Been There, Done That

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Thinkability

In a previous post, Thingness and Thereness, I introduced my goat-crow-rat triangle and the in-progress thinking associated with it. Here is my my next iteration of the diagram.


In the previous version, I didn’t have a label or annotations for the edge between the public and frontier vertices. Since I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive maniac with diagrams like this, I couldn’t rest easy till I had figured out a complete, maximally symmetric set of labels. So, here we go. A relatively complete version with no labeling gaps and some pleasing symmetries.

The edge between frontier and public is now officially the been there, done that edge. I hope the label is intuitive enough that at least some of the significance is obvious. Let’s talk about the non-obvious significance.

To recap the gist of the previous post, life scripts play out on this triangle. We normally start at the home vertex, and by choosing between the be somebody and do something paths, we make our way out into the world, heading towards either the public or frontier vertices respectively. I say normally because some in fact start at one of the other two vertices (“raised by wolves” would be an extreme born-on-the-frontier archetype, while a foundling raised as an orphan by public institutions would be an extreme born-in-public archetype; the poorer you were raised, the closer home and public are for you).

The be somebody path leads, via identity forming subcultures, to the public vertex, and a visible place at the heart of human affairs, whether honorable or dishonorable. The do something path leads to the frontier vertex and a piece of whatever exciting action is unfolding at the margins of human affairs when you are coming of age. The key questions you ask (and possibly answer) along the two paths are is this a thing now? and is there a there there? respectively. Questions about emerging social realities that you might ride to become somebody of consequence, versus questions about material realities that you might explore to do something original.

The most important feature of the diagram is that it is impossible: a Penrose triangle.

This impossibility manifests as a liminal break or gap in the triangle that your script conditioning does not prepare you for, and which precipitates a crisis for you when you encounter it. Depending on the vertex nearest to where your illusion (or false consciousness, if you like) breaks, I label the gap goatspace (frontier vertex break), crowspace (public vertex break), or ratspace (home vertex break). The labels, I hope, make sense. You find goats improbably climbing sheer cliffs at the frontiers. Crows are urban birds that can easily fly from trailer park to penthouse in public spaces, along paths that are socially nearly impossible for humans (I got the name from the Jeffrey Archer novel, As the Crow Flies which is about a guy who makes such a journey). And finally, rats are creatures that inhabit the hidden gaps, crawlspaces and interstices of the home vertex. Think rats in the attic. Of both your home and your head.

Traversing a crowspace, ratspace, or goatspace gap, especially when it is a big, yawning chasm, is a rebirth of sorts.

In the diagram, I’ve now added social and narrative context to the two paths leading away from home now. Social realities versus material realities. Subcultures of identity versus subcultures of change. A story you could call I’ll show them versus a story you could call there and back again. 

The path that I hadn’t properly grokked in the last iteration is the one between public and frontier. I’ve labeled it the Act II path in narrative/life-script terms, because you first have to leave home and round one of the other two vertices (your Act I) to even see that path. And it is not necessary that you will get on the Act II path. You may fail to traverse a large goatspace or crowspace gap and be forced to return home, and you may not have the time to take a second shot at a first act, since a first act usually takes an adult decade or more.

Even if you do have time and life energy, a ratspace gap — a broken home condition — may stop you from going around the other way. Just because your frontier mission failed doesn’t mean the path from home to public is open to you as a Plan B.

The Act II path is defined by what you might call subcultures of arrival. Unlike subcultures of identity and change, which are open to anybody who chooses to leave home a certain way, you can only get to a subculture of arrival if you successfully navigate Act I and, potentially, traverse an unscripted liminal gap, leading to a sort of resurrection event that inaugurates Act II.

Occasionally you encounter people who’ve moved smoothly from Act I to Act II (either clockwise or anti-clockwise) without missing a beat. Such people usually have a big ratspace break at home or along the road they didn’t take. Nobody escapes the impossibility of the Penrose triangle.

