Sam Gentle.com

Self-empathy

It seems like a very strange phrase, self-empathy. Empathy is when you connect with someone's feelings or share their mental state. You, well... are yourself. How could you not experience self-empathy?

The problem is that we aren't only one self. Our future feelings aren't feelings: they're predictions. Our past feelings aren't feelings: they're memories. Who we are changes over time, and our mental state changes with mood, environment and situation. It's a little surprising that this adds up to any kind of self at all.

To connect with feelings that you don't feel right now is a particular skill. It's a skill you exercise when you decide whether to go to a party based on how you'll feel when you get there, or when you decide to relax or push yourself based on how you'll respond. It's also the skill you use to explain yourself to people, not as the you that you experience, but as the you that they experience.

Developing self-empathy takes a certain amount of distance. Understanding your feelings from the inside makes sense in the moment, but won't work later. You have to analyse those feelings while you're experiencing them to keep understanding even as your mental state changes.

On the other hand, it also requires kindness. It's sometimes tempting to believe that your past self was acting incomprehensibly because the emotions that made sense of their behaviour are gone. To develop self-empathy, you have to believe that your feelings were real, even when the only evidence is analysis that no longer feels true.

Distraction or diversion?

I've come to realise recently that a lot of the things I call distractions are really better thought of as diversions. Both are things that you do instead of what you intended. The difference is: why? What makes them more compelling than your original goal?

A distraction is compelling because it's different. You watch TV instead of studying because studying is hard and mentally taxing, while TV is easy and mindless. Or you chat with your friends, because studying is tedious and introverted, while chatting is stimulating and social. Distractions are strong in the ways your intended task is weak.

On the other hand, a diversion is compelling because it's the same. You read people's opinions because you like having opinions. You watch videos of DIY projects because you like DIY projects. You want to be doing those things, but seeing someone else do them is much easier. Diversions are strong in the ways your intended task is strong.

The reason this is a useful distinction to make is that the strategies for dealing with them are very different. For distractions, you need to make the thing you intend to do more compelling and everything else less compelling. If it's human contact you miss, study with a friend. If mindless stuff is too tempting, remove it from your environment when you need to study.

But none of that really works for diversions. Focusing on how much you love DIY projects makes you want to both do and watch DIY projects. The two are hard to tease apart: watching other people do a DIY project is often a crucial part of not screwing it up. The only reason it's even a problem is that watching feels so much like doing – without actually getting anything done.

And it's this last thing that I see as the right strategy for dealing with diversion. At its heart, a diversion is still an attempt to do the thing you really want to be doing, just in a way that doesn't work. It's a kind of motivational judo, and you can use that judo right back: if I'm screwing around because I really like something, wouldn't I rather just go do it?

Broken promises

There's a certain mode of being, I think of it as seeking, motivated not by the joy of the moment, or the satisfaction of achievement, but by the thrill of the chase.

It's easy to tell the difference: what happens on that fateful day when you finally get what you want? The hedonist says, "this is just like every day." The achiever says, "this is a wonderful day and I feel proud of what I have accomplished." The seeker says "yeah, good, okay... what now?"

I often feel this when I'm deciding what to buy, researching a broad topic, or surfing one of the internet's infinite waves of mild stimulation. Look at all these choices! What's this— ooh, wait, what's that? Just one more turn? One more click? What if number 7 really does surprise me? It's good, but never good enough. Close, but never quite there. So I keep seeking.

And you can see how the power of the chase was meant to help us stay motivated in pursuit of our dreams. It would be a rare gift to keep your faith in every tiny moment, to laugh at your frustration, to sing through your doubt, to live as if you were already free. Far more reliable to stop staring out at the distance, look down at your feet and just keep going.

Seeking is an abstraction: a concentration of meaning. Abstraction draws a big chalk line through the universe and says "stuff on this side you care about; stuff on that side is just details." So, seekers, what do we care about? "Doing!" And what is just details? "Why we're doing it!"

This makes seekers immensely valuable. You can motivate an achiever with promises of success, but you have to actually deliver or they'll stop doing what you want. The seeker doesn't care whether you deliver; it's the promise, not the success, that motivates them.

And so today we see such a wonderful flourishing of promise factories and promise farms, promise networks and promise feeds, all to cater to the seeker's insatiable appetites. All built on the abstraction they once entrusted with their dreams. All singing that same sweet song:

Just keep going.

Just keep going.

Just keep going.

The Mountain and Muhammad

The first time I saw him was at base camp. I had been preparing for months, of course. Ropes, axe, crampons, provisions, oxygen. He had... well, a jacket, at least. He looked like he was going for a winter stroll in the city. He asked if I was going to climb. I said yes. He said he'd catch up with me later. I laughed.

