Finite and Infinite Games

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes

“The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.” – Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theater

Our last post examined life as a series of boxes. We learned that each box can both define and constrain our life. We can grow by examining and changing boxes or we can stagnate by staying in our existing ones.

In that post, I highlighted a talk given by Tobi Lutke. He referred to the process of moving from box to box as “an infinite game.” This phrase reminded me of the book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James Carse.

Carse describes two mindsets: infinite and finite. Infinite players approach the world aware of their ultimate freedom to make choices and accept surprise as the norm. Finite players feel like they have little freedom to choose and compete for the recognition of past accomplishments.

We’ll explore why the infinite mindset is able to handle surprise and change better than the finite mindset. The goal is for you to be able to add these ideas to your toolkit for developing psychological freedom.

Life: An Infinite Game
In his talk, Tobi Lutke described life as:

this really, really interesting series of entering a box, seeing what it is sort of made of, probing at it, analyzing it, 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.

He refers to this process as an infinite game.

What does it mean to think of life as an infinite game?

James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games, has a definition for an infinite game:

  • An infinite game has no beginning or an end.
  • An infinite game has no boundaries, either temporal or spatial.
  • It is played for the purpose of continuing play.
  • The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game to bring as many persons as possible into the play.

We can think of life itself as an infinite game even if it ends for each individual. No one says when life starts, it just starts. It continues after we die. No one can win life and more people over time have been able to participate as human societies have restructured.

Within life, humans have created complex social and economic structures. These things are completely made up by humans and only humans really care about them. These are our boxes or finite games.

Boxes = Finite Games
Carse contrasts an infinite game with a finite game:

  • A finite game has a definite beginning and end.
  • A finite game has temporal, spacial, and numerical boundaries.
  • Unlike an infinite game, a finite game “is played for the purpose of winning.” i.e. Finite games end with titles or rewards.
  • A finite game must be resolved in the context of its rules.
  • Those rules are set by people and everyone who plays must agree to those rules.
  • Finite games cannot be played alone. There must be an opponent and/or teammates.

We can see that Carse’s definition for a finite game is similar to a box. Take the example of a high school student. The student will enter high school and graduate, so there is a definite beginning and end. There are spacial, temporal, and numerical boundaries to being in that school. The student will end as a graduate and have a “score card” to potentially enter college. Many people agree to the rules of going to high school and there are even truancy laws that society uses to reinforce the social norm. Thus, high school is not played alone.

We can conduct a similar analysis for jobs, university, athletics, and politics.

Society itself is a finite game. Carse even claims that the “principal function of a society is to validate titles and ensure their continued recognition.” Thus, societies can easily get stuck in the past.

The Differences Between Infinite and Finite Players
In the previous post, I talked about how people can get stuck in their boxes, while others can examine their boxes and move to new ones.

We can think of people who get stuck in boxes as finite players and people who examine and move between boxes as infinite players.

Carse describes some differences between these players:

  • Finite players play within boundaries. Infinite players play with boundaries.
  • Finite play is limited by external factors (rules that people make up, expected scripts, social norms), but players choose to follow the rules so finite play is self-limiting.
  • Finite players win titles and then enjoy life. Their reward is life (you could say their recognition and titles are a form of immortality). If you lose, then you don’t get immortality. Therefore, you die.
  • Infinite players die while playing the game. They do not play for life, they live for play.

However, there is one similarity between finite and infinite players: Both players are free to play. If either player must play, then they cannot play.

Like the person who gets stuck in their boxes, finite players often feel like they don’t have a choice. They feel like they must play.

Carse says that “it is often the case that finite players will be unaware of this absolute freedom and will come to think that whatever they do they must do.” In extreme examples, like slavery, this can be true. But most people, especially in Western democracies, have a choice.

A Playful Life

Self-Veiling & Seriousness
One of the tenets of Permissionless Life is that people have a lot of control over their life and if they don’t realize it, they can rewire their mind. But why are some people unaware of their ultimate freedom to choose?

