Replacing Guilt


Excerpts and takeaways from Nate Soares' excellent "Replacing Guilt" series.

Thank you, Nate! It may be the best thing I have ever read. That's my opinion from 2023 to now (<2024-Mar-09>).

When you say "I should do X", you make it unpleasant both to do X and to not🔗

When you think "I should do X", and you aren't quite conscious of how bad it would be to just skip it, you risk growing to resent the obligation.

I see lots of guilt-motivated people use “shoulds” as ultimatums: “either I get the meds, or I am a bad person.” They leave themselves only two choices: go out of their way on the way to work and suffer through awkward human interaction at the pharmacy, or be bad. Either way, they lose: the should has set them up for failure.

But the actual options aren’t “suffer” or “be bad.” The actual options are “incur the social/time costs of buying meds” or “incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill.” It’s just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you “bad.” It’s ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It’s ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a “should.” Both sides are an option.

Perhaps the should unpacks into “I want to finish this paper, because if I don’t, then I will very likely fail my course, lose my scholarship, get kicked out of college, disappoint my parents, and destroy my job prospects.” The alternative options might be really bad. Yet, I claim that there is power in laying them all out, no matter how bad they are. Make the values finite, so you can actually weigh them on your scales. When you "should" yourself without looking at the alternatives, you run a high risk of making yourself feel obligated and resentful.

Every time you say aloud or think of a task you've committed to, it feels lighter if you also take a moment to say why/what's it good for/what consequence will result – especially if you don't have an instant answer.

Picture someone who needs to choose between playing video games all day (and losing their job) or getting abused by customers all day (for not all that much money). They conclude that they “should” do the job, and they feel compelled by the should. And then, over and over, I find my friends resenting their shoulds, as if the shoulds came from outside, from Beyond, from the Intergalactic Oughthorities. They treat their should like shackles that bind them to the “right path”, the one where they have to go to work when they could be playing video games.

But the shoulds aren’t the shackles. There aren’t any oughthorities. You always get to do as you please, within the bounds allowed by the universe.

How to break a "should" into components?🔗

Imagine failure, especially when failure is unthinkable🔗

Especially when failure is unthinkable, imagine failing. The inability to do so makes it more likely.

Unpacking a “should” can also be very difficult for a reason that’s a little harder to articulate. Have you ever seen a person who can’t even imagine the thought of failure start to fail? They start to panic, their actions get rushed, their hands start to shake (which is particularly fatal if their task is one requiring dexterity), they put on blinders to the fact that they’re about to fail as they frantically repeat an action they wish would succeed over and over.

The ironic thing is, especially in timed, dexterity-based tasks, if the person didn’t panic, they would have a better chance of succeeding. It seems to me that, more often than not, it’s the fact that they can’t even consider their failure that is harming them most.

Visualize it in full detail. Don't need to excuse it. Don't tell yourself it wouldn't be your fault. Don't tell yourself it would be fine. Don't make up a story about how you'd handle it successfully. Just imagine the worst.

People close to you might get hurt. You could die. Lots of people could die. If bad outcomes are in the possibility space, internalize that now. Come to terms with that terrible fact as soon as you can. You want to get into a mental state where if the bad outcome comes to pass, you will only nod your head and say "I knew this card was in the deck, and I knew the odds, and I would make the same bets again, given the same opportunities."

Connect the task to the goal🔗

Whenever you mention a task, mention its purpose🔗

Imagine the person who wakes up feeling a bit sick. They may well say to themselves, “ugh, I should go to the pharmacy and pick up medication before work.” Now picking up meds feels like an obligation: if they don’t get meds, then that’s a little bit of evidence that they’re incompetent, or akrasiatic, or bad. Now they must go get meds, if they want to be a competent person. In the lingo of CFAR, this “should” is the exact opposite of an urge-propagation: it disconnects the reason from the task, it abolishes the “why”. The person feeling sick now feels like they have an obligation to pick up medication, and so if they do it, they do it grudgingly, resenting the situation.

Now imagine they say this, instead: “ugh, if I went to the pharmacy to pick up medication, I’d feel better at work today.” Notice the difference? Now the reason remains attached to the task. Now neither option makes them “bad,” and both options are tradeoffs.

