Another year passes. 2020 and 2021 were chaotic years for everyone: elections and pandemics commandeered the news cycles, social norms crumbled (due to the…) left and right, and the world was left wondering what was next. Personally, I had just taken a new job at a very small startup while simultaneously discovering my artistic passion.
As society stabilized in 2022, my own life did as well. I was firmly embedded at work and had performed strongly over the prior year, earning me a degree of flexibility and freedom that I had never previously enjoyed. I used this freedom to lean hard into artistic development, pressure testing my newfound passion. I was able to accomplish a lot:
- Found interactive / new media art as a discipline and vastly improved my skills with TouchDesigner
- Firmly established structural realism / a relational perspective as my worldview
- Created a portfolio with a few strong pieces of interactive art
- Collaborated on an award winning experimental film with a good friend
- Earned my first dollar from art via a print sale
- Learned WebGL and programmed an interactive landing page for my portfolio website
- Started learning Houdini and Davinci Resolve
While this progress was substantial and required enormous effort and left me more at peace than ever before, I felt I was still just going through the motions of life – something was missing. I did not know where I really wanted to go, or how to get there.
The focus of this year’s essay, and for my upcoming year, is harnessing the power of agency through a broadened definition of self-ownership to change my situation, not just my mind.
I will also update my generalized worldview and attempt to define what it is I really want out of this life.
denting the universe
Years ago I read a blog post on RibbonFarm called “A Dent in the Universe.” The premise is simple: Each person has a daemon (who you think you are, “inner self”) and a shadow (who others think you are, “outward self”), and true self-actualization comes from perfect alignment of these two selves. The author further argues that imagination is the only true path to this daemon/shadow alignment, i.e. you have to make your own path. To walk another’s cannot end in self-actualization. Imagining the world that unites the two facets, and making it happen, is “putting a dent in the universe.”
While a useful framework, the original post framed self-actualization in the context of starting a successful startup with a Great New Product that will Change the World. When I first read it shortly after college, I did not question this – obviously a career in the right industry with the right people and the right time is the key to happiness (and so simple to find!). This top-down view aligned with my personal outlook at the time: I needed to become rich and famous to be able to do anything worthwhile in my life. Implicitly, I was measuring impact in terms of visibility and volume, not depth or persistence.
As I have grown over the last few years, denting the universe has been in the back of mind, creating tension. I now realize that just as working for someone else’s company cannot lead to my own self-actualization, neither can using someone else’s definition for what constitutes a dent in the universe, or “enough impact”.
Epsilon Theory and the concept of the Pack provided a conceptual path of retreat from the top-down approach, establishing a viable alternative using a bottom-up, community-centric approach. A bottom-up approach in this context involves a focus on impacting the lives of the people around you, who you interact with and who share the same ideals (your Pack). This requires less assumption, more action, and more honesty than a top-down approach.
Until recently, my practical interpretation of the bottom-up approach was that by knowing myself as deeply as possible, and pursuing that self relentlessly, I would eventually achieve some sort of impact via osmosis.
In my recoil against top-down paradigms, I focused only on the daemon and forgot about the shadow.
This realization sums up the point of this year’s essay: I understand now that the shadow, my outward-facing self, is as much a reflection of myself as what I know to be true on the inside. Taking ownership of this aspect is my goal for the following year. I need to align the daemon and shadow. Subsequent sections outline a few practical ways to apply this framework.
actively inferring the self
Active inference is a key part of the predictive processing / free energy formulation of perception. Predictive processing postulates that the mind perceives differences between expected stimuli (as predicted by the brain) and actual stimuli as reported via sensory organs. The eyes only see what the brain does not expect. Active inference takes this a step further: changing the state of the world to test your predictions.
Your mind expects your finger to be pointed, it is not. A signal is generated from the limbic cortex down the ulnar nerve, contracting muscles in your hand and pointing your finger. The expectation of “finger pointed” is now met, but it would not have been if there was no action taken. This concept unites agency with perception, and is generalizable to a framework for generating change in one’s life.
As the relational perspective makes clear, our perceived world comprises not objects but interactions. Thus, objects are nothing but collections of interactions that our brain expects to be highly correlated with one another (creating the perception of an object). The self is no different, though much harder to speak about while retaining logical rigor. I believe that our perception of the self is a collection of predictions about how our own highly correlated set of interactions (our body, mind, etc) will change in response to external stimuli.
This conception of self means that we must think about ourselves not only in internal terms of emotion, fear, memory etc, but also in terms of external relationships that you are a part of. The self predicts all interactions, not simply those that occur inside the skull.
If the self is simply a collection of predictions (or really, the process of creating a map and evaluating it against the territory), then we have more tools at our disposal than simply making a prediction and waiting to see if it “comes true”. Active inference can be applied – we can take action.
Until recently I believed I understood this. I predict I will be better at programming, so I program and get better. However, I was focused only on the internal self. The external self, how I interact with others and the interactions that I want to establish, nurture, or create in the world, had gone unnoticed. Active inference in this context means (for me) predicting the types of relationships I want to have, and taking action to increase those probabilities.
Getting in the river, catching the flow. Projecting my persona into the world, creating more accessible ways for others to interact with it. Manifesting.
broadening the definition of self
As mentioned above, my general feeling of listlessness emerged in spite of dramatic personal progress, which I now believe arose from the daemon approaching my idealistic “self” while the shadow remained far afield. My full time job and entire professional identity (plus most of my social connections and peer group) are orthogonal to my “true” self, focused on curiosity, creative output and thoughtful experience of life.
