The Starship of Theseus

This framing of the Starship of Theseus has been on my mind for a little while, and I finally decided to write it down. Basically, in a marketplace with any sort of selection pressure, organizations vie to both retain their identity (what makes them the organization) and adapt to changing conditions. A possible path to resolving the tension of these two opposing forces – stay the same, yet evolve – is aptly described by the “Starship of Theseus” analogy.

In FLUX issue 51, we had this really nice riff on the Ship of Theseus experiment. If every part of a ship is eventually replaced, is it still the same ship? Or something entirely different? 

The “Starship of Theseus” kicks the experiment up a notch. What if, in addition to replacement of parts as part of the routine maintenance, the process must incorporate improvements?

In this metaphor, the ship is seen as a collection of capabilities. Some of these capabilities are transient and some essential. Transient capabilities can be substituted for other, different capabilities without affecting the distinguishing quality – the “shipness” – of the ship. Conversely, essential capabilities are those that constitute this quality. Exchanging them for another capability means destroying the Ship of Theseus.

For instance, we can confidently state that the hull, crew quarters, and navigation are essential, while the material of which the hull is built or its particular shape are transient. Yet some capabilities that we thought of as essential are revealed to be transient in due time. We might believe that the proud sails of the Ship of Theseus were its essential capability for many generations. When the vessel is finally fit with the powerful steam engine, we recognize that the sails were transient.

To keep the ship afloat and continuing to fulfill its purpose in the changing environment, we must continuously replace its obsolete transient capabilities with more technologically advanced alternatives, while preserving and maintaining the full efficiency of the essentials. If we are successful, the steam engine is replaced by a diesel one and later, a nuclear reactor, while the hull graduates to steel, with aluminum not far behind.

Technological progress guides our understanding of what the essential capabilities are. And conversely, this understanding is guiding the evolution of the ship. A repeatedly, doggedly asked question: “What are we really about?” spurs the transformation. We resolve the tension of “stay the same while evolving” through a dynamic inquiry: the answer to this question changes over time.

If we initially thought our particular “shipness” was about the number of masts and a distinctive figurehead, we revise our answer as we adapt. And a couple of millenia later, it is the spirit of frontier exploration – the unchanged essence of our ship – that compels us to take the vessel to the stars.

Here’s my guess. Intentionally or not, any large organization that perseveres through time follows the pattern described by the Starship of Theseus story. And I wonder: would such an organization benefit from leaning into this pattern more consciously?

First, this dynamic nature of the inquiry tells us that we do not have to know the ultimate purpose of our ship. Put it even more forcefully, we must not try to have the essential capabilities captured and solidified, for an organization that knows with certainty what it is about has already sealed its fate. It will never get to orbit, let alone see other galaxies.

Second, we might be better off viewing a portfolio of our capabilities as something that will evolve over time. At any given time, we also might want to have a good sense at which capabilities are essential and which ones are transient. This sense would need to be grounded in an understanding that the essential/transient breakdown will change over time.

Third, it would have to be our collective responsibility to think in multi-year timelines. We must dream of starfaring even when we’re still powered by sails. Unlike a static vision, the vision formed as the question – “How will we go to the stars?” – can adapt to the changing environment in productive and inspiring ways.

Strategy and FOMO

There’s this really fun neologism that the cool kids use: FOMO, or fear of missing out. It’s a useful snapshot of feelings we experience when our friends are doing something awesome and we are somehow left behind, literally or figuratively. I found that it can serve as a useful handle in strategy work as well.

It seems that organizations collectively experience FOMO. There is a lot of amazing, disruptive innovation happening out there in the world. In the information-dense environment, new and possibly groundbreaking stuff shows up in our various feeds every day – and sometimes more than once a day. Is this the next big thing? Or just hype? How do I know? Strategists fret every day, taking a mental diff between their organization’s course and the potentially significant new thing that just dropped in the Twitterverse. At the age we live in, the fog of uncertainty creeps up the runway of business.

For teams with a narrow cone of embodied strategy, spotting that new significant thing early feels ever more important. Given the limits of motion, a lot of time and effort needs to go into shifting trajectories if that suddenly becomes necessary. The lead times on change are long. So… Was that it? Did we miss the turn? Are we too late? FOMO intensifies.

It is my experience that, just like with us humans, organizations are better off creating space between their feelings and the actions that follow. 

