Will Doenlen

The action-narrative feedback loop

One thing I’ve learned from my experiments in randomizing decision making is that what you do and who you think you are are in a very tight feedback loop.

You are what you do. Who you think you are, in turn, informs what you’ll do in the future.

So what comes first, action or narrative? It’s action. What you do is more powerful than who you are. If you do something enough times it becomes part of you whether you like it or not. That’s just how time and memory work.

What happens if you start randomizing your routines or things you do? Your identity begins to shift to accommodate the new information about yourself. It turns out the narrative of who you are is highly malleable and changes in response to what’s happening in your life. It’s obvious when you say it out loud but we don’t usually think of it this way. We typically think of who we are and who others are as being relatively fixed.

Self-narrative is one of many ways in which we seek to tame a chaotic world. We create stories about ourselves to find our place in it and make it easier to predict what happens next. Because it’s all made up we have the power to shape our own self-narrative. All you have to do is do different things. Your narrative-making machinery will kick into high gear and reorient your story of who you are in response. It’s not necessarily easy but it works.

So if you don’t like your current narrative or it’s getting in the way somehow just do something else. That’s all it takes.

The first catch is you have to do different things long enough to convince yourself there’s a new narrative. How long that takes depends on you.

The second catch is that there’s multiple layers of the action-feedback loop. Old stories about yourself from can power unwanted habits. Sometimes you have to unpack those old stories before you can change something more shallow about yourself, and typically unpacking the old story will involve taking action that challenges and disproves that story.

So when you are stuck, just do anything. Literally anything. The narrative will always follow.