Replace guilt with science

My cliff notes from “Don’t steer with guilt”, arguably the heart of this series:

Guilt works in the same way as a threat: You want to avoid it. Feeling guilt steers you toward a future without more guilt in it.

Being threatened with an ultimatum (say, “I’ll break your leg if you steal from me”) steers you away from a future where the threat is realized. If you need to make good on a threat often, the threat isn’t doing its job effectively of steering someone else’s behavior in a direction you prefer.

Similarly, if you find yourself experiencing guilt often, then it isn’t being effective at steering your behavior. You should ideally not feel guilt; conversely if you feel guilt often, guilt isn’t serving you.

Experiencing guilt is costly, and can be demotivation. It can lead to failure spirals: Guilt leads to more failure leads to more guilt… This can lead to boom/bust productivity/failure cycles, that lead to lower productivity over time than intrinsic motivation (lack of external, guilt-based motivation).

If you regularly behave sub-optimally, assigning guilt to that behavior will not be useful.

If the situation occurs regularly, then guilt is not the tool to use! You’re welcome to feel guilty if you ever kidnap a baby or punch a homeless person, and you can tell that the guilt is working in those cases because you never do those things. But if you repeatedly find yourself in a situation that you disprefer, then guilt is just not the tool to use. That’s not where it’s useful.

Employ science, rather than guilt, to sub-optimal ways in which you regularly find yourself behaving. Look for patterns and hypothesize about conditions that lead to your sub-optimal behavior, then experiment with changing conditions. If your behavior changes, you’ve confirmed the hypothesis. If it doesn’t, what else have you learned from the experiment that can inform your next hypothesis? And how else can you gather more data that will eventually lead to your improved behavior?

“Don’t bemoan individual failures.” Focus on the pattern.

Recognize that there are infinite ways you can improve yourself, and you have to prioritize which to focus on. Then let the others go. There’s no need to feel guilty about them, as you are spending your finite energy wisely on more important things.

[I]f you lack the time to change the pattern, then the occasional failure is a fair price. Trust yourself to fix the pattern if the costs ever get too high, trust yourself to understand that investing in yourself is important […]

Each failure is new data. Each success is new data. Feeling guilt is nonsense, as it has no positive (only negative) bearing on your science experiments.

Shift the meaning of a failure from “I am terrible, and should feel bad”, to “time to update my tactics”.


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.

Don’t Fail with Abandon

My cliffs notes from Failing with Abandon:

If you tend to miss a goal and think “willpower has failed me; I might as well over-indulge” — and girl, do I! — the author call this pattern “failing with abandon.”

You don’t have to fail with abandon. “When you miss your targets, you’re allowed to say ‘dang!’ and then continue trying to get as close to your target as you can.”

When you’ve missed a target, instead try to miss it by as little as possible.

Failing with abandon is like treating your Past Self as an unjust authority setting impossible mandates. Instead of doing that,

remember who put the target there, and you can ask yourself whether you want to get as close to the target as possible. If you decide you only want to miss your target by a little bit, you still 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.

Avoiding the Slacker/Tryer Dichotomy

Thanks to the Beeminder blog, I stumbled on’s Replacing Guilt series. It’s long, which is a bit daunting, but it captured my interest. To make digesting it easier, I created a Beeminder goal to consume it one article at a time, over the next forty days.

In what would normally be unrelated news, I’m also experimenting with a write-more-words goal. Blogging my cliffs-notes versions of the Replacing Guilt articles should help me retain what I read, and help me with that write-more goal. Nothing fancy here, just notes for my later reference.

So here goes, beginning with the first entry, Half-assing it with everything you’ve got.

remember what you’re fighting for

Apply only the optimal effort required to accomplish your goal (no more, no less). That requires a clear idea of your goal (what you’re fighting for), which requires establishing your own goal, not simply accepting what others assume or expect of you.

Specific examples include: If determined goal is to get an “A” in the class, and your overall grade is already high enough to earn the “A” if you only get a “C” on the paper, aiming for an “A” on a paper will result in wasted effort. Conversely, if your determined goal is to learn as much as you can from a class, you may want to put in significantly more effort than is required to earn an “A” on the paper, due to grade inflation.

