Category Archives: Ramblings

Charging the Self-Trust Battery

In my post last month on Authentic Service and Self-Improvement, one of the aspects of the model I presented was security. This is what I had to say:

It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.

Over the past month, as I have attempted to live out this philosophy, I have found this part… difficult. It feels, on a normal day, like I am secure; I rest my self-image on firm foundations, and approach the world with confidence. But this security is an illusion. It is easy for something seemingly trivial to upend this confidence and leave me insecure, unsure, and alone.

At the company where I work, we use the metaphor of a trust battery for dealing with other people, but it works just as well when applied to the self. Unsurprisingly, my trust battery with myself is very low. I still get through life just fine most of the time because I can draw power from external sources: praise and affirmation from other people, my position at my workplace, my possessions. But when these are stripped away, or even merely threatened, I have no personal trust battery to fall back on, and I become lost.

For a lot of people, their self-trust is anchored in a permanent, intimate relationship of some kind, either with a god or with another human being. These relationships, while technically external, provide a base of unconditional acceptance that allows an actual self-trust battery to grow. They act both as anchor and as safety net. It’s nice work if you can get it, but it’s not for everyone.

If you are single, and an atheist, then you have no such relationship to rely on. Without a base of unconditional acceptance, you may try to charge your trust battery on conditional social acceptance, but you can’t actually do that. As long as the juice is flowing you feel fine, but one misstep and your acceptance is revoked. It’s only when the energy stops that you realize your battery is still nearly empty. This is obviously fragile, but also severely limiting: it is the people who feel comfortable defying convention once in a while who are able to change the world. When your power comes from conditional acceptance, you quickly learn a Pavlovian fear response to not fitting in, and it becomes even harder to deviate.

Charging a self-trust battery ex nihilo is hard. It requires discipline, so that you can trust your behaviour, and brutal self-honesty, so that you can trust your mind. It requires a deep commitment to values over emotions, and most importantly it requires a core belief that charging the battery is important. That the strange and beautiful kind of zen which results from a full battery is a state worth achieving. That before you can trust the universe, you must first trust yourself.

Even with all of these things, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of running on conditional acceptance. It’s right there, the quick win, the shortcut, the bad habit. If charging your battery is hard, then remembering that it needs charging is harder. But if you don’t then one of these days a storm will isolate you, and you’ll be left without power at all.

We all have to weather the occasional storm. Do it with the lights on.

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Good Faith

Scott Alexander recently wrote:

If you just lack that fundamental understanding that people really thinking different from you is possible, then every time someone does something you wouldn’t, you’re going to interpret it as you + secretly evil. 

The number of people in the world who are actually secretly evil is so tiny it can basically be ignored. The number of people who think differently, have had different life experiences, or otherwise don’t understand and value the world like you do is enormous (pretty much 100%). Please don’t mistake the latter for the former.

When you see the world differently from somebody, you have to ASSUME GOOD FAITH. This is not a “withholding judgment” thing that “well, maybe they’re not actually evil”. Assume they’re just not evil, and you will be surprised to find yourself proven right. Good faith leads to good debate, which leads to good understanding, which leads to the dark light side.

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All My Childhood Heroes

It is perhaps ironic that, with all the crazy things going on in the world this year, the thing that has most shaken my faith in humanity is the news of yet another messy Hollywood divorce. It wasn’t even high-profile or particularly tabloid-worthy; if it hadn’t been for Google News’ creepily detailed knowledge of my tastes I might not even have found out (edit: it’s getting wider attention now, so I definitely would have found out, but anyway).

Why are all my childhood heroes terrible people?

It’s not like I have that many of them. I am a staunch believer in the fact that nobody’s perfect, and that getting caught up in hero-worship isn’t good for anyone involved. Even so, it is hard to avoid the occasional dalliance with the idea that a few chosen people must just be… special. Blessed by whatever gods that be with a magic touch, able to create or achieve magnificent things beyond the ken of mere mortals like myself.

Nor is it that I am indiscriminate in my tastes. Nobody is terribly surprised when a flaky reality TV star turns out to have cheated, or the Kardashians end up on the front of another tabloid paper. The culture of celebrity attracts narcissists like flies to honey, and the result is eminently predictable. Instead, my heroes have been people who achieved great things first, often repeatedly, before (if ever) being swamped by their fame. Indeed, retaining a sliver of normalcy and control over their personal life despite increasing fame is often one thing that endears me to them further.

And still.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind they do. Eventually, it seems, all of my heroes will be brought low in one way or another, and every time it happens my faith is shaken.


From the outside view, there are a couple of conclusions we can draw. First, that I am just generally terrible at judging people’s character. It doesn’t seem to matter how confident I am that you’re a good person, I’m probably wrong. I’m sorry.

Second, and more importantly, outward behaviour seems to be no guide to character (this would explain why I’m such a terrible judge). It doesn’t matter how many years of service, how many excellent speeches, how many awards won; inevitably it seems that the truth will out: people are scum all along. The longer their time in my good graces, the better they were at hiding and pretending to be something else, nothing more.

