Self-Authorship: writing your own story

Growing up, you make decisions, but it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.

Finally, you reach grade 12. It’s time to choose which university to attend after high school!

  • To check out the prestigious university where your dad went, turn to page 15.
  • To visit the small campus nearby that would be close enough to live at home, turn to page 82
  • To take a road trip with friends to the party college they want to go to, turn to page 40.

That’s a decent set of choices. And you know, there exist hypothetical future lives of yours that are really awesome, along all pathways. But there are so many more possibilities!

The Paradox of Choice

Both personal experience and principles like Analysis Paralysis agree that when you have tons of choices, it becomes harder to choose. Sure. But, to the extent that life is like the hypothetical Choose Your Own Adventure Book (hereafter CYOAB) above, I don’t think the issue is that there aren’t enough options. The issue lies in the second sentence, which contains a huge assumption: that in grade 12, it’s time to choose a university to attend. Sure, maybe later in the book is a page that says something about “deferring your offer” to take a “gap year”, but even that is presented as just an option among several others. And so it goes, beyond high school and post-secondary education and into adulthood.

What you don’t get to do, in a CYOAB, is strategize about what you want and how to get it. You just pick whichever option seems to make the most sense at the time. Now, this isn’t necessarily done randomly—in the example above, perhaps, you might know that your goal is to move out and have a fun time, so you pick the party college option, but note the order in which things happen: first you get the list of options, then you see which option looks most likely to get you what you want.

How to Make Strategic Decisions

In order to have an chance at all of actually being able to control what happens in your life, you need to first figure out what you want (at least approximately) and then generate a list of options based on it. Then, as before, you pick the one that seems most likely to get you what you want. But now you’ve made the list. Now you’re actually writing your own story. This is self-authorship.

Anna Salamon, in the article Humans are not Automatically Strategic, writes:

We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal.

The emphasis is hers, but that’s what I would emphasize too: that people mostly just pick the choose your own adventure item that feels most related to their goal. That’s if they pick something related to the goal at all.

I have a lot of room for improvement

It might surprise you, especially if you know me and how little regard I have for social norms, to discover that I think I’m not yet very good at self-authoring, that I often find myself just playing the CYOAB. So let me extend the analogy.

A skill that a lot of people have, including myself, is self-editorship. I don’t like that name much, but it’s good enough. Self-editors don’t write their own stories from scratch, but they like to take out their pens and revise the details contained in the CYOAB. For example, I’ve changed “you put on a black sweatshirt” to “you put on a tie-dyed hoodie”. However, like Spongebob and many other TV shows without an overarching plot, nothing can really seriously change, because the options at the bottom of the page still have to make sense. So there’s a limited extent to which you’re actually making decisions, because nothing you do actually affects the plot.

By contrast, complete self-authorship involves dunking pages in whiteout and writing an entirely new story on top. It might involve lots of familiar elements, but the process of deciding to do it is different, and it creates new opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Two examples follow.

My self-authored trip to Toronto

One recent experience for me that really stands out here is that in the month leading up to our February reading week break, I decided
(somewhat on a whim) that I was going to go to Toronto for a few days over reading week. I’ve been there dozens of times, but always either for conferences or other events, or when passing through and switching modes of transportation. It’s about 2h away by bus.

So in January, I messaged a few friends who live there and said I was planning to come to visit, and one of my friends offered to host me. Then reading week came, and I bought myself a bus ticket, and went. I had a great time while I was there, but that’s totally irrelevant. What’s cool is that nowhere on my list of affordances was a random trip to Toronto.

An affordance is a concept from design theory, and you can think of it like a handle. A handle affords grasping. A lid affords lifting. A button has an affordance for pushing. But affordances are dependent on the subject as well as the object. Someone who has never seen a smartphone will not experience an affordance for swiping the screen.

This first story illustrates how you can just write a new option into your story. I didn’t have a deep sense of why I might want to randomly go to Toronto, but I wanted to explore what it was like to just do it. Baby steps towards jetsetting. Every now and then, I like to remind myself that if I really wanted to, I could wake up in Vancouver tomorrow, on the other side of the continent. There are lots of reasons why that keeps not happening, but it feels important to me that I remind myself that it is an option.

My self-authored birthday party

Last year, I went to a few cuddle events. One was officially called a cuddle party, and has its own website and so on. Others were much more casual, or were simply part of larger parties. Last fall, I posted about this to facebook, while linking to this article about how men aren’t getting nearly enough platonic touch these days. The really positive response got me thinking about hosting my own cuddle parties (and I even did a Cuddle Party Q&A blog post) but I mostly didn’t get around to actually doing that.

Then, a week before my most recent birthday last month, I found myself noting that I didn’t have any plans for my birthday. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could just make plans! What kind of party did I want? This was a very open-ended question. Ultimately I can envision a dream party that has waterslides and chocolate cocktails and disco hammocks, but, chosen from the kind of party that I have the available resources to summon within a week, what would my ideal birthday party be?

My birthday cake.

My birthday cake.

It didn’t take me long to decide that I wanted to have a cuddle party. I immediately told several of my housemates who were nearby, as well as a friend who was over. However, it took me several days to put up the Facebook event and invite everyone who lives nearby and had liked my cuddle post last fall. Ultimately half a dozen people showed up and it was a really nice evening. A couple of my friends even made me a cake, which—while I didn’t ask for it—probably also wouldn’t’ve happened otherwise.

