0279 – win yourself over

I think I mentioned this earlier but I’ll repeat it– I’ve been very curious about the problem of akrasia, where I don’t do what I say I want to do. It’s a wonderfully complex and multi-faceted problem. Why do I say I want to do something and then not do it? Who is the person saying that they want to do it, and who is the person who’s supposed to do it but doesn’t? Why say things if they don’t get done? Why not do the things that I say I want done? What is the saying for, who is the saying for? What is the purpose of the saying? What causes the saying? What is the missing thing that prevents the saying from becoming a doing?

There are two things that come to mind when I think about this. The first is Dave Trott’s Predatory Thinking– he tells this cute story about how he wanted his daughter to learn, and to be exposed to high-quality content. She, on the other hand, wanted to entertain herself watching TV. The interesting thing is, he didn’t simply want to impose his will on her. It might’ve struck him as somewhat inelegant or imperfect. He wanted them to both get what he wanted. The elegant solution– he ended up getting her to watch cartoons about Shakespeare, which she found entertaining. It was a win-win, and there was something very elegant about that.

The second is Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, where he talks about the importance of giving people what they wanted in order to get what YOU want. I want to say that this is an intuitive idea, though I think it’s not super obvious from the get go. When I look back at my younger days I cringe at how I used to talk to people about what I wanted instead of what they wanted. There was this silly sense that– if I wanted something badly enough, and I communicated to somebody else how badly I wanted it, they would be impressed by the amount of effort I put into the telling, and they would give it to me. Please, please, please listen to my music. Please, please, please go out with me. I really, really want it. You can’t help but help a person like that, right?

Turns out the answer is no– even though people can be good-hearted and good-natured and want to help you, their first obligation is to their own interests. So you can’t sell your product on how great your product is, you have to sell it on how it helps and benefits them. [1]

Now. After several years of knocking around, I think I get this to some degree. But I still catch myself in conversations talking about myself rather than the other person, interrupting the other person to state something about myself or my knowledge or my interests. And this ultimately boring, because I already know what I’m about. For me to learn, I need to encourage the other person to share more, think more, say more. And that expands the territory of our conversation, that expands my own knowledge. But I at least understand the principle here, and I think I’m making progress on this front.

Next? Next is realizing that all of this applies WITHIN MYSELF too. I have all of these ideas as the boss/parent of myself. I, I, I. I want to do this. I want to do that. I want to be fit. I want to be smart. I want to be handsome. I, I, I. It’s no different from saying, I want this attractive girl to go out with me. I want everybody to like me. (In this case, the attractive girl is my own subconscious. I’m trying to ORDER myself into action– and of course, the elephant Me is obstinate. It has its own interests and agendas and desires that I barely understand, because I spend all my time inside the conscious space of I, and barely any time paying attention to the subconscious space of Me.

So, I need to do for myself what Dave Trott did for his daughter. I was chatting with my wife about this over lunch– I realize, for instance, that I like helping people, but I don’t like feeling obligated to do something because of (what, to me, feels like) arbitrary bullshit reasons. I don’t want to be pushed around. I want to feel like I have autonomy and control and I want to feel like a magnanimous king, doing favors and acts of kindness for others. Of course, this is just a feeling, all of these are just feels and they’re quite silly but they influence my behavior. I’ve written nice long emails to students who ask me for help, and yet I procrastinate on doing work for my boss and colleagues, who I admire and respect very much. Why? Could it really boil down to how I’m perceiving the tasks? If they feel like obligations, I don’t feel like doing them. If I feel like I’m helping people, out of my own goodwill, then it feels nice. It feels nice to help people. It feels unpleasant to be obligated to do things.

So I should experiment with framing things in terms of helping people. Whenever I say I want to do something, or I have to do something, I need to add the elaboration of how/why it helps somebody, or how/why it helps me fulfill my curiosity, my interests, my pleasure. I want to watch this movie…. not just because the boss/parent I desires it, but also because Me is going to find it really interesting– Me likes playing with stories and narratives and etymology, and good movies will enable Me to explore that richness. It’s a win-win.

Adulthood is learning to parent yourself, and parenting isn’t a one-way street– it’s about paying careful attention to the needs and wants of your child, and doing things that you BOTH enjoy, together.


[1] There are some subtle complications– you CAN sell your product on how great your product is when your customer is already ready, willing and eager to buy the best product in your class– then you can talk about your great product. But if they aren’t yet sure about whether or not they even want your product, then you have to sell them on the benefits of your product to them. It’s not about what your product is, it’s about what your product can do FOR THEM.

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