301: Do We Know What We Want?

This is the Monday Medley, a newsletter that goes out, you guessed it, every Monday. I republish it here for sharing and referencing, but if you'd like to sign up you can do so right here:

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Happy Monday!

Last week I published my notes on "Escape From Freedom" by Erich Fromm. Definitely recommend it.

I also recently spruced up my "Helpful Crypto Twitter" list for anyone looking to get more insight on what's going on in Cryptoland.

Alright, on to the Medley.

Do We Know What We Want?

A common theme here has been what do you do once you know you can make enough money to be comfortable? That’s a huge challenge in life to solve. But once you solve it, what then?

“Do what makes you happy” is insufficient. Taking mushrooms and watching movies makes me happy but it gets a little dull after a night or two.

One challenge is our blend of believed and revealed preferences, and the difficulty of untangling the truth between them. I say I want less screen time. But I also check Twitter right when I wake up. So which of me is telling the truth? It’s tempting to say “well you really don’t want screen time you just have bad habits” to which I say “what if I have good habits and bad guilt?” Maybe a few New York Times Bestselling Authors think you should lock your phone in a cage for three hours in the morning while you do kundalini yoga and sun your balls, but that’s just one idea of The Good Life.

Figuring out what we want to do is hard, which is why we let other people decide it for us. We pick some hero or neatly packaged belief set and then use that as the starting point for modeling our desires and behaviors around.

When you start to unpack these influences, and these believed vs. revealed preferences, it’s easy to lose your footing for what you really want. You can look at anything you think you want, any goal you’re aiming at, and ask yourself where that desire is coming from. Is it what you’re supposed to want? Is it what “a smart person would do in your situation”? Is it what your parents want? Is it prestige? Power? Security? Respect?

We like to believe we’re bushwacking our life path through the wilderness but we’re typically following some game trail, however faint it may be. So how can we choose the best path to follow?

One improvement that might help is focusing on specific decisions instead of individuals or philosophies. And within decisions, maybe we should focus on the decisions we most respect.

Every now and then you’ll hear about someone making some decision, and think to yourself “wow, that’s impressive.” Not for the outcome of the decision, but for the conviction it must have taken to make it. And because you feel on some level you would not have had the strength to make it yourself.

These decisions we respect are helpful guides for unearthing a deeper, emotional awareness about what we know we ought to do, but haven’t mustered up the courage to follow through on.

For a year or two before I stopped drinking, whenever I met someone else who had stopped, I would immediately feel a combination of jealousy and respect for them. The health and sleep benefits were a good motivation, but insufficient. That respect for others’ decisions was the strongest nudge that it was a change worth making for myself.

Another decision I respect and think about often is the story of Thales and the Olive Presses. In modern lingo, Thales was a thinkboi who wanted to sit around talking about philosophy all day. A bunch of people on Twitter called him a wordcel, so he said fuck you, predicted the weather, bought options on all the olive presses, and became incredibly wealthy in one year. Then he went back to tweeting fortune cookies.

Now, granted, maybe he just got lucky and this is a nice bit of narrative fallacy and survivorship bias. I’m sure plenty of philosophers tried to do something similar and ended up losing all their money. But it doesn’t matter. He could have started a bangin’ TikTok with videos on 10 SIMPLE TIPS TO PREDICT THE WEATHER FOR FUTURES TRADING but he didn’t. He went back to what he wanted to do, presumably with a lifetime supply of olive oil.

If he truly had divined some way of predicting the next year’s harvest, then he had unlocked an incredible means of generating wealth. But he didn’t care. Having proved the haters wrong and set himself up to be comfortable, he just wanted to go back to his writing. That’s the part I respect. Saying No.

But who knows, maybe I just respect that because that’s what you’re supposed to respect. How do we figure out what we really want anyway? Is there such a thing? Or is it just turtles all the way down of social influences pulling us into a maelstrom of desires, obfuscating any truth about what we truly deeply want?

I suppose that's why it's easier to let others decide for us.

Have a great week,

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