This second story is to highlight the power of wanting something and then deciding to manifest it. I had another experience of this last night when, rather than just mixing spices at random to go with the meat I was frying, I decided “I want peanut-ginger sauce,” googled the recipe, and made it.

Going after what you want

But I want to go back to the part where it took me several days to invite people. Back in 2012, when I released my album, it took me several weeks after settling on a time and place for me to create the Facebook event for my CD launch concert. Why was it so hard? It’s not like I just forgot—I was doing things every day to get ready.

My theory is that I was afraid nobody would come. Or that maybe only 3 people (my best friend, aunt, and uncle) would come. I was afraid of the number under “going” reading zero. But ultimately, what I wanted was to have a concert with lots of my friends there, and the number of people RSVPing is not important, except as it relates to the people coming. Just like the number of sales calls you make is only important as it relates to the number of actual sales you close. It doesn’t have an intrinsic value. But even though I knew that putting up the event page would cause (many!) more people to come, I was afraid of feeling rejected.

Because if I didn’t tell anyone to come, and nobody came, at least nobody turned me down. My general model of this principle goes something like this:

Not getting what you want feels immensely worse if you can’t pretend you didn’t want it.

This is one of the reasons why people don’t ask each other on dates! It’s one of the reasons people don’t ask their bosses for raises; their clients for better rates; their spouses for a massage; their sex partner for explicit consent; their roommate to quiet down at 2am.

It’s one of the reasons we don’t ask ourselves to change.

If you want something, but don’t admit it to others—or even better, don’t even admit it to yourself—then if it doesn’t happen, there’s an extent to which you can pretend you didn’t want it in the first place. Which softens the blow.

So the question is… which do you care more about: feeling like you didn’t fail / get rejected, or actually getting what you want?

Teaching self-authorship

In thinking about this skill, I found myself asking how you might go about teaching it. Okay, I’ll be honest. I found myself asking, “Why the hell did nobody teach me this when I was growing up!?” Then I thought about it a bit more, and I concluded that self-authorship isn’t actually a teachable skill. At best, it’s a coachable skill, but I’m wary even of that.

I started thinking, “how might an organization like CFAR go about teaching this sort of thing?” and in my head I started devising a series of exercises that would gradually build up to greater and greater self-authorship. But then I realized that this wouldn’t work, because someone else would just be writing the story and you’d be following a lot, perhaps filling in the little details.

So okay, maybe you could coach this? Have much more abstract exercises like “Think of 5 things you’ve never done before. Do one of them.” or “Think of something that, as a kind, you wanted to do when you grew up but haven’t done it. Do it. You’re a grown-up now.” I dunno, though. These still feel pretty weak. You can teach someone to be more strategic, by thinking of what they want and then generating new possibilities based on that, but it’ll take awhile for that to generalize to a broad sense that at any moment the available options aren’t everything.

I think the real way to help someone learn this sort of skill at a deep level is much more subtle. It involves creating a culture where self-authorship is valued, cherished, and respected. It means encouraging people to actively redesign the plot of their story.

“Sometimes I don’t really understand why so few people try to get involved in the Plot. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that the important things are accomplished not by those best suited to do them, or by those who ought to be responsible for doing them, but by whoever actually shows up.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky


I would love to hear more from you. Does the Choose Your Own Adventure Book analogy resonate for you? What are some key moments in your life where you whited-out part of your book and changed course—large, or small? Write them in the comments!

My friend Sandy Maguire and I talked about this concept after I’d written the first draft of this post, and then he managed to publish his article before I did. Read it here: Ascendancy. There’s a cool mix of overlap and unique perspectives.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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4 Comments

» 11 May 2014 » Reply

Re: Teaching, if you could figure out how to teach people to want things, or to know what they want (or to unteach people to not want things?), I would guess you’d get much better returns. Something I’ve noticed recently is that my upper-class friends seem to have things they want, concrete or material or otherwise, while my lower-class friends typically just don’t; I think it’s a big barrier in these circles sharing more. I would guess that wanting something and noticing it is the first step on the way to self-authorship.

Belinda » 14 May 2014 » Reply

CYOAB – yes, this is how I grew up, and how I lived my life for many years. I barely even explored the options available to me, never mind authoring my own. I finally feel like I am making decisions based on what feels right for me, rather than how others say things are done.

Jordan Peterson » 2 Mar 2015 » Reply

Dear Malcolm: We have designed a set of tools precisely to help people author their own lives. It has now been used widely in North America and Europe, and has vastly improved the academic performance of thousands of students. See selfauthoring.com — particularly the future authoring exercise.

    Malcolm » 2 Mar 2015 » Reply

    Hi Jordan,

    That looks really interesting. As you may or may not have spotted, I’m working on a piece of software called Complice which is designed to help people stay focused on achieving important outcomes towards their goals. Looking at the Narrated Future Goals and Health section of this paper, it seems that writing goals down is important for achieving them… something I basically already knew.

    I’d love if you had a chance to take a look around Complice and give a recommendation based on your experience of how it could better take advantage of narrative habits!

    Malcolm

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