Set human expectations for yourself

My cliff notes from “Working yourself ragged is not a virtue”:

At this point in the series, we have something to fight for (something to change in the world), and we are free of obligations (we do things because we want/decide to). Now, to begin to actually remove guilt-based motivation.

Most guilt comes from people deciding to do one thing, but doing something different. For example, staying up late to binge on tv, after intending to go to bed early.

This post covers the tool for dealing with this kind of guilt, one form in particular: Having a lot to do, working as hard as you can to accomplish it all, and only stopping work before you are physically forced to drop — which makes you “bad” because you weren’t good enough to keep going.

This can stem from confusing an external standard of quality for one’s own (summarized in the Avoiding the Slacker/Tryer Dichotomy). But not always: Sometimes people do this to themselves over something truly important to them.

Their error is in maximizing your productivity today — “local velocity” — instead of over time. The goal should be maximizing the total difference your efforts make.

(When all is said and done, and Nature passes her final judgement, you will not be measured by the number of moments in which you worked as hard as you could. You will be measured by what actually happened, as will we all.

You lose points for effort; you gain points for improving the world.

Sometimes you do need to push yourself to the limit, but before you do, acknowledge the costs and weigh the tradeoffs, while keeping your long-term goals in view.

We are humans with human limitations; acting as though we are gods who can transcend our ape backgrounds isn’t admirable, but foolish.

[Damn, I need this reminder all too often!]

The point is not that you should restrict yourself (say, to 40 hours/week), or to stop when it gets hard.

The point is, you should pace yourself (“Do as much as you can, but don’t be constantly taking damage”), and you should incur soreness from effort, without strain and damage. Train to push your limits in a disciplined way, without excess.

Please treat yourself well today; doing so is an important component of long-term productivity.

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.

Real moral obligations make us super heroes, not resentful

My cliff notes from Your “shoulds” are not a duty:

Some worry that taking away their “shoulds” will lead them to do the morally wrong things, even though:

Moral relativists usually have no trouble remembering that their narrow, short-term desires (for comfort, pleasure, etc.) are internal, but many seem to forget that their wide, long-term desires (flourishing, less suffering, etc.) are also part of them.

The only reason to do the right thing is internal: Because you want to. What external forces are there? (Assume atheism, then) None.

But, the concern still makes sense: Our internal desires are often conflicting. Take the should compulsion away, and what’s to keep you from giving into your lazier impulses? This will be addressed in future posts.

But also, people resent shoulds for feeling like obligations they don’t really want. For example, working a job you hate because you need the money. To resent these obligations is to treat the shoulds as external, out of your control to fix.

Don’t resent the bad option for being better than the worse option — if you must resent something, resent the situation.

If you feel yourself resenting shoulds/obligations:

  • Remember “The shoulds were made for us, not us for them.”
  • Recall your obligations are in your power.
  • Stop thinking of your shoulds as an objective list of things you ought to do to be perfect, and will be judged against if you don’t.
  • Realize that if an imperative is unrealistic for you, psychologically, physically, or emotionally, then it is no obligation over you. In other words, if your sense of obligations seem impossible and that makes you feel bad, focus on how their impossibility invalidates them as obligations for you.
  • “Encountering an actual moral bond feels … like a privilege“. Like an internal fire. Joyful. Like something real that you touch, or that touches you, and your choice is already made.
    • (Fun link: “It feels like executing a Screw The Rules I’m Doing What’s Right trope“)
    • Contrast the feeling of resentment toward some task, with the feeling you’d have if you had to make a big sacrifice, but it meant saving the world!
  • For all of these reasons, if you feel resentment towards a should, it is a false should.
  • A real should is one that makes you accept that you’re on the right path.

Drop the shoulds that are a burden, and keep only those that are left that make you feel peacefully resolved.

Those moral impulses are not a reminder of your grudging duty. They are a reminder that you value things larger than yourself. They are a description of everything you’re fighting for. They are the birthright of humanity, they are your love for fellow sentient creatures, they are everything we struggle so hard to send upwards to the stars.

