On Lifestyle Rigidity

I’ve been wondering about why lifestyle design, outside of a few special cases like young, single Western men moving to Thailand, is proving to be so hard for everybody trying to adapt to the Internet era. I think the key is what I call lifestyle rigidity, which can be understood in terms of the (informal and speculative) heavy-tail distribution below. 

lifestyleDarkEnergy1

The central feature of lifestyle rigidity (my informal sociological generalization of the idea of wage rigidity) is what we might call dark energy: the lifestyle energy absorbed by parts of your lifestyle that are illegible to you. My claim is that this energy has increased radically in the last century, making  the leap from Industrial Age to Internet Age much harder than the leap from Agrarian Age to Industrial Age. As a species, we’re carrying a lot more baggage this time around.

The History of Lifestyle Rigidity

I first started thinking about lifestyle rigidity several years ago, thanks to a passage in Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class about why shifting lifestyles is hard (italics mine):

…the standard of living which prevails at any time or at any given social altitude will in its turn have much to say as to the forms which honorific expenditure will take, and as to the degree to which this “higher need” will dominate a people’s consumption. In this respect the control exerted by the accepted standard of living is chiefly of a negative character; it acts almost solely to prevent recession from a scale of conspicuous expenditure that has once become habitual.

A standard of living is of the nature of habit…The relative facility with which an advance in the standard is made means that the life process is a process of unfolding activity and that it will readily unfold in a new direction whenever and wherever the resistance to self-expression decreases. But when the habit of expression along such a given line of low resistance has once been formed, the discharge will seek the accustomed outlet even after a change has taken place in the environment whereby the external resistance has appreciably risen.

Veblen’s implicit notion of lifestyle rigidity here is a function of habit-formation to use up the possibilities represented by increasing freedom, along lines determined by class signaling behaviors at a given period in history, and resistance to habit abandonment with freedom decreases.

Veblen’s analysis though, needs some modification for 2013.  Lifestyle rigidity has increased a lot, which seems counter-intuitive because superficially, lifestyles seem to have gotten more flexible.

One sign is that there are a lot fewer people heading to Asia to reinvent their lives than there were people flooding into America (and within America, into the West) 100-150 years ago.

Lifestyle Dark Energy

Think of your lifestyle as an information structure described by a long list of variables: where you live, where you work, how much you earn, marital status, visa/citizenship situation, debt levels, kids/no-kids, diet, gym routine, distance (desired and actual) to friends and family and so forth.

As you work your way down the list of variables, in some apparently reasonable-seeming order of importance, you get to increasingly trivial-seeming variables: nearest Chinese restaurant, quality of local coffee, closeness to a water body, quality of nearest major airport, number of homeless people on your block, whether you listen to CDs or Spotify, whether your gym has individual TV screens on treadmills and so on.

Each of these variables is involved in some subset of your behaviors, and absorbs some proportion of your energy. My claim is that there are a lot more variables today than a century ago, and that behaviors involving the apparently unimportant and poorly understood variables absorb relatively more energy.

When we attempt to change lifestyles, we tend to work with the top 10-12 seemingly important variables, but the rest of the variables affect outcomes in two ways. First, the higher the level of dark energy latent in the illegible variables, the harder the problem. Second, couplings and connections between legible variables mediated by illegible ones make outcomes less predictable.

For example, you may not realize that your ability to preserve your sanity depends on being able to go on occasional walks by a water front. You may think that’s an unimportant variable (if you recognize it at all). You move to take a new job that pays a lot more, but then you find you’re really unhappy. Some introspection reveals that your broken routine of walks that ground and center you is the root cause.

Our intuitive sense of which variables are fertile and important to manage can be very misleading. Lifestyles are strange attractors that emerge out of a thousand mostly illegible variables coupled in complex ways, rather than designed situations involving a dozen legible variables coupled in simple ways. A butterfly flapping its wings in your gym in 2013 may cause a storm in your retirement portfolio in 2045.

Lifestyle design is a misnomer. We make vague leaps in what we hope are roughly positive directions, navigating by a few variables whose dynamics seem to be obvious. We hope that not too much breaks. More often than we like to admit, such hopes are dashed. Lifestyle design as commonly understood today is authoritarian high modernism applied by an individual to his/her own lifestyle. In general, unless you get lucky or are willing to accept an impoverished lifestyle that is mostly defined by the parts you can model and control, such design efforts are likely doomed. Those who actually make it work are probably doing far less explicit design than they imagine or advertise. Which is why simply copying what they claim to have done rarely works.

