I recently finished the Replacing Guilt series (by Nate Soares).
I don't struggle much with guilt. I consider myself a happy and energetic person. I also spent several years studying psychology, and I'm familiar with many techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy.
So I was surprised by how impressed I was with Replacing Guilt. Elegant writing, memorable stories, useful advice, and dark humor.
There are few things I would put in the category of "pretty much everyone I know should spend 5 minutes reading this to see if it might be helpful, and at least 20% of them should keep going." I feel this way about Replacing Guilt.
As I read, I wrote a few sentences summarizing each post. I mostly did this to improve my own comprehension/memory.
You should treat the summaries as "here's what Akash took away from this post" as opposed to "here's an actual summary of what Nate said."
Note that the summaries are not meant to replace the posts-- in fact, they're intended to get you to read the posts (especially the ones that seem interesting, though I recommend starting from the beginning).
Here are my notes on each post, in order. I've also posted a tier-list.
Half-assing it with everything you’ve got
- You can try really hard to produce a low-quality or medium-quality outcome. You can put in your all to reach a B-, or to be in 17th place at the end of the race.
- If you wanted to go to sleep at 12AM, and it’s 12:15AM, don’t be like “ah well, I failed.” You can try to get as close to your goal as possible, even if you don’t fully achieve it.
- We do not have full access to the external world, but we also do not have full access to our internal worlds. We can, in fact, care about the real world, other people, and things that happen outside of our minds.
You’re allowed to fight for something
- We can convert listless guilt (which is vague and general) into specific guilt (which is about a particular thing). One way to do this is by looking out at the world and seeing things that are bad and being like “I want the world to be different”
Caring about something larger than yourself
- Sometimes, our feelings are are in conflict with our quiet aesthetics (values, virtues, deeper beliefs). It can be useful to notice this and then figure out how we want to resolve these conflicts. For some people, this means embracing the aesthetics and recognizing that there are some feelings that are evolutionary artifacts that we don’t actually care about.
You don’t get to know what you’re fighting for
- It is really really hard to really know what we care about. But sometimes the world is in such a bad place that we don’t need to (because there are some obvious atrocities that we would like to mitigate or prevent).
- When we use the word “should”, we make one choice seem like the option that makes us a good person and one option seem like negative infinity. Instead of saying “I should read more”, I will feel less guilty and be better at making trade-offs if I say “If I read more, I will know more about the world and be more able to contribute to AIS discussions. (Did you notice the meta move there? hehe.)
- The best way to make decisions is to evaluate your options and figure out what is best. “Should” is a label that can only be applied retrospectively, after you have decided what is best. Additionally, some charity will be lost when some people give up their “shoulds”. But most people will actually do more good by rejecting their “shoulds”— most people actually want to help others, and tapping into this motivation is stronger and more sustainable.
- When people think about what they “should” do, they think about boring, draining, impossible, and unsustainable things. But real “shoulds” feel less like obligations and more like opportunities. When you find the things you actually “should” do, they feel like a privilege— they feel like how the hell would I not do this, of course this is the right move, screw the rules I’m doing what’s right!
Working yourself ragged is not a virtue
- The goal is not to maximize your productivity today, but rather to maximize your productivity over the long-term. We will not maximize productivity in the long-run if we work ourselves to exhaustion each day. Spending effort is not a virtue; in fact, spending effort is costly, and we will be more productive in the long-run if we are thoughtful about how we use it.
- People sometimes think that their ideal state would be one in which all the tasks are done and they are finally able to rest. This is wrong in two ways. First, the tasks will never be done— there will always be more to do. Second, we would not actually be content if there was nothing to do— the ideal default state is not a state in which there is nothing to do. It is a state in which we are doing things that we want to do at a steady, sustainable pace.
- Describes three tools.
- Refinement: Turns listless guilt into specific guilt. When you have vague/general guilt, ask what it wanted you to do instead. Sometimes the guilt goes away. Sometimes it gets more targeted/specific (which is a success!)
- Internalization: Gets rid of “shoulds.” Ask yourself whether it would be OK to drop the obligation entirely.
- Realism: Turns guilt around a specific action to guilt around a pattern of behavior. Ask if the guilt is realistic. Ask if you are moving effectively through the streams that you want to be moving through (not if you were moving as fast as you physically could in a given moment).
- Guilt is like a threat; it is useful when it doesn’t actually get activated. Guilt is working if you never do the thing you would feel guilty about (e.g., hurting a child, cheating on a partner). If you are regularly doing the thing (e.g., getting distracted by YouTube), don’t implement guilt— implement science. Figure out the conditions/triggers that lead you to YouTube and experiment with changing them. Rule out hypotheses until you find the correct one.