In itself, feeling fearful about missed opportunities is not a bad thing. It implies that we have enough awareness of the different possibilities and – perhaps implicit – practice of playing out various scenarios. This is all good stuff, and any strategically-savvy organization will (and must) have a bunch of people worrying about the future.

However, where things typically get sideways is when we, spurred by our fears, are compelled to act. FOMO tends to trigger a spectrum of reactive patterns. For example, after seeing a new potentially big thing emerge, we might decide to immediately start building an alternative that rivals it. The reactive patterns are rarely rooted in rigorous strategic thinking. Instead, the urgency of the moment causes the organization to fall back onto its embodied strategy. The outcomes can still be favorable, but they will have more to do with luck and brawn, rather than clarity of thought.

However, if we choose to take a collective breath and pause between the next onset of FOMO and our habitual reaction, we can create a space where new, yet unseen opportunities can emerge. In this space, we need to ask – sometimes fighting down the urge to “just jump” – ourselves fairly basic questions, like “what are our capabilities and strengths that might intersect with this new emerging thing?” and “what are the surrounding areas into which the momentum may expand?” and “what are the second order effects of this momentum? What happens when the hype cycle concludes?” 

These questions may require some extra effort to answer honestly. But in my experience, the answers they bring reveal insights that could help our team plot a path that is not an instinctive response. And hey, it might still go up in flames. But at least we won’t be backing into it without looking.

Vision-oriented and impact-oriented mindsets

I had this really interesting framing pop out during a chat with colleagues. It’s a bit contrived, but I found it useful. Imagine that there are two distinct ways to look at the work in front of us: vision-oriented and impact-oriented.

When we have a vision-oriented mindset, we see some future state of our surroundings and we try to move toward it. For this mindset, work is the means to make progress toward that future state – and we only do the work that we believe will take us there.

When we have an impact-oriented mindset, we want to make sure that our contributions matter. The work in front of us is the instrument by which we make an impact. When we’re in this mindset, we seek out work that is impactful.

Comparing the two, it seems that they are each other’s complement: an impact-oriented mindset does not require a specific vision to exist to guide the work, while the vision-oriented mindset does not need to make an impact. As long as the impact-oriented me makes a difference, I don’t really care if some vision is coming to fruition as a result of this work. Conversely, a vision-oriented me just wants the world to change in a specific way, and if nobody notices — that is alright.

Each mindset has its upsides and downsides.

Vision-minded folks tend to suffer from holding their vision too firmly. This, like clockwork, leads to blindspots that box us into a space that we refuse to get out of. Even if the desired destination is impossible, we keep trying and failing and trying again, railing against the laws of physics. The vision becomes part of our identity and any disconfirming evidence about this vision’s feasibility causes nearly physical pain.

By the way, this fusing of vision with identity is a good way to spot a vision-oriented mindset among your co-workers. They are usually characterized by their adherence to the vision: “the culture weirdo” or “the robots wonk”. I used to be “the Shadow DOM guy” and even drove a car with a personalized “SHDWDOM” license plate for some time.

Woe to the team who has a strongly vision-minded member with a vision unaligned with the team’s. They will stubbornly stick to doing what they believe matters, even though the rest of the organization doesn’t see it as contributing to the larger whole.

However, if an organization’s and individual’s visions are aligned, such folks become linchpins – they can make amazing things happen. Spotting a vision-minded candidate in such alignment is a treasure for any team. Just don’t make any changes in direction – the gift will turn into a curse right after the pivot.

Impact-minded folks tend to fall into the trap of opportunism. When I am optimizing for impact, I end up selecting work that will… well, make an impact. This tends to bias us toward immediate, shorter-term outcomes. I can still invest effort into longer-term ventures, but only if there’s a strong guarantee that they will succeed. In high-complexity environments, such combinations are rare.

Additionally, when we ourselves are vision-agnostic, we develop an intuition for spotting work that is seen as impactful by others. And it turns out that “seen” is subjective. People who evaluate potential impact could be wrong, leading us off the cliff. Or worse, we may discover that we can generate impact by doing work that looks awesome, but doesn’t actually yield any lasting benefits. Komoroske calls the latter “the appearance of heroic motion”.

At the organization level, a combination of complex problem space and overemphasis on impact can spiral into a veritable festival of Goodhart’s law. When everyone is searching for the next best metrics to define impact, and the meaning of metrics keeps collapsing under the optimization pressure, there’s a frantic churn of action, permeated by the overall sense of dread of the organization not actually going anywhere.

