Affording Ascendancy

pedagogy, abstraction

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I

For the longest time, I found myself in a pretty serious existential pickle. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that the longer I took to figure it out, the further I’d be behind those who had already picked. This makes intuitive sense; if everyone has the same amount of life, and you waste two years before becoming a plumber, your neighbor who didn’t waste two years before becoming a plumber will always have two years of experience on you. Assuming that you and your neighbor work the same amount, he will forever be the better plumber.

Now I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a plumber. I think it’s a pretty important job and I am happy that there are plumbers in the world, but my interests were so varied that I was experiencing the Curse of Choice – I had so many options that I couldn’t pick between them.

It took me about three years between acknowledging this was a problem and figuring out what my plan for the future was. That’s a long time, but fortunately it only took me took me two years to come up with a solution. That’s two years wasted, but hey, it’s better than wasting three years.

The solution to my existential pickle turns out to be pretty general and apply often in life, especially when you have time with which you’d otherwise not know what to do.

I call my solution “Ascending”, not only because it’s an appropriate label, but also because it sounds frickin’ awesome. Ascending is the process of leveling-up when you’re not otherwise occupied.

It goes a little like this.

II

Huge shoutouts to Malcolm Ocean for the authorship metaphor. My original attempt was something about sailing hovercrafts into the sunset…

Imagine your life is a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s probably not a hard thing with which to come to grips. At any moment you have a set of actions you can take, each of which has the potential to change how your story ends. Some actions don’t have much effect on the conclusion, but others are pretty pivotal to the plot. Unfortunately for us, unlike the choose-your-own-adventure book, we can’t bookmark our last big choice and flip back to it if things go wrong. Our actions in reality have more gravitas than in the book, and so we should pay more attention to them.

In psychology, the options we know about at any given moment are called affordances. When you walk into the sitting room with the intention of relaxing your legs, and you see a stool, a recliner and a love-seat (all of which are unoccupied), these seating options consist of your affordances for sitting.

If you’re anything like me, you probably had lots of issues successfully getting through a choose-your-own adventure (to be honest, I don’t think I ever survived all the way through any of those Goosebumps ones). There was always a goal I was trying to accomplish, and I knew what it was, but none of the options ever seemed like they would get me there. I think this is a pretty good metaphor for life: it’s pretty hard to predict what the results of your actions will be the further in time you need to predict.

What’s worse is that any long-term goal is not a single choice, but an option you need to take over and over. When I am working on a big personal software project, each and every day I need to make a conscious decision to continue working on it. More insidiously, I need to continually make the decision to not start other projects, because I know from lots of experience that that’s a good way to lose focus on my current project.

An interesting question that is afforded by our metaphor of life-as-a-choose-your-own-adventure is this: if your life is a book, who’s the author?

Remember our sitting room, and the hard decision you had to make about where to sit? The way I presented the problem to you, it sounded like you only had three options: the stool, the recliner, or the love seat. I apologize for being so duplicitous, but I was actively trying to mislead you. You have more options than the ones presented. What are they, you might ask? How about on the floor?

Pretty sneaky, huh? There’s a lesson to be learned here, which is namely that there are more options than you have affordances for (remember, an affordance is an option you know about – but there are still options you don’t know about or, in the sitting room example, don’t think about). As a general principle, if you can avoid the Curse of Choice, having more affordances is better than having fewer, because it gives you more control over your life. When you consider a long-term goal and realize that none of your current affordances seem to help accomplish it, this is a sure sign that you do not have enough affordances.

The author of your life-as-a-book is, unsurprisingly, you. If you want to be awesome in this life, you are going to need to start writing your own affordances at the bottom of your pages to turn to page 86 and pick up the sword of +1 Obstacle-Ass-Kicking.

III

In philosophy this concept is called “agency” – the ability to take responsibility for your life and act as an agent of accomplishing things. Malcolm calls this “self-authorship”. I don’t disagree with either label, but being told to “take responsibility” is kind of useless if you don’t know where to look to find it.

To that end, I want to concentrate on a certain aspect of agency: the ability to acquire affordances. Remember, the more affordances we have, the better we expect to be able to accomplish cool things.

So, the secret is to follow affordances you already have, which you expect will lead to more affordances in the future. In our authorship metaphor, you should probably attempt to get to the stationary store where you can buy a pen. Once you have a pen by legitimate means, you can start writing new options at the bottom of your pages. But writing by hand is slow, so the next step is to write affordances that get you enough money to purchase a typewriter. The typewriter is much faster, and now you can write more options in the same amount of time. Now use your typewriter to get a computer, which you can use to write options for you. For brevity’s sake, I’ll stop here, but it shouldn’t be hard to imagine going further with this example.

An isomorphic idea to this is that of capital reinvestment in economics. If you can afford it (get it?), take your extra money and invest it with the intent of getting more money later. Given smart investments and enough time, you should be able to become infinitely wealthy via this strategy.

We want to cultivate the same strategy, except with affordances.

To introduce a lemma (an idea which is not very useful by itself, but which affords bigger ideas), I want to define a new conceptual resource for you to keep in mind. This resource is called “Ascendancy”, and it is the money of affordances. Ascendancy is a currency you can spend to purchase affordances that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Our problem of finding affordances to acquire more affordances suddenly reduces to collecting as much Ascendancy as possible. Just like how survival in modern society reduces to collect enough money to pay for rent and food, we have simplified getting awesome at life to collecting enough Ascendancy to pay for our goals to succeed.

So, having a conceptual idea of what Ascendancy consists of is cool and all, but what is it really? How do we go about collecting it? The first step is to search for other resources we have that satisfy the definition of our lemma: we must be able to spend it for affordances.

The first thing that comes to mind is money. Hey, that was easy, wasn’t it? My earlier example of spending money to survive satisfies our lemma. We can also spend money on luxury goods: all else being equal, being rich is better than being poor.

That’s a boring example, though. Exactly zero people were surprised that having more money is better than having less money. Let’s look at some other possibilities which satisfy our criterion for being Ascendancy:

  • Time/Energy - obviously having more time/energy lets us do more things. A classical example of spending time is to trade it for money (via a job).
  • Charisma/Friends/Networks - like it or not, knowing the right people is often a lot more important to success than merit alone. Friends are essentially the credit cards of Ascendancy.
  • Information/Knowledge - almost by definition, increasing the things about which you are knowledgeable will increase your affordances (since they are options you know about).
  • Prestige/Reputation - having people who trust you will afford you to do things that require trust from others. Being known as someone who gets things done will afford you more co-operation from others, etc.

Just like money, nothing on this list is particularly surprising. There are almost certainly dozens of other examples of Ascendancy, but these are probably sufficient for our purposes.

It’s not a difficult concept, but it’s mad useful. Once you get the hang of finding good trades between forms of Ascendancy, you can start leveling-up in life crazy fast. This is the entire mechanic behind my success in 2013. Ascendancy is the scaffolding that allows you to reach the great heights necessary for big goals.

Cool. So why am I talking about all of this when I’ve been blogging in excruciating detail about Painting with Thoughts, you might be wondering? Our conceptual painting framework turns out to be not only a beautiful art-form, but also, coincidentally, the best means of accumulating Ascendancy. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of material to cover before we can actually prove that, but we’ll get there one day.

Next week we’re going to start talking about how one actually goes about Painting with Thoughts, but just because we haven’t developed our best means of acquiring Ascendancy doesn’t mean you can’t start collecting it in the meantime.