As one cell in the organism

I wandered down the main street to find aspirin for a sick partner. I also, selfishly, wanted to go walk in the mountainous park across from our house before it got dark.

I stopped into a few places; no aspirin. I then stopped into a hippie grocery store, and as I walked out, a mother and daughter stopped me because they recognised me from TV. We talked for a little bit about the show; I mentioned I was now working in tech, unrelated to bodypainting, and they asked to if I would take a photo with the daughter. A passing-by Santa photobombed our photo as we took it.

I kept walking and got a WhatsApp call from my dad. As I answered it I saw a stunningly ugly bulldog standing alone at the entrance to a hairdresser. I went up to say hello, still with the phone to my ear, and the bulldog turned his back into me and backed up with the international signal for ‘pats, please’. Three or four people came up to pat him and at no point did I see his owner. Apparently his name is Gabriel and he hangs out at the front of the store every day for ten or so hours.

I kept walking. Maybe Wholefoods would have aspirin? A homeless girl was begging near the entrance. As I walked past I heard her say something like ‘just some apple juice?’. She looked about my age, maybe a bit younger, and sad but healthy. I wasn’t afraid of her. Almost at the entrance of the store, I turned around and walked back up to her.

‘If I were to get you something while I’m inside, what would you like?’

‘Some chicken noodle soup, or, a big thing of apple juice – I’m trying to get enough apple juice to last the night.’

How is there some amount of apple juice that will stop you being hungry overnight?

We discussed what kind of juice (cloudy versus clear – she prefers organic) and she made it clear that she wasn’t fussy (‘anything, I don’t mind’). I noticed close up that she had artsy tribal looking markings on her face – maybe light henna? I tried to come up with a back story for her but nothing clicked that would explain the white girl with body art begging for oddly specific food items from a Whole Foods.

I dove into the store and quickly found the chicken noodle soup, noting that it was mostly pasta – hardly the kind of thing that would be optimally nutritious if you weren’t eating much. It took me longer to find the apple juice, and I needed to ask a shop assistant. There was no plain, organic, cloudy apple juice available in the big, but not stupidly big size (I didn’t want to give her a chunky glass gallon thing that might go off and be hard to carry). I spent an absurd amount of time debating whether to get the apple ginger cider or the clear kids apple juice – what if she didn’t like ginger? That would be suboptimal, and she would feel picky, but if I couldn’t stand ginger and someone bought it for me I’d feel ickily obligated to them with the same feeling you get when clueless relatives buy you bad Christmas presents. I thought about getting the smaller one (same price, glass bottle, no ginger), but if you were so hungry you were begging for food, why would you want the smaller one? I briefly wondered whether she had looked through the selection in the Whole Foods deciding what to ask for. I decided on the apple ginger cider and hoped for the best.

Wholefoods had no real medications, only homeopathic and herbal stuff, so I gave up on finding the aspirin there. I must have been inspired to be generous or something, because I impulsively asked my ex-boyfriend (who I had been idly messaging the entire time) whether he needed American melatonin. I don’t know whether I normally think of myself as that considerate. I figured I should probably buy something for myself otherwise I’d feel odd going all the way, so I stocked up on expensive chocolate caffeine balls I can’t get at home.

When I came to the checkout her food came to around $15. I realised I never would have given a homeless person $15 if they had asked. It’s unlikely I would have even had the cash on me (are there any homeless people who take Venmo?) She was a pretty savvy business woman, and I admired her sales strategy. Maybe someone should start trying to hire street people into sales? If you can stand outside every day and ask for money from people who refuse to look you in the eye then you can probably sell health insurance to people who actually want to buy health insurance.

I sought out her eyes when I left the store; the opposite of my normal pact with homeless people. It was like she was part of a secret game – honestly she looked like someone I might have met at a university arts club.

I put the food down at her feet, muttered something and strode off, both with furtiveness and to avoid being ‘caught in the act’. It was an impulsive, one-off thing, and I didn’t want to start thinking of it as something I normally did. As I walked back up the street (and brag-texted the ex, doing the least amount of social damage with the impulse to show off) I felt the urge to look back at her and see her reaction.

This was fun.

I kept walking. Striding, and enjoying it, because it seemed like in my new wedge rubber boots all I could do was stride. Either generosity or the boots, but something was making me enjoy walking proudly, feeling my hips sway. A hippie couple was slightly in my way, and as I darted around them the girl looked me solidly in the eye, and said ‘Hey!’

‘Yeah?’

‘I like the way your face looks.’

It was such a bizarrely brazen, comfortable, and non-sexual catcall, and from a woman (who looked like me) that I was surprised, and actually enjoyed it. It seems strange, but of course I would feel less threatened by a catcall from a woman – I’d just never really encountered it before. I traipsed towards home in the warm afternoon sun with a smile on my face, wading through the Saturday people strolling down a cultured street purely for the fun of it.

Almost home, I stopped in an anarchist bookstore on a whim. I started chatting with the shopkeeper about Trump, and sexism, and traveling as a young woman. The conversation ranged widely and I could tell he was the kind of person who got professionally enraged about things. I was glad he felt like I could be an ally, because it would have been a different conversation entirely if he’d disliked me. As I gently made an excuse to leave to cut off what had become quite a rambling monologue about politics, he invited me to speak at their next performance night.

I had no idea what he thought I might speak about. He attempted to clarify that I was very eloquent, and I could speak about basically whatever I wanted to, and maybe my travels or where I was from? I left the store still really with no idea what attendees at an anarchist bookstore performance night might want to hear from a decidedly non-anarchist human with no specific agenda.

(Needless to say I never took him up on it.)

I got home, then turned around and immediately left again to take the train to a party across the bay.

A woman fell when the train shuddered, her bicycle landing on top of her. She was right next to me and I and five other people jumped up to right the bicycle, and pick up the sweet potatoes and bike lock that had scattered from her bike basket. The apple quarter I had been eating had landed near her on the floor and I scrambled to pick it up. The people in their bubbles had become, in an instant, a community of real humans with shared common goals working together. In an instant the invisible social agreement to ignore the rest of humanity on the subway had been broken.

One man put his hand firmly on her leg and asked her several times and a few different ways whether she was injured. She said she was okay. We passengers had been one community for minutes at this point, and the man’s compassion felt genuine and unashamed for being so public and watched by so many people. She halfheartedly insisted, again, that she was okay, perhaps a little embarrassed at so many eyes on her. Someone had called out to the driver to keep the doors open at the current station and with the whole train paused the woman managed to pick up her bike and wheel it off the carriage.

The subway doors slid shut, and in that fraction of a second the spell was broken and we became solo people in our bubbles again.

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Gardens versus rocketships: towards sustainable wellbeing in Effective Altruism

This year I actually attended talks at EA Global; a departure from my strategy last year of ‘ignore all programming; talk to as many people as possible until my voice runs hoarse’. Towards the end of the ‘Women and Nonbinary people in EA’ meetup when they were shuffling us out of the meeting space, I caught the eye of a young person from Israel.

They mentioned that they were new to EA, and very excited by the ideas and the goals of the movement. But then amid the fragmented conversation it came out:

‘I don’t feel very welcome here.’

This was less than 12 hours into the conference so I was surprised they had picked up that vibe so quickly. I asked what made them feel unwelcome. We both agreed it wasn’t people being overtly rude. Nor was it just the overwhelmingly technical focus of many of the attendees.

It was somewhat, but not really, the overall demographics – the heavily young, white, male, atheist, well-educated skew. We agreed though that it was more than that, and that there was something subtle going on that made it hard for them to get into everything and feel like they could be a part of the community.

I wondered aloud with them how they would find the rest of the conference, and made them promise to report back.

I have a habit of wandering in and out of sessions at conferences that probably vaguely irritates the facilitators when it’s in small groups. In this case I had wandered into Julia Wise’s ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’ discussion workshop late after cutting short an interesting conversation in the hallway. It took me a moment to even understand what the conversation was about, but Julia made the group rapidly feel at ease and the 30+ people were soon talking fruitfully about their fears and anxieties and how EA values clashed with other parts of their lives.

One woman spoke about feeling like she wasn’t good enough to do direct work; Julia responded by asking the group how many people had experienced impostor syndrome within EA.

Nearly every hand went up.

A few people mentioned strategies for keeping themselves on the straight and narrow, like remembering that they were ‘still doing more good than their non-EA friends’. I gave a reply that accidentally became a minor manifesto.