Conversely, if the team has strong, stable metrics and a lot of room to climb them, impact-minded folks are exactly the right fit. They will find the most effective way to ride it all the way to the top of the S-curve. However, you must be ready for these folks to suddenly become disoriented and unproductive when the growth slows. Once it becomes unclear where to go next, our impact-oriented selves can optimize the team to death. 

As one of my colleagues pointed out, an effective team needs a mix of both mindsets. The trick is that this mix has to shift pretty fluidly in complex spaces. It’s tough when a change in team direction suddenly turns the key contributors on your team into ornery naysayers. Or when it becomes hard to see where the team is heading in the chaff of heroic motion. I am not sure I have any great insights here, other than this: someone who can switch from one mindset to another, at least temporarily, is a truly precious find. If you’re gearing up for a long journey, those are the companions you want.

Nudging Embodied Strategy

The whole concept of the cone of embodied strategy is a bit depressing, to be honest. What’s a mature organization to do? Curl up and cry? Surrender to obsolescence? Maybe. But any statement of complete inevitability gives me pause. Though the force of habits is strong, we all have seen the evidence of habits being broken and people – including ourselves – changing themselves.

It is my experience that just like humans, organizations tend to feel the pain of being constricted by their own habits. There’s consternation about becoming too bureaucratic, moving too slow, or vocal concerns about siloing. It is usually that pain that creates opportunities for becoming aware of the embodied strategy. In a larger organization, there are nearly always moments, the junction points in time where a change becomes possible. Speaking in silly physics, the pain creates excess of potential energy that can be converted into kinetic energy of change with a relatively small nudge.

The key here is recognizing that nudges aren’t some magic thing. “Yay! We’re going to nudge things now! Let’s nudge everything!” isn’t going to get us very far. Nudging is a particular kind of tool that originates in Donella Meadows’ notion of leverage points. For a nudge to be effective, we must understand a) the place to which the nudge can be applied and b) the direction in which the system (our organization) is willing to move.

Both of these pose questions to what appears to be unsolvable problems: what works as a potent nudge for an organization today is unlikely to do the same for a different organization – or even that same organization in the past or future. This can be quite discouraging and disorienting, and frankly, seem kooky and like consultant-speak. Because they stem from the unsolvable class of problems, working with nudges is always going to have that flavor. They hang in tension between rational and woowoo.

To make this whole nudging story more concrete, let’s look at one facet of embodied strategy: the means by which the tacit knowledge percolates.  In my experience, the embodied strategy tends to have roots in there. Put differently, the communication structure of the organization defines the kind of embodied strategy it ends up with. All I am doing here is echoing Conway’s law: “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.”

Put next to the classic understanding of strategy, the causality may feel backward. Usually, we pay attention to team structure and communication as things that are subservient to strategic work. We launch reorgs and set up new meetings, slide decks, mailing lists, and program spreadsheets to set the strategy, right? I suspect that the relationship is much more reciprocal. Yes, when we are able to change how the organization communicates, its embodied strategy changes as well. However, I am skeptical of the idea that imposing a new communication pattern on a team will do anything of a kind. More than likely, efforts like this will result in the all-too-common outcome of a failed top-down initiative: the embodied strategy and the communication structure in which it’s rooted will neatly weave around the change, unaffected.

To get less frustrating results, we are better off examining how tacit knowledge seems to spread across the organization. Look for the spaces and channels that thrive. They may not have a clear purpose and even look like just people loitering about (remember the stereotypical watercooler?). Once these are discerned, see if there’s friction. What constrains them? And what effect do these constraints have on the sharing of tacit knowledge? Due to these constraints, is there an unmet need that perhaps could be addressed in a different way?

These questions are difficult to answer. But once we have at least an inkling of what’s going on, we can start experimenting with nudges. The presence of friction and the pressure of constraints indicates appetite for change: the system is willing to shift, awaiting our nudge. One of my colleagues recently shared that creating a cross-functional chat room was one of their greatest buck-for-bang career accomplishments. Just the mere fact of establishing such a room led to a noticeable improvement in collaboration across several teams, creating a place for having conversations that simply didn’t happen before.

I’ve had a very similar experience a while back, when a sudden departure of key senior leaders left everyone on the team shocked and rather lost. I didn’t know anything about nudges or systems back then, but following my intuition, I created a chat room titled “<team name> Kin”. The room acted as the figurative flag to rally around and helped sub-teams come together. Many years and several teams later, I was delighted to learn that the chat room still exists, still active, numbered in hundreds of participants, and having successfully survived the churn of chat software migration.