Unlike Act I, which is characterized by an intention (be somebody or do something), Act II is characterized by a non-universal condition: been there, done that. The phrase has an interesting history, but for our map, let’s say you’ve been there if you’ve successfully rounded the frontier vertex, and you’ve done that [thing] if you’ve successfully rounded the public vertex.

You only need to satisfy one of the two entry conditions to participate in subcultures of arrival. In the legitimization narrative of subcultures of arrival, great explorers, entrepreneurs, and scientists (been there people) can party together with great politicians, bankers, musicians, or famous actors (done that people). Davos is a classic arrival subculture.

Subcultures of arrival comprise Act II people united against Act I pretenders who’ve done nothing and been nowhere. Who are fit only to watch as admiring spectators, provide entertainment, or serve as waiters. Act II people might hate themselves and each other, but they usually hate Act I people more.

Subcultures of arrival are where new money battles old money, patricians snub arrivistes, and Great Men and Great Women scheme and compete with each other for column inches in the history books. Subcultures of arrival are where Great Explorers learn to envy Great Politicians and develop political ambitions and a deep desire for a role on a big stage. And where Great Politicians learn to envy Great Explorers and develop a yearning for their own frontier spurs.

There are perhaps true been there, done that people who’ve managed to arrive from both directions. John Glenn, astronaut and statesman, was perhaps an example. Benjamin Franklin, scientist and founding father, was perhaps a better one.

Arrival is a sense of having navigated Act I and “arrived” at something conventional scripts tend to recognize as “success” by certain extrinsic markers. But Act II is more than external markers like having made it to the C-suite, won tenure, achieved a big-money startup exit, written a bestselling book, released a hit album, or experienced a war. You have to arrive internally, achieve an internal sense of having “made it” to a psychological locus different from home.

This is why, incidentally, raising children is not usually considered an act that qualifies for arrival. It is a home-front achievement.

Some never achieve this inner sense of arrival and continue to fight Act I battles long after they lose all meaning.

The I’ll show you story can continue if you never feel like you’ve truly showed them (remind you of somebody?).

The there and back again story can keep going if you never feel like you’ve truly discovered something new beyond the frontier.

In both kinds of stories, we find people who never arrive, despite their best external striving, because they are never able to truly leave home.

Part of the challenge of goatspace and crowspace is letting Act I narratives go, and crossing the liminal passage into Act II. The edge between public and frontier is now the been there, done that edge.

But it is a mistake to think that the notion of arrival is entirely a fallacy. What is fallacious is the idea of specific markers of arrival having any particular significance.  True arrival (which is also true departure from home as you once understood it) is the coincidence of extrinsic markers of arrival and an inner sense of arrival. I’ve met enough people who exhibit hard-to-fake signs of being in a post-arrival state to dismiss it as illusory.

The existential question of Act II is not a focused question. In Act II, there is no thing or there defining and shaping your journey. Instead, it is the absence of life-structuring thingness and thereness that defines the condition.

The governing question is simply, what now? 

This is of course, the characteristic question of anomie. The condition of having too much or too little structure. Either nothing is necessary, or everything is. Anomie is the imperative to discover freedom. Arrival is nothing so much as the gift of the opportunity to discover freedom, because arrival is defined primarily by the realization that the script is no longer telling you what to do.

The mountaineer who has scaled Everest and is suddenly faced with the lack of higher mountains to climb is in the same state as the CEO or President who finally gets the the top job and discovers that everything is now their problem or fault, but nobody is telling them what they must do about it.

Everything is possible, nothing is necessary, and it is all incredibly stressful. That’s arrival. That’s the beginning of Act II.

Both mountaineer and President must discover freedom, or rather invent it through an act of pure imagination, or die. Humans are not built to survive conditions where they are either absolutely constrained or absolutely unconstrained.

To continue playing the game in Act II, you must either create a gap to loosen constraints and create freedom of action, or add constraints and boundaries to create an imperative for action.

This is the idea I tried to capture in a recent tweet: Freedom is arguably freedom to go deep: into rabbitholes, relationships, missions, without regard to cost, reward, time, productivity, risk.

Cost, reward, time, productivity, risk: these are all Act I variables. Shallow play variables in the sense of Clifford Geertz’s Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Act II is deep play.

