Imagine that life is a choose-your-own adventure game.

In any moment, you have literally millions of options. At the moment I’m typing this, I could change the tab to innumerable websites, I could read any of the hundreds of books in my house, I could make myself a snack of olives, I could stand up and see how far I could jump, I could pet a cat, I could walk into my best friend’s bedroom and call them an idiot, and so on and so forth.

But, most of the time, we only think of a menu of a few dozen options—sometimes much fewer. The rest are sort of grayed out.

To a large extent, this is a good thing. Most of the options theoretically available at any given moment are very stupid. (Just ask anyone with intrusive thoughts—yes, brain, I understand I could put the lightbulb in my mouth, stop bringing it up!) But I think it’s important to think about the ways that grayed out options limit our behavior.

You can go outside in pajamas. It isn’t illegal. No one will stop you. Most of the time, no one will even comment. Sure, you might run into someone you know, but in many cities that’s not going to happen, and anyway they’re likely to assume you have a stomach flu or otherwise have some perfectly good reason for running around in pajamas. You’re unlikely to face any negative consequences whatsoever.

But when I’ve suggested this to people, they tend to object not because they have no particular reason to go places in pajamas (pajamas are very comfortable) but because people don’t do that. It’s just not on the list of available options. If you did, you’d probably feel anxious and maybe even ashamed, because it’s genuinely hard to do something that people don’t do.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should go places wearing pajamas! I don’t. I’m suggesting that you consider thoughtfully which of your options are grayed out and why.

Here are some other grayed-out options I’ve observed among people I’ve met:

  • Starting a conversation with a stranger.
  • Asking someone out.
  • Eating at a restaurant alone.
  • Walking alone at night (especially if you’re female or were raised female).
  • Writing a novel or a blog post.
  • Drawing a picture.
  • Submitting your writing to a publisher.
  • Emailing a professor to ask a question about their discipline.
  • Making a pull request on Github.
  • Editing Wikipedia.
  • Writing a computer program to fix a problem you have or automate a piece of work you have to do often.
  • Starting a recurring event like a bookclub or a meetup.
  • Throwing a party.
  • Complaining to customer service.
  • Opening up a broken machine and poking around in there to see if something obvious is wrong.
  • Googling your problem.
  • Negotiating your salary.
  • Researching a topic of interest on Google Scholar.
  • Doing parkour on walls etc that you find on your walk.
  • Planting potato eyes etc and getting food from them.
  • Talking to a famous person.
  • Singing in public.
  • Transitioning.
  • Dating people of the same gender.
  • Talking openly with your partner about your relationship needs.
  • Traveling the world and crashing on various friends’ couches instead of having a house.
  • Cutting off your family.
  • Being out about something stigmatized (your disability, your sexual orientation, your religion, your hobbies…).
  • Asking for your unusual preferences to be accommodated (by service workers or by people you know).

Different people have different grayed-out options, and I think this is actually a really common reason that people behave differently from each other. The reason that I write blog posts and other people don’t is not that I’m good at writing and they’re not; it’s that writing a blog post about something I’m thinking about is on my action menu and it’s not on theirs.

Some grayed-out options just don’t occur to you (like eating a lightbulb, if you are more blessed than I am). But I think there are two distinct feelings associated with an option that does occur to you still being grayed out.

First, there’s a feeling of social judgment. Even if you’re never going to see those people again and all of them are too wrapped up in their own business to pay attention to you anyway, if you’re pursuing a grayed-out option, it’s very common to feel like there are dozens of eyes watching you. It feels like everyone is whispering behind your back saying “who does that?” You can even feel this sense internalized when you’re doing something by yourself with no one watching.

Second, there’s a feeling of overwhelm. This is particularly common with the more complex grayed-out options: the steps involved in eating alone at a restaurant are obvious to nearly everyone. But thinking about a grayed-out option like editing Wikipedia, asking someone out, doing a pull request, or writing a blog post can be very overwhelming.