[T]oo many people automatically assume that, when an authority figure describes a quality line, they’re “supposed to” push as far right as possible. They think they “should” care about quality. This is silly: real world problems are not about producing the highest-quality products. In all walks of life, the goal is to hit a quality target with minimum effort. […] I’m not telling you that you should be scraping by by only the barest of margins. […] What I am saying is, don’t conflate the quality line with the preference curve. […] Remember what you’re trying to achieve, identify your quality target, and aim for that: no higher, no lower.

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’s new in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As I walked out of my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the many thoughts going through my head was how familiar everything was.

Everyone’s noticed this, of course. JJ Abrams has even been explicit that this was their intent.

Well, it’s also the root of most of the criticism for the film. Some people think there are too many identical story beats and symbols from the original trilogy. You know what I mean: A third Death Star, really?

I read this piece from The Verge and it summed up my thoughts better than I could’ve. It argues that The Force Awakens is an object lesson in how nostalgia can be great, but only takes you so far. The film is diminished because it didn’t construct enough of its own originality.

The second time I saw the film, I wasn’t bothered by this at all.

Even conscious of what I considered to be a flaw, as I noticed every familiar beat, somehow it just didn’t matter. The film worked, and didn’t leave me feeling empty or shortchanged.

After my third viewing, I started to realize that all of those familiar elements distract from what are in fact many fresh and original ideas that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars film.

The idea that Episode VII is just a rehashing of the first three Star Wars films falls apart on close inspection.

We have never seen such wonderfully empowered and bad ass women and people of color in a Star Wars movie before. This alone is worth a lot of celebration.

But we’ve also never seen Kylo Ren’s prodigious abilities with the Force before. He can restrain a person, suspend a blaster bolt, and probe minds for interrogation. And we’ve never seen anyone resist the power of the Dark Side the way Rey can resist his mind probe.

We’ve never seen a TIE fighter that seats two, heroes stealing enemy ships, or melee combat with quarterstaffs and riot batons (that can spar with a lightsaber!). We’ve never seen scavenger camps, starships flying through the ruins of larger ships, entering hyperspace from inside of a hangar, or exiting it inside of a planet’s atmosphere.

We’ve never seen a stormtrooper remove their helmet and become a character, let alone defect. We’ve never seen someone so committed to the Dark Side being so conflicted or vulnerable. We’ve never seen someone murder a member of their own family.

There is plenty of new stuff to sink your teeth into here.

Some of those things — say for example, the two-seater TIE fighter — may seem minor. But even small differences like that go a long way toward making a work of fantasy an original.

That’s right: Star Wars is a fantasy. It only looks like science fiction.

It has all of the classic elements of fantasy. It completely and totally disregards physics, and makes magic very important. Epic quests revolve around delivering precious information or mythic items. There are heroic characters, super villains, overt Good versus Evil themes. Exotic locations season the story. An exclusive order of knights wield swords and wizard-like power, with their own code and arcana…

Works of fantasy are marked by their very specific vehicles, items, quests, and heroes. The specifics are what make a work rise above the genre’s tropes to stand on its own.

So together, The Force Awakens’ new bits, major and minor, add up to a fresh, original work.

By the same token, some of these symbols need to be familiar for the story to be Star Wars. The existence of the Millennium Falcon and our old heroes, etcetera provide continuity. The familiar elements make this fit better as a Star Wars movie than the prequels did.

Below, I’ve made a longer list of things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film.

I haven’t listed everything we have seen before, so I’m not sure what the ratio of familiar to fresh is. But whatever it is, that balance works well to make The Force Awakens both joyfully familiar and excitingly new.

