Self loyalty

My cliff notes for “Self-signaling the ability to do what you want“:

The sunk cost fallacy can lead us to failures like overeating, where if there’s too little prepared food left to save after we are full, we eat it all, without recognizing that the costs of the food are the same whether we overeat or throw away the leftovers.

Willpower based solutions to this kind of problem, being manual, are weak; better to create a new pattern that consistently lets us see what’s in our best interest. For the above example, pre-committing to save the leftovers, no matter how small, can be an effective pattern interrupt. This worked for Nate (the author) by giving what the side of him urging him to overeat really wanted — food storage to stave off fear of scarcity — thus aligning all of himself toward the same goal.

Failing with abandon — “I’ve already failed a little so I may as well fail all the way and enjoy it” — is related to signaling failures.

The technique I’m describing — self-signalling an ability to do the right thing even if it seems too late — can address this failure mode in general.

Failing a little is a self-signal that you can’t succeed. By stopping after you’ve failed a little, before failing with abandon, you can send a new self-signal: That you can stop and do the right thing, even when it might seem too late.

Consistent self loyalty — doing the right thing by yourself in these situations (for example, being loyalty to the part of you that values not wasting food, over judging looks from waiters and other social norms pressuring you not to take home small amounts)  — builds self-trust. This is a virtuous cycle that disarms the impulse to fail with abandon.

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.

Always be solving the problem

My cliff notes for “Moving towards the goal“:

This is simple advice, but sometimes that can be helpful.

When working towards an ambitious goal — say, ending aging — don’t ask what needs to be done right now, or what can you do right away. Rather, identify a goal. And if you can’t complete it literally tomorrow, identify what obstacles are in your way, and then simply move towards your goal by attacking those obstacles. If the obstacles are still large, break them down into small chunks, and so on.

This doesn’t mean working directly on the goal at all times. For example, perhaps getting out of debt first (focusing on this for years, even) will get you there in a shorter time span overall. There’s always some action you can take.

The challenge of staying motivated and focused when facing large problems makes moving towards the goal difficult.

But we humans can make a difference — when we try, we either succeed eventually, or die trying, having moved efforts closer for others to continue the work. So, to be effective, always be solving the problem, by always be addressing an obstacle between you and your goal.

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.

Fight the dragon

My cliff notes for “The value of a life“:

Putting a price on a life is important for saving lives in our economic world, but this is different from the value of a life.

This post tells the fable of a civilization of happy people living to ripe old ages, highly valuing life, who one day are visited by an evil dragon who collects an annual tax of gold for each citizen in proportion to their age. May old members of society die in the early years, taken by the dragon, until slowly the civilization gets better and better at meeting the tax.

[Spoiler: Reading the actual post is going to be way more entertaining than my cliff notes from here on.]

The dragon is an allegory for death. Even as the people accept their fate, they develop specialization and economics and never stop fighting it. Soon, they push back to only small, old group dying each year. But in the meantime they also value art — because it helps with morale and motivation, etc.

And, in this world, you can calculate the exact economic cost of saving a life. Which leads to a difficult conflict: It is true that we must treat a life as equivalent in value to some amount of some other commodity (like movie tickets). (If the economy is running efficiently, and thus people are buying movie tickets in proportion to their entertainment/motivational value, then if the people producing those files turned their attention instead to mining more gold to save more lives, the society’s net output of lives saved would actually drop!)

At the same time, the value of a human life is priceless, infinite, or at least far beyond compare of the value of watching  a few thousand movies. (The price equivalence between 1 life and 1 thousand movies is definitely not saying their value is equal; to think so is to forget the most important contextual fact driving all of this, which is that the village is plagued by a dragon: In fact, 1 life is worth more than 1 thousand movies, which is why watching those 1 thousand movies to help maximize lives saved through entertainment/motivation is actually a significant value-gain for this efficient economy.)

In our reality, things are similar. (Here, markets on the value of life are inefficient (millions to push back death in developed economies, thousands in poor economies), and frankly we don’t prioritize maximizing lifespans. We also don’t act rationally in myriad ways, and life is about quality as much or more than quantity. But, still.)

Compare a button that pays you $10 when pressed at the cost of a 1 in a million chance of killing someone, with the risks of, say, driving a car, which has a much higher risk of resulting in someone’s death, a price you pay anyway for the value of convenience of driving a care. Press that button and take that $10, and put it toward saving other lives; we come out ahead. This illustrates the value of actually putting a market cost on saving a life.

To repeat: Don’t confuse this cost with the intrinsic value of a life. The gap between the two is because we are plagued by death that we’ve yet to figure out how to stop. That gap is as much a tragedy as it is real.

That gap is a direct measure of the difference between the universe that is, and the universe that should be.

That price difference, the difference between a few thousand dollars and a few thousand suns, is a direct measure of how fucked up things are.

