Questions about the Usefulness of Self-Importance

post by LeoHolman · 2018-05-27T09:20:31.297Z · score: 22 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 10 comments

I spend a great deal of my time thinking about how to develop myself. I often wonder about what the most effective way to achieve a goal is, say, learning Mandarin Chinese, and often find the answer lies in a much more critical question. /Why/ am I trying to achieve that goal. I struggled with this idea of a "root goal" the primary function of my life that would give order to all other subgoals and I eventually settled on "to be a good human being", as unsatisfactory as that is, because I found no meaningful or fulfilling progress in existential questions of this nature.

Moving on with the understanding that I am not able to articulate my /best/ purpose I've been working on figuring out /a/ purpose and achieving that in the best way possible. This has lead me to a point of struggle and I'm hoping for some different perspectives.

I've taken personality and work compatibility survey's in the past and the general advice is to choose something that you feel naturally inclined to do and you'll naturally excel at it. Not necessarily without effort, but you'll fight yourself less of the time which will generally make everything easier. I find myself making plans to solve some great problem and fantasizing about how I would do it. For example, I am a politician in some unnamed American town and I have taken up a policy to move the town into 100% renewable energy. What would I do? I find this to be largely masturbatory as I rarely produce any useful thinking or insight but often have the sensation that I am both great and generous and quite clever.

For as long as I can remember I've placed more importance on potential than actual performance. That is, I don't mind at all if I completely bomb a test if I feel like I've improved a lot since the last time I tried, I'll still have the sense that it's only a matter of time before all past failures are rendered null by my growth. I think this is a personality disposition exaggerated by watching too much Shounen Anime when I was young. I believe that due to this disposition I tend to solve problems top down, finding out what the ideal situation would be like, then working backwards until I have a plan to reach the ideal.

To come back to the point, I'm trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm only 22 years old but I only have a year until I finish my undergraduate. I find that it's becoming increasingly difficult to manage my time mostly because I'm not sure what I will do after I graduate. I alternate between setting up a cozy life that I'm certain I could thrive in, (example: returning to my home town to teach) or committing my life to bettering a portion of the world larger than what's just in front of me at the cost of my own comfortability, or at least my sense of security. (example: pursuing a master's degree in renewable energy to return to my hometown to start a grassroots movement to switch to 100% renewable energy with intent to leverage that position to develop a model for dealing with trash that could be applied to other cities like it. )

My question is this; how much responsibility should I have? I think that people in great positions naturally have greater responsibility, but people of great capability are not always the best choices for great positions. I am namely thinking of Mao Zedong when I say this. Here was a person who was extremely adept at political maneuvers, rising to and staying in power until his death of natural causes. However, his intent virtually ruined China, his paranoia and his ego lead a nation of people back generations in thinking and development. I obviously think that I would do less harm if I found myself in a great position, but I suspect equally that incompetence could cause harm and I am not yet certain my competence is sufficient.

So I come to another question. Since I believe in developing potential, is it better to set my sights as high as possible and spend my whole life striving to meet that goal, or to set a goal that is more realistically obtainable and strive to meet that, creating a new, further goal should I meet the first one? In terms of development it seems to be basically the same, but in terms of planning they are very different. It seems that history generally indicates that many people vying for great positions is generally bad for everyone, and that cooperation is generally smoother in all regard. I've been learning about Chinese history lately so I'm thinking of corrupted communist officials harming the people the are responsible for for the sake of climbing the ladder. I've spoken with a professor at my college who is well respected within the community as an expert in sustainable development, and she forwards the idea that the most stable and immediate growth comes form within a community, not without. That is, when a local leader, perhaps a school board member or a city hall member, organizes community movements that benefit the community, progress tends to stick because it empowers the community to help themselves. I fear that if I commit to a life of trying to obtain a great position I may cause myself unnecessary grief and ultimately do less good than if I merely did what I could with what's in front of me.

Also, Hello everyone. My name's Leo and I'm new here.

10 comments

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comment by wunan · 2018-05-27T17:12:57.251Z · score: 15 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You might like the content on 80000 hours, which is pretty popular around here.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-05-29T14:47:44.096Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the recommendation!

comment by cousin_it · 2018-05-27T14:11:14.778Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Leo, welcome to LW! My best advice is to work hard on tasks that are merely okay, instead of trying to find the best possible task to work on.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-05-29T14:51:15.206Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I find myself struggling with profit escalation and decision paralysis, that is, as I'm doing something Merely Okay I'll find something that is Slightly Better, and I'll change to that because it's better, then I'll find something Slightly Better than the first thing, and after a few rounds I look at how I've started lots and finished little and think, well, if I just picked something I'd probably finish it. But then what to pick? And I pick nothing because I have no criteria for what the best thing to pick is. But when I think, "okay, I'll just pick something Merely Okay and stick to it." I have an equally powerful thought that says "Aren't you wasting your potential? I mean, 'insert Merely Okay thing here', really? That's all you've got?" And I'll think, "well, no, I can do better." Rinse repeat.

comment by cousin_it · 2018-05-29T15:57:39.347Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Have you tried shorter, easier tasks? If you keep failing at those too, it will be a reality check.