I said that I believed there was a certain type of person who was drawn to EA because they didn’t feel good enough, or like they had to earn their place in life somehow. I said I believed the principles behind EA and the psychology of the movement fuelled that. I also mentioned that too many people believed they weren’t allowed to be happy if they weren’t the perfect EA, or if they weren’t currently in the process of doing the most good they could. I argued that EA was beginning to have the same function as a religion in terms of providing purpose in (some) peoples’ lives, but that for a pseudo-religion it was doing a crappy job of providing people with the necessary social support to take on the difficult challenges it presented. At times it felt like the movement just attracted people and consumed all their excitement and enthusiasm without regenerating it, leaving people feeling burnt out and alienated.

I then wandered out in search of a different presentation and instantly regretted not staying.

From that point, throughout the conference I had people come up to me and talk about how much what I said in the workshop had resonated with them. That they felt like EA had a guilt problem, that they too had experienced it, and that they agreed that if EA were to thrive with the current demands it placed on people that it needed to to become a community that gave people (and not just people in the right social networks) adequate social support. All of these people came out of the woodwork, as if by magic, to earnestly ask me how we could solve the very real problem that they had previously thought only they were struggling with.

I felt like a minor fairy godmother as I wandered through the venue, collecting whispered stories of people who felt lost, or who felt like they weren’t useful to a movement that they felt only wanted technical supergeniuses who could write AI papers or do research. The rumbles had started.

Later on, as I was speaking to a handful of friends and new acquaintances who had each been in or around the EA movement for a few years by this point, it occurred to us that not a single person in the group actually identified as an EA. EA-affiliated, maybe, but either something had stopped us from fully embracing it, or we had gotten disillusioned with the movement after being hardcore EAs for a while. We joked that so many people were having doubts that the only people at the conference who identified as EAs were the people who had just heard about it a few months ago and were in the honeymoon period. We agreed that there was something in the absolutism, in the black-and-whiteness of the dominant sales pitch, that made us uneasy to half-identify, or identify as ‘part of the EA movement’ in some way. I knew that many leading EAs and EA orgs had tried to do something about this; to emphasise that not everybody needed to be hardcore, but it seemed in that moment that we were collectively some evidence that those efforts hadn’t worked, or worked enough.

Effective Altruism is a psychologically demanding belief system. At it’s core are a few fundamental assumptions (maximising utility, egalitarianism, a moral duty to do the greatest good) inherited from utilitarianism, Peter Singer, and the elite-educated men and women who founded the movement. These assumptions, if you are under a lot of stress or predisposed to anxiety, depression or neuroticism, can feel oppressive. I remember years ago when I had decided that yes, I wanted EA principles to be the guiding principles in my life, feeling an overwhelming sense of dread when I realised that there was no way to resolve the tension between maximising my utility function and that of everyone else without being a martyr or a giant asshole. This ended up making me way less productive, and I only became able to engage with altruism again once I dropped the demanding belief system of EA.

It’s my thesis that the psychological issues that crop up within EA, while they are not the fault necessarily of the founders or leaders of the movement, a) do stem from really fundamental parts of the ideology, and b) are exacerbated by the public narratives around the leaders who are most highly visible. So my suggestions for improvement, if they are actually valuable, would require pretty extensive refactoring of the basics of EA, and ideally a shift in the leadership by those who represent EA both outwardly and to those within the movement. I’m aware this is a big undertaking, so I am currently at the level of sketching out ideas in the hope of starting a discussion, not proposing a panacea. I also want to note that I am explicitly not comparing EA to any other movement (which I’m aware also have their problems) – I am only comparing EA to itself.

Firstly, uh, the ‘child drowning in a pond’ argument. This has been an iconic and central part of EA for years now, and it has definitely contributed to the association between ‘we want to find the way to do the most good’ and ‘it would be immoral not to’. While in belief systems like veganism it is reasonably possible to meaningfully live up to the central ask, in EA, for most people, it is not. That is partially because ‘do the most good’ is an unbounded optimisation problem, and partially because peoples’ monkey brains cannot meaningfully distinguish ‘the best I can do is not the best anyone can do’ from ‘I am failing to do the best I can do’. The original goal is simple can sometimes feel like a call only to those who already have a shot at doing ‘the most good’ in a competitive human sense. This leaves the poor, the disabled, the marginalised and the non-technical feeling like they have nothing to contribute (even when the community is crying out for empathy, great ops people and community builders). And it leaves everyone feeling like they aren’t doing enough, because ‘enough’ in this case is literally impossible.

There are two sub-components to this problem – a) everyone feels guilty for not doing enough, even when they are, and b) people feel like their lives aren’t purposeful or worthwhile if they don’t do the most good. I have a sneaking suspicion (that I mentioned in Julia’s workshop) that even though EA was started by people who wanted to be altruistic out of recognition of their extreme privilege, EA attracts the sort of people who tend to take on the world’s problems in order to feel less bad about themselves.

Whatever the solution to this part is, it has to involve a recognition that taking the weight of the world on your shoulders is dangerous, difficult, and absolutely not mandatory. Responsibility disproportionately larger than your sphere of control is a recipe for a bundle of stress and unhappiness, of the kind that makes you weaker, not stronger. Most people (particularly young idealistic people who are yet to finish the necessary personal growth work to fix whatever ickiness developed from their childhood) are generally not ready. There is a reason cultures have serious initiation ceremonies for adolescents, and that’s just for taking on the responsibility for your own adult life (and maybe that of your family or close community). A thriving EA culture would help those people develop the strength to take on whatever moral responsibility is appropriate for them to manage, along with wise mentors who can advise caution when they want to take on too much too fast.

Current EA culture lowkey says ‘Well, the world is suffering, and it’s your responsibility to fix it,’ and then the newbie closes the browser tab and has to endure their next five existential crises on their own.

One small part of this is the identity ‘Effective Altruist’. Think about it for a second – when you are identifying as an EA you are saying (with your words if not your intentions) that you are already highly proficient at the skill of doing good in the world, and you are already doing it.

Looking only at the psychological effects of identifying as an ‘Effective Altruist’, there is a small lie inherent the minute you take on the moniker. Because for most people who become EAs they are not yet proficient at the skills of doing good. EA should be a term like ‘knight’ – only awarded sparingly and then only to outstanding individuals whose contribution over a long period of time is unparalleled. Not something that people label themselves as soon as they’ve read ‘Doing Good Better’ and made their first donation to AMF.

This is not for PR purposes. Calling yourself an EA when you don’t feel effective nor wholly altruistic feels, to the intellectually honest believer, hollow and insincere. It’s like giving everyone participation trophies. With the shift in focus to collective do-gooding spearheaded by Will at last year’s conference, maybe the way out is to deemphasise the value of individual effectiveness (something that I think unfortunately happens as a byproduct of the fact that 80K’s career advice gets so much media coverage in comparison to other organisations’ work). We might instead emphasise the fact that we are building several machines, or a garden, that itself is improving at doing good.

This is difficult because the term altruism is very human-shaped and inherently has a subject who is altruistic – it doesn’t make sense in English to say that a machine or an institution is altruistic in the same way you would discuss a human. But its a direction that might be useful to aim at. Ideally new converts wouldn’t have to make any commitments or take on any moral responsibilities at all – at least until they were partway through a gradual process of strengthening themselves and understanding the landscape.

In my discussion of EA being a process of building a garden I hinted at what I think is another significant psychological hazard within EA – utilitarian utility-maximisation. This framework has the unfortunate proporty of both being incredibly obvious and fundamental to those who believe in it and completely ridiculous and mystifying to those who don’t. When I rounded up my new Israeli friend again to check in on how they were going in their relationship to EA as it evolved throughout the conference, this was one of the things that came up. It came up later in a group conversation about the shift in 80K’s top careers based on new research and knowledge making people feel crappy when their thoughtfully chosen earning-to-give job wasn’t as effective a career anymore.

A formal linear optimisation function is an algorithm, but it must be only one of several tools used to achieve a long-term and unstructured goal. One of the main things that alienated me from EA in the last couple of years has been feeling like I can’t pursue diverse strategies, like making myself healthy and powerful as a number one and not secondary priority, or focusing on paradigmatic and ecosystems-level changes at the expense of ‘optimal’ ones, without feeling like a ‘bad EA’ within the community.

Maximising utility is great when the problem is well-defined, the terms are clear and agreed-upon by everyone, and the metric we’re optimising for is clear and unlikely to cause any complex secondary effects. With things like ‘minimising suffering’ literally none of these are the case. While yes, it is an important tool in the pursuit of doing good (as long as you understand that it isn’t a requirement for being a ‘good enough’ human, which is not an easy thing to remember within EA at times), it shouldn’t be up front and centre as the predominant strategy of the EA movement.