Lifestyles trap us, because in attempting to improve a few legible variables, such as geographic location, income and weight, we move dozens of illegible variables in unpredictable ways, generally for the worse. Each such negative consequence is by itself small, but when you add up the effects, the net result is a lowering our overall quality of life.

We experience this worsened quality of life as an increase in friction and lifestyle instability, since the negative changes are usually hard to unpack and analyze. We find ourselves getting constantly derailed. Getting back on track constantly becomes exhausting.

Make enough bad moves and you develop resistance to making any more moves. Or you accept instability as a way of life and keep up a pattern of uselessly random exploratory tweaking. Both are different patterns of being trapped by lifestyle rigidity.

When your energy is getting sucked away as dark energy by variables you don’t properly understand, you end up with general lifestyle fatigue. A feeling of not knowing where and how your time and energy are draining away; a sense of hidden resistance preventing you from arranging your life  in ideal ways.

You give in to a tendency to just give up and let natural instability unravel your lifestyle to stable and unfulfilling degeneracy.

Why Dark Energy Has Increased

A lifestyle is a set of thousand little environmental bindings, mostly in the form of sizing and scoping constraints (such as distances within your major movement patterns, square footage, variety of food options). The more complex the environment, such as a large city, the more bindings you have to deal with.

A settled, optimized lifestyle encodes a vast amount of highly specific information about your relationship to your social and material environment. Achieving such a lifestyle is the same thing as achieving high self-awareness. With bounded rationality and increasing environmental complexity, more people fail due to bad luck, insufficient intelligence, or a combination. The information capacity of extant lifestyles becomes mostly absorbed by  bullshit: lifestyle bindings that are neither adaptive nor maladaptive, but simply neglected and increasingly entropic.

In general, it seems to take about six months to two years to truly settle into a new lifestyle after a significant shift, such as changed jobs or cities. But this understates the complexity. We don’t actually move from one local optimum to another. We move from one satisficing (and unsatisfying), marginally stable strange-attractor situation to another.

Lifestyle dark energy was less of a factor in Veblen’s day. Life itself was lower-dimensional back then and less heavy tailed. There were many more fixed constants and free variables had fewer possible bindings. Today, many of those constants have turned into variables, and choices for free variables have proliferated.

Our social nature makes things worse. When lifestyles inhabit a space spanned by 10 free and visible variables and 990 locked-down ones,  imitation is easy and communities form naturally. When lifestyles inhabit a space of 1000 free but mostly illegible variables, imitation is hard and communities form less easily (this is easy to see mathematically; if you and I each choose two binary variables independently, the chance that we will make the same choices is 1/4, if there are three, the chances reduce to 1/8 and so on).

This lack of community exacerbates the instability and friction of individual lifestyles (probably as the square of degree of extroversion, which you can think of as the degree to which you want your lifestyle to match those around you).

To generalize, culture never stays confined to a degenerate lower-dimensional regime as the number of dimensions increase. Human behavior diversifies to fully occupy the space of freedoms available to our species. The more this diversification happens in illegible ways, the more rigidity is introduced into the social order at large. You cannot easily break out of traps you cannot see.

There is exactly one guaranteed way to solve the problem of lifestyle design: get rich. Money is the only thing that can allow you to buy your way out of having to compute with the illegible variables in your life. Can’t choose between two cities? Buy a house in both. Don’t have time to figure out a fitness and diet routine? Hire a personal trainer and chef to do all the thinking for you. Local airport does not have convenient flights? Buy a plane. Can’t decide whether to emigrate or return to your home country? Adopt a jetsetter global lifestyle spending half the year in each country.

So the ultimate formula for lifestyle design is this: get rich enough so you don’t have to think about it.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I think this is interesting, but it doesn’t really connect with your statement:

    “One sign is that there are a lot fewer people heading to Asia to reinvent their lives than there were people flooding into America (and within America, into the West) 100-150 years ago.”

    Factors:

    1) Asia has lots of people in it already.
    (With due respect to the Native Americans and the atrocities they suffered, their population density was much lower.)

