Ran Prieur

"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."

- Mitch Hedberg

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June 7. Taking another crack at Monday's subject: If someone is better than you at anything, there's always a deeper reason. We understand this for intellectual and physical skills, like being good at math or baseball. But our culture thinks differently about emotional skills like courage, kindness, honesty, drive.

This subreddit post mentions a bunch more, taken from this page of 24 character strengths. We imagine that people with these kinds of skills have somehow earned them, when usually they were born with them (or with simpler component skills), or their family helped them develop the skills at such a young age that they don't remember not having them.

Of course you can improve "good person" skills as an adult, but what arcane factor separates someone who does this from someone who doesn't? We imagine that it's just some deeper level of being a good person, and so on, turtles all the way down.

It doesn't occur to us to think of good character as a matter of luck. We actually have a taboo against the idea. That's why the Big Five personality model, which says the traits are mostly fixed for life, won't say that high conscientiousness is better than low conscientiousness, or that low neuroticism is better than high neuroticism -- but those judgments saturate our culture.

On a personal note, it feels liberating to think of character as a matter of luck. For more than 20 years, since I sent my first photocopied zine out for review, strangers have been attacking my character, and I've been doing the most obvious and least effective thing: defending my character. I'm so deficient in wisdom and creativity that it took me 20 years to figure out the better move. There's an old Billy Bragg song with the line "Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy." I always thought it would be more radical the other way around: "Just because I'm lazy doesn't mean you're better than me." But the even more radical move is to concede both points.

June 5. Following a tangent from this question three weeks ago: What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? I'm not the best person to answer that, but I'm also not the worst. That would be someone like Elon Musk who has always been successful. Whatever it is that makes someone good at life, for a lucky few it's so intuitive that they're not aware of it and couldn't describe it.

This is true for everything. If you've had to grind through the details of getting good at something, then you can tell others how to do it, but if you can't remember not being there, then you can't see the path.

Also, if you can't remember not being good at something, then it's tempting to dismiss people who are not good at it, to see them as inferior in some absolute way. "Idiot" is a word used by people who take their brainpower for granted. No one who has struggled with low motivation would call someone "lazy". Even people who were born rich tend to believe that money comes from virtue, when they themselves got it through luck.

So as a general rule, talent feeds disparagement and hard-learned skill feeds compassion.

Are there moral talents? There are attributes considered moral by this culture, that are subject to talent. This leads to a weird paradox, where a naturally good person might be less good than a naturally bad person who becomes good.

June 2. I've already changed my mind about the last post, where I said we need to find a way to live where it doesn't even occur to us to search for meaning. In that world, everything we do would be laid out for us, already intrinsically rewarding. It would feel great, but we would be basically unconscious, like compulsive gamblers except our every action would be part of a sensible sustainable airtight system: Prison Utopia.

Agonizing over the meaning of life is an unpleasant symptom of something good: a world full of questions, full of cracks, full of uncanny possibility. Existential angst is a small price to pay for freedom, and we need to be challenged by even more freedom until we learn to thrive in uncertainty.

This brings me around to my favorite political cause, the Unconditional Basic Income. I just found out that Finland is already experimenting with a basic income. It's not yet for everyone, just for the unemployed, but if they get jobs they get to keep it.

And after I mentioned Buckminster Fuller, a reader sent this quote:

We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

It also occurs to me that a UBI could make us nomadic again. Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly moving around, but then agriculture and industry forced us to settle down, and settling down geographically is linked to settling down mentally. A good book on this subject is Wandering God by Morris Berman. But as agriculture and industry get more mechanized, more of us can go full circle to the wandering life. We would just need transportation and travel housing cheap enough to fit under the basic income.

May 31. Continuing from Monday's closing subject, humanity's search for meaning: I'm against it. We imagine there is some big Meaning out there, and if we find it, life will be great. But in practice, most of the tragedies of history have been caused by people who thought they had found meaning in some terrible project. I think the right question is not "how do we find meaning?" but "how do we live so that searching for meaning doesn't even occur to us?"

