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.

Personal Development

Things Don’t Change Unless Something Changes Them

It’s one of those things that seems so obvious that we don’t think about it. But it’s also true: things don’t change unless something changes them. The rock that you see today will be the same forever, unless (as is likely to happen) wind, water, people, and other entropic forces eventually change that rock.

This is more useful as it comes closer to the realm of human life. Unlike rocks, our bodies are self-sustaining agents of change and chaos. We eat, drink, sleep, move, and breathe — processes of transformation. Our living body is always in flux. So we’re bad at noticing all the things that don’t really change.

The mental stuff — how I think, act, and react to the world — doesn’t change fast. The way that I feel about myself is unlikely to change without effort. If I see myself as a stupid fat ugly worthless person it’s very likely that, save for the interaction of a saintly other stepping into my personal psychology and helping me out of that darkness, I will stay convinced I am that until I die. We like to think that our minds are powerful agents of change — they can be — but they’re also habit-driven robots that tend to live in their own ruts.

Your ownership of your relationship to yourself is obvious; after all, you’re the only one in that relationship. And the something that changes a relationship with another I rely on or care about can be the other person. Because of that you’ll often find it even easier to believe in your impotent powerlessness. It’ll be easier for you to just say, “I guess this relationship can never work,” than to take responsiblity for changing it.

But the thing that’s true — about a relationship on the rocks, your negative and problematic self image, or the simple fact that your socks are currently scattered all around your house to the chagrin of all the people you live with — is that the facts of those situation won’t change without something changing them.

And that thing that changes them can be you. Even when others are involved. You can seek the counseling you, or that relationship, might need. You can work, on your own, to change it. You can go pick up your socks. You don’t have the ability to dictate the final outcome. But the closest and most reliable change-agent you’ll ever have control over is yourself.

Personal Development

Taking Responsibility for What You Control

I’d realized before that one of the most powerful things in the world is understanding the difference between the things you do and don’t control. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve really grasped the importance of taking full ownership of those things that you do control. Seeing yourself as completely responsible for the things you truly control is as or more important a skill than understanding the distinction between what you do and don’t control.

I’ve known for a while about the fact that there’re many things I can’t control. And that trying to take ownership of those things that I do not control was simply a great way to go crazy. The distinction between those things is hard to see completely clearly, but I’ve been polishing that skill for a while. That however isn’t my focus here so we’ll set it aside.

What I want to talk about here is realizing the other half of the power of the distinction between the things you can and cannot control. That is: once you understand what you do fully and completely have responsibility for, you must see yourself as the one responsible for its upkeep.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned how to really take responsibility for the things I can control. And it is in taking on that responsibility that I have become healthier, happier, and much more certain about my ability and value.

It was only when I really learned that I was the only one who was feeling the anger that I felt that I realized I was the only one who could decide how I dealt with it. It seems kind of obvious looking back, but my anger at various things in the world — my position in life, unfairnesses directed at myself or someone else, the opinions espoused by political opponents, etc — was only experienced by me. And that when I tried to spread this anger to other people they didn’t experience a conversion as a result.

I now know that it is impossible to convince someone with your anger. And I also know that being angry is a really unpleasant experience. So whenever anger starts to rise in me, I take responsibility for controlling and reducing it. It’s not an easy journey, but with time I can confidently report that taking ownership of my anger is the only thing I’ve ever found that made me less angry and more productive in addressing the causes of my anger and frustration.

It’s not easy, but knowing what you control and taking responsibility for those things is one of the most powerful things you can do as a person. I’m no master, but I know with certainty that this is something that all masters know and do.


Moving Beyond the Psychology of Defeat

When I think back about how I’ve changed and who I used to be, a word that comes to mind is “defeated”. I lived most of my life as a lazy, overweight, and unmotivated student. There’s a lot of weighted meaning in that characterization, but all of those words are related in my mind to being defeated.

When you’re defeated, every bad event is a disaster. And it’s a sign of something far bigger: your failure, your oppression, or your fate. Pessimism, realism, defeatism, the loser mindset — all just variations on the theme of “well I can’t change it anyway.”

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