the same way. Can we find a matching such that all marriages are stable (i.e. two people won’t leave their current partners because they’d be happier with each other)?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes, we can always find such a matching. And one straightforward way to do this is to use the Gale-Shipley algorithm. Essentially, each man goes down his list of women in order of preference, starting with his most desired mate, and proposes to her. Each woman looks amongst her suitors, chooses the one that she prefers most, and rejects the rest, and then the rejected men propose to their next most desired mates on their lists. This process repeats until each man is paired with a woman (for a more thorough explanation, see the Wikipedia article). There are two interesting results: 1) this algorithm provides the most optimal solution to the proposers (i.e. each man ends up with the best possible mate that he could end up with in any stable matching) and 2) this algorithm provides the least optimal solution to the proposees (i.e. each woman ends up with the worst possible mate that she could end up with in any stable matching).

The reason why I love this problem is because it has a real life lesson embedded within: if you ask people out, you’re going to end up with a more optimal mate than if you wait to be asked out. Think about it: if you take the initiative, you can start by asking out your dream date. If he/she says no, who cares? Just move on to the next best person on your list. Eventually, you’ll end up with the best person you could have because you’ve already asked out (and been rejected by) anyone who could be better. By taking control, you give yourself the opportunity to maximize your mate preference.

On the other hand, if you never ask anyone out, you only get to select from the people who ask you out, which is a subset of all people you could date, so your choices are inherently more limited than they could be (or at least no better than they could be). Thus, your choices are non-optimal and you could likely do better.

Taken another way, let’s say that you’re in the market for a new blender. You have two strategies: go online and search for the best blender that you can find, or just buy a blender from the traveling salespeople who knock on your door. Do you think you’ll get a better blender if you take the initiative and search for it yourself, or do you think you’ll fare better if you wait for someone to try to sell you one?

Granted, there are complications to this theorem when trying to apply it to real life. We can’t rank people strictly, we don’t always know our preferences until after we actually start dating people, marriages aren’t just one-sided affairs where only the happiness of one person matters, not everyone gets married at the same time, there are societal norms that say that women shouldn’t ask men out, etc. But I think the message remains the same: take the initiative.

I know, it’s harder than I’m making it out to be, particularly for women, but a common theme in being efficient is taking initiative and being okay with rejection. I’ll write more regarding these themes later. Until then, I’d love to hear: how has taking the initiative and asking people out worked for you?