My cliff notes for “Defiance“:

Defiance is the third of Nate’s dubious virtues after desperation and recklessness.

Here, defiance doesn’t refer to defiant actions, but a mental state required before you can make defiant actions. It is a reflexive feeling of determination to act out of your own will, out of self-reliance, and without influence from authority, to fight against badness when you encounter it in the world. It is principled.

Defiance is characterized by a lack of hesitation. It needn’t be acted on without strategic thought — a petulant child may give in to eating the broccoli they hate, while cultivating a mental state of a child plotting to get their revenge in the end at the injustice. But, the child’s petulance was automatic, not a calculated decision. There was never a thought of whether or not to defy, whether or not to struggle against. Defiance employed this way should be reflexive.

Be intentional and principled with where to apply defiance. In many situations it can be counter-productive to your goals or an over-reaction.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest that it’s usually healthy to have a defiance reaction towards states of the world, and usually unhealthy to have a defiance reaction towards people.

Defiance as a driver of intrinsic motivation is very much at odds with Taoism or Buddhist notions of acceptance: You’re harnessing your defiant impulse against bad things to power you, instead of tempering your will to the “reality” of what you can accomplish to diminish your frustration. It is powered by channelling negative emotion, instead of transforming negative emotion.

It’s about being able to look at the terrible social equilibria we’re all trapped in and get pissed off — not because any individual is evil, but because almost nobody is evil and everything is broken anyway.

So this is how I suggest motivating yourself in place of guilt: Let the wrongness of the world trigger something deep inside of you, such that the question stops being whether you will capitulate or lose hope, and becomes how you will wrest the course of the future onto a different path. See the current state of affairs as your adversary; see the future as the prize that hangs in the balance. Shake off the illusory constraints, set your jaw, and rebel. Defy.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.


My cliff notes for “Recklessness“:

This is the second of Nate’s three “dubious virtues”. Recklessness can be negative when in nihilistic, social, or anger-management contexts. Much like desperation, recklessness is virtuous when employed in pursuit of an external goal, and this is rare.

Humans are not delicate, and our lives tolerate radical change. When changes cause problems, we can address those problems effectively. This can include the problem of under-motivation when guilt is removed. So, when doing away with guilt, you don’t need to fear change. This may feel reckless, but go ahead. Recklessly pursue your goal for improving the world even against your comfort, and without guilt to drive you.

Seeing the dark world may feel reckless, have confidence, and dispense with despair. Act in spite of your fears, trusting that you’ll find a way to overcome debilitating effects. Be unrealistic. Fight in spite of the odds. Go beyond not making excuses — fight recklessly against all odds! Odds shouldn’t inform your ability to commit. Ignore low odds, trusting they can be overcome by problem solving. And, don’t worry about disrupting equilibrium. Upset the status quo to make things better.

Act. Be reckless. Know that if you break something, you can fix it. Press onward.

Become the sort of person who can […] give an idea your all, while also being able to see and avoid all the common failure modes. The fact that you are unlikely to succeed is an epistemic fact, you do not need to give it dominion over your motivation. Be a little reckless.

(This seems like a good time to insert a heavy-handed reminder about the law of equal and opposite advice! Many people would do well to gain a little recklessness, but many others need less recklessness and more caution. If you’re in a particularly fragile mental state, consider disregarding this post entirely.)


This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Activate Desperation

My cliff notes for “Desperation“:

This introduces the “three dubious virtues” and focuses on desperation, the first. Later posts cover recklessness and defiance. They are “dubious” because they can be harmful if used badly, but they have their uses.

Desperation can be used well to replace guilt as a motivator, when focused on a goal. We act desperately when something is incredibly important. There are plenty of reasons to be desperate if you allow yourself to confront darkness in the world.

By “desperation towards a goal” I mean the possession of a goal so important to you that you can commit yourself to it fully, without hesitation, without some part of you wondering whether it’s really worth all your effort. I mean a goal that you pursue with both reckless abandon and cautious deliberation in fair portions. I mean a goal so important that it does not occur to you to spare time wondering whether you can achieve it, but only whether this path to achieving it is better or worse than that path.

Most people cannot honestly say they have ever been capable of putting everything on the line, no matter the consequences. Desperation enables you to act “all out” — to act fully, completely without reservation. This is distinct from “putting in a good effort”. It truly means doing everything you possibly can. This is as powerful as it is rare.

Desperation may or may not be useful for you now, depending on what’s important to you, but at least make sure you can become desperate so you aren’t holding yourself back from your full potential when you may need it.

Most people can’t even imagine going all out even in fictional scenarios, which invites examining what prevents us from drawing on that power, so we can activate it when needed.

