A Mathematicians Guide to Being a Better Person

You pull up to Barnes and Noble.  You check your makeup, because it’s Friday, and it’s gonna be crazy.  You start to head in and your friend follows your lead.  You both adjust your new reading glasses because they drive the tellers wild.

You get to the door first and hold it.  Following behind your friend is another kid about to get his party on.  You’re nice, so you patiently wait for him.

But it turns out he was a little further away then you thought, and you face the most unbearable situation.  The one where you don’t want to be rude, but now its awkward because you’re waiting, he’s coming slowly, and you try to avoid eye contact because “hot fucking damn is this awkward.”

I can solve this.  How long do you wait?  How long is too long?  Am I jerk for walking away if I already held the door for someone else?

One of my life philosophies I’ve developed in the last couple years is that I believe we are going to succeed or fail as a race.  This is a team game, and people aren’t playing with the other kids.

So for me, I break everything down into positives and negatives.  That’s it.  Every situation is built of positives and negatives, and if you add them up you can make better decisions.

Back to the situation.

For me?  If I’m casually walking I can open a door, pass through the threshold, have it close behind me, and begin walking again in maybe 4 seconds.

So when I’m about to get my party on at Barnes and Noble, I open that door and I break down the situation.  Each person could theoretically go through the door 4 seconds at a time.  But if I hold the door, it cuts off about 1 second of their time to get through.  If 1 person comes through while I’m holding it, we have my 4 seconds, and 3 seconds for the other person.  That’s a net gain of 1 second for humanity.  

But what if the dude’s slow and still a ways away?

It takes you 4 seconds to get through the door.  It’ll take him 4 seconds to get through the door.  For there to be any positives you need to have the total time be 7 seconds.  Here is the critical question: is he 3 seconds away?

Yes?  Then hold the door.  Net gain +1.

No?  Then you can walk in not feeling like a jerk because there was no net loss.  

If you hold the door for more than 4 seconds you are wasting your own time, and you count towards humanity.

New situation: rush hour traffic.

How come people can’t merge in traffic?  Because they only think about themselves, and they don’t look at the bigger picture.  If someone is maintaining their speed next to you on the gentle curve of the merging lane, you need to let them go in front of you.  Why?  Because on a triangle the hypotenuse is the longest side.  So if they are going as fast as you on the longer piece of road, they are going faster than you.  If you don’t let them in, you make them lose speed.  then they lose an amount of distance and time equal to how much you made them slow down and for how long.

If you are going faster, then you continue your speed because them pushing in front of you will cause you to lose speed, time, and distance.

But Daniel!  If I have to let them in, than I have to slow down!  I will lose time, distance, and speed.

Yes, but you are holding the door!

If you or someone gets cut off at 55 mph, you have to brake hard!  However, if you play on a team, you slow down 10 mph to let him get in front of you, the other car maintains 55 mph, and your net loss is only a few seconds, a bit of speed, and a small bit of distance.  However, the other driver didn’t have to brake wildly, so your combined mph is higher than if someone had to brake or come to a stop.

Don’t think its relevant?  Check out truck drivers.

Truck drivers know that the groups speed matters more than their individual speed.  If you are a polite driver they almost always let you in because they know that slowing to 25 mph is better than coming to a stop.  You ever seen a truck try and get up to speed from a stop?  Takes forever.  They don’t want to stop, they just want to maintain movement.  They would rather everyone go 25 mph during the merge than having some jackass blaze to the front of the line and try and cut in.  Then all of us have to stop.  How fast are you going when someone causes everyone to stop?  Oh yeah, its freakin’ 0 mph, when you could all be going 25 mph as a group.  The jackass would sacrifice all of our momentum so that they can have an extra 20 feet.  And this isn’t even counting the hundreds of people behind you.

This post is already too long to list more examples.  We pass and fail as a race.  Selfishly furthering yourself doesn’t help the team pass.  We mess up our planet because people are too centrally focused to look around and realize their positive is many peoples negative.  I will gladly sacrifice a few moments of my day so that others can gain in subtle ways.  I don’t mind losing a little bit, if we as a team can gain then I will gladly keep this up.

Just crunch the numbers.