The ‘sprinting between oases’ strategy

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:

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.