They aren’t a duty. They’re an honor.

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.

Not because you “should”

My cliff notes from Not because you “should”:

Stop doing things because you “should”. Should can easily lead to feelings of guilt, obligation which you resent, and/or inadequacy.

Using the example of someone who stops thinking they should clean their room:

[E]ither (a) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and you realize you don’t actually care about having a clean room, and then your room stays messy and that’s fine because you don’t care; or (b) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and then you get a bit worried, because some part of you actually wants the room cleaned, so you listen to that part of yourself, and you work with it, and you find a time to clean the room because you want to.

You’re likely to do more good if you want than because you “should”.

A thought experiment to underscore how negative “should” can be as a motivator:

Imagine promising yourself that you’re never going to do something just because you “should,” ever again. How does that make you feel?

Do you feel relieved? If so, then you were probably putting your “should” labels on the wrong things and forcing yourself to do things that weren’t actually best.

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.

“Should” considered harmful

My cliff notes from “Should” considered harmful:

We enter this phase of the series with a pointed guilt about not doing something in particular, having dispensed with listless guilt.

Now, the pattern is simple: You think there’s something you should be doing, you aren’t doing it, and you feel guilty about that.

I claim that the word “should” is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word “should,” most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.

“Should” set you up for self-judgement as incompetent, akratic, or bad if you don’t do what you “should”. This is divorced from why you “should” in the first place, substituting that baseline “why” that first motivated the “should” for an obligation with ugly, meaningfully consequences.

The solution is to keep the reason attached to the task, by stating the why and considering consequences for doing or not doing the thing as tradeoffs. This allows you to make a rational choice to not do or be something, accepting the consequences as a reasonable tradeoff instead of disobeying a “should” and incurring a value judgement against yourself.

Should motivations set you up for a lose-lose: even if do what you “should” and avoid the bad self-judgement, you’ve potentially suffered through something painful to do so. Considering the tradeoffs instead allows you to choose one set of tradeoffs for another on the basis of optimizing to minimize suffering.

Nate’s example is someone who’s sick and “should” go to the pharmacy for meds. If you “should” do it, and you do it, then you may’ve suffered through painfully social awkwardness to get there, plus you had to get dressed, leave the comfort of home, and apply your limited energies to driving or navigating transit, all while feeling miserable.

It may have been a preferable set of consequences to feel the pain of not having the medicine from the comfort of bed, and avoided all of that other kind of suffering. This recognizes the decision isn’t between “suffer or be bad”.

But the actual options aren’t “suffer” or “be bad.” The actual options are “incur the social/time costs of buying meds” or “incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill.” It’s just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you “bad.” It’s ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It’s ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a “should.” Both sides are an option.

When breaking a “should” down into options with tradeoffs, be careful to avoid confusing others’ preferences for you with your own. Another difficulty to avoid is fear of even considering failure, which can drive you to irrationality. A third difficulty to avoid is trading one negative-infinity (I do this or I’m bad, period, end of story) for another, for example by substituting “I should” with “I need to”.

To avoid each of these, seriously break down the tradeoffs. Don’t be afraid to do so. Alternative options might truly be bad, but define and evaluate them concretely, then make your choice about what to do — instead of rounding up to “I do this, or I’m bad”.

When you should yourself without looking at the alternatives, you run a high risk of making yourself feel obligated and resentful. When you lay out all the options you can think of and choose the best, then it’s much easier to work with yourself rather than against yourself — sometimes you have to settle for the best of a bad lot, but this is much easier once you’ve actually looked at the whole lot.

If this is hard, focus on becoming mindful of when you are guilt-motivated. Keep track of how many times a day you “should” do something. When that becomes a habit, start trying to break down those moments of “should”, into options with tradeoffs, and then celebrate building that habit.

If this seems like a lot of work, or an exercise that seems likely to lead to the same outcome of motivating one choice or another, recall that the whole reason we are doing this is to move toward guilt-free lives, by removing guilt as a motivation. We aren’t there yet, but this is a step in the way.

