Recently, I’ve realized that feedback loops have been one of the most important things in my life—and are perhaps one of the most important things in the world.
Most of us are aware of negative feedback loops. Feedback from a set of speakers and a mic is the usual example—the earsplitting phenomenon that whole industries are dedicated to avoiding.
These negative feedback loops don’t just happen in audio, however. They’re also a big deal in human behavior.
Addictions, obsessions, OCD, negative self-talk, and a whole lot more—are all manifestations of some kind of negative feedback loop. Some people would say that all mental illness is a manifestation of this one thing.
If so, then insanity is just the default state that people find themselves drifting towards, when certain protection mechanisms go away.
The mic starts drifting toward the speakers…the person starts becoming more and more closed into their own mental world…
This is the danger of prosperity, of freedom, of time spent alone. “Your great learning has driven you mad!” was not an idle possibility—but a well-known danger posed by living in a world mostly defined by your own thoughts. Being a hermit was another way to expose yourself to this danger.
That doesn’t mean that wealth, or freedom, or scholarship, or being alone are bad things. They’re all good in the right forms. They’re just occasions of significantly heightened danger, because they circumvent our natural built-in protection mechanisms.
Those mechanisms avoid feedback loops by forcing our choices to go through greater levels of engagement with the outside world. To eat, we have to work. To learn things, we have to engage with our teachers. To consume intoxicants, we have to go through a local distributor. To be safe, we have to be part of a community.
When we become rich enough to skip these constraints, or have enough free time to get around them, or are well-studied enough to leave our teachers behind—then we no longer have these natural constraints, and we are forced to either provide them for ourselves, or fly ever closer to the flames.
The obvious way to provide these constraints for ourselves is through self-discipline. And most truly successful people are incredibly disciplined.
But there’s something that is probably even more important than self-discipline: deep engagement with the outside world. This doesn’t just mean being around other people, or out in nature. It means letting the outside world disrupt you, challenge you in significant ways. It means exposing your ideas to others, and allowing them to disagree and prove you wrong. It means putting yourself in situations where people might disapprove of your behavior, or think you are kind of lame.
This is the beauty of travel—it can disrupt your view of the world and yourself in significant ways. This is the beauty of leaving your peer group behind for a while—it can disrupt your sense of what’s important, and who you really are.
This is precisely what people like Michael Jackson lost. Once he found himself surrounded by people who would say anything he wanted to hear, the only way that story could end was in tragedy. Conversely, what we admire in celebrities who seem “like normal people” is that they are still actively engaged in a world that can change them.
Self-discipline can keep some of our destructive tendencies at bay, but ultimately self-discipline is only as good as the perspective we have—and the perspective we have is only as good as the size and depth and complexity of the world we engage.
So far, I’ve only been talking about negative feedback loops. But positive feedback loops also exist, and they’re not simply as powerful as the negative ones—they may be the most powerful thing in the universe.
But positive feedback loops are harder to create. The conditions have to be just right, and they have to persist over a long period of time, and they have to be in the unique class of things that are simultaneously playing with fire, and yet are incredibly positive.
Perhaps the most significant positive feedback loop in history started with the Scientific Revolution—which unleashed a process of scientific exploration and study and critique that reworked the surface of this planet, lit up the dark side of the Earth, put footprints on the Moon, and shot human artifacts right out of the Solar System.
Music or artistic scenes are also feedback loops. When one takes off, as in the grunge scene of early 90s Seattle, people go from playing in basements to playing on world stages in months.
This isn’t just a matter of a surge in popularity. Often, it’s a surge in ability—a sudden burst of creative output that is rarely matched in quality or quantity ever again.
Similarly in sports. In “The Rise of Superman”, Stephen Kotler chronicles the exponential explosion of accomplishments achieved in extreme sports over just decades, or—in some cases—years.
What conditions are necessary for launching positive feedback loops?
First and most essential, is engaging with a big, noisy, complex world. This is the exact same thing that helps you break out of negative feedback loops. But where having something outside yourself gets in the way of a negative, internally-focused feedback loop, having something outside yourself is precisely the fuel that a positive feedback loop needs.
In the Scientific Revolution, that outside world was literally the outside world. In an artistic or music scene, that outside world is the audience that keeps showing up to local shows, and the other artists or musicians providing each other with competition and inspiration. In the Beatles, that outside world was originally the music fans, but then increasingly became other bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, and eventually was just the ongoing creative rivalry between John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Second is the ability to produce something, and get detailed, nuanced feedback. This is why the “world” you’re engaging with needs to be big and complex—without that, the feedback becomes a simple yes/no, or just a never-ending meh.
The Scientific Revolution had the biggest world possible, and all of its feedback was full of information that could be parsed in all kinds of ways. In fact, simplifying that feedback to something that could be acted on was one of the key breakthroughs that science achieved.
In a music scene, feedback can be the reaction of the audience, the energy levels for the band members, how impressed or jealous other bands are, etc. This feedback is full of all kinds of information, with people responding in all kinds of different ways and to different degrees.
In a scene, an important aspect of the world you’re getting feedback from is that that world is itself changing in reaction to your actions. You play a new song that gets the crowd excited, and now the jealous other bands go back and write something to one-up you, and the process repeats.
Third, and finally, you need to be able to take that feedback and use it to create something new.
In science, you do experiments, and then create radical new theories to address all the weird data you’re getting.
In a music scene, you play a song, feel good about it, and then instantly write a song ten times more like that. Or you play a song, feel bad about it, and write a song totally different than that. Or you play a song, feel good about parts of it, and write a new version that takes it in a totally different direction.
In extreme sports, you try a trick, like the way it works, and then try something 10x harder or 10x weirder.
These are the basic requirements, but in order to work, it actually has to loop. The creation of something new has to result in producing it and getting feedback, almost immediately. When the time between creation and feedback gets too long, the feedback expires, or loses meaning and depth. It becomes too much like a simple yes/no, and all ability to get traction is lost.
Positive feedback loops are notoriously hard to maintain. As soon as the scene blows up, the production of new material slows down. As soon as the Beatles became famous, their ability to try out new material started to become impaired. So far, the Scientific Revolution has done pretty well, but it’s always an open question of whether it will continue.
The key to keeping these things going is that the process itself must evolve, must become part of a feedback loop. Science has succeeded largely by continuing to evolve and develop the scientific method—chucking the scientific method itself into a feedback loop of experiment and invention. The Beatles achieved as much as they did by shifting from receiving feedback primarily from their audience, to receiving feedback primarily from other bands, to receiving feedback primarily from each other. When they could no longer evolve their own process, the whole thing broke down.
In my life, stumbling into positive feedback loops has been responsible for the creation of almost everything I’m most proud of. They’ve pushed me into some of the most profound changes I have ever experienced. They’ve made me the person I am today. And they’ve given me my greatest moments of joy.