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"Success and Self-Determination: You Need a Third Option"

I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
— from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

A strong sense of agency --- the feeling that you can, indeed, control the course of your own life --- is an essential element of success.

Unfortunately, a sense of agency can also be a source of crippling guilt and shame.

If I am not the master of my fate, then my lack of success up to this point is not my own fault. There is nothing wrong with me.

But if I am, well then --- I have some explaining to do. Why have I not lost the weight, started the business, written the book, built the app?

When faced with a history of lack of success, and trying to make it over the chasm of despair to a designed life, we have these two explanations:

  1. The world (fate, luck, God, the system, the Man, capitalism) has stopped me. Since the world hasn't changed, I will continue to not succeed.
  2. I am responsible for my own fate. I have not succeeded so far, and that was my fault. Since I am clearly incapable of success, I will continue not to succeed.

We need a third option. We need a way to take hold of our own personal responsibility and sense of agency, without the guilt and shame that accompanies the recognition that we are responsible up to this point for our failures and lack of success.

As I write this, I am in my early thirties. I've been trying to learn to play the piano for 15 years, trying lose weight for a decade, trying to become financially independent for eight years, trying to build my dream web app for six or seven, trying to learn to become a developer for five, trying to have a career as a writer for maybe two.

You can imagine how many of those things I have accomplished. I've lost some weight and put it back on. I was pretty decent on piano for a while but I haven't played regularly in years. I am super bad at Ruby and Python, and only passable in PHP. I make a living as a writer, so there's that --- but I don't like the kind of writing I get paid to do. I've started building my dream web app (in Django), but who knows whether that will work out the way I think. I don't even really want to talk about the money issue, but I can tell you that government-funded health "insurance" is going to pay for the birth of my second child in a few months.

My statements above about the two ways of understanding agency are not theoretical --- this is literally where I am at in my life. I have had, for a long time, a strong sense of agency. Justified or not, I feel that I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.

So how can I effectively move forward? How can I shake off the guilt and regret of not having achieved very much at all up to this point, without giving up my sense that I am in control?

I need a third option. We all need a third option.

This needs a little work (you can help in the comments), but I think that third option is something like this:

I am indeed the master of my fate. The world is indifferent, so I am responsible for my own success or failure. There was some specific thing which I previously lacked, but was unaware of. Having become aware, I can move forward.

For me, that specific thing is a way of thinking about problems the way a developer thinks about problems. Learning to be a developer is (slowly) teaching me to develop myself. Even though I have been piddling around with PHP (and mostly WordPress) for four or five years, I have found that taking up Python development --- and also actually bothering to get good at the terminal, at git, at Linux, at setting up virtual environments, etc., etc., --- has changed the way I approach problems. I am further convinced that --- for me --- this different approach is what has been lacking.

For me, learning to be a developer (n.b. not just a coder) is my third option.

What is your third option?


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