Arrival into Act II is arrival into potential freedom. But the potential is not actualized until you pick a locus for freely going deep. The challenge of Act II is that unlike Act I, there is no support in the script for figuring out where to go deep, or with what.

But you are only free after you make the decision, not before. It is the process of making that decision, without a script providing cues, that creates freedom.

Or to put it another way, once you’ve been there and done that, it is no longer enough to ask questions like is that a thing now or is there a there there. Act II is the challenge of having to invent thingness and thereness for yourself.

Series Navigation<< Thingness and TherenessMake Your Own Rules >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Why do you think it is necessary to go through Act I to get to Act II?

    If Act II is a purely internal affair and Act I is about collecting external markers, why can’t one just decide (an internal reorientation) to forsake the need for external markers and pursue the internal path from the start?

    I know it is MUCH easier said than done. But is it really impossible?

    • That’s the monastic path. Still exists but just barely in our world dominated by total institutions with purely instrumental values.

      • Hmm, I think you’re right. I think the monastic path was organized as a kind of escape from society exactly so that certain individuals could opt out of pursuing either the “Do Something” or “Be Somebody” paths. (And it’s interesting to think about how such an institution could be reintegrated into our current institutional environment. I think we could use something like it).

        But I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Venkatesh’s article rings true to me and it depicts people on the “Been There Done That Path” as still living within the confines of society, while having transcended the basic impulse that connects the “Be Somebody” and “Do Something” paths: the need for external validation of some sort (whether that’s climbing Mt Everest or climbing the corporate ladder, etc.).

        What I think is still a little confounding is why someone can’t just leap from the home vertex into Act II. What makes that external validation an inexorable pre-requisite for entering Act II?

        In the article, Venkatesh writes:

        “I’ve labeled it the Act II path in narrative/life-script terms, because you first have to leave home and round one of the other two vertices (your Act I) to even see that path.”

        I’m basically channeling my inner five year old and asking – Why?

    • Both Act I and Act II have both internal and external components. Not sure where/how you’re concluding that Act I is about extrinsic markers. I specifically emphasized the internal sense of arrival. It’s a shift of the cognitive origin away from “home”.

      • It is possible that I’m just projecting my own pre-suppositions onto the model.

        Shifting the cognitive origin away from home is a good way of explaining the need for an Act I before an Act II; something I hadn’t fully digested in the first read through.

  2. Romeo Stevens says

    I like the frame of freedom to go deep. There’s been an inversion. Breadth first people used to be the envied ones, because only the high status/wealthy/creative elite could do breadth first while everyone else was forced to exploit. But a shallow form of breadth first has been expanding ever since post WW2 or so. It is discussed extensively in the intro to The Glass Bead Game, where Hesse predicts and lampoons TED talks. But yes, the freedom to shut off your phone for a week and really dive into something. You are starting to see this as the new status marker in SV with meditation retreats and creative sabbaticals as the most common form. It will be really interesting to watch if/when the critical threshold is reached and ‘busy-ness’ flips over to being low status.

  3. After reading this post, the word apotheosis sprang to mind. Also, this sounds like a less cynical, less entertaining, but more useful take on the inner life if the sociopath from the, well, apotheosis of your Gervais series.

  4. Also, another idea – do you think extroversion and introversion are good indicators for determining whether someone is likely to choose the “Be Somebody” (extroverts) or “Do Something” (introverts) path early on in life?

    Just something else to toss around.

  5. John Fuller says

    A weirding of this model might be digital nomadism. Life scripts go out the window. You’re so far from home that “be somebody” gets left behind. The collision point between digital nomad income, cheap rent and indifference to status symbols gets you to “fuck you” real fast. In the cheap and lazy route to arrival, you get what you pay for. Your subculture of arrival is fellow nomads and old expats who have regressed to drinking at bars and chasing young women. The old expats hate you because you’re young and you have more control over your income. You hate the old expats because they don’t have to do anything but collect their retirement checks. Everybody points out how silly it is that the locals are chasing the same things that we have left behind and don’t care for anymore (buying SUV’s for transportation, shopping for worthless crap at the malls, dressing well to impress others, etc.) Relieved from the rat race, you’re free to explore whatever rabbit holes catch your attention. I’m regularly getting concerned messages from friends wondering where I have disappeared to. Sorry, found another rabbit hole.

