On Legacy

(Epistemic status: Possibly a scrupulosity trap – if you aren’t stabilized yet, this frame might not be helpful, but YMMV. Also speculative.)

I refuse to have children. There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that I prefer women, part of it is that I do not think I would make a good mother, part of it is that there’s enough “glitches” in the way I think that I would likely be passing on a corrupted algorithm, and part of it is that children are heavy resource expenditure. That last reason is what this post is about.

Before I start, the model I’m working with here is that the shape of a human is determined by “algorithm” – the nature, neurotype, genetics someone comes into the world with, “experience” – the nurture, upbringing, traumas, and other things that form the idiosyncracies of a given algorithm, and “craft” – the things that you create in the world that may not be individually intense qualia, but form a quantity of experiences in your life that shift the lens with which you see the world. Experience is something I think tends to have a lot more impact early in life than later than life, but even subtle tweaking effects caused my experience can alter your overall impact as a person.

I’m in the sunset of my 20s (apparently people are surprised by this – yes, I look pretty young but I’m 29.) My model of how humans human in the modern world is the first 20 years are basically becoming a human. When you’re a kid, you’re missing fundamental gears that civilization and society rely on. Whether those gears being added is a good or bad thing really depends on your values and your memeplex – that’s not really what this discussion is about. By your early 20s, you have most, if not all of those societal gears and are generally regarded as a human in ways that are both legible and illegible. Again, I will gloss over the parts where some people do not get to take part in this social contract and this is frankly bullshit – society, unsurprisingly, has a lot of bugs and it is unclear if it is getting better or different about them. Regardless, the basic idea is that in your 20s, you’re a human, so get humaning. Humaning ideally involves exploration and finding a niche, through the 20s. A lot of things will fail, a lot of things will work, and you start rounding out the things intrinsic to you with experiences of the world that are not curated by people extremely similar to you. Once again, there’s a lot of alternatives to this, and the current state of society actually breaks this process in ways that are likely harmful to the machinery of progress and civilization, but this is not the focal point. By the time you’re in your 30s, you kind of get a choice point – in some cases, you’ll have had kids in your 20s (or younger) and have basically earmarked your 30s to keep doing that. In other cases, you’ll have waited and built enough stability and resources to do the kid thing from a more mature perspective. But in some cases, you will still not have kids. Your 30s becomes new game plus.

So, the difference between your 20s and 30s, provided you haven’t thoroughly burnt out your body through bad habits, is probably not all that dramatic. Ten years of life experience certainly has an impact, but overall, your energy levels will be a little lower and your neuroplasticity will be a little lower, but you’re still pretty much in your prime. (To be fair I mostly hope it is like this, but the people I know in their 30s seem to be experiencing this to some extent). It’s in some ways the ideal mix of fitness and wisdom that’s feasible for most people. You’ve lived some, but you also aren’t falling apart or slowing down too much. Having kids this late is a bit unusual (though more common as of late), but still a reasonable optimization to pass legacy on. Your values and memeplex should be somewhat set in, and making a tiny person who shares a lot of your neurotype is a great way to iterate on that memeplex. You are basically trading off most of your resources and life to do this – turning compound interest from your own life into compound interest for your child’s life, if all goes well. It seems like a bad trade upfront, but overall it’s another form of new game plus – playing an intergenerational game instead of an intragenerational game.

However, sometimes you opt not to have kids for some reason or another. Great, you have a ton of extra energy and resources and no responsibilities, right? Well, unfortunately, you have quite a few generations of compound interest going into your life and you can shirk that, but I think there’s something fundamentally sad about that. To clarify, this is specifically about the case where you are privileged enough to have choices at this stage of life – if you’re still stabilizing because things went wrong in one way or another, this duty doesn’t apply to you (and arguably, the duty of your forebears was shirked first). So, limiting to the case of facing your 30s from the perspective of someone who has options – there is still a duty, and it is harder. The statement being made is “All right, several generations of effort have culminated in me, and I think that I am ready to deposit this algorithm into the machine of civilization.” Fundamentally, the output of a human life is legacy, and choices made as you enter the middle of your life can be made with this in mind.

Now – your 30s is new game plus if you opt to not have kids, but it comes with additional responsibilities. What do you do with that? Well, in the ideal life, you’ve done most of your exploring in your 20s, you have a rough idea of your niche, and you use your 30s to dig deeper. Craft starts predominating more and more (I suspect in the past, craft predominated earlier.) This is where “who are you” and “what do you do” are relatively similar questions (though of course, they don’t have to be). The quantity of similar experiences locks out some other aspects of experience, but you there’s still a lot to be found with this approach. Going deep is a way to trade the energy and resources that have accumulated to form you into a legacy, because most people who have dedicated 10, 20, 30 years to a thing and aren’t just repeating year 1 over and over are in fact going places very few people have gone, and making a major impact on their craft. This contribution to the civilization engine is extremely valuable, if a bit more legible than other impacts. Sometimes you can use your 30s to explore, but even harder. With a resource base, you can expand your reference class of experiences and take more risks. You end up going places few people go if you continue to learn from your seeking behavior – and the impact you have is a little more illegible but might reveal territory civilization would do well to colonize. There are certainly other ways to use the excess you’re cashing in, but I’m mostly looking at the broad strokes – after all, I haven’t lived my 30s yet.

