First, See the Circle

I really enjoyed the first season of HBO’s Westworld. I’m a fan of the robots-who-might-be-conscious-vs-exploitative-humans trope in all its many incarnations, but I felt this show did a particularly good job.

The reason I liked it most was the constant uncanny valley between spontaneous and scripted behavior. Without spoiling anything, the show does a masterful job of continually tricking you into believing something is improvised before showing that it was a script all along.

While the point of these tricks are supposed to keep you uncertain about the consciousness and free will of the robot protagonists, I think the insight equally applies to how ordinary human beings are following scripts. What feels like a genuine improvisation may be a stale pattern you’ve already played out before without realizing it.

What are Your Scripts?

I often get emails about someone enthusiastic about a new goal. They write paragraphs of text on their ideas, inspirations and motivations. But, somewhere near the end, they sneak in that, actually, they’ve had a hard time following through on similar goals in the past.

But what makes this time any different?

Idea, enthusiasm, a few bursts of momentum, frustration and then quitting. A circular script they run time and time again.

Not all circles are bad. Circles underlie much of how we function. Work too hard and you’ll need a break. Break for too long and you’re itching to do something. Wake, sleep. Relax, focus. All circles.

What strikes me about the circles isn’t so much whether they’re good or bad but that we rarely see their shape. Like the Westworld androids, we can’t see our scripts even when they should be obvious. Something in our self concept obscures or censors the circularity of our actions.

I’m not sure why this appears to be so. It might be that circles persist best when unseen, so naturally the ones in our blind spots tend to last longer. It may be that our ego protects the idea of our autonomy by focusing on the idiosyncratic reasons for each cycle’s existence and ignoring their persistent shape.

A New Year, A New Circle

If you’re reading this when I wrote it (January 2017) you might be planning a New Year’s Resolution. This circle, and the ruins of continually broken resolutions, should be particularly obvious because it’s tied to an even more obvious circle of the annual calendar.

Seeing that resolutions often fail can lead to a cynical perspective. If everything fails, why try? The only people who invest in personal improvement are morons who can’t see the futility of their actions. The smart money, therefore, is on not even trying to better yourself to avoid the embarrassment.

I understand this desire, but it goes too far. Just because change is hard, and often fails, doesn’t mean it is never worthwhile. And, despite the many struggles, we do genuinely make improvements in our lives some of the time.

A better approach is not to abandon trying, but to first try to see the circle. Instead of following it, or pretending it doesn’t exist, try to see its shape. What is the pattern you follow and why? What cascade of behavior leads to a result you dislike and how can you try it again a little differently?

Seeing the circle doesn’t always free you of it. But ignoring the circle never does.

Some of My Circles

I’m not immune to circles and I frequently get caught in their swirl.

One I occasionally fall into is believing that I’ll exercise from home. I’ll be in a new location for awhile, and not have an easy option to go to the gym. So, I’ll tell myself that I’ll work out from home—push ups, sit ups, maybe go jogging.

Except I never keep it up. I exercise once or twice from home. Often for only ten minutes before I realize I hate doing this, give up early and then find excuses for every other subsequent time.

This realization isn’t a big one—it just means I need to get a gym pass somewhere convenient or I’m unlikely to exercise. But, I fall into it time and again of thinking “this time it will be different.” I convince myself that, unlike in the past, I’ll take it seriously and really work out from home, even though that was what I said the previous times too.

Some circles are more stubborn. When I was in my late teens, and I would hit it off with a girl I liked, I tended to get overly interested, scare her off, feel depressed about it and then repeat a few months later. I recognized the circle a few years before I was able to mature enough to overcome it, and it wasn’t easy.

See Your Circles

My advice for this new year is to look for your circles. Not to ignore your big goals or dreams, but just to take a step back and see the circles that ran your 2016, 2015 and before. If you see yourself starting the circle again and you don’t like where it leads, ask yourself what you could do differently that you haven’t tried before.

If you normally hesitate until the opportunity is lost—try starting small immediately. If you get consumed by big visions and burn out on the little details—try starting with getting a little brick in place before building the entire structure. If you juggle too many goals and fail to follow-through, try pursuing only one.

Your circles in life might have a quick escape, or they may take years of trial-and-error until you can break the pattern. Some circles might be so ingrained that they must be accepted instead of overcame.

But the first step is to see that they exist.

  • Bjarke Tan

    Great post 🙂
    If you think HBO’s westworld was interesting i highly recommend game of thrones(if you haven’t seen it yet) too even tho it’s not about AI or free will it’s still an amazing show 🙂

  • Shyama Agrawal

    You my friend are simply amazing!

  • Bjarke Tan

    Hey scott young 🙂
    i am not sure if you know about this or not but this might be interesting to you 🙂
    it should be an effective way to practice stuff you have learned
    kind regards 🙂

  • Johnny Mean

    This is a great approach to discussion of this topic. Watching Westworld/ Truman show also made me observe circles in my life and in those around me. What patterns are we running? What scripts do we play routinely on a daily or weekly basis? What are my circles daily / weekly/ monthly/yearly. Introducing disruption purposefully at each circle level creates deviation and new hidden value. Disruptive examples in my experience include moving location each year/ career changes / allowing for elements of chaos.

  • Will Spurgeon

    I like the analogy.

    One thing that’s been helpful to me in recognizing my “circles” is journaling, specifically reviewing older journals maybe from 2-5 years ago, and seeing how starkly some issues are still a struggle, or sometimes to see that I really knew the solution all along and have just been avoiding it because it’s hard or inconvenient. But also sometimes I get to see that a new path or habit that I tried is now old hat and still working well.

    Great article, thanks for sharing.

  • Dayal G

    Thanks for sharing this article Scott .. 🙂

  • Eng We

    Firstly, Westworld is AWESOME! Thanks for not telling spoilers.

    If working out consistently is still an issue, may I recommend the ‘recommended routine’ from Reddit Bodyweight?

    I liken this attitude to working out like levelling up in an RPG game. Who *doesn’t* want to level up? You won’t need a lot of equipment except a pullup bar and rings.

  • Sam

    Great Advise!

  • That’s right. We all start setting goals and targets by the new year. We forget the last yeas’ goals and targets. But only few who actually put some action into these goals. Thank you for advise.

  • Martina Buck Turgidson

    What Scott calls circles is also known as automatic thoughts – patterns and scripts that happen on repeat without much awareness. I think this process can be quite difficult if you’re going about it by thinking analytically: it is easy to fall into rumination and enter yet another circle. A better way would be to 1) write your thoughts down 2) practice mindfulness as it changes the so called DMN – the brain circuit that is involved in our resting state. Have a look here for a good starting point

  • Astrapto

    Also known as habits. Check out the book “The Power of Habit.”

  • Martina Buck Turgidson

    In principle, I agree with you. I think of a habit as a 3 step process. Automatic thoughts include other “habits” like rumination, etc that aren’t usually called habits.

  • hehe

    The Circle, the film with Emma Watson and Tom hanks