What self respect may not be the same as

Malcolm Ocean’s Taking Myself Seriously seemed like it might be important to me.

My insight now, of course, is that what I imagined Malcolm was talking about with “taking himself seriously” corresponds exactly to the notion that I already had of “self respect”. While I haven’t explained exactly what that means to me yet, I’m not at the point where I need someone else to explain it either.

The first point here is about advice-giving. I could imagine telling my past self “that thing you thought taking yourself seriously meant, it’s the same as what you think self respect means”. But I don’t think it would really help. Whatever was blocking me from recognizing self respect as the key thing to be concerned about (and remember I might still be wrong about that), that blocking thing would still have existed and so the advice wouldn’t have been helpful.

So in general I think advice of the form “I used to be saying similar-sounding things to what you’re saying, and then I went through thought process X Y Z and now I think something different” – I don’t think it works like that.

The other issue is whether Malcolm was actually talking about the same thing. If he wasn’t, there could be two reasons: there might be two distinct concepts that sound similar at the surface level, or it could be basically the same problem but instantiated very differently in different people’s minds.

I went through his post with two highlighter pens, marking the parts that resonated in one colour and the parts that didn’t in another. 18 vs 32.

Things which resonated:

  • Thinking of past behaviour as a puzzle – why did I behave that way?
  • Wanting to use failures as a corrective guide
  • “Taking myself seriously”
  • Having to do with managing habits
  • Ugh fields: actually I’ll just quote the original from Ben Pace here since it’s spot on: “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.”
    • Did not resonate: that the dissatisfaction is greater in the latter case. This is somewhat tangential though
    • Also didn’t resonate: that the problem is “not thinking about dissatisfaction”. Whatever’s going wrong with me, “not thinking about things” seems at best an oversimplification
  • Forgetting how much better we can make things
  • “Not what Halle Berry is saying. Possibly what Kurt Vonnegut is saying”
    • “Laugh at your failures, then become excellent”. The laughter has to come from within though, if it’s someone else telling you that you need to laugh at yourself when you’re not in the mood to then you can basically just ignore them.
  • Doing nothing about a “goal” for an entire year

Things I wasn’t sure about:

  • It requiring some kind of mindset shift

Things which didn’t resonate:

  • It having anything to do with fixed vs. growth mindset
  • Having to do with avoiding temptations
  • The concept of “debugging” (for some reason, even though that concept is what this blog is named after)
  • Trying to optimize my life
  • Making a half-hearted attempt to fix things which would work for a bit. (Usually I don’t even do that)
  • Dopamine
  • External incentive structures, being able to get away with stuff, perceived authorities etc.
    • In some sense it does, in the sense of being part of the story of how I got here, but it doesn’t seem to usefully describe what’s going on with me right now
  • Taking myself seriously as a particular role. Right now, “I’m an X” isn’t a strong part of my identity. Even “I’m an EA” seems like it could lead to dangerous failure modes. Possibly this is a problem and some more role-based identification would help me, but for now it’s not resonating.
  • Not taking a goal seriously
  • The CFAR alumni community. I did attend a CFAR workshop but I don’t see myself as part of the “alumni community”. In particular I don’t do any of the things that they taught me about at CFAR. This definitely relates to self respect (if I respected myself more, I might be more inclined to try some of them, particularly e.g. CoZE)
  • The whole-assed half-assing thing
  • The vicious rock-paper-scissors thing
  • The shoddy thinking thing
  • Taking myself seriously on one level but not on some deeper meta-level. I just don’t think our minds work like that.

Obviously what I’m not saying is that Malcolm’s post is garbage or that he was making a mess of explaining the concept, or anything like that. I imagine he was choosing the exact set of ideas, examples and intuition pumps that helped convey the idea he had in mind.

Looking back on it like this though, it doesn’t seem to have been quite the same as my idea and I think it’s important to be precise about this. I’m definitely in honing mode here. There’s a perception, which is hard to shake off (and that no-one in particular is responsible for propagating) that akrasia is this big fuzzy blob of suck and that all attempts to describe it or tackle it are addressing the same thing.

I’ve pointed it out before that I don’t think it’s like that at all, and that it’s a rich, intricate, individualized problem that needs a complex vocabulary of ideas to address. As such if I’m saying “I’m not talking about the thing you’re talking about” it doesn’t mean “your idea isn’t useful”, it means rather “we need a thousand concepts for understanding this problem and not just 50. Let me add an extra one for you”.