For me, writing a blog post is a series of concrete steps: notice thoughts I’m having, talk my idea over with a friend to get a sanity check, open my Substack word processor, type up an explanation of my thoughts, reread it to make sure it makes sense, send it to my betas for a sanity check, do a last proofread for typos and grammatical mistakes, and schedule it for Tuesday or Friday morning. If writing a blog post is a grayed-out action for you, it’s more like an amorphous mass of question marks. Even if you tried, you’d probably just stare at a blinking cursor with no idea what to do next. What are you even supposed to be doing?

Crucially, something can be a non-grayed-out option even if you’ve never done it. At one point I’d never organized a LARP, but it was clearly an option long before I did it. “Organize a LARP” was an action made of a series of steps, like “pick a LARP to run” and “find friends who would want to be in a LARP or who are susceptible to my puppy-dog eyes” and “find a venue” and “nag people about how they really do have to finish their character sheets.”

I think options are less likely to be grayed out if they’re similar to something you know how to do. If you’ve organized themed parties before, organizing a LARP is more likely to feel like an option; if you’ve written fiction, writing blog posts is more likely to feel like an option; if you’ve worn cosplay to the store, wearing pajamas is more likely to feel like an option. For more complex options in particular, similarity to things you’ve done before helps, because the overall option is made up of a bunch of smaller things that are individually options. Running a LARP is easier if you already have “find a venue” and “make puppy-dog eyes at friends” on your action menu.

They’re also less likely to be grayed out if you know people who do it. That’s the truth behind “queerness is a social contagion”: if people you know are transitioning genders or dating people of the same gender, suddenly that puts those options on your action menu too. To some extent, knowing people with an option on their action menu helps because you have someone to direct your stupid questions to and receive advice from. But I think a surprising amount is just the fact that other people are clearly doing it. This is a thing real humans you really know do, not a thing theoretically done by people far away in Hollywood or Washington D. C. or Timbuktu.

Again, I’m not some kind of action-menu maximalist. I don’t think anyone has every possible action on their action menu, even if you just look at things people might want to do like organizing LARPs and not things that no one wants to do like eating lightbulbs. But I think that it’s pretty common that there are things people could do that they want to do or that would really improve their life if they did, and nothing is actually stopping them. It just… doesn’t feel to them like the sort of thing that people do. And I think it’s useful to look at your action menu and see if there are some grayed-out options there you want to make colorful.

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Tangential: I literally, physically went and put a light bulb in my mouth after you mentioned that specific example, in real life. 

I am an agent of chaos. Don't tell me what to do, Jimmy.

Taking a loan to buy a blue collar business, improving its productivity and automating parts of it then hiring a manager and having passive income.

Shopping at places with the wrong class connotations in either direction

Getting very good at things via deliberate practice, especially soft skills

Making philosophical progress, especially personal progress

Paying large one time costs, monetary, social (geographically moving), time (search costs)

Addressing core causes of overwhelm and greying out

Requesting help from others in working through a problem

Exiting toxic social scenes or relationships (incl. Eg parents etc)

Feeling good, especially for no reason

Getting rid of physical belongings

Substantive debate about cruxy questions

Altering your personality (eg big five)

Taking up major new hobbies in adulthood

Another term for this pattern of behavior is "the script"; this terminology, and the related narrative-oriented way of framing the behavior, seems particularly common as arising from LSD usage, dating back something like sixty years at this point to an individual whose name I can't quite recall.

In this framing, people see themselves as characters living out a story; the grayed-out options are simply those things that are out of character for them.  Insofar as your character is "agent of chaos", as another commenter alludes to, you still have grayed-out options.  They're the things that you wouldn't ever do; say, go to college, get a degree as an accountant, marry an average woman, get a steady 9-5 job, get an affordable car, have three kids, live in a boring neighborhood, and keep your lawn average and tidy while hosting semiannual barbecues for the next forty years until you retire into a life of obscurity.

Granted that's a bit of a long-term plan; the grayed out options might just be the boring sequence of events that lead to enacting and maintaining that plan.  But note that this should be on the table, at all, if you are truly acting chaotically; deliberate chaos is surprisingly orderly.

But even that isn't really addressing "the script", the "grayed out options" - they're not just the things you wouldn't ever choose to do, but much more importantly, the things you'd never even consider doing in the first place.  For example, you could sew a blue dress and burn it to symbolize the death of your youth.  But you see the thing - now you consider doing it.  It's not just the things that are in or out of character at a surface level, but the things that are in or out of character at a habitual level, the kinds of thoughts you think, the kinds of ideas you come up with.

