particles are acted on by competing Lorenz attactors, arranged radially
grasping in the void
created by many iterations of polar tiling
winds of randomness with increasing intensity
10,000 points carried by precomputed currents. Colors chosen based on initial point location and maintained throughout, tracing a path of the point’s journey.
Inspired by riptides and a primal fear of the deep sea.
- the building block was an object made of 15 low transparency squares rotated and overlaid on each other. Each squares size was taken from a normal distribution centered
- 5000 random points on the canvas were sampled and used for center points for the object
- each object’s normal distribution was centered around a value determined by a psuedo-cirlce packing algorithm – a circle centered on each point would grow until it hit another circle
- the coloration of each object was taken from a base image from Fred Mertz
The last year has been the most dynamic and uncertain of my adult life. Through this period of societal upheaval, I have been fortunate enough to begin a new job, sustain a mature and fulfilling relationship, and expand my artistic and creative outlets through piano and generative art. After such a period of transition, I find it important to reflect on my evolving identity and assess my metaethical framework going forward.
I first will discuss my current philosophical outlook on life and its purpose, followed by an exploration of some paradigm shifts that took place over the last year.
Setting the Stage
At the beginning of 2020, I was stuck in a job that I loathed with no clear path toward a desperately needed change. This changed rapidly with an opportunity to make a drastic career shift, starting an ambiguously defined role at a small company. I choose to pursue this opportunity, reasoning that anything was preferable to my current misery, and that exploring a role fundamentally different from anything prior would yield and experience densely packed with new information about myself. Thus argued, so decided: I quit my job and leapt into the void.
This move coincided with the start of the COVID pandemic, which thankfully did not derail my work plans. The rest of the year transpired quite quickly, drenched in a combination of new excitement and consistent dread. As a result, I did not have much time to digest the transient period of my life and its implications, until now.
Building a Life Philosophy
My philosophical stance on humanity and our place in the cosmos is the following: From dust we were created, and to dust we shall return. In the end, nothing matters. We are victims of an unrelenting tempest called time, continuously and immediately destroying all that has existed or will exist. Death is neither a transition to higher consciousness nor a step on a journey to unembodied paradise or purgatory. Instead, it is an immutable period ending the epic of human existence.
It could be argued that while humanity’s extinction is an eventuality, a single human may still impact the lives of others during their life. It is possible to use the structures that are in place on a societal level to effect change those structures and hence those they impact. Indeed, for quite some time this loophole was the foundation of my ethical framework.
However, current societal structures are caught in an inadequate equilibrium state designed to benefit only those in power at the expense of everyone else. This applies on most levels of our social system hierarchy and renders using those systems to effect change in ways that benefit not the holders of power but the constituents of the system exceedingly difficult.
Thus, to effect any real change on a systemic level requires the common man to start climbing the arduous slopes of social and professional hierarchy, of which a summit only bestows eligibility for power, not power itself. However, from this lofty perch the man may be able to see a path toward change, although he will likely be incentivized to ignore that path if it does become clear. There is no alternative course of action when seeking to effect systemic change in a top-down manner.
Recent events illustrate this systemic dearth of incentive for change: travesties of democracy across the Western world fueled by an American propaganda state, a domestic and international shift from cooperation to competition, and a rapid acceleration in climate change unchecked despite mounting human tolls.
These events starkly illustrate the concentration of power in our systems and underscored my belief that to be able to change any of them, an ascension of the hierarchy is required. After contemplating this I concluded that I am not willing to blindly climb for most of my life and believe that such an act would legitimize the very systems I am coming to despise. Thus, I am left with the only possible conclusion: our systems are fucked beyond hope and the idea that I have been bestowed some unique ability to change that is little more than an erroneous extension of that most fundamental American lie, that anything is possible.
What I have written above could easily be misconstrued as an argument in favor of classical nihilism, but it is not. It is imperative to acknowledge the physical, societal, and personal factors constraining us, so that we may make decisions with the full information available. For me this includes acknowledging my unwillingness to work tirelessly in a system that I do not believe in, my inability to change that system, and the ultimate futility of our struggle against universal entropy.
This acknowledgement allowed me to better define my idea of life’s purpose and build a framework through which to make choices in accordance with that ideal. I believe that the purpose of my life should be to live to the fullest extent possible, and that time is the most precious of human commodities. I must relinquish the idea of grandiose stations in life, and any fame or notoriety after my last neuron fires.