But ‘removing maximising utility as the movement’s frontman’ isn’t easy even if we’d like to change it (which the community may object to). We would need something even more psychologically, logically and emotionally powerful to sit higher in the belief system’s value hierarchy. This is maybe why religions have been so good at getting people to do good (as defined by the religion). They have a pretty damn powerful idea (God) that the whole altruistic motivation system tops out at. EA mostly tops out at atheist privilege, enlightment-era moral axioms, and abstract maths. I’m not sure how we solve it but it’s interesting to consider what we might put in this highest position.

Maybe a social movement is not the right structure for a collection of humans who want to do the most good in the long run? Social movements are unstable; they rely on the constant frustration of their members and ideally the good ones pick a well-defined problem and dissolve when their problem is solved. EA’s problem is not well-defined or clearly scoped (at least as it is now; when the goal was just ‘make philanthropy more effective’ a few years ago it might have been). Perhaps there are other institutional structures that would better serve the movement’s abilities to meet it’s goals and allow its participants to flourish? I don’t know what they are (here I am throwing out so many problems without answers) but it would be useful to think about. The default, an informal social movement, is prone to the all the same diseases as other social movements and doesn’t offer a lot of support to its members in their challenging quests.

EA as a movement is currently attracting people like they are rocketships, giving them a minimal amount of fuel and then kind of launching them into the sky. Some people inside EA orgs and living in EA hubs may not feel like this, but they are probably the exception to the rule. If we want this movement to succeed and avoid burnout we need to work out how to turn it into an ecosystem that sustains the members who are taking on difficult tasks, and takes advantage of the fact that it exists within a planetary civilisation of abundant resources, and not on an isolated craft out in space.

Towards the end of the conference I ended up at a table with a few of the people who had mentioned their concerns to me after the wellbeing workshop. The atmosphere was vulnerable but caring; we all felt relieved that the problems we were experiencing were not isolated, frustrated at the way the movement was going up until this point, but also optimistic that a way for change was possible.

Quietly a few very established community members joined our table; they were, to put it bluntly, people who did not have similar faces or skin colours to the ones who had initiated the conversation. I half-feared that when they listened to our stories and our feelings of alienation they would dismiss our concerns. I had seen that happen within EA a few times before.

Instead, to my delight the three men listened compassionately and openly, and made the others feel heard without dominating or changing the conversation. It slipped out that they each worked for major EA orgs within the Bay Area, and as the conversation continued my respect for all those at the table grew.

The EA org men, for their openness, and their willingness to be led in solutions by the people experiencing the problem. And the people who had come to me originally; the new, the marginalised, the insecure – for seeing a movement that sometimes made them feel guilty and unwelcome and choosing to stay and create change themselves rather than giving up and running away.

The Queen, the Engineer, the Poet and the River: A meaningful life on de-institutionalised time

Humans get systematised for most of their childhoods and adult lives in Western societies. What results are anemic goals and a rigid relationship to time.

I was at a family gathering a while ago and we were discussing my aunt’s imminent retirement. She has had a very successful career in education, starting as a maths teacher and then becoming a Vice-Principal, and for the last few years the Catholic-raised principal of a Jewish school. She’s my godmother, and one of the women I look to as inspiration for the kind of person i want to be and character I want to have as I get older. She is the epitome of a powerful woman, commanding the respect and adoration of students and teachers alike (we had a Jewish school choir come and sing at my Grandma’s funeral inside a Catholic church, which seems to be a beautiful testament to my aunt’s influence and respect within the Jewish community).

We were talking about her plans once she leaves the school, and I asked what she was planning on doing next. Not itineraries or schedules or anything like that, but more – what was going to take up space in her life? What would give it meaning?

She described her plans to go hiking in Nepal, travel in India and South-East Asia, and caravan across Australia. She and her husband have always loved hiking, so that wasn’t a surprise.

I asked what she’d do once she got tired of having a holiday. She’s an ambitious woman with a lot of energy and I couldn’t imagine her simply relaxing for the rest of her life.

‘I don’t know yet. First I need to find out what life is like outside of school. I’ve been in a school for almost sixty years. Even when you’re the principal, you still have people telling you what to do constantly – you can’t just do what you want.’

The discussion continued around the theme of discovering what she was passionate about, but I was somewhat stunned. As a child and teenager I had felt trapped by the restrictions placed on me by school, and even though I voluntarily completed two university degrees I didn’t realise the extent to which my mind and motivations had been shaped by the overarching goals, structures and culture of school until I had been outside an institution for about two years. And here was my wildly successful aunt on the brink of retirement saying she had never known what freedom from those structures was like?

This profoundly shaped what I learned to see as the inverse relationship between certain kinds of societal success and personal freedom. And this conversation with my aunt, along with conversations with friends working in tech companies and as solo entrepreneurs, made me realise that the ‘institutional mindset’ cultivated in us by school lingers, for most of us, long after we graduate.

For years (mostly during university) I would sit down every three months for a personal quarterly planning session. Many guidelines for goal setting emphasise setting goals for different areas of your life (max 7-10) in balance with each other. I would review how I went at achieving the goals I had set the previous quarter (inevitably with only a 30% success rate), and then come up with seven or so new ones that felt balanced enough to encompass every major aspect of my life. I dutifully set SMART goals, emphasising the actionability of the goals or their individual steps. I set a bunch of ambitious goals, and invariably the ones I’d actually succeed at were the ones I was excited about or had social encouragement for. I had no trouble training three times a week, but the goal ‘plan a workshop tour to teach bodypainting’ sat incomplete on my master goals list for years because I wasn’t enthused by either planning workshops or the continual reaching out and networking and logistics that arranging the tour and selling the tickets would involve.

Over the years, it became apparent that whether or not I achieved a goal had little to do with how precisely I defined it and everything to do with how I felt about it. If I didn’t feel excited, capable and socially rewarded by the goal it would never get done.

I’ve come to see laziness as a virtue in some aspects of modern life; it is a relentless distaste for pointless busywork and repeating the efforts of others combined with a desire to make things efficient (so you don’t have to exert effort on them again). School attempts to beat this out of us, whether overtly or covertly – we are praised for trying our best regardless of whether that is necessary in the situation, we are assigned homework to complete regardless of whether we need it. You must always have goals, and they must be reasonable and legible to others.

No wonder people (teenagers, but increasingly adults too) rebel and lapse into internet addictions, TV and video games, and then ricochet back into a self-loathing ‘discipline’ that attempts to squash these ‘lazy’ impulses in the same authoritarian way schools do. For a somewhat heartbreaking peek into how this turns into self-flagellating rumination, scroll through r/GetDisciplined. You’ll find hundreds of stories of young people who hate that they can’t seem to wake on time, do their homework, be a drone. They long to be well-trained animals.

For a while I stopped doing all this. My goal setting process stopped working, and I wanted to be someone else, so I just let it fall apart and waited until something else emerged. The story of how I learned to trust myself in the process is another one, but suffice to say I started to realise that all of those ‘lazy’ impulses were actually very real and wise feedback reactions that communicated important information about what to do to be healthier and more alive. Did you know you can just take a nap instead of working, and not limit yourself to some precise allocation of leisure time to do so, and often that is the most efficient way to get yourself back on track with your work? Intellectually, most people know this, but for some it is a big step to then turn that into personal and social cultures that respect ‘I’m taking a nap’ as a valid option during a workday and don’t turn it into points mentally docked in the game of ‘who can work the hardest’.

After a while, I had unschooled or de-institutionalised myself to the point where I could understand myself as a normal animal might, I was physically thriving and my life was much less stressful. But my soul was not yet thriving. How could I do bigger things, or contribute meaningfully to the world, by just acting on my impulses? I needed goal setting back, but it still felt dull and useless and arbitrary any time I tried to awaken it. I couldn’t find a way to set goals that felt intrinsically meaningful – it felt like because I could pick and choose between belief systems, I could pick anything as a goal, and achieve it – great! But because of that it felt like achieving them would feel hollow and pointless, because I could have picked any of hundreds of different goals and been about as satisfied. When you don’t try to orchestrate your belief system from the top down, you don’t have any useful starting points from which to derive your actionable goals.

Goals were broken for me. Ugh.

….

Steven Covey recommends a role-based approach to setting goals and managing time. That is, he might see himself as a husband, father, son, community member, writer and team leader, and then consider how his responsibilities within each role might best be fulfilled. I always found this concept overwhelming and pretty restricting, particularly if I considered all the roles that society would recognise for me. And boring – who wants to set SMART goals for being a spouse or a daughter? How does that make your relationship better?

The approach that finally clicked for me was explained by Steve Pavlina in ‘Do Your Goals Conflict with Your Personality?’. In a nutshell:

‘Instead of thinking of goals as specific accomplishments I want to rack up in each part of my life, I began thinking of goals as a means of self-expression.’ – Steve Pavlina

In the article he describes a process of thinking about the different aspects of his personality and identity and clarifying them into a collection of identities or archetypes. He starts with six, and later refactors them into a smaller list. Often they ‘want’ contradictory things; the Master and the Member have different needs for social control which can cause conflict when he’s entering into social situations. This has a similar feeling to Internal Family Systems – a therapeutic framework that some friends of mine find very valuable in helping to resolve internal conflict.