Don’t say “I really should finish this paper.” Say “if I don’t finish this paper, I’ll get a worse grade than I was planning to, and my teacher will frown at me, and my parents will frown at me.” Then weigh your options. Then choose.

The quality line is not your preference curve🔗

Situation: You try to break a should into components, but it feels sort of pointless. Did you forget that the task's objective quality line is not your preference curve? Feel for what's a good-enough outcome, and it may be easier to proceed.

Breaking a “should” into its component goals, tasks, and desires may be particularly difficult for people who are still confusing the quality line with the preference curve and forgetting that it’s possible for their preferences to diverge from the expectations of others.

Not-forcing-yourself creates a win-win situation🔗

A few months ago, a friend of mine was describing her motivational issues to me. As an example, she explained she was having trouble making herself clean her room, despite her dissatisfaction with the constant messiness.

I asked: “Have you considered just not forcing yourself?”

She blinked, and cocked her head at me, and said “but then my room wouldn’t get cleaned.”

I called bullshit. Because look: either (a) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and you realize you don’t actually care about having a clean room, and then your room stays messy and that’s fine because you don’t care; or (b) you stop forcing yourself to clean the room, and then you get a bit worried, because some part of you actually wants the room cleaned, so you listen to that part of yourself, and you work with it, and you find a time to clean the room because you want to.

Either way, you win. No need to use internal force.

If there's something you often do, never heap guilt on yourself for it🔗

Situation: You become aware there's a thing you've repeatedly done, and you dislike that you do it. Well, don't heap guilt on yourself. The spectre of "You Will Feel Bad" is clearly not keeping you from doing it anyway. Instead, drop all that and just observe what pushed the elephant to do it this time.

(metaphor of the elephant and the rider)

When you are feeling guilty about how you spent your time, make it go away by redirecting the guilty energy into doing a postmortem.

Guilt is one of those strange tools that works by not occurring. You place guilt on the branches of possibility that you don’t want to happen, and then, if all goes well, those futures don’t occur. Guilt is supposed to steer the future towards non-guilty futures; it’s never supposed to be instantiated in reality.

Guilt works by the same mechanism as threats: imagine the tribesperson who precommits to breaking the legs of anyone who steals their food. If this precommitment works, then it never needs to be carried out: violence is a dangerous business, and the tribesperson would much rather that they never need to break legs at all. …

Imagine, by contrast, the tribesperson who threatens to break the legs of anyone who looks at them funny: they might find themselves attempting violence every single day, and this likely makes their life unpleasant, to say the least. In this case, I would argue that they’re using their threats poorly. I would say that, if you keep finding yourself carrying out a threat, then you really need to consider whether or not your threats are really capable of steering the future in the way you hoped.

Guilt is the same way: if you find yourself regularly experiencing guilt, then you’re using guilt incorrectly.

So then what's the alternative? Science! Be a scout, not a torturer:

When you find yourself binging netflix, don’t heap loads of guilt on yourself post-binge. That sort of thing clearly doesn’t prevent the binge. Instead, say to yourself, “huh, I appear to netflix-binge under certain conditions, despite the fact that I’d rather not. I wonder which conditions, specifically, led to that binge! What were the triggers? How could they have been avoided? What methods might help me avoid binging in the future?”

And then treat it like an experiment! Write up your hypotheses. Experiment with many different ways to fix your glitches. Write postmortems when you fail. If you attempt a fix and then find yourself binging again, then don’t heap loads of guilt on yourself! That still doesn’t help.

Have a moral orientation? Letting it become a "should" harms your morality🔗

(Applicable to Diet ethics)

When resenting your shoulds, recall that they don't come from outside you.

I’ve seen many people use the word “should” to highlight a conflict between what they perceive as desires and what they perceive as moral obligations. For example, they might say “well I want to buy this ice cream, but I should donate the money to the Against Malaria Foundation instead.”

I say, this is a false conflict. Imagine this person precommiting to never doing anything just because they “should.” How might they feel?

They might feel relieved, because they actually didn’t care about helping others, not even a little bit. So they discharge their guilt, buy their ice cream, and go on their merry way.