Perhaps social stigmas against caring strongly for something inhibit desperation. This may even be innate thanks to our evolutionary biology: Think of stigma for “nerds”, or the “sportsball” slur, and the connotation of the word “fanatic”. To care is to be vulnerable — you might suffer the loss of something you care deeply for, or be judged for caring for the wrong thing, or signal to others how they can gain leverage over you. Uncaring, and cynicism, are cool. (Confidence all the way up mitigates this.)

When we are desperate, it’s in spite of all of this. The goal matters more than social costs. Accepting these costs helps disinhibit your desperation, so that you can put it to work. Meditate on situations and identify circumstances where you could go all out, no matter the consequences. If you can’t find any, “then consider that there may be a part of yourself that you’re holding back for nothing, a part of yourself that you’re wasting”.

Once you’ve found imagined circumstances where you could be desperate, become familiar with what it feels like. Then, review your goals and values from that emotional perspective. This can unlock desperation.

Beware of desperation’s trap of un-sustainability. Activate desperation when useful, but don’t sprint if your goal requires a marathon to achieve. “(This is why I wrote about how to avoid working yourself ragged and rest in motion before writing about desperation.)”

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Systematized Confidence

My cliff notes for “Confidence all the way up“:

Nate (the author of the series) describes what a confidence others ascribe to him as what he calls “confidence all the way up”, which is essentially confidence in his cognitive process. With each reasoning step, he is aware of and points to his uncertainty, but he trusts that his analysis is strong, but if that is fallible, then at least his reasoning is strong, but if that is fallible, then… and so on. This reads as confidence to others.

People who lack confidence and are blocked from action by their uncertainties, without a way to reason past them and continue to function. Confidence All The Way Up is thus a more functional mindset to practice.

Confidence all the way up is about working with what you have. It’s about knowing your limitations. It’s about knowing that you don’t have perfect models of “what you have” nor “your limitations”, and proceeding anyway, with an even stride.

It is about trusting in your systems by knowing that even if they fail you, then your backups will recover for you, and even if they fail you, your backup backups will recover for you, and so on.

This allows you to proceed at full speed even with uncertainty (which is ever-present), and without full contingency plans thought through in advance.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Figure, don’t Flail

My cliff notes for “The Art of Response“:

How we respond to problems makes a difference. Switching quickly into problem-solving mode is one response pattern. Another is flailing (for a variety of reasons: Lack of confidence, lack of knowhow in the skill domain, lack of problem solving strategy, etc.). Flailing is destructive.

You don’t need to solve all problems before you — sometimes dodging them is good, so the point isn’t to always reflexively start problem solving. Effective response patterns also don’t necessarily need to be quick — often pausing to think is best (compare this with blurting an incorrect answer, or misunderstanding the problem and thus solving the wrong one). Response patterns are effective when they “answer well.”

Effective response patterns are generally characterized by applying experience to break down large problems into smaller pieces that can be tackled individually: Parts that are well understood can be addressed with known tools and perhaps simplified to create incremental solutions; parts that aren’t understood can be identified and then probed with investigation skills. (What these effective patterns lack is a focus on the enormity of the problem, or other thoughts likely to lead to self-doubt and inaction.)

Making response patterns explicit and conscious can be very useful. Develop checklists, and apply meta-thinking to your problem-solving process to hone it.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Do the obvious things

My cliff notes for “Obvious advice“:

Before enacting a decision or a plan, do the obvious things. Ask yourself what a reasonable person would consider obvious for the success of the action, and do those things. We often skip them, so simply minding this will get you ahead. Make this a reflex.

(Also, consider whether you’re acting hastily out of emotion and about to enact a terrible decision or plan, and if so, stop. Just don’t. Again, we often do the opposite of this advice.)

Simple, obvious advice is easy to give others — and helpful. Learn to try and give it to yourself. When stuck, step back and imagine if someone who was facing the same problem as you came to you for advice. What advice would you give? What questions would you ask to help get them unstuck? Try doing the same, yourself.

(This exact pattern is what prompted Nate to come up with many of the tools presented in this whole series on replacing guilt.)

Also, do ask for others’ advice. They will likely give you “obvious” to them advice that you wouldn’t have thought of. This is a very useful way to gain skills.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

More on why trying is bad

My cliff notes for “There is no try“, an especially closely-related follow up to the last post in this series:

When we are conscious of trying, the possibility of failure is implicit, and thus more likely than when instead we are in a mode where we’re simply going about our work, doing the most likely successful approach before we move on to the next most likely if necessary.

When we fail, the ability to say “well, I tried” is an excuse; being in “try” mode pre-determines that excuse will be within easy reach. When you are trying, doubt is on the table.

And ironically, again when failure is an option because trying may not work out, we can wear ourselves out focusing on the very hard work of not failing — instead of simply doing what success requires. This is like a person “trying sprint up and down a soccer field as much as they can, rather than the playing soccer”.

“I am trying X” is a answer to the question “What are you doing?” A better answer is a description of your specific action steps, or simply “I am doing X”.

