Motivation: universal solvent

One factor separates spinning my wheels in life and making exhilarating progress: motivation. How motivated am I to do the thing that I’m trying to do? How yummy does it feel? 

You can try all the psychological tools, productivity techniques, or rationality strategies in the book, but if you don’t feel motivated to do the thing then you’re going to suffer and the result will disappoint. Conversely, when you’re starving and seek food, you will reliably surprise yourself with the kinds of challenges you can overcome.

In the same way that water can dissolve more substances than any other liquid, motivation can dissolve pretty much any problem you can think of.

The best part is, it doesn’t matter where your motivation comes from. It doesn’t matter how it works and you don’t need to try to control it. You can pretend like it’s magical — some combination of past experiences. Given the hand you’ve been dealt, what can you do with it? Find what’s yummy and allow yourself to become an expert at that. If you’re not doing what’s yummy or trying to get yourself to find other things yummy (“wanting to want”), you are torturing yourself. This is a choice you’re making.

Patterns of distraction

While meditating, my mind often wanders. The style of that wandering isn’t random. The majority of the time, I find myself planning. Thinking about what I will be doing that day, or next week, or for the next few years. Breaking everything into pieces and rearranging them to solve the puzzle of maximizing fulfillment or happiness (or something). This likely serves at least some value. I hit upon some combinations of actions and ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. My future outcomes end up a tad bit more pleasing.

I often wonder what it would be like to have a different pattern of mind-wandering. Presumably, there are people whose minds wander towards reflection or self-assessment. Maybe their mind is more interested in replaying their previous day and its interactions with others. Drilling into the details of micro-expressions and vaguely phrased text messages. There are probably minds that enjoy wandering to the current events as presented by the media. The latest thing Trump said or what is happening in a far-off genocide.

These patterns govern much of our conscious experience. How do they impact our quality of life and the kind of person we become?

Hearing is believing

Spinoza and Descartes disagreed about whether we can neutrally assess a proposition before believing it. Descartes argued that this was possible and necessary in order to be rational. Spinoza suggested that it’s simply impossible — we must first accept something as true before we can understand it. Daniel Gilbert tested this [summary] about 30 years ago and it looks like Spinoza is the winner. It takes effort to unbelieve something after hearing it, even when told it is false.

This seems important. By default, we seem to immediately believe what we understand — what we read or hear or see. This is a bit scary for epistemic hygiene. On the plus side, it makes our beliefs quite malleable. Read something that you want to believe, or perhaps just say it to yourself, and it may become so. Prayer and affirmations are then expected to be quite effective.

Then you have to wonder, do beliefs even matter? To some extent, what we say we believe seems to correlate with our actions. But I’m pretty confused on this topic.

Dangers of lucid dreaming

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been having lucid dreams pretty regularly. To the unfamiliar, a lucid dream is where you realize you’re in a dream. And then realize that you can do whatever you want (kind of) since it’s a dream. Anyway, last night I was in the middle of one where I was running along a coastline on wet rocks. I noticed I was running much faster than I would want to in “real life”. Then I considered the psychological consequences of that. Is it possible that I’m subtly training myself to, in this case, be more reckless when running on wet rocks?

It doesn’t seem implausible. Some models of dreaming view it as a kind of “practice mode”. We use simulation to get more practice, thereby preparing us better for the real thing. That would imply that we are relying on dreams to learn. I can only hope that my kinesthetic learning from lucid dreams are sufficiently compartmentalized to only be active when a sense of “this isn’t real” is also present. That doesn’t sound like a great bet.

Bartender school

Today I was listening to an Ibiza cocktail bartender describing how he got into the business. Someone asks if he ever took a class or any formal training. The response was a bit of a chortle. “It’s way overpriced and you don’t learn the little important details. The best way to learn how to make cocktails at a busy bar is by working there and slowly picking up on how the bartenders do it.

While he was saying that, I thought of the trope of how useless business school is (other than for networking). It seems much of a liberal arts education falls prey to this attack. Not to say that it can’t be valuable — I’ve spent much time over the past year pouring over philosophy and psychology. The problem is when you rely solely on this to then go out into the world and do things. What we’re missing is a viable apprenticeship system for much of the economy. How many of us went to bartending school thinking that’s the fast track to becoming a star bartender?