According to Carse, to account for the difference between perceived freedom and actual freedom, players of finite games (boxes) must be “veiling” their actual freedom from themselves.

This veiling occurs because a person must have a sufficient desire to win the finite game (Otherwise they wouldn’t play). To have sufficient desire, the finite player must take his/her role seriously.

What causes a person to take their role seriously?

It may be that we often care too much about what other people will think of our decision to not play (often that means quitting something).

Think about the times you have assumed things like “If I don’t play this role of student or teammate, then I’ll be ostracized or seem like a loser.” Or “If I quit my job, I’ll be jobless and then people will look down on me.” It was totally normal for you to feel that way because society created a set of expectations to literally make you feel that way.

Carse describes exactly this phenomena when he says:

As finite players we will not enter the game with sufficient desire to win unless we are ourselves convinced by the very audience we intend to convince. That is, unless we believe we actually are the losers the audience sees us to be, we will not have the necessary desire to win.

We can say that finite players veil themselves because of a belief that they will be seen as losers if they do not play. They give too many fucks.

At this point you may be feeling a little anxious. Maybe you have kept going with a job, friend group, or lifestyle even when deep down you didn’t want to. But as we discussed, you have tremendous power to change the way you think.

Let’s learn what infinite players do differently.

Carse says, “the issue here is not whether self-veiling can be avoided, or even should be avoided. Indeed, no finite play is possible without it. The issue is whether we are ever willing to drop the veil and openly acknowledge, if only to ourselves, that we have freely chosen to chase the world through a mask.”

So the difference is infinite players acknowledge that they play finite games (boxes) with a mask. They know deep down that they can always quit. The mindset they operate with is similar to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Infinite players “enter into finite games with all the appropriate energy and self-veiling, but they do so without the seriousness of finite players. They embrace the abstractness of finite games as abstractness (Carse defines abstract as being a part of the whole and concrete as the whole), and therefore take them up not seriously, but playfully.”

Living life playfully is not the same as nihilism or assuming finite games are trivial:

To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence. It is, in fact, seriousness that closes itself to consequence, for seriousness is a dread of the predictable outcome of open possibility. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

We can make a simple distinction between finite and infinite players here. We can say that finite players live life theatrically. They accept roles and scripts. They alleviate anxiety of an uncertain future by focusing on winning titles, awards, and games set up by other people.

On the other hand we can say Infinite players live life dramatically. They choose themselves. Like improv actors, they accept uncertainty as the norm. Thus, they embrace surprises, “no matter the cost to themselves.”

Surprise
If you’re below the age of 35, then you probably were raised by people who grew up in a world that tried to create lots of order. Call it a symptom of industrialization and mass production. From the day Gutenberg invented the printing press to the dawn of the internet, the linear ordering of society has been a foundation of Western culture.

The internet, software eating the world, the digitization of everything, and free movement of information are disruptive because they result in non-linear outcomes. Human society is returning to a tribal-like global village that is more organic and interconnected than the linear world of assembly lines and snail mail.

The result is that uncertainty and surprise are the new norm. The irony of Donald Trump being elected is that a group of marginalized people who typically didn’t vote went out and voted because of technology. We’re going to continue to see technology unlock the energy of underserved populations.

So if surprise is the norm, playing with an infinite strategy, a fluidity of personality and skills, is the best way to navigate in an ambiguous and uncertain world. Because “surprise causes finite play to end, but it’s the reason for infinite play to continue.”

Infinite players live by the principle that “only that which can change can continue.” They realize that the only way to keep the game going is to keep changing it.

[They] prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be. The infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it, for surprise does not alter some abstract past, but one’s own personal past.

Finite players live in the past: rules are set in the past and titles are attributed to past effort. They build walls and try to make things great again.

The power of the infinite player to be amused by surprise is what helps him/her escape boxes.

Towards The Future
We no longer live in a world where you learn one thing and do that thing your whole life. Governments around the world aren’t providing us a vision for the future. Most of them are trying to retreat to the past.