I tried this, and was surprised to almost immediately come up with a list of four that felt like they collectively neatly encapsulated all aspects of my personality.

The Queen (feminine) – She is a powerful figure who rules with a combination of wisdom and compassion. A wartime Queen, the archetype I usually have in mind when I think of her is the goddess Athena, who is the more rational of the two Greek gods of war, known for her strategy and patience. This part feels a deep capacity and responsibility to take care of the world, and to expand her ability to do so. She wants to draw upon an infinite amount of energy, clarity, patience and courage to lead and collaborate on ambitious projects that help the world thrive, and build relationships with trustworthy, expansive people in order to do so.

The Engineer (masculine) – He is less visionary than the Queen; he sees beauty in efficiency, optimisation and problem solving.He’s lazy, and likes to solve a problem only once. He loves understanding complex systems, and is constantly making newer and more accurate mental models of phenomena. Risks getting ‘nerd-sniped’ into optimising unimportant things, but always picks problems to solve because they have humans in them. This part aligns well with working in tech companies, doing work in timed pomodoro sessions, and designing habit rituals.

The Poet (feminine) – This part hates schedules; she loves to wake up at midnight with a brilliant idea that just -needs- to be written down. She has her own rhythms and moods; she will do nothing for three days and then be incredibly productive in an hour and a half in a burst of creative brilliance. She is not a poet in the sense of writing poetry, but in the sense of seeing everything in life in terms of its poetic aesthetics. She loves beauty, even in negative emotions; she is sensitive, unashamed, and loves immersive tactile experiences – she is a subtle vessel for the expression of the human condition. She loves improvisation, dancing with people and deeply exploring a person, or an idea, or an aesthetic. She hates schools the most of all of the parts.

The River (neutral) – This is the part that recognises that it is only one part of a vast universe – a singular wave in the ocean of existence. It recognises that it is not different from others or the world around it, and is alive and responsive to energy flows, like an open bottle filled with water bobbing down a river. It is constantly becoming a more sensitive instrument for expressing the energy of consciousness. This part comes alive with joy, submission, play and meditative inquiry. It may be human-shaped, but thinks identifying as a human is silly.

Now, it may become evident as I’m describing this that as a regular 20-something living and working in a modern city I may not actually be any of these things. I am not literally in charge of a country, nor employed as a poet or engineer, nor on meditation retreat all the time. These are visionary or aspirational archetypes, that may be obscured or weakened by dulling experiences like stress, fatigue, fear and attachment. Each is the project of a lifetime, and fully embodying even one as it seems inside my head would be a tremendous achievement. The aim is simple (but not easy) – to curate a life that allows each of these parts to flourish, if they will.

It may be worthwhile to do this exercise for yourself, and explore different possible identities until you find a collection of them that seem to define your best self. The characters can be as specific or as broad (like mine) as you feel is necessary.

An interesting way to find or predict internal conflicts is to find the ways your archetypes might naturally conflict. They say that successful married couples argue about the same things for years; they just manage to prevent the arguments from irredeemably hurting the relationship. Same deal, hopefully, for identity conflicts. If the archetypes stay stable, you might expect that the conflicts will be the same over the years. The trick is to make each part feel fulfilled and heard regardless.

Conflicts I came up with:
Queen vs River – Queen wants to adhere to plans, River wants to react spontaneously in the moment.
Queen vs Engineer – Queen wants to allow people to solve problems; Engineer wants to get in the weeds and solve problems himself
Poet vs River – Poet wants to be admired by humans; River want to abolish ego
Poet vs Engineer – Poet wants to dwell in melancholy and moods; Engineer wants to analyse and prevent them
Queen vs Poet – Queen wants to scale dominance hierarchies; Poet wants to reject and run circles around them
Engineer vs River – Engineer wants to build lots of mental models; River wants to get rid of mental models

But also, these multitudes allow for beautiful collaborations. What expressions might be possible in combinations that aren’t possible alone?

Queen + Poet – a beautiful, expressive leader inspires love, devotion, and creative expression in the people around her. And making aesthetic-led choices from a position of power manifests beauty more strongly than just from a lone artist.
Queen + River – wisdom comes from listening, and being patient, qualities developed in the River, which is also a source of flowing energy. And the compassionate power of the Queen is an outlet for the flow of energy through the River.
Queen + Engineer – How will you make changes in a technical world? By analysing the problems and fixing them. And the Queen’s perspective helps the Engineer to focus on what problems are important.
Poet + River – Dwelling in the River helps vulnerability and openness arise, and unblocked energy that can be transformed into artistic creation. And artistic expression is a vehicle for exploring the universe – a way of dancing with it.
Poet + Engineer – Engineered systems serve as a powerful vehicle for creative expression. The Engineer is also driven to break down and analyse the skills needed to build beautiful things.
Engineer + River – The River develops the spaciousness required to really see complex systems, and respect the nebulosity of experience. The Engineer creates the space in everyday life to be able to practice being fluid.

So, enough of this narrative imagination stuff. How does it help me like goal setting and time management again?

The goal setting part should, hopefully, now be obvious. If all your goals come from one perspective, the other parts of your personality will eventually get sick of it and lash out in an ice cream-fuelled Netflix binge. Thinking of aspects of my identity as detailed agents like this also makes me more respectful of the inputs required for each of them to come alive – would you expect an engineer to do their best work in an intellectual vacuum, or a queen to be wise and compassionate without constant interaction with her populace? It has given me a more realistic model of what is required to sustain motivation within each identity, and has narrowed down the possible options for goals considerably. No longer do I have an arbitrarily long list of brainstormed goals to select from; now the highest priorities for each aspect seem almost instantly obvious, and if I make a mistake in my decision-making I can feel how ‘off’ it is immediately.

But time management?

Back to the influence of school again. School schedules have a staccato rhythm to them; when you are younger the days are broken up into one hour or shorter segments – commute, practice, class, lunch, class, break, class, commute, sport, homework, dinner. The days within the week are similar, and the weeks are almost identical. When you get into university additional rhythms emerge – the semester, break, semester, break rhythm over the course of year; the soft ripples building up to resounding roars of assignments and due dates over the course of a semester or term. These rhythms might be great for coordinating large groups of humans in the education system, but they sure aren’t optimised for each human inside it.

One of the benefits of de-institutionalising yourself is learning to find the rhythms you best fit into; that make you come alive. Sometimes they are purely clock-bound, measured in chronos time, like the fact that my body works best when it is asleep around 11pm and awake by 8am (unless I’m recovering from something). But school doesn’t teach you much about kairos time rhythms – like that if the inspirations strikes to write I’d better drop everything else and write it, or that trying to sandwich a deep conversation with a friend between two hard time commitments is a recipe for failure.

One of the kairos-like rhythms I’ve noticed, and I’m excited by, is the idea of facilitating moods over longer periods of time. At the moment it’s in the timeframe of days. The idea is that each of these personality aspects functions best when allowed to feast on activities and experiences of its preferred kind, and to control time the way it wants. This is why it’s hard to leave a party to go study, but why you can get life admin, study and room cleaning done back to back. This sounds like the fairly basic concept of ‘batching’ but it’s got a slightly different flavour. With batching, you start with a list of tasks, and then you sort like with like until you have two hours of phone calls to make and two hours of emails to process. This other directing-the-current process would feel more like ‘Today I will allow myself to feel very connected with people, and move away from things that require mechanical execution or high strategy’. You allow yourself to flow into this style of being fully for the period allotted, and turn away from experiences that don’t fit that vibe.

You are setting up planned on-ramps to get ‘in the zone’, except you are aiming towards several zones.

With this process, I might create my weekly plan around spending two-ish days in a given mode. This means being ruthless about reshuffling commitments and canceling plans and being open to scheduling using different methods depending on the preferences of the given mode. Engineer days might have classes scheduled and time booked out for 25-minute pomodoro work sessions. Poet days might have nothing planned except some notes that a particular book is exciting me right now and that my friend invited me to go out dancing. Sometimes the intention you have for a given mood/mode won’t fit the options you have available in the real world and you’ll have to compromise. But if you’re creative and have a lot of options already then you should be able to make something work.