We might be tempted to summarize the learning from these experiences as “let’s create chat rooms for everyone and call them <team name> Kin!” And indeed, I’ve tried this recipe multiple times – with meager results. Looking back, in all cases, I followed my intuition about unlocking the sharing of tacit knowledge, but neglected to consider a system’s willingness to move. Both examples that worked did so because they were nudging the organization’s communication structure out of a constricted, miserable state. They were unlocking a metaphorical spring and releasing the accumulated potential energy.  In my less successful attempts, I was expecting the nudge to act as some sort of energy generator, and that’s not what nudges do.

At this point, you might be going:“Dimitri, you can’t be serious. You started this post talking about strategy and somehow veered into … making chat rooms? This nudge thing doesn’t appear very strategic.” It’s true – it doesn’t. Nudges that end up shifting an organization’s cone of embodied strategy often don’t look like much. They don’t have the grandeur and vigor of broad initiatives. And that is all right. A robust, well-communicated strategy will work exceptionally well as long as its destination fits into the cone. Otherwise, we must be looking for nudges. 

Finding the right nudge can be freakishly hard. Even now, much more comfortable with my system thinker’s hat, I still find many of my nudges to be ineffective. What I tell myself is that I just need to do better than random. To get there:

  • Invest into learning the system you’re in. Keep looking for places where nudges can be applied.
  • Avoid the trap of imagining that the system is a machine that could be completely understood. Think of it as a garden: it’s a little bit different today than it was yesterday.
  • Look for friction and building pressure, where potential energy seems to be trapped. These tell me where the system is willing to change and a nudge may be effective.
  • Don’t bet on one nudge. Prepare to try many times. Be playful. Once in a while, give into intuition despite what logic might be stating. There’s a neat safe-to-fail experiment framing that helps me to get into the right mindset.

Changing the embodied strategy of a large organization is not impossible. In some ways, large organizations can change more rapidly than small ones, because they tend to amass incredible amounts of potential energy even in brief periods of stuckness. However, unless approached with a system thinker’s eye, they will appear to resist change with such strength that makes them look made of solid, immovable stone. Which is why the effect of a nudge can seem like magic when it works.

Embodied Strategy

I was having a great conversation with a colleague about organizational learning and at one point, I kind of just blurted out that strategies are embodied. Here’s my attempt to expand a bit on this idea.

Put very simply, organizations usually have two strategies: one that is stated, and one that is embodied by the organization. The first one is typically highly visible, and the second is mostly invisible and only detectable by its effects. As I mentioned before, every organization has a strategy. Even if this strategy is not stated, the presence of outcomes and the patterns they follow indicates some sort of strategy at play. It might not be the same as the stated strategy. It could be a strategy that accelerates the team’s demise. It could be a strategy that favors short-term outcomes to the long-term ones. But there’s a strategy nevertheless.

Why do I find this seemingly nitpicky point so important? Because when we say in exasperation “this team/organization/unit can’t do strategy!”, what we’re actually saying is that we have given it our best, but failed to influence this team/organization/unit in attaining a state of executing on a strategy that is coherent with its stated intentions. What I am offering here is some light on where the source of such a failure may reside.

If you ever met a human, you might notice that we are full of habits. Some of them are good for us. Some of them are not so much. Organizations are bunches of humans, so they follow the same pattern. We call some of these habits rules and processes, and others norms and culture – or maybe even mission-critical infrastructure. Organization’s embodied strategy emerges from the full collection of its habits. It is this embedded strategy that defines the range of the outcomes and behavior patterns that are within the organization’s reach.

As we all know from our own personal experiences, habits are hard to change, especially without putting in some intentional and patient effort. Some habits are so ingrained that they become part of our identity. This might add clarity to why sometimes, despite our best attempts to devise and instill a different strategy — no matter how elegant and sound — the outcomes remain the same. If our ideas fall outside of the organization’s range of embodied strategy, our efforts to realize them will be in vain. The habits will hold us tightly within that range. 

To visualize what’s happening, imagine that there’s a vertical line on the horizontal scale of time, representing the range of what’s possible, constrained by the embodied strategy. Even if the range stays constant over time, the choices we make are path-dependent. So, from our vantage point of the present, the line will produce a cone-like shape when projected into the future.  If our desired strategy plots a course outside of this cone, this strategy is unlikely to succeed. In such cases, the stated strategy becomes detached from the embodied strategy, resulting in loss of coherence.

