Region-Beta Paradox: When “It’s Not That Bad” Is That Bad

For many years, Bronnie Ware worked in palliative care.

Palliative care is the medical care you get when you are afflicted with serious and often terminal illnesses.

She spent a lot of time with people in their final three to twelve weeks of their lives.

And it is through that experience that she wrote an amazing book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. (the book originated as this blog post)

The five regrets are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

One common thread among those five regrets was how often we simply conformed to our perception of society’s expectations.

It is really easy to fall into “old patterns and habits.” Working too hard, being too serious, not doing frivolous things, hustle your face off, etc.

Society is exceptional at pushing conformity and we accept it because “it’s not that bad.”

This is what’s known as the beta region and, sometimes, we get stuck there… for the rest of our lives.

Here’s what it is, how to identify it, and how to break out:

Table of Contents
  1. What is the Region-Beta Paradox?
  2. How to Identify Beta Regions
  3. “It’s Not That Bad”

What is the Region-Beta Paradox?

If you need to travel a mile, you’re likely to walk it.

If you needed to travel two miles, you’re likely to bike it.

Normally, it takes longer to travel two miles than it does to travel one… but because you’re walking one mile versus biking two miles, it takes longer to travel the single mile.

The paradox is that if you simply biked the shorter distance, it would’ve been faster. But you might not want to bike a mile (where will you lock up your bike? will it be safe there? are the roads safe?) but two miles is too far to walk so you’re forced to solve those problems, real or imagined.

The term was first illustrated by Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness, in a paper titled The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad.

The basic concept is that if something isn’t that bad, we endure it far longer than we need to.

A nagging injury, a mild cold, a less than idea relationship – if they were slightly worse, we might get the injury checked out, take cold medicine, or break up with that person.

Once it’s severe enough, we take it seriously and are able to resolve it faster.

How to Identify Beta Regions

OK — the beta regions are those times when we endure a mild irritant longer than we would’ve tolerated a more serious one. We’re still walking when we could’ve taken a bike.

There are times in your life when you may be in a beta region and not recognize it.

If you stick a frog in a pot and warm it up slow enough, it’ll boil to death. If you put the frog into already boiling water, it’ll jump out. (despite this being a well worn phrase, it’s completely false… the frog will leave before it boils to death)

While you might say your job is killing you, it is never literally killing you. It’s just killing you slowly.

The way I try to identify beta regions involves a two questions:

  1. Am I enjoying the time I am spending here? – This can refer to literal enjoyment of your job responsibilities or it can mean you enjoy learning, growing, and getting better at your job.
  2. If I am not enjoying it now, is this an example of Type-2 fun? – This refers to how you might not enjoy your job in the moment but afterwards you can look back and see the value in what you’ve done. You can see the purpose for the time you put in.

And I re-evaluate at every notable milestone. And there is no rule for what is considered a milestone, other than your annual performance review must be a milestone.

You can think about this at the end of a project. Or when another team member leaves. Or at your next pay period. It doesn’t matter, you cannot re-evaluate this too frequently. You want to check the temperature of the water before you boil to death.

Your Career

There will be times in your working career when things are going to suck. It may be long hours, sprints, terrible bosses, etc. But you can ask yourself, if you aren’t enjoying the time that you’re there then you better be getting something really good out of it afterwards.

  • The promise of a promotion? (not a great incentive but a reasonable one).
  • Are you developing valuable job skills?
  • Do you otherwise like the job but dislike the current situation?

These are all cases where you have to think about whether you’re in a beta-region.

If you aren’t learning anything new, you aren’t challenging yourself, and life is fine but your boss is kind of a jerk and they play favorites with other employees giving them better shifts… unless you’re getting something good out of it, it’s time to at least look elsewhere.

Your Investments

Are you working with a investment advisor and you aren’t really sure how good they are? You feel like you’re paying them every year but not sure what you’re getting out of it?

Unless you feel a lot of confidence in your advisor, either because you have a good history or relationship, and can quantitatively support your confidence – it’s time to consider an alternative.

If you’re paying a person, who barely knows your situation, a fee of 1% of assets under management to shuffle your money around some proprietary mutual funds… that’s a beta region. You’re not getting your money’s worth even though it doesn’t feel like it’s costing you much. (you may also find it shocking how much fees matter in investing)

And that beta region, over the course of a life, can cost a fortune.

“It’s Not That Bad”

Human beings often decide with feelings and emotion, then seek to back up that decision with hard data.

It’s hard to quantitatively identify areas of your life where you’re in the beta region.

I find that Hell Yea or No is a good way to think about these types of things. It refers to Derek Sivers’ framework for deciding whether to do something – if it’s not a “HELL YEAH!” then it’s a no.

For identifying beta regions, I think it’s a useful framework. If you’re not excited about something, perhaps you’re in the beta region. Perhaps you need to make a change.

Additionally, if something is annoying but “it’s not that bad,” that’s another strong indicator.

Don’t endure the beta region simply because it’s not bad enough to address or you’ll find yourself regretting it later.

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a forty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

>> Read more articles by Jim

Opinions expressed here are the author's alone, not those of any bank or financial institution. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  1. Barry Beiderman says

    Hi Jim,

    I have been reading your comments for about a year now, and I have them interesting and well-written. But this one “takes the cake”! You have presented important life-management ideas – including things financial – with humor and punch.

    Hell yeah, I will continue to devote time and energy to your missives!

    Thank you,

  2. Danielle Bingham says

    I love the concept of the hell yeah/ hell no idea. . If the answer is it hell yeah, then it’s a no.So simple but I think it’s really going to make a difference and I’m going to try it moving forward! Thank you for your articles and great tips!

  3. William J Briglia says

    Jim HI, stranger
    I am basically a newbie to your service….Jim,keep up the good work.
    I will not only support your efforts but pass it on.

  4. Lisa Schofield says

    Hi Jim,

    I recently stumbled on one of your emails, don’t remember how you were just there. This is the second email of yours that I have read and I find myself looking for more. Your writing is informative and easy to understand. Keep up the awesome work you are doing. I remember reading somewhere that when a person is ready to learn the teacher will appear.

    Forever a Follower!

    • Jim Wang says

      Thank you so much Lisa! I’m glad this resonated and that I magically appeared in your inbox! 🙂

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