My yet unrefined framework for how I define a full life includes the following aspects:
- Time should be spent on things that I find intrinsically rewarding, regardless of their worth to others. There need not be a reason for any action, besides the fact that it brings me joy.
- Time is squandered if there is no one to share it with. Relationships and people are important to me and add energy to my life
- Creation and consumption are both important and contribute to the building and maintaining of relationships, as common ground is essential for deep connections to others
- Work is necessary but should be allocated time in proportion to the energy to grants
- Do no harm: Selfish decisions should not cause direct harm to others
- Have skin in the game: I should directly wear the risk and reward of choices I make
- Make everything and everyone pay rent: Everything and everyone in my life should serve a purpose, and I should serve a purpose to them
- Maximize optionality: Unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary, decisions should not constrain future states of the world or future choices
- Minimize maximum regret: Never put yourself in a position to ask “what if…?”
This is an explicitly selfish framework, driven by my own thoughts, feelings, and desires. However, the common connotation that a selfish action always harms other parties is misguided, or at least overly generalized. Being selfish is essential to learning ones’ self, without which I think any true happiness is unlikely. This is not to say that indiscriminate selfishness should be practiced, rather that selfish decision making is a tool to be used wisely as a selfish choice is not always a rational one. To guide myself, I use the following axioms when making decisions: The reframing of the purpose of and framework for living life represents a large ideological shift, the compounding of many smaller questions asked of myself over the last twelve to eighteen months. A few of those shifts will be explored below to contextualize this section.
For most of my adult life, I felt that my goal was to dent the universe, defined as making a contribution to the fabric of humanity that would fundamentally alter the state of the world in some lasting way. My general plan to achieve this was to make a lot of money without selling out and use that money to further some to-be-defined cause.
I have since revised my opinions on this goal. My need to work towards some noble goal was admirable but ultimately misguided: I hoped that by some miracle a worthy cause would unveil itself to me alongside a clear course of action to achieve modern immortality. While this may yet transpire, it inverts causality by allowing the end state to constrain the intermediate states. I had to choose some goal or level of achievement and then figure out what I need to do to get there, rather than doing what I think is best in any given moment and seeing where that path takes me.
Practically, choosing a goal out of thin air (even if that choice is made thoughtfully) is difficult if not impossible to do originally and thus will result in setting sights on someone else’s version of actualization. The intermediate steps needed to achieve such a goal would then be oriented along a course of action that I chose but did not design. I foresee this veil of agency masking a lack of imagination leading to unfulfillment and searching in vain for something to fill the void. It was this epiphany that led to the development of the framework outlined above: Identify what activities and endeavors inject energy into one’s life and pursue those endeavors.
The assumptions leading to the identification of these activities should be monitored and updated when necessary, which may lead to revised activities or even large regime changes in personal prioritization (generally these would be caused by major life events). Each chapter of life will then be authored by the individual ‘following their energy,’ charting a path unique to them. Inspiration may strike and give birth to a chapter that will dent the universe, or it may not, but in any case the course will be one’s own. I believe that such a choice of path is as likely as possible to lead to internal peace and minimize maximum regret.
During the same period, I was undergoing emotional changes as well. My current relationship is unlike any that I have been a part of before and has opened my eyes to a large swath of the human experience previously hidden. The relationship is balanced, respectful, and most importantly almost effortless. This lack of effort allowed me to remove and overcome emotional barriers previously erected, leading to a higher baseline level of happiness, joy, and warmth in my life. That this is a good shift is uncontroversial, but it has also unearthed some important assumptions that required much reflection to reconcile.
First, that pain and suffering are the only purely motivating emotions, and that remembering and reliving such pain and suffering is essential to maintaining that motivation. Until very recently I believed deeply this was the case. Keeping the pain top of mind reminded me of the litany of things that I am determined never to become and provided a focal point for my personal identity (I was one who overcame). To this end I maintained stressed relationships with my parents, kept emotional guards up in private relationships, and dreamt of the day when all the pain would be worth it (this would, of course, be the day on which I dented the universe). Such a belief implies that all pain must be worth something, that there is some reason or order to the cruel world around us. It is this last point that forced my reconsideration, as I cannot rationally state that all pain must have a reason behind it. This renders the former assumption invalid as well, as my belief that pain was the pure motivator was predicated on the idea that there was inherent worth to pain.
