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.

Draw intrinsic drive by confronting the terrible

My cliff notes for “See the dark world“:

We frequently, when frustrated by the world, invent reasons to make it seem tolerable — not to judge things as good, but acceptable as they are, even though they may be bad.

[U]pon seeing that the world is broken, people experience an impulse to explain the brokenness in a way that relieves the tension. When seeing that the world is broken, people reflexively feel a need to explain…

Maybe our we gave our best (even though it wasn’t good enough). Maybe something — famine, war — is terrible, but beyond our control (we aren’t responsible). Maybe we wash our hands spitefully (because we didn’t get what we wanted).

These are all strategies to make things tolerable — fundamentally acceptable as-is — which eases the tension when something is unacceptable. This is called tolerification. It is a human reflex — we all do it, and do frequently. It is seeking an explanation of the dark state of our world that relieve us from the pressure of action or responsibility.

Even cynicism, I think, can fill this role: I often read cynicism as an attempt to explain a world full of callous neglect and casual cruelty, in a framework that makes neglect and cruelty seem natural and expected (and therefore tolerable).

For example: The actuarial market value of saving a life is approximately $3,000. This is reprehensible. Two ways to tolerify it are to (1) reject that markets can make value a sacred life entirely as a ridiculous, rejecting this fact out of hand; or to (2) conclude cynically that actually lives aren’t sacred, after all, and thus not worth saving (or worrying about). Both approaches relieve pressure. Both approaches deny that there is a market value of life, and lives are invaluable. That world — our world — is a dark world. It is unacceptable, so we impulsively tolerify it.

Now that we’ve removed guilt and obligation as a motivator [in previous posts in this series], we are motivated intrinsically. By relieving pressure, tolerification saps our intrinsic motivation.

To preserve and strengthen your intrinsic, be mindful of tolerification, and instead, focus on the dark world. (This is, obviously, incredibly grim.)

A tool to help with this: Pose yourself a “what if” question: What if _____ (something bad) is the case, and it is unacceptable (in other words, whatever you’ve found to tolerify it is invalid)? What would I do then?

The nice thing about the “what if” question is that I don’t need to believe that that’s the actual world when pondering the “what if”. I don’t need to acknowledge that I am [for example] unqualified for the job, I can simply ask what would do if I were

The answer might require self-improvement — say, improving some skill or attribute that isn’t good enough yet) — or realignment of your life or believes to address some injustice or hard apparent truths…

There is no one right answer to the “What if the world really is so dark?” question, but asking it should generally lead to two things consistently: First, a sense of despairing over unfair, unacceptable, things. None of this is easy! But second, it also leads to a sense of resolve, because avoiding the pressure relief allows you to face what needs to be done, and to act.

People say they need to tolerify, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to handle the intolerable world.

But that’s false. Acknowledging that the world is unacceptable will not kill you; the world is already as unacceptable as it is. Remember the litany of Gendlin.


Let the world be not okay. Live in that space, where you feel cold resolve, fury, determination, even despair, and can be powered by those things. This kind of intrinsic drive comes from bearing the truth, which is exactly the opposite of the common wisdom that we need fantasies to bear the truth.

I say, if you want the intrinsic drive, drop the illusion. Refuse to tolerify. Face the facts that you feared you would not be able to handle. You are likely correct that they will be hard to bear, and you are likely correct that attempting to bear them will change you. But that change doesn’t need to break you. It can also make you stronger, and fuel your resolve.

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.