Note: It seems like great essays should go here and be fed through the standard LessWrong algorithm. There is possibly a copyright issue here, but we aren't making any money off it either. What follows is a full copy of "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace his 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College.

Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

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There's an amazing HN comment that I mention everytime someone links to this essay. It says don't do what the essay says, you'll make yourself depressed. Instead do something a bit different, and maybe even opposite.

Let's say for example you feel annoyed by the fat checkout lady. DFW advises you to step over your annoyance, imagine the checkout lady is caring for her sick husband, and so on. But that kind of approach to your own feelings will hurt you in the long run, and maybe even seriously hurt you. Instead, the right thing is to simply feel annoyed at the checkout lady. Let the feeling come and be heard. After it's heard, it'll be gone by itself soon enough.

Here's the whole comment, to save people the click:

DFW is perfect towards the end, when he talks about acceptance and awareness— the thesis ("This is water") is spot on. But the way he approaches it, as a question of choosing what to think, is fundamentally, tragically wrong.

To Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy folks call that focusing on cognition rather than experience. It's the classic fallacy of beginning meditators, who believe the secret lies in choosing what to think, or in fact choosing not to think at all. It makes rational sense as a way to approach suffering; "Thinking this way is causing me to suffer. I must change my thinking so that the suffering stops."

In fact, the fundamental tenet of mindfulness is that this is impossible. Not even the most enlightened guru on this planet can not think of an elephant. You cannot choose what to think, cannot choose what to feel, cannot choose not to suffer.

Actually, that is not completely true. You can, through training over a period of time, teach yourself to feel nothing at all. We have a special word to describe these people: depressed.

The "trick" to both Buddhist mindfulness and MBCT, and the cure for depression if such a thing exists, lies in accepting that we are as powerless over our thoughts and emotions as we are over our circumstances. My mind, the "master" DFW talks about, is part of the water. If I am angry that an SUV cut me off, I must experience anger. If I'm disgusted by the fat woman in front of me in the supermarket, I must experience disgust. When I am joyful, I must experience joy, and when I suffer, I must experience suffering. There is no other option but death or madness— the quiet madness that pervades most peoples' lives as they suffer day in and day out in their frantic quest to avoid suffering.

Experience. Awareness. Acceptance. Never thought— you can't be mindful by thinking about mindfulness, it's an oxymoron. You have to just feel it.

There's something indescribably heartbreaking in hearing him come so close to finding the cure, to miss it only by a hair, knowing what happens next.

[Full disclosure: My mother is a psychiatrist who dabbles in MBCT. It cured her depression, and mine.]

And another comment from a different person making the same point:

Much of what DFW believed about the world, about himself, about the nature of reality, ran counter to his own mental wellbeing and ultimately his own survival. Of the psychotherapies with proven efficacy, all seek to inculcate a mode of thinking in stark contrast to Wallace's.

In this piece and others, Wallace encourages a mindset that appears to me to actively induce alienation in the pursuit of deeper truth. I believe that to be deeply maladaptive. A large proportion of his words in this piece are spent describing that his instinctive reaction to the world around him is one of disgust and disdain.

Rather than seeking to transmute those feelings into more neutral or positive ones, he seeks to elevate himself above what he sees as his natural perspective. Rather than sit in his car and enjoy the coolness of his A/C or the feeling of the wheel against his skin or the patterns the sunlight makes on his dash, he abstracts, he retreats into his mind and an imagined world of possibilities. He describes engaging with other people, but it's inside his head, it's intellectualised and profoundly distant. Rather than seeing the person in the SUV in front as merely another human and seeking to accept them unconditionally, he seeks a fictionalised narrative that renders them palatable to him.

He may have had some sort of underlying chemical or structural problem that caused his depression, but we have no real evidence for that, we have no real evidence that such things exist. What we do know is that patterns of cognition that he advocated run contrary to the basic tenets of the treatment for depression with the best evidence base - CBT and it's variants.


