223: Emotions, Achievement, Joy, and Goals with David MacIver
02:15 - David’s Superpower: Being Confused
11:56 - Daily Writing
15:47 - Learning to Be Better at Emotions
23:22 - Achievement and Joy as Aspirational Goals
Jessica: Trying not knowing yourself.
Rein: You shouldn’t be the owner of all your desires. Instead, you should measure your life by how well you follow the intentions that arise out of your values.
Jacob: Thinking of yourself as the sum of all of the habits you maintain or don’t.
David: The [Homeostasis vs Homeorhesis](https://wikidiff.com/homeostasis/homeorhesis#:~:text=is%20that%20homeostasis%20is%20(physiology,to%20a%20trajectory%2C%20as%20opposed) distinction, and cleaning a home as an ongoing process.
To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content and transcripts like this, please do so at paypal.me/devreps. You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well.
SPONSORED AD: Whether you're working on a personal project or managing enterprise infrastructure, you deserve simple, affordable, and accessible cloud computing solutions that allow you to take your project to the next level.
Simplify your cloud infrastructure with Linode's Linux virtual machines and develop, deploy, and scale your modern applications faster and easier.
Get started on Linode today with $100 in free credit for listeners of Greater Than Code. You can find all the details at linode.com/greaterthancode.
Linode has 11 global data centers and provides 24/7/365 human support with no tiers or hand-offs regardless of your plan size. In addition to shared and dedicated compute instances, you can use your $100 in credit on S3-compatible object storage, Managed Kubernetes, and more.
Visit linode.com/greaterthancode and click on the "Create Free Account" button to get started.
JACOB: Hello and welcome to Greater Than Code, Episode 223. My name is Jacob Stoebel and I'm joined with my co-host, Rein Henrichs.
REIN: Thanks, Jacob and I'm here with my friend and also stranger because we haven't done this together in months, Jessica Kerr.
JESSICA: Thank you, Rein! And Iím really excited today because our guest is David MacIver. Twitter handle, @DRMacIver.
David MacIver is best known as the developer of Hypothesis, the property-based testing library for Python, and is currently doing a Ph.D. based on some of that work. But he also writes extensively about emotions, life, and society and sometimes coaches people on an eclectic mix of software development, intellectual, and emotional skills. As you can probably tell, David hasn't entirely decided what he wants to do when he grows u and that's the best because if you had decided well, then so few possibilities would be open.
DAVID: Hi, Jessica! Great to be here.
JESSICA: All right. I'm going to ask the obligatory question. What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?
DAVID: So as you saw me complaining about on Twitter, this question doesn't translate very well outside of the United States.
JESSICA: Yeah, which is fascinating for me.
DAVID: I'm a bit too British to say nice things about myself without sounding like I'm being self-deprecating.
JESSICA: Self-depreciating it is!
DAVID: [laughs] So I thought about this one for a while and I decided that the answer is that I'm really good at being confused and in particular, I have a much more productive response to being confused than it seems like most people do because basically, the world is super confusing and I think I never know what's going on, but then I notice that I know what's going on and I look at it and I'm just like, ìHmm, this is weird, right?î
And then I read a book about it, or I sort of poke at it a bit and then I'm not less confused, but I'm less confused about that like, one little facet of the world and have found ten new things to be confused about.
DAVID: Usually, I can then turn this into being slightly better at the thing I was previously confused about, or writing about it and making everyone else differently confused than they started with.
JESSICA: Definitely confused. That is a win. That's called learning.
DAVID: Yeah, exactly.
This is where a lot of the writing you were talking about comes from and essentially, about 2 years ago, I just started turning these skills less on software development and more just going like, ìLife, it doesn't make sense, right?î
And noticing a whole bunch of things, I needed to work on and then that a lot of these were shared common problems. So I am, if anything, far more confused about all of it than I was 2 years ago, but I'm less confused about the things I was confused about that and seem to be gradually becoming a more functional human being as a result of the process. So yay, confusion.
JESSICA: That superpower, the productive response to confusion, ties in with your reaction to the superpower question in general, which is as Americans, we're supposed to be ñ we want to have power. We want to be special. We want to be unique. We want to make our unique contribution to the world! And as part of that, we're not comfortable being confused because we need to know things! We need to be smart! We need to convey strength and competence and be the best! I hate the superlatives.