Second, that pain legitimizes. I felt that due to my prior experiences I was entitled to take a unique, starry-eyed view of the world that for some reason I was special. This is not the case, as my pain is not unique and pales in comparison to the daily struggles faced by most on this planet. I think there is merit to the thought that common experience can legitimize subsequent interactions with others, and for this reason I am quite glad that I have had the experiences that I have had. I may be able to understand some problems like hunger, fear, or the cleaving separation of trust in family. This gives me perspective, however it does not make me special.
Finally, that one must be unhappy to be noble, that pleasure softens the spirit and quickens the disintegration of constitution, and that enjoyment of life means squander. This was deeply ingrained in my psyche as a rationalization for the prolific unhappiness in the world and my own prior life. Instead, I think that such an idea is perpetuated by the social narratives told by the aforementioned stations of systemic power to justify and legitimize society’s remaining shackled in those systems.
These assumptions were forced into relief as my relationship intensified, tearing down walls I intended to protect my motivation for life. However, acknowledging their error does not supply replacements for them. I do not yet have the answers for what should replace them, but I feel that a reorientation of my life goals will support a reorientation of my motivation sources. Living for myself and not for others means exploring activities intrinsically rewarding to me, activities that I hope require less co-opting of negative emotions to further. This is not to say that I should forget my experiences and feelings, but rather that I should not hold onto them indiscriminately because they provided strong motivation toward a previous goal.
Over the past year I have become fascinated with the human mind. Originally piqued by Karl Friston’s free energy principle (FEP), my interest intensified as I began to learn the mechanisms of the mind, and how neural architecture impacts my perception and cognition. I believe that understanding how we think on a mechanistic scale is necessary, if not sufficient, for unlocking the full potential consciousness affords us. Thus far I have only begun my journey into my own mind, but I would like to propose a framework unifying several relatively nascent ontologies.
I will start with an abstracted, anthropomorphic representation of the mind, that while leaky provides an easily comprehensible framework to build on. Following this, I will outline two mechanistic models of the brain. Finally I will attempt to tie these ontologies together intuitively by showing how they build on each other to create a cohesive cognitive model.
An anthropomorphic representation of the mind
To build up this explanation of the mind, two disjoint models need to be somewhat understood.
Stanislas Dehaene proposed in 2011 a theory of cognition and consciousness known as Global Neuronal Workpace (GNW) theory. He postulated that there is a centralized clearing house in the mind (the global neuronal workspace) which holds whatever stimulus the mind is currently giving attention to. Only one ‘stimulus’ (external, such as an attacker being transmitted through sensory receptors, or internal, such as a problem or worry) can be house in this workspace at any given time. Thus, the mind focuses its resources on the stimulus in the workspace until it is replaced with something else. Importantly, this means that whatever is in the GNW, and only what is in the GNW, will feel real. This means that whatever stimulus in contained in your workspace has conscious attention directed at it, and will feel like a truth in the world (even if it is not actually so).
Internal Family Systems, or IFS, is a model of cognition that views the mind not as a single entity but instead as a collection of subagents; numerous localized neural systems that are segregated from the rest of the mind (i.e. Friston’s Markov Blankets). These subagents each have their own dedicated purpose, unique optimization and decision criteria, and independent modes of processing. Generally speaking, a subagent will intake stimuli via sensory information or outputs from other subagents, and output its own package of processed information in the form or emotion or action impulse.
IFS casts subagents into two broad categories, Exiles and Protectors. Exiles are subagents that hold memories of past traumas and unpleasant sensations. Protectors are subagents that exist to keep the Exiles from entering the conscious mind (the GNW). In this model each subagent independently processes any given relevant stimulus or pattern of stimuli, and ‘votes’ on whether or not to let that stimuli into the GNW. When Exiles are introduced to the GNW, it causes intense emotions, often pain or fear. Thus, if a stimulus is triggering a traumatic Exile memory, the Protector responsible for monitoring that Exile may be able to override its vote, preventing the Exile from entering the workspace, and the associated negative emotion from becoming ‘real.’ If the stimulus is especially strong (e.g. if the stimulus is a bear charging your way), the Protector may be unable to stop the Exile from voting. Then the Exile’s output “RUN” will make its way to the GNW, feeling very real indeed.