It’s not necessarily easy, either: Once you’ve “cashed out” shoulds into tradeoffs, your interests amy conflict, you may be left with a hard choice, and you may still find yourself doing the worse thing. So this isn’t a fix-all, but it is a strategy.

I’ve found it very helpful to treat almost all shoulds as a toxic attempt to blind me to the alternatives. Be careful: the thoughts you can’t think do you harm, and the options you can’t weigh cost you dearly.

So cash out your shoulds, and weigh all your options on the scales — and then choose what is best, free of obligation.

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.

You don’t get to know what you’re fighting for

My cliff notes from You don’t get to know what you’re fighting for:

Knowing what specifically you are working towards is hard.

It is easy to specify what you want negatively — what outcomes don’t you want — but that only tells you want you don’t want, not what you do want. It’s much harder to positively state what you want.

Then, it’s often true that when pursuing a specific goal, our goals shift. For example “help the poor” can turn into “get rich to donate a lot”.

With our current understanding of philosophy, it is highly likely if not inevitable that even simple altruistic goals will shift as we progress toward them or as we investigate our philosophies that underpin them.

[This shakiness of philosophies Nate points at to question several example goals is why I’ve limited the time I spend investing in philosophical understanding. It’s always seemed to be the further down philosophical trails I go, the less it helps with anything.]

Even when you think you know what you’re fighting for, there’s no guarantee you are right, and since there’s no clearly established objective morality, there’s likely to be an argument against your stance.

There is no objective morality writ on a tablet between the galaxies. There are no objective facts about what “actually matters.” But that’s because “mattering” isn’t a property of the universe. It’s a property of a person.

There are facts about what we care about, but they aren’t facts about the stars. They are facts about us.

Then it is also possible that our brains are lying to us about our intentions. We don’t have enough introspective capability to truly understand our motivations, which are often grounded in hidden and arbitrary rules of natural selection.

My values were built by dumb processes smashing time and a savannah into a bunch of monkey generations, and I don’t entirely approve of all of the result, but the result is also where my approver comes from. My appreciation of beauty, my sense of wonder, and my capacity to love, all came from this process.

I’m not saying my values are dumb; I’m saying you shouldn’t expect them to be simple.

We’re a thousand shards of desire forged of coincidence and circumstance and death and time. It would be really surprising if there were some short, simple description of our values. […]

Don’t get me wrong, our values are not inscruitable [sic]. They are not inherently unknowable. If we survive long enough, it seems likely that we’ll eventually map them out.

We don’t need to know what motivates us or what we want exactly; “The world’s in bad enough shape that you don’t need to.” We can have something to fight for without knowing exactly what it is. We have a good enough idea of which direction to go. Depending on what we are pretty sure of is good enough for us to decide what to do next.

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.

Why care for the world when it is so bad?

My cliffs notes from Caring about something larger than yourself:

People are terrible and annoying, so it doesn’t go without saying that we should care about each other — and many people simply don’t, questioning why they should. (I suspect I have in large part because I was taught to intellectually, and because I feel a compelling emotional connection with people striving against oppression. I’ve never really thought through whether the intellectual concept I was taught is rationally defensible.)

Some people confuse feelings with caring. Caring for the remote masses broadly can be dispassionate. Caring is “about not having the emotional compulsion and doing the right thing anyway”. But you can care for strangers just as much as you do for friends.

My default settings, roughly speaking, make it easy for me to feel for my friends and hate at my competitors. But my default settings also come with a sense of aesthetics that prefers fairness, that prefers compassion. My default feelings are strong for those who are close to me, and my default sensibilities are annoyed that it’s not possible to feel strongly for people who could have been close to me. My default feelings are negative towards people antagonizing me, and my default sensibilities are sad that we didn’t meet in a different context, sad that it’s so hard for humans to communicate their point of view.

My point is, I surely don’t lack the capacity to feel frustration with fools, but I also have a quiet sense of aesthetics and fairness which does not approve of this frustration. There is a tension there.

I choose to resolve the tension in favor of the people rather than the feelings.