Rapid change is now our reality. We’re watching, in real-time, the development and convergence of several exponentially, game-changing technologies (Machine Learning, CRISPR, Blockchain, 3D Printing, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, Space Travel). A lot of weird shit is going to happen and there will be many surprises.

Those surprises are already changing our political, social, and economic infrastructure and relationships. Using that as a starting point, doesn’t it make sense to be actively aware of what boxes you’re in and be able to fluidly enter and exit them as quickly as possible?

If rapid change is the constant, then we should assume that we’ll be surprised. Thus, going forward, people who play with an infinite mindset/strategy will thrive. As Carse says, “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.”

We can distill this wisdom into a simple mental algorithm: Take change seriously. Adapt to it playfully. Repeat.

Do so and you’ll see that “the joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.”

What Box Are You In?

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

“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

Our recent posts have focused on psychological freedom and some things you can do to achieve it.

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.

Life In A Box

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.

Opportunity Is Abundant… If You Believe It

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes

This week we’re going to explore a habit that can help you make progress towards psychological freedom and help you spot alternate paths to take in life.

Illustrations by Asia Noble. She’s incredible. You can find her here: http://asianoble.co/.

Also, many thanks to Bill Ledley for his usual insightful comments.


“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
Mohandas Gandhi

Two Questions
We recently discussed psychological freedom and the thoughts that prevent you from achieving it. While writing those posts, I was reminded of something my good friend Miguel suggested I do when facing anxious or uncertain situations. He challenged me to ask two simple questions:

  1. What is the opportunity in this situation?
  2. What can I do now to take advantage of this opportunity?

I was skeptical. What the hell could asking these questions do for me?

But then I had an insight. Our thoughts and beliefs are like gravity. You can’t see gravity, but it shapes reality. Likewise, you can’t see your thoughts and beliefs, but they shape your perception of reality.

If you believe the world is scary, that people are untrustworthy, or that you are worthless, you will attract events that confirm these beliefs. You’ll end up noticing and focusing on all the things that can go wrong, the negatives in life, and the ways you aren’t perfect. Then your behavior will follow. You probably won’t meet new people, or travel, or try to learn something new.

Those actions reinforce your thoughts and beliefs and you create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t trust people, they won’t trust you. If you don’t share your knowledge, people won’t share with you. Those events will then reinforce your beliefs and a stronger, viscous cycle begins.

Humans are wired to seek out information that confirms their beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. Your mind will seek out information that aligns with your beliefs. So if you have negative beliefs, your mind adapts a mental filter that is primed to focus on negative events. We all know people in our life who act in this way. They aren’t fun to be around.

Some People Can Be Sweet

I don’t think we should all join a happy-go-lucky cult of positivity where everyone receives a gold medal. This isn’t Lake Wobegon. That would be ridiculous.

The Universe is supposed to have problems. Entropy is a property of creation. Life isn’t supposed to be easy. How could we learn without making mistakes? How could we appreciate the harvest without the hard work that went into planting the seeds?

What I’m suggesting is taking responsibility for your reactions and becoming proactive with your life. There are no negative or positive events. There are just events. Nothing is happening to you. Rather, things are just happening.

To remind myself of these facts, I started asking myself the two questions whenever I was feeling anxious, scared, upset, or stuck. They’re great questions to ask if you ever feel like, “I’m falling behind” or “I should be at a certain point by now.”

At a basic level, these questions give you an alternative frame for viewing the events currently happening in your life. If you experience a negative bias, then they give you the space to see the positive.

They offer you the opportunity (see what I did there?) to manage your emotions. It’s really difficult to be both anxious and excited about something at the same time. So, if you can see an opportunity and turn that insight into action, then you can switch your negative mood into excitement.

