[Hammertime Final Exam] Accommodate Yourself; Kindness Is An Epistemic Virtue; Privileging the Future

[this is my en­try for the Ham­mer­time Fi­nal Exam. I an­swered all three prompts but took much longer than five min­utes writ­ing each part.]

1. Ac­com­mo­date Yourself

(re­lated: So­ciety Is Fixed, Biol­ogy Is Mutable; De­sign; Rad­i­cal Ac­cep­tance as ac­knowl­edge­ment of re­al­ity. this is one of the first & most valuable les­sons I have gained from the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity, though I don’t think I’ve seen it stated in quite these terms.)

Peo­ple of­ten want to make them­selves bet­ter—stronger, more hard­work­ing, more able. We com­pare our­selves to ideals and we find our­selves lack­ing; we strive to im­prove our­selves to bet­ter fit the roles we want to play in the world.

What if, in­stead of tak­ing the world as given and striv­ing to adapt our­selves to it, we took our­selves as given and looked for ways to adapt our world to us?

Ex­am­ples:

  • “I can’t get around much be­cause my feet hurt—and even tak­ing pub­lic tran­sit is bad be­cause I have to stand while I wait for the train—so I have to fix my feet or else I’m doomed” → “My feet hurt, so I’ll look for other ways to get around, like a bike or an elec­tric scooter. When I take pub­lic tran­sit, I’ll carry a light portable stool to make wait­ing for trains painless.”

  • “I have to stop pick­ing at my nails! Argh, why can’t I do it!” → “Let me see if hav­ing a thing to fid­get with re­moves this urge. Oh, it ba­si­cally does! Good!”

  • “Argh why can’t I fol­low this con­ver­sa­tion, ev­ery­one else seems to be able to do it” → “Hmm, it seems I can’t fol­low con­ver­sa­tions well in loud spaces, let me make plans in quieter ones in­stead.”

  • “I should be more hard­work­ing and not pro­cras­ti­nate so much!” → “Hmm, it seems I don’t have a lot of en­ergy and my ex­ec­u­tive func­tion is of­ten not very good. Let me scale back my plans to match my en­ergy lev­els, at least for now, and think about how I might make my work fit my brains and/​or find an en­vi­ron­ment that’s eas­ier for me to work in and/​or find a differ­ent way to sup­port my­self and/​or look into ADHD med­i­ca­tion.”

  • “I don’t fit into these jeans, I’m so fat, I need to lose weight.” → “Let me find some other jeans, these ones don’t fit me.”

To ap­ply this mind­set, think of a situ­a­tion where a limi­ta­tion of yours leads to failure or frus­tra­tion. Now, flip your view of the situ­a­tion around. You are as you are; it is the world that does not fit. Now, if the world were de­signed for peo­ple like you, how would it be differ­ent? What in your en­vi­ron­ment would change? Now, can you make that change your­self?

The ti­tle of this piece comes from the con­cept of dis­abil­ity ac­com­mo­da­tions, but I think the use­ful­ness of this mind­set ex­tends be­yond things com­monly un­der­stood as dis­abil­ities. Pretty much ev­ery­body is sub­ject to some kinds of ex­pec­ta­tions that they do not fit. We of­ten take these as con­dem­na­tions of as­pects of our­selves, as judg­ments that our bod­ies or our brains in some way don’t mea­sure up.

But the world con­tains many kinds of brains and bod­ies. It’s not use­ful for ev­ery­one whose brain or body is bad at some task to feel bad about them­selves. Rather, we can take this di­ver­sity as a given and work on mak­ing the world fit all of us.

This doesn’t mean there is no space for self-im­prove­ment. But, firstly, ac­com­mo­da­tion is of­ten much eas­ier, some­times to the point that ac­com­mo­da­tion is pos­si­ble where fix­ing one­self is not. And sec­ond, even if self-mod­ifi­ca­tion is pos­si­ble and de­sir­able, ac­com­mo­da­tion is of­ten a use­ful first step, pro­vid­ing some slack with which to take on the difficult pro­ject of change.

2. Kind­ness Is An Epistemic Virtue

In or­der to learn from each other, we must first feel safe. When a bat­tle is pitched, when op­po­si­tion feels like a threat, when los­ing an ar­gu­ment threat­ens one’s felt or ac­tual safety—then hu­mans fall into bat­tle for­ma­tion, ar­gu­ments be­come sol­diers, and chang­ing one’s mind be­comes vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble.

