Personal Development

Humans on Autopilot

Planes have had autopilot for a few decades now. Cars are just now starting to get it. Some people think we should skip the assisted-human-driving that’s creeping in now and remove humans from the car-piloting process entirely as soon as we can.

And all of that is mostly irrelevant to my topic. What is relevant is that most of us humans, most of the time, are doing things in the same basic way we did them before and getting the same sort of results we’ve always been a little disappointed by. But we keep doing things that way nonetheless.

We’re on autopilot. One of the more interesting ideas about planes is that mostly-automated plane flight is the worst of all worlds. The reason: human pilots who are habituated to computer control will be out of practice and fumble when put back into control of the plane when a human-intervention-required emergency occurs.

This basic mechanic applies to less life-threatening scenarios too. If you suddenly decide to go to a new restaurant for eggs in the morning, you’ll probably feel a bit flustered and disoriented the first time. The same is true when you try to exercise for the first time in a while. Or when you try to have a conversation with the friend or neighbor you’d been benignly neglecting.

There are good things about living your life on autopilot. If you had to consciously think through every action and reaction you completed, you’d be a dead human. Not only would a lion or hippopotamus likely have killed you, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to keep yourself fed if they didn’t. By using autopilot for less-complicated tasks, we leave ourselves space to work on the really mind-bending ones.

The issue is that, as with human pilots, as we get older we tend to get more complacent and let autopilot drive more things. This is part of an old complaint I had about “flow traps,” and it’s also one of the reasons so many older humans are moderately dissatisfied all the time.

What’s necessary to get away from the seemingly chronic problems that haunt your life — those forty pounds you can’t shake, that relationship you wish you had but don’t, that bank account that just always seems to be a little emptier than you wish — is to turn off the autopilot that you might not even recognize is driving you back to that same places all the time.

It’s easier and more convenient to glide along guided by your autopilot — those same decision-making processes and decided truths about yourself you laid down days or decades ago — than it is to take control and fly to some place new or in some way new. But real change comes when you turn off your autopilot. You have the override, you just need to remember to use it sometimes. Keep your skills sharp.

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