If it weren’t for the dragon coming for us all, we could afford to put a lot more into saving those relatively few lives that would be occasionally, not inevitably imperiled.

This whole piece is a “sermon” preaching pushing back death. Some work the dragon’s mines: work in health care. Some build weapons to fight the dragon: To try and eliminate biological death. Some of us work in the entertainment industry, helping making life worthwhile for the rest.

You can join. You can do the right thing even if you don’t feel care in the proportion. Care for yourself before you care for others; you can do more good that way. Drum up some fury, some resolve, some defiance, etc. — and leave your guilt and shame at home.

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.

Caring is hard

My cliff notes for “On caring“:

Due to the way our brains (fail to) process large numbers, it is possible for us to theoretically care about “all people” but also for us to only be moved to act out of care for very small numbers of imperiled people. We recognize the difference between 2 and 4, but at a certain point, large numbers lose their impact on the way we compute scale. This is a problem.

Caring for the world requires acting as though we felt the suffering of the many in proportion to the suffering for the few, even though we don’t. The stakes are high: All of the future of humanity — which is a potential number of individuals far beyond our own capacity to grok — is potentially impacted by us, now, and how we act. If we save one, or save the world, it feels about the same. Bt it shouldn’t; our calibration of care is broken. This is scope insensitivity.

The amount we give to charity — a proxy for the good we try to do in the world, to avert suffering — is generally driven more by social context than anything. We might give out of pressure, out of guilt, or out of desire to win a charity competition. None of these have to do with the magnitude of suffering in the world, or the value of giving. These factors motivate us to give some of our money when we otherwise wouldn’t give any of our money. Note that the problems in the world are worth a lot more of our money to address, but no one expects anyone else to give all of their money away. Social context matters more than scope.

For a given crisis that needs support, our reaction when approached by a canvaser soliciting donations is one thing; our reaction if we were face to face (or imagined being so) with the effects of the crisis on one individual (depending on the crisis, an animal [e.g. BP oil spill] or a human [e.g. Haiti earthquake]), is another. In the latter, we would generally be moved to help an imperiled individual right in front of us, and moved to pay others some dollar amount to help, as well.

I we further imagine multiplying that dollar amount we would pay others to help a single affect individual, by all affected individuals, that adds up horrifyingly fast, to a very large amount. — And that is just for a single cause. What about all the other crises that also affect animals/humans? If we extend our dollar value for saving an individual to all of those imperiled by all crises everywhere, then we begin to glimpse how bad of a state the world is in, and how much we ought to care.

Paradoxically, you can then realize that we can’t afford to even expend that minimal dollars-per-saved-individual effort, because of the opportunity cost of not saving all the other individuals imperiled (by all crises, the world over). This is independent of the value of their lives — they are worth far more. We come to realize that we cannot possibly do enough!

Originally, we devote our lives to service because no cause seemed pressing enough. Now, we are aware of the pressing importance of acting in service, for so many causes, but we are paralyzed by our inability to make even a dent in any of these problems.

What distinguishes prominent altruists is not that they care more, but that they have learned to distrust how much they care. They have learned that their sense of care is broken, due to scope insensitivity. Our sense of care does not work for large numbers; we feel an inappropriately small amount of care in proportion to all of the world’s problems. But, they also know that feeling care (which they don’t) is not required to acting care (which they do). They’ve switched from being driven automatically to care by their feelings, caring on manual control.

How, then, should we act? Well, it is hard to say. But one answer is that it isn’t enough to think you should do something: You need desperation that comes from realizing the gap between what the world needs and what we can give.

This is NOT about guilt you into giving more money to charity. Philanthropy is harder than we tend to acknowledge: It requires you have a lot of money (hard!), and give most of it away (unnatural!). Plus, guilt isn’t a good long term motivator [hence this whole series]. Try to do good because of intrinsic motivation, 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.

What matters

My cliff notes for “How we will be measured“:

What matters in the end, and how we will be judged, is what actually happens. Intention, intelligence, effort, and goodness don’t matter. It isn’t a social game. Others expectations for us aren’t what’s important. Others aren’t our enemies. Being rich or having status may be useful, but they aren’t ends in themselves. Pursuing retaliation, power, or other goals that are relative to others are tempting as grand objectives, but they are distractions from what really matters.

What matters is affecting the future. We define define desirable outcomes differently, and since all of our circumstances are different, this isn’t a fair game we all get to play equally. But one way or another, changes we can make in the future are what we live for.

Listless guilt comes from recoiling from thinking that nothing matters. Pointed guilt comes thinking everything matters, and falling short of fixing all the broken things. Acting to work towards our desired outcomes is the goldilocks approach. “At all times, act to ensure that our future is bright.”

Guilt has no place when this is the goal. It is backward-looking and unproductive; it does nothing to help ensure a bright future.

Thus, be liberated from guilt! — and play the game of making the future better. Whatever that means for you.

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.

Defy

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.

Recklessness

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.