I’m going to make a caveat about spaciousness here. If you don’t feel like you have enough mental space to drop concerns that don’t fit with a particular mode then this concept may not be for you right now. There are perfectly valid and effective ways of being where your focus is more concretely on some practical problem, like making enough money or raising children (several times I’ve given advice but caveated that it didn’t apply to parents; I’m beginning to think that all personal growth advice should include specific strategies for growth-while-parenting, because it definitely seems to be hard mode). In this case, more straightforward life planning strategies like the ones in the 4-Hour-Work-Week or Mr. Money Mustache would apply. Some people definitely don’t have as much time freedom as I do and I’m not sure how well this strategy would work in those cases.

But if this is something you have the space for, it might be worthwhile to try it! This means for someone like me, some days of the week are dedicated to optimising, designing systems, implementing and maintaining systems. Some days are dedicated to being in nature, meditation and spiritual growth. Some days are dedicated to love and art. But the important thing is not batching the activities. It’s that the activities, collected together, are a manifestation of values, personalities and modes of being that matter to you, and that each day or period allows you to sink as fully as is possible for you at that time into that mode.

Your collection of weekly mood modes might look different from mine, and that’s great! I suspect that people would tend to sync up in certain expressions for social reasons (focused work at the beginning of the week, spiritual connection and play at the end) and it’s probably helpful to lean into that for some environmental reinforcement. Your calendar might look vastly different on ‘Maker’ days as opposed to ‘Manager’ days, for one thing. Maybe this works for you on different timescales, like months or years. What is important is not the particular logistics – it’s that each version of you gets the time and space to express itself fully, in whatever timescale it needs.

But can a machine play?

On the West Coast there’s a community of people who do contact dance, a type of free-form dance where no one person is leading. Unlike other forms of partner dance, you must be both a leader and a follower, and it really doesn’t work if you lean too far in one direction. What this means is that creating a ‘good’ contact dance requires that you both continually make bids (or offer something interesting for your partner to build upon) and accept bids, letting yourself react to the physical ideas your partner offers.

Trying to plan a contact dance from the beginning flat out doesn’t work. What you can do to improve, however, is train your attention to be more receptive and finely tuned to the physical information you are receiving, and explore deeper and more generative creative states that allow more interesting and beautiful reactions to develop.

At the same time as going to a tonne of weird-looking contact dance parties, I’ve also taken up ballet again after a roughly ten-year hiatus. Ballet is in many ways the opposite kind of internal experience to contact dance. There is nothing to react to outside of your body in the creation of the dance; improvements come from developing a more finely tuned mental model of the platonic ideal of ballet and then continually adjusting the position, motion and aesthetic of your body to shift your movements ever closer to the infinitely perfect ideal. But the ideal only exists in your mind, and real-world factors like being 5’10 or having broad shoulders or an inflexible back are ‘damage’ that hinders your ability to improve towards your model; they can never be catalysts for a new or unexpected creation within the dance.

From the inside, as the person inside a belief system, top-down models feel like ballet, and emergent or metasystematic models feel like contact dance. There is definitely a ‘correct way’ to do things in ballet, and moreover, you will never achieve it, even if you happen to be maximally genetically gifted and also determined and have training from a young age from the best teachers. In contrast, there is really no ‘right way’ to move in contact dance, but then again there is no ‘wrong way’ either. The closest you might get is to say that being able to listen to your partner more attentively (to how their body is moving, and what their body is telling you) means you can create more interesting and expressive dances.

The quality of movement developed in ballet is useful to a contact dancer, but it is by no means the only way to get good at it – in fact you could come to contact dance from almost any movement style and the vocabulary and physical expression you brought would make for powerful and unique experiences. By contrast, if you want to be good at ballet, you need to take ballet classes. And not just any classes – a series of clearly-defined systematic exercises that start simply and progress through increasingly demanding techniques that vary little week to week and are almost pedagogically identical throughout the world. You even use a standardised French vocabulary (regardless of native tongue), so a ballet dancer could walk into a class in a school they’d never been to, in a language they didn’t speak, with a teacher they’d never met, and still be able to complete the class as if they were at home.

Ballet is an incredibly efficient and universal system for training beautiful dancers, yet if you want to mess around yourself, and dance to have fun, it kinda sucks. That is because there is no interactivity built into the rules of ballet, so improvising is really hard, and often just becomes an imitation of formal exercises. It’s hard to play with ballet.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to play with contact dance. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself absentmindedly contact dancing with a hand-loop on the subway, or a doorway, because the mere fact of the loop’s existence afforded interesting bodily responses that informed the way I was dancing.

A formal system like ballet is useful for achieving something when the goal you want to achieve is clear. Ballet is incredible if you want to become a strong and beautiful dancer (or keep fit while mastering a complicated skillset). If you have no desire to achieve the goal of becoming a beautiful dancer, then the experience of practicing ballet will suck. Ask the ten year old girls forced into ballet classes by their parents how intrinsically enjoyable ballet is, and you’ll probably get some raspberries blown at you or maybe some middle fingers. But if you find the one girl who dreams of being a ballerina then you will hear her marvel enthusiastically about how lovely ballet is, how beautiful the moves are, and how much she enjoys her classes. Why you play the game matters most.

When I was in high school I hated maths; not because I was bad at it, but because the main motivations teachers compelled us with for learning maths had to do with engineering and being better at physics. I preferred people to physical objects so I knew that learning maths would be pointless for me.

Fast forward several years and I’d gotten sick of the pre-paradigmatic relativism of undergrad political science and decided to enroll in a postgrad degree in economics. Turns out…uh…you need to know calculus to study economics, and I’d, um, quit maths in high school long before we ever got to that point. But economics looked me directly in the eye and persuaded me point blank that it was a reasonable and elegant system for understanding human systems that happened to be based in mathematics.

Now maths was about people! And calculus became elegant and fascinating all of a sudden, and I gobbled up Khan Academy videos like they were going out of style. My enjoyment of the discipline was entirely dictated by whether my goals aligned with the goals the system would allow me to reach.

Contact dance is, in many respects, not useful for anything in particular. It doesn’t make you a better dancer – in fact if you want to become a better contact dancer, a legitimate strategy would be to go train and get very good at another style entirely. Contact dance occurs for its own sake, and dancers dance merely to continue the dance. In this respect, ballet is one of James Carse’s finite games, and contact dance is an infinite game. One is entered into in order to win (become a beautiful dancer); the other entered into merely for the sake of playing.

I see many people (myself included at times) trying to optimise their lives the same way a dancer optimises her movement in a ballet class. Increasingly complex time-management techniques, extreme minimalism, the financial independence/early retirement community and the rationality community – they all have this sentiment at their core. Computers are excellent at optimising, too, and do so single-mindedly and without yearning for freedom or a greater purpose. In fact, I suspect the skill of being able to optimise for goals you do not adhere to strongly (being a high-decoupler) is the undercurrent driving the increasing success of programmers and other STEM-types in the contemporary world, because we have built so many of these ballet-like finite games into the driving forces of our civilised society.

Optimisation can be incredibly satisfying, but for humans it satisfies only if it is in service of a satisfying goal. Absent the satisfying goal it becomes a prison. Our modern disease is that many people’s lives exist wholly within the structures of an indifferent formal optimising system (*cough* structural oppression), and like the miserable ten-year-olds in the ballet class, they aren’t allowed to stop playing.

Pain is a useful feedback look that exists everywhere in life, but suffering exists only where an infinite agent is confined by a finite system that does not align with their goals. Machines, by definition, cannot suffer as long as their objectives are innately aligned with their optimisation process – it is a tautology to say that a machine exists for a purpose, because without the purpose the machine would not exist. An infinite agent, however, like a human, or an organism, or an ecosystem, does not exist for a purpose. It only exists in order to continue to exist.

So one societal-level strategy to minimise suffering might be to stop forcing people to take ballet. Or, to put it more concretely (and because any large changes will have unintended side effects), to develop institutions that people can both choose to play in and choose to leave. Humans don’t like to be systematised, unless they really really want the goal the system is striving for. But machines love to be systematised, and the robot revolution already seems to be bringing about a mass displacement of humans by machines in areas where human desires don’t align with the practical necessities of systematisation. For all the hype around big data and blockchains and artificial intelligence, these technologies all really seem to have the potential to abstract away the confinement and facilitate humanity’s freedom to play – if we choose to use them that way. It isn’t at all predetermined, and they could easily go the other way and foster an even more inhumanly constricting society than before.

Doubtless, some interaction between humans and top-down systematicity is necessary – whenever you need to mould human behavior to achieve a certain purpose, you need to train people in a way they likely wouldn’t agree with during every second of their training unless they really agreed with your goals. There are probably still some things that need to be done by large numbers of humans acting in formally coordinated ways (and that can’t be done by machines), and when they enter into them freely, formal systems can be hugely powerful in giving meaning and power to peoples’ lives.