See­ing such a bat­tle, some with valuable knowl­edge may rea­son­ably de­cide to stay out of the fight for their own psy­cholog­i­cal health; thus the com­bat­ants are left with­out their valuable knowl­edge.

Others will join the fray, mo­ti­vated by a sense of ur­gency; they will learn some­thing, they will share their knowl­edge, but they will be wounded and trig­gered and en­ter a psy­cholog­i­cal defen­sive crouch from which no change of opinion is pos­si­ble, and they will lose their self-con­trol and wound and trig­ger oth­ers in re­turn.

(One time I had a par­tic­u­larly bad fight on Face­book and was ex­tremely stressed and anx­ious for sev­eral days—and less open and char­i­ta­ble in ar­gu­ments for months af­ter­wards.)

So if you want par­ti­ci­pants in your dis­course to be se­lected for valuable knowl­edge and not for bat­tle-har­di­ness and thick skins, and if you want peo­ple to ac­tu­ally have the abil­ity to change their minds—be kind.

(I want to ac­knowl­edge that this con­sid­er­a­tion can com­pete with oth­ers that are also im­por­tant. Some peo­ple with valuable knowl­edge have come by that knowl­edge in painful ways and can­not share it kindly. Some­times re­press­ing anger for the sake of har­mony is harm­ful in the long run. Th­ese are worth tak­ing se­ri­ously, and some­times they will be more im­por­tant than kind­ness. But—I claim—kind­ness should very of­ten win, and should always be con­sid­ered.)

3. Priv­ileg­ing The Future

Hu­man de­sires and in­tu­itions are of­ten highly bi­ased in fa­vor of the pre­sent. If we want to make de­ci­sions that are wise in the long term, we have to coun­ter­act this bias; the abil­ity to de­lay grat­ifi­ca­tion is a valuable skill that will serve you well if you have it.

How­ever, a com­mon re­sult of this at­tempt at de­bi­as­ing is a sense that de­layed grat­ifi­ca­tion is vir­tu­ous in it­self, that one should always take the path that gives you en­joy­ment in the fu­ture rather than the pre­sent—or, failing that, that one should feel guilty when one doesn’t do that.

For ex­am­ple: I used to have a prob­lem with stay­ing up far too late far too of­ten, which led to chronic sleep de­pri­va­tion. This was clearly in part a re­sult of pri­ori­tiz­ing pre­sent over fu­ture on any given evening; so, I rea­son­ably felt that it was bet­ter when I suc­ceeded in pri­ori­tiz­ing to­mor­row’s well-be­ing enough to go to sleep on time. But some­times, some­thing le­gi­t­i­mately in­ter­est­ing and unique was hap­pen­ing late at night, some­thing that was worth stay­ing up… and I would stay up, but I would feel guilty, that I was do­ing a thing that would re­sult in my suffer­ing later; and the next day, I would re­gret my choice, even as I val­ued the ex­pe­rience I had had at night. In my mind, sac­ri­fic­ing fu­ture well-be­ing for pre­sent en­joy­ment was always wrong, even if the trade­off was ac­tu­ally worth it!

For an­other ex­am­ple: adults some­times ex­press re­gret that they quit an in­stru­ment they had played in child­hood, even if they had never par­tic­u­larly en­joyed prac­tic­ing it; I think this is of­ten a re­sult of a pro-fu­ture bias.

(Re­lated: some­body on Tum­blr sug­gested that some­body should run the op­po­site of the canon­i­cal marsh­mal­low test, such that a child can ei­ther eat two marsh­mal­lows now or one marsh­mal­low in ten min­utes, and then see whether in ten min­utes the child re­grets eat­ing the two marsh­mal­lows be­cause they can no longer have one now. Their hy­poth­e­sis was that the child would in­deed re­gret it, even though the de­ci­sion was clearly cor­rect—which would show that re­gret is not re­li­able in­for­ma­tion about the qual­ity of one’s past de­ci­sions.)

If you’re fac­ing a trade­off be­tween pre­sent and fu­ture—weigh the op­tions and choose a trade­off! De­lay grat­ifi­ca­tion if that’s the right thing to do. (And it is more of­ten the right thing to do than your sys­tem 1 prob­a­bly thinks.) But if it’s not—go get the good thing in the pre­sent, with no self-judg­ment and no re­grets.