Warping the space-time of action


How much agency do I have in my own life? “Can I choose any destination that is important to me—and take any path I want to get there?” Good questions all. Yet, even if you’re playing the game in god-mode, there are always constraints. I’ll describe some of these. Then I’ll go into the relationship between your decisions, your emotions, and your environment. Or you can just skip down to the elephant and start there.

Freedom is the ultimate measure. Back to the constraints. The first thing to know is that some of are self-selected. Saying no is still an expression of choice. Under what circumstances would you say no to money or power? Your principles answer that question. Some people would dump toxic sludge into a river if the price was right. Others would dedicate their lives to preventing that same possibility. Humans come in a lot of flavours.

Some constraints are fixed. The laws of physics aren’t what I would describe as negotiable.

Some constraints are fluid. Abilities can accumulate over time—in anything from your professional life to your hobbies. Likewise, beliefs can subtly shift over time. Both can sometimes accumulate slowly until—one day—bam! The entire landscape is transformed.

Some constraints are part fixed and part fluid. Like credit cards or public libraries.

The final type of constraint I want to talk about is your environment. But describing your environment without you is probably pointless. What is a city without people, right? Things are already getting a bit complex, though. So, let’s take a breath and simplify things.

Picture a rider atop an elephant.

Did it look like this? Image credit: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt once described the tug-of-war between the emotional and rational parts of being human as an elephant and a rider. The rider represents our rational mind. The elephant represents our emotions. The act of controlling the elephant is hugely effortful—especially when it is in opposition to what the elephant wants. Such is the tension between long-term thinking and instant gratification.

Brothers and co-authors, Chip and Dan Heath, took the elephant metaphor and added an environmental dimension. In their book, Switch, they describe the elephant and the rider—and the path. When the elephant and rider don’t agree, the rider has to spend huge amounts of energy to direct it. Yet, when the path is there, the elephant just sort of follows it. Probably just because it’s the easiest way to go. Things move best when there is alignment between rider, elephant, and path.

Our environment influences what actions we take. Not because we’re forced into doing anything. We have tons of options. Our paths fork all the time. Some are more convenient, some more are more difficult. Outcomes are not guaranteed by the shape of the path; just the odds of a certain outcome. Imagine if healthy eating were made cheaper and more convenient to consume. And that unhealthy foods became more expensive and less convenient. Few people would fundamentally change their beliefs but most would see a shift in their actions.

Convenience exerts a sort of gravity. Convenient choices feel more downhill than uphill. More like worn trail than dense undergrowth.

To lead a more intentional life, we have to understand how our environments affect our actions. Know who designs them. Know who benefits from them. Most of all, know what your objectives are so that you can shape or change your path to match the direction you want to travel.

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