Getting Into The Habit
To get into the habit, Miguel and I would play a game. One of us would make up scenarios and the other one would shout out the opportunity. If one of us were talking about a problem in our life then the other would burst into how it was really an opportunity. At first I thought this was some woo-woo hippy shit. However, I gave it a chance and over time I realized it really worked for me.

  • Stuck in traffic. Opportunity to practice being patient.
  • Stub your toe. Opportunity to practice resilience.
  • Break up with the person you’re dating. Opportunity to rediscover independence or meet new people.
  • Get fired. Opportunity to travel. Opportunity to go back to school. Opportunity to volunteer.
  • You see a good looking person on the street. Opportunity to practice talking to strangers.
  • You get sick. Opportunity to appreciate life and take care of your health.
Getting Too Excited

Why They Work
Asking yourself those two questions works for a couple reasons.

First, I find that thinking of how to turn negative events into opportunity can be really funny. It adds an element of humor into life. It gives us room for the acceptance of negative events and a chance to move on. When you look at it from that angle, the questions are a form of catharsis that is severely lacking for many of us living in the 21st century.

Second, they turn your focus away from outcomes and onto processes. Seeing opportunities isn’t an outcome, it’s a process. And when you get into that process you throw yourself into the ocean of life and force yourself to swim. You become a participant rather than a spectator.

We live in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. No one is going to tell you what to do. But if you can see opportunity, you can take action. And taking action will get you closer to wherever it is you want to go.

Thoughts That Prevent You From Psychological Freedom

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

We’re not taught how to manage our attention and emotions in school. It’s a topic I find invaluable for the time we live in. If, after reading this, you have any feedback or you would like to provide examples from your life please share them in the comments =)


Reality Distortion Fields
If we’re living in a world where the scarce resource is moving from capital to attention, then learning how to attain psychological freedom is more important than ever.

What we pay attention to affects how we perceive the world. That perception then affects our emotions and our behavior.

Steve Jobs understood this process. While he was famous for the products and companies he helped create, I’ve always been fascinated by what Apple employees called his “reality distortion field.”

The term was coined by Bud Tribble, an employee at Apple in the 1980s, to describe Jobs’ charismatic effect on the Macintosh developers. Tribble said the term came from Star Trek. It was used to describe how the aliens created their own world through mental force.

Like those aliens, each of us has the ability to create our own world through mental force. Our minds create reality distortion fields that are influenced by our attention. For example, take a look at the following image. What do you see?

What is it?

Some people see a vase. Other people see two faces looking at each other. You can switch back and forth between the two images once you realize the trick.

The face vs vase image is emotionally neutral, but some external stimuli elicit strong emotional responses. For example, watching a video of a police officer killing an innocent person on Facebook, is likely to elicit a negative emotional response.

Understanding how the external world affects our emotions is important because we are creatures who rely on our emotions to make decisions, to be motivated, and to find meaning in life.

We live in a world that is informationally abundant (hence attention is scarce). And the amount of data is increasing at an exponential rate:

That’s a lot of data

What information you’re paying attention to matters. The Kardashians, the rich kids of Instagram, police killings, inspirational videos, expert cooking, and cat images will affect your emotional state whether you’re aware of it or not.

You have a choice though. You can choose what to pay attention to and you can choose how you wish to perceive the incoming information.

Take a look at the following image from the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

Process of Perception

For external events to have any emotional meaning, you have to give them meaning through your thoughts. Psychologists understand this fact today, but it isn’t new knowledge. Philosophers like Epictetus and Yogis in India understood this process thousands of years ago.

You ALWAYS control how you interpret the outside world even if you can’t control the events happening around you. So you decided how you want to interpret external events, the things you are told, and the feedback to the things you do. This is the reason why one person can dance outside while it’s raining while someone else sits inside and complains.

You Can Create Things
The greatest investment you can make in yourself is learning how to manage your emotions by managing your attention. Doing so will help you rediscover the child-like freedom to explore life and find the right job, go travel, build a company, create art, or start a new hobby.

