I want it my way!

First posted to not­think­able.com

I’ve been mean­ing to write a blog post for awhile (years), be­cause more and more I’m find­ing that con­tribut­ing to oth­ers, in what­ever form that takes, is a re­ally re­ward­ing thing to do, and makes me feel con­nected.

But I’ve been putting it off, be­cause I can’t write Med­i­ta­tions on Moloch on my first try.

I have this re­ally sticky idea that if I hold off writ­ing a post, some­how, in the fu­ture, I’ll be able to write some­thing re­ally good: that moves a con­ver­sa­tion, or that is an au­then­tic ex­pres­sion of who I am, or some­thing. Even though I know this is silly. Peo­ple tend to have to have prac­tice writ­ing blog posts for awhile be­fore they pro­duce some­thing that touches peo­ple.

How­ever, the feel­ing is still there. Be­cause I don’t want to give up on the idea that this won’t be as good as I want it to be when I pub­lish it. That would mean a kick to my ego, and that would be bad. Why can’t I just write some­thing and re­vise it end­lessly, so that it can be good enough first time? I don’t want blog­ging to be how it is. I want it my way!

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It seems that I’m a slow learner when it comes to this.

Last year I got into on­line dat­ing (briefly). I’d been putting it off for awhile (years). Even­tu­ally what it took was a close friend sit­ting down next to me, watch­ing me, whilst I mes­saged peo­ple, be­cause I just wouldn’t do it alone.

It re­minds me of a Jor­dan Peter­son video where he talks about treat­ing peo­ple who are afraid of nee­dles. They’ll start with the small­est pos­si­ble step: let’s just have a nee­dle in the room, and re­veal this fact. Not even a visi­ble nee­dle. Just cre­ate aware­ness that there’s a nee­dle in the room. And go from there: first hav­ing the nee­dle visi­ble. Then hav­ing it brought closer. Then hav­ing the pa­tient touch it, etc. Each ses­sion tak­ing a small step, mak­ing progress lit­tle by lit­tle.

I was origi­nally go­ing to write an es­say called ‘hold­ing hands’ awhile back, about this dy­namic. My friend said that sounded like a great idea. But I didn’t ever write it, be­cause I didn’t fol­low my own ad­vice.

There’s a lot of hu­mil­ity re­quired in some­thing like this. A pre­vi­ous Nick would have judged. Aren’t you ashamed of your­self? You can’t even do that? That’s pretty pa­thetic. You should just get over your­self, and start dat­ing. Man up!

The thing is though, the judg­ing didn’t work, but ‘hold­ing hands’ did.

It turned out that I re­ally didn’t want to be judged, re­jected, or have peo­ple ig­nore my mes­sages. ‘Turned out’ I say. No, I to­tally knew that was the case all along, but I wanted it not to be that way.

And then even af­ter I went through that, I still wanted it my way! I would re­ally read through some­one’s pro­file, thought­fully, and pic­ture my­self spend­ing time with that per­son, and then af­ter do­ing that, send a re­ally per­son­al­ised, thought­ful, and kind mes­sage, be­fore fi­nally, af­ter feel­ing good about my­self for awhile for do­ing that, be­grudg­ingly move on to the next per­son.

There’s some­thing about giv­ing up want­ing it your way that opens you up to how a sys­tem ac­tu­ally works. What it ac­tu­ally is. So in other words, let­ting go of your own stuff about how a thing should be, lets you see the thing for how it is in re­al­ity. As a con­se­quence of this you get bet­ter re­sults with the thing.

But even know­ing this, I still want it my way.

Way be­fore ac­tu­ally do­ing it, I’d mod­el­led out how on­line dat­ing worked, in the­ory. I knew that most mes­sages I’d send to women would be ig­nored, and that it was a num­bers game. I also had a strong sus­pi­cion that cer­tain kinds of mes­sages would have bet­ter re­sults. How­ever, I still wanted it my way, and still needed to have the ex­pe­rience of hav­ing my thought­ful mes­sages ig­nored, be­fore I fi­nally let go of all of that and ac­cepted the way the sys­tem ac­tu­ally is. And sud­denly then the whole thing made much more sense, and then I could think about it and model it well, be­cause I’m no longer get­ting in my own way, and it’s less about me.

How­ever, even know­ing all that, I still rewrote a bunch of blog posts end­lessly, and put off mak­ing a post to the com­mu­nity, be­cause I want my first post to be good and read by a bunch of peo­ple and liked and for it to all go my way.

I ex­pect that the ex­pe­rience of mak­ing a post and not hav­ing this re­sult will be the gen­tle nudge from re­al­ity that I need to let go of want­ing this to go my way, and sub­se­quently free me up to make bet­ter posts. God for­bid if peo­ple ac­tu­ally like it.

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I think that want­ing or ex­pect­ing things to ‘go my way’ is a pretty deeply grounded as­sump­tion in the hu­man psy­che.

