Finding My Way, Part III: Art, Agency and Action

This series of essays started four years ago, when I was just out of college and learning rapidly just how little I knew. At the time the only thing I knew for sure was that I had made a series of wrong choices, and that extricating myself from the web of resulting consequences was far from assured. I hoped that with enough thought and considerable effort, I may be able to chart a course out. This collection of essays is becoming a log of that journey. By taking periodic steps back to reflect on my development thus far and distill a year’s worth of exploration and contemplation into a few pages of prose, I hope to isolate the signals in my own life from the noise of daily existence and maintain accountability to my future selves. I have put a huge amount of effort into redrawing the boundaries of my own life, and this effort has paid off: I now have a job I like, a fulfilling relationship, and an artistic passion. Most of all, I may know myself for the first time in my life. I write so that I may continue to. 

The Descent 

Growing up can feel like crossing a mountain range, especially to children. The hill of elementary school butts into the foothills of middle school. Thighs start to burn, but progress is made – finally you crest the ridge only to see the imposing, rocky slopes of high school reaching beyond. Oxygen gets thin as you continue to climb, you are in the high country now. A small plain extends west, ringed by an even higher ridge called College off in the distance. One foot in front of the other, and the ridge approaches. One more climb, you can do it, you have been training for this. Vertically ascending, gasping for breath but full of vitality you scale the ridge. Finally nearing the summit, feeling invincible, you can now see your final obstacle – the smooth icy face leading up to the summit, Gainful Employment. No problem, you knew this was coming, you brought your crampons. Blood, sweat, and some tears later you finally, triumphantly take the last step onto that pinnacle of existence, alone in the universe in your accomplishments. Deeply inhaling, body hot and perspiring, you are relieved to be done. You knew you could do it. Suddenly, the wind picks up. Perspiration turns to chill, and you realize you cannot get down the way you came. No one told you what to do after you reached the summit. The sun drops low in the sky, taking the temperature with it, and leaving you to wonder: what now? 

Similarly, I have tipped over the last predefined “peak” of life, that is completing 4 years or so in the workforce after college. From about age twelve to twenty-five, modern middle class life is broken into manageable stages by society: middle school, high school, college, post college. Each of these periods is about 4 years long and has a unique texture composed of social circles, priorities, location, etc. Importantly, these stages are well-known and expected to end after 4 years or so. This structure promotes a short term view on not only your surroundings but also yourself, as we are taught to simply wait it out – in short time, it will all be over. As the plains of middle and old age unfurl into the distance there are no more predefined stages of life to ascend, a powerful realization that has changed how I approach life.

An implicit effect of the “4 year stage” structure of life in youth and young adulthood is the feeling of constant and somewhat effortless forward progress. Day by day, we climb closer to the next ridge: high school graduation, college graduation, a first job. Simply going through the motions was enough to simulate upward progress: reactionary mental frameworks were sufficient and perhaps even optimal because only small course corrections were necessary in most cases. Decisions were made, but they were made based on a predefined selection of choices curated by the societal structures in which I was embedded. This was not a problem, I was already on track and just had to keep moving forward.

The clearly mapped out track becomes much less defined after the first post-college job, especially if you prefer to try something other than a white knuckle fight for oxygen. Around the time of my first essay in this series, I realized that the sense of forward progress I became accustomed to disappeared. I was in a “great” job, doing “great” but felt horrible and unfulfilled. That feeling was a harbinger for what I have only recently recognized, that to move through the wide open plain of life progress must be created.

Progress is created by using the power of agency to create situations that are expected to have a high degree of correlation with desired future states of the world.

A Framework for Applied Agency 

After personal safety, agency is the most important thing that living in a democracy affords you. Often co-opted into AGENCY!, a rationalization for what someone else wants you to do, true agency is in my experience frequently overlooked as a powerful tool for personal and life development.

Agency in the world is a parallel to predictive processing and active interference in neuroscience – you can make decisions to take actions that will give you more information about how you perceive and want to interact with the world. Only by constantly taking action can you ensure you are really making progress. This concept is elegantly summarized by the late musician CharlesTheFirst in his verse: “[you] gotta get up in the river if you wanna catch the flow.” By taking action, we force engagement in whatever activity is in focus, and this gives the mind much more information about that activity and its impact on us.