It is said that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps that is all that is going on here, but if so then I must ask a more difficult question: am I any better? My self-image believes strongly in my own moral character, but that is an inside view. Since at this point it seems no human being is immune to the corrupting influence of power, the outside view suggests that neither am I.

The moral question then becomes: would you rather be good, or strong?

Authentic Service and Self-Improvement

I have recently been making my way through the book “Principle-Centered Leadership”, by Stephen Covey, the same man who wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I am hesitant to say that it’s changed my life, as it’s only been a few weeks, I’m only fifty pages in, and I am generally suspicious of the whole self-help-book phenomenon in the first place. All that being said, if the ideas and habits that it have formed in me end up sticking I will be very impressed. Even if ninety percent of everything is crap, I guess that means there must be the occasional actually-helpful self-help book in existence.

The ideas in PCL are at once fairly straight-forward and fairly complicated. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) it very slowly, engaging each claim and suggestion one at a time and trying to synthesize out of it a model that makes sense for me. Basically, I’ve been doing the whole “put it in your own words” thing that teachers everywhere harp on in order to improve reading comprehension. It has obviously been slow going; this may be the slowest book I’ve ever read since I properly learned to read, as measured in pages per day. Even The Silmarillion didn’t take me this long.

At this point, exactly fifty-seven pages in, I have a model synthesized which is large enough now that I am going to lay it all out in a blog post before I forget. The intent here is absolutely just to organize my own thoughts on the subject and to serve as a reminder for tomorrow when I’ve already forgotten how neat this book seemed at the time. If it helps somebody else, then that’s just an added bonus.

I call my model the BAD SECS model; yes, it’s an acronym, and I will swear up and down that the letters came first. The words they happen to spell out are just humorous, ironic coincidence. The BAD SECS model actually splits into three stages, which should be followed fairly linearly. Master stage one before you even worry about what stage two is, and master stage two before you worry about stage three. The three stages are:

  1. knowing thyself (the “BAD” part of the acronym)
  2. knowing others (the “SEC” part of the acronym)
  3. serving humanity (the final “S”)

NB: The “three-step” approach and the single-blog-post format may lead some people to believe this is a “quick” or “easy” approach to self-improvement. It is not. It is both long and difficult. If you do not spend months of effort and learning on each stage, you are either doing it wrong, or you are Superman.

Stage One: Know Thyself, or The ABDs of Self-Improvement

The title here is not a typo: I do intend the “ABD”s not the “ABC”s. Like BAD SECS, the actual letters here were entirely accidental, but I really like the resulting pattern. It’s obviously memorable (there’s an ABCs of everything, but what else has an ABDs?) and the “negative space” left by the C actually ends up being important as a concept to avoid instead of focus on. As suggested by the title “know thyself”, the first stage focuses entirely on the self, on how we see ourselves, how we understand ourselves, and how we treat ourselves. This must come first, since without a proper grasp on our own beliefs and behaviours it is futile to try and deal with anything beyond ourself. The self is the foundation.

Without further ado, here are the ABDs:

  • Authenticity. Dig deep, and understand who you, as a person, really are. This step on its own can be difficult and scary, and you won’t necessarily like what you find. You don’t have to. The purpose here isn’t to judge or change. Just don’t hide from yourself or pretend to be someone you’re not. Live life as the person you are.
  • Belief. Beyond knowing who you are, it is important that you know what you believe, and accept that you have beliefs. This is by no means necessarily religious (I’m still an atheist). Everyone has beliefs and values, whether they be religious, feminist, rationalist, or something else. Again, the purpose isn’t to judge or change, just to accept. People lie to themselves about what they believe all the time because it would be inconvenient, or they’re afraid. Don’t hide from your beliefs.
  • Discipline. This one is borrowed straight from Covey, so I won’t say too much. I’ll just leave you a quote:

    The key to growth is to learn to make promises and to keep them.

    Before you can make promises to others, you must learn to keep the promises you make to yourself.

Before finishing this section, I would like to say a few words about the missing letter “C”, as I mentioned earlier. The C stands for control, and is not something you should be aiming for in the realm of personal growth. People often mistake discipline for control, and the English language is not particularly helpful in this regard. When faced with temptation, we talk about self-control. We control our temper, our passion, our selves. But control, also known as willpower, is a fleeting thing which may or may not be linked to glucose. Even the verb is telling: control is something we exercise.

Discipline, on the other hand, is a habit. Where normally a person might have to exercise control in order to resist having that second cookie, a disciplined person doesn’t have to. A disciplined person has fully internalized not just the immediate costs of eating the extra cookie, but the long-term risk that an extra cookie could become a habit. A disciplined person values themselves much more highly than a small quantity of sugar, so while their mouth may still salivate, they have no real desire to eat the cookie. This allows a disciplined person to save their willpower, and focus it on things that they believe are truly important.

