It turns out the world is much more malleable than my intuition has lead me to believe.
An important example is making friends. I used to view this as a black-box process: I could see certain instances where I’d managed to pull it off, but had no idea how to replicate those successes. I’d resigned myself to a notion of distance by default, where the natural state of the individual is quiet isolation.
This is incorrect. To see why I made this mistake, it’s useful to draw an analogy to food. Everyone knows — or learns in rather short order — that food is essential to existence. However, we’re not born with food. We have to get it or make it. As a result, we plan and iterate: we develop food-strategies, go on food-trips, plant food-crops, hire food-experts. We can tackle food acquisition with deliberate action, because we understand it’s a solvable problem.
In theory, developing close personal relationships works the same way. They’re necessary for psychological health, but are by no means guaranteed. The solution to this potentially existential problem is, again, planning and repeated effort1. One must develop friendship-strategies, practice friendship-building, and so on — the alternative is starvation for the soul. The difference is that in this case I didn’t realize action could even in principle be useful.
Both problems can be modeled a penalty signal (hunger / loneliness) which can be manipulated by interactions with your environment (presence of food / number of friends). In order to believe in the value of deliberate effort, you have acknowledge the connection between the two. If don’t understand that you should be fiddling with the environment knob, the penalty will just be random noise, a fact of life. If you do, it’s a challenge to your planning and execution skills, and if it hurts enough, it’ll get solved eventually.
Life, The GameTM, becomes much more fun if you move problems at every level in your hierarchy of needs into the in-principle-solvable category. If the causal link exists, it’s an exercise in project management, and you’ll get what you want with tolerable odds. If it doesn’t, well, it’s still a lot more fun to play as though it did.
Thanks to Thomas Hollands and Alexey Guzey for reading drafts of this post.
1 There is a large environmental factor in friendship formation: the number and type of people you meet, and where you meet them. The point is you can choose these people, and your location.