But more likely (in someone who thought they “should” give to AMF), that would feel a little bad, and a little hollow. This person, when committing to never do things because they “should,” might feel a bit of fear. They might worry that if they didn’t keep themselves in check then they’d never do anything to help those less fortunate than themselves. That might seem bad, to them.

Which lets them actually see the true problem, for the first time: they both want to buy the ice cream and help those who are worse off than them. Now they can actually weigh both desires on the scales, or search for clever third options that fulfill both desires, and so on.

This is a big part of where guilt-free effective altruism comes from, I think: instead of forcing yourself to give to charities sporadically when the guilt overcomes you, promise yourself that you won’t give sporadically due to guilt, and then listen to the part of you that says “but then when will I help others!?” Don’t force yourself to be an altruist — instead, commit to never forcing yourself, and then work with the part of you that protests, and become an altruist if and only if you want to help.

Is there ever a point to the word "should"?🔗

Basically, it's for retrospectives.

A commenter to my last post said: There’s some meaning lost when you go from “I should X” to “If I X, I will achieve Y”, which is “And I want to achieve Y enough to X, that’s the best of the options.”

I think this is mostly correct. Only mostly, because as far as I can tell most people don’t tend to use “I should X” to mean “X is my best option.” More frequently, I see people use it to mean “I would conclude that X is my best option if I knew more facts,” or “I would conclude that X is my best option if I thought longer/”, or “I would conclude that X is my best option /if I really cared about what I say I care about .”

Regardless, all these various interpretations of “I should X” share one property: It’s extremely difficult to make these claims about X while you’re still deliberating.

If you ever happen to figure out which option is best, then don’t slap the label “should” on it and go back to thinking about your options! If you know what the best option is, then stop deliberating and do it.

After the fact, looking back, you are welcome to say “ah, knowing what I know now, I see that pressing the green button would have been better.” But in the moment , all you can do is evaluate all of your actions and see which one looks best given the information available. Shoulds are for retrospectives, not for deliberation.

Don't expect the choice to be easy🔗

Imagine failure, especially when failure is unthinkable. But even after you lay out all the consequences, that won't make it an easy choice. It may go from impossible to merely difficult. But even if you still don't make the "right" choice, you couldn't have expected to make it either when it really was impossible.

Once you’ve cashed out a should, you’re often left with conflicting interests (remember that it’s quite possible to disagree with yourself! I’ve seen people should themselves simply because they refuse to acknowledge that they might be under internal conflict). Frequently, after unpacking a should you’re still left with a really hard choice. Furthermore, it’s also quite common to cash a should out, weigh both options, decide that one option is better, and then still find yourself doing the worse thing. (This last problem is a doozy, and I’ll discuss it more in future posts.)

What a true moral impulse feels like🔗

The things that you feel resentment towards are false shoulds, or at least twisted shoulds. Encountering one of your actual moral bonds feels very different indeed. A true opportunity to execute a moral commitment feels not like an obligation, but like a priviledge. It feels like executing a Screw The Rules I’m Doing What’s Right trope.

In fiction, picture the moment when the villain reveals that doing the Right Thing will start a war, and the hero sets their jaw, looks them in the eyes, and says “so be it,” and then does the right thing anyway.

In real life, think of Irena Sendler, who smuggled thousands of Jewish children to safety during the holocaust, who was captured by the Nazis and tortured and had her legs broken and was sentenced to death, and who escaped anyway,

and then went back.

Imagine what was going through her mind, when she decided to go back and save more people. Now, of course, I have no idea what she was actually feeling, but when I imagine what it would take for me to go back under those circumstances, I imagine feeling fear, and a hint of despair at finding myself still capable, but also a burning resolve to do the right thing anyway.

I imagine her feeling that having the opportunity to go back was a privilege. Not an external obligation whispered down from the heavens, but an internal fire, a defiance of the natural order, a need to make the world different from the way it would be otherwise.

Irena didn’t have an obligation to keep fighting. She had more than discharged her moral duty. And while I’m willing to bet that at least part of her was scared, and at least part of her wished she had been crippled and unable to return, there was also a part of her that didn’t look at the opportunity to return to save more children as a misfortune, but as an honor.

Can you begin to see the difference between a false should, and a true moral commitment? Think of a false should, one that gives you a strong sense of obligation and a hint of resentment (such as “finish this paper” or “go to work tomorrow”). Now imagine of Irena Sendler, offered the opportunity to return to Warsaw. Imagine what went on in her head, in that moment.