    2) There’s less individual opportunity in Asia than there was in the USA. If you were in Europe and trapped into a particular economic niche, the move to the USA was risky but the apparent reward set was: either you’ll reinvent your life and it will be better, or you’ll get stuck doing what you’re doing now and it will be about the same, with the bonus of more space…

    This isn’t the story in Asia (as I know from an early attempt to create a firm to fill a photo agency niche there) – the economics is already balanced. Yes, things cost less there, but you make less money too. The opportunity in Asia is for established companies – you make less money per transaction, but so many more transactions…
    (Luxury goods are different – but as I found, while there’s a great demand for Western luxury goods, western luxury services face more competition…)

    • Fair enough. That was a bit of a throwaway comparison between the most obvious frontier-migrations of then and now. The migration from Asia to the West for technology work is far larger in terms of numbers, but it does not seem to quite fit the pattern we think of as lifestyle design since these migrants tend to end up in middle class scripts in the big company economy rather than in the startup economy or other frontier.

      That said, the comparison is basically impossible since there are no uncolonized landmasses left, not counting Antarctica.

  2. There are a couple of references to the method of simply trying to reduce the number of variables. First, you say that in a highly bound and complex environment like a city, it’s going to be harder. Second, you say that a lot of energy gets eaten up as dark matter in Bullshit.

    Also, you build a foundation partly on the idea that someone gets into a lifestyle with class trappings and habits, and find it harder to downsize those.

    Perhaps some very functional lifestyle design principles would be finding ways to reduce bullshit and also psychologically becoming a lot more ruthless (less bound to values, more dedicated to functionality) about status.

    Finding ways to reduce bullshit, without shaking the house of strange-attractor cards to the ground would involve, as you hint, a lot of self-awareness. But it could also be a journey of function and experimentation. For instance, once I bought six pairs of 5.11 tactical pants and made them forever my set of “work pants” I almost immediately understood why Steve Jobs always wore the same set of clothes. Incidentally this type of lifestyle design is less dependent on moving. “Make Bullshit Legible.”

    As for class trappings, in some circumstances you want to display or experience status, but if you are less internally sensitive to it, then you can choose those a bit more functionally. If you had no internal sensitivity to it at all, you could be purely utilitarian in your choices to use status indicators and experiences. Or maybe I have misunderstood. I noticed this article was very abstract and only had one concrete narrative and a couple of other examples, but without narratives. But, it seems that the class issues might be an issue of “Bullshit” as well, and how much of it is legible and how much is not.

    Maybe that’s exactly the point of your article. If this is the case, then it’s very worthwhile to cultivate self awareness about the bullshit in our lives….

    • The problem isn’t with eliminating bullshit or abandoning values. Those are the easy parts of the problem. The hard part is the lemming problem. Most people value their in-class relationships a lot, and if breaking script means breaking those relationships, there is huge resistance. It’s like a glacier hitting the ocean. Little bits fall off as the pressure builds, and other bits follow, in mini-avalanches of various sizes. Sand-pile model of social unraveling via chain reaction effects.

  3. .
    Exactly.

    And I say that from experience.
    I am an American man who moved to Thailand at the young age of 60.

    Venkat wrote, “we move dozens of illegible variables in unpredictable ways, generally for the worse. Each such negative consequence is by itself small, but when you add up the effects, the net result is a lowering our overall quality of life.”
    Based on years of experience, I agree.

    Variables that look innocuous at first are a massive drain on one’s energy.
    “Dark energy,” indeed.
    It’s exhausting.
    The first two years here, I needed to sleep 10-12 hours a day.

    An example to demonstrate:

    Where to get a simple haircut when you can’t read the signs?
    Just look for a red and white barber pole, right?
    Maybe not.
    In Thailand some barber shops offer only haircuts.
    Other barber shops are really brothels — sex and a haircut.
    All have red and white poles out front.
    If you walk into a brothel-barbership, you’re expected to accept — and to pay for — the sex on offer.
    How to tell the difference, when you just want a simple hair cut?

    Sure, that one is “fun”, but what about when, every day, there is a Tsunami of “illegible variables”.

    Example:

    A technician comes to repair the air conditioner.
    Dressed in the filthy clothes of a janitor, with the sullen manners of a peasant who was brought up in a slum shack.
    He enters my bright, clean and neat, condo, and, makes sure to lean his greasy hand against a white-painted wall.
    Happens more often than not.

    Venkat recommended that the ultimate formula is to “get rich enough so you don’t have to think about it.”
    And I will add, and so you can hire helpers to help make the adaptation somewhat easier.

    An example:

    Here, I don’t drive a car.
    Don’t even own a car.
    Too many variables.
    So, everywhere I want to go, I use taxis or hire a car-and-driver.
    As Venkat advised, I find myself spending money in order to minimize variables.