It also becomes evident that if we are to influence what an organization does, we must begin with first understanding its embodied strategy and the range that it affords. We need to know the shape of the cone. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration, we need to stop looking at the stated strategies, load up on patience and dig deep.

Since it’s all habits, the facets of the organization’s embodied strategy will be hiding in plain sight. They will not seem like the usual strategy artifacts we’d find in a shared folder.  Embodied strategy is tacit knowledge, and not something that is cleanly captured in a slide deck or a spreadsheet. In fact, the less noticed the habit, the more likely it is part of the embodied strategy. In many cases, only newcomers or outsides can spot them. This is why I love chatting with folks who recently joined the team. They have the best chance of seeing what the rest of us have long stopped noticing.

There seems to be a fairly strong relationship between the age of the team and the shape of the cone. A newly-formed team will have an extremely wide-ended cone: there’s very little strategy that’s actually embodied. Nearly everything is possible. As the team grows and develops its collection of habits, the cone narrows. Mature teams are stuck with the needle-like cones: they graduate to what they’re supposed to do, and that’s the only thing they can do. The embodied strategy becomes a trap that doesn’t let them change.

I hope you hear parallels with the Innovator’s Dilemma in this story. Aversion to risk and sticking with what works isn’t some simple thing that organizations can just choose not to do. When the next big opportunity manifests, no matter how strikingly, a mature organization can’t act on it because its embodied strategy, over time, shrunk the cone of possibilities into a laser-thin line. The negligible likelihood of this line intersecting with new opportunities is what foretells the organization’s future obsolescence.

This shrinking happens naturally, as a result of the team encountering challenges and obstacles, finding ways to overcome them and committing these experiences into its memory. Some of these might be company lore. Some of these will be new gates in the launch process. Many will result in the broadly-adopted tools and frameworks being built. Each – though good and useful as a matter of progress – narrows the width of the cone bit by bit. This process is not something we can prevent from happening, and we’re better off realizing that it’s always at work.

Especially for organizations that have been around for a while, we must understand that while we can change what the organization does, the manner in which this doing happens is rarely affected. For instance, following Clayton Christensen’s advice in The Innovator’s Solution, we might decide to form a distinct team that will pursue a strategy that puts us outside of the organization’s current cone of embodied strategy. However, if we’re not careful, this team will choose to rely on the larger organization’s well-established norms, practices, and processes. As a result, we might be surprised to find out that our attempts to reach our desired destination are thwarted by the same cone of embodied strategy that we wanted to break out of.

It seems to me that every exercise in strategy must begin with the study of embodied strategy. The whole “know thyself” bit may sound cliche, but there’s a reason why both Roger Martin and Richard Rumelt emphasized “coherent actions” and “capabilities” as part of strategy work: they were pointing at the notion that our strategic aspirations are constrained by the cone of habits our organizations have accumulated.

Practices to break out of the cycle of not-learning

At each step in the vicious cycle of not-learning, there is a choice I can make. I can follow the familiar habit or I can practice a different path – and eventually free myself from the trap. “Eventually” is an operative word. Once in this trap, there is no easy way out. It takes conscious work to slowly chip away at each stop of the wheel of suffering.

Here’s a peek at the guide that I have for myself. For each step – a practice, five in total. First, I try to orient myself. At what station am I currently? Then, I draw on the corresponding practice. I’ve collected these along the way, learning them from wiser people and years of practice of my own. Perhaps they will work for you, too.

Before I go on with the second trip around the circle, I’d like to clarify something. These practices can be useful for working through mild instances of the trap. Like, closer to “why do I find people around me so irritating?” and “why do we keep having this argument over and over?” If there’s actual aggression and violence involved, please seek professional help.

I’ll start with Confrontation, because it’s the easiest to detect and the respective practice is the least subtle. Just stop. No matter how close the victory seems, no matter how clever the next attack you’ve prepared, just stop. Apologize and withdraw as quickly as possible. Even if your opponent is still throwing punches. Yes, they will hurt. Remember – it won’t be as bad as remaining stuck in the time loop.

The Fallout station will feel like ruin, and most of the pain will come from the sense of a broken connection. This is your blunt-force contact with the prediction error and it will suck. The practice is to sit with pain. Look at it, turn it over. Focus on the pain itself, not its source. Witness it, and try not to be alarmed by it. Slow down and breathe. Recognize that this is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself, presenting itself in yet-unrecognizable form. Hang on to your hat: your mental models are due for some serious readjustment. As one of my acquaintances says, embrace AFGO: another freaking growth opportunity.