When we talk about meaning, we're always talking about being part of something bigger. From that idea, we can break it down. There are things we can choose whether or not to be part of, like arguing on the internet. There are things we're forced to be part of, but we have some choice about our role, like modern society. There are things we feel like we're part of but we're not, like sports teams. There are things we feel part of that basically don't exist, like video game worlds.

There are things we want to be part of but it's really hard, like making the world better on a large scale. It's hard even for Bill Gates. Realistically the best we can do is make the world better on a tiny scale, like randomly being nice to people.

And there are things we're part of that we don't know about. I don't think life is meaningless -- I think its meaning is beyond our comprehension, and therefore none of our business. A reader mentions that Buckminster Fuller once had a transcendent experience where a voice told him, "You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you."

May 29. I want to go back to last week's compass metaphor. The idea is, we all have a subtle, quiet voice inside us that usually knows the right thing to do, but we mostly can't hear it because we're bombarded with louder voices that guide us wrong. I don't want to call this voice your "heart", because that value-loaded word implies that any feeling-based inner voice is reliable, which is totally not true. There is no easy way to make good decisions.

Anyway, when reading your internal compass, there are three things that can happen. 1) Your compass gives you a clear and correct reading. 2) Your compass gives you a clear and incorrect reading. 3) Your compass gives you no clear reading.

The kicker is, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between #1 and #2. You just have to try stuff and see what happens. But even then, even years down the road, a distorted society might have given you bad results from good decisions, or good from bad. I have a lot of sympathy for "bad" people who get punished. They were just trying something that worked and then it stopped working.

I'm more interested in #3, because that's how I've lived most of my life, having no idea what to do. And I've tried everything, from lists of pros and cons to occult divination, but mostly trying to develop and train an intuition that's less than half wrong, while recovering from constant mistakes.

One thing people do in this situation, and I've done it too, is what I call "puritanism", but until now I didn't have a good definition. That definition is: making decisions with rules that paint entire categories of actions as either good or bad, and deriving those rules from simple and compelling stories about the world.

One example: I'm reading the book Stoned Free: How To Get High Without Drugs, and it has some good ideas, but why not also use drugs? The main reason is the seductive simplicity of the rule "drugs are bad."

Maybe this is what the "search for meaning" is really all about -- not some transcendent project, but the practical need for signposts in this confusing world, a way to make everyday pissant decisions and not wind up in the gutter. And if we had clearer intuition, or a simpler world, we wouldn't even feel the need for meaning.

May 26. Some happy stuff for the weekend. The Danish beermakers brewing up work for autistic people. This is related to a link I posted to the subreddit a while back about how job interviews do more harm than good by favoring charming people over skilled workers.

Manhole Porn is a subreddit for beautiful manhole covers around the world.

And some music, Ex Reverie - Black Butterfly. They're not the greatest band, but their style is really close to my musical taste, and this is the kind of thing I had in mind when I asked for music that combines folk and metal. Here's a better song with the same sound, Silver Summit - Child.

May 24. Quick note on daydreaming. I can't believe this is the first I've heard of this, but there's a thing called "active imagination", and that page sounds like New Age hot air except for the Carl Jung section:

Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung's approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one's desired changes.

Yeah, I've only ever managed that when I'm high, and even then only for a few seconds at a time. But it's awesome, like halfway between regular imagination and lucid dreaming (something I'm also bad at). They should really call it passive imagination, but that doesn't sound as cool. Update: after more thought, normal dreams are passive, normal daydreaming is active, and lucid dreams and "active" imagination are participatory.

May 22. On a recommendation, I read the book The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer. It doesn't tackle my main problem, which is how to do things I don't feel like doing. Instead it's all about how to quit smoking and other bad habits: by looking curiously inward at your own cycles of compulsive behavior and reward.