Overall, the fundamental takeaway I want this post to inspire is the concept of legacy (broadly defined) as the material human life force can be spent on. I suspect some things happen later in life that are also deeply important to contributing to the engine of civilization, but since I am not on the precipice of those things, it is more opaque to me. Probably around your 40s or so, it becomes important to have created access to new places for those coming into their 20s to explore, or to have invested enough into your children so that they have a strong baseline to explore from in the first place – beyond that, though, I don’t know. For now, my choice has been to cash out the resources that have been placed into me – it is my hope that any legacy I add to the soup of civilization is particularly me flavored.

Discussion questions – What do you think is the fundamental material you can buy with human life force? How important is legacy to you? What other models of legacy exist, besides children and cashing out? What other duties to civilization can a human bear

On Emotional Processing

(Epistemic status: This is probably one of the most powerful tools I’ve discovered for regulating my reactions to the world around me and quite frankly, making me a better person.)

How often are things just not right in your life? How often does something impossibly frustrating, or impossibly depressing, or anything in that space of emotional pain, happen to you? And how often is your first response to vent about it or otherwise unload about it with your friends? How often do you want your story heard, your emotions validated, and to know that you are safe within the tribe, no matter how bad it seems? For me, personally, this happens a lot. I’ve been under more stress than I imagined I ever would be over the past few months, and this has worn on me.

Unfortunately, it has also on others that care about me – I think that it is a natural drive to have help with emotional processing, to get it out of your head. I don’t think the drive itself is even wrong, or bad. I don’t think one should feel guilty for externalizing their emotional world, especially if their friends are prepared for it. What I suggest instead, is that this process can be optimized.

A lot of the problem I have when I am in emotional pain is that I lack clarity on what the nature of the problem is. I hide a lot of information from myself, especially when I am in a social situation where, to some extent, I feel obligated to make my pain “pretty”. There are additional incentive structures inhibiting my expression – I want to stay in the painful state to continue getting attention. I want to make whoever is helping me prove themselves worthy. I want the costs of the emotional labor to have been “worth it”. This leads to things where the goalposts of what I want keep moving around, and reassurances get invalidated in increasingly absurd ways. Eventually, I find myself getting frustrated and shutting down (or worse, lashing out). The process is not one that often helps, though occasionally I learn things after I reach the point of regretting my actions. However, this isn’t sustainable, nor is it fair to those around me – so I decided to find a better way to do things.

The key things that help actually make progress on emotional problems are specificity, proper scoping, and actionability. Specificity means – you know specifically what is hurting. Being able to define the bounds of why something hurts makes it much easier to interact with the pain where it is and possibly have the need met. Rather than “Everything hurts and I don’t want to exist,” or similarly broad statements, you can bring it down to “I feel like I’m forcing myself to do things I don’t believe in, and chastising myself whenever I lose motivation.” Proper scoping means that you aren’t letting the pain color everything you are thinking about or talking about – a thing that happens with me is that the emotion acts as a contagion – I might have initially been upset about failing at a specific task (say, writing some code), I ask for reassurance about my code and get it, but because I’m still in this self chastising emotional state, I start questioning the reassurance and coming up with reasons it’s not true. When pain is scoped, it means you can step out of it, knowing that the problem isn’t with all of you. Lastly, actionability means that, when all is said and done, you have an idea of what you could do differently to interact with the pain in a way that is better for you. It doesn’t strictly mean avoiding the pain, or salving it, or solving the problem stemming from it – it really varies based on the stimuli, and sometimes it’s hard. It’s much better to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly, so I’ll practice writing more code of this type until I get it” than to say “Well, I wrote that code poorly so I guess I’ll get better at coding somehow”. The reason I bring up these keys is that you don’t actually need other people to find these qualities of a given problem. Given that you are the one living your life, you have access to a lot of information other people don’t – but a lot of it is hidden when you are in pain. My solution to this has been to write everything down when I’m in these states.

Now, writing a “processing journal” requires a certain amount of introspective ability, and your mileage may vary. It might be helpful to do this in a more auditory way on your own, or perhaps through art. Writing works best for me – the process I follow is just every I feel statement that seems true at the moment, regardless of the scope or specificity. I usually end up with a lot of broad statements about how bad I think life is – but as I go, I notice some things seem truer than others, and I start honing on those. I try to think about what triggered the shift in my mood, and how it relates to the I feel statements I’ve put down, and I start writing more about what I want and what those feelings are telling me. As I go, I start feeling a little less bad and more curious – I want to explore what parts of me are generating what feelings and why. I want to hear their concerns and figure out what about my life is arranged in a way that’s misaligned. What hurts starts to become more coherent and specific, and I start being able to think about what the problem is, and ways I’d want to approach solving it. Sometimes I end up with a list of things that aren’t easy, but seem much better than just despairing. Other times, I end up with super specific actions I can just take, and find that my life improves pretty quickly. The best part though, is that usually when I’ve finished a processing session like this, I still need some input from my friends…and it becomes so much easier for them to give it. I have specific questions, a list of the things that I’ve already thought about, and much more ability to communicate and stay in the problem solving zone. Instead of somewhat antisocial venting, I find myself in a situation where I can provide actual opportunities for those that care about me to help me, and get help that I am searching for. The problems start to evolve, rather than staying stuck in a loop. I’m still quite new to making this sort of thing work, but it already has given me traction on problems that have long seemed impossible.

