0426 + 0427 – significance requires responsibility

Trouble sleeping, mind is refusing to power down.

Thinking about the last vomit, and how I didn’t adequately answer the question of “why do I have a habit of using hyperbole in my communication”. I said it was a vestigial remnant from my younger days, from operating in low-stakes, low-accountability environments. That is true. But why? Because it seemed to elicit more responses. But why did that matter? Because it felt good. But why? Because it gave me a feeling of significance, of relevance.

Intellectually, I recognize that this is illusory, but I suffer from dysrationalia. I do what isn’t rational, because I don’t take the time to think through my actions every step of theway. I’m a “problem cheap-validation-seeker” the way some people are problem gamblers.

Why do I want to feel significant? My first thought is- well, doesn’t everybody? Don’t we all want to be loved, appreciated, understood and so on?

Maybe. There might be exceptions. But even so- even if it’s true that everybody wants to feel significant, why does my particular want manifest itself the way it does? Some people are content with the significance they get being good parents, and they should be. Most people probably were, for most of human history. Am I different? If so, how exactly?

“Significant” is a vague term. Everybody is significant in some way to something. I’m significant to my wife and my family and my cats. That somehow does not feel like it’s enough to satisfy me. I’m significant to a close friend. That too does not feel like it’s enough to satisfy me. Am I significant to people I’m friends with on Facebook? I’d like to hope so, but realistically that’s a sort of weak significance… like having a somewhat nice TV show in your life. The West Wing was significant for me… but what does that even mean?

(This is frustrating.)

I think here it’s getting clear that there’s a ‘spectrum of significance’. The most intensely significant things in human history might be things like, discovering electromagnetism. I think it’s significant to have produced a TV show like The West Wing, maybe becaus I feel like it has a net effect on a lot of people. But the individual effect it has on a stray individual might not be all that great.

What exactly do I really want? I’m a cognitive miser. For all my talk about wanting to be a thinker, there are some things I don’t think very much about. Which is frustrating. Because I seem to prefer to work with simple solved puzzles rather than work on the pressing unsolved ones. Solved puzzles are easy, familiar, reassuring. Unsolved puzzles are difficult, challenging, unrewarding UNTIL progress is made. But it’s hard to anticipate when progress will come.

I’ve written about this before. I’m searching under streetlights here. I dropped my keys in the dark but I’m looking under the streetlight because it’s easier to see. Sigh. Okay.

So let’s walk into the dark with a lousy flashlight and see what we find.

Here’s a sentence I’d like to start with:

I desire a feeling of significance, and in the absence of anything of real substance, I settle for bullshit and illusions.

So the question is, how do I make sure that I only derive significance from working on things that have substance? [1]

Well, first I have to define what substance means. I am a cognitive miser, so my instinct is to default to the path of least resistance. [2] If I’m just thinking “I want to feel significant”, my impulse is to get involved with discussions on Facebook or reddit. This is suboptimal 99% of the time… or is it? If all I want is to feel significant then it’s totally optimal! If all I want is to get through the day then cigarettes are quite awesome, too! In both cases I feel a sense of guilt and frustration bevause clearly I’m looking for more than just getting through the days. I’ve gotten through thousands of mediocre days.

So. What then? What is substance? What’s actually significant? It feels almost laughably silly to try and answer this question but it’s far sillier that I’ve gone through so much of my life without being more explicit about this. [3]

Let’s give it a version 1.0 shot. Substance is… uh. Making a material difference to people’s lives. I should focus primarily on my own. Substance is fulfilling responsibilities. Doing what I said I’d do.

And so here I have to ask myself: what are my responsibilities? What are my obligations? (And here I enter the realm of things I don’t particularly want to make public right now- I’ll write those things privately. It’s surely better to fulfill obligations quietly than to proclaim them.)

I will concede though that I haven’t always been fulfilling my obligations and responsibilities to the best of my abilities. Why not? I say and believe that I want to be significant. Well, nobody is more significant than a person who other people depend on. And the more people can depend on you, and the more they trust you, the more opportunities they give you to do even more! To be even more significant!

Well a painful re-realization lies ahead.

Someone once said people miss opportunity when they encounter it because it shows up dressed as work. The corollary here is that significance shows up dressed as responsibility.

And I have always been terrified of responsibility. I have a really, really bad track record when it comes to responsibility.

So this is the showdown, isn’t it? What do I want more? To be truly, deeply significant or to play this elaborate, torturously teasing game of requesting significance and then running away from it when it shows up dressed as responsibility?

The truth is that there are real opportunities for significance all around me. I’ve just been too afraid to really engage them. So I run away. And I try to get people to like me in a superficial sense. And if they do that, then I can pretend that my deficiencies aren’t so bad. I’m not an utter trainwreck. Which is a depressingly low bar to set. It’s like being a seemingly-functional alcoholic, and saying “Hey, at least I don’t beat my kids,” to justify the alcholism.

What am I afraid of anyway? I fear being stifled and trapped. There’s this old joke or saying about how the prize for being good at digging is a bigger shovel. That sounds terrifying to me. I feel like… it takes me enough effort as it is to function at my current capacity.

Intellectually I know that I could be doing more… but something is stopping me. And that something isn’t physics- it’s psychological. I could do twice as much work, write twice as many vomits (this I have actually been doing lately, so yay) and still have time left over to work out and read books WHY AM I NOT DOING IT? I don’t mean to ask that in an angry violent way. It’s more of a deep puzzlement at this Gordian knot in my psyche.