  6. You know you’re too subsumed by the blockchain world when you see the colored triangle and immediately think it is related to the Basic Attention Token.

  7. This is nicely tied up, thank you for the update! It struck a thought for me regarding the old Exit vs Voice.

    While those headed to the frontier tend to favour Exit (there’s always somewhere else) and those in the public arena lean toward Voice (the essence of the domain), I’ve noticed that people in Act II have their own means of influence – which could be called Entry, for want of a better word.

    By virtue of having Been There or Done That, someone in the subculture of arrival has much more freedom in where they apply their acquired experience. And the place they choose will be distorted by their presence – adjusted to accommodate and make use of their talents. When selecting a contract to take on, an organisation to join, or an individual to mentor, they are able to apply pressure both in the selection process, and invisibly while in place. Does this resonate?

  8. After ruminating on this, I’d like to say back to you what I see in the Penrose triangle: I’ll leave it to you to tell me if I’m on the right track or not.

    First, IMHO the Frontier exists as a concept but not an actual place. So in my version, most of it is obscured by a cloud, and the path that connects back to the left side of the triangle can only really be seen in retrospect. The primary motivation for proceeding down the path on the right-side of the triangle is curiosity. When inside the Frontier Cloud(TM) you may be following a path that goes somewhere, a path that someone else took that leads nowhere, or no path at all – you don’t really know.

    I don’t watch The Office so I don’t get all the inside jokes and references there – so the associations with the “Clueless” I’m less certain about – but it feels about right. This route is filled with both actual insights and discoveries as well as lots of Fool’s Gold. And often the Clueless person wandering around in that soup can’t tell the difference.

    Second, going up the other side is more of a known path. The primary motivation for following this path is achievement. This path has known markers for what “achievement” means (compensation, status, direct reports, etc.), what to do, and where to go next. Generally speaking, those that walk this path are alot safer and just as importantly, saved from wandering into box canyons, swamps, and worse, facepalm-inducing false-Eureka moments that is a common occupational hazard of being curious/Clueless.

    Third, in a dynamic world of markets, the business of being leader now requires wandering off in the direction the Frontier Cloud, enduring all the things mentioned above, but with the express purpose of returning only with real ideas, and real insights which provide a stronger basis on which to compete.

    This competition is both internal and external and one must evangelize the “new way” in order for it to take hold, which is why I see the primary motivation for this path as one based in politics; the art of convincing others you possess the “next big thing”. The Sociopath only wanders around in the Frontier Cloud looking to bring back something real to the achievement path. It’s not done out of curiosity like the it is for the Clueless, but for authentic gain.

    Last, I’ve labeled the inside of the triangle the “Gap of Anxiety”. When the path to achievement is straightforward, the triangle is narrow, and there is less need to wander off into the Frontier Cloud. When the path to achievement is dominated by poor practice/process, the gap is wider, and everyone feels it. Sometimes the next highest person on the achievement ladder gets sick of it and dictates a solution, which may or may not solve the actual problem. If it doesn’t, the anxiety grows and those on the ground become cynical until a genuine solution is found, or indefinitely if one is not. The longer this goes on, the more poisonous the culture becomes.

    Poor practice/process also provides motivation to travel into the Frontier Cloud in the first place – which may and often does disrupt the achievement path. Waterfall-to-Agile is something I’ve experienced having this effect, for example.

    The main thing is that the Frontier exists more and more as a requirement to travel upwards on the achievement path. I say this after hearing the anxieties expressed by those that I know at all organizational levels. As the markets become more dynamic, the more those in the C-Suite and layers just below need to venture into Frontier Cloud. Since disruption can come from anywhere, it’s no longer optional. Innovation must exist at all levels. I find this interesting.

    Thank you for the blog.