0393 – earn your own trust

Assuming you’ve got something that you’re working towards, and you’re working on it… you could probably spend a lifetime on those things alone. But there’s more after that, isn’t there? Yeah. There’s the question of how do you decide what to buy? Actually, how do you decide on anything at all? How do you decide on what to read, what to consume, what you should care about, how you should work towards it? Ideally, if you had unlimited time and resources, you’d do the research. You’d do the scholarship, in the truest sense of the word. You would do all the reading, all the experimentation and so on.

Unfortunately that’s not an option in a world with limited resources. The clock is ticking. You’re going to have to make all your decisions suboptimally, with imperfect information. This is something that you have to accept, because the one thing worse than making bad decisions is typically

But the cool thing is that you don’t have to do it alone. You can’t, actually. There are billions of people in the world, and there were billions of people who were alive before but are gone today– and much of their knowledge and wisdom and insight is available. You don’t need to teach yourself things from scratch– you can simply pick up where other people have left off. And we all do this. If you want to be a writer, you’re not inventing language by yourself– you work with what you’ve inherited, what you’ve learned. And you work on tools that others made. And you build on ideas that others have written– everything you do is a remix, whether you like it or not.

So a big part of life, along with figuring out what you want and how you’re going to get it (and I suppose prior to that, figuring out how to figure stuff out), is figuring out who and what to learn from. Who to trust. What to trust.

And the problem is that you can’t simply trust everything and everyone. The world is full of conflicting signals. Two different friends might give you completely different suggestions about whether or not you should watch a movie, let alone what you should do with your life. What do you do then? Well– I haven’t actually given this as much deliberate thought as I would’ve liked, but this is the process where I do it. I imagine that you’d have to reduce things down to first principles. What is trust? How does trust work?

As I start thinking this I realize it’s really tempting to get into a super philosophical, abstract sort of discourse into figuring out things like, what is anything at all, what is meaning, blah blah blah. That can be a fun game to play, but in the context of this essay I want to figure out trust in a practical sense. How do you know what you can trust?

And the first thing that comes to my mind is the realization– not altogether recent, but it’s been extra powerful recently– that I can’t actually trust myself about a lot of things. I can’t trust my feelings, they seem to have a sort of self-interest of their own. I can’t trust my stories and narratives, those tend to be self-serving too and they have their own interests and agenda. The only thing I can truly trust, it seems, might be evidence, data. That sounds a little cold and clinical and reductive, and I’m sure there’s space for something more– I think there are moments of profound experience or insight that count as valid, but those things are themselves bits of data. How I feel during a moment of profound insight differs vastly from how I feel when I’m stressed and tired and sleep deprived, and both of those feelings are equally valid or legitimate. When I’m sitting down to think about who I am, what I want out of life, and what I ought to be doing, I feel like I ought to evaluate all of those things. And I shouldn’t necessarily evaluate them with equal weight– I have to think about the contexts I was in, the context I am in now, the contexts I think I am likely to be in the future, and the contexts I want to be in. All of these things are somewhat arbitrary, they’re all layers upon layers.

Another thing about trust I suppose is that it follows that thing Nassim Taleb talked about with regards to knowledge– you always know what is wrong with much more certainty than what is right, because there are many ways to be wrong and fewer ways (if any) to be right. “Right” itself is something that we judge and determine to a degree of precision, through some sort of lens, and what is right today might be wrong tomorrow when viewed through a superior lens. Everything boils down to interpretations until we get to hard reality, which is what doesn’t go away when we stop believing in it. So it makes sense that we should systematically practice actively disbelieving in things, as a sort of thought experiment, and see what happens. It seems to me that I have had times where I doubted my inclination and instinct to be a writer, and yet I find myself returning to writing. So that’s interesting. But consider how that applies to smoking too– there are times where I thought that I was a smoker, and times where I thought I was done, and yet during times where I thought I was done, I would occasionally feel the impulse to light up a cigarette, and I would occasionally indulge that impulse.

But I don’t think that means that I can’t trust anything and that everything is bullshit. That is simplistic and naive. That’s like saying poker is all about luck, when it’s clear that some people repeatedly, systematically win over and over again more than others. That’s the thing about life, I guess– it’s fought over countless little battles.

I still haven’t figured out what trust is, or how I know what I can trust, and I need to think about that more. I’ll sleep on it and get to thinking about it again in the next vomit. With the spirit of “what is wrong is clearer than what is right”, I imagine that I’ll be able to trust certain instincts, impulses, guesses and concerns moreso than others. And the idea here isn’t so much about whether things are definitely correct or wrong, true or false, but more of whether things have upside or downside– what’s the worst that could happen with a certain belief or idea? What’s the best that could happen? And then we perhaps should systematically eliminate ideas that are volatile and dangerous. Now that sounds like an argument for a really boring sort of conservatism, and I don’t want to be boring in the stodgy limiting sense. An idea doesn’t need to be removed and wiped out altogether– merely fed less energy and attention. If it is valid, if it is true, then something will probably come out of it.

I’m getting incoherent. I’ll go to sleep and revisit this.

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