Ants through chocolate

I’m staring at a chocolate bar with a few ants munching away at it. They carve winding valleys on the surface and presumably some subterranean tunnels. My first reaction was: “why aren’t you silly ants going in straight lines and being more efficient?” Then I saw the likely flaw. I’m no myrmecologist but it seems reasonable for ants to be Experts in Candy Consumption™. If someone is confused about the efficiency of ant chocolate eating paths, it’s probably me.

Presumably, they follow subtle gradients of chocolate density, sweetness, and other characteristics that I lack sensitivity to. Defaulting to an idea of doing things in orderly (legible) paths as the “efficient” one seems like a side effect of living in a culture of rational, top-down planning. Episteme replacing metis.

Desires held hostage

On the topic of being more mindful of what feels good and doing that, where does mindfulness itself fit in? Everyone seems to nod their heads about mindfulness being “good” and meditation being “good for you”. For pretty much everybody, trying to remain mindful while acting is quite difficult, if not aversive. It can even be painful. Formal sitting meditation is even more difficult. While I find both challenging, I also find the experience rewarding and enjoyable. It does feel good. But presumably, for myself starting out, and for many others, it wasn’t always this way.

In this case, and many like it, things are a bit more confusing. We may start off not liking something but after a while change our minds and see it as enjoyable. Our desires are hostage to our past experiences. This is true about many things: from the enjoyment of exercise to being actually held hostage.

Punishing yourself

Ever punish yourself? Many people are constantly punishing themselves. We typically start with some kind of policy for idealized action. “I won’t check Facebook on my phone.” Then we watch themselves violate that policy. “Here I go again, checking Facebook on my phone.” Then they proceed to punish themselves. “I’m such a bad person, I can’t even control this simple thing.” Or maybe even something like “Argh! Well, according to my punishment policy, now I need to delete the app from my phone for a week.”

Does this even work? For a self-applied punishment policy to succeed, it needs to be reliable. Punishing yourself requires an ability to be aware of when you are breaking the rules. When your mind gets punished for doing something, it tends to stop. In this case, it is more directly getting punished for being aware, not for doing the “bad” thing. So it will be pretty good at learning to stop noticing your “bad” action. 

Where do we get the idea to punish ourselves, after all? Seems painful. The Guru Papers presents an interesting hypothesis. Society is built on dynamics of control — people controlling each other with promises of rewards and the threat of punishment. For whatever reason, our minds may have a tendency of importing this dynamic into how it relates intrapersonally — how our mind relates to itself. When living in a world where punishment for transgression of policy is a common threat that seems to work for controlling our behavior (not without side effects, as detailed in the book and Chapman’s notes), it’s perhaps not surprising that we try to use it on ourselves.

Competing commitments

You have some “bad” habit you want to get rid of, or some new “good” habit or goal you want to undertake. However, there are only 24 hours in the day — and you are already using them all! I keep getting stuck on how powerful this idea is, at least for me. You are always and already using all of your time. To do something new, you have to give something up. Also, our capacity for reason is incredibly limited. Our habitual actions form over years of conditioning (classical and operant). Most of the behaviors that have stuck around are doing something for you. They are rewarding you, somehow. Sometimes it’s for eating high-density energy stores (junk food counts). Sometimes you create a plausible social excuse for failing at something, thereby allowing you to maintain your identity (changing that is hard).

We rarely have any idea why we do what we do. When you consciously try to replace an action that you’ve reasoned to be “bad” without a strong sense of what it’s doing for you, it’s quite likely to laugh at you.

Yummy actions

Do you know that yummy feeling you get when fantasizing about a favorite food or activity? An itchy excitement, a wellspring of energy. You go to great lengths to get yummy stuff. Not surprisingly, the yumminess is a big factor for whether a goal or plan succeeds. Does it feel yummy, does it excite you? Not just the “win” scenario — where you achieve the outcome — but the actions you expect to need to take. If it doesn’t feel yummy, you will likely have a hard slog ahead of you. You may be trying to force something onto yourself — using reason to try to convince yourself of a decision that your gut disagrees with. You can try to will your way through it, but success rates for this are not so inspiring. Instead, can you find a variation that is yummier?

Yumminess is a spectrum. Writing code may not be as thrilling as watching Netflix, but for many, it is more enjoyable than doing the dishes. Some actions that feel relatively yummy to you may be painful to others. It may not be obvious how but you can usually find a way to get paid doing pretty much anything. Consider the possibility that you don’t need to change who you are and what feels good in order to succeed.