I imagine a mind afraid, but unified, because for her, it wasn’t really a choice. Innocent children were still dying, and there was only one thing to do.

That’s what a true moral impulse feels like, when you find one. Not like an obligation, but like a piece of cold iron found deep in your core, the thing that you touch — or that touches you — in the moment that you really see the best option available to you, the moment that you realize you already know which way this choice is going to go.

Do I want to just be at home doing nothing?🔗


Nate talks about this misconception ( and I think sometimes I fall prey to it. But usually not. I know I have tons of things I genuinely want to do and which I will do as soon as other completed tasks leave space for them. I also know it's a restful existence, to just do what I want. But often I do things I don't really want, and I may get the idea that it would be nice to let go of all obligations, but it's not towards doing nothing. Just nothing I don't want. Or nothing I have to push myself towards.

(Observation: Sometimes I "push" myself like when I'm learning a new tech framework, but in that situation, I want to push, so it doesn't have the same shade of unpleasantness. I should remember that feeling for reference as a nontoxic kind of self-push.)

I note, however, that "being home alone doing what I want" may work for me as the same sort of ideal as "lying at home doing nothing" for some people. So let me just point out now, Me, that it's not really what I want. If I removed everything complicated from my life, like relationships, my days would be predictable but eventually I would feel incomplete. On the other hand, having friends and lovers sometimes means difficulties. These may feel like the kind of thing I want to minimize out of life, but I guess I welcome them even if it's not fun in the moment.

Nate's three tools for shifting guilt🔗

Nate says all the above ideas are basically generated from these basic lenses:

  1. Refinement
  2. Internalization
  3. Realism

Use refinement (1) when you feel vaguely guilty about the recent days, overall feeling bad about yourself. Ask the guilt what it's so embarrassed about and what it would have preferred you do instead.

Be very concrete and don't just accept "I should have been studying". Which book? Which chapter?

Sometimes, this makes you remember that none of the alternatives were compelling, that what you did made sense, and the guilt may vanish. But often, it gets more pointed, well-defined, which gives you something to work with for the next step.

Update after a major mistake gives you a suckerpunch of guilt🔗

Once upon a time, I had a loose date planned with a girlfriend. She was going to drop by around 21:00 to hang out. I had something else planned at 19:00 that I didn’t expect to take too long; it ended up taking many hours longer than expected. There was no particularly convenient point along the way to step out and call my girlfriend and tell her I’d be late… so I didn’t. I simply got home at 23:00 at night, opened the door, and saw my girlfriend sitting worried on the bed.

There’s a very distinct type of feeling that I experienced, there, which you might call “guilt.” Seeing her sitting there on the bed, I suddenly remembered that the anxiety and dejection that she went through was far worse than the slight awkwardness I would have incurred to call her. A compartmentalization in my head broke down, and the part of me that had known she’d been feeling terrible suddenly came into mental focus. My error became obvious. The feeling was something like being punched in the gut.

Afterwards, I also had the opportunity to feel a lingering sense of regret for days.

When I suggest removing guilt, I suggest removing the latter — but not the former. The former is quite useful.

If you worry that, by removing guilt, you will lose your ability to update when you mess up, then I say: update on the suckerpunch. Trust me, it’s strong enough. Update immediately when you realize where you failed, and use the terrible feeling to make sure you don’t do that again.

Update fully on the suckerpunch, and there will be no need for that lingering regret.

You may have a broken notion of what you "could" have done🔗

You probably don’t feel guilty for failing to snap your fingers in just such a way as to produce a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet, many people do feel guilty for failing to work until they drop every single day (which is a psychological impossibility).


Most people’s “coulds” are broken.

People think that they “could have” avoided anxiety at that one party. They think they “could have” stopped playing Civilization at a reasonable hour and gone to bed. They think they “could have” stopped watching House of Cards between episodes. I’m not making a point about the illusion of free will, here — I think there is a sense in which we “could” do certain things that we do not in fact do. Rather, my point is that most people have a miscalibrated idea of what they could or couldn’t do.