I was hoping the book would answer my question from a few weeks ago, about whether daydreaming is bad for us. Brewer thinks it's bad, but his arguments against daydreaming are anecdotal, speculative, and imprecise. The closest he comes to a good answer is in another context where he describes two kinds of feeling good: one that brings "restlessness and a contracted urge for more," and another that "results from curiosity" and is "open rather than contracted."

Brewer treats the brain's default mode network as the Great Satan, probably because that simple view fits Buddhism as he understands it. This article has a more balanced view: Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus, and it describes a practice called positive constructive daydreaming.

Near the end, the book has a promising metaphor about our internal compass. I would extend it like this: deep inside we all have a compass that can sense the subtle magnetism of the right thing to do in almost any situation. But we can't read it because we're surrounded by artificial magnets that constantly give us wrong directions. I'm tempted to list some of them, but I'll just speculate that seeing past them, to the truer magnet, is a skill that anyone can learn in 20-30 years.

May 19. I'm busy today, but here's a subreddit thread about determinism, and I want to briefly hit the subject from another angle:

Determinism is a hyper-rational philosophy that oddly leads to compassion. A determinist will never solve a problem by saying "that guy's an idiot" or "those people are trash," because how did they get that way? By the coldest of logic, everyone has been doing exactly the best they could have done from the day they were born. Then the question becomes: How can I use my illusory choice to change the world so that people doing their best is good enough?

May 17. Continuing from Monday, what are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? Previously I've bashed the idea of "magical virtue", which is when we see people living well or living badly, and we assume it's just because they're good people or bad people, without looking deeper.

If we look deeply enough, we have to consider determinism, a philosophy based on archaic physics, in which the whole universe is like a giant clockwork whose every motion was fixed from the beginning of time, and choice is an illusion.

This leads to a radical idea: not only is it luck whether you're born into wealth or poverty, it's also luck whether you have the "initiative" to climb out of poverty, or the "wisdom" to use power well. What do those words mean without choice? Even the difference between Hitler and Mister Rogers was one hundred percent luck.

I prefer to believe that we make choices that can actually go either way, and I want to know: When someone makes that pivotal choice to lie or to be honest, to be mean or to be nice, to indulge a habit or to break it, to focus on the flaws of others or on their own flaws, what is the choice that underlies that choice?

For now, I have three hypotheses. 1) The right choice is to face into the pain, not away from the pain. 2) The right choice is to expand, not to contract. Expand what exactly? I don't think we have the language to be more specific. 3) The right choice is to cast off the self, to take things that seem like an absolute part of who you are, and view them as optional.

May 15. Over the weekend I watched some NWSL games, and the second half of Boston at Chigago was phenomenal. (You can watch it here if you have Go90 or if you connect from a server outside the USA.) They had been playing evenly, and then around the 60th minute Boston just rose to another level and were totally dominant until they got a goal. Then, I don't know if Chicago raised their game, or if Boston lost confidence, or if their coach made a bad decision. If I were the coach I would have been shouting "Finish them!" But instead they settled into uneasy defense, and the story changed to whether Christen Press could break her long goal drought against Boston's talented young keeper who had the jitters. There was also a fluke play that resulted in a crazy free kick from deep inside the box.

I've half-joked that it's better to follow sports than politics. For one thing, you have more influence over sports, because it has never happened that a single voter has swung an election for national office, but it has happened that a single fan has swung a baseball playoff game by interfering with a fly ball.

But now I have a more serious argument. Wherever you turn your attention, you tend to internalize the rules of that world. For example, if you grew up in a family where people got what they wanted by being pushy, or by complaining, or by using a particular flavor of subtle communication, you're going to expect that same strategy to work in the larger world.

In politics, what strategies lead to success? Bullshitting everyone all the time, using subconscious mind control tricks on the voters, making secret deals with big donors, and generally being as cynical as possible. The more you follow politics, the more you will expect that those strategies are universally effective, and that being honest and selflessly serving the greater good will lead to failure. And I think the corporate world is almost as bad.

