Natural Hazard

It wouldn't be the road to hell if it wasn't paved in good intentions


Then and Now: Story arcs of the last 4 years

It's so much easier to connect the dots going backwards. I often need distance from events to appreciate and understand how their significance in "the grand scheme of things". This May I'll graduate from undergrad and I've been dwelling on the arcs that have spanned my university experience. Of the many different ways you could frame this story, I've chosen to share the one that's most been on my mind lately. It's an arc centered around my relationship to myself, and how that effects everything else in my life.

Act I: What will make me stronger?

My first year of university was marked with rapid transformation. Fall semester brought a easy course-load full of stuff I was already good at. Heading into the Spring semester, I was starting to get antsy. I didn't feel like I was being challenged. I wasn't spending a lot of time in flow). I didn't have a passive income business that took only 4 hours a week to maintain. I didn't have my ONE thing. I wasn't doing a lot of deliberate practice. This was especially concerning to me because at some point in high school I bought into this hyper-focused, so-good-they-can't-ignore-you, entrepreneurial vision as the way one had a good life.

So winter 2016-17 I buckled down and made some systems. In high school I consumed lots (10's? 100's?) of hours of AOC and Tim Ferriss podcasts, and had more productivity advice floating around in my head than I could ever need. I made systems for scheduling, selecting and scoping goals, doing weekly reflections, time tracking, morning workout and reading routines, you name it. To match that, I signed myself up for a heavy course load that everyone was telling me was going to be waaay too much work. I was also committed to many healthy looking policies like [never doing school work in the evening], [getting to bed on time], and [having no school work on the weekends].

There are many more details to how that all worked. They are boring. Perhaps the quickest way to get a sense of what my life was like that Spring is to look at a snapshot of my Google Calendar. Each week I sat down and planned out my next 7 days hour by hour, leaving my GCal looking like:


And then.... everything would go according to plan.

It's hard for me to overstate of fucking INSANE this felt! The subjective experience of that semester was that I had punched a hole through the matrix and learned how to bend reality to my will. I could just sit down, spec out a packed week worth of shit, and then just accomplish it all, almost exactly according to plan.

Another example of me then. I was starting to get paranoid that maybe the only reason I could execute so well was because of the structured environment of the university. This was a troubling thought, because of course I'm supposed to end up being a self-employed passive income auto-didactic free-spirited early-retiree bad-ass. So for the summer of 2017 I holed up in an AirBnB in Mexico City for a month with the plan to learn Java and Android dev, make a basic app, train parkour, and start blogging. The idea was that since I didn't know anyone in the whole city, I could just work with no distraction. A new environment with no old patterns to fall into.

And again, it turned out great! I kicked off every day with 4 hours of deep work on coding followed by a long lunch with leisurely reading, and then 2 hours of blogging in the afternoon. I stayed on schedule, made the app (it's shit), and learned a lot.

The story arc of strength continued through the next three semesters. I eased up a little bit on the rigidity of my scheduling, but I took on harder and harder course loads, was doing lots of other shit, and generally felt like I was killing it. Everything was going according to plan...

... Except for a few minor details. That Freshman Spring when I first hit the gas, once the weekends came I'd be in a foggy grey mood of impenetrably ambiguous "meh"ness. I knew I was working hard... but it didn't feel like I was overworking myself. Things were going great, right? Eventually I took the stance that these feelings and moods didn't mean anything, and that the best path forwards was to continue mastering systems and habits, such that even on slump days and mood swings, I could control how much I crashed. "They don't mean anything, they're just a part of life, and you just have to navigate around them."

That might have been the right conclusion for someone else, it was exactly the wrong one for me.

Act II: What is hurting me?

Fast forward to the middle of Spring Semester 2018, and things seem like they're going pretty well. I'm attacking the most packed workload yet, and am starting to think I'm pretty hot shit. Shit so hot I was contemplating dropping out and learning on my own for the next two years. (because drop outs are cool, right?)

However, as the semester was coming to an end I began to experience a Pervasive Feeling of Ambiguous Doom. My general response was, "Woah, this feels very important, also I don't have time to not be effective right now, so I'm going to pinky promise myself that I'll look into this as soon as the semester ends, but for now, batten down the hatches"

Luckily, I kept my word. The first crack appeared when reading this post by TurnTroat (over the past year or two he's been self-studying his way through the MIRI reading list and doing original AI safety research ). A seemingly innocuous post about statistics, but there was this little gem at the end (colors refer to personalities as given by this post):

I was living as if I were a white, but it's now clear I'm a blue-red who exhibits white traits mostly in pursuit of peace of mind. I no longer ask "how can I study most effectively?", but rather, "what does it feel like to be me right now, and how can I bring that into alignment with what I want to do?".