Not all aspects of civilised life are finite games. We’ve become accustomed to playing them over the last few centuries of modernist expansion, but it’s not necessarily the highest mode of being that humans are suited for. We can imagine, however hazily, a human civilisation in which the constricting stuff is done by machines, and humans and other organisms are allowed to flourish within playful infinite realities, or knowingly and willingly submit to finite ones.

Humans, and hopefully human civilisations, exist merely to continue to exist, and to engage in this highest mode of being ad infinitum.

We are not machines – we are here to play.

Crack open your identity

David Chapman has an excellent and evocative framework for understanding the complex mess society is currently in and how we might get ourselves out of it. It starts by mapping Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development onto the development of society and then delving into the specifics of how society is progressing and why we are collectively stuck at the places we are stuck at.

To atrociously oversimplify, agents (read: humans, communities, civilisations) go through a few distinct stages, and the last three (of Kegan’s five) roughly correspond to a premodern or tribal stage, a modern or systematic stage, and a metamodern or metasystematic stage. Between each is not an orderly linear progression, but an abrupt, incoherent, and traumatic fracturing of the previous belief system in order to make way for the new one, which generally contains the old one, but not vice versa. (Check out Thomas Kuhn’s excellent ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ if you want to be nosy about how this works specifically within the domain of scientific research.) Central to David’s thesis is the idea that in order to sustain a certain level of development, a society must contain a sufficient number of sufficiently developed people, and that because the current education system doesn’t facilitate certain shifts, we must be creative in developing our own. Venkat Rao of Ribbonfarm identifies this pattern on a more micro-iterative level, and prescribes an accelerating loop of existential crises and recovery to maximise personal growth.

I’m very pro the existential crisis as a vehicle for growth. I am, in fact, a little wary of people who purport to never having had any, seeing them as either sleepily naive or somewhat psychopathic. What ‘I’ve never had an existential crisis,’ (truthfully spoken and not just an attempt to save face) tells me, is that the speaker has held the same identity for a looooong time.

The pace at which your identity shifts is largely a function of how much novelty you throw at it, plus how much your environment constrains or enables rapid changes. This is why self-help gurus recommend moving as a means of changing yourself – in a new city, no one knows you as a vegan, or too loud and bossy, or as a non-technical manager, and you can rapidly evolve a new set of identity signifiers that build out a completely different social persona.

But building a new persona isn’t super helpful unless you’ve previously uncovered a new toolbox for making such changes. And unfortunately, the things we perhaps most -should- change are the things we most strongly cling to, and which are most fundamentally embedded into our sense of who we are. This is why, while shifting to a new city -can- improve your life, it can also easily allow the initial changes to melt back into your previous habitus because they aren’t fundamentally that different.

When I was in university, I had consistent trouble with a guy. Let’s call him Ludovico. This one dude managed to break my heart four times over about seven years, in largely similar ways, which is now, and was even at the time, an impressive length of time for me to be falling for the same dumb shit repeatedly. He had an intoxicatingly charismatic way of drawing me in to a pattern of beliefs that were delusional but just coherent enough to mimic something real, and during The First Time He Broke My Heart, the fallout from believing what he persuaded me to believe particularly troubled me.

Once I woke up from the fog of crying and angry journal entries and calmly tried to look at what had actually happened, the weirdest thing was not that he had disappeared for two weeks to Hong Kong or Singapore or something (and didn’t tell me before, after or during where he was or why he wouldn’t contact me). It was that when he said things like ‘most people aren’t intelligent enough to vote and we shouldn’t let them,’ and ‘it’s perfectly moral for me to steal from companies as long as no one finds out that I’m doing it,’ I found myself falling into agreement with him. Post-heartbreak me looked at what had happened, what I ended up believing via him and was chilled – how weak and jumbled-up was my belief system if I could let my love-drunk self determine what I considered right and wrong?

I realised I didn’t have a functional belief system and set out to fix that. Luckily, LessWrong.com was rapidly rising as the smartest place on the internet and I had just graduated university straight into the first of many quarter-life crises – so I had plenty of time on my hands. I inhaled the basic tenets of internet rationality from the source, and gobbled up utilitarianism and later, Effective Altruism as well. I enrolled in a postgraduate degree in a social science that actually has a unifying scientific paradigm (economics).

(I became heaps fun at parties.)

A sense of calmness descended on me with the knowledge that all of my existential questions could have One Right Answer if I just spent enough time figuring it out, and I collected a whole set of overly intellectual friends and internet mentors (read: bloggers) whose minds worked similarly. I really couldn’t see how anyone could read the core arguments of EA and not end up as an effective altruist.

Throughout this period my goal-setting process became more and more codified. A few years in there was a brief attempt to mathematise my personal utility function so I could work out the optimal amount of time to spend on pleasure versus useful projects. You may laugh, but I truly believed the best thing to do was to work to minimise suffering, and the idea of not directing all of my agency towards that filled me with immobilising guilt.

Developing a guilt complex is practically an Olympic sport in Effective Altruism. Sure, there are plenty who don’t succumb, but they often happen to be the ones who are winning at the status games and thus get all the right hits of dopamine for their monkey mind to continue playing. Garden-variety EAs, particularly women, can and often do become paralysed by the idea that they aren’t doing enough. I’m sure other ideologies have their own emotional hazards.

Around the time of my pseudo-spiritual conversion to rationality I was staying with a new friend in another city. We were talking about Reason and Intuition, those two big capitalised ideas that shape so much of our understanding of human thought in the Western world. I was arguing, at the time, that Intuition had nothing to offer that Reason didn’t already have, and moreover, that Reason, by design, was much more easily checked and debugged and was thus in every way superior as a way of making decisions. My friend, older than me and having gone through this breathlessly eager stage of development already, gave me many reasonable arguments for the use of Intuition that I was, sadly, not quite ready to hear at the time. But one of the things he said struck me as exciting then, and, like a good wine or cheese, has only become more complex and interesting as it has ripened over the years in my mind.

He described every trait, whether in personality or thought or something else, as sitting somewhere along a spectrum. Sometimes the spectrum is obvious (Left/Right; Reason/Intuition) and sometimes it’s unclear. But he said that for all the traits present in his mind and sense of self, the most fruitful growth had come from a process of nudging or bouncing to the other side of the spectrum and exploring and developing the skills that lie there. So as a reasonable scientific thinker, he jumped headfirst into mysticism and spirituality, and developed as much as possible the capacities involved. Where he lay on any given spectrum at any given moment was pretty irrelevant; the important thing was that with every (often tumultuous) shift, he was both stretching and balancing his psyche and at the same time releasing it from the grips of a predefined ‘identity’. The idea that I should investigate ideas on the very basis that my kneejerk reaction is to reject them was, at the time, both ridiculous and inspiring.

It becomes odd to call yourself a progressive or a libertarian when you can go to both progressive and libertarian parties, make arguments that are respected alongside the political canon, and have people mistake you for one of them. In the same vein, emotional intelligence is no longer a frightening thing for you, the mathsy/science person, if you’ve spent a bunch of time developing your ability to feel emotions, express them, and read them in others. This isn’t just a straightforward ‘work on your weaknesses’ recommendation, but a counterintuitive ‘invert your strengths’ – allowing you to expand the range of situations and environments you can comfortably thrive in.

Every attempt at maximisation along some measure is a trade-off of the resilience of diversity for the firepower of exploiting a particular niche. Lots of elements of Western society encourage this hyper-specialisation, but at the cost of undermining our ability to adapt when circumstances change. Preemptively stretching those unused adaptations is not only useful as a warm-up for environmental shocks, but also as a way of rocking your identity out of the calcified grip of systematic labeling. When you wriggle a nail that’s stuck in a hole, it doesn’t just move to the polar opposite of where it was originally. It also loosens its stuckness in the hole more generally, and each shift keeps loosening until one day the nail pops out into a whole new context not defined by the wood it was previously embedded in.

My counterbalancing ricochet was, over the course of a few years, into fiction, art, spirituality and beauty. I soon realised that as much as I intellectually believed in what EA stood for and the powerful claims the rationality community was making, it was making me sad, sick and a bit elitist. For a while, I ran headfirst into the other direction – spending my time based on how much pleasure it would give me, or how much beauty it would create; learning ballet, learning how to appreciate the nuances of poetry and fiction and making new friends who happened to find rationality lifeless and boring. Forcing myself (at least initially) into these microcultures and honestly appreciating them allowed me to loosen the hold the serious utilitarian worldviews had on me, and then slowly incorporate them back in as only some of the elements in an increasingly complex dance in my mind.

