0526 – revise and refine your personal algorithms (they’ll set you free)

I’m thinking about Facebook and video games again, and personal growth and scaling difficulty. When you play a game such as Borderlands or Diablo, your character starts out with practically nothing– maybe a really crappy pistol or dagger. You start out in a really crappy region, too– Borderlands 2 begins with you crashing into some snowed-tundra wasteland, Diablo 2 starts with you in a little Rogue encampment– basically a refugee camp. In Act 4, you’re in the Hall of Champions, with Archangels hanging out, and incredible enchanted armor and weapons. [1]

What about in life? There are many different paths that can happen. You start out being born to your parents, obviously. Your dad may or may not be in the picture. You might be in a safe town or a dangerous one– born into safety or conflict. I can’t speak for people born into conflict. I was born into safety– sunny Singapore, where everything runs smoothly like clockwork and it’s easy to take everything for granted.

So within that narrow band of experience– the next thing is to go to school, which is really like an elaborate tutorial zone where you get grades. I essentially went through my tutorial zone by mashing on the keys and failing over and over again. It seems like most people from where I amgenerally remain in the tutorial zone until around 18-21, unless there’s some reason for them to leave it earlier. Then some people start work, some people go to University (which is in some senses an extended tutorial zone/zoo). By 24 or 25, most of us would have started work. By this point there are some real economic considerations. What sort of resources do you have? Some people inherit a lot of them. But there may be some complexity about how they can access those resources– maybe their parents, who are the gatekeepers of those resources, demand that they perform certain tasks or live a certain lifestyle. Some people inherit effectively nothing. Some people have it worse, inheriting responsibilities and obligations and debt.

By this point it becomes somewhat clear that different people lead very different lives. A lot of the signs of public life and the middle class and peer groups etc work to suppress this uncomfortable reality. We (broadly) seem to like to feel like most people are somewhat similar to us, most people live this middle class life with similar aspirations. Some people enjoy pretending that this isn’t true for them, but they ultimately do return to their peers for validation. It’s been particularly sobering to witness how some rebellious punks in school ended up cleaning up to sell insurance or property. How people who wanted to be rockstars end up becoming wedding singers or photographers or yoga teachers. Ultimately we’re all affected by market forces.

Why am I writing all of this down? The original reason was that I wanted to meditate on the fact that I often get stuck in old patterns, old routines, thinking old thoughts, remembering old gripes. We know that we literally live in the past by a few microseconds because of the way our brains work, but I also literally live in the past of a few years. I’m haunted unnecessarily by my younger self. The books I wanted to read then. The people I hung out with then. The habits I’ve had since then.

It would be the equivalent of playing Borderlands or Diablo, and constantly going back to the older parts of the map, using old weapons and fighting old enemies, just because it’s familiar, simpler, easier.

We seldom fall into the trap of doing that in those games, because there’s always something new and exciting to do. The new areas are more interesting and more rewarding. They give cooler weapons, cooler quests, bigger rewards. Life isn’t always so kind and linear. The only time we go back to the old is if we’re really bored, or if we’re overwhelmed by what we’re facing at the moment and need to go back to accumulate resources– potions, money, etc. It’s usually an unpleasant grind, and it’s usually better to just be very careful when facing the new and difficult enemy.

So I suppose I’m writing this to persuade myself that I need to sell my old weapons, stop being such a completionist about old quests, because there are new weapons to use and new quests to do that are much more suited for who I am right now. [2]

But beyond “letting go” of old things, the important thing is to confront and engage the present. What do I most need to do right now? Well, I need to finish this vomit, obviously. Then I need to wash my face, brush my teeth, have lunch, and get started on work. And that itself will repeat the process– I’ll have to identify the most urgent/important thing at work, break it down into its components, pick the most critical component (if none is critical, pick the easiest/fastest to do…) and so on and so forth. In a sense it’s the building and enacting of an algorithm.

Which makes me realize. Video games are quite “algorithmic”. It’s frustrating when you don’t have one. It’s fun when you do. That’s when you get into a flow state. You know how to respond to something. When this happens, you do that. When your gun runs out, you do that. When you face a new enemy, you do that. There’s a whole set of instructions inside the head.

The challenge is to do the same in life– not to reduce life to a bunch of rules, but so that things get done and free us to then fully engage with things as adventure rather than ordeal. That’s how we get to be creative and improvise. Improvisation requires preparation. Algorithms set us free.

[1] There’s something about that progression that’s very appealing to people. In Every Frame A Painting, the narrator describes how in Jackie Chan’s fighting sequences, he typically starts out disadvantaged and “on the bottom”, and then he works his way up. Similarly, in JRPGs, you tend to start out fighting a slug or rat or something, and you end up fighting the Ultimate God Of Life And Death or something like that in the end.

[2] And these quests are time-sensitive too, so if I spend Visa-26’s time doing Visa-18’s quests, then by the time I get around to doing Visa-26’s quests I’ll be Visa-35 or something. So it’s a constant catching up. I need to let me go.

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