Two Paths Towards Happiness

Underneath every pursuit is a choice. A choice between relishing tasks as a path towards excellence internal to a practice or dispatching them en route to other ends. A choice between seeing challenges as a necessity and opportunity or as an annoyance and expense. A choice between considering burdens as developing and validating the virtues or as interfering with desires and needs.

This choice reveals the extent to which the endeavor is motivated by self-actualization over lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A pattern of such choices illuminates the significance of self-actualization to the individual.

As different as the lower pursuits of material goods, social belonging, esteem of others, and self-esteem can be from each other, they share a property of having their aim be separate from that of the task being performed – and therefore being in tension with it.

This is easiest to see with material concerns which can be satisfied with explicit dishonesty. Social belonging is only a small step removed: we can cement it with favors that aren’t ours to give. Things get fuzzier with esteem of others: we can gain it by cheating, but this appears to sacrifice the very thing we are being esteemed for. And it seems even stranger to esteem ourselves after cheating.

But recognition by others and belief in our own worth bring benefits as surely as social belonging and material possessions. Cheating doesn’t preclude these benefits because they come from perception of worth rather than from reality.

What makes accuracy important is a separate desire to be a good person with integrity, real worth, and justly earned recognition. Nevertheless, perceived accuracy of such evaluations can assuage even this desire as well as the real thing. Why not achieve excellence by adjusting the standards by which it is measured?

While conscious self-deception is unacceptable to self-esteem and conscious deception risks penalties, we’ve evolved less overt ways to justify, mislead, forget. Among the most insidious and powerful is development of something akin to plausible deniability: a capacity to genuinely deny or excuse inadequacies.

It is influential because it develops naturally unless external forces intervene: simply allow yourself to lower standards. Begin when tasks are small or immaterial enough for your capitulation to be missed or dismissed.

Over time, such self-handicapping both develops the capacity for self-delusion and stunts development of skills, habits, and preferences necessary to act persistently, advance competently, evaluate objectively. Performance truly seems unimprovable and failures unavoidable.

Only at self-actualization does truth become indispensable and our aims become inseparable from the task: self-actualization demands reaching our potential, not merely feeling like we did. Achievement of lower levels of the hierarchy at its expense is an affront. Self-esteem and recognition only matter when they are compatible with the pursuit.

Self-actualization seems rewarding, honorable, authentic. But its pursuit proves unexpectedly uncertain, difficult, and dangerous. Dangerous not just materially or physically, but emotionally. Because hiding underneath it is ultimately a choice between being happy and being right – a choice that isn’t obviously inescapable until it is too late to choose happiness. Continue reading Two Paths Towards Happiness

On the Shoulders of Contemptible Giants

The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants sought to reconcile the magnitude of past greats with the ability of successors to move beyond their accomplishments. It had moderns bow gratefully before past prowess and meekly acknowledge their indebtedness. Yet it also had them boldly assert their usefulness and worth by standards shared with the ancients.

Today, we seem more inclined to perceive ourselves as wading through predecessors’ trash than as riding on their shoulders. We question the stature and agency of giants, doubt their ethics, and blame them for our ills.

We see ugliness, flaws, constraints. We see how they encourage draining, suboptimal, desperate, unethical behavior. We see how more care, thought, effort, or sacrifice by our predecessors could have avoided these problems. We conclude that instead of hoisting us on their shoulders, they pushed us into the muck.

We neglect that progress carries costs, action brings mistakes, choices have trade-offs, and hindsight arouses certitude. Being hoisted higher makes new costs, errors, imperfections, challenges, and possibilities easier to see while allowing old ones to fade from view. Continue reading On the Shoulders of Contemptible Giants

Laws of Absolute Belief and Plurality

There is an incredible diversity of positions and arguments. But underneath this variety are comparatively few causes, many of which rest on disagreement over fundamental concepts like good, right, and happy. Contemporary arguments are overwhelmingly instantiations of ancient disagreements in the sense that both would cease if such concepts were genuinely agreed upon.

Although all necessary disagreements terminate in conflicting axioms, passionate disagreements endure when several sets of such axioms are valuable despite being incompatible. The worth of essential systems, validated by empirical effectiveness and grounded in coherent positions that reduce to these axiom sets, impassion argument. Justifications grow in sophistication, but remain in tension because they point to irreconcilable truths.

Over the last eight posts I attempted to illuminate the most fundamental of such tensions; a tension I find latent in most arguments that, as long as it remains latent, reduces them to minor acts of refinement rather than advancement – in those rare cases when they rise above propaganda or derp. This is the tension about the inevitability of tension itself.