- There are “two types” of guilt: the feeling you get right after an event and the feeling you get for days/weeks afterward. The first one is useful— update immediately upon the suckerpunch. The second one is not useful— you do not need to continue to feel this lingering sense of regret.
- When you’re feeling guilty, imagine you have just arrived into this new body for the first time. Scan the body, notice patterns of behaviors that are serving this body well and patterns that are not serving it well. Identify the action that led to the guilt, identify the underlying pattern of behavior, and identify which patterns of thought/behavior could be altered to avoid this outcome in the future. This helps mitigate sunk-cost fallacy, in addition to helping you see your life from a fresh perspective.
- People sometimes feel bad about themselves for not doing something that they “could” have done. Often, they are imagining what they “could” have done if they had been wired differently— if they didn’t have any of the cognitive or behavioral or motivational limitations that are inherent to our circuitry. As if they had full control over their minds— as if they were gods.
- People sometimes think they have failed because they have failed to exert willpower. They start watching YouTube at 11:30PM, planning to sleep at 12AM, and they blame themselves for not being able to stop at 12AM. But the actual decision point was at 11:30PM, when they decided to start watching YouTube. We will not achieve our goals if we pretend we have infinite willpower. Sometimes, it’s helpful to see which decisions we would make if we assumed that we didn’t have any willpower.
- One way to cultivate self-compassion is to imagine that you have a child, and your child was placed in the same situation you were just in and made the same mistakes you just made. Two other points. First, self-compassion is not the same thing as pitying yourself or making excuses: you can feel compassion for yourself even while realizing you are performing below your expectations and recognizing that you are failing to achieve your goals. Second, you can remember that you are just a monkey, and you are a monkey that has been tasked with shaping the future.
- There is no magical stone buried deep inside people that determines their “goodness” or “badness.” We can understand someone who is pursuing goals that we don’t like, or who lacks certain skills, but there is no concrete meaning of someone being “bad.” If you find yourself thinking that you are “bad”, treat it like “shoulds”— be curious and investigate where this is coming from and find out what the underlying beliefs are. Remember that the goal is not to “be good”— the goal is to achieve your goals and shape the future.
- Quick summary so far. Step one: Abandon vague guilt or guilt that stems from “shoulds”. Shift to guilt about specific ways in which you are not achieving your goals or making the future the way you want it. Step Two: Remember that you are a monkey.
- People sometimes imagine that there is a “do nothing” state. But “doing nothing” is just as much of an action as everything else in the action space. See the world in terms of possible responses, and see “doing nothing’ as one of those many possible active responses.
- A common response to something awful happening is to explain it in such a way that makes it easier to handle (e.g., people are dying of poverty but at least it’s not my responsibility to help them). This is called tolerification. Reducing tolerification is useful for seeing the world more clearly and generating intrinsic motivation. To reduce tolerification, ask yourself “what if” questions— what if it was both true that my partner didn’t love me and that it was because I lacked important communication skills? What would I do then?
- We are sometimes faced with a choice between bad outcomes and worse outcomes. In these situations, we feel frustrated. Channel that frustration into looking for third alternatives and asking for help. But after that, if you still have to make a choice between “bad” and “worse”, choose bad. And choose it without without suffering over it.
- Some people get more or less grim depending on the state of the world. That’s not what grim-o-meters are for. Grim-o-meters help us on stuff immediately in front of us: raise the grim-o-meter when there is tough work ahead, and lower it when you are resting/recharging.
- One way of thinking about losing a bet is “aw man, I lost! The universe is so unfair.” Another way of thinking about losing a bet is “wow, there are other versions of me in the multiverse that benefitted, and I happen to be in the universe where I lost.” The latter way of thinking helps us accept reality and feel less frustrated.
- Do not ever give in to excuses, even when they are legitimate. Answer “I’m sorry. I was not good enough. I have learned an important lesson and I will do better next time” (if true). The temptation to list excuses makes it much harder to win. You will win more if you refuse to articulate excuses even when the excuses are reasonable explanations for what happened.
- Think about worst-case scenarios. Imagine them vividly and get a sense of how costly they are. When we don’t think about worst-case scenarios, they might feel infinitely costly. Even when they are very costly, they are finitely costly.
