| 1059 words

As I wrote once before, summer is a special and nostalgic time for me. Last summer was chock full of fun activities and new experiences, more than I truly believed I was capable of. I was hoping I'd be able to do at least something similarly exciting this summer. That last year wouldn't be an exception but instead the start of a new pattern throughout my life.

So far, this has been going well! Surprisingly well actually - despite being in a new city with a comparatively small network of friends and a full time job, I've been able to fill up my days with more unique and exciting things than I would have expected. What's interesting is that this is specifically ramping up during the summer. It made sense last year; I was done being a student and had unlimited free time on my hands. But this year, why would my summer be more excited and action packed than anything else so far.

Of course part of it is that summer is a generally busier time. More people are out doing things, more events are happenings, the day is longer and easier to take advantage of. Plus, there's the fact that by now I'm much more settled and experienced than I was so I'm better at utilizing my time. But more than all of that, I think there's a pattern to this entire process. A seasonality of it, much like the real seasons.

There's a popular genre of strategy games called 4X. Games such as Civilization, where your goal is to settle land, expand your empire, and conquer the world. This gameplay loop is actually codified in the description of the genre: 4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. You begin by exploring the land, then expand your empire to the new fertile terrotories you might have discovered. Once situated you exploit the natural resources there to grow your nation and, finally, you exterminate your rivals to achieve ultimate victory. It's certainly a very addicting gameplay loop, constantly growing and improving your empire, and the Civilization games are certainly very successful.

I like to take this frame and apply it to my own life. It's fun to see the different aspects of things you do through the frame of a game. And the cycle I go through is (whether intentionally or not) sometimes very similar to the one that you play through in 4X games.

It starts with exploring. Usually when I have a long stretch of free time that I know I'll need to fill up, I'm not content to while away the hours. I get bored quickly, especially if I'm not doing some new or growing. This is the period where I'll be receptive to new ideas and opportunities. I'm on a lot of mailing lists for deals and events and I often delete them right away; the one reason I keep them is so that during times like this I'll have a ready supply of options. I'd rather try something I'm only vaguely interested in and might end up loving rather than not doing anything at all.

The next step is to expand. Instead of expanding my empire, I think of this as expanding my skillset or growing myself as a person. This is where I commit to something new stick with for long enough that I'm not a complete beginner. Typically I want to learn or experience enough that I feel like I've gained something from trying out this activity. I'll dedicate enough time, even at the expense of other things, until I feel like I've gotten a grasp on it. This is the most fun stage; I love learning and actively improving on something day by day is an intoxicating feeling. It's a shame that diminishing returns has to come ruin the fun.

Finally comes exploitation. At this point if I haven't mastered what I'm doing I've at least become proficient at it. Enough that I can finally put it down for a few days or weeks without worrying about forgetting my new skills. I can pick it up as well when I'm feeling bored and casually enjoy having this new power that didn't exist a few weeks ago. This stage is the most satisfying. Picking up a new skill here and there isn't that special on its own, but over time they start to add up and really make you feel like you have some momentum behind you.

Of course the final stage from 4X, exterminate, doesn't really apply here. I'm just living my life not waging a war. Although I could imagine if I was running a business or in a tournement or something, perhaps extermination would be the part where I use all my new powers to crush my competition and claim victory. Luckily I don't have any such pressures on me, and I can approach this much more causally. In that sense I suppose I'm playing a 3X game rather than a 4X game.

When I first described this rough cycle to a friend they kind of likened it to manic and depressive episodes. I think that technically this fits, but I think it's too negative of a framing. These moments are not borne out of an uncontrollable mania or depression, but instead intentionally curated experiences that are fundamentally fun to do. Each stage in the process has something exciting about it, whether it's the raw potential of exploring unlimited possibilities, the thrilling improvement that happens everyday from expanding your skillset, or the satisfaction from being able to exploit a new skill that didn't exist until recently.

When I look back on my relatively quiet winter and look forward to my jam packed summer I simply see myself existing in different parts of these cycles. In fact resting is necessary to keep it going - it would be impossible to be in the expand phase 100% of the time. I will appreciate the process for the part that I am experiencing and when it ends I remind myself that it is all a vital part of the great cycle we all go through.