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How to slay “vampire problems” for better decision-making

At work we're often asked to be decisive — but how can we make an informed choice without complete information?
Illustration of a vampire bat with outstretched wings.
Wiki Commons / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • "Vampire problems" occur when you have to make a major, life-changing decision without knowing all the consequences.
  • They exist in many areas of life, but for the philosopher L.A. Paul, having children is a major example of a vampire problem.
  • Here we look at some common vampire problems in the workplace, and how we can deal with them.

You’re sitting in your favorite coffee shop, staring at a frothy cappuccino, when someone pale and thin sits next to you.

“Hello there,” he says. Strange accent, but handsome.

“Er, hi,” you reply.

“I am a vampire. I know it is a shock, but please just accept it for the purpose of this thought experiment. I need to tell you, first, that that beardy idiot, Stoker, got it wrong. We are not killers. We don’t even like human blood. Yuck! We eat from responsibly sourced animal farms, all of whom are humanely killed. No different from a steak, really.”

A raspy, bat-like laugh.

“Anyway,” he continues, “I would like to make you an offer. I will nibble on your hand for a second. Painless as a needle. You go to sleep tonight a human; you wake up tomorrow a vampire! Just like me. Immortality. Super strength. Transfiguration. Sartorial style. All will be yours, for free. Will you join us, my friend?”

A smile, some fangs.

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So, what would you say? At first glance, this is just another dinner-table conversation or car-journey filler. A gothic “would-you-rather.” But for the philosopher L.A. Paul, this presents a sticky issue. You have no idea what being a vampire is like. Your coffee shop friend might tell you at great length over years of questioning, but you will never know what it’s like to be a vampire. The problem, then, is how you can make an informed, rational, and fully-consenting decision when you don’t know all of the outcomes. How can you make an informed choice without information?

Of course, this isn’t about vampires. This is about all of us. We all face “vampire problems” in our lives, and they are problematic. We even face them in our workplaces.

Everyday vampires

Most people reading this will have had a transformative experience. A transformative experience is one where you can trace a “before” time and an “after” time. It could be a sickness, a bereavement, or an accident. Or, it could be a marriage, a new job, or traveling. In each case, there is something that radically altered who you are as a person so that you couldn’t imagine life before that transformative experience.

For Paul, one of the key examples of a transformative experience is having children. Children radically change most people’s lives. They create new needs, wants, and emotions in parents. They blow apart old priorities and wrench other ones 180 degrees. This presents a vampire problem for the childless. L.A. Paul picks up the story:

“You’re a person who has no kids, you love your life the way it is, and you think of yourself as intrinsically child-free; you have no desire to have children… You go around, and you talk to people. Let’s pretend that all the empirical research out there tells you that once you become a parent, the way that you’re going to evaluate the quality of life as a parent and the utility of becoming a parent is going to skyrocket. Once you become a parent, you’re going to think that being a parent is fabulous.”

Assuming we all want to be happy, all the testimonial evidence is that being a parent makes you happier (of course, Paul is aware this isn’t always true; it’s for illustrative purposes). But as a child-free person, you cannot imagine “parent-happiness.” You cannot imagine parent-life, parent-desires, or parent-experiences. And so, without all the facts and without the lived experience of an outcome, you cannot make informed decisions about which to pick.

Vampire solutions

From a certain angle, vampire problems are vanishingly rare and little more than an esoteric concern. They’re about having children or choosing to have major cosmetic surgery, perhaps. But, from another angle, vampire problems have to do with any major decision. They are about the shadowed glens of an inaccessible future. This is no different from our work lives. Here we look at three examples of vampire problems and how you might be able to deal better with them.

Lean on the team. A lot of jobs or major life decisions will ask you to move cities or countries. You’ll have to leave the old familiar and learn the new exotic. There’s a lot of research into how radically uprooting yourself can affect your mental and physical health. A good case study in this, and a good way to test strategies, is with elite soccer players. Soccer players will often resettle themselves four or five times over their career, and it’s hard. According to a 2017 study into the topic, the support of team members really helps — something for employers and colleagues to all appreciate if someone new is in town. The other thing the paper noted was that the second or third time gets easier. You get better at moving and reintegrating the more you do it. Once you’ve become a vampire, you learn how to be a vampire.

Lean into unique leadership. You’ve likely had a boss or two in your time. You know what leadership looks like. You possibly even have an idea of what good leadership looks like. But actually, becoming a leader is a very different thing. In some ways, leadership is like parenthood in that it opens up a whole new world of expectations, responsibilities, and even emotions you didn’t know existed. I don’t know if there’s a word in German for “the feeling of having to have an awkward conversation with a colleague you really get along with,” but leaders know what that feels like. This is a half-vampire problem, though. Because, while you might not know what being a leader is like, there are also so many types and degrees of leadership that even leaders don’t know what leadership is like. On Big Think+, Jane Hyun, the Founder and President of Hyun & Associates, tells us to lean into this fact. Lead your own way. Be your own leader. Vampire the way you want.

Leap into the dark. Julia Child worked for an advertising company in New York City. A well-paid job, if somewhat uninspiring. It paid the bills without feeding the soul. Then two things happened. First, she met her husband, who was hugely into cooking. Second, she had a transformative dining experience in Paris involving oysters and sole. Child’s “human” life was a safe, sensible desk job. The vampire problem was learning to become a chef. She trusted her gut (in both senses) and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. Child became one of the most famous and successful chefs of all time. Yes, not everyone will be Julia Child. Not every leap in the dark lands on cushions. But sometimes, you just have to go for it. Sometimes, when faced with a vampire problem, you just have to suck it and see.

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