You cannot choose what to think, cannot choose what to feel

we are as powerless over our thoughts and emotions as we are over our circumstances. My mind, the "master" DFW talks about, is part of the water. If I am angry that an SUV cut me off, I must experience anger. If I'm disgusted by the fat woman in front of me in the supermarket, I must experience disgust. When I am joyful, I must experience joy, and when I suffer, I must experience suffering.

I think I disagree with the first HN comment here. I personally find that my thoughts and actions have a significant influence over whether I am experiencing a positive or negative feeling. If I find that most times I go to the grocery store, I have profoundly negative thoughts about the people around me who are just doing normal things, probably I should figure out how to think more positively about the situation. Thinking positively isn't always possible, and in cases where you can't escape a negative feeling like sadness, sometimes it is best to accept the feeling and appreciate it for what it is. But I think it really is possible to transform your emotions through your thinking, rather than being helpless to a barrage of negative feelings.

Fascinating, thank you!

I think the reality here is probably complex. I think we can direct our thoughts to some degree, and that in turn creates our feelings to some degree. Using that wisely isn't trivial. If I obsess about controlling my thinking, that could easily become upsetting.

I do think there's a good chance that the views David Foster Wallace espouses here were causally linked to his depression and suicide. They should be taken with caution. But doing the opposite isn't probably the best approach either

I had thought that cognitive reframing is part of some well-regarded therapeutic approaches to depression. While one can't choose how to feel, it is pretty apparent that we can, sometimes, choose what to think. When I ask myself "what should I think about now?" I get what seems like meaningful answers, and they direct my train of thought to a nontrivial degree - but not infinitely. My thoughts return to emotionally charged topics. If this upsets me, those topics become even more emotionally charged, and my thoughts return to them more often. This is the "don't think of a white bear" phenomenon.

However, gentle redirection does seem to work. Reframing my understanding of situations in ways that make me happier does appear to sometimes make me happier.

But thinking I should be able to do this infinitely is unrealistic, and my failure to do so would be upsetting if I thought I should be able to control my feelings and my thoughts relatively thoroughly.

I think this is a fascinating topic. I think therapy and psychology is in its infancy, and I expect us to have vastly better treatment for depression relatively soon. It will probably involve hugs and puppies as well as a better understanding of how we can and should try to think about our thinking.

Can I check that I've understood it.

Roughly, the essay urges one to be conscious of each passing thought, to see it and kind of head it off at the tracks - "feeling angry?" "don't!". But the comment argues this is against what CBT says about feeling our feelings.

What about Sam Harris' practise of meditation which seems focused on seeing and noticing thoughts, turning attention back on itself. I had a period last night of sort of "intense consciousness" where I felt very focused on the fact I was conscious. It. wasn't super pleasant, but it was profound. I can see why one would want to focus on that but also why it might be a bad idea.

To me it's less about thoughts and more about emotions. And not about doing it all the time, but only when I'm having some intense emotion and need to do something about it.

For example, let's say I'm angry about something. I imagine there's a knob in my mind: make the emotion stronger or weaker. (Or between feeling it less, and feeling it more.) What I usually do is turn the knob up. Try to feel the emotion more completely and in more detail, without trying to push any of it away. What usually happens next is the emotion kinda decides that it's been heard and goes away: a few minutes later I realize that whatever I was feeling is no longer as intense or urgent. Or I might even forget it entirely and find my mind thinking of something else.

It's counterintuitive but it's really how it works for me; been doing it for over a decade now. It's the closest thing to a mental cheat code that I know.

Do you find it dampens good emotions. Like if you are deeply in love and feel it does it diminish the experience?

I think for good emotions the feel-it-completely thing happens naturally anyway.

If someone, who really is this prone to dangerously overthink, reads this many words about not thinking in so many words, it seems like it could also cause the opposite effect?

It could condition them to read more long winded explanations in the hopes of uncovering another diamond of wisdom buried in the rough. 

