Ensuring future value

I read a Reddit thread about tattoos. Predictably, there were many tales of past lover’s names and controversial images tattooed in inconvenient places. These instances of hilariously awful tattoos are an example of a fundamental human property: We are mediocre—at best—at determining future value.

Why else would we move in with, marry and have kids with someone we don’t know that well? Why else would we get someone’s initials inked on our skin? Why else would we burden ourselves with debt to take ownership of something that will inevitably decline in value—like a car, for instance? It’s unnecessary to provide more examples. Our inability to decipher future value is self-evident. But I would like to posit two ways to workaround this inability.

The first is a simple concept: avoid commitment, especially those which are easy to enter into but hard to disengage from. Tattoos are one such commitment. It takes a little money and a little time to get one, but more money, more time, and a lot of inconvenience, to reverse. Buying a house is another example. To take out a mortgage requires a deposit, some form-filling and a certain degree of respectability; things that are attainable for most. But to shed a mortgage is difficult. Most people are never in a position to pay it off, so they end up using mortgages as stepping stones to bigger or smaller residences. Barring buy-out or default, mortgages stick. “Avoid commitment” could also be translated as “Maintain optionality”. To “maintain optionality” is to retain the right, but not the obligation to X. An extreme example: joining a religious cult limits the optionality of your mind. To belong, you must believe X, and nothing but X. To belong, you must relinquish the right to think what you want. Not a good thing to give up.

The second workaround has limited applicability. Let’s return to the practice of scratching ink into the skin. Which tattoo is more future proof: someone’s initials on my wrist or an image—a flower for example—that symbolises that person? The flower, naturally, because it is ambiguous. Multiple meanings can be layered atop it. The flower can represent a person I feel a connection too. But if my relationship with that person degrades, I can go ahead and alter the meaning without much effort.

In this sense, ambiguity is a lesser substitute for optionality. The latter is the gold standard. Ideally, don’t get a tattoo. But if you must, if you truly want to, make it ambiguous, more able to take on meaning and value in the future.