These frameworks could explain things like why some people are scared of heights (the ‘heights’ Exile is particularly strong, so it regularly overpowers the Protector), why some people may feel unable to open up to love (the ’emotional damage and pain’ Protector is very strong, doing anything it takes to prevent that Exile from surfacing, even if that means sealing off emotional availability), and many other common and relatable phenomena. I think these models jointly provide an intuitive and powerful way of thinking about the mind, and point to methods for introspection and emotional awareness that I have personally found successful. While these are beyond the scope of this essay, I encourage you to read this series by Kaj Sotala for a thorough exploration.
Now we are equipped with a foundation from which to progress deeper into the mind. While Global Neuronal Workspace and Internal Family Systems frameworks are easy to understand, they function more as an intuition pump than rigorous model. They are highly anthropomorphized and leave large questions unanswered, such as:
- How do Exiles or Protectors actually ‘read’ stimuli and process it to create and output? What does output even mean?
- How does any output actually make its way into the GNW?
- Why don’t these subagents communicate with each other?
- We all know the mind changes over time as we learn new things and have new experiences. How does this ‘learning’ work with these systems?
These are all important questions and illustrate the shortcomings of highly abstracted models. However, they can be answered quite elegantly by implementing more detailed, lower-level models of cognition. These will be outlined and discussed in the following section.
Two mechanistic models of the mind
Karl Friston’s free energy principle succinctly states that to be alive is to minimize entropy. Entropy can be thought of as disorder in a physical sense, or errors in an information-theoretic sense. Friston’s concept has been widely applied to fields from finance to artificial intelligence to sociology.
In Surfing Uncertainty, Andy Clark, a neuroscientist and philosopher, applied the same free energy minimization model to perception and cognition by incorporating Bayesian probability. In summary, he postulates that perception is actually driven by two competing forces: One is the sensory stimuli that the body intakes (bottom-up processing), and the other is a model the brain generates based on assumptions built from past experience, known as priors (top-down processing). Clark calls this a predictive processing model of cognition. The brain generates a model of what “should” be perceived by the senses, based on priors relevant to a given situation. The goal of the brain is to minimize the prediction error of the models it generates. This can be done in two ways.
The first way to minimize prediction error is to make better predictions. Using Bayesian reasoning to determine the most likely aspects of a situation, the mind generates a prediction model. This prediction is then compared to the information the brain is receiving via sensory receptors. Any discrepancy is an error term, which the brain encodes and uses to update the prior assumptions by generating a new weighed conditional probability for a given prior under a given circumstance. The brain models the next unit of time using these updated conditional probabilities, fine-tuned to include the information from the error term in the last iteration. In this manner, the brain is continuously updating its models to minimize prediction errors, otherwise thought of as free energy, or entropy.
The other way to minimize prediction error to act on the world to make it closer to what was predicted. This concept is known as active interference, which simply means that the brain can interact with the world, altering the sensory inputs it receives. Consider the following example:
You are walking. Your brain’s predictive model for the right leg predicts something like ‘the leg will move in a repeating cyclical motion: move forward 3 feet by swinging from -30degrees to +15degrees from vertical. This generates a stream of sensory inputs: air flow on the leg hair, muscular contraction in the calf and quadricep, pressure on the ball of the foot. This cylce repeats approximately every two seconds, with the cycle ending when there is even pressure on the bottom of the foot.’
This model will have few errors generated as walking progresses normally. However, if you come across a hole, your brain expects to find a firm sensation under the foot to restart the cycle. Instead, it will find an unexpected error term – lack of any resistance beneath the foot. The brain then encodes this error term and propogates it up the model, decreasing the probability of “i am walking” and drastically increasing the probability of “i am falling.” This update generates a new model and set of predictions for the next unit of time, e.g. “my hands should be outstretched, i should feel the tension in my shoulders”.
Now, if the arms are not outstretched, there is a large error term. The brain can either revise its priors again to “i am no longer falling,” which would lead to a nasty head injury, or it can change the world-state via interaction, acting on the body to cause the arms to become outstretched, minimizing the error term.
To restate, the brain can minimize prediction error via updating priors, or by altering the data the sensory receptors are receiving by active interference. The former takes place when priors are weaker due to a relatively low Bayesian conditional probability (I thought i saw a bear, but it was a rock, so the prior was updated from ‘that shape is a bear’ to ‘that shape is a rock’). The latter occurs when the prior has a high conditional probability and updating could be quite risky (as is the case if you are falling on your face). In this situation the brain minimizes the error by acting on the physical world.
Predictive processing sheds much more light on what actually happens behind the mind’s veil, but alone still leaves many questions: what are these models actually made of, and how does this encoding and prior updating process actually work? These are still rather open questions, but scientists are getting closer to the answers.
Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves
The brain is composed of neurons, which communicate with each other via neurotransmitters based on algorithms encoded in electric signals. This has long been known, and imaging techniques have been developed using levels of electric signal to measure brain activity (fMRI, for example).
Selen Atasoy has recently leveraged this fact to create her own neuroscience ontology, known as Connectome-Specific Harmonic Waves (CSHW). The defining discovery Atasoy and her team made was that brain waves travel across the surface of the cerebral cortex in harmonic motion with integer-based frequencies. The brain self-organizes itself around these unique equilibrium frequencies (known as Laplace eigenmodes). This means well-known mathematics long applied to thermodynamics and electromagnetism can be applied to the brain as well, providing a toolbox with which to rigorously test the theory quantitatively.
In short, the brain uses harmonic waves as a means of communication and computation, and is able to self-regulate these waves around various equilibrium points. This includes adjusting the frequency of waves to match external sources. I highly recommend reading Micheal Johnson’s Open Theory post on the topic, as he explains the nuances much better than I can.
Bringing it all together
A few disclaimers
We can now answer the questions posed throughout the preceding sections of this post. I will attempt to integrate aspects of each of these models, starting from the lowest level and building up to a holistic model of the mind.
As mentioned before, CSHW theory allows for the quantitative study of theories of the mind. The importance of this cannot be understated. Much of what I am about to propose is my own postulation, based on intuition and a bit of mathematics, but largely not experimentally verified. I will attempt to clearly note any claim that is based on empirical evidence to minimize confusion.
CHSW are the brain’s communication mechanisms, underpinning a predictive processing model of cognition
A 2018 study had Dutch subjects listen to speech segments of varying frequency. The initial frequency of the speech impacted the way subjects interpreted an ambiguous word at the end of the recording. While this may sound unimpressive, it unveils a critical relationship: there is a connection between the frequency of brain waves and what the brain perceives. There is a measurable cognitive impact of varying the frequency of brain waves. Otherwise stated, the frequency of brain waves impacts the Bayesian weights and conditional probability assigned to priors in a given mental model.
If true, this means that predictive processing models actually run on harmonic brain waves. I suspect these electromagnetic waves interact with the substrate by altering the the algorithm that governs a neuron’s interaction with others via neurotransmitters. Neurons generally have receptors for each type of neurotransmitter, and if a critical mass (the activation threshold) is reached, that neuron will fire and release an electrical impulse. By altering the way a neuron interacts with neurotransmitters, the harmonic waves change the activation threshold. I think adjusting the activation thresholds of specific neurons could be a mechanism for encoding conditional probabilities. Presumably, errors could be encoded and transmitted similarly, via waves of a different frequency adjusting the activation threshold again. This process would explain the bi-directional flow of information within the predictive processing framework.
Wave frequency-based communication also sheds some light on the ‘multiple subagent’ model of the mind. The subagents mentioned at the beginning of the essay are actually individual Bayesian models in the predictive processing framework. Exiles and Protectors are simply determined by the strength of conditionally weighted probabilities on the respective priors in each of these models. However, this does not inform us why these various models do not communicate with each other. I think that CSHW theory answers this as well: low frequency waves are able to travel farther distances, while high frequency waves are quickly absorbed (much like sound through walls).
Therefore, high frequency waves are likely used to convey local information and intra-model processing such as error propagation and updating of priors. Lower frequency waves would likely be used to transmit information across brain regions, such as when the output of a given model is strong enough to require conscious attention (e.g. send the information to the GNW). I think this explains why various models, or agents, do not communicate with each other. Communication between models really means computing joint probabilities with which to update both models’ priors. I would expect this is difficult due to the fact that high frequency waves are used for error propagation and model updating, and are inherently bad at travelling farther physical differences. If two models are not physically housed in adjacent bundles of neurons, such communication would be impossible. There is also (more speculative) reasoning that some neurons that compose models may only be responsive to waves of a given high frequency range, so they may be unable to use information conveyed via lower frequencies, even if it reached them. So each model operates independently, using high frequency waves to carry out computations until a lower frequency is needed to transmit across brain regions.
This lack of communication poses another problem to our holistic model: models jointly receive information from the senses, but do not jointly update. Different top-down predictions in each model mean errors will vary greatly, and active interference to minimize error in one model may generate increased error in another. This means that errors will ‘build’ up (commonly thought of as cognitive dissonance) across the models. We earlier defined predictive processing as an entropy-minimizing system, an optimization criterion incompatible with accumulating errors over time. The mind corrects this disparity using a very powerful mechanism known as neural annealing.
