0420 – intelligently power through plateaus and don’t give up

“What is the present state of the saboteur?”

The saboteur is always present, always scheming, and always full of shit. There is no other present state. It can be kept a little bit at bay with the flame of work done, but it always returns immediately after. There is no respite. There is no grand solution. You just have to punch him in the face, over and over and over again.

“Why do I plateau?”

One simple reason might just be that plateaus are a normal part of progress, and the challenge is to persist. In which case the question should be modified to, “Why do I give up when I plateau?” – and the answer to that is quite obvious too. Because I’m addicted to getting lots of great encouraging feedback and validation, and the hard important struggles that matter typically have some phase where the feedback isn’t amazing. That’s probably the main reason why people aren’t all amazingly fit and talented and highly-developed in all sorts of amazing ways. Because it requires an almost ‘irrational’ persistence through a “dip” where you’re not getting amazing feedback.

It’s like if you have to play an RPG, but you don’t have a clear experience bar, you don’t have a health bar, your enemies don’t have health bars, and you don’t really know how many enemies you have to kill before you can level up. How long do you keep playing? Not very long– especially when there’s a game that you can actually download on your phone, or play on Facebook or somewhere else, that provides you with immediate, instantaneous feedback. Now you feel a sense of power and control… but it only applies within a context of a highly ludic, highly sanitized and highly artificial system. Learning to do it in meatspace is a bigger challenge.

Part of it is a design challenge– to keep track of your output, to write down your workouts so you know that you’re committed and that you’re pressing ahead. But the other half– the harder half– is having faith that persistence will be rewarded. That if you resist the nicotine cravings, they’ll eventually subside altogether– and you won’t spent the rest of your life anxiously fighting the cravings.

I haven’t given up on writing, even though admittedly there were some phases where I was turned off by the idea of it. I found myself thinking (in that time, momentarily) “What’s the point? Why bother?” Or actually, worse, I don’t even think about it. It doesn’t even occur to me. The idea of writing just feels unnecessarily laborious with no payoff at the end. And so there were times when I went many days without writing. I regret it on hindsight, but there’s nothing I can do about the past. All I can do is to keep those feelings in mind and anticipate that they will come again, and choose to write every day in spite of it.

But what’s kept me persisting with writing, that hasn’t nearly done the same thing for me with exercise or meditation or what not? I know that social media is addictive the way video games are– lots of feedback. So persisting on those things is relatively trivial. Same with cigarettes and sugar and other drugs. The brain loves it, so it’s easy to be hooked.

The real challenge is how do you stay on course for things where the pleasure isn’t so easily synthesized. With exercise there’s some endorphins… with meditation there’s some calm… but these things aren’t nearly as immediately addictive in the early stages. There’s pain, too, and discomfort or annoyance. And I guess even with writing, it’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can sit down with a blank page and write 1000 words and feel good about having written. That’s somehow ‘new’.

I suppose it’s because it’s very clear to me that when I finish 1,000,000 words I would have done something few humans have done, and in such a deliberate fashion. I would have achieved something that is undeniably (somewhat) impressive. And I would have honed my craft, I would be a better writer. I know this. I am confident of it. So each vomit is a 0.1% step towards completion of a project I really want to complete. In that regard, it’s no different from playing Tap Titans…. absurdly tapping on the glass of a phone tens of thousands of times because you see how it’s killing a monster on the screen, which subsequently gives you gold, which feels good.

This is interesting to think about. It means that I have different motivations for different things and approach things in different ways. For a period of time I was semi-interested in watching loads of TED talks and doing reviews about them. I have them all listed out in Workflowy. But I can’t really be bothered to do it any more.

And yet, sometimes when I post something on Facebook or Reddit just in my downtime, and somebody asks me a question, I get fired up in trying to help that person. I get energized, I take the trouble to put together some piece that I previously sorta-wanted to do, but would never have done without the added social incentive. It doesn’t even matter if these are Internet strangers who I will never have any interaction with ever again. It’s just a little bit of proof, in some imagined way, that I did something that mattered to somebody. (Here I’m thinking of JiggityK’s essay– I hope somebody loves me.) The craving for validation is a strong one. I suppose that might have influenced things like why I picked up smoking in the first place, or whay I cared about local music at some point. In all of those cases, that’s just a part of the picture, of course. But it’s an interesting and significant piece of the puzzle.

So let’s go over it again. It really matters to me that I become a writer. It’s my best shot (that I can conceive of right now, in present circumstances) at having the largest possible positive impact in the world, which would give me a lot of validation, and hopefully leave me economically better off as well. And I like it, I love words and sentences and paragraphs. I would want to get better at it even if nobody else ever gave a damn. So the idea that I’m making progress on this is exciting. Being 0.1% closer is exciting. I have maybe 58.5% left to go, and when that is done, goddamn, I’ll be living in a new world!

The challenge then is for me to figure out how to apply this sort of system to other things that I want to get better at. Is there a limit to how many things a person can get better at, all at once? Sure, of course. But I think some things are connected. Getting fitter allows me to be a better writer. Managing my time allows me to be a better writer. Conversations with smart people allow me to become a better writer. I should probably list out all of the plausible things that make me a better writer, and frame everything in those terms. Now that’s a fun exercise/challenge to undertake… adding that to the list.

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