fighting against path dependence

On my run last night, I was catching up on Seth Godin’s podcast, Akimbo, and he brought up an idea that I didn’t realize had a name: path dependence.

From Wikipedia:

Path dependence explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past or by the events that one has experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant

A social example from Akimbo: after a fresh snow fall in a field, someone starts creating a path, and subsequent travelers follow that same path of footprints. If you return some time later, you’ll see a worn path and mostly undisturbed field.

I think a lot of this is due to the general autopilot we find ourselves on to conserve mental energy. We can only make so many decisions a day before we are cognitively burnt out, so we save time by eliminating choices and follow paths we have followed before.

The irony is not lost on me that I heard this description as I was running the exact route I’ve run for the past few days.

[ Brief aside — this probably also explains why I take a different return route on my runs. I try to find the shortest path from A to B, but then my path back from B to A takes a different route most of the time. Obviously if I truly found the shortest route, it would be the same both directions…but because I probably took a different return route the first time, path dependence dictated I continue to do so. ] 

Anyway, there’s something beautiful about thoughtfully counteracting path dependence. And it’s not all literal paths — a morning routine could signal path dependence.

I just listened to an interview with investor Nikhil Kalghatgi, who brought up the idea that we often overestimate our awareness of what truly makes us happy.

His example was that he had a morning coffee shop routine, which he thought made him very happy. When he moved, he lost that routine, which he expected would damage his happiness. But in its stead, he replaced it with a new morning breakfast routine with his wife, which actually made him much happier.

So I really like the idea of intentional path non-dependence. What can you do differently about this behavior from what you’ve done before? What can you do differently than what others would tell you is the right way to do things?

It’s not revolutionary — a lot of people will call this looking at what a lot of people are doing, and doing the opposite. Being contrarian. But instead of just being contrarian ideologically, it’s contrarian on a mechanical and behavioral level.

Both in big moments or decisions, and in very small moments as well. Why not?


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