I hate the implied competition there, but instead, we could open our hearts to our own confusion and embrace that. Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
DAVID: One of the things that often comes up for me is it's a thing that I think is slightly intentioned with this American tendency youíre pointing at, which is that I kind of want to be the best, but I don't really want to be better than other people. I just want to be better than I am now.
I wrote a post a while ago about neuromas of excellence like, what would a community look like, which helped everyone be the best version of themselves and one of the top lists was basically that everyone has to be comfortable with not being good at things, but another is just that you have to not want to be better to the other people. You just need want to be better.
Again, this is where a lot of the writing comes from. I've just gone, ìWell, this was helpful to me. It's probably helpful to other people.î That's not as sense of wanting to change the world and wanting to put my own stamp on things and it does require a certain amount to self-importance to go, ìYes, my writing is important and other people will like to read it,î but then other people like to read it so, that's fine and if they don't, that's fine, too.
JESSICA: Well, you didn't make anyone read it, but you did start a newsletter and let people read it.
JACOB: Is this weird thinking reflect a journey that you took in your life? Because I think about my company and my team and how incredibly generous everybody is and even still, I just find it's natural to compare myself to everyone else and needing to not be on the bottom. Part of me wonders if that's just like a natural human tendency, but just because it's natural doesn't make it so.
JESSICA: Way natural American.
JACOB: Yeah, basically I'm asking how do I stop doing that?
DAVID: It's definitely not something I've always been perfectly good at. But I think the thing that helped me figure out how to do this was essentially being simultaneously at the bottom of the social rung, but also super arrogant.
So it's your classic nerd kit thing, right? It's completely failing at people, but also going, ìBut I'm better than all of you because I'm smart,î and then essentially, gradually having the rough edges filed off the second part and realizing how much I had to learn off the first part.
I think sometimes my attitude is due to a lot of this is basically, to imagine I was a time traveler and basically going back in time and telling little David all the things that it was really frustrating that nobody could explain to me and I sadly haven't yet managed to perfect my time machine, but I can still pay it forward.
If nobody was able to explain this to me and I'm able to explain it to other people, then surely, the world is a better place with me freely handing out this information. I don't think it's possible, or even entirely desirable to completely eliminate the comparing yourself to others and in fact, I'd go as far as to say, comparing yourself to others is good, but I think theÖ
JESSICA: Itís how do we have a productive response to compare ourselves to others?
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. There's a great section in The Inner Game of Tennis, which is a book that I have very mixed feelings about, but it has some great bits where he talks about competition.
If you think of a mountain climber, a mountain climber is basically pitting themselves against the mountain, right? They're trying to climb the mountain because it is hard and you could absolutely take a helicopter to the top of the mountain, but that wouldn't be the point. It's you're improving yourself by trying a hard thing. I mean, you're improving yourself in the sense that you're getting better at climbing mountains. You might not be improving yourself in any sort of fully generalizable way.
DAVID: When you are playing tennisóbecause this is a book about tennisóyou are engaged in competition with each other and you're each trying to be better than the other. In this context, essentially, what you are doing is you are being the mountain for each other. So you are creating the obstacles that the other people overcome and improve themselves that way and in doing this, you're not just being a dick about it. You're not doing this in order to crush them. You're doing this in order to provide them with the challenge that lets them grow.
When you think about it this way, other people being better than you is great because there's this mountain there and you can climb it and by climbing the mountain, you can improve yourself. The thing that stops everyone becoming great is feeling threatened by the being better rather than treating it as an opportunity for learning.
JESSICA: Yeah, trying to dynamite the mountain instead of climbing it. Whereas, when you are the mountain for someone else, you can also provide them footholds.
Rein, do you have an example of this?
REIN: I sure do, Jess. Thanks for asking. So I was just [laughs] thinking while you were talking about this, about the speed running and speed running communities. Because speed running is about testing yourself against a video game, which in this case, serves the purpose of the mountain, but it's also about competing against other speed runners. If it was purely competitive, you wouldn't see the behaviors, the reciprocity in the communities like sharing speed running strats, being really happy when other people break your record.
I think it's really interesting that that community is both competitive, but there's also a lot of reciprocity, a lot of sharing.
