The ‘sprinting between oases’ strategy

by Justin Shovelain

There is a strategy I’ve heard expressed over the years but haven’t seen clearly articulated. Phrases used to articulate it go roughly like “outrunning one’s problems” and “walking is repeated catching ourselves as we fall”.

It is the strategy of entering unstable states, that would lead to disaster if not exited shortly, as a way to get an advantage (like efficient locomotion in humans) or on the way to other better states (like travelling across a desert to get to an oasis). If it can be done properly it enables additional opportunities and greatly extends the flexibility of your plans and lets you succeed in otherwise harsh conditions but if done in error may make you worse off; you must travel between them like walking over hot coals, if you stay too long without moving you get burnt (relatedly but with a different sense of instability).

Let’s move a bit towards a formal definition. Let the states of the world fall into these categories:

  • Loss unstable
  • Loss stable
  • Win
  • Lose

A loss unstable state is one where if you’re in that state too long the probability per time of entering a lose state goes up for reasons such as (but not limited to) accumulated damage (say CO2 levels) or resource loss (say the amount of phosphorous available that is used in fertilizer). A loss stable state is one where your probability of entering a lose state isn’t increasing with the time that you’re in it (for instance independently off how long you’re standing 20 meters from a cliff your probability of falling off it doesn’t increase). For example:

Graph of start node, stable and unstable nodes, and win and lose nodes

Why would one choose to enter a loss unstable state then? Well, firstly, you may have no choice and must just do the best you can in the situation. If you do have a choice though, there are several reasons why you may still choose to enter a loss unstable state:

  • They may have higher transition probabilities to the win states
  • They may be on the path to better states
  • They may otherwise be the best state one can reach as long as you don’t stay there for long (say for accumulating resources)

In general, this idea of loss unstable states contrasting with loss stable states is a new lens for highlighting important features of the world. The ‘sprinting between oases’ strategies enabled by crossing through loss unstable states may very well be better than those going solely through stable states, if used without error.