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Breaking the Algorithm

 Breaking the Algorithm

“We struggle with Non-being to force it to yield Being. We knock upon silence for an answering music.” (Archibald MacLeish, Poetry and Experience)

Did you know what I was going to write in today’s column before reading it? A 2019 study demonstrated over 50% of word selection in our social media posts could be predicted via algorithms analyzing that of our friends. Consider the power in that finding. The average person has a vocabulary of -5,000 words and the algorithm could accurately predict precisely the next word chosen over 50% of the time. That’s not 50% as in a coin flip. The algorithm had more than a 50% chance of being able to identify which of the (approximately) 5,000 words in the individual’s vocabulary would be selected as the next word! Set aside for a moment any weirdness surrounding that discovery. The bigger question – particularly in relation to our health, wellness & performance – is whether we’re satisfied going through life as a pawn of our tribes, an endpoint to the algorithm?

Autopilot is the algorithm’s fuel. As long as we aren’t thinking, we become more malleable, shaped by those around us to blindly (or at least drowsily) follow their leading. A study by Killingsworth and Gilbert noted we spend 47% of our day on autopilot, mindlessly and passively moving through our day. The study involved 2,250 people across a range of ages who were, at various random times, surveyed about their momentary focus. Outside of making love, every single activity involved a wandering mind at least 30% of the time. Interestingly, respondents indicated being happier when their minds weren’t wandering (and no – this result wasn’t due to more people involved in the exception noted above 😉). The opposite of a wandering mind? Engaged! The daughter of a close friend got engaged this past weekend and if you’ve ever been engaged or around someone recently engaged, you know the word is spot on! Stepping across that line from wandering to engaged shifts the focus. Wandering mind? No chance. At its best, the engagement can provide a positive element of what Psychologist James Marcia identifies as the healthiest of the 4 levels of identity creation: Identity Achievement (a heroic identity that works).

This state of engagement (in relationships, careers, hobbies or life) is often little more than a short-term shift, as we generally slide back into autopilot. There’s even a statistical phenomenon for this occurrence: Regression to the Mean. Essentially it’s a fancy way of saying things may occasionally pop outside their norm, but over time, we generally stick around our historical mean (average).

Autopilot even takes over our (supposedly engaged) conversations, and not in a positive manner. Our seemingly default response to a friend or co-worker’s traditional greeting asking how we are doing is generally met with “I’m busy!” Some of that may be cultural (we see it as “good” to be busy, a mindset we discussed previously here) but it also provides a real-life reminder of how our days are constantly filled with the demands of the moment.

Wait. Our days are filled (passive response) with the (external) demands of the moment? No wonder the algorithm can so accurately predict our next choice. We’re not making the choice in the first place!! Our lives are – if we allow them to be – passively filled and bowing to the external demands of people and things around us. In a discouraging version of a dog chasing his tail, this pattern compounds on itself, day after day. With each passing month/year/decade in survival mode, our likelihood of adopting what Professor Martin Seligman termed Learned Helplessness, or giving up trying to make a change due to the helpless feeling, increases.

Momentarily, I’m going to load up the submarine and go deep as we consider Archibald MacLeish’s statement that introduced today’s column. However, before doing so, let’s discuss some of the practical steps we can take to break our entrenched algorithms.

1 – Identify your tribes and their “rules.” We are all part of various tribes. It’s a valuable, important part of being human. When Suzanna and I moved to Fort Collins, CO a few years ago after living elsewhere for 25+ years, one of our top priorities was to engage in new connections (tribes). The tribes aren’t the problem. The problem exists when we give those tribes the power to make our decisions for us (drive our algorithm) rather than thinking for ourselves. Interestingly (alarmingly?) this study demonstrated our IQ drops when functioning as a group (tribe) when compared to our baseline independent IQ level. Tribes may include political parties, sports teams, churches, CrossFit (or triathlon, ultrarunning) groups and so on. Join in! But maintain your own identity at a level that your tribe doesn’t become that identity. It’s one thing to engage in the valuable connections these groups can bring us. It’s quite another to give them control of our actions.

2 – Assess your own thoughts within your tribe’s rules. Where do you diverge? DO you diverge? The less we diverge from tribe “rules,” the more entrenched our algorithm (and the less we’re living our lives in favor of those tribe leaders driving the algorithm for their, not our, desired outcome!). Bonus exercise: Write down 3 tribes to which you belong and try to identify (at least) one subject on which you go against the grain. Maybe you’re a capitalist who is in favor of higher taxes to support schools… a Lakers fan who appreciates the generational skillset of Nikola Jokic… a gun owner who wants tougher gun laws… an academic who sees faith as an important aspect of life… part of a political party but unwilling to support their presidential candidate… a Crossfitter who runs more than a mile :-)… You get the idea. Are you going with the flow (the algorithm) across the board? Or thinking for yourself?

Going Deeper

Returning to MacLeish… While he’s quoting a Chinese poet regarding the artist’s creative act, the lessons hold true for us and our lives (our own creative act of fully living) in powerful ways. Read it again: “We struggle with Non-being to force it to yield Being. We knock upon silence for an answering music.” Notice the active verbs: struggle, force, knock. We will not, we cannot, break the algorithm of our lives waiting in silence, passively marching through our years. In fact, we are called to knock upon silence, to no longer be satisfied with the apparent nothingness, the dead ends, the blank pages. The “being” waiting to be revealed in our lives requires striking the flint of purposeful action. It is moving beyond Thoreau’s claim that we “live lives of quiet desperation, (going) to the grave with the song still in them.” Breaking the algorithm brings the answering music – the song only we can sing – from the silence. It is the essence of yielding our true “Being.”

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