My non-coercive motivation origin story, as told by 20 year old me
(context: what follows is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote June 3, 2018, the summer after my Sophomore year of university. I'd recently noticed that I'd been spending the better part of a decade fucking up my capacity to feel and want (ya hate to see it). This piece was my self-diagnosis of the situation as I understood it then. If you see yourself in anything here, you might want to check out my internal conflict and non-coercion resources page.)
With some non-trivial frequency, I don't feel like doing much of anything. I feel nebulously "bad" and just want to curl up. There are many things that I do enjoy and that feel great, but when in a "funk", there is little to no propulsion gradient towards those things.
In middle school and high school, this very rarely happened. There were things to do, and I often moved towards them. 10th grade was the first time any sort of depressive episode popped up. I read tons in the vein of how our minds really work, and what it takes to actually make things happen in the world. A recurring theme was that you have to plan and be strategic to make things happen. Another vibe was "Do what you love and know why you do what you do." There was a very weird mix of "You can do anything" combined with "You can't just expect to be a rockstar".
Growing up, I saw a lot of people complaining about things, and it was unpleasant. Boy Scouts gave me a framework of "Suck it up princess". That evolved to "Do something about it or stop complaining." I really didn't like whinyness. From now looking back, that could have been a reaction to the social component of complaining. I was also becoming aware of mindfulness at this time. I was learning about intentionality, and being "in control", and that rung true with me, and excited me. I got the sense that "I" was being controlled by samskara, and the ultimate goal was moksha. Scouts was also my first taste of "How to make things happen." So when there was complaining, or wanting things to be some other way, there was a sense of, "Hey!!!! You can do something about this! Complaining won't change things, so don't complain, do something!" Which for many things I was dealing with, they were quite "doable". But I never formed a clear idea about what to do in circumstances where I had high uncertainty about how changeable something was.
I saw complaining, or wishing for something, to only serve the function of "Woe is me, give me attention/pity". I had huge success with tackling a lot of the things I might have otherwise complained about. This was me gaining competency. From the cycle of getting things improved, and not profiting from complaining, it lead to complaining being penalized, and even wistful thoughts being penalized. I was not equipped to handle HARD PROBLEMS. If it was something that gut feel said couldn't be done, then there was a dismantling of any loops that would keep it from returning to my mind.
Whenever a "funk" would come, I had no way of extracting information from it, and I didn't see it as something that I could change (freshman fall, that depression on mousetrap day, was TOTALLY being sad that [redacted] didn't like my jokes). My thoughts literally became (at the worst of times) "Given that I will never feel good again, what should I do?" This was the beginning of the much more intentional path of removing my feelings from my decision making process.
In the fall of freshman year, there was a profound realization that I was beating myself up every time I wasn't "perfectly rational". I was beating myself up and guilting myself about being human. About feeling bad when it would be nifty to not feel bad. Realizing that knocked my socks off. I had previously at times said, "Well whatever it is, i defs don't have a self esteem issue." I was literally shooting bad juju to myself for failure to meet a bullshit standard. A lot of it was related to social stuff. That was when I was most crushing on [redacted]. It's when I remember thinking, "Dude, you just need to play the game". Now, I might frame it as "I thought I shouldn't have to play that game". hhmmmmm, much can be learned from examining the things one shouldn't have to do. One thing that I was always beating myself up about was not finishing things. I had built an image of the "good person" as one who always finished what they started, and never let old passions die, and who's passions didn't fluctuate. There is much that is good in there, but the models I was using as emotional guides were too simplistic, and easily subject to creating impossible constraints. "Never quit" is at odds with "Admit when you're wrong and don't fall for sunk cost". I was also learning more about skill building, and I knew that certain skills would atrophy, and I knew that many skills took persistence to build and could not be "done on the fly". Overtime, I grew to see every atrophied skill, unattended passion, and unfinished project as evidence of betrayal. Of someone who was too weak to continue. Someone who wasn't smart enough to realize it was never worth it. Someone who was wasting time. I don't think I had the idea of "useful failures" yet.
