Millstones and Learned Hopelessness

Learned Helplessness is something that happens when someone’s agency (as in, their ability to make decisions, take actions, and see the impact those actions have on the world) gradually, persistently gets eroded away.

When that erosion has gone on long enough, that someone stops believing that their actions matter. They go with the flow of the system, only deviating briefly for small moments of joy that come along every once in a while.

They won’t fight for a big change, like championing a new business idea or objecting to a product management decision with poor ethical implications… but they’ll be sure to catch the little things — getting a new laptop every few years, or making sure to get a slice of cake from the break room.

The way the erosion of agency works is the same way that a millstone works on wheat, grinding it into dust gradually, persistently. A system like this, much bigger than an individual, has an emergent behavior… a “mind” of its own… that at no point can stop to care even for a moment about what happens to the grains it grinds.

Any harm is not particularly intentional.

Fast forward to a future moment where the same someone we’ve been discussing has a fresh opportunity to care about something. They see what could be. But they hesitate to act, and ultimately withdraw, because what use is it anyway? Things will just go the way they always go. It won’t matter.


It’s learned, but it’s also consequential, as in… what other consequence could have even come about, from a situation like that?

This doesn’t stop consultants from scoffing at “problem” clients… and their unwillingness to change… unwillingness to stick their necks out, just one more time, to do something small, to get rejected once again. So selfish, these people who have been hurt. So helpless.

But they’re not helpless. They’re hopeless. Everything about what they’ve experienced is signal that there is no hope. No matter what they do, nothing will ever change. Nothing will ever matter. What’s the point of trying? Just do your job, get paid, go home, day after day after day. Promises, hopes… these aren’t to be believed.

It’s Learned Hopelessness, more than it is helplessness.

But where does hope come from, anyway?

Big ideas? Bold new purposes? Miracles? Doubtful.

But I wonder what would happen if the system could infuse hope with the same gradual, intense persistence of a millstone, grinding away hopelessness into dust.

2 responses to “Millstones and Learned Hopelessness”

  1. I like the line that “it’s not hope that leads to action, but action that leads to hope”. When things seem hopeless, then doing something, having some effect, provides a little evidence that acting further will provide a “flywheel of hope” to counter the “millstone of hopelessness”.


    • Well put. Little actions, little evidence… it’s a snowball rolling down the mountain, getting bigger and bigger. But it does take some doing to get started. In “The Logic of Care,” Annemarie Mol talks about unyielding persistence, always showing up, always focusing on “what must be done” to provide good care. It seems similar here. What must be done to create hope?


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