JACOB: And it's like the way the science community should work. It's like, ìOh, you made this new discovery because of this discovery I shared with you and now I'm proud that my discovery is this foundation for all these other little things that now people can be by themselves in 10 seconds instead of 30.î
JESSICA: Yeah. Give other people a head start on the confusion you've already had so that they can start resolving new confusions.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely one of my hopes with all of this writing is to encourage other people to do it themselves.
Earlier this year, I was getting people very into daily writing practices and just trying to get people to write as much as possible. I now think that was slightly a mistake because I think daily writing is a great thing to do for about a month and then it just gets too much. So I will probably see if I can figure out other ways of encouraging people to notice their confusion, as you say, and share what they've learned from edge. But sadly, can't quite get into do it daily.
JESSICA: This morningís newsletter you talked about. Okay, okay, I can do daily writing, but now I want to get better at writing. I've got to go do something I'm worse at.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. I think daily writing is still a really good transitional stage for most people. To give them more context for this newsletter for people listening. Basically, most of my writing to date, I just write in a 1- or 2-hour sitting from start to finish. I don't really edit it. I just click publish and I've gotten very good at writing like that. I think that most people are ñ I mean, sometimes it's a bit obvious that I haven't edited it because they're obvious typos and the like. But by and large, I think it is a reasonably high standard of writing and I'm not embarrassed to be putting it out in that quality, but the fact that I'm not editing is just starting to be sort of the limiter on growth for me. It's never going to really get better than it currently is. It's certainly not going to allow me to tackle larger projects that I can currently tackle without that editing skill.
JESSICA: [laughs] I just pictured you trying to sit down and write a book in one session.
And then you'd be tired.
DAVID: Yeah. I've tried to doing that with papers even and it doesn't really work. I mean, I do edit papers, but Iím very visibly really bad at editing papers and it's one of my weaknesses as a academic is that I still haven't really got the hang of paper writing.
JESSICA: Do you edit other people's papers?
DAVID: I don't edit other people's papers, but I provide feedback on other people's writing and say, ìThis is what worked for me. This is what didn't work for me. Here are some typos you made.î It's not reading as providing good feedback on things, that is the difficult part of editing for me. It is much more ñ honestly, it's an emotional problem more than anything else. It's not really that I'm bad at editing at a technical level. I'm okay at editing at a technical level. I just hate doing it. [laughs]
JESSICA: That is most problems we have, right?
JESSICA: In the end, itís an emotional problem.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is definitely one of the interesting things I've been figuring out in my last 2 years of working on learning more about emotions and the various skills around them is just going, ìOh, right. It's not this abstract thing where you are learning to be better at emotions and then nothing will change in your life because you're just going to be happier about everything.î I mean, some people do approach it that way, but for me, it's very much been, ìOh, I'm learning to be good at emotions because this really concrete problem that I don't understand, it turns out that that's just feelings.î
It's like, for example, the literature on how to have a clean home, turns out that's mostly anxiety management and guilt management. It's like fundamentally cleaning your home is not a hard problem. Not procrastinating on cleaning your home is a hard problem. Not feeling intensely guilty and aversive about the dirty dishes in the sink and is putting them off for a week. I don't do that. But just as a hypothetical example.
I mean, not a hypothetical example, I think a specific example that comes from the book, Unfuck Your Habitat, which is a great example of essentially, it's a book that's about it contains tips, like fill the spray bottle with water and white vinegar and also, tips about how to manage your time and how to deal with the fact that you're mostly not cleaning because of shame, that sort of thing. Writing books are another great example where 80% about managing the feelings associated with writing; it turns out practical problems pretty much all come down to emotionsóat least practical life problems.
REIN: Sorry, I was just buying Unfuck Your Habitat real quick.
DAVID: It's a good book. I recommend it.
JESSICA: Our internal like emotional habitat and our external habitat are very linked. You said something earlier about learning to be at emotions is not just you're magically happier at other things in your life change.
DAVID: Yes. I mean, I think there are a couple of ways in which it manifests. One of them is just that emotions often are the internal force that maintains our life habits. It's you live in a particular way because moving outside of those trained habits is scary or aversive in some way.
Like the cleaning example of how, if your home is a mess, it's not necessarily because you don't know how to make your home not a mess. Although, cleaning is a much harder skill than most people treat it as speaking as someone who is bad at the practical skills of cleaning, as well as the emotional side of cleaning. But primarily, if it were just a matter of scale, you could just do it and get better at it, right? The thing that is holding you in place is the emotional reaction to the idea of changing your habits.