The implications of this are vast. Not only is data collected on decisions in real time and used to iteratively update assumptions, but the very act of taking action makes future actions easier. Over time this means that exploratory decisions and actions become more targeted and precise, increasing the degree of error correction from the resulting information. Viewed this way, agency is a mechanism to fight entropy in your own life by sampling a distribution of potential world states and prioritizing work that will lead to more preferred future world states.

Sampling more states will lead to more complete information when prioritizing work, but each sample has a cost in the form of time, financial or social capital, energy, or a combination of these. Thus a complete sampling of possible world states is not feasible (it is also formally impossible since the set of all possible states is infinite), meaning that sampling must be optimized to generate the most useful information as cheaply as possible. Practically, this means making educated guesses about what you will like and finding cheap ways to try those things out before really investing. This can be applied to any aspect of life: a new hobby, a new job, a new relationship, what book to read, what event to attend. I like this framework for a variety of reasons:

  • It engenders a bias for action and staying in motion
  • Both optionality maximization and maximum regret minimization, two of my core axioms, become much easier with more information
  • A clear decision evaluation logic and natural extension to other mathematical constructs like bayesian reasoning
  • Shaping my own world into one of my choosing is a powerful activity to realize is possible and will ultimately allow me to get much closer to many of my goals than would otherwise be possible
  • I may not be able to dent the universe and shape the world around everyone, but have realized I can do so for myself

I have focused on applying this methodology to two areas of my life over the last year, professional and artistic development. The latter will be the focus of the remainder of this essay

Art, Agency, and Identity

Both a focus and source of agency, art is a vehicle for me to thoughtfully engage with the world around me. As a focus of agency, art helps me to define possible world states that I wish to sample. Some examples of these states are “art as freelancer” or “art for live music”, both of which I have had the opportunity to sample in the recent past. As a source of agency, art provides a literal blank canvas on which anything can manifest, fostering agency of thought as well as action.

By agency of thought, I mean taking a worldview that is not based on values defined by society or religion, but rather built from first principles based on personal experience. Art forces focus on the present and imbues even the mundane with an infectious and empowering dignity, challenging the artist to ignore instead of to notice. It is a statement that I am charting my own course and using imagination as a citizen of my world, not simply a consumer. Art brings together the intellectual, creative, and scientific knowledge and skills I want to develop and allows me to practice them while also honing my own voice.

I am still figuring out what I want that voice to say, but my ideas are becoming more clear and fully formed. I see a deep beauty in the world around me, rooted in abstract and domain independent processes and systems that interact to give rise to dazzling complexity. The Japanese aesthetic framework of Wabi-Sabi gives a good vocabulary to these ambiguous qualities, and is a worthy philosophy in its own right (there are many parallels with my own life philosophy as outlined here and in prior essays). The core aesthetic concept is to notice and appreciate the beauty in the world around us, especially that of things transcendent, ephemeral, or otherwise hard-to-define. It emphasizes functional form, imperfections or noise as a source of interest and beauty, organic patterns, and antifragility. Metaphysically, wabi-sabi philosophy believes in constant state change, from non-existence to existence and back again, with particular focus on precisely the point at which something can materialize from nothing. This interest has the tone of acceptance: because everything and everyone is on their way to (or from) nothingness, that fact should be accepted and moved past. Lack of a higher power or greater purpose manifests a duty to be present and appreciative of life as an end in and of itself.

As a friend of mine insightfully put it, something arises from nothing at the point of its observation, and visa versa. Interestingly, this implies that deep observation not only helps observe beauty, but also creates it. Rather than resorting to nihilism in the face of existential uncertainty, remaining present and simply observing allows the creation of beauty.

Thus I find myself interested in the generality of processes that give rise to the world around us on micro and macro scales. Specifically, the abstractly isomorphic processes that occur to form something out of nothing and keep that thing formed against the forces of entropy. Tying this back to wabi-sabi, I am interested less in the raw paradigm itself, but instead want to understand why this paradigm is compelling.

I hope that over the coming months I can use agency to clarify the aspects of this philosophy that resonate most strongly and incorporate those into a more unified voice for myself. 

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