Tools and Foci

Lots of people have put thought into how to make things easier to do.

If you want to drive a nail, you use a hammer. If you want to remember something over and over again, you can use a checklist. There are plenty of tools and methodologies that help you do something. Writing lets you store information outside of your head.

That’s pretty neat.

When I was in high school, I would take a lot of notes that I would never review. If I stopped taking notes, I wouldn’t do as well in the subject. Some people I knew would take notes, review them like crazy, do everything you’re supposed to do, and it wouldn’t make a difference either way with regards to their grades.

There are tricks that don’t work for everyone. Dieting fads, communication tips, productivity hacks. Taking notes or planning methodologies. What gives?

I think a lot of the answer is that those methodologies aren’t tools in the same sense that a screwdriver is.

A screwdriver works so long as you apply pressure and turn it correctly. It’s a straightforward motor action that pretty much everyone can do.

Things like note-taking are different. Everyone can write, but there seems to be something that happens in addition to writing that makes the note-taking actually important. I think for me, I think note taking was valuable mostly because it led to me prioritizing, rephrasing, and somewhat organizing information. The process of compressing what the teacher said and deciding how it fit in with my indentation scheme made my brain go through mental steps that helped me internalize things. Reading the notes could remind me of things, but the actual learning process was just taking the notes to begin with.

Note that this doesn’t automatically happen when people take notes. Just writing down what’s said doesn’t necessarily entail going through the mental operations that make you learn something.

For me, writing notes was a way of focusing my attention in a way that made me learn. It’s importance was as a focus, rather than a tool. Tools can be passed around and used by different people, but foci can’t necessarily.

As another example…

A friend of mine hired a life coach to help her with her life. As the session went on, she decided that the coach wasn’t very helpful, and was annoyed at her for not giving good advice.

Then she noticed that she had an implicit idea of what sorts of advice and changes she wanted to have happen, even though the coach didn’t suggest or mention any of it.

By paying the coach, she created the expectation that her life would get better. Then her brain paid attention to how her life could be improved, even as the coach didn’t tell her anything new.

Paying a life coach worked as a focus for figuring out what she wanted.


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An easy way to get more excited

I just spent some time writing lists of 10 things about a particular subject. It’s surprisingly fun.

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A Part of Stoicism I Didn’t Get Before

A decent summary of Stoicism is the art of not being pathetic. Pathetic in the sense of filled with Pathos, where Pathos means reactive emotion in which you feel things in response to what happens to you, but don’t respond to it.

Feeling bad and not doing anything about it or changing what you think about anything is pathetic.

A suggested method for doing so is getting a better idea of what you can and can’t control, and focusing on just the things you can control.

So I’ve been becoming less pathetic for the past two years or so. I was already pretty good at staying calm, and I got better at being calmer about roughly everything. Becoming less obsessive, spending less time anxious or worried, etc. Not being worried about people getting in car accidents on the way home and whatnot. Not going in mental loops about what people say to me.

I’m pretty happy with the changes, but I’ve recently started to notice that there’s something that I’ve been leaving out.

You can be less pathetic by taking control of more things.

For a while, whenever it’s been unclear whether or not particular things were in my control or not, I’ve opted towards thinking that it’s not in my control, then worrying less about it.

This pretty much totally sucks.

A lot of culture makes it very easy to not take responsibility for things that you weren’t given responsibility for. Which is all fine and dandy if you’re trying to avoid being blamed, but totally useless if you actually care about anything happening.

So in grey zones, I should tend much towards thinking that I can and should do something about it, and more importantly, towards feeling something about it.

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Feet pounding
Pushing the Earth away

Toes cradle the ground
That thighs, grunting, push away
An orchestra of tendons

Exalt, for though you’re on a field
A pale imitation of a Savannah
Though your game ends not in death, but catching
And though you eat whether or not you succeed

The drive remains, pure, but attenuated
Weakened by underuse
The joy of running
The celebration that is chasing

Feeling the power
And the fit
And life

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Quests, GP, and XP

I’ve started framing lots of things based on RPGs recently, and I’ve found a really easy way to think about my goals and actions.

Quests, GP, and XP.

Quests are attempts to accomplish something that I care about.  They directly move the world into a more preferable state. Slay the dragon, move to San Francisco, whatever. Quests have goals, endpoints, and take place in a larger campaign and story. Pretty straightforward.

