“People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yielding. A student objected to this view by saying, ‘But you don’t choose your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you around.’ I said, ‘Do you avoid such people?’ ‘Oh!’ She said, ‘I see what you mean.’” – Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation And The Theater
This post focuses on psychological freedom, but from a different perspective. We’ll look at life as a series of boxes. Those boxes influence what we pay attention to. We can stay in the comfortable boxes we know the best, even if they’re not right for us. We can also choose to take a leap of faith by jumping into new, but uncertain, boxes that may help us get closer to what we really want.
A Thought Experiment
One of the things I like to do when I’m caught up in my emotions is to imagine I’m experiencing life from a third-person perspective.
Try it right now for 10 seconds. What do you see?
Most of you probably see yourself, maybe the back of your head, staring at the computer screen reading this blog post. Maybe you’re riding the bus home, reading this post on your smartphone while being squished like a sardine between weary-eyed office zombies.
I find this exercise fascinating because it makes life feel like a video game and the character I’m playing with is Dino. Every day I choose all the things to do with Dino. There are a few things I must do with Dino, like bathe and feed him. Otherwise, the game might end prematurely. But a large number of things are totally up to me to decide: what to dress Dino in, who to have Dino hang out with, what Dino should learn, the places Dino should live, or even when Dino should talk/see his family.
This exercise is useful because it takes us out of our discrete, habitual routines and allows us to see the gestalt.
Seeing the whole of our life helps place things into perspective. We occasionally develop tunnel vision for our current standing in life. We tell ourselves that we have to get that promotion or we have to study a specific subject in order to fit into society. We assume that reaching these end states will give our lives meaning. But how often do we stop to ask ourselves if we truly want that end state? Is it what I want or do I want it because I’m narrowly focused on my environment (i.e. what my peers are doing, what my parents expect, what I think society expects)?
I like to think of this tunnel vision as being stuck in a box. You can think of this box as an identity or a desired identity. It is something that is defined by external factors, but it feels like a part of you.
Examples of boxes could be student, teammate, investor, dancer, investment banker, wife, mother, engineer, or assistant to the regional manager. Those identities can be positive or negative identities. I’m a “good public speaker” or I’m “bad with relationships.” These labels come with a set of internal and external expectations and norms/rules.
Boxes aren’t good or bad. Like almost anything in life, the answer is it depends. The more time we spend in a box, the more we learn about how it works. The goal is to understand how the various emotional, cultural, social, and psychological components of our boxes shape our perception of life. Then we can figure out if a particular box is right for us.
What’s In the Box?
I stole this idea of boxes from a talk by Tobi Lutke, CEO and Co-founder of Shopify (See the bottom of this post for the full video). Tobi uses this box idea to describe his self-development process.
In the talk, Tobi tells a story about being in school and wanting to be popular. He analyzed the situation and came to a conclusion: he needed to buy Air Jordan sneakers. Tobi says he, “was vaguely aware that there was more to the world, but it didn’t truly matter. Within my little world, this school, the most obvious profound thought I had was that I needed Air Jordan sneakers to be a part of the popular kids.”
Tobi is saying that he wasn’t aware of the gestalt. He describes school and the social goal he cared about as “this box I was in and everything I was experiencing could be explained from within this box.” The dynamics of what was going on in his box shaped what he viewed as important. It also veiled him from other rich aspects of life.
It’s funny. I can certainly relate to Tobi’s Air Jordan experience. I bought Ed Hardy clothing in high school to be “cool.” Other times I changed the way I talked to try to fit in with certain groups. And it wasn’t 100% my fault. I was influenced by the boxes I was in!
If you think of a box as your environment, then everything in that environment will influence you: your peers, the titles, the rewards & punishments, and the older people who went through that box and expect you to go through that box the same way. Luckily, life has a way of automatically pushing you into new boxes when you’re young.
The Problem With Getting Older
The problem arises when we get older and it’s up to us to get up and move boxes. We end up like Alice In Wonderland, asking the Cheshire Cat, “Where should I go from here?” The Cheshire Cat responds, “Well that depends a great deal on where you want to get to.” Except we don’t move.
Instead of continuing to play the game of exploring the next box, we develop tunnel vision and linger. We stay in the mediocre job, the shitty relationship, or hang out with people we don’t really like because the certainty of our current box seems to outweigh the uncertainty of exploring the next one.
Tobi highlights this danger of getting stuck in a box, “There is significant automatic churn in this infinite game. Every time people get comfortable [in a box] some people leave. Everyone has an uncle at some family reunion who has left this process way too early.”
Getting Out Of The Box
Tobi moved on to university and then started working. These next stages became new boxes. Sometime during his first job, Tobi gained a mentor. This mentor was able to operate within the same box Tobi was in, but he could also take events in that box and make sense of them with context from other areas of life. The box that Tobi shared with his mentor was really just a small box within a “much bigger box.”
This situation forced Tobi to realize that the boxes he occupied could be constraining him. He started asking himself several questions to understand these constraints: “what is my world? In which ways is the box I’m currently in constricting me? And how is it stifling my thoughts and ambitions? What are the kind of thoughts that will lead me out of this particular box?”
I think Tobi’s questions are useful to pair with the idea of viewing your world in the third-person. When you combine them, it’s like pausing a video game, going to the menu, and looking at the map. Some parts of the map are gray and blurry because you haven’t explored them yet. You may not have even been aware of those parts until you paused to look around. While you won’t know what lies in those gray areas, you give yourself the option to move in those directions.
Near the end of his talk Tobi summarizes this whole process for us:
Life is this really, really interesting series of entering a box, seeing what it is sort of made of, probing at it, analyzing, seeing how things work, seeing what way gravity is pushing you, and then sort of understanding it and feeling familiar. This is the nice part. Every time you reach there it becomes very comfortable. And then you might learn something that isn’t reconcilable with this world you think exists. That is the very thing that cracks it and you get into the next box. And you start it again. Again and again and again.
Fortunately, like the quote at the beginning tells us, the life you end up with is often the life you choose. It’s your choice to stay in your current box or move on to the next one. If you think your life is dull, it’s probably because you haven’t left a box you find comfortable.
You can leave though. You can start to understand your current box by viewing your life in the third-person and asking the same questions as Tobi. Then you can turn any anxiety you have about exploring a new box into an opportunity for personal growth by reframing the situation. Tobi is living proof that “if you’re ambitious and you’re deliberate about [getting out of your box], you can accomplish very great things.”
Our next post will continue with this idea of life as a game. We’ll consider what it means for life to be an infinite game and look at the series of boxes as individual finite games.