People berate themselves whenever their brain fails to be engraved with the cognitive patterns that they wish it was engraved with, as if they had complete dominion over their own thoughts, over the patterns laid down in their heads. As if they weren’t a network of neurons. As if they could choose their preferred choice in spite of their cognitive patterns, rather than recognizing that choice is a cognitive pattern. As if they were supposed to choose their mind, rather than being their mind.

By contrast, I don’t treat myself as if I “could” stop binge-reading a good book, and therefore I don’t feel terrible if I binge. Instead, I say, “ah, I see, I binge-read engaging books; I will treat ‘read an engaging book’ as a single atomic action that takes five to twenty hours, with no choice nodes in between.” Where others are berating themselves for failing to complete an impossible task (“stop binge-reading halfway through and get back to real work”), I am learning what I am and am not capable of, and learning where my real action nodes are.

Never use willpower

Expect typically-uncontrolled activities, like binging Netflix, to behave as blocks with no choice nodes inside; the time for choice is five minutes before.

Quite a radical self-promise:

(In fact, I’ve previously suggested promising yourself that you’ll never pull yourself out of a situation using willpower — knowing that you won’t save your own ass if you get into a situation where you need willpower to extract yourself really makes you notice the true point of no return when it comes along.)

Instead of trying (and often failing) to stop myself from indulging, I decided to allow myself to indulge whenever I really wanted to.

"It's your time", I told myself.

This changed the game entirely. I no longer willed myself to avoid temptation: I weighed temptations alongside my other options, took their pros and cons into account, and made an informed decision. Did I need to distract myself? Sometimes, the answer was yes.

Knowing that I could no longer trust myself to bail me out if I got addicted to new media, I took special care in removing as many distractions as I could from my environment. Because I'd resolved not to spend willpower to cancel addictions, I became much more cautious at the point of entry.

No such thing as being "bad"

The concept is so deep-seated, it will come back now and then.

When I'm not doing what I promised, I may feel I am a bad person. Remember there's no such thing!

We aren't here to alter the color of the fundamental "goodness" stone buried within us from red to green; life is not a game of "wind up Good at the end". There is only what you can do and what you can't. As a corollary, You may have a broken notion of what you "could" have done.

I sometimes find myself unable to act as I wish; unresponsive to my own cajoling. I treat these not as evidence of my fundamental brokenness, but as evidence about how and when I can intervene on the world.

While I often fail, I do not act under fear of being judged inadequate by the universe. I may be inadequate to the tasks I undertake, I may fail to steer the future as I wish to, but I cannot be “fundamentally bad.” That sentence does not parse.

There is something freeing about this: I may succeed; I may fail; but I will not be judged by someone who roots through my mind to see whether the stone is green or red.

When I feel guilty or sense I would be a bad person if I let a thing happen, take the feeling as an unopened package. Unpack why you're having it.

It’s well and good, when introspecting about why what you’re doing is important, to get an answer from yourself that is of the form “otherwise I’ll be bad.” That’s a fine answer to get. But don’t let that be the end of things. Don’t pretend that that’s the final answer. Investigate.

Ask yourself, “what do I mean by that?” Say to yourself, “I bet that’s shorthand for something.” Unpack the feeling of would-be-bad.

If someone wants you to do the laundry, and you don’t want to do the laundry, and you get angry at them because you have a sense that if there is conflict then one of you must be bad and you don’t want to be bad—

—then pause, and investigate further.

Focus, and ask yourself what bad thing would happen if you did do the laundry, and what bad thing would happen if you didn’t.

Maybe you get an answer like “if I don’t do the laundry then it will strain my relationship with my friend, but if I do do the laundry then it will spend scarce energy and attention and I’m feeling really exhausted and don’t want to force myself to do it.”

That’s great! (The answer doesn’t need to be comfortable, it just needs to be unpacked.


A good excuse makes your failure tolerable, but that's not good.

Plug the grim-o-meter into your own life, not the world

I’ve met many who are under the impression that when you realize the world is in deep trouble, you’re obligated to respond by feeling more and more grim. Like a movie about a detective that’s trying to save a kidnapped child: as the detective learns that the child is in more and more danger, they lock their jaw and become more and more grim and determined. Their respite comes only when the child is rescued.

That’s narrative thinking, and we aren’t in a narrative. You can break the trope.