Why? Because when I reflect upon the source of the feelings, I find arbitrary evolutionary settings that I don’t endorse, but when I reflect upon the sense of aesthetics, I find something that goes straight to the core of what I value.

What we feel helped our genes navigate evolution; it isn’t about what’s deeply good or true.

So I look upon myself, and I see that I am constructed to both (a) care more about the people close to me, that I have deeper feelings for, and (b) care about fairness, impartiality, and aesthetics. I look upon myself and I see that I both care more about close friends, and disapprove of any state of affairs in which I care more for some people due to a trivial coincidence of time and space.

We can examine this deeply and conclude that the feelings are tribal vestiges; while the aesthetics reflect deep values, which wins the argument. We are capable of acting on realizations like this to change not necessarily what we feel, but how we act on what what we feel.

Thus we can choose to care even for others we don’t feel for.

For those unswayed, who still see too much bad in humanity to be mustered to care, an uneasy thought experiment: Consider how much easier it is to sympathize with a mistreated animal (for example, a dog) than for a mistreated human. Does that default setting for our feelings seem correct?

(Nate presents quotes a description of the “Machiavellian Intelligence’ hypothesis from Sue Blackmore’s “The Meme Machine”, a theory that explains our brains’ makeup as the result of a spiraling biological ‘arms race’ of power through social political maneuvering.

I’ve already quoted excessively from the source essay, but this is too good to pass up:

I mean, look at us. Humans are the sort of creature that sees lightning and postulates an angry sky-god, because angry sky-gods seem much more plausible to us than Maxwell’s equations — this despite the fact that Maxwell’s equations are far simpler to describe (by a mathematical standard) than a generally intelligent sky-god. Think about it: we can write down Maxwell’s equations in four lines, and we can’t yet describe how a general intelligence works. Thor feels easier for us to understand, but only because we have so much built-in hardware for psychologically modeling humans.

We see in other humans suspicious agents plotting against us. When they lash at us we lash back. We see cute puppies as innocent, and we sympathize with them they are angry.

Which is why, every so often, I take a mental step back and try to see the other humans around me, not as humans, but as innocent animals full of wonder, exploring an environment they can never fully understand, following the flows of their lives.

Other analogies for humans: Angels who missed their shot at heaven. Monkeys struggling to be comfortable out of the comfort of the trees.

Why care about others? Separate your feelings from your aesthetic judgements that are in tension, follow where that leads, and choose to care (not feel) as seems right to you.

Incidentally, this is from the introduction:

As with previous posts, don’t treat this as a sermon about why you should care about things that are larger than yourself; treat it as a reminder that you can, if you want to.

Nate assumes this posture throughout this essay series. Arguing the reader should take his advice would be antithetical to a part of his argument (that’s coming soon). All he needs to is point out the reader can choose to think a certain way. That’s compelling enough.

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.

You’re allowed to fight for something

My cliffs notes from You’re allowed to fight for something

This series is all about removing guilt. But certain forms of guilt are easier to remove; others are easier to first shift to these easier-to-remove forms. And to that end:

‘Tis better than to feel guilty for a specific reason — say, playing video games all day instead of practicing resistance — than to feel “listless” guilt for no particular reason — guilt that maybe there should be something to feel guilty for not doing.

The listless guilt comes from intuitively knowing there can be something more — more good that you’d like to do, for non-selfish reasons. The Nihilist trap convinces some that it is impossible to want to take some altruistic action because you care about others, without any selfish reasons, but listless guilt is the disproof of this.

A thought experiment: Imagine someone offered you a deal to shoot your pet, erase your memory of the pet (without any fallibility; they would also alter the memory of those around you and your environment), and give you a dollar. You don’t take the dollar. Why? That’s proof you can care for something outside yourself, when there’s no selfish motivation.

And you are allowed to want something for non-selfish reasons, without needing to understand or explain.

To shake the listless guilt, ask what you’d like to be different in the world, and look for ideas that compel you to make a difference if you can.

The listless guilt is a guilt about not doing anything. To remove it, we must first turn it into a guilt about not doing something in particular.

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.