So the specific reason why I started on all of this process was essentially relationship stuff. I'd started a new major relationship. My previous one hadn't gone so well for reasons that were somewhere between emotional and communication issues, for the same reason basically every relationship doesn't go so well, if it doesn't go so ñ Oh, that's not quite true. Like there are actual ñ
JESSICA: Some people have actual problems. [chuckles] But these things are. I mean, our emotions really, as sometimes we treat them as if they're flaws. As if our emotions are getting in our way is some sort of judgment about us as not being good people, but no, it just makes us people.
DAVID: For sure.
JESSICA: So you started on this journey because of the external motivation of helping someone you're in a relationship with, because it's really hard to do these things just for ourselves.
DAVID: It is incredibly hard to do things just for ourselves. I guess, that is exactly an example of this problem, right? It's that there is a particular habit of life that I was in and what I needed to break out of that habit of life was the skills for dealing with it and then figuring out these emotional reactions. But unfortunately, the thing that the habits were maintaining, it was me not having the skills and so having the external prompts of a problem that was in the world rather than in my life, as it was, was what was needed to essentially kick me out of that.
Fortunately, it turns out that my standard approach of reading a thousand books now was one that worked for me, in this case. I probably haven't read a thousand books on this, but that certainly worked.
JESSICA: It wouldnít surprise me. [laughs]
DAVID: I read fewer books than people think I do. I may well have read more than a hundred books about emotions and therapy and the like. But I probably haven't, unless I cast that brush really broadly, because I mean, everything's a book about emotions and therapy, if you look at your right.
REIN: Have you read any books by average Virginia Satir?
DAVID: I don't know who that is, I'm afraid.
REIN: Excellent! Excellent news.
JESSICA: Itís about Virginia Satir, right?
REIN: Virginia was a family therapist who wrote a lot about processing emotions and I have been a huge fan of her work and it's made a huge difference in my life and my career. So I highly recommend it.
DAVID: Okay. I will definitely hear recommendations on books. What's the book title, or what's your favorite book title by?
REIN: I think I would start with The Satir Model, which is S-A-T-I-R M-O-D-E-L. The Satir Model, which is about her family therapy model.
JESSICA: Chances are good, you've read books based on her work. I was reading Gerry Weinberg's Quality Software Management: Volume Two the other day, which is entirely based on The Satir Model.
REIN: Yeah. He was a student of hers. One of the things that she likes to say is that the problem is never the problem, how we cope is the problem.
JESSICA: Can we have a productive response to the problem?
DAVID: Yeah, that absolutely makes sense. I think often, the problem is also the problem.
JESSICA: It's often self-sustaining like the habits you're talking about. Our life habits form a self-sustaining system and then it took that external stimulus. It's not like an external stimulus somehow kicked you in the butt and changed you, it let you change yourself.
DAVID: Yes, absolutely. I guess what I mean is ñ so let's continue with the cleaning example. The problem is that your flat is messy and your flat is messy because of these life habits, because your emotional reactions to all these things. If you do the appropriate emotional work, you unblock yourself on shame and anxiety around a messy flat, and you look around and you've saw you've processed all these emotions. You fixed how you respond to the problem and it turns out your flat is still messy and you still have to clean it.
I think emotional reactions are what either ñ Iím making it sound like emotional reactions are all negative and I really don't mean that. I mean, that way is just ñ
JESSICA: Oh, right because once you've dealt with all that shame and the anxiety and stuff, and maybe you've picked up your flat some, and then you come in and you have groceries and you stop and you immediately put them away and you get a positive, emotional feeling from that as you're in the process of keeping your flat tidy. The emotions can reinforce a clean flat as well.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is something that has always been one of my goals more than it is what am I active?
JESSICA: No, I love this distinction that you're making here. Is it a goal or is it something I'm activelyÖ? The word goal is [inaudible].
DAVID: Yeah. So I think for me, one of the other problems, other than the relationships it starts, was me essentially realizing that my emotional experience, it wasn't bad. I mean, it wasn't great, but I wasn't actively miserable most of the time, but it also just didn't have very many positive features, which it turns out is also a form of depression. It's very easy to treat depression as just like you're incredibly sad all the time, but that doesn't have to what it can be like flatness is.
