Elderblog Sutra: 8

This entry is part 8 of 13 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the general problem of why creative work gets harder over time, beyond the specific challenges of elderblogging, and how that growing difficulty manifests. I give you: The Elder Game loop, or why Act 2 is harder than Act 1.

Very few people have ever beaten the Elder Game Loop in history (outside of feel-good movies like Rocky V and Rocky Balboa).

The short version of this is that creativity is easiest with cleared decks, and it gets harder to clear decks as you age. Or in one word: baggage.

The problem represented by the loop is fundamentally hard, not just an artifact of learned helplessness or a bad cognitive frame. Aggressively insisting on beliefs like “you’re never too old” or “you’re only as old as you feel” are a form of tediously aspirational denialism.

More modern versions rest on wishful gestures at “growth mindset” philosophy or “neuroplasticity”.

Yes, with the right mindset, you might stay mentally alive and (say) learn a new language or musical instrument or start a great new business at 70, but you’ll likely do no more than improve your mental and physical health, while producing modest external accomplishments that at best cause younger people in their prime to applaud politely while shedding a schmaltzy tear.

“An 80-year old grandma finished a marathon, Aww, how sweet!”

Mere mindset level shifts are just ways to buy graceful aging, not eternal youth, which is a dubious thing to buy anyway.

What if you are bored by the idea of eternal youth, but want to do more than age gracefully? What if you want to age interestingly?

Act 2 is not Act 1, Version 2.0

Many simple, obvious, and wrong responses to the Elder Game Loop occur to people who aren’t actually caught up in it:

  • Boldly throw it all away and start afresh
  • “Self-disrupt” with a new idea that dissolves the complexity
  • Rationally grade the top activities and double down on them
  • Level up by teaching the game/investing in others

Any of these responses make it clear to me that the person doesn’t actually understand the Elder Game Loop, and isn’t genuinely curious about it. These are all wishful ideas about how to have a second Act 1 rather than a first Act 2 (the last item in the list is a vicarious Act 1).

In other words, this is hopeful do-over advice for people with a youth-fetish and a wishful belief in and attachment to the idea of eternal youth. Otherwise known as Americans.

I don’t want a more successful do-over or “level up” of whatever the hell I did in my 20s and 30s. Nor do I want to live vicariously through those currently in their 20s and 30s.

I want to do something that explores the interestingness potential of working with the accumulated results of my life so far. Redoing Act 1 in any direct or vicarious form is boring. Working once more with a clean-sheet condition is boring. Throwing it all away seems immature. A case of throwing the old man out with the bathwater.

A Wabi-Sabi Canvas

Can “accumulated life complexity” be made interesting? What are the possibilities of non-clean-sheet starting points?

The Elder Game loop describes the problem for the median success case like mine.

I will turn 45 this year. I’ve neither succeeded spectacularly enough at what I do that I can afford to “make bad movies for the rest of my life” as George Lucas once described his own Act 2 Elder Game, nor have I failed so miserably that it’s an easy call (or even a practicable one) to just toss it all as worthless sunk cost, and start afresh with whatever resources and talents I have left.

This is a praxis problem, not a poiesis problem. In terms of scratching internal itches and feeding whatever hunger/drive makes people create a lot of output, I have no complaints or regrets. The question is how to continue the game. This game. Not start a new one from scratch out of misguided aspirational amnesia.

The loop captures the main practical problem, which is that over time, as the complexity (both internal and external) of the life you’ve created for yourself grows (I just described it as a junkyard media empire on twitter), and nothing is clearly and obviously a brain-dead-obvious double-down bet OR an obvious candidate for cutting, you tend to just let it all just keep living with whatever drip-irrigation of attention you can allocate to it, each activity living or dying as best it can. This is decay.

And you’re at least mildly attached to everything you’ve done, and have vaguely promising ideas about how to continue it in a satisfying way. When you finally realize some of it is never going to happen, there is a genuine sense of loss and mourning.

So over time, there is an aggregate problem, which is that you can’t clear the decks enough for thinking more clearly and getting good ideas in an Act 1 sense going.

