“I feel stuck. I feel like I will never have what I want in life. The things I want most feel just out of reach, permanently.”
I call him "Fido."
Recently, I've been playing a video game called Valheim.
Valheim is an open world Nordic adventure, with lots of cool stuff to explore, and lots of nasty things to get eaten by.
One of them is wolves. Wolves plagued me for the first 2 weeks I played, attacking me in packs without warning.
If I was lucky, I might hear a howl in the distance before the big red message appeared...
YOU HAVE DIED.
Dammit. Again?? How?!
Anyway, I persisted, and got better armor, and learned better fighting techniques. Finally, I’ve reached a point in the game where I can actually tame wild wolves and turn them into useful allies.
_HAH! Take that, Valheim!_
Once they've been tamed, they follow me faithfully, wreaking devastation alongside my character. And... the devastation is awesome. How I attack and approach enemies is completely different with a devoted pack of wolf-allies surrounding me.
It's good to be the alpha.
But sadly, the wolves have a problem.
In the game, wolves are native to high, snowy mountains, so once you’ve tamed them, you have to bring them down the mountain so they can travel the world with you.
And here's where things get difficult.
Valheim’s wolves don’t like steep slopes. While your character will just slide down the mountain, boot-skiing your way to the bottom, the wolves often get “stuck” higher up, with no way to follow you.
In computer science, this is known as a pathing problem.
Here's what happens from the game's perspective...
The game knows where the wolf is, and it knows where you are. It looks at the terrain, and tries to find a way that the wolf can travel safely from where it is, to where it wants to be.
And it can’t.
So the wolf just stops, stuck and confused while you try to push it down the hill, build stairs, or to jump up and down on its head. You hop about like an idiot, because, well, you’ve invested a lot in taming that wolf- and you're damn well taking it home with you.
But mostly, you just feel frustrated.
Often, life is the same way
While I was jumping around, doing my best mountain goat impression, an interesting thought struck me.
Life is really just a big set of pathing problems.
We know where we are, and we know where we want to be... but we can’t figure out the right way to get there.
We want a path that is safe, efficient, and guaranteed to work.
We want it to be easy and practical- not too wasteful of effort, time, or money.
We even want it to be predictable, and to know exactly when we’ll achieve our victory.
And this is true no matter what the goal is...
- Making our first million.
- Hitting our ideal weight, or body shape.
- Building our own business.
- Finding a romantic partner.
- Building a committed relationship, getting married, or having kids.
- Improving and maintaining our health.
- Advancing our career.
- Learning... anything... like a language, dance, music or artistic skills.
Why pathing fails
For us, just like those wolves, the problem isn’t the goal... it’s the rules we apply that restrict our ability to reach it.
The wolf's pathing algorithm has a rule that wolves “can’t go down a steep slope,” but clearly they can. I went down that same slope without damage. If I force them down, they take no damage either. That "steep slope" rule is arbitrary, and creates a problem where the wolves get “stuck.”
We do this all the time in the real world.
Every day, I meet people who...
Are desperate for a romantic relationship, but...
- Are overly specific about non-essential attributes of their desired partner. Things like culture, sense of fashion, or whether they share hobbies, interests, and mutual friends.
- Have rules about how they meet, or who initiates the invitation
- Have specific requirements for how the relationship begins, and progresses
- Demand a specific future plan for the relationship
People who want to lose weight, but...
- Believe they must eat food every day, and usually 3 meals a day
- Need to eat until they feel full
- Want convenience, like fast food or instant, microwavable dishes
- Are unwilling to compromise or moderate their use of sauces, dressings, and toppings because “flavor is essential!”
- Don’t want to invest effort in learning, meal prep, cooking classes, etc.
People who want a long-term committed relationship, but...
- Have very specific rules for who they would introduce to their parents.
- Have very specific requirements for what their future will look like.
- Demand a huge range of things, like good looks, health, a great job, good income, awesome interesting hobbies, and so on all at the same time, and from the same person.
Does this apply to you?