So I think very much from early on in my mind was that the getting better at emotions wasn't just about not being anxious. It was also about experiencing things like joy, it was about being happier and I think having this as sort of an aspirational goal is very, very motivating in terms of a lot of this work and in terms of a lot of trying to understand all of this, because I think I don't want to be miserableóit only gets you so far.
If you have a problem that you're trying to solve, and that turns out to be an emotional block, you have to actually wants to solve the problem. It's like, I think if you don't want to clean the flat, then it doesn't matter how much you sort of fix your anxiety around that. You're still just going to go, ìOkay. I'm no longer anxious about this messy flat. That's great,î and your flat is going to stay messy because you don't actually want it not to be and that's fine.
JESSICA: Itís just fine, yeah. Who cares? Especially now.
DAVID: Unless it becomes a health hazard, but yeah.
DAVID: Certainly like thereís ñ
JESSICA: If you're affecting the neighboring flats with your roaches, thatís fine.
DAVID: [laughs] Yeah.
JESSICA: So you were talking about joy as an aspirational goal, but it's not the kind of goal where you check the box at the end of the year and declare yourself worthy of a 2% raise.
DAVID: [laughs] No, absolutely not and I think for all big goals, really, I find that I want to be very clichÈ and say, it's the journey, not the destination.
JESSICA: But it is! No, it totally is!
JESSICA: See, the word goal really irks me because people often use it to mean something that you should actually reach. Like write every day per month, that's a goal that you find benefits from hitting, but feelings of joy are, as you said, aspirational. I call it a quest, personally. Some people call it a North Star. It is a direction that can help you make decisions that will move you in that direction, but if you ever get thereÖ No, that doesn't make sense. You wouldn't want to exist in a perpetual state of joy. That would also be flat. [laughs]
DAVID: No, absolutely. And I think even with big but achievable goals, it still is still quite helpful to treat them in this way. So for one, quite close to my heart right now, a goal of doing a Ph.D. I think you've got a 3-, 4-year long project in the States, I think it's more like 5 or 6 and if you treat the Ph.D. as it's pass/fail, like either you get the Ph.D. or those 3 or 4 years have been wasted, then that's not very motivating and also will result in, I think, worst quality results in work. Like the thing to do is ñ
JESSICA: Like anxiety, stress, and shame.
DAVID: Yeah. Yeah, very much so. [chuckles] So just thinking in terms of there's this big goal that you're trying to achieve of the Ph.D., but the goal doesn't just define a pass/fail; it defines a direction. Like if you get better at paper writing in order to get your Ph.D., then even if you don't get your Ph.D., you got better at paper writing and that's good, too.
JESSICA: Because the other outcome is the next version of you.
DAVID: Yes, exactly.
JESSICA: Itís about who does this aspirational goal prompt you to become?
REIN: This reminds me of the difference between homeostasis and homeorhesis. Homeostasis is about maintaining a state; homeorhesis is about maintaining a trajectory
DAVID: That makes sense. Yes, very much that distinction and also, one of the nice things about this focus on a trajectory is that even if a third of the way through the trajectory, you decide you don't want to maintain it anymore and actually you're fine where you are. This goal was a bad idea or you've got different priorities now, possibly because a global pandemic has arrived and has changed all of your priorities. Then you still come all that way. It's like the trajectory doesn't just disappear backwards in time because you're no longer going in that direction. You've still made all that progress. Youíve still got to drive some of the benefits from it.
JESSICA: Yeah. There's another thing that maybe it's an American thing, or maybe it's wider than that of if it doesn't last forever, then it was never real, or if you don't achieve the stated goal, then all your effort was wasted.
DAVID: Yeah. I don't think itís purely an American thing. It's hard to tell with how much American pop culture permeates everything and also, I shouldn't say that although I'm quite British, I am also half American. So Iím a weird third culture kid where my background doesn't quite make sense to anyone. But yeah, no, I very much feel that. This idea that permanence is required for importance and it's something that every time I sort of catch myself there, I'm just like, ìYeah, David, you're doing the thing again. Have you tried not doing the thing?î [chuckles] But it's hard. It's very internalized.
JESSICA: If you clean your flat and a week later, it's dirty again. Well, it was clean for a week. That's not nothing.
