I learn better when I frame learning as Vengeance for losses incurred through ignorance, and you might too

THE OBSERVATION My main point is in the title: I have found that when I consciously learn “with a vengeance”, aiming to avenge whatever I lost because I have not learnt the thing earlier, I learn markedly better. I feel more motivated to learn, and recall seems clearly better. (I have not formally compared recall before and after, this is subjective judgement but I’m very confident.)

I have experimented with this for about 2 weeks. So far the effect does not seem to diminish; if there is any change at all, it is maybe getting slightly stronger.

Subjectively, this changes my failures from something to mourn or to be embarrassed about, into “something to be avenged” which is a driving motivation. It feels like I’m owning my mistakes more readily. I acknowledge them more readily and am more comfortable thinking and talking about them. And the learning from them feels something like gleeful, justified or gloating—definitely more powerful and satisfying.

I would like some of you to try this, and to report back whether this works for you too, because I have never heard anyone else talk about consciously trying to do this, so it might be new, and it helps me a lot so if it helps others too, it seems potentially extremely useful.

THE NARRATIVE I was having a great argument about God with a very good friend who is a sophisticated theologian, and who pointed me to a podcast with the German theologian Siegfried Zimmer. Zimmer was talking about theodicy, the classic problem of theism where an almighty, all-knowing, all-good God seems impossible to square with the pointless suffering we observe. He did not have a satisfactory answer, he did manage to admit that, he did not manage to draw the obvious conclusion, so nothing new there. But in his argument he gave a really interesting reason to discard all the usual theistic answers. He said an answer to suffering is only good if you can say it to someone who is intensely and pointlessly suffering, to his or her face, and find it helps.

I was very impressed with this idea and concluded that as an atheist, I did not have an answer that would fulfil this criterion. So I thought about it. What do I say to someone dying in a concentration camp, from the other side of the fence, utterly unable to save them? To a kid dying of cancer? To the grieving parents of victims of a school shooting?

Naturally, as you do, I thought back to the Star Trek parody “Galaxy Quest”. The single best scene in the movie is this:


This scene stands out from the rest of the movie because of its utter sincerity. That is the point: the same character has been saying the same line insincerely for many years and is completely sick of it, but he recognises that in this particular situation it is the best thing he could possibly say: “You shall be avenged.”

In the concentration camp scenario, if I imagine myself on either side of the fence, I really think that would help. “We can’t save you, but we will avenge you.” Yeah. That rings good.

And I find this easily generalizes into situations where there isn’t a human perpetrator to be punished. The project of eradicating Malaria just feels more viscerally awesome when I frame it as the spiteful, relishing, merciless, victorious extermination of the terrible monster that has, by some estimates, killed around 10% of all humans who have ever lived.

And it works for small things just as well. I paid too much for an item? I avenge the lost money by buying more carefully next time—and I find I actually do remember to do it next time. I lost time because of a scheduling mistake? I avenge it by scheduling better—and my scheduling improves faster than it used to. And so on.

REASONS THIS MIGHT WORK FOR YOU TOO Now even if you believe this is true for me, you might still think I’m just a particularly vengeful person and I’ve discovered and integrated that part of myself so I’m feeling more complete and this explains everything about me while not saying anything about you because you’re not a naturally vengeful person. I will now attempt to convince you that you too are, and should be, vengeful.

First of all, my aforementioned friend says this works for him too. That’s two out of two people who have been familiar with this idea.

You’re a primate, and primates are vengeful. In fact one of the things that distinguishes humans from other primates is that we avenge more—we punish not just violators of norms, but also individuals who fail to punish violators of norms.

Vengeance is more or less taboo in polite society. This taboo was installed for good reasons, because our biases can easily lead vengeance into Cycles of Revenge, where the punishment gets punished recursively. This has slowed the development of, and destroyed, many human societies. But still, it is another taboo and it makes it hard to think about the matter clearly like all taboos do. So if like me, you didn’t think about utilizing human vengefulness for good, this may very well have been because of the taboo, not because of a rational weighing of the pros and cons. Apart from the Cycle of Revenge thing, which is huge of course, I am currently unaware of any cons.

An endorsement of revenge is not automatically also an endorsement of violence. Statements like “the best vengeance is to live a great life” do not include a call to violence, but they very much do harness vengefulness.

It is, however, an endorsement of aggression, of acting aggressively. Looking for drawbacks, we might point out aggression raises blood pressure and cortisol, and too much of either isn’t healthy. On the other hand, too little aggression is probably not healthy either—it is a hallmark of depression. I know many more people who suffer from lack of motivation than people who suffer from too much motivation—and for these people, vengeance is a form of motivation worth exploiting.