Noticing the Taste of Lotus

Re­cently I started pick­ing up French again. I re­mem­bered get­ting some­thing out of Duol­ingo a few years ago, so I logged in.

Since the last time I was there, they added an “achieve­ments” me­chanic:

I no­ticed this by earn­ing one. I think it was “Sharp­shooter”. They gave me the first of three stars for some­thing like do­ing five les­sons with­out mis­takes. In the “achieve­ments” sec­tion, it showed me that I could earn the sec­ond star by do­ing twenty les­sons in a row flawlessly.

And my brain cared.

I watched my­self hun­ger­ing to get the achieve­ments. Th­ese ar­bi­trary things that some­one had just stuck on there… in or­der to get me to want them. I no­ticed that I could get the sec­ond and maybe third star of “Sharp­shooter” by do­ing ear­lier les­sons and googling words and phrases I wasn’t quite sure about…

…which re­ally doesn’t help me learn French.

Yes, we could quib­ble about that. Maybe perfect prac­tice makes perfect, yada yada. But the point is: I dis­agree, I think my dis­agree­ment comes from know­ing what I’m talk­ing about when it comes to my learn­ing, and some­one’s ar­bi­trary gold stars im­me­di­ately over­rode all that in­sight by grab­bing my mo­ti­va­tions di­rectly.

I don’t have a prob­lem with gam­ifi­ca­tion per se. What bugs me here is that this spe­cific gam­ifi­ca­tion didn’t fit my goals, and that fact didn’t at all af­fect how well the sys­tem grabbed my want­ing. I just… wanted those achieve­ments. Be­cause they were there.

If I hadn’t no­ticed this, and if I’m right about what I need to learn French, then I would have wasted a bunch of time pur­su­ing a use­less proxy goal. And I would have felt plea­sure in achiev­ing it. I might have even thought that was a mean­ingful sign that I was learn­ing French — never mind that my goal of hold­ing my own in con­ver­sa­tions isn’t re­ally helped by care­fully avoid­ing ty­pos.

Dun­can Sa­bien some­times talks about “lo­tus-eat­ing”. He’s refer­ring to a part of the Odyssey where they land on an is­land of “lo­tus-eaters”. It turns out that once you eat some of this kind of lo­tus, all you want to do is eat more. You stop car­ing about your other goals. The lo­tus just grabs your wants di­rectly.

I claim you can no­tice when some­thing grabs your want­ing. Just… look. Just pay at­ten­tion. Here are some lo­tuses I’ve no­ticed:

  • Most com­puter games are full of these. I some­times play one called Alto’s Ad­ven­ture. You flip a lit­tle char­ac­ter over and land some tricks, and then get a speed boost. If you col­lect enough coins, you can get spe­cial items or level them up to a max­i­mum. If I start play­ing it, I no­tice I care about these ar­bi­trary coins and flips and so on. And if I’ve been play­ing it re­cently, I no­tice my­self want­ing to pull the game out and play it some more. But what is gained by do­ing so? Maybe some­thing, but if so then that’s a happy ac­ci­dent. My life isn’t any bet­ter af­ter un­lock­ing all the made-up achieve­ments on this lit­tle made-up game. But each time I land a trick: BAM! A tiny burst of satis­fac­tion, and a want­ing to keep go­ing.

  • Scrol­ling down on Face­book. There’s some­thing about want­ing to scroll a lit­tle farther. I get a “Yes!” and a “Just a lit­tle more” each time I scroll down and see a new post. Just an­other cou­ple more min­utes on Face­book, right? Oops.

  • Email. Where does the im­pulse to check email sev­eral times a day come from? Or to “catch up” on email? What are you try­ing to do? What does it feel like when you’ve just clicked “Send”?

  • In­box zero in par­tic­u­lar does this a lot for me. If I have just two emails, I want to re­ply to them right away, so I can get back to that oh so sa­cred in­box zero state. But then peo­ple re­ply, and I re­ply back, and my time gets eaten up… but at least I’m main­tain­ing in­box zero, right?

  • Porn is loudly lo­tuses. The web­site Your Brain On Porn goes into this a ton.

  • YouTube has lo­tus na­ture. It’s ac­tu­ally de­signed for it, just like Face­book. When you watch a video, it tries to guess what video you might want to watch next, and ad­justs de­pend­ing on what you click or sit through.

  • The card game Do­minion has a bunch of ex­pan­sions. I found my­self want­ing to buy each ex­pan­sion as it came out, be­cause then my set would be com­plete, you see. No­tice how the com­plete­ness is defined by some­one else.

I think this kind of thing isn’t very hard to no­tice if you try. What sud­denly has you car­ing? What drives you into a kind of ac­tion? Just no­tice.

Also no­tice when some­one else built the want-grab­ber. Their in­cen­tives are prob­a­bly differ­ent from yours. If you don’t pay at­ten­tion, you’ll get hi­jacked.

And then you’re prone to ra­tio­nal­iz­ing your ad­dic­tion — like think­ing that Face­book keeps you con­nected to your friends, but not re­ally car­ing that maybe that’s false.

I claim you can come to no­tice what lo­tuses taste like. Then you can choose to break use­less ad­dic­tions. And it’ll feel good to do so: you’re break­ing free of dis­trac­tions and can tell.

I find this gets eas­ier if you give your­self per­mis­sion to eat lo­tuses if you want to. Then I don’t have to lie to my­self about whether I am or not. I can just play Alto’s Ad­ven­ture, or clear out my email, or what­ever, and it’s fine. I just pay at­ten­tion to the ac­tual con­se­quences — in­clud­ing the im­pact on what I later find my­self want­ing to do.

I ended up find­ing the taste of Duol­ingo’s lo­tus dis­gust­ing. I could tell I wanted more, and that want­ing was dis­tract­ing me from my goal. I could do more, but now I just don’t want to. It feels satis­fy­ing and em­pow­er­ing to re­sist the im­pulse to go back there and get one more star. I’m listen­ing to French ra­dio in­stead.

I in­vite you to learn what lo­tuses taste like, and re­claim your want­ing for your­self.