DAVID: Yeah. I do genuinely think that one of the emotions that people struggle with cleaning. Certainly, it is for me.
JESSICA: Oh, because it's a process. It is not a destination. Nothing is ever clean!
JACOB: I think of myself sometimes as I want to be the kind of person that always has a clean home, as opposed to, I like it when my house is clean.
JESSICA: Yeah. Is it about you or is it about some real effect you want?
JACOB: Yeah. Is it about like the story that that I imagine I could project if I could project on Instagram because I'm taking pictures of my pristine house all the time, or is it just like, I like to look around and see things where they belong?
DAVID: Yeah. I'm curious, does this result in your home being clean?
JACOB: No, it doesnít and thatís sort of the issue that I'm just realizing is it's not actually a powerful motivator because it's just not possible trying to imagine that I could maintain homeostasis about it. It's not a possible goal and so yeah, it's not going to happen.
REIN: Yeah. The metaphor here is it changes motion, but it's always happening so it's more like the flow of time than motion through space.
JESSICA: Itís not motion, too.
REIN: Actually staying the same is very hard to do and very expensive.
JESSICA: No wonder it takes all of our feelings to help us achieve it.
DAVID: So the reason I was asking by the way about whether this idea of being the sort of person who has a clean home is effective is that this ties in a little bit to what today's newsletter was about. There's this problem where when you have self-images that are constructed around being good at particular things, being bad at those things is very much, it's a shame trigger. It's essentially, you experienced the world as clashing with your conception of yourself and we get really good at not noticing those things.
You see this a lot with procrastination, for example, where you are putting off doing a thing because it does force you to confront this sort of conflict between identity and reality. I think sometimes, the way out of it is just to identify less with the things that we want to achieve in the world and just try and go, ìI'm doing this because I want to and if I didn't want to, that would be fine, too.î Essentially, becoming fine with both an outcome and failing to achieve that outcome is often the best way to achieve the outcome.
JESSICA: So practicing editing in order to practice editing, whether you achieve writing a book or not, whether you're good at it or not, and it does come back to the journey. If what you're doing is a means to an end and yet not in line with that end, it often backfires because the means are the end. In the end, they become it.
So having a clean house is stupid. That's not a thing. Picking up is a thing. That's something you can do and what I am picking up. True fact! [laughs] You don't have to worry about whether you can, are you doing it? All right then, you can! Whereas, having a clean house is not a thing.
DAVID: Very much. This kind of ties into the comments about books earlier, where you were talking about how many books I read, and one of the things that I think very much stops people from reading books is the idea that oh God, there are so many books to read, I'll never get through all of them.
JESSICA: If I started, I have to finish it.
DAVID: Oh, yeah. I mean, people definitely shouldn't do that; books are there to be abandoned if they're bad.
JESSICA: I read a lot of chapter ones.
DAVID: Yeah. I have a slightly bad habit of buying books speculatively because they seem good and as a result, I think my shelf of books that I'm probably never going to get around to read, but might do someday and might not and either is fine is probably like a hundred plus books now.
JESSICA: I love that shelf. I have big piles everywhere.
There's always something to read wherever I sit and most of it, I will never read, but it's beautiful.
DAVID: I'm currently in a very weird experience where I write, for possibly the first time in my life, I have more bookshelf space than books.
JESSICA: Huh, that's not a stable state.
DAVID: No, no. This will be fixed by the time I leave this flat. The piles will return.
JESSICA: You will maintain the trajectory.
DAVID: Yeah. [laughs] Because I'm just reading. I can read these as many books because I just sit down and read and at some point, I will finish a book or I will abandon the book and both are fine. But I think if you treat this as a goal where your goal is to read all the books, then that's not the thing and also, I think people go, ìMy goal is to read a hundred books a year,î or I don't know how normal people guesstimates are.
JESSICA: Itís like, is it really or itís their goal to learn something.
DAVID: Yeah, exactly.
JESSICA: And the means is reading books.
DAVID: Yeah. I think if one instead just goes, ìI like reading and it's useful so I'm going to read books,î you'll probably end up reading a lot more than setting some specific numerical goal. Also, you run into sort of Goodhart's law things where if your goal is to read a hundred books in a year, great buy the Mr. Men set. But wait, it's not a thing in ñ the Mr. Men are a series of kidsí books which tells ñ
JESSICA: With the big smiley face?
