Taking myself seriously

I realized recently that while I’m pretty consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, there’s another mindset shift that I’m often missing.

I was reading an insightful book called Influencer. One of the sections of the book describes a man with a love of chocolate, who wants to lose weight and tries to replace his chocolate-snacking habit with a carrot-snacking habit. I know the feel—chocolate is very compelling to me. From that book:

“Initially, failure signals the need for greater effort or persistence. Sometimes failure signals the need to change strategies or tactics. But failure should rarely signal that we’ll never be able to succeed and drive us to pray for serenity. For instance, you find yourself staring at a half-eaten ice cream cone in your hand. Should you conclude that you’re unable to stick with your eating plan so you might as well give up? Or should you conclude that since it’s hard to resist when you walk past the ice cream parlor on your way home from work, you should change your route? The first conclusion serves as discouraging brake on performance, whereas the second provides a corrective guide that helps refine your strategy.

The book describes the first response—concluding you can’t do it and giving up—as Fixed Mindset, and the second as Growth Mindset. They depict an overdramatic Fixed Mindset internal monologue:

“Henry wonders if he can overcome the genetic hand that he’s been dealt… has [no] self-discipline… surely he’s doomed… believes he hadn’t been born with ‘the right stuff.'” …etc.

I basically never have thoughts like that.

Which led me into the puzzle of why, if I’m consistently operating out of Growth Mindset, do I not consistently respond in that second way? That is, using each failure as a corrective guide, tweaking my path so I don’t encounter future temptations.

This line of investigation ultimately has led me to a new mindset shift distinction. This blog post is going to be the first in a series of several posts on the subject. I imagine the whole thing might be counterproductive advice for some people; I can’t do much about that. If this feels inspirational, keep reading. If it feels self-undermining, go elsewhere! I won’t be mad.

Okay. One way to understand this mindset shift is that it’s about taking myself seriously. That’s the lens of this post.

June 20, 2016
To: me
Subject: “Taking myself more seriously.”

In this email to myself a few months ago, I noted that I wanted to be doing more debugging of my personal habits, and to really try to optimize my life. Sure, relative to many people, I do a lot of this already… but what I was realizing was that that was sort of only an process-level habit, and that there were lots of things (big and small) that I was shrugging at.

Ben Pace wrote a blog post about this:

“The mental move by which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the tidiness of your house, is the same mental move in which you try not to think about your dissatisfaction with the course that your career is taking. The dissatisfaction is of greater magnitude in the latter, but it is the same unhelpful skill of ‘not thinking about dissatisfaction’ that you are practicing.”

I know that if I follow a particular sleep routine, I have more enjoyable days. Not just an eventual reward, but immediately. Five minutes after my alarm goes off, I am happier if I am up and at it, than if I’m laying in bed waiting for the snooze period to end.

And yet, in the past, when my sleep got a bit off the rails, I have tended to just kind of let it slip for awhile. Then I’d make a half-hearted attempt to fix it, which would work for a bit. Repeat.

My friend Oliver once relayed to me some insights from Theory of Constraints:

“At a good company, when they notice a bottleneck, they devote twice as much (time/energy/money/resources) as usual to that area until it’s resolved. At a great company, when they notice a bottleneck, they devote as much as they can spare until it’s resolved.”

If my sleep is working, everything else works way better, which pays dividends on the timescale of days, or even hours. This is true of many other things, many of which I’m sure I haven’t even noticed yet. Which means, if I were a great company…

Yeah. It can be easy to think of our habits, our life situation, our sleep quality, as something that sort of happens to us—that we’re subject to. And sure, there are lots of external forces. But we can find ourselves thinking of our own behaviour in this way too… so we watch ourselves do things that…

  1. don’t invest in the long-term
  2. we don’t even enjoy that much in the short-term

Why? Why would we do such things?

My first answer is something like “dopamine, force of habit, and forgetting how much better we can actually make things by trying.” I think there’s a bit more to it as well, relating to being oriented to external incentive structures. More on that after I clarify terminology.

Taking myself seriously… as what?

I’ve shared the concept of “taking myself seriously” with some people, and gotten some confused responses to it. So I want to talk about what I mean by the phrase.

Two quotations. One from Halle Berry reads "Don't take yourself too seriously. Know when to laugh at yourself, and find a way to laugh at obstacles that inevitably prevent themselves." The second, from Kurt Vonnegut, reads "I have had all I can stand of not taking myself seriously."

Not what Halle Berry is saying. Possibly what Kurt Vonnegut is saying (I’m not sure of the context of it).