    Making a leap to a different “life” will be easier if you can bring money.
    Easier, yes, but not effortless.
    I must deal with local “helpers” who come packaged with their own variables of language and cultural differences that are highly “illegible” to an outsider.

    Venkat, your essay opened my eyes to something that is happening right in front of me, but I didn’t quite understand until you explained it.
    Thank you for taking your time to think and write as you did.

    — Peter
    Bangkok, Thailand
    email: Peter4@allmail.NET
    .

  4. I can’t recall the exact source but I’ve read once an interview of a wealthy man who were asked:
    “What’s the point being rich?”
    “You don’t have to take shit from anyone.”

  5. Interesting theory; thanks for writing. Your premise about increased dark energy rings true, but I disagree that becoming rich is a guaranteed solution. As you get wealthier, variables which were locked down become free, leading to more decision fatigue. Sometimes you just can’t go both ways–there are only so many hours in the day, days in the year, years in the life. A big example is retirement: choosing among available careers is a lot easier than choosing how to spend totally unconstrained time.

    (I am 31 and over the last two years I became a millionaire, found a life partner, retired, moved to Bangkok, and had a baby. Add you can imagine, in having a little difficulty with lifestyle settlement.)

  6. Interesting theory pinpointing the futility of lifestyle design. I agree with the illegibility themes as always.

    “Lifestyles trap us, because in attempting to improve a few legible variables, such as geographic location, income and weight, we move dozens of illegible variables in unpredictable ways, generally for the worse.”

    I’m assuming they’re generally for the worse because of the required energy expense tweaking these illegible variables over that period of 1-2 years after the move. Could it be more efficient to initially cargo-cult the habits of relatively content people in similar positions in the new environment?

  7. Great points, but I disagree with the last bit about riches solving everything. Sure, they can resolve a Gordian knot or two, but every time you throw money converting an OR problem where two choices may resolve to one into an AND where you pick both, you’re simply adding yet another thing which takes up limited space inside your brain.

    I’m sure there is a point at which you get so rich that get to hire your own gentleman’s personal gentleman to manage and curate all these variables (“The trousers perhaps a quarter of an inch higher, sir” “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself – do trousers matter?” “The mood will pass, sir”) but that is not without consequences to personal freedom (“You know how it is when two strong men live in close juxtaposition, if juxtaposition is the word I want. Differences arise. Wills clash. Bones of contention pop up and start turning handsprings. “)

  8. I also am a bit dissatisfied with the simple answer of “get rich”, but I think that it’s definitely a shot in the right direction. Money seems to fundamentally offer/represent redundancy, which by definition makes outcomes less path-dependent. It also, more importantly, creates a cushion for risk-taking.

    Of course, money can also do the opposite, and I’m pretty sure that there are other means of redundancy. What (I think) they all have in common is that they correlate or constrain variables in some way that simplifies the scenario. In the case of money, the fungibility of currency means that it can solve many different problems and not just one, so there’s less need for prediction. One could also do this by developing the right job skills, or multiple job skills. But how does one balance all this in a sensible way?

    The answer, it seems, is to be a Kelly bettor: find whatever redundancies will allow you to absorb large blows without dying, and to figure out how much of one’s resources to gamble at any one time (one has to account for future opportunity cost and having enough resources left over that risk-ignition is possible). The mathematics are only a metaphor (since life is not measurable in this way), but my own understanding of the “cheap trick” is that one starts with an edge case (according to their current organizing narrative) and looks for links between variables that make them correlated. But this is not constrained to using a single narrative: one could also find multiple “cheap tricks” that reflect worst-case and best-case scenarios, using them to play with the tails while satisfying certain conditions about the “normal days.”

    All this taken into consideration, if one’s goal is to create an unchanging Faustian bliss, then their goose is pretty much cooked. This also does, sadly enough, suggest that while there are ways to handle this level of uncertainty, it simply can’t be the case that everybody wins. It’s much more winner-take-all from here on out.

  9. In precis, might we say that tacit needs/habits cause lifestyle inertia…?
    Does that fit the data?

  10. So if I understand it correctly, “Lifestyle Design” is a badly stated combinatorial optimization problem and chances are you are optimizing the wrong variables [1]. Conformism is equally hard, not only because the middle class script is unraveling, but lifestyle is fractured into million little things to keep attention to ( the bullshit is up to your nose ) and everyone does it with somewhat different choices and outcomes. So you are likely missing the point. Life as it unfolds and acts in the world becomes an entropic mess, not the reversal of entropy + some environmental waste. The only way out is to become very rich which lets you ignore the whole issue of designing anything ( the riches are not artisans, but you aren’t one either! ) but hop from solution to solution. In case they don’t know how to choose they decide for everything. It doesn’t give life any new direction either but it can’t also be called “rigid”.