Act 2 good ideas must clearly come from accumulated complexity that is in a process of slow (hopefully graceful) decay, and tinged with an evolving subtext of mourning as aspects of the past die, one by one. It’s a wabi-sabi canvas for the rest of your life.

Baggage as an Asset

The two basic ways to actually “solve” the problem by “winning” it in some sense, are to get rich or get enlightened. One approach is external and creates enough money and the other is internal and creates enough time. Either can be approached as some mix of a getting-lucky problem and a working-hard problem. Both there is something rather dull about both.

So I’m interested in a third way which I think is the most interesting and undertheorized way: approach baggage as an asset. For most people, “baggage” is neither good, nor bad. It is simply the history and memory of a life half lived and half processed. It is not necessarily a bagful of repressed demons and unhealed scars that need exorcism and healing. It is simply something uniquely yours in the universe that nobody else has your level of privileged access to.

So in what sense might it be an asset that might allow you to craft a first Act 2 for yourself that nobody else could take on, instead of turning into a sad old bore endlessly trying to top your Act 1?

I haz ideas about that.

Series Navigation<< Elderblog Sutra: 7Elderblog Sutra: 9 >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. I guess the challenge in Act 2 is to devise a “query language” that lets you do interesting extractions on the junkyard – focus less on generating new content and more on what you can get out of this highly individual space of artisanal info-artefacts you’ve now accumulated. How do antiques dealers and permaculturists index and reason about their spaces of stuff? Ie a re-wilding language which is natively rhizomatic and recombinant yet has some kind of linear syntax – happy medium between random evolution of baggage and tabula rasa high modernism Act 1 attempted-reboots.

  2. Something Someone says

    I would say the band Endless Boogie does it very well.

  3. Have you heard of Chip Conley’s Modern Elder Academy? Sounds like it’s in the business of helping people find first Act 2s.

  4. Would you want to analyze the baggage and classify items in it as useful/not-useful; asset-liability etc. and then decide on Act-2? Or just leave it as is, go on finding what Act-2 is through other means and let the sub-conscious discover what it wants from the baggage at the appropriate times?

  5. baggagecoin

  6. Getting rich doesn’t solve anything except paying for things. Read Emerson.

  7. I started reading with interest thinking that someone writing about “elder loops” might actually have some personal familiarity with being an elder. But the kid is just 45 years old!
    Maybe if we learned how to live in “moments of now” sourced by some purpose or mission that is compelling and enlivening we’d see that attempts at parsing life into first act second act…was more evidence of too much time on the bleachers ruminating about life rather than being in the world living life.

  8. small incremental acts of goal setting to pursue the answer to life on an asymptotic path gives me joy. that joy is magnified if i can share insights along the way with others. i have a distinct feeling that reaching the destination will be distinctly anti-climactic, so i’m in no hurry to get there. :) 42

  9. I think the trick for winning first act 2 is to look at one’s baggage from the unique perspective it affords for clues. Act 1 requires taking inventory of the world at large to find opportunities, not enough baggage on board to work with. Baggage provides added fodder for possibility.

    Seems like in this arena you have to find value yourself. Beyond the weight of one’s baggage ageism and social prejudice are working against you.

  10. If Act 1 is completing a game of Modern — win or lose — Act 2 seems to be beginning a second game with all the cards you’ve discarded and exiled still in those zones, perhaps with a reduced life total, against a new opponent. This would seem to limit Act 2 initiations to those playing bigger, richer decks (and here, the obverse of your 2.0 problem — if you complete Act 1 and realize your remaining library is too scant for an Act 2, you cannot then choose to have done Act 1 with a better one), which seems to gel well with living experience — how many well-played Acts 2 do we typically observe? — but as speed and jank are paramount in Modern, the use of a bigger, richer deck is a liability which all but dooms you to an Act 1 loss. Decay, as you’ve described, may necessarily inhere in the provenance of all Acts 2, and so in all Acts 2 must inhere means of instrumentalizing decay — of the retrieving of discarded and exiled cards, and of this retrieving being doable regardless of the color composition of your deck.