Creating contexts for desire cultivation


Nate Soares just published the first article to The Mind’s UI, a group blog that I’ve set up with him and Brienne Yudkowsky. It’s called Enjoying the feeling of agency, and in it Nate said that one thing that helps with that enjoyment is

Context and framing: it’s much easier to draw satisfaction from a clean room if your mother didn’t make you clean it.

I wanted to elaborate on that, drawing on very recent (even ongoing) experiences of being home for the holidays.

I’ve spent the last year living in an intentional learning community (let’s call it LRC) that has a number of interesting features. One of these, as I’ve described before, is that nobody ever has to do the dishes. We have some agreements about how we want to keep the kitchen space and the cooking utensils available for use; even here, nobody ever yells or guilt trips people for not following them. At our best, we approach the act of giving that kind of feedback with openness and curiosity. Sometimes it produces experiences of frustration which are processed in a different way.

But the point is, for the most part, we all get to navigate the kitchen based on our own desires and needs, and our abilities to discern what makes sense. This is really relaxing. But that’s not the only reason we do it.


When I got back to Nova Scotia to see my family a couple weeks ago, I was amused to experience surprise when I saw a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink. I had become very accustomed to the fact that part of our dishing system in the LRC house where I live is that we stack dirty dishes next to the sink rather than in them, which makes for much better flow in various ways. I looked at the pile of dishes in the sink and figured that it would look a lot nicer if they were washed or put in the dishwasher. So I did that.

My dad remarked, “I think you’ve washed more dishes just now than your sister has in four months.” This doesn’t surprise me. One way to think that thought is essentialistish and says “she’s messy / irresponsible.” But I was just noting that she’s spent the last four months having to fend off their nagging her to do the dishes. I, on the other hand, had just spent an entire year getting to only wash the dishes when I felt attracted to it, so I had a chance to build up that attraction.

Over the course of the next few days, I found myself regularly cleaning the kitchen there. It was so easy! And a huge part of that was that nobody was telling me to do it. So instead of being an obligation, it got to be a Christmas gift of sorts that I was giving my family.

At one point, I reflected that it had taken me a year of living in a mostly coercion-free environment for me to find my own source of desire to keep things clean, and now I had nurtured it so much that it was actually stronger than my parents’!


Shifting gears a bit: a friend and I took on an interesting… project a while back. She’d experienced sexual assault years ago, and had walled herself off from being intimate with guys since then. Recently, though, she was starting to get the sense that she might be ready to explore that ground, but she didn’t want to do it with someone she didn’t have a lot of trust with.

It was pretty apparent to us that given her history, one of the key things I’d want to make sure to do was to not push her boundaries. In fact, I needed to do the exact opposite. I’d let her navigate. Note that this is different from having her be the “gatekeeper”. The gatekeeper model implies that the other role is to be actively trying to get past the gate. I had to give her actual space to explore, which meant conveying to her both in words and in acts that I was totally comfortable (a) doing a lot of things and just as importantly (b) not doing much. That we could stop and talk about things. I would sometimes de-escalate the moment so we could think clearer.

In a situation like this, as long as someone felt pressure from their partner, they probably wouldn’t feel safe expressing their own desire. There are a few reasons for this:

  • fear that any expression of their own desire might lead further than they’re comfortable with
  • the general principle of psychological reactance (people tend to be averse to what they’re told to do)
  • in the heat of the moment, it can be really hard to disentangle one’s own desire from someone else’s


I think there’s a peculiar analogy here. Most of us have grown up being forced to do “chores”—things we didn’t want to do. I’m not going to claim that parents getting their kids to clean up is necessarily traumatizing in the way that more intimate violations of consent typically are. But I think that, for much the same reasons, these experiences tend to produce adults who have no internal sense of wanting to clean, and who only do so out of a sense of obligation.

And in both cases, the way to reawaken that desire is to give it a chance to show itself. Opportunities to act on it, with no external pressure to actually do so.

A third example: I recently observed two friends of mine, one of whom had been burned by mathematics in school and had grown a strong distaste for it; the other very much mathematical. They had managed to find a place where the former could ask the latter, “what’s a proof in mathematics that you find really beautiful?” and explore it on their own terms.

As I said, I’m living in an intentional learning community in Waterloo which is focused creating a culture in which this happens naturally. And even though we’re all holding that shared intention, it’s still hard. It takes a lot of work, at least at the moment. We’re working on figuring out how to scale it and spread it. But in the meantime, you can at least try to create that kind of context for yourself. Making potentially-enjoyable things feel like obligations is just shoulding yourself in the foot.