I say, it’s good to have a grim-o-meter, but stop calibrating it against the state of the world. That’s a terrible plan!

I mean, look at humanity at large. People are killing each other like it’s going out of style, while millions die from disease each year and civilization careens towards self-destruction.

Now look at your grim-o-meter. It has, like, seven different settings. Maybe twelve, on a good day.

That detective in the movie about the kidnapped child might be able to faithfully use a twelve-setting grim-o-meter to track the grimness of their own situation.

But the real world? The one with billions of people each with rich inner lives, and astronomical future potential hanging by a pale blue thread in Time? There’s no way you can justifiably connect a twelve-setting grim-o-meter to that.

And what if you could? Would your grim-o-meter always be set to “maximum grimness,” at least until humanity makes it through the gauntlet? That doesn’t sound very fun or useful.


Look: that’s not what your grim-o-meter is for. It’s not supposed to be attached to the global state of the world. Feeling grim or carefree in proportion to the aggregate disparity or well-being on the planet is difficult, impractical, and mostly useless.

Your grim-o-meter is designed for local occasions. You need to get more grim (and more buckled down) as the work immediately in front of you gets harder, and you need to get less grim (so that you can spend time recharging and relaxing) whenever you have the affordance to recharge and relax. That’s the point of the grimness setting.

Remember, the grim-o-meter was made for you, not you for it.

Responses we make to cope with beggars

Imagine walking past a beggar on the street. They're dirty and downtrodden; weathered but not much older than you. They ask you for change as you pass by.

This causes a certain type of pain in people — enough pain that most people develop some sort of coping mechanism. Some people pretend they didn't see or hear the beggar. Some give an apology, some make up an excuse about not having any money. Some shove their hands in their pockets and drag out some spare change, so that they may discharge their moral duty.

Other people cope with cynicism or bitterness — the sight of a beggar reminds them of the failings of the hated out group, the people who voted for the Wrong Political Party in the local elections. Still others cope with a wave of guilt, shorting out the pain, because the guilt seems easier to bear.

My suggestion, this week, is notice that impulse.

I say: Yes, the beggar suffers. Yes, a thousand families starve. The world is hurting.

And yes, there are others who are doing more than you to help. Some are smarter, some are more productive, some were born wealthier, some are kinder, some are less psychologically fragile, some have a stronger will.

But none of these are reasons for guilt. Guilt was made for us, not us for it. Guilt is useful only insofar as it helps you wrest yourself from the wrong path. If you're already walking the path you want to walk, if you're working on becoming kinder, or more generous, or psychologically stronger, or wealthier, or smarter, if you're already moving as fast as you can given your current constraints, then the fact that the world is still hurting and you aren't strong enough to fix things yet is no reason for guilt.

Rather, it's a reason for anger, at a world where nobody is evil but everything is broken. It's a reason for resolve, to push yourself as hard as is healthy and sustainable but no harder.

There are dozens of opportunities to transmute guilt, or awkwardness, or not-my-problem into resolve, each day.

Notice the disabused middle-aged woman who has to sacrifice a part of her soul working a job at Starbucks in order to earn her right to survive. See the madman yelling across the street, while everyone else reflexively struggles to ignore or unsee him. See a morbidly obese person avoid the stares of onlookers as they struggle with self-loathing in a civilization that filled its cheapest foods with poisons that ravage bodies. Some people ignore these painful parts of the world. Others try to unsee them. Others try to distance themselves, by poking fun at those who are deemed "pathetic."

I suggest seeing them, and remembering. Remember that there may come a time when humanity will move the very stars to ensure that no mind suffers as much as a first-world beggar does today. Remember that, beneath all the mental callouses that allow you to write fellow human beings off as unsalvageable, the reason you won't help them is not because they aren't worth helping, but because there are too many other things that need doing first.

Excuses rob you of agency

Excuses are also a way to tolerify.

Excuses are a social artifact, a way to ensure that you don't lose face when you fail.

But we're not here to win a social game.

Explanations are excuses.

Don't get me wrong, it's very important to understand your failures. Note, though, that there's a big difference between "understanding" that your stupid knee was acting up and the sun was in your eyes and luck turned against you, and understanding that you didn't train hard enough or anticipate adverse conditions well enough.

