One of the most important ways to establish control in your life is to develop the right concepts and language that will orientate your mindset and free your mental horizons. I call this Tawjih, meaning the conscious orientation and harmonisation of one's objectives, thoughts, and actions. It is an Arabic word borrowed (and tweaked) from the sociologist Malik Bennabi who applied this concept at a civilisational level. In this short piece, I want to introduce three interrelated concepts that can help psychologically reorientate our mindset and develop our own tawjih around the goals we want to achieve in life.
The first concept is being a live player. Samo Burja's Great Founder Theory is about the role that individuals play in shaping the course of history. Part of Burja's analysis of these individuals is that they are what he calls 'live players', people who break with the script and accomplish novel feats on their own terms.
The second concept is developing high agency. As a high agency actor, you are a go-getter who actively pushes forward and figures out ways in which to achieve what you want, without hoping that through inaction it will come to you or someone will give it to you.
The third concept is achieving the adjacent possible. Stuart Kauffman notes that in order to achieve your goals, you need to think in terms of steps and achieve breakthroughs in the immediate, neighbouring field of action to move forward to the ultimate goal.
A live player is a person or a tightly coordinated group of people that is able to do things they have not done before. Live players must have tawjih to do this. This does not have to be a particularly exceptional feat, but it does have to be novel, because if it is not novel, even though it is exceptional, it will not count as being a live player.
If the live player is a group, its coordination is key to its success. Lacking an esprit du corps or rigorous chain of command, it could end up forgetting its objectives and even disintegrating. At the same time, the live player needs to be flexible so it can respond to opportunities and emergent events that may require new tactics, organisational structures, and even a change in worldview. Such coordination inevitably spawns a new set of tactics, strategies, coordination mechanisms, and other forms of knowledge that Samo Burja calls a 'tradition of knowledge', and possessing this tradition is one way to see whether x group is a live player.
Another attribute of the live player is that they are doing things 'outside of their domain', and Burja gives the example of Steve Jobs going from building companies (Apple) to fighting laws that wanted to give government the power to have backdoors into software. Jobs' ability to fight this successfully show that he was not just a businessman but also had the political and legal acumen to resist the intelligence and government worlds. This means that as a live player, you can break down epistemic barriers between specialisations and act with a multi-domain strategy.
Burja defines dead players as 'a person or a group of people that is working off a script,' i.e. they are incapable of executing hitherto unachieved breakthroughs and creating new traditions of knowledge. Being a dead player is not static: live players can die and dead players can be revived. More often than not, it is the former that takes place. Live players usually die when their tradition of knowledge dies and they cannot replace their thinkers or theorists. They can also die if their tight coordination and intangible methods of coordination are replaced by formal structures of organisation, leading to organisational 'heat death'.
Your goal in life is to be the live player or be part of a live player group, creating new rules and playing new scripts in order to achieve new breakthroughs. The moment you stop innovating and pushing the frontiers of knowledge, you become a dead player, losing your agency as you become subject to the old way of doing things and becoming distracted with old games.
High Agency Individuals
The concept of the live player ties in well with the idea of being a high agency individual. As a high agency individual, you are a go-getter who actively pushes forward and figures out ways in which to achieve what you want without hoping it will come to you or someone will give it to you. Some people are born with this gift; others hone it through mental discipline and apply a strong work ethic towards achieving their goals. Eric Weinstein introduced the concept in a podcast episode on the Tim Ferriss Show:
When you’re told that something is impossible, is that the end of the conversation, or does that start a second dialogue in your mind, how to get around whoever it is that’s just told you that you can’t do something? So how am I gonna get past this bouncer who told me that I can’t come into this nightclub? How am I going to start a business when my credit is terrible and I have no experience?
Being a high agency individual does not come in isolation. You usually need some level of talent to become a true game changer, but even if you are not that talented, you can still be a high agency individual through determination and work ethic. One of the main lessons I have taken from life is that no amount of talent matters if you do not possess some sort of agency. The less-talented hard workers blaze ahead of the highly-talented but low agency 'frustrated geniuses'.