I re­cently de­cided to quit my job and start my own coach­ing and per­sonal de­vel­op­ment com­pany, and what I am now con­sis­tently faced with is my own wish­ful think­ing about ev­ery sin­gle as­pect of that whole thing.

I as­sumed I’d be able to get clients eas­ily. After all, I already had clients, and now that I have way more hours in the day to throw at this, surely that will mean I can just ex­pand my efforts and more clients will ap­pear to me. Also: it wouldn’t take me that long, right? After all, I’m a re­ally tal­ented coach. Peo­ple keep tel­ling me how great I am at it, and I haven’t even trained! And I’m do­ing a trans­for­ma­tional coach­ing course with all these other up-and-com­ing coaches, and so by the time I’ve done that I’m go­ing to be su­per amaz­ing. Peo­ple should be knock­ing down my door. I’ll trans­form their lives!

Oh yes and my en­ergy! Once I have more clients, I’m go­ing to have more en­ergy. Be­cause coach­ing is my favourite thing in the world, and gives me so much en­ergy, so clearly I can just con­vert that 1-1 into pro­duc­tive ac­tions that give me even more clients… mes­sage, be­fore fi­nally, af­ter feel­ing good about my­self for awhile for do­ing that, be­grudg­ingly move on to the next per­son.

I mean, I’ve been read­ing LessWrong for awhile, and I’ve done CFAR and the men­tor­ship pro­gram, and a bunch of other stuff. So surely I’m not go­ing to be su­per ir­ra­tional about this, right? As­sume I know what’s some­thing’s go­ing to be like be­fore do­ing it, and all that? I’ll have much more re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions, and I’ll be burn­ing cash too, so I’ll have to get se­ri­ous, be­cause now money is on the line! It’s like a gi­gan­tic bet on my­self!

Uh oh, there I go again!

But I re­ally re­ally want it to be this way!

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I want to say some­thing in this es­say be­yond: Look how ir­ra­tional I am. Some­thing that is use­ful, or a con­tri­bu­tion.

So let’s give that a try.

If my pri­mary di­rec­tive is to keep things the way they are, and val­i­date my own ex­is­tence by main­tain­ing and re­in­forc­ing my own iden­tity and be­liefs about the world, say, then all of the ac­tions above are to­tally un­der­stand­able.

If I see my­self as tal­ented, and I be­lieve the world is such a place that tal­ented peo­ple should be able to win be­cause that’s how it should be, then it would be painful to have those views trod­den on by be­ing ig­nored by peo­ple when I’m ac­tu­ally putting my tal­ents out there. And plus I re­ally care too, be­cause I be­lieve, say, that dis­cov­er­ing ones own blindspots and as­sump­tions is in­cred­ibly im­por­tant, and is like my call­ing, so clearly other peo­ple should care about that too, right?

Or if I’m some­one who sees them­selves as in­tel­li­gent, and so then has to main­tain and re­in­force my self-image as such a per­son, then I’d bet­ter not write a blog post that threat­ens this view. Other­wise peo­ple will ig­nore it, or pass judge­ment on it, and that would be pretty bad for my re­in­forc­ing-self-image-ness.

Or maybe I be­lieve that failure is bad, and that if I fail, then I per­son­ally am I failure. So I have those two things con­flated. Then any­thing I do risks failing, es­pe­cially new things, so I’d bet­ter not do the new things, then. Be­cause I want it my way, and I don’t like think­ing about the fact I could be a failure.

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Ok let’s try again, with metaphors this time.

I take the view that the de­fault po­si­tion, in any new do­main, is some­thing like: childlike, ego­cen­tric, per­son­ally-ori­ented, and all about you (or me). That’s sort of like a fact of re­al­ity, when try­ing some­thing new. So if you do try some­thing new, you start in the de­fault po­si­tion. The de­fault po­si­tion ‘wants it my way’ and so re­sists how things are. Re­sists the way the sys­tem ac­tu­ally is.

So now, like a child learn­ing to walk, you dip a finger into the sys­tem. It’s cold, that sys­tem, and wet. It wasn’t a warm par­adise, like you wanted it to be. But some­thing funny has hap­pened now. You now have this wet wa­tery thing on your finger, and you can look at it, and it’s in­ter­est­ing. And oh, look also, this thing, this sys­tem you dipped your finger into, it has prop­er­ties. It has stuff-ness. It’s wet, I mean, that’s some­thing right? Be­fore you touched it, you didn’t even know that! I mean, ok, you in­tel­lec­tu­ally knew it was wet, be­cause you’d read a book and you know that lakes are made of wa­ter. But this wet­ness.. it wasn’t how you ex­pected it to be at all! In a sense, it was re­ally noth­ing like the books.