DAVID: Yeah. Exactly, that's the one.
You can read a hundred of those in a weekóI assume there are hundred Mr. Men books, I don't actually knowóand youíll probably learn something.
JESSICA: Then again, you might choose Dynamics in Action, never get through it, and then feel bad about it, and that would be pointless because you learned more from the introduction than you did from the Mr. Men series.
DAVID: I don't think I've even opened my copy of Dynamics in Action. I think you recommended on Twitter or something and I was just like, ìThat does sound interesting. I will speculatively buy this book.î
JESSICA: It's a hard book.
DAVID: Yeah. It's far from the hardest book on my shelves, but it's definitely in the top. I'm going to confidently say top 20, but it might be harder than that. I just haven't done a comparative analysis and I don't want to overpromise.
JESSICA: The point being read books because you want to know.
JESSICA: Or sometimes because you want to have read them. That's the thing. There's a lot of things I may not want to pick up, but I do want to have picked up and I can use that to motivate me.
DAVID: Yeah, and even then, there are two versions of that and both are good, actually. I think one of them sounds bad. One version is you want to have read it because you want to understand the material in it and the other one is just, you want to be able to say that you have read it and thus, you ñ and probably for the status game and also, just sort of as a box ticking, like I think ñ
JESSICA: Oh, itís not completely wrong.
DAVID: No, it's not completely wrong.
JESSICA: You still get something out of it.
JESSICA: On the other hand, if you want to read it because you want to be the kind of person who would read it. I don't know about that one.
DAVID: Yeah, I agree. I thinkÖ
JESSICA: Then again, life habits. Sometimes, if you want to be the kind of person who picks up and so you fake it long enough to form the habit, then you are.
DAVID: Yeah, absolutely and I read a book recentlyóof course, I didóby Agnes Callard called Aspiration, which I'm glad I read it. I cannot really recommend it to people who aren't philosophers, because there's a thing that often happens with reading analytic philosophy, where the author clearly has a keen insight into an important problem that you, as the reader, lack and the way they express that insight is through an entire bookís worth of slightly pedantic arguments with other analytic philosophers who have wrong opinions about the subjects.
JESSICA: Half of Dynamics in Action is like that.
DAVID: Yeah, I think it very complicated.
REIN: Was it written as a thesis?
DAVID: I don't think so. I'm not certain about that, but it might've been. It ended up being quite an influential book and I think she was mentioning that there's going to be a special issue of a journal coming out to recently about essentially, its impact and responses to it. But I think it's just genuinely that analytic philosophers had a lot of really wrong opinions about this subject.
So the relevance of this is the idea she introduces the book is that of a proleptic value where ñ
JESSICA: Proleptic, more words.
DAVID: Proleptic basically, I think originally comes from grammar and it means something that stands in place for another thing. A proleptic value is what you do when you're engaged in a process of aspiration, which is trying to acquire values that you don't currently have.
So she uses the example of a music student who wants to learn to appreciate the genre of music that they do not currently appreciate and they find a teacher who does appreciate that genre and they basically use their respect for that teacher as a proleptic value. They basically say, ìI don't currently value this genre of music, but I trust your judgment and I value your opinion and I will use your feedback and that respect for you as a value that stands in place of the future value of appreciating this genre of music that I hope to acquire.î
So I think this thing of reading a book because you want to be the sort of person who reads that kind of book can have a similar function where even though, you don't really wants to read the book, that process of aspiration gives you a hook into becoming the sort of person who does want to read the book.
JESSICA: That's like being the mountain for each other.
JESSICA: In some ways. You're not going to get a view yet. You're only 10 feet off the ground, but meanwhile, just climb to climb because it's here.
DAVID: Yeah. I'm not necessarily very good at being the sort of person reading books for this reason. Partly because there are so many books, I have so many other reasons to read, but yeah.
JESSICA: Yeah, you're fine. You don't need more reasons to read a book.
DAVID: [laughs] But I think two books that I have read mostly to have read them rather than necessarily because I was having an amazing time and learning lots of things reading them are Seeing Like a State by James Scott, which it's a good book.