To identify or cultivate high agency, there are usually three attributes a high agency individual possesses: an ownership mindset, proactive language, and a strong focus on control. The ownership mindset is perhaps the most important of the three principles. You need to be someone who will take responsibility for something, even if it was not yours to take in the first place. People with an ownership mindset like to get involved and do not try and pass over tasks or responsibilities to other members of the team. This widens the pool of opportunities as people recognise your work ethic and you prove your ability to get things done regardless of whether you are tasked with doing them. In a way, it links back to the idea of being a live player, too.
Secondly, observing and adjusting your language is an important aspect of cultivating high agency because changing your language changes how you view and respond to the world. It is said that speaking in different languages can change your character, but I think this is also true when it comes to using different concepts in the same language. Here are some examples of such changes:
- I can't do this vs. Let's figure out a way to get this done
- They won't accept it vs. I can convince them
- I can't vs. I can
- I wish vs. I will
- There is an obstacle vs. There is a challenge to overcome
Finally, it is useful to look at the 'circle of concern' vs. the 'circle of control' to help you understand what you can and cannot control, and focus your thinking and action on what can be changed. A lot of people focus far too much on concern instead of control. This means that their mental energies are wasted on things they have not caused nor can they effect, while the things they can cause or effect are given little to no effort. As a consequence, they remain dead players with no hope of mental sovereignty, which is necessary to developing tawjih.
The Adjacent Possible
The circles of concern vs. control lead on to the third idea that can help you achieve tawjih: the adjacent possible. If you are a live player and you are concerned only with what is in your sphere of control, you cannot afford to think purely in the abstract. You need to break up your ultimate objective into blocks that you can knock out one at a time. Francois Jacob theorised evolution not as a process of engineering but as a process of tinkering; nature recycles available resources and tinkers with them to produce something new. Building off this, Stuart Kauffman called this idea the adjacent possible, capturing the fractal-like evolution of nature based off existing resources and principles. I like the adjacent possible because it is a scalable concept: there is always something to do afterwards, some new frontier to push, but it can only be done with what is already at hand.
If we look at the technology industry today, it did not appear out of the blue. Several steps had to occur before it; innovation in World War 2 led to the development of rockets, which led to the space race, which necessitated the development of supercomputers, which became commercialised by Silicon Valley, which then allowed live players like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to create companies like Apple and Microsoft, and so on. One live player currently doing this is Elon Musk. The the most fascinating thing about him is not the ambition or work ethic; it is the ability to execute multi-decade plans with several moving parts all acting as a whole - and make a success of it. Space travel, worldwide internet, electric vehicles, energy, geoengineering. He's in everything and they aren't just separate businesses. He is building the parts he needs to achieve his grand plan of going to Mars, i.e. working with the adjacent possible.
We can think about the circle of concern vs influence and the adjacent possible not as fixed elements but as fluid, ever-evolving spheres. As you break through the adjacent possible from A-Z on your plan, your sphere of influence continues to widen as the sphere of concern either gets enveloped or is pushed outward, i.e. your problems change. The stories of the development of the big tech companies are often treated as if they were due to sheer luck and chance, or their founders taking a leap of faith. Neither is true: as live players, they took advantage of previous events that had created the fertile environment for something like a Martian civilisation to be created.
Too much theory fuzzes the messy contours of reality. Avoid getting stuck planning A-Z; once you have a rough vision of where you want to go and what you will need to get there, start working immediately on getting from A-B, and iterate as you go along.
The three principles: live player, high agency, and the adjacent possible, are all necessary parts but not an exhaustive list of the concepts you need to develop tawjih. Additionally, none of these ideas are exclusive to any one field. Wherever you are, whatever you want to achieve, you need to harmonise your objectives, thoughts, and actions if you are interested in achieving greatness in your field, and this can only be done if you are conscious of yourself as being a visionary and pioneer heralding the new ways to come. None of this is doable unless you have mental sovereignty, i.e. control over your objectives, thoughts, and actions. It's time to start cutting out the noise so you can identify the signals.