Let’s start again.

I’m afraid of responsibility. Why? I worry I won’t be able to handle it. (I think.)

I’m currently playing a role where I perform some of my responsibilities to a tolerable degree.

I want to be significant.

But I’m afraid that if I get better at fulfilling more responsibilities for a while, eventually I’ll screw up and “regress to the mean” or something, and when that happens the disappointment will be greater, the cost/damage will be greater. [4] As I write this, I realize this is a worldview that doesn’t adequately internalize opportunity cost.

Let’s rewind a little. (We’re going to tunnel through this and resolve it.)

Bad track record with responsibility, sure. Let’s address that. There were many things I was unable to do when younger that I have since developed the ability to do as an adult. I was terrified of food preparation as a kid. I’ve cooked since.

So the question is, do I believe that I can grow into more than I am today? Because it feels like if I did believe it, this wouldn’t be a problem. Grow, do more, do better, lift heavier weights, become more responsible, become more significant. Simple.

The problem seems to be that I doubt my own ability to grow. This is really sad. When I was a child I did believe quite sincerely that the world was my oyster. I was going to make video games and websites and go to Oxford or Cambridge and get rich. Somewhere along the line I started failing at things and I developed a toxic, negative attitude towards my failures. And I wasn’t honest with myself about it. I pretended it wasn’t a problem. I pretended that I didn’t do well because I didn’t study.

But as I write these word vomits everyday I’m starting to realize that I failed probably not because “I am a failure who can’t do things”, but because of some really simple things I was missing in plain sight.

– I can write way more when I write a little bit everyday than when I try to write a ton at one go. The simple solution to writing more is to write a little bit at frequent intervals, rather than try to write a ton all at once.
– I struggled with improving my 2.4km time because I was overstriding terribly, and my breathing was all wrong, and I didn’t do interval training.
– I failed to get much stronger when lifting weights because of improper nutrition and rest.

My failures in these fronts aren’t evidence that I’M a failure, they’re merely opportunities to begin again more intelligently. And I will likely discover that I’ll fail again, because of other variables I hadn’t even considered. But that’s good! I’ll be getting closer!

I need to believe that I can learn and grow. That I can live life with a clear mind free from anxiety. It’s not enough to just say “I believe it”- that’s fleeting. I need to really embody it.

I want to be truly significant in ways that matter; that means I need to become stronger, fulfill my responsibilities and obligations above and beyond what people have come to expect from me. No- above and beyond what I have come to expect of myself. I am playing small with my own life, which is completely in contradiction with my stated desire to live large. No wonder I’m such an anxious mess. No wonder I have trouble sleeping and trouble waking up. No wonder I procrastinate. It’s (partially) because of this huge Gordian knot right in the middle of my brain. Saying one thing, believing another, hoping another, acting another, and distracting myself hoping it’ll all resolve itself, that one day I’ll wake up and it’ll all be clear.

I’m probably oversimplifying things right now as I write this. I’m feeling some sort of catharsis, right on schedule. This is something I have to be wary of. Because nothing has changed yet.

Significance comes from taking responsibility. I am afraid of taking responsibility because I do not fully believe that I can manage it. I’m worried that I’ll fuck up, and so I deal by not-dealing. Which is itself a sort of slow, chronic suicide.

I have to decide and take decisive action about what is important, what is not important, what needs to happen and so on. (What needs to happen? I’ll write that for myself separately.) I need to give myself a track record I can believe in.


I feel like I must have skipped something, I must have left something out.

Let’s work backwards. Am I now going to be a hyper-responsible person who fulfills all his obligations and then some? I want to say yes, but is it true? Just because I say Significance Requires Responsibility?

It’s unlikely to be that simple. I should look for bugs and handwaving. Yes I want to be significant. But I’m also afraid of responsibility. Have I sufficiently allayed this fear? Do I no longer fear responsibility, because I said “Open Sesame”? It can’t be that simple. I’ve set off feel-good chemicals in my brain which make me agreeable, but that is itself illusory.

What does taking responsibility look like, right now? Well… I should go to bed. Suppose I do that. What happens when I wake? I should go through my to do list and identify which are the real obligations/responsibilities, and screw the rest. I shouldn’t spend more than 20 minutes on that. I should isolate the tasks that will most greatly increase my real significance. And I should make a sizeable dent in those. I know that I’ve been avoiding them somewhat.

Okay. I’m done writing this for now. But I will not rest easy. I am certain there are weak spots and followup questions.

[1] My intuition tells me that trying to approach this from a “let’s weed out bullshit” pov is a losing game- I should instead have a clear, precise goal to achieve. The pursuit of achieving that goal should be the thing that gets me to weed out BS and illusions from my life.

[2] Nobody ends up atop a mountain by accident, or through wishful thinking, or through passion alone. Or even by thinking about it really long and hard, if the thinking doesn’t turn into action.

[3] It probably stems from my discomfort with accountability and clarity. But I also know- truth-in-box- that life without clarity and accountability is painful and miserable. Eventually the reality I’m hiding from punches me in the face. I get punched over and over but I keep returning to the vague-fog.

[4] That’s the cost of significance, Visa. And you should also think about opportunity cost. You don’t feel the pain in your gut for all the responsibilities you never took. It’s just a sort of ambient, wistful regret than you can commiserate with other regretful people about. Hell, people have spent their entire lives writing novels about that sort of regret. And you know they didn’t exactly die happy. If nothing else, you should die happy. C’mon.

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