Overall, emotional processing doesn’t have to be a group activity – the dividends from starting with yourself as a resource and putting some work in are huge. When it does become a group activity, it becomes much much easier for others to help you, to the point that sometimes rather than incurring social debt, you end up generating social capital. Additionally, by generating clearer models of your problems rather than giving yourself the runaround, it becomes that much easier to help others with their problems. Finally, I suspect that having a record of your past internal conflicts makes it easier to see patterns and deal with the abstractions rather than just the situation, from a healthier headspace.

Discussion questions: How do you regulate your emotions? What helps processing for you – words, art, or something else entirely? What is your relationship with emotional processing and sharing pain with those around you? If you have tried something like a processing journal before, what were the benefits and drawbacks of it?

On Salience Journals

(Meta note: I have several posts written in advance such that I should be able to recover my previous pace.  Additionally I feel like I’ve been entering new insight territory by taking several ideas seriously that I hadn’t been before – so, I do realize I’ve said I’m “back” before and faded back to hiatus, but in this case I feel pretty comfortable with my claims.  Enjoy!)

(Epistemic Status: Still testing, but slightly positive results)

I am sure most of you have heard the concept of a gratitude journal – however, for those unaware, the concept is that at the end of each day, you write down X things that you are grateful for. You don’t want to force it, you want to think about your day, and write about things that were genuinely good, that you appreciate having happened and are grateful for. Studies apparently show this has a pretty positive impact on happiness. Generally, however, when I read about things singing the praises of gratitude journals, there’s very little exploration of why these things would work. So, at the risk of pointing out something that is so obvious that it need not be mentioned, I believe I understand the secret, and it is salience.

When you write things down every night about things you were grateful for during the day, you are self signaling that opportunities to show gratitude are important to you. As you do this more frequently, you start noticing more opportunities to be thankful, because you’ve told your brain “hey, I want to remember these moments”. This goes for things other than gratitude, though – back in 2017, when I was very into the concept of rewriting my stories and how I was perceived by others, I got very, very good at noticing how I could “storify” my experiences – the process was even more empowered by the fact that I was getting social reward for telling stories well. Another experience I’ve related, the concept of the downcycle, is somewhat similar. I start focusing on what is bad about my experience, and this increases the salience of bad things about my experience. The deeper I get into the habit of doing that, the more likely I am to think that my general experience of the world is bad. Most of the world is filtered by what experience has told us to pay attention to. If taking risks has often paid off, and you realize that this is related to taking risks, you will find risks that might pay off more salient. That second step is very important – we can sometimes find things salient that aren’t directly related to the outcomes we were trying to reinforce – trauma in particular does this, creating avoidance associations in our salience fields that may close off vast fields of experience from us. You can have this go the other way, though that way also lies danger – an upcycle sometimes works like this, where success is tied to things that in retrospect were fairly arbitrary, and you notice more opportunities that involve the arbitrary thing you’ve anchored on. A recent example of this in my life is that I made a decision to “treat my anger problems seriously”, and suddenly had a lot of success with the problem. I anchored on “treating problems actually seriously solves them”, but this was somewhat arbitrary – there were other factors that lead to the successes I saw, but they weren’t as salient. Since “treating problems seriously” was what I started looking for more opportunities to explore, I started to lose traction on the concept because some problems were not solveable in that particular fashion.

Now, the question is, if salience is the key to how gratitude journals work, what are other things that are valuable to make more salient in your day to day life? A lot of that depends on what you value – if you value self improvement, it’s good to track opportunities you took to improve an aspect of your life. If you value learning, it can be valuable to track what you’ve learned that day. There’s a lot of things you can make salient if you know what experiences you want more of. In my own case, I keep several journals – a basic diary to keep track of what experiences I had each day, an achievement log to keep track of things that I value having done, that feel like accomplishments, a quest log, which I use to keep track of “ongoing quests” in my life and factional standings, and a gratitude journal (because I could do with more of noticing the good things in my world). I have only been using these for about a week, but I do feel like I’ve noticed things being shaped more like quests and noticing more opportunity to further the quests I’ve noted so far. I think currently the achievement log is the weakest in terms of increasing my perception of my achievements, but this might be confounded by having a bit of depression recently.

Overall, I want to experiment more with salience and salience journals, and see what spaces of experience could stand out more. I also want to figure out what non-intuitive categories of salience I could increase to expand my action space in relation to the world.

Discussion questions: What sorts of salience journals would you enjoy having? If you’ve done gratitude journals, was your experience of the world influenced by them? If you’ve kept diaries, does the stance you take in the diary carry over to the stance you approach life with?