An Ergodic Life
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
(1000 words, 3 minute read)
I expect that we all know a person whose life is just a mess. These disasters can come in many forms: maybe they can’t hold a job, or else they don’t want to, choosing laziness at the expense of their future; maybe they get in and out of relationships for arbitrary reasons, leaving a trail of broken hearts in their wake; maybe they drink or do drugs to the brink of death, only to sleep it off and do it again the next day; or maybe they are just inordinately impulsive or otherwise unreliable in other ways. They’re living a chaotic life, one that is without structure and out of control.
When we encounter such a person, the standard advice is that they should try to settle down. They should establish comfortable relationships, and maybe get married. They should find a job they like and stick to it. They should choose a place they like to live in and stick to it. All the rapid changes associated with a chaotic life are a great source of grief, and can be dangerous. We want to live a stable life, one that is structured and in control.
Most (though certainly not all) people I know from my time growing up in a small city in the Midwest opted for the stable life. With stability comes a high degree of comfort and predictability. You know who you are coming home to. You know what you’re doing Thursday night (it’s bowling night!). The stable life is a life of home, of family, of game nights and GameDays. It’s a soft blanket and a good movie. It’s routine. It’s great.
The downside of the stable life is the lack of novelty, which is why (I think) midlife crises are a thing. “Is this all there is!?” is a fair question when you’ve spent your whole life doing the same thing, day after day and week after week. There’s evidence that novelty is adaptive and healthy, but it’s also just fun. Sometimes relationships end because one of the partners changes; sometimes they end because one of them doesn’t. Too much stability can lead to complacency and (sometimes) deterioration. As Tim Minchin said,
We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Homo erectus got eaten before passing on their genes.
Somewhere between a chaotic life and a stable one, I want to suggest that there is a better option: an ergodic life. What I’m imagining is a kind of controlled chaos, a situation in which a person actively tries new things all the time (like the chaotic person) but does so carefully, in a planned way (like the stable person). An ergodic life is one of curiosity and exploration, but also of paying attention to quick feedback. An ergodic life is antifragile, maintaining the possibility of huge gains from novelty without sacrificing the best aspects of stability.
For example, one might decide to try camping, really give it a serious attempt, only to discover that they don’t actually enjoy it. The person living ergodically learns fast and moves to the next thing, whereas the chaotic person ignores the feedback and just decides what to do on a whim the next time. The person living a stable life might not have tried it at all.
Physics aside: The word ergodic comes to mind here in analogy with the Ergodic Hypothesis in thermodynamics, which posits that on very long timescales, all microstates of a system are equally probable. Said another way, an ergodic system is one which samples the full space of possibilities, leaving nothing out. In thermodynamics, the states with highest entropy win out, as they are the most numerous (see 2nd Law of Thermodynamics); in life, the hope is that the Best states win out.
The necessary caveat here elucidated by the question: should I try everything at least once? Every drug, every dangerous activity, every heart-wrenching or otherwise hurtful action? Should we really sample all possible states? No, I don’t think so, though I don’t have any rock-solid rules here (do your best). My rules of thumb are (1) don’t do serious harm, physical or emotional, to anyone just to try something out, and (2) don’t do anything that poses a serious danger of reducing future possibilities for exploration. For example, if one-time use of some dangerous activity implies a reasonable risk of harm to myself or others, I won’t do it. There should be fences to block the largest cliffs on the landscape of possibilities.
If your life is currently too chaotic and out of control, the advice to find some stability is good; that’s the direction to move in. But more generally, my advice is to pay attention! See what works and what doesn’t; keep trying new things but don’t make the same mistakes over and over. You don’t actually have to move back to your hometown and marry your college sweetheart to find the right amount of stability in your life. It’s ok to retain your adventurous spirit!
If your life is currently too stable and boring, the advice to break the mold of your routine and do something exciting is good; that’s the direction to move in. But in doing so, make sure to pay attention! Some of what is good about your stable life is probably worth keeping around; your current situation might make the perfect base camp from which to explore new avenues in life. You don’t actually have to buy a dangerous motorcycle or cheat on your wife to find the right amount of excitement in your life. Don’t burn any bridges you might actually want to cross later on!
In both cases, explore, be curious, but keep your head on your shoulders.
In my view, the ergodic life is the life worth living.