What is it that you want in life?
Of those things, which ones seem to feel just barely out of reach... taunting you relentlessly?
What's in the way? What real barriers that are keeping you from the life you want?
And the central question...
How are you holding yourself back from achieving what you want?
Are you taking the wrong action towards your goal? You might see a lot of paths that go upwards, but not all of them will take you to the mountain peak.
Or are you like a lot of people, doing nothing, paralyzed with indecision because you don't know which action is the best one to try?
That second approach is basically guaranteed to fail.
When pathing fails
The path through is pretty simple... and mostly it involves getting out of your own way.
Here are some practical tips.
Just break the rules
In pursuing your goal, the word "BUT" is not your friend.
You probably believe that those barriers are real, immovable constraints, but most of them are entirely imagined. Find and challenge your BUTs.
Commit this to memory-
Rules aren’t real. Consequences are real, but they are not the same thing.
It's important to see the difference.
Rules are an idea that we as individuals, or as a society, invent. They usually involve a restriction ("you can't"), or a demand ("you must") that we invent and impose on ourselves. Often they're part of a social contract.
Consequences are a result. Consequences happen as a result of an action. They even happen as a result of no action.
The rules that we live our life by aren't laws of nature. If I drop a rock, I can reliably predict that gravity will do its thing and the rock will fall. Is the same true of these rules?
- I'm guaranteed to be miserable my whole life if I'm alone.
- No one will like me if I'm not fit and sexy.
- I must go to grad school to get a good job, and to be considered "smart."
- I have to eat 3 meals a day, or I'll wither and die.
- Everyone must like me, or else I've done something wrong.
Rules usually promise a consequence, but often... that consequence won't ever happen. There is no direct cause-effect relationship here.
Following "the rules" does not guarantee success, either.
You can be the most loyal, committed partner in a relationship... does that guarantee that your partner will be, too?
You can invest 30 years in your career. Does that mean you'll be recognized, and rewarded for your loyalty and expertise?
It does not.
But the most important rules to question are the ones you've unwittingly invented. The things you do, or don't do, just because... you absorbed them somewhere.
Who made these rules? Are they real? Are they actually improving your life, and getting you where you want to go?
Always challenge the rules, while understanding, accepting, and preparing for the potential consequences.
Straight lines are best
Learn from the wolf.
What’s the fastest and most logical way Valheim's developers could solve the wolf's pathing problem? They could chart the most direct course from where the tamed wolf is, to where you are, that is physically passable and where the wolf would not take damage.
That's it. Remove the "no more than X slope downhill" rule for tamed wolves, and the problem is solved.
What’s the fastest way to lose weight?
Most people would say, “go on a diet.” but the fastest way is to simply stop eating. Not only is it much, much faster - I clock in at 0.8 kg/day- it's surprisingly healthy, and has no additional demands on time, or exercise. It even saves you tons of money.
What’s the fastest way to find a romantic partner?
Go to a place that has people you are interested in, and invite them to get to know you better. Keep doing that, until you find someone that is interested in you, too, and that you connect well with.
It's that simple... and you can see how most of the time, the biggest barrier to what you want, is you. We all get in our own way by holding fast to meaningless rules.
Keep your goals front-of-mind
Those rules have a deeper hold on you than you think.
Many of our rules are trained into us from a young age by our parents and our cultures, and are so deep that they become reflexive.
Any time you're not actively, clearly thinking about what you want, and how to get there as directly as possible, you'll unconsciously follow those old rules.
Just like breaking a habit, it's important to stay consciously aware of these tendencies. Post your goals on your bathroom mirror so that you see them first thing in the morning. Put them on your car dashboard, your phone charger, your monitor at work.
Set reminders on your phone throughout the day, at strategic times.
Constantly remind yourself, because if you don't change how you approach your goals, nothing will change with your results, either... and your goals will elude you forever.
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Harari's book Sapiens explores this fascinating concept in depth.
This concept is explored extensively in Noah Yuval Harari’s fantastic book Sapiens.