Beware of faking it until you make it: If your dishonest answer to the question is “I’m doing”, then “I’m trying… but don’t know how” may serve you better in that situation. In this situation, it can be useful to reframe the question: If you’re trying to solve a big problem X that you’re barely able to grasp how to tackle, perhaps you can instead be doing the first small activity you’ve thought of that you hope will take you in a production direction. Label your actions with granularity.

Spending a few weeks refusing to use the word “try” is useful exercise to shift into this mindset. Force yourself to substitute the concrete actions you are taking, instead.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Maybe this is what Yoda meant

My cliff notes for “Stop trying to try and try“:

When we’re in learning mode, our lack of knowledge and skills is in focus, and we may sometimes be painfully aware of how little we know. People imagine mastery is like learning mode, but where you know lots of things. It’s not — it’s more like when you’re in teaching mode, helping others, and their skills are in focus, not yours. Your knowledge in teaching mode, or as a master, is “just unconscious assumptions in the background”.

When you’re a master/in teaching mode, you’re expected to be capable; when you’re in learning mode, your responsibility is to try to be capable.

My advice is simple: notice when you’re expected to try, and consider reframing. It’s much harder to solve a problem when you’re Expected To Do Your Best than it is to solve a problem when you’re immersed in various subtasks, with the assumption that you’re going to solve the problem buried implicitly and unconsciously in the context.

Activities are more difficult when you’re focused on it as work, or as trying. Exercise is a good example: It’s far easier if it’s recreation. Being friends is another: Consider what the phrase “trying to be friends” evokes in you in contrast with “just being with friends”. When you’re trying, the inevitability of failure at some point is implicit, and gnawing at some part of you, wearing you down to the point where you excuse yourself for giving up. [Or, your efforts to try may get in the way of you recognizing you’ve succeeded.]

Switching contexts such that your actual goal is in the background rather than the foreground — such that pursuing it is not a conscious choice that you need to reaffirm every time you find a stopping point — is a powerful tool.

Actually trying to perform some an activity, versus trying to try, is very different. In the latter, you have to doubt your abilities, and stop and ask yourself how to go about it… In the former, you simply do. There’s less mental overhead. It’s like situating yourself in a stream — and now you’re swimming.

“Actually trying” (the former) is not the same as applying extra effort on top of trying to try (the latter). Rather, it’s simply tackling one small task at a time, after another. Identifying the next step, and tackling it. Whether solving problems large or small, it’s the same. Shift from your “expected try” gear to your “I’m competent” gear, and get to work.

So find a way to see the work as one task at a time, instead of a large problem, and find a way to enjoy it.

[I]magine someone who’s “playing soccer” [as opposed to sprinting up and down the field for exercise] with respect to your task or problem, and ask yourself what they might be doing. The key is to make the pursuit of your goal implicit, and spend your focus on the subproblems.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Remember there is good in the world

My cliff notes from “Dark, Not Colorless“, which is primarily a summing-up post:

This brings us to the end of the penultimate arc of the “replacing guilt” series of posts, which I began many months ago, and takes us into the final arc. The first arc was about addressing the listless guilt that comes from ignoring a part of yourself that wants to be doing something more. The second arc was about eliminating the feeling of obligation, and fighting for something you care about only because you care about it. The third arc was about coming to terms with your limitations and learning to optimize within them, rather than feeling guilty because of them. This post concludes the fourth arc, about living in a dark universe and tapping into resolve instead of guilt.

The fifth and final arc is about putting your resolve into action.

But first, a reminder: Don’t confuse hopelessness with meaninglessness. Don’t confuse a damaged and hurting world with a lost world. There is a lot of good in the world. Realize that despairing at the state of the world is evidence that things aren’t right that could be (that’s what’s painful) — so work for that.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Abandon pursuit of the best possible action

My cliff notes for “The best you can“:

Protagonists in fiction often make the mistake in over-investing resources into focused actions with relatively low impact compared with broader actions that could have a greater impact. These narratives teach us a bad lesson.

We fall into this trap when aiming for the “best action” we can take, instead of accepting that the best choice of action apparent to us moment to moment, and acting on it.

Trying to identify the “right” action leads to decision paralysis, as the imperfect information and boundless uncertainty available to us makes it a very hard question to answer. “What’s the best action I can find in the next five minutes?” is easy in contrast. Identifying the actually best option is impossible, unlike the best-you-can-find option. Focusing on the latter thus spends much less energy.

This is especially poignant if you’re trying solve major problems: No matter what you do, you’ll never fix everything. Consider human history — with its hundreds of billions of lives already lost — and conclude that we aren’t playing to win here; we’ve already lost, so aiming for total victory is folly.

Without that pressure, you’re free to focus on doing all that you can do to make things a little bit better — and that’s literally all that you can do. So don’t let this what’s-the-best-action fallacy lead you into decision paralysis. Get on with doing what you can.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.