Then you can put a foot in, say. You can feel the rough mud be­neath the sur­face. It feels differ­ent to the wa­ter. Yeah, you knew that there might be mud down there, you’d read that too. But this is your first time feel­ing it, and its so differ­ent to what you ex­pected it to be. It’s not what you wanted… but it isn’t not what you wanted ei­ther. It’s not even in the realm of want­ing or not want­ing. It’s in the realm of: this is what’s ac­tu­ally there, now. Want­ing or not want­ing lives in a to­tally differ­ent realm, it would seem.

And then maybe you go through a few more cy­cles and you learn to swim in the lake. Now you’re fully im­mersed in the sys­tem. Your iden­tity no longer has any­thing to say about it, be­cause it is how it is, and your opinion on it, al­though now in­formed, lives in a to­tally sep­a­rate do­main. And also it gets in the way of your swim­ming, you see now. You can’t both swim effec­tively and hold an opinion on it. You can’t do both ac­tivi­ties with­out the swim­ming suffer­ing. And why? Well, be­cause the sys­tem of swim­ming says so.

Do you still get wor­ried about dip­ping a finger in now you’re a pro swim­mer? Not re­ally. I mean, you can, but it wouldn’t re­ally be a valuable use of your time to re­live that ex­pe­rience, ex­cept for nos­tal­gia. Your psy­cholog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment in the swim­ming do­main is now ac­tu­al­ised. Your iden­tity in this realm is re­duced, al­most noth­ing. So there’s noth­ing to pro­tect or main­tain any­more, with re­spect to you and swim­ming. There just is the swim­ming, or not. And that bar­rier wall-y re­sis­tance-y feel­ing is no longer there, as a re­sult. Not in the world of swim­ming, at least.

But try hand-glid­ing, and there it is again!

So what gives?

I think new do­mains are in­her­ently threat­en­ing to our main job to per­sist and sur­vive as weird con­cep­tual be­ings of thoughts and ideas. I mean you have to get your ass kicked, be­fore you learn to get out of your own way. And that’s why you have the de­fault po­si­tion.

But surely I can make the cy­cle faster! I’m a ra­tio­nal­ist! I want it this way!

I do think you can make the cy­cle faster. The more you try new things, and see your own edges, the more ass-kick­ing you give your­self, the quicker the cy­cle be­comes. But I sus­pect it’s always go­ing to be there, just as a nat­u­ral as­pect of the growth and ex­pan­sion of the con­scious­ness of a hu­man be­ing.

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Want­ing things to be a cer­tain way is a func­tion of me, not of the sys­tem. But that’s pretty ob­vi­ous, I knew that right? It’s not go­ing to stop me from want­ing it my way.

One of my goals this year is to keep do­ing small things at the bound­aries, to see my own edges and ex­pand my­self. So writ­ing blog posts is one thing, mak­ing videos is an­other. And I’ll likely ask for help and sup­port with this, hold­ing hands if nec­es­sary. This takes hu­mil­ity, but then again, not want­ing to hold hands is a func­tion of me, not of the sys­tem.

Another re­lated goal is to try to em­brace the prin­ci­ples of MVP. Un­til I do some­thing, there’s a good chance that what I’ve got is mostly childlike, ego­cen­tric, wish­ful think­ing. Un­til I’ve re­ally spent time in­ter­act­ing with a sys­tem, its just a con­cep­tual blob of other peo­ple’s stuff, and I should prob­a­bly just let go of that. Once I’ve shipped some­thing, how­ever, then it’s vuln­er­a­ble to re­al­ity, and only then will I truly learn and grow.

But here’s my biggest take­away from all this:

What I re­ally wanted out of the sys­tem, in each case, wasn’t the most valuable thing to get, or what it had to teach me. What I wanted was me, and my own be­liefs, and for ev­ery­thing to stay the same, so that my prime di­rec­tive would be met.

What I got was, when I let go of that, was some­thing new.

I had to empty my cup a lit­tle, give up want­ing it my way, and im­merse my­self in not-know­ing, for some new pos­si­bil­ity to arise.

And so my fi­nal ac­tion­able here will be spend time in the not-know­ing, when work­ing in new do­mains, and to do so com­pas­sion­ately. The rea­son it’s un­com­fortable, af­ter all, is be­cause I’m risk­ing a part of my­self. In the end I have to let go of some­thing, in or­der to have some­thing new.

This pro­cess of mini-cy­cles of psy­cholog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, and of let­ting go of the way we want things to be, for the way they ac­tu­ally are, seems to be a pretty nat­u­ral part of hu­man growth and de­vel­op­ment. So I shouldn’t ex­pect it to not be like that.

Likely pub­lish­ing this is go­ing to teach me some­thing not at all like what I ex­pect. And it has to be that way. Any growth that comes out of it for me, will nec­es­sar­ily be new. And that’s ok!

That said, I hope it gets re­ceived my way...