I don't think it's a bad book, but it is very much a history book that also has a big idea and there are like 70,000 blog posts about the big idea. So if you're going and wanting just the big idea, read one of the blog posts, but I'd seen a reference so many times and I was just like, ìYou know, this seems like a book that I should rate,î and my opinion is now basically that like, if you like history books and if you want lots of detail, then yeah, it's a great book to read. If you just want the big idea, donít.
JESSICA: Right, because other people have presented it more succinctly, which probably happens with your Aspiration book that you talked about.
DAVID: I would like it to happen with the Aspiration book. The Aspiration book is only a few years old.
JESSICA: You've written a ñ oh, okay, so it's too soon for that. So you'll write about it, if you haven't yet.
DAVID: Yeah, I havenít yet. Looking at it, it was published in 2018 and you have the paperback from 2019. So this is really cutting-edge philosophy to the degree that there is such a thing. [chuckles]
JESSICA: Yeah. Oh no, what do you mean? [inaudible].
REIN: Seeing Like a State is.
DAVID: Well, I've had this argument with philosopher friends where I was arguing that it was a thing and the philosopher friend was just like, ìIs it a thing, though?î Because the interesting thing about philosophy is just that it never goes out to date. People are sort of engaging with the entire historical cannon so the question is not does new philosophy get done? The question is more, I think is this less ñ?
JESSICA: This isnít really a cutting edge.
DAVID: Yeah, exactly.
JESSICA: Itís more kind of a gentle nuzzling.
DAVID: [laughs] Yeah. But also, is this more cutting edge than, I don't know, reading Aristotle's Nicomachean ethics? I don't know.
JESSICA: Philosophy [inaudible].
DAVID: Yeah, I personally think that there is cutting-edge and this is on it, but plenty of room for philosophical dialogue on that subject if you can sort of dig Socrates up and ask him about it.
Yeah, and speaking of philosophy, the other book that I have read essentially to have read it rather than because I was getting a lot out of it was Wittgensteinís Philosophical Investigations where I essentially read it in order to confirm to myself that I had already picked up enough Wittgenstein by osmosis that I didn't really need to read it, which largely true.
JACOB: This is the part of the show where we like to reflect on what we took from everything and just wrap things up a little bit.
JESSICA: I have one thing written down. We talked a bit about who you are and who you want to be as a person, and how sometimes what you want to do is in conflict with how you think of yourself. Like, when you think of yourself as good at something, it's hard to be bad at it, long enough to learn better.
It occurs to me that in our society, we're all about getting to know yourself and then expressing your true self, which is very much a homeostasis more than a homerhesis. But what have we tried not knowing yourself? What if we tried just like, I don't know who I am and then I can surprise myself and have more possibilities. That's my reflection.
REIN: All of this discussion about happiness and pleasure, and diversion and striving reminds me a lot of Buddhist philosophy, or what I should say is, it reminds me a lot of my very limited understanding of Buddhist philosophy. Specifically, this idea that you shouldn't judge your life by the outcome of your preferences; that you shouldn't identify yourself with your wants and cling to the outcome of things. You can acknowledge that these things have happened and you can avoid unpleasant things, but you shouldn't be the owner of all of your desires. Instead, what you should do is measure your life by how well you follow the intentions that arise out of your values.
JACOB: Yeah. Maybe to put another way, I'm starting to think maybe I could think of myself as the sum of all of the habits I maintain or don't, and try to think of outcome of those habits as what a lagging indicator, I guess, or as a secondary and think more of myself like, ìWell, what are the things that I find I am naturally doing and if I'm not, what can I do to just try to enforce it for myself that I'm going to do that more?î Or maybe I don't care.
DAVID: So I'm not finding myself with sort of a single cohesive summation of the conversation, but I've really enjoyed it and there's been a couple of things I'm going to take away from it and mull over a bit more.
I really liked the homeostasis versus homeorhesis distinction. I'd obviously heard the first word, but not the second word and so, I'm going to think about that a bit more. Sort of tying onto that, I very much liked Jessica's point of how a clean home isn't really a thing, you can only do cleaning and thinking much more in terms of the ongoing process than trying to think of it as a static goal that you are perfectly maintaining at all times. Slightly orthogonal in relation to that, but I'm also just going to look up Satir as an author and maybe read some of her books. [chuckles]
DAVID: Because as we have established, always up for more reading. [laughs]
JACOB: That should wrap up our Episode 223. I'd like to thank David for joining us and weíll see you next time.
Special Guest: David MacIver.