0192 – “You’re only cheating yourself”

In an earlier word vomit- 0170 –  questioning assumptions; what got you here won’t get you there, I talked about a question that I’ve been struggling with all my life: Why reward yourself after doing work, when you can just reward yourself, period? Why not just cut to the good stuff?

Most of that post was about the importance of hard work, and how I had mistakenly assumed that smart people don’t do difficult things because they make everything look so easy. “It’s very important for your long term psychological, mental health to be a person of your word,” I wrote.

And later, “When someone says you’re cheating yourself, you should insist they clarify. Which self? What why should that particular facet of self get more respect than any other? I’m not saying that all facets of the self are equal, I’m just saying that you should get people to explain themselves.”

I sort of ran out of steam there. I’m picking up where I left off. What do personally mean if I say that I’m cheating myself? I’ve got it now. The self is infinitely multi-faceted, yes, but there’s a general consensus that there are two primary parts- the conscious and the subconscious. The Me and the I. The Ego and the Id, and so on.

When you’re cheating yourself, you’re allowing your animalistic, lizard-brain part of yourself cheat the more sublime, creative part of yourself. If you want to do what some artists do, like Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her TEDtalk Your Elusive Creative Genius, you could say that you’re cheating your Muse, your Genius.

There’s a part of you that has dreams, and there’s a part of you that has immediate desires. When you cheat yourself, you enable the immediate-gratification child at the expense of the dreamer.

Anyway, I hate the term “cheat yourself”- it’s very poisonous. I’d rather not use it.

Here’s the single most important thing I want to say- that you’re always performing to your subconscious whether you realize it or not. There are some claims that 95% of everything we do is driven by the subconscious. I’m not sure about the number, but I think it’s pretty clear that people who achieve great things do it with more cognitive force and power than most of us can typically imagine having. Athletes perform amazing computations in their heads in microseconds. Ask them what they were thinking when they scored that goal, and they might say “I wasn’t thinking”. Yet they had analyzed where the ball was going, where the other players were going, etc. It’s the subconscious mind that has been honed with hours and hours of practice. The same is true for the pianist or performer who feels embarrassed by the applause and standing ovation that he gets at the end. He feels like he doesn’t deserve it- it wasn’t really him who was performing. But what he has to take credit for isn’t the performance itself- is that he put himself through the hours and hours of practice.

You’re cheating yourself when you deny yourself the opportunity to achieve great things because the idea of practicing towards something feels tedious, difficult, painful. You’re cheating yourself when you give in to the Resistance. (read: The War of Art). The problem about the Resistance is that it’s not obvious that it’s even a thing. It’s incredibly subtle, insidious… argh, but as I’m writing this I’m thinking that I avoided my schoolwork for an ultimately good reason. I may not be able to reconcile that one. No- actually I think I will, but I’ll need to think about that one later.

In the meantime, all I really want to say is this. The subconscious is always watching. The subconscious- the muse, the genius- is actually a remarkably impartial audience. It doesn’t think you’re great just because you say you’re great. The subconscious has expectations about your behavior. It knows whether or not you can be trusted, and I think the damage that is done when you cheat yourself is that your subconscious doesn’t  trust you with its hopes and dreams anymore. And so it stops dreaming.

The subconscious is always watching. It pays attention when you goof off, and it makes a note- “I am a person who goofs off”. I am a person who cannot be trusted. I am a mean person. I am a lazy person. I am a nasty person. This I think is the real cost of doing things that are seemingly victimless crimes. You’re the victim. You’re the one poisoning your own mind with ideas about who you are, what sort of things you do. If you develop an exercise routine from a young age, your subconscious pays attention and thinks, “I’m the kind of person who exercises.” If you break from this routine, getting back into it might not be that hard.

I’m thinking now about how both Carl Sagan and Linus Pauling shared the conviction that if they didn’t understand something, it was because they hadn’t thought about it hard enough. Now that’s a great idea to give your subconscious. The thing is, you can’t just “give” something to your subconscious. Your subconscious is greater than you, smarter than you, thinks longer, harder and better than you. You really have to give it your absolute best, your absolute truth. You literally, actually, have to IMPRESS your subconsciousness with great work- great on some field.

I was watching Supernanny when I was at my parent’s place and it was quite eye-opening to watch how parents give in to their children’s tantrums. And the nanny goes, it’s not the kids’ fault, it’s you, the parents. You’re giving in. You’re training them. You’re conditioning them to get what they want. So naturally, they just keep getting whatever they want, and ulltimately that doesn’t work out in their favor because they haven’t yet figured out how to think about what they actually want out of their lives.

Fuck man, this whole vomit feels like it isn’t getting anywhere close to what I want to say. It’s so messy. I’ve crossed the word limit I’ve set for myself, so this vomit is technically over, but let me try to start over quickly.

Your subconscious is always watching you, always listening to you, always judging what you do, what you say, what you think about, everything.

Your subconscious notices when you slack off. When you don’t give it your all.

And your subconscious is way bigger than you. It’s like a roomful of people smarter than you, watching your every move. And you need to inspire them. You need them to invest in you. To trust you with their assets. With their power.

The mistake I’ve made in my life is this- I’ve disappointed my subconscious over and over again, to the point where she expects me to fuck up. She expects me to screw up. She expects me to get in trouble, because that’s what I’ve done, over and over again. I have trust issues with my subconscious. The only way to earn back that trust it seems is to start by doing really small things that I say I’ll do. And then do another.

How do you get around to doing THAT? Where do you start? How do you start the starting? I think we need to create rituals. (Well, before that even- make fewer promises. None at all, if possible.) Then I need to identify things that typically get me started. I need to have a quick ritual that runs me through the things that I identify as important triggers to get me riled up and working. I have a couple of motivational videos I like, I can just pick one. 3 mins. then I can get started immediately on the most painful, difficult, important task. If it’s a big task, I can complete a segment of it. I need to learn how to segment tasks better.

I’ve been completely cigarette free for almost half a year. I’ve not even slipped once. I think my subconscious is somewhat impressed- I think. Probably not, actually. I need to do my word vomits everyday. Every. Day.

Alright, we’re done here.This has been messy and ugly but I will get back on this.

Recommended reading:

The User Illusion, by Tor Norretranders

The Top Idea In Your Mind, by Paul Graham

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