Whatever You're Doing, Make Sure it's a Positive Positive Feedback Loop

A positive feedback loop is a repeating series of actions that each reinforce the following action in the series. Here's an example.

Fig 1. Work, consume, be silent, die.

This is a basic action-reward cycle, in which being rewarded for your action makes you want to do the action even more, and then doing the action even more gets you even more rewards. There are a few interesting things about it.

First, cycles are both hard to break into and break out of. Until you get that first reward, you don't really have a reason to work hard. Sure, you might have the idea in your head that there's some potential reward down the road, but hard work is hard! Most people can't work hard for very long without a reward. That's why I advocate doing work that is its own reward. Then you can work hard all you want and make it into the cycle.

I mentioned that cycles like these are hard to break out of. Once you are getting a reward, it's hard to stop doing even actions that make you miserable. When that happens, you have to say goodbye to an infinite cycle of positive reinforcement. That's hard for anyone to do. This is another reason why you should do work that is its own reward in the first place.

Second, although I call it a "cycle," it's really more of a spiral. Simply getting paid ceases to be a reward at some point. People need bigger, faster, strong rewards each time around. We build tolerance to all things as we feel that it's become normal. We need more drugs each time to get the same high. We need bigger and bigger promotions to feel like our careers are "on track." We need to do more and more reps to feel "strong." I've seen this in too many people to count, in every area of our lives. I'm not sure if it's a cultural value of western society or America, but it's certainly ubiquitous here.

And I'm not making judgments. I think this might be simply how humans are and we should take advantage of it. Although we can succumb to the need for rewards--we can become drug addicts who take larger and larger doses until we die--we can also use the cycle to propel ourselves to ever greater accomplishments.

The cycle pictured above is sometimes called "work, consume, be silent, die" (WCBD) and I don't think it's a good way to live your life. It's a positive feedback cycle, but it's not a positive positive feedback cycle (PPFC). Working is only good for you if you like the work and consumption usually isn't good for you--though it's not necessarily bad, either.

Here's a better cycle for you and for the world you live in:

Fig 2. Positive positive feedback cycle (PPFC).

It's just as hard to break into, but also just as hard to break out of as WCBD. If anything, it's harder to break into than WCBD, which has clear precedents in nearly everyone you've ever met. People who make it to the point where they've honed their skills for the sake of improving the world are likely even more happy than the rest of us slaving away at spreadsheets all day and watching premium cable channels all night, but we don't see them. They're too rare.

And once you get to the point where you have good skills, it's really tempting to use them to make money instead of helping others. At that point you transfer to WCBD instead of cycling through PPFC.

In PPFC, you still need bigger and bigger hits of reward, but 1) your work is its own reward and 2) the external rewards you seek are pro-social, so they're both easier to find and they attract help from others like you wouldn't believe. People are generally good, if misguided. When they see you accomplishing massive gains in helping others, they'll want to get in on that pronto--just as much as if you had just won the lottery and they want a piece, except instead of your money, they want your karma.

You just need to be willing to share.