At the core of this practice is separating the pain from Self. It is in these moments that we’re most tempted to use the pain to confirm our fears that we are worthless. Use this precious moment to practice self-love. For me, the most resonant and eye-opening writing came from Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and James Hollis’ Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life. There’s also this fairly obscure book by Doug Silsbee, titled Presence-based Leadership that I found useful for learning how to sit with discomfort.

Lament will feel the most uncertain and disorienting of the five. If you’re confused and unsure what’s going on, you’re probably entering this phase. There will be a pull to ground your experiences in something. And usually it means looking around and relating them to others, along with the intuition that someone else might be responsible for your suffering. The Lament phase is where the narrative emerges and the structure of this narrative will define what is to follow. The practice is to focus on your agency in this narrative. How did you contribute to the situation? There will be a distinct desire to shift quickly to other factors, to things that happened around you and are not in your control. This is not bad in itself, but the thing to watch out for is the subtle flip from “what are all the factors?” to “how was my behavior not a factor?” To break free from the vicious cycle, we need to focus on the things we can control. As Derren Brown put it: “The only things you’re in control of are your thoughts and actions”. His book Happy has been a well-rounded lesson in the practice of agency for me. For an even more robust, more densely-packed wisdom on agency, check out The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich.

Indirectly, the practice of agency is poking at a curious part of the trap. There are some things within you that have worked really well in the past, things that you may see as important parts of your identity and perhaps even virtues. It is likely that you holding on to these things is what creates the inflexibility that powers the cycle of not-learning. If you feel like staring directly into that particular abyss, consider Immunity to Change by Lisa Laskow Lahey and Robert Kegan or writings on the topic of “shadow work”.

Blame will have this delicious feel of knowing what the problem is, and it will be shaped like someone else. There will be the distinct flattening of the picture of our supposed offender.  Sonder is a wonderful way to capture the countervailing practice. As the author John Koenig put it: “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”  I used to call this practice “empathy” and “kindness”, but both words have too many different competing definitions. As for the practical bits, the concept of fallback, a concept from adult development theory, has been very helpful to me – specifically, learning to recognize it in myself. Because fallback happens so quickly and feels so natural, I often find that this practice is only possible in retrospect. It is still worth it. Even noticing fallback in the moment despite not being able to do anything about it is a significant breakthrough. Sometimes, a quick reminder of “wait, this is another person whose internal experience is as rich as mine” seems to help shift thoughts to a more productive space.

Resentment is where the anger burns, confined only by civility. The easiest way to spot it is the righteous indignation that’s bound to boil over. If you were brought up in a culture where “being nice” or “not sticking out” is important, you may spend a lot of time in this particular kettle. As hard as it might be, taking off our own armor and being vulnerable is the crucial practice at this stage. This is the moment to reach out. To say something, however awkwardly and imperfectly. To give voice to the pain beneath the anger. Brené Brown has a ton of helpful advice here (Daring Greatly is my favorite), so you don’t have to struggle alone. If you’re really puzzled with how to even say things, Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication might be useful to start speaking, though robotically and haltingly at first.

These may not be the definitive set of practices. I am certain that I will evolve mine over time, so this here is a static snapshot of the continuing process of understanding. These practices aren’t “shoulds”: don’t follow them because they are somehow good. These aren’t rules. They are one random person’s learned guides for a willing participant who is looking to unpick the knot of a mental trap. Remember the first rule of the “trap club”: to get out of the trap, you have to be aware that you’re in a trap. What happens next is up to you.

The cycle of not-learning

Now that I’ve mentioned mental traps, here’s one particular pattern that I’ve observed in myself and others. It seems like a very powerful device. Once constructed, it can hold in its grip not just one person, but entire polities – for years and perhaps for centuries.

The components of the trap form a circle. They are actions that are, if taken separately, aren’t necessarily reflections of good character, but aren’t trappy in themselves. However, if they are connected via particular habits, the trap emerges in its full force. As they say, one thing leads to another. I’ll describe the trap by tracing the circumference of the circle these habits and actions form, stopping briefly at each action. It’s a whistle stop tour of sorts.

We’ll begin the tour at the Lament station. Usually, we find ourselves here when something has gone terribly wrong, and all we have left is to grieve for the future that could have been, of the promise it held. There’s some possibility that is no longer available to us, and it hurts. These are the times for taking stock and asking – over and over – the question “why”. The Lament phase of the cycle is the most uncomfortable and uncertain. We are looking around and there aren’t any clear answers to the source of our pain.