But in sports, not all the time but more than in any other public event, success is a function of being really good at fully transparent skills. Since I cut back on following politics, and started following a few sports closely, I've been asking less often, "How did the world get so fucked up?" and asking more often, "What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life?"

May 12. Yesterday I ate my usual dose of cannabutter after a five day break, but I did something different. I ate it on an empty stomach, and then rode my bike to the store and back, and then ate a big meal. And I got so high that I couldn't read! Now we're getting into the philosophy of science, because I'm tempted tell a story about the inner workings of the body, but that way of thinking is not necessary and can even get in the way. The important thing is not whether I can explain it, but whether the pattern repeats, so I'm going to continue testing and see if that sequence -- dose, exercise, meal -- consistently brings a stronger high.

I also came up with a model of how tolerance works: My subconscious mind is constantly generating stuff that I can access high but not sober. And every time I get to a given level of "high" (it's more like going deep than going up) I harvest what's been generated at that level since the last time I was there. So if I get to a [7] every day, it doesn't feel like a [7] because my "creative department" only has a day's worth of stuff. Yesterday I rated myself [8.5], and looking at my journal, I haven't been there since January 15, when I jotted nuggets like "Acting is dancing with your face" and "Power is the right to be weak."

And yesterday I clearly saw the solution to depression and motivation -- but it's not the first time I've noticed this, and it's easier said than done. My inner dialogue, on the boundary between conscious and subconscious, is extremely inefficient, like a clunky machine that half the time works against itself. Now we're coming back to Monday's subject, because it can be useful to look at my personal history and see how my mind got that way, but that can also be a distraction. The important thing is just to go in there and fix it, which requires moment after moment, hour after hour, month after month, of practicing metacognition.

That's one reason I think sitting meditation is overrated. Of all the stuff in your head that needs to be fixed, most of it will never come up when you're trying to do nothing, only when you're going about your normal day, so that should be the main focus of inner attention. Gurdjieff was saying that more than a hundred years ago.

I also want to point out that the practice of metacognition has to be completely non-judging, because if it's even a little big judging, you fall into a recursive loop: judging yourself for judging yourself and so on.

May 10. With the weather getting warmer, I'm going barefoot as much as possible. Last night I dreamed that I was in some kind of office and realized that I'd forgotten to wear shoes, so I was trying to go discreetly outside to put my shoes on and come back in.

Suddenly I understand what's going on with kids who dream they're naked at school. Just as I know there's nothing wrong with not wearing shoes, they know there's nothing wrong with not wearing clothes. The dream is about being in an insane world, a world full of rules that you can't reason out from anything practical or ethical -- you just have to learn the rules one by one, and there's always a fear that you'll get a big one wrong. It's not a shame dream -- it's a Kafka dream!

And if adults stop dreaming that they're naked, it's because they've internalized the rule.

May 8. I'm busy and don't have a post ready, so I'll run with something I just wrote on the subreddit, answering this post and James Hillman's argument that we shouldn't look at childhood trauma to solve psychological problems, because other cultures don't do that.

Everyone I know has been damaged by their childhood, and a lot of people get better by looking into that. It's not a myth -- we think that way because it works. I agree that Freud pulled a lot of ideas out of his ass, but that doesn't invalidate the whole idea of looking at your deep personal history.

Now, if it's true that traditional cultures never do that, then there are two possibilities. 1) Those cultures are raising kids much better than us. 2) The way they're raising kids is so universal and so ingrained in their culture that questioning it is impossible.

Another way to look at it: in a time of cultural flux, we can't afford to take the way we were raised for granted. We have to look into how our identity was formed, we have to take apart that black box and see if it still serves us. And I'd rather live in a world where we try different ways of raising kids and make mistakes, than a world where there's only one way that's never questioned.

By the way, that same subreddit post leads with the idea that we shouldn't fight bad feelings -- we should embrace and explore them. I totally agree.

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. A reader has set up an independent archive that saves the page every day or so. I've archived the best stuff, and they're all linked from the old stuff page. Below are the newest archives:

November 2016 - February 2017
February 2017 - ?