Annealing is a method used by metalworkers to strengthen metal. Metal is heated up to excite its atoms, which then begin to shift and move rapidly. As the metal cools, these atoms organize into more stable, stronger structures, increasing the strength of the metal. The process is similar in the mind. Sensory information enters the mind, generating error terms and increasing entropy. As the mind ‘heats’ up due to increasing entropy, the conditional probability on priors actually decreases as the neurons’ activation thresholds drop. This makes it easier for error terms to exceed the activation threshold and send high frequency waves out to update the prior’s conditional probability. On a large scale, this serves to ‘bulk update’ priors that govern certain aspects of the mind. Recent studies have shown a similar process taking place during meditation or psychedelic trips, perhaps explaining the peace some people tend to feel after these experiences. Scott Alexander outlines this process very well here.
Connectome-specific harmonic waves serve as the information processing mechanism of the mind. High frequency waves are used to power numerous Bayesian models that make predictions about the world, generating error terms when the predictions do not match sensory experience. These errors are propagated upwards in the model via high frequency waves as well, which alter the prior conditional probability by increasing or decreasing neurons’ activation thresholds. Lower frequency waves are used to transmit across further distances. These are likely the mechanism of active interference, carrying marching orders to various motor systems, or emotional responses to the limbic system. These models act as independent subagents, with the low frequency waves generated to activate neurons that move a stimulus into active consciousness, or the Global Neuronal Workspace. CSHW theory forms a basis from which one can integrate several neurological ontologies and create a more holistic, mechanistic, and quantitatively testable framework for cognition.
This is the first in a series of essays exploring my personal philosophy on life, and decision making frameworks I am using to guide myself through it. While I pull from many sources, my views are my own and only describe how I am attempting to live my life. I make no prescriptive recommendations to others.
I will preface this by saying that my thoughts and feeling are derived from and applicable to only a subset of the millennial universe, those who have come from lower middle to upper class households and attended university. While generalizing can be dangerous, this qualification allows me to use my personal experiences as evidence and still retain a shred of legitimacy.
Further, I acknowledge that I am speaking from the station in life of a single, childless, 24-year-old white male, thankfully thus far able to avoid the vast majority of the trials and tribulations experiences by many others.
There are many aspects of Millennial life that are unique to this generation, outlined very saliently by Anne Helen Petersen in her article. Two such aspects are “errand paralysis” and “adulting” as a verb, checking mundane tasks required for life off a list, as opposed to “adulthood” as a state of being. These are widely felt by my peers and myself. At times, such adulting can seem overwhelming, especially when one feels constantly strung out by a job that is unfulfilling or constant financial distress. These are undeniable and touch almost every moment of daily life. However, I believe these represent symptoms of a larger problem facing this generation: Lack of direction.
The American dream is an idea that was established decades ago in a time very different from today. Hard work and a ‘nose to the grindstone’ attitude allowed an ascent of the corporate ladder, summiting to find a plateau complete with a house and picket fence. Over time, that ideal morphed from a journey to a destination, an expectation that as we became adults, everything in life should “fall into place” and we should arrive at our own proverbial plot of land. Social media has perpetuated such an idea through a curated selection of Instagram models, extravagant trips by friends living their best lives, and relentless advertisements of products that will help each of us live our best life.
A subtle implication lies in that paradigm shift: for the first time, a large cohort of Americans entering the work force were not primarily worried about finding a roof over their heads or food on the table. This progress manifested a profound lack of purpose.
Lost Purpose and Self-Actualization
Our parents’ generation and those prior found meaning in all the quintessential forms: stability, family, ownership, providing for dependents. In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they strove for and attained the first four base tiers: Physiological sustenance, physical safety, quality relationships, and feelings of accomplishment. This was the world into which Millennials were born. For most of us, these first four tiers remained attained through our childhoods and into secondary education. We were generally able to secure stable, well-paying jobs out of college, continuing to fulfill the basic needs. This privilege is historically unique to our generation, which has been spared global conflict on a large scale, came of age directly after a severe economic depression, and has benefited from a wide array of social reforms (to remind, I am speaking of only a specific subset of our generation). As such, we are left with a simple question: What now?