I was living as if I were a white, but it's now clear I'm a blue-red who exhibits white traits mostly in pursuit of peace of mind. I no longer ask "how can I study most effectively?", but rather, "what does it feel like to be me right now, and how can I bring that into alignment with what I want to do?".

This gave me the weird experience of both not really knowing what he meant, while also feeling like "Oh shit, this is exactly what's been happening with me." In the process of talking with TurnTroat about his newfound Redness, I managed to articulate/notice that I had systematically been training myself to disassociate from what it feels like to want things. Oops.

A previous girlfriend once asked "When you do work, why do you do it then as opposed to any other time?" My response was "I do work when it's time to do work." I was following The PlanTM. I was on a mission from God, if God was replaced with a cross between Cal Newport and Tim Ferriss. This wasn't just me insisting "do what you planned even if you don't feel like it". It was me having so completely removed the sense of wanting-to/not-wanting-to from the equation that I was incapable of using "what does and doesn't feel good" as a guide for my actions, making me incredibly reliant on the plan.

If talking to Turntroat was the first crack, going to a CFAR workshop in September 2018 was when the dome cracked open. I found and experienced a lot of fear and frustration that I had been ignoring for a long time. I saw how I was not only ignoring my wants, but all of my negative emotions full stop. I started to understand the pressures and meta-fears that had pushed me to disassociate from these feelings in the first place. I saw ways in which I was subtly pushing people away from me, out of fear of connection and rejection. Put another way, I gained a lot of traction on crucial blind spots relating to social and emotional issues. How exactly all of this got triggered is worthy of a whole separate post. In the mean time, here's a breadcrumb:

To figure out a strange plot, look at what happens, then ask who benefits.

CFAR kicked off a good year and a half worth of trying to freestyle, Follow My Heart, and rebuild connection and trust with myself. I transferred out of engineering to give myself more slack. I stopped planning out every week in advance. I spent more time with people, and journaled a lot. I ended up in relationship which has been going strong for over a year now, and my partner has been a huge source of goodness and growth in my life.

Act III: What will make me strong enough to address what is hurting me?

Recap: I had previously been using systems and goal-directedness to erase my own feelings and let my self-concept exert authoritarian control over me. Over this past year+ I've been giving myself more time and space to process my feelings, and a lot of pain dissolved just from giving myself that attention.

This was something I really needed to practice, because previously I would try to guilt feelings into going away by immediately spinning up a plan to fix the issue. It does seem essential that I spent lots of time just sitting with feelings, pain, worry, and the likes.

And the more I sat with that, the more I could discern when a worry or pain wasn't going to evaporate from just being acknowledged. Example: At one point this fall, I stopped work to try and figure out what was bothering me. Turned out I was worried about not knowing if I'd be able to get to NYC after I graduate. To resolve this further, I need to actually get a job offer.

Lot's of these little moments of, "Oh, I'm concerned about a legitimate challenge I'm facing" began to pop up, and I began to see that I'm going to have to do a lot more than just learn how to feel and express my feelings. You can't stoic your way into perfect bliss, nor can you gentle loving kindness your way into perfect bliss. Sometimes there are external things that aren't the way you want them, and you need to roll up your sleeves and try to change them.

So now this leaves me with the challenge of reconnecting with taking purposeful goal-driven action. When I entered Act II, I just sorta chucked everything that wasn't needed to not explode. It was too daunting a task to figure out what systems, frames, and mental models were helpful, and which were not. I'd built a lot of metis about getting things done, and as samzdat will tell you, metis isn't just the actions, but the worldview. Instead of thinking of my belief structures as an engine with some isolated parts needing replaced, a better metaphor might be my mind as an organism that needs to evolve.

Besides rediscovering my own schema for producing meaningful productivity, I'm also paying much more attention to figuring out what I value. There's secretly a whole other side arc of seeing ways that my values had been hijacked by various memes in the water supply. Reading lots of The Last Psychiatrist and samzdat were a big part of that.

... And all this leads to now! To tired to make a real conclusion. More or less things are same same. But different.