Thinking About Doing

Last week, I talked about the trap of confusing what you do with your meaning. I admit I don’t have too much insight on meaning:

I suspect we all have to create our own meaning… I don’t have an answer for the “why”. I just know that it’s not necessary to confuse “what you are doing” as your “why”. I think we can figure out what we should be doing without a “why”.

Marrying meaning and what you are doing is hard for many of us including me. One of the ways it can manifest is if you fall on an extreme end of the thinker-doer continuum.

  1. At one extreme, you are paralyzed by a lack of purpose and many choices. You spend so much time in your head trying to introspect your way out of the mud and clouds, instead of just setting even an arbitrary goal and seeing it through.
  2. On the other end, you are a whirlwind of activity, maybe even accomplishments, and find yourself in a crisis of self-rationalization because you can’t tie your output back to any sense of meaning.

Maybe the grass is greener, but I think #2 is a better place to be since purpose and meaning are elusive no matter where you are. I have made it clear that I’m in the camp of “get out of your head”. Instead, I recommend get unstuck and move.

So putting the “why” aside, and accepting that you need to get moving, let’s examine perspectives on what you should be doing.

Ways To Fail

How to spend your time is a question that many grapple with (if you don’t, consider yourself extremely lucky). The reason is that we must all balance our goals with what we enjoy doing. You’ve all heard the “follow your passion” advice and the backlash to it — “you become more interested in things you’re good at”. There’s also the parable of the old man who gets the kids to stop playing on his lawn by offering to pay them a dollar every day that they do play on the lawn. As human nature would have it — they predictably stop.

Ultimately, neither view is complete. The first advice fails to acknowledge the role of ability. The backlash underestimates the virtuous loop of working on things that interest you even while you are struggling. Eventually, everything gets hard so it’s beneficial if what you are doing naturally appeals to you.

When it comes to meta-questions about what you should do, there’s rarely a cut and dry answer so it’s more useful to identify the failure modes.

  1. Too Much Grit

    I’ve warned you about taking the idea of “grit” too seriously. Grit is important but at some point it’s counterproductive. If you have amusia, save yourself the grief of auditioning for American Idol. Sometimes “hard equal wrong”. One of the best takeaways from David Epstein’s Range is the importance of “match quality” and avoiding “premature optimization”. Cedric Chin illuminates that work in his passage The Trouble With Too Much Grit.

    If you bang your head against a wall long enough you might be doing the wrong thing. The need to be encouraging but realistic is tense. A recent warning I gave to aspirational option traders starts “if your goal is to become rich, the vol career is a bad strategy”. Sorry, I can’t make reality go away.

  2. The Competence Trap

    If you focus too much on what you are good at you can find yourself in what Scott Young calls a “competence trap”:

    If we see our engagement in professions and hobbies as a way of getting rewards (money, respect, achievement or just fun) for the time we invest, we can see how this can create a trap. As you get better at some things, the opportunity cost to learn something else increases. This funnels you into a narrower set of hobbies, passions and work than you might otherwise be capable of.

    Now there is nothing wrong with specialization. But here’s what I find interesting:

    One flaw of a positive feedback loop, is that it tends to exaggerate small differences. Have a really discouraging math teacher may push you off the path to learning more math permanently.

    Thus, I think our interests are artificially narrower than they could be. We could have more interesting hobbies, more diverse skills and more varied professional lives. True, some of the obstacles we face are cognitive—our talents lie elsewhere and so we build on our strengths—but much of the obstacles seem to be affective as well. We stay inside our boxes, not because we can’t climb out, but because we lose the curiosity to see what’s outside.

In Between The Failure Modes

In between those extreme mistakes of:

a) trying to be Michael Phelps when you’re built like Shrek


b) avoiding writing because you happen to be really good at coding

there’s a wide range of endeavors that we are suited for. Even though we have natural cognitive differences in intelligence and therefore learning rates, the larger barriers are what Young called affective. The word affective encompasses moodinterests, and motivation.

We are going to focus on the big muscle movement here: motivation.

I know what you’re thinking. “You said we were going to figure out what to do without a why or purpose”. Here Young offers us a view of motivation that sidesteps metaphysical questions. Motivation is driven by 3 basic psychological needs just like water satisfies the physical need of thirst.

Those needs are:

  • competence
  • autonomy
  • relatedness

They are best demonstrated by Young’s example:

So even if you had a natural interest in math, if you feel like you’re no good at it (competence), that doing poorly will result in others thinking less of you (relatedness) or you feel forced to do it for school (autonomy), it’s unsurprising that motivation plummets.

In contrast, if you felt like you were pretty good at math you might get reinforcement from the teacher and peers (relatedness), feelings of skill as you take on new challenges (competence), and you might even seek out to understand things yourself (autonomy). Your interest in math grows, just as it withers for the people who weren’t as lucky.

Why These Ideas Resonated With Me

I’ve been confused about what I’m doing for as long as I can remember. There are pockets of clarity, usually about the 2 feet in front of my face. But I just don’t own any religious or VC-influencer top-down visions of the world. So I think about our needs to belong (and I think our need to feel like we are contributing is part of that even if it’s not the ends in itself). So of course these topics, which make belonging easier, resonate.

  1. Match Quality

    It goes back to the idea of matching your talents to what you do. You will go further for the same level of effort if you get this right. The guidance counselor is looked down upon as a joke profession. If it is then it’s because of the people who occupy it not because of its function. Guiding children and teens’ minds strikes me as one of the highest leverage objectives of a society. The guidance counselor might be an impotent channel for this but the objective of matching potential to opportunity is both useful and merciful.

  2. Premature optimization

    This is the other side of the “match quality” coin. Parents should be careful how they label children because they listen and internalize — “he’s an athlete”, “she’s pretty”. Try to encourage children in ways where they don’t subtly hear another door closing. Like adults, children are prone to think in false binaries. You are a good writer OR good at math. You are good at drawing OR good at sports. The tradeoffs in how we treat kids are everywhere. Redshirt your child in kindergarten so they can be the oldest in the class, but then what happens when they are bored?

Think of all the possible things you could do with your time. When you come home from work, how small is that menu compared to the full conceivable set? It’s a hypothetical question, and it gnaws at my thinker side. It’s been helpful to keep in mind the idea that our motivations are a function of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The competence trap reminds us that our choices are wider than we think and as we debate what to do, our aptitude is only one consideration. There’s plenty of area under our natural limits to explore regardless of how low those limits might appear. If the prospective action fills up the buckets of autonomy and relatedness it can still be extremely worthy to pursue.

Ok, this got pretty long. Hopefully, this has expanded your horizon without ever needing to invoke purpose. If you have an answer to that one, well, you know where to reach me.

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