Over freshman winter, I began a dedicated effort to become more focused. I had lofty goals and ideas, and I was beginning to think that the only way to get really amazing was through consistency and focus. So I wanted that. I did pretty good. Freshman spring was me saying, "I'm going to double down on XYZ classes and do the fuck out of them." And I did! For the first time in my life there was actually A LOT TO GET DONE. Stuff that had the weight of "needs to happen". So I made plans. I made pretty good plans. and I stuck to them. I could see the tangible difference between going at Getting the Stuff Done haphazardly versus with a plan and with focus. It was the first time I was taking the idea of literal in the moment focus seriously. It felt good. Especially in 15-112, I felt like I was learning and growing tremendously. I don't know if I would have admitted it then, but I think I became strongly emotionally converted to the ideology of "We are going to become strong, and we will throw tough problems at you and you will battle until you become great because FUCK YEAH YOU CAN!" During the week, things were fine. I was working hard, and it felt good. Then on Saturdays I would routinely collapse. I wouldn't know what to do. I didn't feel like doing much. I didn't need to do anything. I didn't have anything in sight that I could build towards. There was also that extra fear of the new magic gig I had at TGIF. For real, that was strong. I remember sitting on the bus, trying to come up with plausible face saving excuses for why I was going to quit, because I was so effected by the fear/anxiety of "not pulling through" and "not being good enough". It was weird. It might not have been that I thought I was doing a good job, it might have just been, "The idea that they would not find my efforts adequate." When I give it more thought, that feels like textbook impostor syndrome. Which is hilarious, because that's another things that I was like, "Yeah, I learned about that, not falling for it." So school had the weight of "need to do" and I long as I was working on that, things were fine. But otherwise things cracked around the edges. "What am I doing today to crush work?" became the end goal, not the means. (I wonder if it's hard for me to instrumentally value things, and not terminally)
With summer in Mexico City, my intent was "Can I do my own stuff with no framework? With no school at my back?" So I picked coding parkour and writing. That was a time period that was quite in line with my wants. They were all things I liked, but it was still very much, "Moment to moment I'm following the plan." I can't remember what it felt like to live in Mexico. I don't think there was any "What the fuck am i doing here?" There was fear and push back around social things, and it was stuff that I ignored and pushed to the side. I genuinely enjoyed the life style i was living in Mexico. I do remember wishing that there was more people time. I missed that. But it was a format I dug. So there was evidence of a very focused style that produced great enjoyment. Man, those lunch times were good ☺ I enjoy focus and intensity. I'm pretty sure that almost every day I woke up and was emotionally on-board with getting to work. I liked not having to do that much deciding. It was simple to follow. Work out, shower, start coding. It was always clear what I was doing. I was working towards something. Reading and writing was mostly a "what I feel like" basis. Though I think I tried to always stick with posts once I started them. It was also all very new. I hadn't done much coding. I hadn't written much. This was another period of "Holy shit, I can do this!"
Somewhere along the way i got the idea of, "You can only safely ignore things If you can successfully launch them into the future and be confident they will get resolved." (that dates to GTD mind like water, and was written in a notebook on gap). I remember winter system design I was mainly concerned with following up on interesting ideas. I wasn't thinking much about following up on worries, doubts, or crises of faith. Taylor Pearson's optionality post came in as well, about reassessment of paths. A thing I might not have been thinking about was that "something being wrong" is probably first sensed by System 1 stuff, and given my state, that mainly expressed itself as "funk". A core repeated ideas was that funk contains no information, so the best I can do is make it so that I don't get destabilized, and minimize funk time. I'm pretty sure that Sophomore fall I noted there was less funk than the spring. So while I was considering the "Make sure things don't go unresolved" I was neglecting one of my highest bandwidth channels of unresolved issues. There is a pattern of, "I have a fleeting thought of what I'm feeling (I'm dumb), but clearly that's silly, so no, of course I don't think that". It is one thing to be able to say that there's "no reason" to not love yourself. It's another to feel on multiple levels an actual love for yourself. There's a lot of "There's no way I'm that stupid"
I'm now in a place where I have neglected both a lot of my feelings, and a lot of my wanting abilities. I have spent many of the years not endorsing wanting things, and a year + of systematically deciding what to do based on "What's the plan?" What's the plan does a decent job of making cool things happen, but I can imagine a life where I have a much more powerful gut sense, and a more intelligent aligned wanting system. Even if I don't go day to day based on wanting, I need to open up a channel of communication with myself. At the very least, I need to grow such that every Saturday is not collapsing into amorphous funk that I can't decipher.
The last week was rough, partially because I forgot what problem i was trying to solve. I had set myself the "Only do things that I feel like doing" intent. Really, my point was that I needed to rebuild by wanting ability. Yes, part of that might be, "Spend a chunk of time only doing stuff if you feel like it." But after a bit of that not showing improvements, try something else. There was a hidden sickening feeling of being stuck to a script. "Shit, I guess I've got to sit in this misery puddle because I'm only allowed to do what I feel like".