    Unfortunately, for me there is no design aspect at all in this. It is only navigation through a sea of choices and some neoliberal talk about personal preferences, some of them are subconscious. This won’t yield any recognizable shape or a new heroic archetype. There is permanent change but no becoming. So you are a shadow wandering through the designs of other people in the metropolis of past choices and now you are doing your own ephemeral choices: consumer choices rather than re-enactments. There are lifestyle scripts but you haven’t written them. They are form sheets now. From a distance it looks like a rational architecture which is rigid and necessary but when you try to approach it, it splinters into arbitrariness.

    [1] For example you are planning for early exit from work, which annoys you for no good reason – actually you always liked it a bit and you needed the sting – but then suddenly you realize you are alone and lunch with the colleagues wasn’t all that great with their mediocre jokes but still better than sitting alone in a restaurant and trying to have a talk to a waiter who is incredibly busy. Unfortunately what seemed necessary to your clueless former self has now become a choice of your new sociopath self. It would be possible to return to work but not to do it with eagerness and naivety. Something got lost and you can’t get it back.

  11. Kay: I think there is definitely a strong design aspect. This is not an unstructured combinatorial optimization problem. There are regimes. There are basins of attraction that are bigger and smaller. Lots of bouncing around a la simulated annealing with a slow schedule, but the stable+good attractors (of which “migrate to Bali” may be an early if odd example) probably admit of at least a retrofitted design narrative that others can imitate. I’d speculate there are patterns that can be discovered via a priori design, starting with some base assumptions and working out the rest (example: true nomadism).

    For all those who object to my tagging of money as the cure-all, here’s a single response, adapted from a comment of mine at an online discussion around the same theme.

    “Statistically money doesn’t increase happiness above 72k USD” (or whatever the bullshit survey found) is a really dumb meme.

    It’s purely a function of how thoughtful you are with money. Smart money above 72k can buy a lot more happiness. The limit exists because middle class scripts don’t give you good default spending habits beyond a point. You have to get creative or smarter people will take it from you in ways that leave you unhappier. Money above the “happiness plateaus” level is basically money in play. It will flow to the smartest players who have better ideas about what to do with it.

    So the objections to money are really objections to middle-class defaults. To make money above the happiness plateau level count, it has to be smart money, which means you have to learn some new behaviors.

    This isn’t a no-free-lunch situation. I believe it is FAR easier to learn new behaviors around money than to attempt to solve the lifestyle problems directly. Like several orders of magnitude easier.

    • I believe it is FAR easier to learn new behaviors around money than to attempt to solve the lifestyle problems directly. Like several orders of magnitude easier.

      It doesn’t have to be solved. Just as you said a couple of paragraphs before, a design will be grafted onto a successful lifestyle experiment – a recipe, created from a case story.

      I suspect there is something else that prevents those experiments from happening in large numbers but lots of coupled variables in urban life. Life must be promised, a new lifestyle is also a somewhat nebulous promise and the people having lived that live are becoming legendary figures. So you can still follow Jesus or Buddha today but not some guy whose life is observed with pornographic accuracy, whose tics and inconsistencies aren’t smoothed out. A lifestyle needs to be written as some mixture of fact and fiction. If there is too much fiction no one can live it and if there is too much fact there is nothing promising.

  12. Spending enough money to cover unpredictable variables is the brute-force solution.

    You could be more flexible with your illegible variables. Find something else that does that same thing for you that a walk by the water does. A lot of what you’re describing as lifestyle rigidity is really the rigidity of personal habits and preferences.

    Money is useful though. But often the value of money is not in what you can buy with it, but the freedom to experiment with risky options with a safety cushion to fall back on.

  13. I think this post has a lot of depth to it, so forgive me if I am only skimming the surface.

    First, I think your concept of “Lifestyle Dark Energy” is accurate. Five years ago, I moved from a small town where I taught high school to another small town where I taught high school.

    I thought the transition would be easy since both were superficially similar.

    Wrong. It was the most brutal transition of my life both on a professional and personal level.

    It did take about two years for me to feel comfortable in the new locale, and now it’s my home. When people ask, I tell them that it would take some “massive forces” to get me to move again.

    Thanks for the post.