Don't let friends help you excuse yourself

"But people want excuses. They're social creatures! They want to know what happened!", the one protests.

Sometimes. Sometimes people really want you to provide them some excuse, or at least some explanation. But even here, be careful: I have noticed that my friends often help me try to excuse myself , for one reason or another, and I think that giving in to this pressure can be harmful.

Imagine someone who failed to exit an abusive relationship, despite three years of trauma. After they successfully exit, their friends are likely to be first in line with condolences along the lines of "they were gaslighting you" and "there wasn't anything you could have done" and "how could you have known what to do?"

They are providing excuses, and these are toxic. They rob you of your power. They rob you of your ability to say "actually, I could have known, if I had been thinking more clearly. I could have acted differently, if I had known better. And that's the good part , because it means that I am not a helpless victim, because it means that I can learn how to become stronger. Because it means that I cannot be trapped in that sort of situation again."

Excuses rob you of your agency. Yes, many people will try to get excuses out of you, if they perceive you as putting too much pressure on yourself. But that pressure is precisely the impetus to learn and adapt, and if you can bear it, then I suggest you do.

Put success in the background🔗

I think many people imagine the difference between trying to try and actually trying involves something like Additional Effort or Additional Willpower. It's easy to imagine someone trying to try to (say) cure aging. Maybe they flounder around a bit and talk about how they want to join a biology startup, or start a biology startup, or get a biology degree, all while really deeply wanting to find some way to cure aging. It's also easy to imagine that the person "actually trying" to cure aging is doing something similar, but with more determination and a bit of pixie dust that makes things work out. The actually-tryer does the same things, but for them, the startup works through dint of sheer willpower; or they get a biology degree while winning so many accolades that they get to set up their own laboratory.

This isn't how I imagine "actually trying." It's not trying-to-try with extra gusto. Actually trying looks like solving small subproblems, with the more ambitious target no longer the focus of attention, but rather a background task. Actually trying to cure aging doesn’t look like a person getting a biology degree with especially grim determination, it looks like Aubrey de Grey wading through a mountain of mundane tasks while scraping together enough money to keep SENS running.

Imagine someone who plays recreational soccer, sprinting up and down the soccer field up till the brink of exhaustion. Now imagine them not playing soccer, but just trying to sprint up and down the field up to the brink of exhaustion. They probably push themselves a lot less in the latter case. If "sprint up and down the field a lot" is the main goal, then at each possible stopping point, part of them starts trying to convince the rest that they've exercised enough for the day, and they must spend willpower to continue. In a soccer match, by contrast, the focus is elsewhere.

[…] This is not novel advice, of course, but it is perhaps a generalization over a few different common types of advice.

If you want to tackle a big problem, like "finding a job", then if you ever find yourself saying "I'm currently trying to find a job", be wary.

(BTW: a second problem that afflicts finding a job is my ugh field)

If you're working on Problem 27 and think of yourself as "I'm currently trying to solve Problem 27"… that's not what occupies the mind of someone trying! Assume all your actions will be pointed that direction anyway; what's next?

This is a quick and easy way to put success in the background, as discussed last week. For example, compare these two responses to “what are you doing?”

> I’m trying to solve this math problem.


> I’m pursuing a promising line of inquiry on this math problem. If it doesn’t lead anywhere, I have two others to pursue next. If all three are fruitless, I’ll ask for help.

For the first person, “failure” is either first or second on the list of things they expect to happen next: they’re trying to solve the problem, and either they’ll solve it, or they’ll fail. If they fail, they can say “well, I tried”, and move on. And because failing and moving on is such a prominent option, they must struggle against it each time they pause; they are like the person trying to sprint up and down a soccer field as much as they can, rather than the person playing soccer.

Imagine that I’m in the middle of flossing my teeth, when someone knocks on the door and asks what I’m doing. I wouldn’t answer “trying to floss,” I’d just answer “flossing” — unless I had been interrupted so many times that I was beginning to doubt my ability to complete the task.

Although don't fake it—

(Some self-help books and professionals advocate always saying that you are “doing” rather than “trying,” but this often seems dishonest to me: when I’m trying to win a race, and I’m currently in tenth place, and you ask me what I’m doing, I have a hard time saying “winning a race” with a straight face.)

