Before I get to what the title means, especially for non film people, I wanted to talk a bit about why I was writing this post. In a year where most people have had an absolutely horrible time, I was able to thrive, and I think this is thanks to my making active choices rather than passive choices. As a filmmaker (or at least a film nerd), I think this story-telling framing is a useful analogy to analyse these choices.
First, I was in an extremely lucky position to even be able to act this way, and was lucky enough that none of my loved ones caught the virus.
Second, let me describe my year, from the start of the pandemic until the present. Until April, I wasn't making active choices, and was, quite honestly, miserable. However, in the time since April, I’ve been able to launch 3 proper products to various levels of success, gotten 3 full time job offers, started my first company, became a pioneer and so much more, in contrast to most of my friends who have been miserably stuck in online classes paying upwards of $200k, sometimes stuck in the wrong countries, and worst of all, arguably not learning anything. This was all because of making active choices instead of blindly following the beaten path.
What is an active protagonist?
Let’s start with what an active protagonist is and why they are important to stories.
“An ACTIVE PROTAGONIST, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him” - Robert McKee writes in his book Story.
The protagonist is the one pushing the action and pursuing their external goal with dogged determination. That’s the hero we want to see (in any genre). They are not merely reacting to things being thrown at them or being pulled along through the adventure.
In a group dynamic, the active protagonist becomes the leader. He or she is the character who, after Act I, begins to make the critical decisions.
In a sense, I think we all strive for our lives to be like the best stories. However, the thing most of us fail to realize is that we tend to find our favourite characters most often are the protagonists making active choices, rather than ones who simply react to the changes occurring around them.
We should really be asking ourselves in the first act of our story, do we want to be passive characters reacting to the world around us, or be the active protagonists shaping our own stories, and making our own decisions.
What does it mean to be an active protagonist in real life?
I'm probably not qualified to answer this question but I'll try; while I definitely fall on the contrarian side of a lot of issues, especially education, I don't think being an active protagonist necessarily means that you are a contrarian. Rather I think the focus is on why you are making certain choices, and that you are in fact the one making those choices.
There should be a discernment here of "why did I make this choice?"; was it because society said so? Was it because parents said so? Or did I want to make this choice?
Let me give a more concrete example here, choosing to take online classes this year. While I think it is an incredibly dumb investment of time and money, I don't think it is necessarily a passive choice for everyone; it is for most people. When I ask someone why they decided to blow $70k+ on online classes this year, the most common answers are:
- I need to graduate on time or don't want to delay my graduation!
- I need to take a class with my friends or I'll fail!
- I have nothing better to do!
- Everyone else is doing it!
All of these are incredibly dumb reasons. The people in these scenarios are being reactionary to their situation, and unwilling to make an active choice to do something else. While some people might feel more trapped than others, no one is truly unable to make an active decision to spend their time in a more meaningful way. The most active choice can be the one to leave that trapped situation, I've personally done it twice, once to leave my toxic Indian school, and once to leave the University of Toronto.
This is not to say that there is no scenario in which continuing to go to school is the best choice. However, most people are in school without even considering that they have other, possibly better, choices or that they even made a choice in the matter.
While I was really beating down the online school example here, there are tons more and I think this broadly applies to most circumstances. I've definitely come across similar attitudes in other circumstances such as:
- People choosing CS or Engineering mindlessly with no actual interest
- All of Indian Higher Education especially college admissions
- People applying to FAANG companies
Consequences of making active choices
Let's get the only "negative" consequence out of the way first: If you are making active choices that shape your story, then you are solely responsible for the outcome of that story. This is true of making reactionary choices, or even not making choices, as well, but it might hurt less than putting yourself out there and failing. We tend to find someone or something else to blame, but with active choices that is much harder.
I think all the best things in life are on the other side of making active choices and shaping your own story. Of course, you can get lucky and have amazing experiences without making active choices, but it is much more likely and rewarding if you put yourself out there.
I got multiple full time job offers this year, because I put myself out there; it was a result of making an active choice to dedicate all my time to building and launching a product,. This one choice had so many cascading effects in the last three months alone, from being backed by Pioneer.app and becoming a Pioneer, to being on the front page of Hackernews or Product Hunt, then meeting top silicon valley insiders, and finally culminating in starting a company around said product. Even I wouldn't have believed it if you told me.
In making this one choice, I've definitely learnt more than I would have in university over the last semester and increased my "brand" as a developer, and this is only the start of the ripple effect of this choice.
I am not trying to gloat here, but rather trying to point out there is nothing really special about me or what I did, anyone can do it. You just have to make the choice to spend your time working on something you actually care about, rather than doing something just cause everyone else is.
This is proven by the countless other people who've had successful years not driven purely by luck but as a result of their active choices. Most of these people have had far more successful years than I have had.
After trying to convince you of all the positives of this kind of thinking, let me address the elephant in the room. Most people will fail, especially at their first attempt; this is true regardless of making active choices or not. But when you fail after making an active choice, you can clearly assess why you failed, and how not to fail the next time, instead of guessing as to the actual reason. But more than this, there are levels to success, and takeaways from making choices and building things that come through, even with failure. You don't have to make a billion dollar company to have spent your time more valuably than most.
For me, modfy was not my first attempt, and while I am bullish on it being successful and the next big thing, even if it turns out not to be, it has created more value than a semester in college. This is what I was getting at, and this is true of even things that are much more of a failure. For example, my last project before modfy was basically a complete dud, but it put me in the perfect position to start modfy. That itself has value, in addition to the technical learning and experience.
Takeaways and final thoughts
By no means, am I an expert in this (I definitely have some massive YouTube and Netflix addictions) but I mean what you are spending your time working on, and I don't think this applies only for engineers. I know friends who've had great years pumping out short films or making videos.
Students and Engineers
For students broadly, take the next sem off. It will be the right decision for most of you. if you don't know what to do with your time, ask yourself, why am I in school? It's probably to do X in the future. So try to do X right now, and if you really can't, then do Y, which is similar or close to X.
For engineers, builders, or makers, go make something! Spend your time building, instead of stagnating in school. If you need help starting, or need motivation to keep going like I did, a great place to be is pioneer.app.
This is one of those rare years, where social norms really don't apply. It doesn't feel weird sitting in your room building products, cause everyone else is sitting in their rooms doing nothing. There is much less "social inertia"(for a lack of a better word) this year; you don't need to explain what you are doing to friends or grandparents: you're not going to meet them anytime soon.
It is one of those years to take a risk because it really isn't a risk; one of those years to try something new.
Hey if you have made it this far, thanks for reading my rambly take on making active choices. I hope you learn something or have something to think about after reading this.