This is where the first connecting habit shows up. It appears that, in the raw uncertainty of flux, by far the easiest way to ground ourselves is to look at those around us. And when we orient outward like this, a spark of an idea ignites a new-found understanding: we can shed the burden of ambiguity if we just point our finger at someone else. Welcome to the Blame station. This phase is characterized by certainty suddenly snapping into a comforting shelter around us. It is the others who are to blame for our woes, and it is their thoughts and actions – not ours! – that caused the pain we’ve felt at the previous stop.

The next habit is something that happens so naturally that we often miss how. It turns out, our brains are incredibly good at recognizing those who are in our in-group and those who are out. And we tend to do this amazing thing where we drastically simplify — flatten — our perception of those in the out-group. Without even thinking, we view them as caricatures of human beings, the “scumbags” or “worms” whose sole purpose in life is to cause us suffering. The trip to the Resentment station is so quick that we don’t even realize when we’ve arrived there, turning those whom we picked as targets of our blame into disgusting effigies that are only fit to burn.

The key habit that takes us to the next step is walling up. It could be simply due to us trying to follow some social cues. It could be that somewhere deep down, we may recognize that the sequence of steps we’re taking is not where we need to go, so we try to “keep a lid on it”. These walls create a cauldron, where our resentment stews, anger growing brighter and brighter, and the socially-appropriate facade begins to crack. What happens next feels almost inevitable. The logic feels foolproof. Of course, if the other is an insect that occupies an otherwise lifeless human body, the only reasonable action is to destroy it. At the Confrontation part of the circle, our certainty and inner clarity reach their zenith. Our only choices are in how to carry out our vengeance in the most effective way. Is it a toxic verbal jab that teaches them what’s what? Or an all-out violence?

It is here where the sharp downturn of certainty is encountered. Inevitably – yet in the moment, still so unexpectedly – our invasion of the other’s boundaries backfires. Sometimes we are repelled by them directly in a devastating way. Sometimes we see their suffering and stagger back in horror at what we’ve done. The moment we thought would be a triumph turns into sorrow and shame, bringing the tired train to the last station in the circle. At this stage, the habit that exacerbates the already-awful situation is denial: we prolong our own suffering by refusing to give up on the idea that we can relieve our pain through application of sharp instruments to others — until there’s ruin all around us. At the Fallout station, we reap what we had sown, and the force of the pain that comes with it sets up a new revolution of the circle.

It’s always surprising to me how, when back at Lament, we grapple with the same “How did this happen?” question. A habit that makes this merry-go-round-of-suffering endure is our desire to escape these steps where uncertainty rules. We want to do so as quickly as possible and return back to clarity and predictability. This is probably the most important habit to watch for. If I squint a bit, I can see that this circle of suffering looks very similar to the learning loop: we form a mental model of what’s happening (there’s a poopy head standing in my way), we come up with a solution (punch them on the nose), and grapple with the outcome (poopy head cries, making me feel really bad). Yet when the prediction error rate spikes proving our solution ineffective, instead of learning (oh no! am I the poopy head?), we do something different – we try to escape from this place of misery as quickly as possible (of course not! look! it’s another poopy head).

A repeating presence of the “how did this happen?” question is a strong indicator that instead of enriching our mental model, we have formed a vicious cycle of not-learning: the pain of the experience prevents us from enriching our mental model or reframing the problem. Most commonly, we do this by trying to reset the model to some state in the past, where we still could make sense of the world without this much suffering – and start the vicious cycle again. This can show up as “return to our roots” or “remembering who we are” in our language with a certain lust toward the past. Knowing history isn’t enough to avoid repeating it. If we are to untangle ourselves from this trap, we are better off listening very carefully to our internal monologue. It could be that we’re resetting ourselves in the endless time loop of self-inflicted pain.

This cycle may manifest vividly and undeniably as physical violence, or it could be as subtle as feeling constantly annoyed over things that other people keep doing. Though the two occurrences may seem so far from each other in the intensity of their outcomes, the same dynamic undergirds both: individually or collectively, we are failing to learn despite recurring experiences.

How to get trapped

So you want to add more suffering to your life and build a mental trap for yourself? Well then, look no further. This recipe is for you.