First: I’m not talking about furrowing my brow at myself or my failures. What about the thing people mean by “don’t take yourself too seriously? live a little. laugh at your failures…”? There are two messages in there, one of which is anti-angst, and the other of which is anti-ambition / anti-excellence. I’m also anti-angst, but very much in favour of excellence. I’m talking about considering my quality of life and general performance to be worthy of substantial attention. Laugh at your failures, then become excellent.

Let’s consider a specific instance of taking something seriously. Back in mid-2012, I “set a goal” of making enough passive income by graduation (mid-2015) that I wouldn’t have to go get a job. I proceeded to do nothing about this “goal” for an entire year.

I could give you explanations (causal or normative) for this, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that it’s clear that I wasn’t taking the goal seriously. Put another way, I wasn’t taking myself seriously as an entrepreneur / lifestyle-businessman.

More broadly, I wasn’t taking myself seriously as a haver-of-goals. I wrote about this a bit 3 years ago, when I started taking myself seriously on these fronts.

I’ve now got a fair bit of practice taking specific goals seriously at this point. What I’m recognizing is that there’s a more general level on which I could be taking myself way more seriously.

I’m part of the CFAR alumni community—a group of people who in theory take their own problems seriously as things to solve. I’m also a professional productivity coach! I have a ton of skills I could be using to make my life better, but I haven’t quite managed to actually use these skills consistently. And, until recently, I’ve been kind of vaguely shrugging about that.

This shrugging motion is the opposite of taking oneself seriously.

Getting away with it, and getting by

While editing this post, I noticed a mashup possibility with the song I was listening to… I googled to see if anyone had tried it, which led me to reddit, from which I ended up reading unrelated but kind of interesting AskReddit threads, after which I went on facebook, where I watched a video that linked to…

…bleh. There goes 2 hours of my life.

What happened? I was in the middle of writing a blog post (this one) that is deeply meaningful to me, and more enjoyable on many levels than these reddit threads and other distractions. Not quite as easy or stimulating, sure, but very rewarding! I like writing.

I did a little postmortem in my head before returning to writing: what happened?

As above, I think part of it is just the pull of dopamine, which I failed to resist initially and got sucked in. I feel like there’s something more psychosocial too though, about this kind of slacking.

An analogy: last week, while I was walking with my friend, we got talking about the various impacts of the rather flashy way that I dress. I noted that part of me was experiencing a sense of getting away with it. Don’t get me wrong—my outfits are primarily driven by taste, not anti-conformity. But part of me was still relating to anyone who might judge me as a kind of authority to be thwarted.

…rather than appreciating that even if nobody directly confronts me, it can still have unwanted impacts: people thinking I’m immature or attention-driven, or lacking in sophistication or context-sensitivity.

I think there’s something similar going on with my internet behaviour this afternoon: part of my brain, in considering which tabs to open and close, is modeling the situation as “can I get away with this?”

This… makes sense.

…on some level. I spent 12 years in school and 4 years in university and a few years working for other people… contexts where the actions and rewards were only sort of correlated. In particular, for smart people, it’s very possible to get high praise in educational contexts while exerting a minimum of effort.

If work (school work or paid work) is unfulfilling and frustrating and the internet is more engaging, it makes sense that there would be a tug of war where my internet adventures are restrained by “well, I do need to do some work on that project, or I’ll get in trouble”.

But now, working on my own, there’s no authority. Can I “get away with” redditing this afternoon? Sure, but I’ll publish fewer (and worse) blog posts. Can I “get away with” sleeping in? Sure, but I don’t actually want to.

When this frame is explicit, it obviously makes no sense for my life. I posit that this is applicable for many people on some level. Even if you’re not trying 100% at school, take the whole-assed half-assing approach and consciously spend the rest of your time in other fulfilling ways, rather than ending up in a vicious rock-paper-scissors of mindlessly procrastinating instead of schoolwork instead of coolwork. I used to deliberately not start some assignments until 1h before they were due, which worked great.

Err, worked great in the short-term. In the long-term I developed shoddy thinking habits, which bled into other endeavours.

I think “getting away with it” ends up being kind of like “getting by”. It isn’t oriented to what one really deeply wants, but instead is a kind of flinch reaction to external authority (real or imaginary).

Taking “taking myself seriously” seriously

Given the internet distraction example above, it’s pretty clear I haven’t yet mastered the whole taking myself seriously thing on all levels. What I have done is come to the point where I’m taking myself seriously as a person who wants to take themselves seriously. Like the example at the start with the ice cream cone, I’m treating performance failures as signs that I need to try a new strategy.

Because when I do take myself seriously on that level, it’s totally worth it. But when I’m not taking myself seriously, it just feels like a lot of work. What’s the deal?

Part II of the series will talk about how this can be modeled as a mindset shift comparable to Fixed➔Growth Mindset. It’ll be much more structured, less rambly. This post is just laying out some of the background context.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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