My argument consists of two substantially independent tracts which represent two sides of this tension: one that argues for the value of absolutes and another that argues for the limits to agreement on them. I have come to view both of these positions as axiomatic to the point that I am willing to call them laws:

Law of Absolute Belief: “Purpose and effectiveness rest on absolute belief.”

And:

Law of Plurality: “Universal agreement on absolutes is impossible.”

These seemingly paradoxical laws have disturbing implications and I did not come easily to their acceptance. But now that I have accepted them, I am not easily compelled to engage propositions that question them. Yet such propositions are ubiquitous. A major motivation for this series was to justify my reluctance to argue past a violation of these laws. Continue reading Laws of Absolute Belief and Plurality

Significance of Agreement

As we pursue our action hierarchies with inspiration backed by clarity of vision and identity we encounter people, institutions, ideas, and experiences that contradict our models of the world. At first, we enthusiastically take up the challenge: we assume misunderstanding, poor implementation, or immorality. But as ostensibly minor contradictions unveil complex belief systems and seemingly isolated experiences coalesce, bewilderment unsettles energetic certitude.

Our incredulity rises when we are asked why we care. Why does existence of different beliefs, projects, and people concern us even when they are too abstract, remote, or tangential to our practical actions? And not just concern us, but interrupts, demotivates, and redirects our efforts? Continue reading Significance of Agreement

Ingredients of Action

All action demands purpose and energy – a goal and a means to move towards it. This is as true psychologically as it is physically: we need the will to act.

Of course, energy doesn’t miraculously convert to goals with perfect efficiency. There are skills, challenges, beliefs, plans, mistakes, realizations, justifications, adjustments… And these affect who we are, what we want, and what we are energized by. I propose that human action follows a complex feedback process akin to this:

Action Loop Continue reading Ingredients of Action

Emergence of Identity and Belief

I’d like to explore early development of action hierarchy components with a narrative about a budding human being. I hope that an intuition, however faint, will emerge for how these components co-evolve with identity; how those crucial meta-capabilities develop; how the seeds of fairness and goodness sprout; and how everything ties together to motivate directed action. Let’s begin in the beginning.

Solipsism in the Womb

The fetus assumes that they are the purpose of the universe, if not the universe itself. This perspective fits the facts they have encountered. It also happens to carry a good deal of truth: the placenta bestows upon the fetus a singular amount of authoritarian control thus enthroning them as the all-powerful, all-important lord of their small world.

Fulfillment of their desires is imperative, but by no means simple. The universe may be their servant or even their extension, but it does not grant control over itself by magic. It only yields when it is treated right. The fetus must comply with the world’s demands before they can expect its obedience.

To comprehend what they must do and develop the skills to do it, the fetus depends on inductive learning, with its assumption of a consistent causal relationship between action and consequence. Continue reading Emergence of Identity and Belief

Magical Foundations of Agreement

We’ve looked at the banality of problems that plague execution, the limitations of the perfect worlds of strategy, and the deep, often conflicting, hierarchies that underlie action. We’ve seen how difficult it is to create, communicate, and scale coherent action hierarchies. But these might still seem like practical challenges that can be overcome if we could just make our models accurate enough, our meta-capabilities developed enough, our goals clear enough, our language explicit enough, and our incentives powerful enough. Maybe not today, but in the future. Maybe if we could gather sufficient empirical evidence, develop direct brain-to-brain communication, build an optimal planning computer, or otherwise improve our capabilities, we could converge to solutions that are fair, stable, effective, and objectively correct.

It is common to blame lack of progress towards convergence on bad faith or incompetence. It is obvious how power, money, fame, or nepotism incentivize defense of the status quo. It is easy to find examples of hypocrisy, immorality, laziness, or unfairness. It is tempting to reach a comforting, but wrong, conclusion that perverse incentives, bad people, and flawed systems are the reason we don’t move towards obvious solutions.

There are, of course, massive practical imperfections that can be improved. But underneath all the misunderstandings, inefficiencies, bad faith, and practical challenges there are legitimate disagreements that have been engaged in good faith by smart, conscientious, and resourceful people for millennia; disagreements that have proven impossible to conclusively resolve even with the purest of intentions and even in the most idealized of thought experiments. Underneath the status quo are concessions – not just to the practical difficulty, but – to the theoretical impossibility of complete agreement.