GP normally stands for Gold Pieces, but I use it as a stand-in for the more general category of fungible resources.

Fungibility is the property of being able to substitute one for another. One dollar is as good as any other dollar. Oil of a particular grade is fungible. Grains of corn are fungible. Lovingly prepared meals are less fungible.

Fungibility is the externalized superpower that lets you turn typing into having a house, via money.

Fungible resources are things which are useful for accomplishing things, but most uniquely, they’re useful for accomplishing a range of things. You can turn a dollar into a lot of things, and having fungible resources gives you flexibility. $800 in the bank can be running away to China money, a bunch of meals, a laptop, etc. Having it in the bank rather than as any of those objects is pretty cool, because it means that if I suddenly need $800 of stuff to happen, I can just buy it.

XP stands for experience points. They build your skills up, and make you more capable. 

Skills are generative. You can’t trade skills for anything in the way you can trade GP, and getting more skills doesn’t directly change world the way that quests do.

Skills need to be used in order to change things, and are kind of like fungible quests. They’re able to be used in a variety of situations to improve the world in some particular way. Like GP, they’re useless on they’re own, but awesome when used. Unlike GP, your skills don’t get depleted as you use them.

XP is weirder than GP and Quests. You kind of need to be connecting yourself to the world around you in a way that’s different from the way you do with GP or in Quests. If two different people did the same physical things, then they would complete the same quests. If two different people get the same GP, then they have the same spending power.

But it’s not like that for XP. Two different people can be accomplishing the exact same object level tasks, and getting different amounts of XP for it, and even getting XP in different skills.

One easy way to get more XP is to push your comfort zone. Doing easy tasks won’t get you nearly as much XP as doing harder ones.  Most videogames get this right. What not all of them seem to do though, is reflect the fact that you can get XP for failing at things too. So long as you’re changed and build skills by what you’re doing, you’re getting XP.

Games don’t really reflect that you can also change what XP you get by changing what you pay attention to. This deserves a longer post.

So yeah. To level up, go out of your comfort zone and pay attention. This ending is kind of lame, but if people are interested I’ll continue the train of thought.

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Know what you’re trying to satisfy

Yesterday I ate waaay more food than I needed to because I felt like eating.

Weird thing is, I knew that I was pretty much full. I didn’t want more of any particular food, I just had this lurking idea that I should be eating.

In the spirit of doing whatever seems like a good idea and paying attention, I ate a bunch. Today I don’t want that much food, but I still feel like eating. What gives?

I decided to see if I had some micronutrient deficiencies. So I ate some raw frozen beef liver.

Much better now.

Anyway, both micro and macro nutrient deficiencies make me want to eat, but knowing what I’m trying to satisfy is helps a lot with just directly getting it.

Living in a body is interesting. I think I’ll have some more liver now.

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Being a Good Person vs. Doing Good Things

“What is to virtue as hedons are to hedonism?”


For most of my life, I’ve been trying to be a good person.

I think that in practice this often turns out to be different than doing good things.

When I try to be a good person, I compare myself to a prototypical image of a “good person”, and then feel gulity or shameful to the extent that I am not him. Actions arise out of a desire to avoid guilt/shame, rather than out of wanting to do what I’m doing.

This ends up with me putting lots of effort into cleaning things up and feeling bad about myself, and much less into actually moving the world forward.

I spend time on apologies, but not on having fun with my friends. Bandaging relationships, but not raising people up.

I don’t think you should construct moral systems that way. Righting wrongs is important, but you need to actually do anything ever, and you want to have your whole being behind it. Going for gains rather than avoiding losses is important.

A major weakness with trying to be a good person is where the idea of “good person” comes from. In most cases, it’s a mix of feeling icky or guilty about various things, and what people praise or admonish you for.

This lets lots of things leak in.

Terminally valuing praise and avoiding criticism makes you optimize for other people’s reactions, not good outcomes. To the extent that people are ignorant or selfish, this makes actually trying to do good things difficult.

It opens you up to letting anyone make you feel guilty. Then guilt leads to inhibition, and inhibition leads do inaction. Breaking through it is hard.

There are some situations where people will be annoyed no matter what you do.

If what you called good did actually lead to good things happening, then trying to be a good person could work. If you say, went through history and autobiographies to figure out what sorts of thought processes people who moved the world forward used, then called those good, things could work.

People almost never do that, and often some of the steps to making good things happen aren’t labeled as things that good people do.


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