Charlie, playing the Wildcard in It's Always Sunny, had approximately one idea; everything else was grayed out.  Even though he was the wildcard in the show, and came up with random ideas constantly - as soon as he was actually playing the wildcard, his vision narrowed.

Similarly for us.  For most of us, indeed, the older we get, the more "character development" and "personal history" we have, the narrower the range of behavior we consider engaging in; even breaking the monotony of the routine becomes its own kind of predictable routine, the sort of thing "we" would do, so the sort of thing we find ourselves doing.

What's remarkable is that it isn't any kind of constraint on our actual ability to write a character outside our own script; pretty much everybody can think of an acquaintance who does things we ourselves would not, and imagine the kind of thing that person would do.

Copying over some free-form thoughts from Discord about ways this post feels relevant to my life:

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one thing this makes me think of is how my action menu shrunk to like five things in fall 2020

because there was covid and that severely limited the available activities, and then I moved and then, before I had unpacked, found out I have to soon move again, so I couldn't access most of my stuff OR most of my space since it was taken up by boxes, and then also some of the time the air was poison so going outside was also not very much an option

and then I think.... the fact that a bunch of options got greyed out by actual circumstances and I got used to living a very limited life... also somehow ~broke my ability to think of new options that could potentially work even with the constraints that existed?

I guess this post is mostly about that kind of psychologically greyed-out options that aren't driven by real constraints

but it was interesting how the real constraints had this additional effect

and then I moved again and the situation was somewhat better but I was so used to this very limited life that it was hard to actually expand my action menu much even though I theoretically could

I did eventually kind of

but much more after vaccines and reopening

though I'm still catching up, also

my stuff is STILL in boxes to an embarassingly large extent

- hmm, articulation of thought: one benefit of cleaning my room is expanding my action menu / un-graying-out options

because many actions require or at least benefit from various objects and if the objects are actually accessible that helps

another maybe interesting thing is I absolutely knew at the time [i.e. in fall 2020] this was the case [i.e. that I was having a greyed-out-options problem]

that there were probably things I could do that would be better

but it was so so hard to think of them let alone do them

It's a good metaphor! Makes intuitive sense. Of course the reason for some options being greyed out can be not just something benign, but also "too dangerous" (say, walking alone at night) "too hard" (say, writing a novel) or not fun (say, editing Wikipedia) and so on. But at least it's good to explicitly examine the reasons for something to be greyed out and whether the reason still holds.

I've usually thought of this concept using the term "affordance," which might be a helpful search term if anyone wants to find more discussion about this.

In any moment, you have literally millions of options.

Has anyone actually made an attempt to calculate possible degrees of freedom for a human being at any instant? There are >millions of websites that could be brought up in those tabs alone. 

One of the top things I'd love to see in my lifetime is a map of every thought that every human has had ever. Google might have a good dataset to build this. Studying the structure of this would answer your question. (Although I am personally more interested in it to identify what are the spaces of possible thought that humans have not frequented yet.)

There are literally infinite depending on how you want to define it - I could go to google and search any number I want, up to a googul at least. And if I decide to do it a fraction of a second later, that’s another googul options. And that’s just typing things in on google.

There are a few ways to look at the question, but by my reasoning, none of them result in the answer "literally infinite."

From a deterministic point of view, the answer is zero degrees of freedom, because whatever choice the human "makes" is the only possible choice he/she could be making. 

From the perspective of treating decision-making as a black box which issues commands to the body, the amount of commands that the body can physically comply with is limited. Humans only have a certain, finite quantity of nerve cells to issue these commands with and through. Therefore, the set of commands that can be sent through these nerves at any given time must also be finite.

True, without a source of randomness there are technically finite states that a human brain can decide on. So I suppose it’s not literally infinite, but it still gets us to 2^(number of neurons in a brain), which is many more states than a human brain could experience in the lifetime of the universe. Of course, many of those states are fundamentally broken and would just look like a seizure, so perhaps all of those should be reduced together.