Further, this lack of alignment between inward and outward selves eroded my artistic confidence and erected ego-protecting barriers between where I was and where I wanted to be. I was afraid of telling the world I actually believed I was an artist, because at some level I did not. My relationship with myself reflected “artist”, while my relationship with the world did not.
As often happens, a deep conversation with some close friends was all it took to peel the layers back on these mental processes and illustrate the need for a redefinition: My self includes not only the mental / emotional (inward-facing) aspects, but also the outward-facing aspects that define how you interact with the world and others in it.
Practically speaking, this broader definition suggests the following as personal focus areas (among many others beyond the scope of this essay).
Friendships / interpersonal relationships:
COVID and the aftermath resulted in a large shakeup of my social circles. My core friends became a diaspora and my role within new groups understandably transitioned from integral, connective tissue to one of the outer circle. This was largely my doing, as I intentionally focused more of my time and resources on building my art practice and allowed others to do the social heavy lifting for me.
Exacerbated by the (otherwise spectacular) development of living with a partner, I am slowly but surely losing friends. Small things like fewer “merry christmas” texts, less birthdays to remember, and longer stints between seeing each of those I am still close with.
For a while I thought this was a phase, a transitory period that I would grow out of, breaking through some invisible membrane to a vibrant social life and living out the rest of my days at the cafe.
However, as my peers and I grow into a more stable era of adulthood, leaving the pandemonium of the early twenties behind us, our goals and prioritization shift from social to personal. Everyone has a life to build, and while that life should include friends, each of us has our path to walk. This is as it should be, and I have no interest in walking any path but my own. I am just slowly realizing that every step has a cost, and staying true to yourself tends to cost the most.
I have lost friends, cut friends, ignored friends all in the name of reducing clutter in my life and enabling myself to focus on what really matters (art, creative pursuits and getting where I need to go – a life oriented around those things). Coming from a very non-artistic background, this is a bit of a steep climb. And climbing takes time. A lot of it. If I am climbing (working, learning, doing), I am not socializing.
I love climbing. I love being alone, in my head, thinking about the world and how I can express my feelings about it. I love feeling like I am steering my ship, en route to a long-awaited destination. However, all this time is deeply personal and often difficult to communicate its value (or even content) to most others.
I am now realizing the true cost of these activities. I believe it is still worth it, but look forward to being able to reallocate some time from climbing to hanging with the homies while I can. I hope my creative journey connects me with some new people as well, and I hope I am able to build some friendships with a few of them.
Integrating personal and professional identities
I have always viewed it as rather lame to actually have one’s profession tied to their identity. I never really felt the same about artists, but was not explicit. Clearly, there is no way to align the daemon and shadow without an integrated identity (the whole point of this essay).
Further, I believe that my professional development has helped me develop the skills needed to succeed on this journey. I need to integrate them into my personal endeavors more fully (for example, by not being afraid of just sending cold texts/emails/calls) and being a bit more self-promotional.
I have not been terribly concerned about my outward appearance since I graduated college and have been enjoying a pretty stable, athletic physique. I don’t care about clothes or really what people think of me, so why bother? Plus, as soon as someone starts talking to me, they will realize I am interesting and forget about my lack of fashion, right?
I still do not care what people think of me, and certainly do not feel the need to be featured on Grailed each week, but I am seeing now that in the same spirit as the above, appearance is simply a method of interaction with the outside world.
Your appearance signals something to others whether you like it or not, and by ignoring that fact, you are simply ignoring an opportunity to make an impression and give that person a “soft intro” to who you really are. Of course, for this introduction to be beneficial, your appearance needs to be an accurate reflection of your personality.
Especially for someone as socially anxious as I am, any way to break the ice and get someone talking to me is a good investment. I love conversations, but hate starting them. By projecting my identity and values outwardly via my appearance I hope to both increase my own confidence when meeting others (especially in the creative space) and reduce barriers to that first conversation.
To be clear, I do not mean buying expensive clothes or staying on top of the latest fashion trends – that would not be a reflection of my identity either. Ownership in this context means searching for articles of clothing I do like, and being okay with spending the money to buy them. It means experimenting with clothes that may not be in my comfort zone, iterating, and allowing my personality to shine through. It means wearing clothes with holes in them, if only to say “fuck you.”
Unfortunately, to make it as a digital artist these days requires consistent use of social media. This is something I loathe, and so avoided for a long time. Ownership here means using social media for my benefit, but using self-control to ensure that is the only thing I use it for.
what do i really want
Active inference is iterative, and as I have written about a while ago and still very much believe, the ultimate goal need not be known so long as the general direction is established. As with most other things discussed here, I had given a lot of thought to what I “really wanted” as far as professional career (being an artist), but not much beyond that. Thus a broader definition of the self necessitates an augmenting of these goals as well.
As mentioned above, I prefer a bottom-up framework for assessing my impact on the world. This means making a positive impact on the people immediately close to me: the family I was born with, the family I choose, and friends made along the way.
The form of this impact was always hard to pin down, and still is, but I will try here anyway: I want to inspire the people around me to do what will make them happy, while staying true to myself. In recent months a few close friends have commented that my continued dedication to art and personal improvement is an inspiration to them, making them want to create more, work harder, and generally grow into themselves. These are the best compliments I have ever received, they mean more to me than positive feedback on my art itself.
Correlated to the above, I also want to have deep and meaningful relationships with people who inspire me, and will help me grow in the intellectual / artistic / personal directions I need. I do not want to have many relationships, but I do want those I have to be strong and fulfilling.