Once you understand managing your attention and emotions you can take advantage of this fact:

Let that sink in… every thing in our society was created by other humans who were no smarter than you. You can create things that other people will use. You can change the way things are done. You don’t have to accept life as it is.

That’s great new because this is the best time in human history to be alive. It has never been cheaper or easier to create the things you want to create. All the information is sitting right there on the internet.

What is Stopping You?
You might be familiar with some of the following thoughts:

  • “I’m not smart enough.”
  • “I’m lazy.”
  • “I never finish anything.”
  • “If I try it, I won’t be as good as those other people who’ve been doing it for a while.”
  • “I’m too old to do that.”
  • “I need to have a job, so I don’t have time to learn something new.”
  • “I don’t have the right skills.”
  • “I have so much more to learn.”
  • “I feel anxious, so I won’t talk to her/him.”
  • “If I was only better looking, stronger, smarter.”
  • “If I only had more time, then I could learn how to dance.”
  • “I should be better or smarter.”
  • “I can’t do it because my parents/friends/co-workers wouldn’t approve.”
  • “If I only had better people in my life. All these people are dragging me down.”

These are the thoughts that are forming your reality distortion field and they are probably happening automatically, out of habit.

Steve Jobs understood the power of thoughts and how they can cause you to get stuck in life:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Learning to Get Unstuck
You can learn how to get out of the grooves. I had to learn how to do it. Hell, I’m still doing it because it became a habit.

Psychologists have categorized the following thoughts patterns, they call them cognitive distortions, through studying patients suffering from depression (These are mostly from the book Feeling Good):

  1. Perfectionism (All-or-Nothing Thinking): You see things in black-and-white categories If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  2. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative even as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filter (Focusing on the Negative): You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water.
  4. Disqualifying the Positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your every day experiences.
  5. Jumping to Conclusions (Assuming): You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind Reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out.
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your predication is an already-established fact.
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections).
  7. Emotional Reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  8. Should Statements: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements towards others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  9. Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: “He’s a weirdo” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  10. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.
  11. Blaming: The opposite of personalization. You see everyone else as the cause of negative events in your life.

Even when we’re not depressed, each of us exhibit some of these cognitive distortions from time to time. Which ones we use and how often we use them depends on how we were raised, our culture, our habits, and our experiences. Our habitual use of them turns creates the “scaffolding in your mind.” They create our reality distortion field. Fortunately, we can learn to catch them and change our responses to more productive thoughts and take control of our reality distortion field.

I especially struggled with perfectionism, should statements, emotional reasoning, mental filter(focusing on the negatives), and disqualifying the positives.

I was afraid to start things because I was worried that I wouldn’t do a good job. I was afraid to be playful socially because I thought I would say something stupid and people would think I was weird. I thought I should be able to learn things quickly, so I became impatient. I thought I should be able to talk to all strangers, but wouldn’t because I was scared. I’d look at all the cool things people did and posted on the internet and think “I should be doing that.” I didn’t consider the thousands of hours of hard work that people put in and don’t share online.

The should-ing would make me feel guilty and bad about myself. Then I wouldn’t start things because it felt like a burden. Then the perfectionism would kick in because I didn’t have the right skills to try something new. I started feeling worse about myself. I’d shrink my accomplishments by saying something like “Ah, it wasn’t that difficult. Anyone could do it.” None of this was productive or healthy.

After a period of intense depression I decided that I could change. That decision came from the realization that I could choose to think in more productive ways. All these distortions were mental habits. If I could catch them while they were happening, I could choose to think something else.

It took learning two things:

  1. I learned how to manage my attention in order to catch the cognitive distortions.
  2. I learned how to choose different thoughts to replace the ones that were effecting me negatively.

The reward is infinite. I feel like Neo in the Matrix sometimes. I can see what I’m thinking and change it to a more productive thought, shaping my world to be the way I want it.

Stay tuned and I’ll share with you the processes, habits, and routines I used to catch my cognitive distortions. Until then, I leave you with this quote from Epictetus:

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.