Almost everyone I know is lost about what they want (and is coping by adopting the goals of others)
This is going to be a bit of a ramble for now.
Almost everyone I know, myself included, is either lost about knowing what they want, or is denying that they are…
Sometimes I find myself caught in a frame that leads me to wonder "What can I do to please that person (so that I can get the thing that they gatekeep)?", "How do I get this person to do the thing that I want them to do?", and "Do they think I'm doing the right thing?" — To be in validation-seeking mode.
And, well, of course this mode is going to induce an anxious state: I'm trying to fit into someone else's value system!— I've appointed them as the judge of my success.
But there's another frame of "How do I feel about the thing that I did?", "How does it fit into my value system?", and "Do I think I'm doing the right thing?" — To be in touch with what I want. To accept that I have my own goals, and to feel safe enough to disregard goals that I've acquired from others.
And if I think that I did the right thing there, then that's that and there's not so much to be anxious about. The other person and I just have value systems that are different, that's all; this is very common so it's no surprise that there's disagreement.
But sometimes we don't feel safe enough to accept our 'own-goalness'. And when this is the case, we often fall back on validation-seeking mode.
However, relying on the outside world for validation and checking that you're on the right path can lead to all sorts of problems. Those who cannot stand to be disliked others are not free individuals.
Feedback from others, like all gradients of extrinsic motivation and direction, cannot cause us to know what we want. They cannot cause us to become aligned with ourselves. They can't even cause us to become fundamentally good friends, parents, or lovers. ("One cannot 'gradient descent' from finite play to infinite play".)
Even if you're rightfully defending your boundaries, others will call you an asshole.
Even if you do parenting 'right', your kids will tell you off.
And if you do everything your partner says they want you to do, you will lose both your path and your partner!
(We also aren't going to create aligned AI through reinforcement learning.)
So we cannot decide how to grow by merely taking feedback from others.
(The alternative is pickup artistry, by the way.)
Someone else's ideal you is not your ideal you. And others will invariably shape the incentive landscape to cause you to get closer to who they want you to be. And it will be extrinsically rewarding for you to follow that incentive gradient. Besides, when you don't know who you want to be, what else is there for you to do? So you follow the gradient of prestige, or money, or whatever.
(Note: I think this is what enables a lot of self-coercion that I've seen. (Particularly in EA.))
Again: The extrinsic motivation gradients of the outside world aren't going to cause your enlightenment. (I mean this figuratively, but also literally: the Buddha sat under a tree, with no external inputs(!?), and did it all by himself!)
My worry is that when we don't know what we want, we fall back on acting out what others want us to do. At my university I felt like many, many of my peers were tech-job-maxing for uninteresting reasons. It seemed like they were merely money-maxing. And while I respect this more now than I did then, it's still not inspiring.
but you're your own person! you can accept your own-goalness! you can honor your intrinsic motivations!
When I left my first full-time job earlier this year, my attention immediately jumped towards finding a similar role at similar organizations. This is despite the fact that I knew that I didn't like that kind of work in general, and so I probably wouldn't like the other jobs either! But I didn't at all know what I wanted, and I also didn't know what else to do, so I defaulted to trying to do the thing that others wanted me to do. But even though I knew I probably wouldn't like the other jobs, I still sought them out and just barely avoided taking one of them! Instead, I was incredibly fortunate to both have caring friends who nudged me towards down a different path, and the security to follow that path.
I once read a book called The Way of the Superior Man, which details one man's take on masculinity, femininity, and how they interact. The first time I read the book a few years ago I took lengthy, detailed, object-level-pickup-artistry-esque notes. (Clearly I was most oriented towards validation-seeking at this point.)
I reread the beginning of the book a few months ago, however, and I realized that the first 15 chapters were entirely repetitive of the following:
you have strong internal senses/feelings/intuitions
you will feel better the more you listen to them
and that was all! The first fifteen chapters are just the first fifteen natural consequences of paying close attention to your internal senses (in the context of masculinity, at least). Nevermind the specific prescriptions of what to do in specific situations, nevermind trying to predict what actions other people want you to take so they'll like you more— instead, just feel what's already there inside you!
And I think this applies here too. Pay attention to what you naturally pay attention to— regardless of outside forces of extrinsic motivation… (And avoid the extrinsic motivations for a while if you can.)
But if it were that easy we wouldn't get stuck would we. Instead, it can feel unsafe to accept own-goalness. It can feel unsafe to actually feel what we might want (and might not want). So we dissociate from our feelings and intrinsic motivations instead. And that's very interesting!
But why does that occur? Well, I will leave this as a meditation for the reader.
Secondly, we also need space and slack and willingness to do this kind of exploration. The volume on extrinsic motivations from the outside world is way cranked up (to compensate for their lack of ability to satisfy, I imagine), so we often need to get away from them to once again become receptive to our subtler internal senses.
In my case, in retrospect it seems I needed to deliberately decide to 'do nothing' for a while. I moved somewhere quiet, declined almost all opportunities I was offered, and spent the plurality of my attention in May and June shedding goals and value systems that I had picked up from elsewhere. (Or rather: I put myself in a position where I felt safe enough to question them.) And after some July obligations (where at least one of which was a mistake for the reasons outlined above), I am returning to this in the present.
To be clear: I'm also not saying that you need to have a grand purpose, or a big plan, or everything figured out. All I've gained so far is a little more trust in my intuitions, a little more access to knowing what feels interesting to me and what doesn't, and a little less self-deceit about climbing gradients of extrinsic motivations.
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So that's my ramble.
We cannot decide how to grow by merely taking feedback from others.
Beware using feedback, goals, and value systems from others as a way to cope with not getting closer to feeling your own intrinsic motivations and what you want.