Moving towards the hard parts

My last five posts have all been similar in structure:

All those posts followed a pattern: "Here's something that's sort of aversive. The aversion often prevents good outcomes, and you can cultivate a part of yourself that notices the feeling but experiences it as something pleasant rather than aversive."

This is a fairly generic pattern that you can use as a first step whenever you want to address a psychological bug. It's all well and good to decide to fix X, but most people don't get very far by forcing themselves to go through the motions of fixing X. Any plan that requires continuous expenditure of willpower is doomed! I expect most people can get a lot farther by first cultivating a part of themselves that enjoys all the steps towards fixing X, that flinches towards the opportunity to fix X. After cultivating this part of yourself, you still have to put in the effort, but it comes more easily.

Now, as is appropriate after seeing the same advice in five different guises, it's time to generalize.

The above pattern is about identifying something you want to change in yourself and then finding a way to enjoy the difficult part of fixing the problem. But you can cultivate this more generally! Once you can enjoy staring into learned blanknesses, and steering towards hard conversations, and listening to regrets, you can start to feel the pattern of Hard Things Worth Steering Towards, and install a part of yourself that moves towards those hard parts in general, for any problem.

Imagine noticing yourself circling the difficult part of a conversation, and feeling the impulse to redirect the conversation toward the hard parts.

Now imagine yourself noticing a regret and feeling irresistible curiosity about what lessons are contained within.

These noticings have something in common. You're encountering something that most humans don't do by default, and you're feeling yourself drawn to it.

So take that common impulse, and cultivate that.

Imagine you have a group of friends who have stereotyped you into a social role you dislike. You find yourself acting in ways you don't endorse when among this group of friends. Maybe you're meaner than you'd like, or meeker than you'd like, or you give into peer pressure and hate it. And yet, every time you fulfill their expectations, the expectations get stronger, and the rut gets deeper. This sounds like one of the hard parts! If you had a part of yourself that enjoyed moving towards the hard parts, how could you solve this problem?

Imagine you find yourself working late at your job. You don't care about the work, and your boss has warned you against burning out, but you're a little behind on this one project, and if you can just get this part of the project finished tonight, then you'll be able to work on that part of the project tomorrow, and then by the end of next week, if you work really hard, everything will be back under control — only, that's exactly what you said last week, and your work/life balance has been terrible pretty much since the day you started this job. You could solve the problem by just going home at five every day, but somehow there's always one more important thing to do, and you never manage to get home before dark. This sounds like one of the hard parts! If you had a part of yourself that enjoyed moving towards the hard parts, how could you solve this problem?

I see patterns like this everywhere. Most people can recognize the ruts they're in, they can see the social and mental chains that bind them there, but seeing isn't enough to free them. In my experience, many people deal with these problems via either denial or resignation. If instead you have a part of yourself that enjoys finding ways to break the pattern, that enjoys causing social disruption and paying upfront costs to escape bad outcomes, then for you, situations such as the above can only ever be temporary.

The trick is to have a part of yourself that sees the problem, sees how the solution involves going through a hard part (such as overcoming akrasia or going against the social grain), and enjoys the opportunity. And now we've come full circle: this is enjoying the feeling of agency, but at the level where you enjoy solving any problem that matches the pattern above.

Be careful, here — there are many bad ways to "move towards the hard parts." It's important to be able to distinguish between steering towards something that is difficult versus steering towards something that is painful. Remember the law of equal and opposite advice, and remember that some social costs exist for a reason.

But caveats aside, if you can get yourself to deeply enjoy finding paths that go straight through the hard parts of a problem, then many problems that stop others in their tracks will be no match for you.