Things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film


  • Rathtars, the bad beasties aboard Han’s freighter
  • Dozens of new alien races


  • Black stormtroopers
  • A lead black character
  • A female villain
  • A female stormtrooper
  • Female officers serving on an Empire / First Order ship or facility
  • A featured female character using the Force (by “featured” I mean minor/nameless Jedi characters in the the prequels don’t count)
  • A featured female character using a lightsaber
  • A featured female character piloting a starship
  • A female character being an expert mechanic
  • A female sage

Weapons, Items, and Ships

  • BB class droids
  • A two-seater TIE fighter
  • A quarterstaff
  • A sought-after star map
  • Han discovering the power of Chewie’s bowcaster
  • A lightsaber whose blade extends crossways to form a hilt (which makes perfect sense)
  • A riot control baton that can spar with a lightsaber

The Force

  • Using the Force to halt the forward motion of a blaster bolt, suspending it in midair
  • Using the Force to restrain others, paralyzing them where they stand
  • Using the Force for interrogation, to rip information out of others’ minds
  • Using the Force to resist interrogation
  • Learning to use the Force without training, in the heat of the moment
  • Using the Force to put someone to sleep

Locations and settings

  • A scavenger camp
  • The inside of a large crashed starship
  • Starships flying through the ruins of larger ships
  • A planet covered by lake-dappled forests (Takodana, the setting for Maz’s watering hole)
  • A misty yet un-swamp-like rainforest planet (D’Qar, the setting for The Resistance’s HQ)
  • A planet featuring stunning rocky islands rising from a global ocean (Ahch-To, where Luke’s been in exile)

Characters Doing Things

  • Pilot a stolen TIE fighter
  • Scavenge to make a living
  • Attempt a droid-napping
  • Fight with a quarterstaff
  • Dogfighting starfighters inside of an atmosphere
  • Battle with lightsabers in the snow

Villains Doing Things

  • A stormtrooper removing their helmet (I’m not counting clone troopers from episodes II and III)
  • A member of the Empire / First Order defecting
  • A dark lord committed to the Dark Side being conflicted and vulnerable
  • Stormtroopers slaughtering an entire village (of humans, on screen)
  • Disciplining stormtroopers through “reconditioning”
  • Conscripting children into stormtrooper ranks
  • Stormtroopers wielding melee weapons
  • Flametroopers wielding flamethrowers

Events and Plot Points

  • A quest for a missing hero
  • The heroes having information that the villains are trying to obtain (distinct from leaked information the Empire is trying to recover, as in the Death Star plans in Episode IV)
  • Introduction of the Knights of Ren, an order of Dark Side baddies distinct from The Sith
  • A roguish hero developing into a character willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others
  • Someone murdering their own family member
  • A superweapon draining a star to power up
  • The sound a TIE fighter makes when starting up its engines
  • A ship entering lightspeed from inside of another ship’s hangar
  • A ship exiting lightspeed inside of a planet’s atmosphere

Thanks to my brother Dan and my partner Catherine for providing feedback on drafts of this post. The Force is strong with them. Just imagine our family gatherings.

12 parsecs

Star Wars is often lampooned for getting physics wrong, most famously this quote from Episode IV, A New Hope:

You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?…It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.

— Han Solo

Yeah, yeah. We know. Parsecs are a unit of distance, not time. You nerd.

Admittedly, Han’s line from in A New Hope confuses the issue, because he was trying to persuade Obi-Wan that the Falcon is a fast ship.

But here’s the thing. Han referred to ‘parsecs’ correctly. He’s bragging that his ship is fast because its hyperdrive covers distance more efficiently than most.

I’ll break this down for you with two facts, smarty pants.

One. Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. The fastest way from point A to point B through hyperspace is not a straight line. It is a vector carefully calculated to keep you safe while navigating around the gravitational wells of all the stars and other matter in proximity to your route. The vector is complicated by weird relativistic things that happen at faster-than-light speeds, which I don’t have time to explain to you right now.

Point is, the better your calculations are, the shorter your route is.

(Making these sophisticated calculations is the primary reason astromech droids like R2-D2 exist.)

Two. The Kessel Run involved a series of hyperspace jumps through a dense, dynamic star cluster. It was a region of space with twisted and dangerous routes thanks to a very high density of things to crash into and exert gravitational force on you. It was so dangerous that it couldn’t be effectively policed, making it ideal cover for smugglers transporting the illicit spice mined on Kessel.

Navigating the Kessel Run skillfully wasn’t about high velocity. It was about covering as little distance as you could. The shorter the distance you covered — that is, the fewer parsecs you traveled — the less your fuel you spent, the better your hyperspace engine’s speed and maneuverability, the better your skill as a pilot, and the greater your bragging rights.

See? Not a goof. Not a mistake.

Who’s the nerd now?