The top of Maslow’s pyramid, self-actualization, is all that remains to be conquered. But what is self-actualization, and how can it be attained? This question is simple, pervasive, and terrifying. And yet, many around us seem to have the answers. A quick look at Instagram or Twitter surfaces dozens of friends and celebrities living what they will have you believe is a self-actualized life. It must be easy, if so many people can do it. Why can’t I? Why can’t you? What is wrong with us?
Work harder, longer, and more efficiently and it will all fall into place. Buy the right things, and it will all fall into place. Get a job that is cool, sexy, interesting, and it will all fall into place. Society thrusts these ideas onto us unrelentingly, suffocating each of us in a blanket of inadequacy and hopelessness.
Part of the soul-crushing pressure comes from the litany of possible choices available to us. No longer must we take the path of our parents, and in an age where work is often accomplished online, geographic boundaries matter little more than their tax implications. This creates decision paralysis. How can I choose from the endless list of jobs on LinkedIn? Which one will fill this void? In a world of endless opportunity, how can one find the single path that will lead to self-actualization?
Decision Making and Avoiding Paralysis
In my view, this wandering of the mind can be guided through shifting one’s perspective. Instead of imagining one’s self in 5, 10, or 20 years and asking “what do I want to be doing?” I propose starting from the other end. When old age sets in and the best of life is behind us, what will enable us to look back at our lives and say, “I am satisfied”? Instead of looking to optimize every choice, try to reduce regret. In decision theory, this is known as “minimax regret,” minimizing the maximum regret one may feel in the future, regardless of what happens next. Such a framework does not seek to know the future, but rather strives to create a present from which any future can be dealt with successfully.
By aligning each decision, large and small, with whatever personal embodiment of satisfaction one is seeking, we may find meaning. This is not to say that every job will then be enjoyable, or that every errand will be effortless. Indeed, quite the opposite is likely. Risks will need to be taken, sacrifices made, and plans redrawn. However, by using this paradigm, each action taken will have what I believe we desire most: meaning.
I believe that such a model can be combined with a dynamic goal theory to produce a robust decision making model to guide us through life. It is as follows:
Imagine an aluminum tube, wide at one end and smoothly narrowing to a small opening at the other. Now, imagine tossing a small rubber ball into the tube. The elastic sphere will bounce from side to side, catapulting to and fro across the tube as trigonometry and gravity take control. The path the ball takes is trivial, as are the number of impacts it makes with the sides of the tube as it descends. Yes, these factors affect the time it takes the ball to complete its journey and may affect its physical condition when it reaches the other end. But the ball will surely exit the tube from the other end and fall directly to where the tube is pointing. By correctly orienting the tube, you can ensure the ball will always reach its ultimate destination, regardless of the duration and path taken to arrive there. This point, the ultimate destination, I believe is ascertained through answering the question, “what will allow me to minimize my maximum regret, when I look back in old age?”
This is easier asked than answered and will take significant introspection and dedicated thought to conclude. It is almost certain to change at one, if not many, points in life. However, if you adjust the tube’s orientation as the ball makes its way through, it may disrupt the trajectory, but the ball will nonetheless emerge at its new destination. This is the beauty of such a framework: nothing matters but correctly identifying the best destination at the current moment. Should the answer to that question change, the tube reorients, and nothing is lost but a bit of time and energy.
In this way the speed, frequency, and force of impact (e.g. life choices large and small) need not be labored over, as one can rest assured the destination will be reached in time. The journey can be sped up or slowed by taking more care with such details, but the important distinction is that they need not be. This allows us to benefit from unexpected moments of serendipity, without risking making a ‘wrong’ choice and ‘ruining the plan’ along the way. In the words of Taleb, we want to gain from uncertainty in life, not live as its slave.
Thus, meaning may be derived from any and all choices in life, circumventing the millennial ‘burnout’ feeling as each and every choice will be taken for a reason. Such choices can be infinitesimal (do I watch a TV episode and let my mind rest so I am fresh tomorrow, or spend my time reading an article?) or relatively impactful (do I change jobs, or stay in my current role?). The answer, as previously stated, is whatever choice will reduce the maximum regret you may have in the future. Life’s destination can be path independent, provided we are always moving forward, towards whatever end that may be.
Future essays in this series will explore many aspects of modern life and decision theory mentioned or alluded to above. These include the impact of debt on decisions and society, implications of Taleb’s idea of antifragility, and a discussion of historical events that led up to this unique time, among others.