- When people see a beggar on the street, or a morbidly obese person, they feel guilt. This is a kind of guilt that people often reframe (oh, it’s okay to ignore the beggar, because I can do more with my money by donating it to people abroad). Don’t do this. Instead, feel the pain. Feel the injustice and suffering and guilt. And channel it into resolve— use it as fighting energy to make the world better. Use the pain as a reminder that there are problems that we still need to solve.
- Sometimes, when people search for the “right” choice, they are aiming for total victory. Batman is able to find solutions that save everyone, and we want to do the same thing. But we can’t save everyone. Billions of people are dying— we have already lost. The only thing we can do is search for the best action we have, not aim for total victory.
- Wow, the last few posts sure have been doomy/gloomy. The world is dark. Some people react to this by feeling a sense of meaningless— there’s so much going wrong, so why does anything I do matter? To respond to this, remember that the world is dark, but it is not empty. An empty universe does not fill us with despair; there are no creatures to care about. Our universe fills us with despair because there is so much that could be better. The world is dark, but it is not lost.
- In some contexts, like learning a new subject, you are Expected to Try Your Best. In other contexts, like teaching a subject to others, you are expected to perform. If you notice yourself in “I am trying my best mode”, consider reframing this. When we are Expected to Try Our Best, it is harder to solve problems and easier to fall into the trap of “oh well, at least I was trying my best” rather than “what does it take to win?” One helpful way to reframe this is to shift your attention from The Big Goal and instead direct it toward The Next Thing that Needs to Get Done.
- Consider spending a few weeks removing the word “try” from your vocabulary. Instead, replace it with concrete things you are doing. Instead of saying “I am trying to figure out the solution to the alignment problem”, say “I am staring at a computer screen wondering if I am going to get a sudden stroke of insight” or “I am trying to redefine this subproblem by looking at it from a new angle” or “I am writing a program that will help me test a particular hypothesis.”
- Before you make a decision, ask yourself, “what are obvious things that a reasonable person would do before making this decision?” Some examples of obvious things include “set a 5-min timer and brainstorm options”, “ask for help”, “what has helped me in the past”, and “what would make this easier?” Also consider asking yourself “wait a second, is this actually a terrible plan?”
- Sometimes, we respond to challenges by solving the problem;. Other times, we get defensive or nervous, and we flail. Notice the situations in which you are responding by flailing. Try to develop ways to respond more effectively. One example is having a checklist— “if I notice I’m flailing or waiting around unproductively, I will: 1) Say “Hmmm, I wonder what my options are”, 2) Ask clarifying questions, 3) Find a way to break the problem down into a smaller problem, 4) Ask for help…
- Sometimes, we are confident in our claims. Other times, we are confident in our reasoning processes. But even when we are not confident in our claims, or our reasoning, or anything else, we can still use our knowledge as best we can. We can be “confident all the way up” by recognizing where our models are flawed but moving forward anyways.
- Desperation (as Nate describes it) is about fighting for something with everything you have. Is there anything that could be threatened such that you would truly devote everything you had to protect it? Is there a hypothetical scenario in which you would go all out? If not, ask yourself why you are holding yourself back. If so, ask yourself if there’s anything you’re fighting for right now that might be worth approaching with a bit of desperation.
- Recklessness is about saying “I am going to throw myself at the best available path, even if it sucks. If it sucks, then hopefully a better path will appear, but I’m still going to go full speed ahead on the best available path.” Sometimes people are only able to commit strongly to things that they expect will work. But the odds of success don’t actually matter— what matters is finding the best available path, committing hard to it, and continuing to commit until/unless a better path shows up.
- Defiance is about having a “screw you” reflex to wrong and broken states of the world. Defiance is about seeing the dark world and saying “fuck this— I’m going to fix things.” You can still act patiently and deliberate over the best course of action when you are defying. But the choice is about how to defy— there is no choice about whether to defy the the broken world— that part is a reflex.
- We will not be measured for how hard we worked or how strong our justifications were. We will be measured by what actually happens. We will be measured by how our actions shaped the future.
Appreciate you summarising these resources! Still helping people years later :-)
Thank you for doing this - never thought I wanted this, but I definitely do! I also took notes but very messily, and it's so useful to have a summary (especially for people who haven't read it yet).
Love this summary <3. Would be awesome if more things like this existed (e.g., summaries of the R:AZ essays).
Your final parag hits especially deep:
I really like this sentence. I think it applies in many other scenarios beyond using "should." I have experienced plenty of unproductive perfectionism arising from a mistaken belief that the perfect option is good and everything else is terrible.
Thanks, I think this is really valuable!