Of Habit And History
We’re a conceited species that is convinced people will want to know what we experience. So we write memoirs and journals and ledgers. We keep records of our deeds, our things, and our thoughts. Most of the time we aren’t aware of our thoughts, or our actions until a pattern emerges and makes itself clear, as Hesse says about finding our calling or vocation — ein Stück Wirklichkeit dasteht und eingreift: A portion of reality presents itself and makes its claim.
Similarly, suddenly a portion of our lived reality presents itself in all its detail, and claims significance, meaning, and consequence. We react the only way we know, by noting it down. Once this happens enough times, a picture, an analog, and in the best of cases, a map, becomes clearer. We know where this is all headed, we know that it is in fact headed somewhere. At this point we decide to make a habit of this. We create a journal for our dreams, for our diets, and for our music. We record our sleep, our ablutions, and our heart rates. We track our exercise, our media, and our finances. This can go a couple of ways. Either we start off very excited, and there is a flurry of entries at the beginning, before the shine wears off and we miss a day here or there. One miss becomes two becomes forever. It trails away. The other way it happens is through a dialectic approach, where the habit forms slowly. At first we are irregular and uninspired. We need reminding. But soon it picks up momentum, one entry spawns another, and at this stage the habit becomes self-sustaining. Eventually though, there is a point of diminishing returns, and the habit decays and dies. A more flattened curve version of the first route.
It appears to me that if the history of man is really the history of man’s habit of recording the history of man, then macrocosm mirrors microcosm, and recorded history itself follows the trajectory of the personal habit. At first we are unconscious of thoughts, of patterns, and of the concept of posterity. Then Herodotus and Thucydides have a brainwave that the present has something interesting, useful and important to say to the future. They start sending messages to the future through the recorded history of the present. Soon from these isolated sparks of inspiration, energy and insight, the rock starts generating momentum and by the time of the Roman Empire the human habit of recording history is in full swing. Now they can see not only the patterns of the history of the past, but also where its heading, how the present is pregnant with meaning. They extrapolate, interpolate and manipulate, playing with the events of reality as if they were symbolic variables in a mathematic equation, because ultimately that is exactly what they are, a highly complex potentially chaotic configuration of molecules all representable by an array of symbols.
Unfortunately, as the generations go by, we lose interest or discipline or both. What is the point of tracking the number of right vs left strokes I took while brushing my teeth today in the hope of uncovering some insight. It is likely insignificant to my life, and more importantly, it is most certainly insignificant to everybody else. Nobody is going to want to read or know a single thing I’ve recorded about my life, so why bother if no status, fame or admiration will accrue? I stop. The Dark Ages set in, and for 500–600 years, it is as if humans did nothing at all. They likely did not brush their teeth anyway. For the first 100 years it did not matter. They knew what the present was like, and how it had come from the past. Nobody was better off for the knowledge of history. But then time drives forgetting, and by the end of the Dark Ages, what was known was forgotten, and when history is rediscovered, it comes like a bolt from the dark, enlightening an age with startling insight, doing two things, establishing the wisdom of the past, and reiterating the importance of recording the present, for posterity’s sake. So here we are, still respecting the past and recording the present. Soon the past will no longer have anything useful or important to say, and we will stop recording the present as a side-effect, for a distant future to rediscover history once more.
Conversely, history teaches us something about habit. That there are no such thing as truly nonlinear or step functions, these are merely distorted perspectives from arbitrary frames of reference. Time moves exactly 1 second after another, and as the log scale can linearize exponential functions, so can arbitrary choices of unit for our vertical axis create arbitrary views about the shape of history. A dialectic view of history, even one that is accommodating of Kuhn’s paradigmatic steps, reduces progress to a function of the past, and renders the mathematics of this function irrelevant, as it is irrelevant how non-linear the Fibonacci is when reduced to the idea that it is solely dependent on the previous two numbers in the series. This takes the teleological view of history out, just as it is difficult to determine the nth number of a Fibonacci series without laying out all the numbers from 0,1,1,2,3,5 to n-1.
With habits, similarly, we have a teleological and non-linear view that is wholly arbitrary. We have an imagination, not a conception, about the nth value of the habit-series, and operate under some popular assumptions that the returns from the habit are largely invisible or seemingly inconsequential, until a threshold has been crossed, after which the true non-linearity of the gains will make itself apparent. I’ve never seen fit to question this assumption, it rings very true to experience. But it does diverge from the dialectic nature of physics and begs the question why this must so uniquely be the case. If habit were truly dialectic, the non-linearity could of course still be explained by the exact mathematics of the function, say Fibonacci, but the invisibility of the threshold cannot be explained by anything other than the inadequate sensitivity of the faculties we use to detect change.
The habits where we’re least likely to encounter invisible thresholds, the ones where we’re most likely to see constant gradual change, are also the ones we’re most likely to stick with, develop and master. At our current levels of sensitivity, these are habits which are easily tracked, monitored and quantified. We’re able to measure the weights we use for a squat, the reps and sets we perform, the rest intervals we take. All of these are fairly analog, and therefore as we add more performance variables, range of motion, speed of movement etc, we approach asymptotically a theoretical true value of change. So while there are still strength barriers, we find mostly that we smoothly improve. Internalizing this sensitivity is a much harder proposition, it involves a degree of self-awareness and contemplative insight that is itself a powerful and difficult habit to develop or master. Once this is done however, it must be feasible to be aware of smaller and smaller changes in the body and mind, such that all habit is truly linear, dialectic, and inspiring.
I say inspiring because the awareness of improvement is an inexorable motivator, the way the promise of one more tweet is to the brain. A dialectic habit is then self-sustaining and self-driving, where the smallest improvement is noticed, which inspires additional energy and action, which causes additional improvement, which is noticed. But like all Fibonacci spirals, there are positive ones as well as negative ones. If I can notice the smallest improvement, there is no reason not to be wary of noticing the smallest deterioration, which causes a drop in motivation, which causes additional deterioration, which is noticed, and so on. It gets worse. Improvements aren’t infinitely non-linear, they hit plateaus and diminishing returns, even if not on the 2nd degree equations, perhaps on the 3rd or 4th, somewhere, because true exponentials don’t exist anywhere in nature. I notice a diminishing rate of improvement, and that decreases motivation, which diminishes the rate of improvement.
Thankfully, we’re able to hold these different parameters in mind simultaneously, and diminishing rates of returns are already good news because they occur at levels of absolute achievement that, at the beginning at least, feel irrelevantly distant. When we reach this stage, our disappointment is tempered by the heights we’ve reached, and the distance we’ve come whence we had started. Perhaps that’s why history feels teleological and arcing upwards. It builds dialectically and spirals outwards, and even when it slows down and should theoretically grind sadly to a halt, it has become too keenly aware of where it had all begun. Dangerous pride might dominate in a period of history where both the position as well as rate of improvement is high, but in all other phases, such as the one we’re potentially in now, where the position is high but the rate of improvement is clearly slowing compared to the frenetic excesses of the 20th century, pride is tempered into something not dangerous but instead in service of a motive force that sustains habit.