The American dream is an ideal that is created and perpetuated by the media and corporate America. This is a template for life that many people fall into. It is increasingly difficult to attain as standards are raised and social media shows us nothing but ‘living the best life.’ But this is not the template for everyone. By saying “no” to the societal norm of measuring success and happiness via materialism, we can free ourselves to truly be happy.
This is the idea set forth by the documentary Minimalism.
I agree with the idea that societal norms are not ones that should be blindly followed. Some are useful (crime is bad) but others are ludicrous (Instagram ‘likes’ equate to worth). I am still struggling with identifying how much of society I want to shirk. I find myself realizing that at times I am succumbing to some societal narratives just like every else, without realizing it. I do not subscribe to doing things because people say we are “supposed to” or spending too much money going to extravagant restaurants or clubs. But I find myself at times still trying to fit in in some ways. For example, I like clothing. I like shoes. I like to buy these things even when I already many shoes and enough clothes. However, I do not buy clothes because they are brand names or particularly because they are the current trend, but because I like them. Does this fit into my self-proclaimed paradigm to forge my own path? I am not sure. I think it does, but I have been wondering lately how many things I am fooling myself about.
How edgy am I? Do I see myself with clear eyes, the way others do? Or do I see myself through a lens of superiority because I think I know things others don’t, and think that I seem friendly and attentive yet utterly disinterested in most of what ‘normal’ people do? This troubles me, as I praise self-awareness above most else. I see myself as an edgy yet intelligent professional working a high power job (while hating it), yet able to shirk much of this persona off the clock and live a much more arts-oriented private life. I think this is true, and I really believe it. But sometimes, I wonder if others think that too, and then try to remind myself that it shouldn’t matter. But I tend to be vain, and at a core level I think I still do care that other people see myself the way I want them to. I place a high level of weight on fashion and while I stay off of social media, I do care what others think. Is that okay?
Even while writing this, I had the thought “If I figure it all out, maybe this essay will be featured in a book or essay collection about how to figure it out for yourself, or at least ask more questions.” Even as I am trying to do this for myself and personal growth, I cannot help but thinking about how other people could look up to me after reading this stream of conscious bullshit. I would like to try and break that thought pattern.
I try to live life with my eyes open, but sometimes wonder how open they really are. More than most, sure, but enough? I do not know. Much of this pervading uncertainty on my quest for my ‘final form’ stems from a superb and pervasive lack of direction in life. Not that I don’t think I know what I want to do – worse than that, I am trying to figure out what is really important. Important to me, and important to the world. What is my duty in the grander scheme of things? What is anyone’s? Is it important to try and live your life for the betterment of humanity, or is all futile over time and thus a waste of time that could be dedicated to enjoyment?
Or it enough to live life doing a job that is not exactly meaningful on a grander scale, gaining the income to live the life you choose in the off hours? Travelling, purchasing experiences, and nice clothes all cost money. Work is essential to live whether we like it or not. I am still trying to figure out whether one should work to live, or find work that can be dedicated to some higher meaning, whatever it may be.
I want to take risks and adventure, travel, go to concerts, etc. Can I do this if I am working towards a dedicated goal, and if not, is it worth it even if that goal helps many people? I am tending towards thinking that living life with a job that supports the life you want to live. But part of me still thinks that that may be a cop out, because that journey is definitely easier than attempting to have a lasting impact.
Few people are granted the opportunity to be in a place in life where they feasibly could make a difference. Even fewer are asking questions as to what they should do with such a position in life. Does this mean that there is an obligation to use such a position for good? Part of me still thinks so, but I have more questions than answers.
Currently I am using “do no harm” as my heuristic of choice – make sure nothing you do actively hurts anyone no matter how removed, but going out of your way to improve the lives of others is unnecessary. I think this is a good rule while life is in a holding pattern of sorts, while I try to find these answers.
This documentary has been very good at highlighting ideas that I have been mulling over a lot recently, and I think many of the ideas are good. I think the four biggest takeaways for me are
- Only have belongings that have meaning. Be able to justify every single object you own. All your clothes should be your favorite clothes.
- Consumption is not the problem. Compulsory consumption is the problem
- If you see a person at a later stage of your life’s current plan or current trajectory and don’t want to be in that person’s shoes – get out
- “Now, I get to live life being genuine – there is no manipulation.” Not having a pretense in any facet of life, including work, should be the only way to live
A closing quote: “I wish everyone could become rich and famous so they would realize its not the answer” – Jim Carey