When removing ‘try’ and its synonyms from your vocabulary, you may find that you can’t honestly say you’re “solving a math problem,” because you have no idea whether you’ll succeed. And saying you’re “working on a math problem” is only slightly better; it’s mostly just using “working” as a synonym for “trying.”

In these cases, if you want to remove the word ‘try’, I suggest not finding a near synonym, but increasing the granularity of your descriptions. Don’t say “I’m trying to solve this math problem,” say “I’m transforming the problem into a programming problem so I can see it from a different angle”, or “I’m gameifying the problem so that my intuitions can get a better handle on it,” or “I’m producing random algebraic manipulations of this equation in desperate hope that one of them happens to be the answer,” or “I’m staring at the problem waiting for my gut to say something for enough time to pass that I can give up without losing face.” Describe what you’re doing on the level of granularity where at each step you describe, it would be silly to say you were “trying” at that step, […]

Often, when I get down to the level of granularity where I’m doing rather than trying, I find that I’m doing something pretty silly — as in, I’ll start out by saying “I’m trying to write the opening paragraph of this paper”, and then I’ll notice the word ‘trying’, and I’ll introspect a bit and rephrase a bit and I’ll eventually figure out that I was doing was “sitting in front of a screen holding the subject of the paper in my head waiting for my gut to figure out what to write”.

Response patterns

Confidence all the way up

This means the confidence that you are up to debugging your judgment on any level, and that you may as well trust in your best judgment at any given time instead of being paralyzed. Sort of.

Three dubious virtues

Nate's three dubious virtues

  1. Desperation
  2. Recklessness
  3. Defiance

What game are you playing?

Maybe you have listless guilt, thinking that nothing matters but feeling vaguely restless. Or you have pointed guilt, thinking that everything matters but berating yourself for not being perfect. Well, both pitfalls may be avoided thru the framing that you simply act to shape your universe-history.

Maybe you get stuck playing a social game, measuring yourself against others. Maybe you mistake others' expectations for your preferences and chase lost purposes. Maybe someone slights you and your end goal becomes pure retaliation.

What we are doing, on this earth, is acting in such a way that our future is filled with light. From this framing, “guilt-based motivation” is a foreign concept: If you start to feel guilty, simply look at your situation with fresh eyes (Be A New Homunculus), and then act such that the future is filled with light.

Technique: Be a new homunculus

If you start to feel guilty, simply look at your situation with fresh eyes (be a new homunculus).

The price of a life is not the value of a life

There is a gap between how much a life is really worth, and the price tag that you must assign. That gap is not there because your intuitions are wrong. That gap is there because our village is being plagued by a godamn dragon.

That gap is a direct measure of the difference between the universe that is, and the universe that should be.

That price difference, the difference between a few thousand dollars and a few thousand suns, is a direct measure of how fucked up things are.

Most people start with an intuition that they should refuse to press the button at any price, because lives are nigh invaluable. You can go to these people, and show them that in order to save as many lives as possible with a bounded amount of money, they must put a price on life. Most people, at that point, react one of two ways.

Some accept the logic and reject their intuitions. They see that, to save the most lives, they must use a price tag. It sounds repugnant to say that the pleasure experienced by a few million people drinking a can of soda is equivalent to the value of a life, but (they think) that’s exactly the sort of reasoning that leads someone to thinking that life is invaluable, which is a deadly misconception. And so, wanting to save as many people as they can with the money allotted to life-saving, they bite the bullet, and conclude that lives were never worth all that much anyway.

Others reject the logic, and continue to claim that life is invaluable, and then try to back up their intuitions with some strange version of ethics where saving as many lives as possible with the money available is not the right thing to do, for convoluted reasons.

But there’s a third option here! All these people have forgotten about the dragon!

It is possible to live in a universe where it is both the case that (1) lives are nigh invaluable, and (2) people are being annihilated constantly, against their will, in ways that can be prevented using relatively small sums of money.

The universe is not fair! Pressing the button for $10 is the way to save the most lives, and this very fact is a horrible thing.

Apply willpower as a stopgap measure, don't count on it

A problem isn't solved until it's solved automatically, without need for active attention or willpower.

If it's too late to X, self-signal an ability to X anyway

Join the mob

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Created (8 months ago)