Going back to the point Nate was making, it’s hard to enjoy something that feels like an obligation. You have the ability to reframe your own situations to create a greater sense of agency. Instead of telling yourself “I have to _______” remind yourself that really, you want to do the thing. Even if not doing the thing would be obviously a bad idea, it’s still a choice.

But let’s pause right here and go meta. I suspect a lot of people, by default, will read the above paragraph and go “oh man, yup, that’s definitely a thing I should be doing more often.” Blast! That’s the very thing we’re trying to prevent.

This stuff is tricky. I can’t even escape it by simply saying, “Hey, you don’t have to do this thing, but I just want to say I’m over here doing it and it’s great and you’re invited.” That sentence itself, depending on the frame of mind from which you receive it, can carry the same tone of shouldiness. Just now it sounds passive aggressive instead of direct, which is… not what I’m going for.

So… what then? I think what I’m going to do instead is just to invite you to imagine doing that kind of reframing more. Does it feel attractive? Yeah? Then maybe give it a try. But you can stop any time you want.

(PS: One of the ways I got around feeling a sense of obligation to try dozens of new ideas all the time was by starting to only install one habit per week. This meant that I could actually focus on one that felt juicy, rather than constantly trying to balance different ones, and it meant that if I read a post like this, I didn’t feel pressure to try the thing right away; instead I could add it to a list to pull from later.)

  • For more on creating a culture where people can cultivate internal desire for something, read Growing a Garden with a Broken Bodum.
  • You might also be interested in Not with a bang, but with a yawn, which is a transcript of a segment of one of our weekly house meetings, with me thinking out loud about some of this stuff.
  • On a more technical note, I wrote a summary of a terribly-named book called Instant Influence, including a section on psychological reactance, (the thing where telling someone to do something makes them want to do it less) and how to avoid it when motivating yourself or someone else.
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Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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Matt Goldenberg » 27 Dec 2014 » Reply

A simple reframe on this that I learned from the now habit – Change all thoughts of “I should” and “I have to” to “I choose to,” both internally as well as in your language.

My girlfirend and I will catch eachother and ourselves on this if we slip.

    Malcolm » 27 Dec 2014 » Reply

    Awesome. As I point at in the post, having others support you is really helpful. If you guys want another fun reframe challenge, I have some great ones on growth mindset.

Matt Goldenberg » 27 Dec 2014 » Reply

Yes, definitely interested… but why not write a post on it? :).

A fun reframe related to the growth mindset that I recently read about in Sebastien Marshall’s “Gateless” is that whenever you run into a skill you think you simply can’t do, put a mental asterisk next to it that says “I should learn this at some point.”

I remember being struck at that time about how similar this mode of thinking was to my normal mode of thought since I was very young – and it’s always an effort to understand people who DON’T think like that (typical mind fallacy).

    Malcolm » 28 Dec 2014 » Reply

    Wow, terrible linking-the-right-words job on my part. The words “growth mindset” already linked to exactly such a post. Probably what would have worked better would be if I’d said

    …I have some great ones on growth mindset.

    …so that it didn’t look like I was just linking to a definition of growth mindset.

    I’m reflecting, in fact, that this issue is probably very common in posts on my blog, where I’ve linked to an earlier post on a particular subject but the text of the link makes it look like I’m just linking to a standard definition of it and so nobody clicks. This is worth paying attention to, so thanks!

Nathan » 28 Dec 2014 » Reply

What comes to mind when I read this is that many Buddhist practices focus on ‘creating contexts for desire cultivation’, but cultivation of a certain kind of desire, often translated as ‘altruistic intention’ (Google that phrase and you’ll find that most of the hits are Buddhist, and they explain the concept). In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, exemplified by Shantideva and others, the focus is on cultivating a supersized, universal altruistic intention: to use your dishwashing example, one would focus on wanting to wash not just the dishes that are in the sink, but all dishes everywhere, for the benefit of all living beings. Of course, one can only physically wash as many dishes as one has time to wash right now, but the desire to wash all dishes everywhere is a seriously magnanimous modification of ‘The Mind’s UI’, perhaps the greatest modification imaginable (hence the Sanskrit term ‘Mahayana’: the Great Vehicle).

    Malcolm » 28 Dec 2014 » Reply

    Oh, interesting! I mean, there’s definitely a similar kind of intense altruistic mindset involved here. Nate, who I was responding to with this post, has also written an essay titled On Saving The World.

Matt Goldenberg » 30 Dec 2014 » Reply

In the case of your comments, it doesn’t actually look like a link at all. Here’s what the comment looks like in my browser. As you can see, the link is just grey text:

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