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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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...