As the first step, you must be aware of the fact that you’re trapped. Traps aren’t traps if they are just a thing that happens every day. To become trapped, one must first recognize that there is another version of reality that exists without that thing that happens every day. This recognition is sometimes conscious, but often intuitive. In the most literal sense – and this is just my guess – an animal raised in captivity still recognizes that it is trapped, because there are eons of evolution whispering the songs of roaming the wilderness in its ears. For us humans, traps usually get complicated. The “learned helplessness” phenomenon is often used to describe the condition where a person is so unaware of the opportunities that might be available to them that they are unable to imagine a reality that’s different from what is. Put differently, if you aren’t aware that you’re trapped, you’re not actually trapped. You’re just living your life.

Once you’re armed with the two pictures of reality – a “what is” and a “what should be” – congratulations! You are part-way there. These two pictures form the primary intention. If your awareness of the trap is conscious, it will be a commitment or a resolution of one sort or another. If your awareness is intuitive, it will be a longing, a feeling that overcomes you suddenly and completely from time to time, and keeps nagging in the background. That nagging sense with sudden spikes of emotion is a sure way to spot that you’ve constructed a proper self-trap.

If you’re an overachiever, you could trap yourself with just this one step. Just make sure that the “what should be” is utterly unachievable. Long for something that never existed or cannot exist – and work hard to convince your mind otherwise. Look for idyllic memories of the past, or stories told by people you admire. The farther they are from reality, the easier it will be to construct that sturdy, long-lasting configuration of constant suffering. Nothing traps as well as vivid reimaginings of our ancestors’ ideals.

However, if you’re a slacker and your “what should be” is reasonable, move on to the next step. Here, the thing you’ll need is a barrier, or something that prevents you from simply traveling from “what is” to “what should be”.  Barriers come in the form of other intentions that aren’t aligned with your primary intention. We are mired in such intentions, so not just any will do. A secondary intention has to have these three important properties: strength, invisibility, and self-reinforcement. Let’s go through them one by one.

To trap ourselves well, we must pick a secondary intention that is strong. It must be at least as strong as the primary intention, and the stronger the better. Choose something that is sticky-sweet or horrifyingly spikey. Buddhists call them cravings and aversions. A traumatic experience works wonders in constructing a self-trap, but so does a simple but unyielding pull of physiological needs.

An effective secondary intention must be invisible. Find something that is a long-term habit, something you usually do automatically, without thinking. The best ones are those that you don’t even consider to be “bad habits”, or perhaps even view as virtuous. Look for the ones that formed so far in the past that you don’t even see them as habits. Behaviors based on childhood experiences tend to work well, since we may not even recognize them as distinct intentions.

Finally, if you’re serious about building a formidable trap for yourself, your secondary intention must be self-reinforcing. This one can be difficult to get right, but have faith: you can do it. One common trick is to make sure that the experience of acting on the secondary intention goes through this sentence: a) act on secondary intention, b) recognize that your actions are in conflict with your primary intention, c) feel as bad about it as possible and d) try to avoid thinking about  it as quickly as possible. That’s it! By making sure to feel horrible, you’re reinforcing the strength around the secondary intention, and by rapidly moving away from thinking about it, you’re keeping it invisible. I promise, it works like a charm. Shame is a power tool for building self-reinforced traps. If you’ve grown up in a culture that thrives on shame, you can master trapping yourself faster than anyone. Oh, and don’t forget to blame others. Few things can trap with more precision than moving the agency elsewhere. Get that sweet righteous anger going to solidify the trap.

And why stop with just one secondary intention? Traps work even better when there are multiple. Combine them and get an even more powerful trap.

To give you a quick example: if I am imagining myself ten pounds lighter than today (that’s my primary intention), an old habit of snacking while I am in the kitchen can serve me well as the secondary intention. All I need to do is make sure to feel shame while I am eating those potato chips while distracting myself with watching TV or another soothing activity. This forms a nice, robust trap: as my primary intention remains distant, the amount of shame grows, while my various means to reinforce the secondary intention continue to get more and more elaborate, producing more secondary intentions, and all the while churning out personal suffering.

Of course, if you find yourself wanting to get out of a trap, it is a bit more challenging than setting one up. After all, despite this somewhat tongue-in-cheek narrative, we find ourselves in traps of our own design without actually following any recipes. It takes self-patience and kindness to examine our traps, to discern the secondary intentions and their properties. It takes even more work to stay oriented toward them and gently untangle the habits, and find enough self-love to face them and have a long, quiet conversation with them. It may take weeks or it may take years or decades. But yes, you can get untrapped. I believe in you and I am rooting for you. You can do it.