The second time was just as reality began to set in. The climb was difficult, yes, but it seemed manageable. Now, surrounded by ice, I wasn't so sure. Could I really make it? Startled from my rumination, I saw him walking towards me – down the mountain. I rubbed my eyes. He was still there. I asked what he was doing. He said he forgot something and needed to go back.

The third time, I had settled into a steady rhythm. I saw him at the end of a long valley. I was not surprised this time. He asked how I was going. I said fine. He said he admired my dedication. I said I admired his climbing ability. He laughed and said he wasn't a climber.

The fourth time, I was struggling up the sheer ice, a zombie powered by exhaustion. He was there, of course, resting on a nearby step. He asked if he could climb with me a while. I nodded. I wondered if he already knew as my foot slipped and the mountain fell away from me.

I felt it, then, in the creases of his hand. The mountain, aeons of rock and ice, worn and folded until it was no more substantial than paper. To me, it had seemed a forbidden monument, a tower reaching to the foundations of heaven. To him, it was a frosty staircase. He was looking at me. I stepped back onto the mountain. He smiled.

The fifth time, the last time, I was nearing the summit. It had seemed so far once, and so close now. How could these two feelings describe the same journey? He was standing just ahead of me. I asked if he was going to the summit. "What summit?" He asked.

I walked on, alone, the mountain shrinking beneath my feet.

Finishing School

I've noticed that it's easier for me to start things than to keep working on existing things, and much easier to do either of those than to finish things. In a sense, this is so obvious as to be boring: of course starting things is easier than finishing them! But, actually, why is that?

In a sense, it's actually pretty counterintuitive. If your life's passion is to fill jars with marbles, the first 50% of a jar is no harder than the last 50%. If you stop halfway through to start a new jar... well, first you'll need to find a new jar, which could be a hassle if the jar shop is closed. And even if you have a new jar all prepared, to fill it you'll need twice as many marbles as to fill the old jar. Even for a marble enthusiast, that's an embarrassingly poor cost/benefit ratio.

I think the first thing we can conclude is that most projects aren't like filling jars with marbles. So, how are they different?

One reason is complexity: for most projects, earlier decisions constrain later ones. Instead of jars of marbles, they're more like crossword puzzles. If you're not sure whether you're getting the words right, things get increasingly untenable as your errors stack up, and eventually it starts to seem like a really good idea to do something that isn't a crossword puzzle.

Another reason is attrition: a fixed chance of abandoning the project that compounds over time. Imagine that, with each marble you put in, you have a 1% chance of breaking the whole glass. In non-marble projects, that might be finding a problem with your approach that makes it unworkable, discovering a better solution, or that the situation that made the project worth doing has changed.

Or something a bit more self-sabotaging, like avoidance: you actually don't want to finish it. Maybe you're worried the thing won't be good enough, or you're afraid of being judged or criticised. It can be more comfortable to toil away on something in obscurity than summon the ego-courage to declare it finished. Who are you to bother the world with this new thing?

But my favourite is entanglement: not finishing something until you finish something else. I want to write something, and I have a project I'm working on, so why not kill two birds with one stone and write about the project! Genius. Except then the project takes longer than I expect and I don't write anything either. Also, have you ever tried to kill two birds with one stone? The physics alone is enough to justify treating that entire analogical lineage with suspicion.

So far we've been mostly looking at root causes of projects being easier to start than finish. Also worth examining are the chronic effects: habit and underdevelopment.

If you tend to not finish things, over time you'll build habits to enable not finishing things. Maybe you'll find coping strategies and workarounds to make it less costly, or develop an almost-sustainable pattern of anxious avoidance leading to last-minute panic excellence. Hypothetically speaking.

And the flip-side is that, even when you try to finish things, you probably don't really know how. Like anything else, finishing things is an ability that has to be developed. It has its own unique rhythm and skillset. I mean, it's not that difficult, but neither is chewing and you made a mess of that the first time you tried it.

It may be better to turn the problem on its head. Perhaps there are a thousand reasons why finishing things is hard, but those difficulties all thrive in the space created by a lack of ability. If you have a lot of practice finishing things; if you are used to the rhythm of it, and have built habits around it; then any factor that makes finishing difficult will have a lot more entrenched structure to push back against it.

So my conclusion is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to practice the art of finishing. Perhaps for me that looks like dusting off old abandoned projects and un-abandoning them, or splitting up large projects into a series of smaller projects that can be individually finished to boost my finish-per-start ratio.

Analysis is often an interesting exercise, but sometimes it's best to fall back on the simple principle that you get better at what you practice.