The search for universal agreement is much like the search for perpetual motion machines. Continue reading Magical Foundations of Agreement

Magic and the Challenge of Action

Accurate and coherent action hierarchies seem obviously necessary for productive action. How can haphazard everyday decisions lead to desirable long term consequences? How can incoherent models lead to effective strategies? How can uncoordinated action avoid mistakes? How can resistance to feedback lead to strong models and capabilities? If we don’t know where we are going, how can we expect to get there?

It is therefore immensely frustrating to see incoherent action all around us. From the smallest individual projects to the largest organizations and global concerns most action seems shortsighted and detrimental to its own goals. Furthermore, opportunities for disproportionate increases in effectiveness seem simple and obvious.

The cornucopia of potential improvements is at first baffling and then empowering. Who would have thought that basic insight could be so rare and valuable, that inexperience could be a source of vision? Unencumbered by limitations of obsolete technology, social norms, and past obligations visionaries can better see the flaws of existing structures and are well positioned to direct their improvement.

But even the simplest, most beneficial, and least contentious changes are resisted with greater fervor than visionaries thought possible. Some blame this unexpected resistance on lack of logic, but individual actions do tend to follow from their goals, models, and skills. Others blame individual action hierarchies: if they can generate such irrational behavior, then they ought to be replaced. But this obvious solution faces the same fate as the one that led to it: people vigorously resist overt attempts to influence their action hierarchies.

It is to the questions of why people do this and how it affects action and progress that we turn to next. Continue reading Magic and the Challenge of Action

Anatomy of Action and Understanding

The correct thing to do seems so obvious, its implementation so simple and clear in our heads. Why then is turning it into reality so difficult and error prone? Why is doing it ourselves so much easier than explaining it to others? Is the answer really obvious or does it merely appear to be? What is behind the feeling of clarity? What is behind effortless action? Why are they so elusive and difficult to convert into results?

Before we can tackle questions like these, we need a model of action. Such models tend to hide underneath arguments, disguised as something obvious, and are important to make explicit. I’ll develop my model in this post and apply it to the challenge of action in the next one. I suspect that while many will indeed find my model obvious, and perhaps overwrought, many others will find it incomplete, incomprehensible, irrelevant, or wrong.

At its broadest, an action can be separated into three parts: goal, strategy, and execution. Goals define the purpose of action and are the ultimate measure of progress. Strategies are plans to move from current reality to the state defined by the goal. Execution is the interaction with reality in service of the goal.

While roughly correct, this view ignores or abstracts too much to be very useful. A major issue is that strategy generates a hierarchical set of sub-goals for execution to implement, but this implementation requires strategy at each step. It is difficult to draw a non-arbitrary line between strategy and execution because they are themselves a hierarchy of actions, each with its own goal, strategy, and execution.

It is similarly unclear how independent child actions are. We can treat them as inseparable parts of a larger whole because their goals are substantially defined by the parent’s strategy; or we can treat them as largely independent because they determine how, or if, to achieve these goals.

We can thus defensibly approach action with a focus on strategy, execution, or interaction between substantially independent actions. The first two views correctly recognize the value of unified action towards a coherent purpose and of skill and autonomy on the ground, respectively, but tend to underestimate their own limitations and lead to disappointment and ineffectiveness. The latter view more accurately captures the challenge of action. Continue reading Anatomy of Action and Understanding

Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability

Once upon a time I liked to derive lessons from stories; sometimes I still do. A recurring lesson is the impact of minor mistakes and random circumstances on the character’s fate. If only they stayed quiet, or paid more attention, or used a newer car, or avoided traffic, or were less trusting… Mistakes that were easy to avoid with just a little more knowledge or composure or preparation.

Of course, the writer needs to end the story and villain’s mistakes allow difficult odds to be overcome in an exciting way. But there are deeper reasons for errors: individual pride, complacency of experience, overconfidence of inexperience, effects of stress on decision-making, trade-offs inherent to skill-sets.

We focus on mistakes as failures to prepare at the expense of a broader lesson: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Leaders respond with deeper plans, contingency plans, redundancy, more data, explicit procedures, education… They develop meta-plans to make plans responsive to the dynamics of execution, they build ever-more complete ways to evaluate results and feed them back to decision makers at ever-faster rates.

But more complex plans have more ways to fail, redundancy breeds complacency, contingency plans are under-tested, procedures reduce individual motivation and attention to detail, credentials give a false sense of confidence… And problems again arise for reasons so banal they would be funny if they weren’t so painful. Continue reading Banality of Problems and the Limits of Scalability