That process isn’t done yet, but the seeds are already bearing fruit. I’m able to return to ‘world-saving’ projects with a much better eye for how they will fit into the world (versus how fanciful they are). I’m a lot less susceptible to making decisions by spreadsheet that make me miserable, and in the process the version of me that decides what projects to get involved in has gained a lot of the trust of the spontaneous, social monkey-me who actually has to carry the work out. I like to think I’m now less of an asshole to people who think differently to me, and I’m definitely no longer afraid of getting stopped by Jehovah’s witnesses or people on the street collecting for charities that are less cost-effective than the Against Malaria Foundation (spoiler alert: all of them).

I should point out that this doesn’t mean I regret spending time as a hardcore utilitarian. I think for some fundamental traits and belief systems, trying out both extremes leads to a more nuanced centre of balance than never veering too far from the middle. Like a handbalancer, the skill is not in staying still, but in having the strength to hold unbalanced positions, survive them, and then from within them, return to balance. Going off balance (and falling down occasionally) is a necessary part of the process. It also helps you recognise how malleable, contingent and emergent belief systems can be and then eventually, when you’re ready, helps you fall out of them completely.

Kill your darlings, and not just the peripheral darlings that haven’t yet made it into the core of your being. If you want to expand your sense of who you are, and what you’re capable of, expand your capacity towards the opposite extremes you’re uncomfortable at, like ideological exposure therapy, until you no longer need to retreat to the comfortable side.

On flinching

It’s the feeling that makes you want to stay under the covers. You feel an overwhelming urge to dive into something engrossing; to consume, not to be satiated, but so you don’t have to dwell in the alternative. I feel it as a bodily sensation – a painful twisting in my chest, a slight tingling all over like there would be an itch to scratch if any of it would just coalesce into something stronger.

This is impulsivity – the feeling of impulse – from the inside.

Once, on a melancholy but restless day, I got dressed, left the house, took a train to the city and wandered around until I found a place where I could play Dance Dance Revolution by myself as a last-ditch attempt to scratch the itch that was craving sugar, junk food or the physical experience of adrenaline. Something. It was a ravenous itch in my mind and I refused to give in to the obvious things. Keeping my promise to myself on a month-long restricted diet by hunting down a DDR machine would have looked crazy to outsiders but luckily nobody asked.

When it’s focused it feels like craving. When it’s diffuse it feels like restlessness. And when it’s dull it feels like ennui; the hollow slump of existential dread.

Rather than Carroll’s ‘ten impossible things before breakfast’, I aim for ‘ten existential crises before noon’. I’ve always looked at the ‘adults’ around me and noticed they seem dead; I now suspect that it comes from being on the other side of this desire/restlessness/existential dread combo. Inside of it, facing it, you can look crazy – like my friend who wails and lashes out for no concrete reason and whose eyes will pull tears from the ether with no catalyst at all. Staring at it properly, for me anyway, takes work, courage, and a bit of recklessness.

You can’t be a ‘reliable member of society’ while you’re engaging with it. It doesn’t care how many emails you need to send or how many pomodoros you need to do to feel like you’ve earned your place in the status hierarchy. On the easy side, this thing sparks passion, creativity and skin-to-skin contact with life, while letting you feel in your bones that it’s ok that there’s no triumphant final meaning or collectively agreed-upon purpose. I feel intensely in my body when I dance with it, and intensely present and alive. Maybe it is just presence. It feels childlike and natural and wonderful.

The flip side is the bad side. And I’m going to call it bad despite spiritual exhortations to recognise all experiences as perfect – because at the stage I’m at, goddamn, it still feels shitty.

You could cry, or scream, or punch things until you couldn’t breathe, but why? There’s no justification, nothing that will make you feel less ridiculous for feeling ‘upset’ while living in your beautiful house with your beautiful friends in one of the liveliest cities on the planet. It doesn’t even feel possible to cry. But it feels easy to flinch.

Remember ‘the floor is lava’? This feeling is exactly like the prick of anxiety you feel when you realise you’re about to fall on the floor, coupled with the flood of relief the second you jump up onto the couch or the chair. It’s the same feeling, right down to how made up it is. This unsettledness comes from investing in the game as completely real, in life as ‘completely real’. For me, the novice Buddhist, it makes no more intellectual sense to identify the things making me dissatisfied as ‘real’ as it would to feel pain if someone hit my avatar in a videogame – possible, yes, but ultimately absurd. But as the novice, I am yet to build the practical skills required to openly and lovingly engage with the game while knowing that it isn’t real. Right now I’m just in the ring getting hit, and knowing that it’s my lack of skill getting me hurt doesn’t make the blows any softer; if anything it makes them cruel.

Standing at this faultline between being present to the restlessness and flinching away from it into mental addictions, I’ve finally discovered an encompassing sense of empathy for those who switch off for years of their life. The married couple who spend two decades of their marriage asleep to each other. The corporate executive who is numb to his body and his sense of meaning. The video gamer who has no relationship to his physical reality and the community outside his monitor. It feels like a real place I could be, a precipice I could fall over. On days like yesterday, it feels like it would take bucketloads more actual courage than I had in that moment to stay present to my reality and not pacify myself like I did, with online shopping and Twitter.

Pacifiers can be anything; the same person (read: me) can use Twitter as an enlightening and empowering way to connect with public intellectuals they admire, and a self-soothing distracting plaything they keep wolfing down to dull the sound of their soul screaming.

‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill…’ Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are more and less addictive substances and activities, and it would probably be harder to flinch away from yourself in ascetic poverty than in the middle of a decadent civilisation but that’s not my point today. Another time I can talk about the acceleration of addictiveness, and how our internet-saturated lives have become laced with emotional and attentional landmines, but from the inside the scale of the temptation is irrelevant – the fact that we can be tempted easily at all is what matters. People will replace their pacifiers with whatever they can find to get their fix.

Dealing with this isn’t easy, and I have no elegant answers here. There’s an entire philosophical and spiritual system that’s been focused on the problem for millenia but it still demands you put in the right work with the right teacher for a loooong time. And so much ‘habit’ advice ignores this underlying phenomenon; the self-help guru whose advice leads to you quitting smoking thinks he has won but he doesn’t see the way you’ve replaced smoking with Netflix and shrinking from confrontational conversations. A millionaire and an overweight alcoholic can be just as existentially fucked up, but nobody’s giving the millionaire any sympathy.

It seems like the missing element here is something like courage, but not the social kind of courage that lets you stand up to a bully. Or maybe it is, but inside the society of your own mind. It does seem harder to be present when experience is shitty when you are worried about making a social faux-pas and making rent this month. Maybe ‘paying attention to the existential dread’ sits high up on Maslow’s hierarchy, and maybe that’s why it feels easy to fall away from that when life has stacked responsibilities and demands and complications in your lap.

In a conversation with a historically-minded friend, he mentioned that within his theory of history, most of the sweeping, fundamental changes came from people in positions of privilege, precisely because they (and only they) had enough spare energy and resources to actually focus on the messy work of shaping the world to their desires. I suspect the same is true for mindfulness, except that the hopeful mindful person needs less money and influence than the hopeful world-changer. ‘Breathing space’, the privilege of not having to worry so much about money, or being alone, or systemic racism, seems to be synonymous with the freedom or power to attempt to actually be alive in this mindful sense.

TLDR: be privileged, or else be a lifeless drone? How depressing. And I don’t think that’s the case. I suspect people with difficult lives can be courageous in the way that being mindful while suffering demands, but that it perhaps requires a precarious constant rebalancing of the things that drain emotional energy to expand constantly moving pockets of breathing space and wriggle out as much life slack as you can muster. I honestly have no idea, and I admire the people who push back to create these pockets for themselves.

I have no good advice for dealing with this phenomenon other than to notice it, practice leaning towards it, and find some damn good mentors. And recognise that even being able to spend precious minutes of your life grappling with the feeling of restlessness that comes along with existential crises is an exquisite kind of privilege and you might not always have the breathing space for it. I oscillate between wanting to ride these currents and quell them; I suspect the answer I choose will dictate whether I end up as an artist or an engineer. At its fullest this feeling seems like it has the seeds of enlightenment in it, so at least it’s a seductive abyss.

…and then sometimes I wake up well-rested and wonder whether existential crises are just a symptom of sleep deprivation, and human philosophy is just something else we made up to soothe our animal selves when everything hurts.

Becoming a magician

When I was a teenager I often used fantasy as a vehicle for escapism. Some people, when they fantasise, think about sex or dragons or wildly unlikely events like winning the lottery. I fantasised about things like having a family of twelve children, designing my own octagonal house and being an adult artist who lived with her friends. The last one morphed one day into a detailed imagining of myself as an adult, in a way that seemed incomprehensibly beautiful and liberated to fourteen year old me. Things like living with friends I cared about, having multiple partners who cared about each other, riding my bike everywhere, and making a living as an artist seemed as unattainable as slaying dragons might’ve for teenage boys. The description was about five or six handwritten pages long, and at the time, it was a manifestation of desperate longing to be somewhere other than where I was, someone who felt free and cared for. At the time I saw that description as basically an impossibility; my life could never be so amazing in reality.