So let me try and summarize the difference. I haven’t talked to Malcolm about this yet, so view this as “What Giles2017-04 thinks Malcolm Ocean means by taking himself seriously vs. what Giles means by self-respect”, rather than anything canonical.

Taking self seriously:

  • Relates to projects and goals
  • Identifying around a particular role, whether it’s “startup founder” or “someone who has goals in general”
  • Escaping the shoddy thinking and non-calculated-half-assery associated with a long stretch of time working for some micromanaging authority (the higher education system being a common example)
  • Related: noticing that you’re using “can I get away with that” as a heuristic, intercepting that and replacing it with a more helpful heuristic
  • Updating behaviour on what you know about yourself. A particular sleep routine works for you? Do that thing. Always tempted by the ice cream? Pick a different route home.
  • Not being a slave to habit
  • This wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the post, but I get a sense of… using your internal simulator to really think through the consequences of things.
    • This includes the consequences of having a goal in the first place: if I have goal X then by gum I’m going to need to spend a lot of time doing Y, as soon as I notice I’m not doing Y then I need to address that right away
    • Realizing when you’re about to go off the rails. If you know that opening Reddit means the next two hours of your life will disappear, then thinking of that initial action of opening Reddit as carrying a significant price tag.
  • Detecting ugh fields and addressing them by thinking about the thing that’s scary to think about.
  • When you detect a bottleneck or some kind of rationality failure in yourself, pour as much resources as you can into getting it fixed because otherwise it’s going to be hugely damaging
  • The whole-assed half-assing thing sounds to me like it’s about being honest with yourself about what you value and what you’re aiming for in a particular situation, even if it’s not completely aligned with (your perception of) the expectations of others. So yeah, do that.
  • I’m not sure that vicious rock-paper-scissors is really a common dynamic, but in the case that your mind seems to be made up of multiple agents fighting each other, find ways to resolve their differences.

Self respect:

  • Relates to your own identity
  • Listening to what your mind is telling you in the moment
  • A virtue that can be cultivated. In lots of situations you can notice that you have an urge to do something that isn’t the self-respecting thing, and then try and adjust for that. It can be built up like a muscle
  • Realistic assessment of what you are capable of and of what makes you stand out
  • Defining your own narratives, not being defined by other people’s narratives especially those who might be bullying you
  • Defining rules that you gain energy from being bound to
  • Knowing why things happened; making excuses to other people, not to yourself
  • Learning to understand and trust the subagents of your mind that can seem adversarial. They often seem to follow weird logic and tactics but ultimately are driven by concerns that you would find reasonable.
  • Choosing the goals and strategies to invest in carefully
  • Investing in your own wellbeing and homeostasis
  • Not feeling shitty about yourself. In particular, updating on the positive things that people say about you
  • Giving yourself permission to be interesting
  • Recognizing, in a positive way, that you’re in the same reference class as your peers
  • Some possible metrics:
    • Social interaction. If you have people that you feel you can be yourself around then that’s great. If there’s always a big barrier up then it might be a problem.
    • Comfort zone expansion: I received some warm praise for what happened at my CoZE session at CFAR, but I feel like I’d be unable to reproduce that today and it bothers me. (That’s specific to me, but in general it seems important to self respect to be able to push yourself to do things you aren’t used to)
    • Akrasia metrics. If your place is always dirty and a mess, or you’re spending all this time stuck on social media that you’re not even enjoying, then it’s definitely a problem and may relate to self-respect.
    • (this is more a list for me, having decided that self respect is a thing that I want to work on, to determine whether I’m making progress. It’s not intended as a checklist of “if you’re doing badly at these things then it’s a self-respect problem)

The shorter version:

  • Taking oneself seriously is about some tactics to employ when approaching projects and goals, and about anti-tactics to avoid. The antithesis of taking yourself seriously is vaguely shrugging when things don’t seem to be turning out right
  • Self respect is about how you relate to yourself. Its antithesis is a kind of gnawing guilt that you’re doing it all wrong

If there’s a distinction here then I’m not sure these two terms are the best labels. I’m also not sure there’s a distinction at all – it may be that these are two ends of the exact same thing, and that my sense of what it’s about was anchored on the way Malcolm chose to introduce it. Still I hope this gives a better idea of what I’m talking about.


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