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-06-03T02:33:41.405Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I can still function, most of this trouble lies in my free time, what I do when there is nothing obvious to do. It's perfectly natural to study, go to work and the like. But when I'm ahead in my studies and there's no work to be done, I usually end up feeling like garbage because I feel like I'm wasting time by not doing something important. I had a semester where my solution was simply to not have free time, I overloaded my classes, had 3 jobs, and participated in a bunch of clubs. I was so stressed out I developed shingles. I recognize that I need meaningful resting time, but "down-time" only feel like a problem. I don't feel like I'm doing myself an favor by not doing anything, and I don't perceptively feel refreshed. So when I have free time I try to figure out what I should do and I fall into this trap I outlined.

comment by cousin_it · 2018-06-03T08:38:45.494Z · score: 7 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure if this will help you, but I've found that not all free time is equal. If I spend it looking at shiny screens, I don't feel rested at all. Walking and daydreaming works much better (it helps that I don't carry a phone).

comment by Hazard · 2018-05-28T00:44:55.440Z · score: 7 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Welcome to LW!

I struggled with this idea of a "root goal" the primary function of my life that would give order to all other subgoals and I eventually settled on "to be a good human being", as unsatisfactory as that is, because I found no meaningful or fulfilling progress in existential questions of this nature.

I have dealt with something similar, and it may or may not be what you are experiencing. When I was first getting into rationality I was able to better see what was motivating a lot of the decisions I made (approval of others, striving for a hero archtype because of the books I read as a kid, other stuff) and I didn't like it. For a long while I was super suspicious of every single want and impulse, wondering if it was "truly valid". I spent a while trying to find a "root goal" that was such an Awesome and Virtuous Goal that I could be fully justified in pursuing it.

Now, I see that I was trying to "set my values to universal values", which upon reflection doesn't seem to be a coherent notion. If only Eliezer had included a sequence on how this was a bad idea, then maybe I could have saved time ;) (jokes aside, the linked to sequence has a lot of careful reasoning about what exactly goes wrong in the process of trying to find "the best and perfect values")

comment by toonalfrink · 2018-05-27T22:15:59.347Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Hi Leo,

/Why/ am I trying to achieve that goal. I struggled with this idea of a "root goal" the primary function of my life that would give order to all other subgoals and I eventually settled on "to be a good human being", as unsatisfactory as that is, because I found no meaningful or fulfilling progress in existential questions of this nature.

Your root goal is not something to learn, it is something to decide. If nothing seems satisfactory, consider the possibility that you're in a dependency mindset. I.e. You're evaluating your goals according to the impression that it would make or the praise it would solicit, instead of according to what you want. The fact that you come here looking for guidance is evidence for that (not saying it's bad).

If everyone was dumber than you, if your knowledge was more advanced than anyone elses, what change would you strive to manifest? What kind of slightly better parrallel universe do you yearn for? Make it so.

I alternate between setting up a cozy life that I'm certain I could thrive in, (example: returning to my home town to teach) or committing my life to bettering a portion of the world larger than what's just in front of me at the cost of my own comfortability, or at least my sense of security.

Always be at your edge. There is no such thing as a cozy life. Finding a balance between overwhelm and boredom is where you'll find yourself most fulfilled. Here's a few interesting data points that I've come across lately:

  • Dopamine encodes a mismatch signal between data and prediction
  • Extraversion follows a u-shaped curve with increasing dopamine levels
  • Extraversion is strongly correlated to happiness

I take this as neurological evidence of Jordan Peterson's (and other spiritual people's) idea that the optimal place to be is on the edge of order on chaos. Bonus evidence: flow experiences occur when you're challenged exactly enough, but not too much.

I obviously think that I would do less harm if I found myself in a great position, but I suspect equally that incompetence could cause harm and I am not yet certain my competence is sufficient.

Not competence, integrity. There are different reasons to aspire to power. Mao strikes me as a person who was motivated by the wrong needs. He wanted power to placate his ego. There are other reasons, like love and beauty. But those are screened off by lesser needs like safety, so first make sure you have your needs met, then aspire to influence. Only then will you use it for good.

I fear that if I commit to a life of trying to obtain a great position I may cause myself unnecessary grief and ultimately do less good than if I merely did what I could with what's in front of me.

Power should come as an entirely unanticipated consequence of trying to attain something more pure. It's all about the incentive. So dig deep in your psyche and try to figure it out: why power? If you think you're probably well-intentioned, think again. Since I don't know you, and you strike me as dependent on approval, I give it a 1% chance that you're truly astruistic.

Please don't take that as an insult. I have the same prior for everyone else.

Also, Hello everyone. My name's Leo and I'm new here.

You're most welcome!

comment by LeoHolman · 2018-05-29T14:39:26.046Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you've pointed to something I'm aware of but having yet mustered a plan to unravel, which is the need to feel validated. I've long since been aware that simply telling myself "this is good enough" is a short recipe for complacency which is uncomfortable in the short and stifling in the long. I trust even less the judgement of other people. I think I was trying to get at something Hazard mentioned, this idea of universal values so that I could self-validate in accordance with objective criteria, thereby giving myself the power to direct myself and understand if my direction is correct.

I'm of the thinking that even the most abstract psychological needs come from how physical needs are perceived. I would say the answer to why power is basically as follows. Power for two reasons, one attention, the other, power itself. I think power (in the sense of political power) attracts attention, in this way I hope to have many more people than just myself working to make me the best possible thing. I think this is dual rooted in my own belief that I am not competent enough to reach my own fullest potential (a paradox, i'm sure) and that I just /like/ other people paying attention to me. I want to be the center of attention more often than not. I would say the other is power for it's own sake. Power is the ability to make change, which is a form of control, if you have control you have security, and as a human I just want security.

I would be lying if I said I'm sure I'm altruistic. I only know that I /want/ to be. But this desire seems to be rooted in a fear of being rejected by other people. I know that I can't be accepted by everyone, but it seems that if I am altruistic, then is in other's best interest to accept me, which will make me more likely to be accepted. The idea that the need for acceptance is rooted this deep in my values is actually disgusting to me, I think because saying that it's not genuine altruism is to admit that there is grounds to reject me.