Fast forward about seven or ten years and I rediscovered the description when I was moving old notebooks and journals from one dusty storage spot to another. As I read through it, I discovered that 90% of the statements I had made in that description were true (or true in spirit). While I didn’t technically live with my partner, he stayed over most days and was close friends with all of my housemates. At the time I was throwing weekly dinner parties where friends would invite random newcomers to attend and I never knew how many people were coming until we actually sat down to eat. Some statements were true down to the suburb I lived in. As I read through the piece with the eyes of 24-year-old me, I felt that it captured with extreme precision the way my life was at that moment. I should point out that after I wrote it, I didn’t ever look back on it. I basically wrote it and then stuffed the notebook in a drawer somewhere and forgot about it. It was incredible to me, despite all the changes that had happened in my life since when I wrote the passage, that I had basically become the person whose life I had dreamed of living as a teenager.

That’s pretty fucking cool.

But what I realised was that while that vision had been compelling up until that point (24 or 25), in the literal sense of having compelled me forward through life, my fantasies had changed and expanded in the intervening time. If I read that description at 24 as something to aim towards I would have felt bored. Feeling free, loved, cared for, and able to express myself artistically? Sure, that was great. But I felt then (and feel now) that that is a solid baseline for my current adult life – that I would in fact find it surprising if I went for longer than, say, three months without any one of those needs being met. So the challenge now is to write a new version of this fantasy that describes the version of myself that currently feels impossible, and then simply orient myself towards that until it becomes true.

Not only is any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic; any sufficiently advanced technologist seems like a magician. In order to write the new version of this life description, I need to imagine a version of myself who, by definition, I cannot understand. If I understood her she wouldn’t be magical.

For several years I competed in bodypainting at the highest level of competition in the world. Every year I would fly to Austria and compete in the World Championships and by the latter years I would consistently rank in the top four or five. This wasn’t unusual; I was aiming for first place and never got it, but most of the time I understood pretty concretely what a first place piece would look like. It felt like incremental improvements from where I was at that point; faster painting, more detailed realism; a competent assistant, some element of luck in how my presentation was perceived by the judges and how everyone else performed that year. I knew the styles, strengths and weaknesses of the other people who consistently ranked in the top ten pretty intimately; I often predicted accurately whether they would move up or down in the rankings each year. You could say that my model of ‘how to succeed at a bodypainting competition’ was technically sufficient, and the thing I needed to work on was merely fine-tuning all the pieces until I ranked higher than everyone else one year.

And then came Sanatan Dinda. An Indian visual artist from Kolkata, he didn’t even make the finals the first year he competed, and the next year he placed second with a style that broke half a dozen of the implicit rules of ‘good artwork’ at the competition. He used a monochromatic or even black and white palette. His pieces weren’t flashy, sparkly, or even very ‘pretty’ in a standard sense. He left vast parts covered in brown, or muddy purple, or some other unappealing background colour. But yet the third year he came he won the entire competition by something like ten percent of the total awarded points over the next artist in second place.

His first piece brought people to tears. It was brutal and glorious and technical perfection, but not just that. There was some sort of soul in it that suddenly made all the other bodypaint works seem lacking. His second piece did something similar. I didn’t win that year (obviously; he did) but I didn’t even mind because I was so glad that work like his existed and that the World Bodypainting Festival had, in some way, helped facilitate that art existing.

The thing that confused me though was this – I could not work out how he did it. Like, I had zero mental model of how he created that piece in the same timeframe we all had; how he came up with it, designed it, practiced it. Even though he placed first and I placed fifth and logically we both existed on a scale of ‘competence at bodypainting’ it seemed like the skills required were completely different. You could not simply scale up my abilities and get Sanatan’s. You would have had to step back and build something completely different altogether. When I speak to Sanatan (I haven’t picked his brain relentlessly, but I have asked him a bunch of questions when I’ve had the chance) I don’t get any closer to a mental model that would allow me to paint like that. It seems to require completely different mental inputs entirely.

The feeling I get, as a very good bodypainter looking at Sanatan’s work, is that I am looking at magic. And that, in fact, is my definition of magic – competence so much more advanced than yours with such alien mental models that you cannot predict the outcomes of the model at all. If you asked me to imitate the work of any of the top 20 bodypainters, I could give you a fair imitation, given enough time and access to reference images. With his work I have no idea.

And yet, ten years ago when I encountered the website of the World Bodypainting Festival, as not-yet-a-bodypainter, literally every image on the website was in that category for me. I look at those pieces now and could replicate any of them, but at the time they seemed incredibly complex, technical and inscrutable – I couldn’t break down what steps the artist might have taken or why. I just saw them as unattainable.

One of my heuristics for growth is to seek out the magicians, and find the magic. Often without noticing, your progress in aspects of life or all of it unconsciously becomes linear. You made a certain amount of money last year, so you aim to make some ‘reasonable’ proportion more this year. But you are largely using the same tools to get 2x as you used to get x, and so you end up with diminishing marginal returns as you wring the remaining juice out of the initial strategy. The ‘describe the version of you that seems impossible right now’ trick I described above is largely an attempt to bypass that part of my brain that dismisses the work of magicians as crazy and starts allowing it to make the necessary shifts required to become the kind of magician I am envisioning.

The way to extraordinary growth and changes often involves a fundamental ontological or ‘lens’ shift in how you see the world. Magicians are wearing not just better, but fundamentally differently shaped lenses to the rest of us. And regardless of your skills and experience, it is likely that you are a magician to someone else. As someone who has a well-defined felt sense of how various foods affects their body, and can cook simple, healthy food well, I can seem like a magician to someone lacking a similar mental framework who ricochets between spartan self-denial and uncontrollable junk binges.

Meeting magicians is the first step to becoming one – when you are attempting to learn implicit knowledge that by definition you don’t understand, it is important to have a bunch of examples in front of you to feed your brain’s pattern-recognition systems. This will start to change your worldview without the controlling ‘you’ explicitly approving or denying every new belief or framework. Magicians or their work often seem to have a subconscious glow that I am drawn to, particularly if they use a type of magic that I recognise is on my critical path and thus something I’m currently seeking. Concrete steps I take to find them include asking my most interesting friends to introduce me to their most interesting friends, going down similar rabbit holes with the bibliographies of books that excite me, and generally living in ‘explore’ mode at various points in life, while recognising that not every avenue will lead to a jackpot.

Trying to envision magicians feels less clear, at least for me. My vision is likely to stem from a combination of a bunch of people or concepts I’ve encountered, so the same strategy applies as for finding magicians (giving my brain a lot of examples to work with). Questions I like to ask myself include:

  • ‘What is the most capable version of me that I can imagine?’
  • ‘What would I be like/spend my time doing if all my current major problems had been solved?’
  • ‘What are the things I say I value but don’t act as if I value, and what would my life feel like on inside if I actually acted as if I valued those things?’
  • ‘What am I afraid of doing, and what would my life be like if I wasn’t afraid of doing those things?’.

 

I think an important part of imagining this version of yourself is forgetting it.

 

You can’t keep your gaze tightly fixed on the outcome you want because it will lock your mind onto the strategies you currently have for meeting them, which by definition probably don’t work (otherwise you would have succeeded already and you wouldn’t need to use the strategy).

 

You can tell for yourself whether a strategy you’re currently using seems to be a crutch or actually helping; often in areas when you are actually making progress you won’t be able to imagine a nonlinearly better version of yourself, only one who in fact followed the current strategy to its logical conclusion and is now about as great (at the thing the strategy is for) as you expected to be. This is fine. We don’t necessarily need to make nonlinear jumps in all aspects of our lives, particularly if (according to your values) making such a jump would require a sacrifice you don’t endorse. But for the things you care about most, or are causing you the most suffering, there is probably a nonlinear strategy that you will miss if you pay too close attention to the linear strategy you current have or that people recommend. Sometimes, jumping ship and having no strategy for a while can be better, and allow you to clarify what you want, in the same way that being single for a while can allow you the space to look at who you are in a relationship and improve it.

 

So, in short, a helpful strategy for becoming a magician: Surround yourself with people who look like magicians to you. Then imagine yourself as one, older and wiser, in great detail. Imagine yourself as the person you would be afraid to say you want to be out loud to others (because it seems so ridiculously impossible right now). Write it down in great clarity and detail, then forget it. And let the part of your subconscious mind that still remembers lead you to becoming the things you want, and maybe, years later, check if it did.