Before I am accused of being no fun at all, I should also point out that discipline actually allows you to have more fun (and eat more extra cookies) than control. A person relying on control will eat the cookie whenever their control is insufficient; perhaps they are tired, or hungry, or stressed, and so their control slips. Even the best-controlled person has off days, and almost tautologically they can’t control when that happens. This leads to making mistakes when you can least afford it: when your systems are already running at a low point. A disciplined person, though, knows when and what they can handle. They are free to eat the extra cookie when they know that any negative impacts are small or non-existent; they know when the cost of the cookie is small enough to be outweighed by the pleasure it brings.

Stage Two: Know Others, or the Securities and Exchange Commission

I’ll be perfectly honest, the Securities and Exchange Commission has nothing to do with anything here, it’s just what I think of now whenever I see the letters SEC. Yes, I work at a company which recently went public, why do you ask?

Once you’ve mastered yourself, it is time to master how you interact and understand other people. Human beings are social animals, and how we interact with each other is the most important part of how we interact with the world in general. In this context the letters SEC stand for:

  • Security. Before you can interact with others, you must be secure in yourself. This flows directly from Authenticity and Belief in stage one, but is also more. It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.
    The extra layer of difficulty here is that you yourself are the most influential person who will try to change you. Everybody wants to fit in, and we are all under intense self-pressure to conform in one way or another. Even intensely counter-cultural groups have their own culture and standards of conformance. Be secure in who you are, and weigh conformance with all the other things you authentically value.
  • Empathy. This one gets talked about a lot already. It’s the ability to understand and feel how another person is feeling. Everybody can do it already, so it’s not difficult in that sense (unless you’re a literal psychopath), but people often forget. It’s important enough that it belongs in this list just as a reminder.
  • Compassion. This one also gets talked about a lot, often in the same breath as empathy, often mixing or confusing the two. I consider that a criminal waste of good language. Where empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions, compassion is a distinct emotion that you yourself feel towards others. Empathy often leads to compassion, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Without compassion, empathy is tool for manipulation. Without empathy, compassion flies blind and frequently does more harm than good.

As in stage one, there is a C-word here which comes up a lot but should be avoided. That word is confidence. Self-confidence and social confidence are some the most-talked-about ideas in self-help, and ninety percent of that conversation is about how to split the hair that divides confidence from arrogance. Any definition which needs that large a caveat is not worth using.

When you deal with others, do so with security. This is the smaller, inward-facing kernel of what normally gets mis-inflated into outward-facing confidence. When you deal with others, do so with empathy and compassion. These have nothing to do with confidence at all, but are still critically important. When you act and interact with security, empathy, and compassion, confidence will become irrelevant, and arrogance will seem like a different planet.

If you cannot act in this way reliably, step back. Build the authenticity to know who you are, the belief to know who you want to be, and the discipline to get there. There is no shame in taking this time. Try again.

Stage Three: To Serve Humanity

Again not really a direct relation to the point, but this is a truly excellent little sci-fi story.

Covey talks a great deal about service, and this is one of the things I had the most trouble understanding. He says:

The ethical person looks at every economic transaction as a test of his or her moral stewardship. That’s why humility is the mother of all other virtues – because it promotes stewardship. Then everything else that is good will work through you.

and

We achieve integrity through the dedication of ourselves to the selfless service of others.

Given that stage one included a focus on understanding oneself, and stage two included a focus on being secure in oneself, a sudden pivot to “selfless service” can be a bit hard to swallow.

I chose to resolve this tension by focusing on “selfless” not as a complete absence of self, or a subsumption to the needs of others, but instead as a balancing and alignment of values. Authenticity comes first, and if you cannot align your personal values with others in order to serve, you should not. However, this problem should be rare in actual practice, as most people in a culture tend to agree on most values, in broad strokes. We wouldn’t be able to live together if we couldn’t.

Instead, we expect to see at least a partial alignment of values. When you are secure in your authentic self, dealing with others with empathy and compassion, it is natural for service of a sort to come of this. People value each other, and when you master the first two stages it suddenly is both easy and desirable to serve. I call this authentic service.

Service that is not authentic in this way is what you get when you skip stages one and two. There are people who serve in order to feel fulfilled, or to lose themselves and give up responsibility for their own decisions. Their service may be valuable, but by sacrificing themselves in this way they are doing themselves a disservice.

Conclusion

It is tempting, after roughly two thousand words, to offer up some sort of witty conclusion like “Go have BAD SECS”! So tempting, in fact, that I snuck it into the previous sentence via a sort of meta-comment. But this topic is not something I feel comfortable actually concluding. This post hangs together as a semi-coherent framework for personal growth, but personal growth is not something that should stop. A framework is just a way of thinking, and as I grow my ways of thinking will change.

Another temptation, such as it is, is to leave a signpost for future me, a marker saying “I am here” so that, looking back from some future date, I will see how far I’ve come. But however linearly I may write out my ideas, the truth is always more complicated than that. BAD SECS is a set of principles by which one might live, not a list of tasks to be completed.

Whatever the end result, I am grateful to Stephen Covey for making me think.

Keep growing.