Imagine that life is a choose-your-own adventure game.
In any moment, you have literally millions of options. At the moment I’m typing this, I could change the tab to innumerable websites, I could read any of the hundreds of books in my house, I could make myself a snack of olives, I could stand up and see how far I could jump, I could pet a cat, I could walk into my best friend’s bedroom and call them an idiot, and so on and so forth.
But, most of the time, we only think of a menu of a few dozen options—sometimes much fewer. The rest are sort of grayed out.
To a large extent, this is a good thing. Most of the options theoretically available at any given moment are very stupid. (Just ask anyone with intrusive thoughts—yes, brain, I understand I could put the lightbulb in my mouth, stop bringing it up!) But I think it’s important to think about the ways that grayed out options limit our behavior.
You can go outside in pajamas. It isn’t illegal. No one will stop you. Most of the time, no one will even comment. Sure, you might run into someone you know, but in many cities that’s not going to happen, and anyway they’re likely to assume you have a stomach flu or otherwise have some perfectly good reason for running around in pajamas. You’re unlikely to face any negative consequences whatsoever.
But when I’ve suggested this to people, they tend to object not because they have no particular reason to go places in pajamas (pajamas are very comfortable) but because people don’t do that. It’s just not on the list of available options. If you did, you’d probably feel anxious and maybe even ashamed, because it’s genuinely hard to do something that people don’t do.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you should go places wearing pajamas! I don’t. I’m suggesting that you consider thoughtfully which of your options are grayed out and why.
Here are some other grayed-out options I’ve observed among people I’ve met:
Starting a conversation with a stranger.
Asking someone out.
Eating at a restaurant alone.
Walking alone at night (especially if you’re female or were raised female).
Writing a novel or a blog post.
Drawing a picture.
Submitting your writing to a publisher.
Emailing a professor to ask a question about their discipline.
Making a pull request on Github.
Writing a computer program to fix a problem you have or automate a piece of work you have to do often.
Starting a recurring event like a bookclub or a meetup.
Throwing a party.
Complaining to customer service.
Opening up a broken machine and poking around in there to see if something obvious is wrong.
Googling your problem.
Negotiating your salary.
Researching a topic of interest on Google Scholar.
Doing parkour on walls etc that you find on your walk.
Planting potato eyes etc and getting food from them.
Talking to a famous person.
Singing in public.
Dating people of the same gender.
Talking openly with your partner about your relationship needs.
Traveling the world and crashing on various friends’ couches instead of having a house.
Cutting off your family.
Being out about something stigmatized (your disability, your sexual orientation, your religion, your hobbies…).
Asking for your unusual preferences to be accommodated (by service workers or by people you know).
Different people have different grayed-out options, and I think this is actually a really common reason that people behave differently from each other. The reason that I write blog posts and other people don’t is not that I’m good at writing and they’re not; it’s that writing a blog post about something I’m thinking about is on my action menu and it’s not on theirs.
Some grayed-out options just don’t occur to you (like eating a lightbulb, if you are more blessed than I am). But I think there are two distinct feelings associated with an option that does occur to you still being grayed out.
First, there’s a feeling of social judgment. Even if you’re never going to see those people again and all of them are too wrapped up in their own business to pay attention to you anyway, if you’re pursuing a grayed-out option, it’s very common to feel like there are dozens of eyes watching you. It feels like everyone is whispering behind your back saying “who does that?” You can even feel this sense internalized when you’re doing something by yourself with no one watching.
Second, there’s a feeling of overwhelm. This is particularly common with the more complex grayed-out options: the steps involved in eating alone at a restaurant are obvious to nearly everyone. But thinking about a grayed-out option like editing Wikipedia, asking someone out, doing a pull request, or writing a blog post can be very overwhelming.
For me, writing a blog post is a series of concrete steps: notice thoughts I’m having, talk my idea over with a friend to get a sanity check, open my Substack word processor, type up an explanation of my thoughts, reread it to make sure it makes sense, send it to my betas for a sanity check, do a last proofread for typos and grammatical mistakes, and schedule it for Tuesday or Friday morning. If writing a blog post is a grayed-out action for you, it’s more like an amorphous mass of question marks. Even if you tried, you’d probably just stare at a blinking cursor with no idea what to do next. What are you even supposed to be doing?
Crucially, something can be a non-grayed-out option even if you’ve never done it. At one point I’d never organized a LARP, but it was clearly an option long before I did it. “Organize a LARP” was an action made of a series of steps, like “pick a LARP to run” and “find friends who would want to be in a LARP or who are susceptible to my puppy-dog eyes” and “find a venue” and “nag people about how they really do have to finish their character sheets.”
I think options are less likely to be grayed out if they’re similar to something you know how to do. If you’ve organized themed parties before, organizing a LARP is more likely to feel like an option; if you’ve written fiction, writing blog posts is more likely to feel like an option; if you’ve worn cosplay to the store, wearing pajamas is more likely to feel like an option. For more complex options in particular, similarity to things you’ve done before helps, because the overall option is made up of a bunch of smaller things that are individually options. Running a LARP is easier if you already have “find a venue” and “make puppy-dog eyes at friends” on your action menu.
They’re also less likely to be grayed out if you know people who do it. That’s the truth behind “queerness is a social contagion”: if people you know are transitioning genders or dating people of the same gender, suddenly that puts those options on your action menu too. To some extent, knowing people with an option on their action menu helps because you have someone to direct your stupid questions to and receive advice from. But I think a surprising amount is just the fact that other people are clearly doing it. This is a thing real humans you really know do, not a thing theoretically done by people far away in Hollywood or Washington D. C. or Timbuktu.
Again, I’m not some kind of action-menu maximalist. I don’t think anyone has every possible action on their action menu, even if you just look at things people might want to do like organizing LARPs and not things that no one wants to do like eating lightbulbs. But I think that it’s pretty common that there are things people could do that they want to do or that would really improve their life if they did, and nothing is actually stopping them. It just… doesn’t feel to them like the sort of thing that people do. And I think it’s useful to look at your action menu and see if there are some grayed-out options there you want to make colorful.
A few years ago I saw the German movie Toni Erdmann in the theater. I hated it until about 3/4 of the way through when the main character, who up to that point had been essentially harrassed the entire film by her prankster father, did something harmless but really shocking and bold, involving both her father and her coworkers. And people went along with it. It was the kind of thing I would only do in a dream, and it gave me a very strong feeling of, "Oh. This world is like a dream and you CAN actually do what you want." For that alone the film was worth it. (I think at some point they were making an American version, which will no doubt be three times as heartwarming, which will ruin the whole thing.)
Maybe you can get one of those people who make cakes that look like other objects to make you some light bulb cake pops? Then you can have your light bulb and eat it too!