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.

Pain into resolve

My cliff notes for “Transmute guilt into resolve“:

When we feel powerless in the face of some injustice or other peoples’ pain, we have an impulse to avoid that pain, or excuse ourselves from it somehow. [This seems a form of, or a cousin to, tolerification.] Cynicism is a form this can take.

Instead of avoiding it, try turning that pain into resolve.

Averting the eyes of a beggar is an example of a situation where we feel this impulse. We tend to feel guilt in this situation — our impulses try and save us from that — because their presence in our lives suggests that maybe we should be doing something to help them.

And, maybe you should do something! But, for others who are already are working to make the world a better place, their guilt over a single person’s pain they can’t also reach is pointless. They needn’t feel guilt.

Guilt is a tool for us; we aren’t a tool for it. It is helpful “only insofar as it helps you wrest yourself from the wrong path”. If you’re doing all you can already, the fact that you can’t do more is no cause for guilt.

Rather, it’s a reason for anger, at a world where nobody is evil but everything is broken. It’s a reason for resolve, to push yourself as hard as is healthy and sustainable but no harder.

Instead of ignoring pain you cannot address, see it, and focus on it, and turn it into resolve. When we act on that impulse to avoid pain — to look away, to rationalize, to tolerify… — we miss an opportunity to confront the pain directly, and in so doing fuel our cold resolve with it, to power our motivation.

Opportunities abound every day to confront pain directly when we see it, and use it as a powerful reminder that there is work to do.

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.

Examine your worst fears

My cliff notes for “Come to your terms“:

Facing fears can be seem so difficult for some that they think it is impossible, so this exercise isn’t for everyone, but here it is:

If you encounter a fear of something so terrible you panic to think it, breath deeply and face it.

Come to terms with the worst, with the unthinkable. Imagine painful possibilities. Face them, and know them.Visualize them. Don’t downplay, excuse, plan to mitigate, or tolerify the possibility, just consider it fully.

If you truly pre-accepted worst case scenarios that are in the realm of possibility — Might you die? Might a loved one? — then you can let go of the fear and anxiety that are present now, and go on functioning more fully without them weighing you down. And, if that possible bad outcome does come to pass, your freak out reaction will be lessened, because you will have already accepted it.

Fears control us. They cause us to avoid thinking in certain directions, let alone dealing with things as they are. Our worst fears can cause us to hold back — paradoxically diminishing our ability to avert our them.

Fully examining the negative outcomes saps the terror and removes its weight. If the ultimate price of your actions could be terrible if things don’t go your way, fully consider what that would be like, accept it, and decide to embark down that path having made this choice in spite of the fear. This saps the fear, and allows you to re-exert your control to steer towards a brighter future the best 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.

Play to win

My cliff notes for “Have no excuses“:

Sometimes we make a show of trying hard so that when we fail, we have an “My best effort wasn’t good enough” excuse. Preparing an excuse softens a failure, increasing the chance of failure by tempting you to fall back on it. This license to fail can be so powerful that it is tantamount to pre-deciding to fail.

If you were excused then you were helpless, and you couldn’t have done better, and you can’t learn to do better next time.

We can resolve instead to not excuse our failures, which removes the incentive for this kind of behavior. This leaves us to focus on achievement, instead. Introspect to interrogate and understand your failures, but root those explanations in why “I wasn’t good enough”, and don’t confuse them with excuses that absolve the failure.

Play to win, not to ensure your actions were acceptable even if you failed.

I suggest cultivating your mental habits such that it feels bad to check whether or not your failure will have an excuse. Refuse to have excuses. Refuse to cover your failures. Only then, without expected social protection, do you really start trying to figure out how to win.

What about bad luck? Examine and own your choices in the face of bad luck; don’t blame luck. (Owning the choice sounds like “I’d make the same bet again”.) Otherwise, you’ll never learn to be better at weighing and making risk-and-reward-based choices.

What about truly unforeseen circumstances, such as falling ill? Account for these in your plans! You know there is always an outside chance that external forces will derail your plans, so make contingency plans to give yourself the best chance to succeed in spite of them. Do all that you can to control for not failing because of them. And if you fail because of them anyway, that’s no excuse; your plans to mitigate them were not good enough. (Owning this can sound like “I messed up” Also, only if this is true: “I’ll do better next time with what I learned”.) Otherwise, you can’t expect to beat these external circumstances.

I have found that it’s usually in the moment when I refuse to make excuses even if I do fail, that I start really trying to win in advance.

What about social pressures to excuse failure? Well, sometimes people really do want some explanation. [ALWAYS with failures, in client service-oriented work.] But be aware that excuses function socially to keep you from losing face, at great cost to your agency. And be aware of well-intentioned people trying provide excuses for you, to make you feel better. This is toxic; it denies you power. Seeing your failures without excuses, with an explanation of what you could have done differently within your power, to avoid failure, is good: It allows you to do better.

Refusing to give excuses can have social costs: If others are participating in an implicit conspiracy of mediocrity and you refuse, that calls them out (even if subtly). Facing your own shortcoming pressures others who may be reluctant to do the same. (You can view these as opportunities to practice and prove your resolve to reject excuses.)

(There is also an inverse corollary: There are others who highly value those who live up to their failures.)

This advice requires a certain kind of strength to not be self-harmful: It requires you to have internalized previous posts in this series, to live without guilt, to judge yourself as a flawed mortal not as perfect like a god, to buckle down when things get hard, to not see yourself as good or bad, and to be comfortable seeing the dark world.

Playing to win is a motivation tool to replace guilt motivation.

You don’t need to win every time — but you do need to learn every time.

Don’t confuse explanations as separate from excuses. Deconstructing and understanding a failure is important for learning, but focus not on whatever facts contributed to your failure, but what you could’ve done to mitigate those facts, that you did not do. And avoid fatalism and destructive conclusions such as “I’ve learned never to trust.” You’ll recognize excuses and harmful conclusions because they degrade your power instead of building it for the future.

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 what happened, but where are you

My cliff notes from “Simply locate yourself“:

Probabilities of good and bad outcomes are all around us. When we experience a bad outcome, we tend to view it as the way things turned out to be. This view leads to despair, and a sense of powerlessness or injustice.

A different way to view the same bad outcome is that you ended up in one of the universes with a bad outcome — when other universes also exist where things went differently. With this view, it is easier to function without suffering: This view simply leads to a sense of “where in the multiverse you ended up”.

When you get bad news, don’t suffer over it. It’s not unfair, it’s not passing judgement, it’s not a signal that everything sucks, it’s not making the future worse. It’s just telling you where you live.

[I would emphasize, and I’m sure the author would agree: Go ahead and suffer a bit, actually. We humans need to feel our feels, and self-care is a thing. Just, don’t dwell there forever.]

Thought experiment: If you knew you were going to be teleported to a multiverse branch with bad outcomes, how would you behave? Would you despair, or would you gird yourself to do what you could to improve things? Would you spend your time being sad, or trying to live the best life you could given your circumstances?

That’s a trick hypothetical! It describes the reality we actually do find ourselves in. When you end up in a universe where things go badly, as we have, struggling against that reality gets you nowhere. Recognizing what you can do with where you are, though, will

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.