Mod note: I clarified the opening note a bit more, to make the start and nature of the essay more clear.

thanks oli, and thanks for editing mine! appreciate the modding <3

Thanks. And i appreciate that LessWrong is a space where mods feel empowered to do this, since it’s the right call.

I find this essay very moving and it helps me notice a certain thing. Life is passing and we can pay attention to one thing or another. What will I pay attention to? What will I worship?

Some quotes:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”


There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.

I wonder what he would have thought was the downside of worshiping a longer list of things...

For the things mentioned, it feels like he thinks "if you worship X then the absence of X will be constantly salient to you in most moments of your life".

It seems like he claims that worshiping some version of Goodness won't eat you alive, but in my experiments with that, I've found that generic Goodness Entities are usually hungry for martyrs, and almost literally try to get would-be saints to "give their all" (in some sense "eating" them). As near as I can tell, it is an unkindness to exhort the rare sort of person who is actually self-editing and scrupulous enough to even understand or apply the injunction in that direction without combining it with an injunction that success in this direction will lead to altruistic self harm unless you make the demands of Goodness "compact" in some way.

Zvi mentions ethics explicitly so I'm pretty sure readings of this sort are "intended". So consider (IF you've decided to try to worship an ethical entity) that one should eventually get ready to follow Zvi's advice in "Out To Get You" for formalized/externalized ethics itself so you can enforce some boundaries on whatever angel you summon (and remember, demons usually claim to be angels (and in the current zeitgeist it is SO WEIRD that so many "scientific rationalists" believe in demons without believing in angels as well)).

Anyway. Compactification (which is possibly the same thing as "converting dangerous utility functions into safe formulas for satisficing"):

Get Compact when you find a rule you can follow that makes it Worth It to Get Got.

The rule must create an acceptable max loss. A well-chosen rule transforms Out to Get You for a lot into Out to Get You for a price you find Worth It. You then Get Got.

This works best using a natural point beyond which lies clear diminishing returns. If no such point exists, be suspicious.

A simple way is a budget. Spend at most $25,000 on this car, or $5,000 on this vacation package. This creates an obvious max dollar loss.

Many budgets should be $0. Example: free to play games. Either it’s worth playing for free or it isn’t. It isn’t.

The downside of budgets is often spending exactly your maximum, especially if others figure out what it is. Do your best to avoid this. Known bug.

An alternative is restriction on type. Go to a restaurant and avoid alcohol, desert and appetizers. Pay in-game only for full game unlocks and storage space.

Budgets can be set for each purchase. Hybrid approaches are good.

Many cap their charitable giving at 10%. Even those giving more reserve some amount for themselves. Same principle.

For other activities, max loss is about time. Again, you can use a (time) budget or limit your actions in a way that restricts (time) spent, or combine both.

Time limits are crude but effective. Limiting yourself to an hour of television or social media per day maxes loss at an hour. This risks making you value the activity more. Often time budgets get exactly spent same as dollar budgets. Try to let unspent time roll over into future periods, to avoid fear or ‘losing’ unspent time.

When time is the limiting factor, it is better where possible to engineer your environment and options to make the activity compact. You’ll get more out of the time you do spend and avoid feeling like you’re arbitrarily cutting yourself off.

Decide what’s worth watching. Watch that.

For Facebook, classify a handful of people See First. See their posts. No others. Look at social media only on computers. Don’t comment. Or post.

A buffet creates overeating. Filling up one plate (or one early to explore, then one to exploit) ends better.

Unlimited often requires limitation.

Outside demands follow the pattern. To make explanation and justification easier, choose good enough rules that sound natural, simple and reasonable.

Experiments need a chance, but also a known point where you can know to call it quits. Ask whether you can get a definitive negative result in reasonable time. Will I worry I did it wrong? Will others claim or assume I did it wrong or didn’t give it a fair chance?

For myself, I have so far found it much easier to worship wisdom than pure benevolence.

Noticing ways that I am a fool is kinda funny. There are a lot of them! So many that patching each such gap would be an endless exercise! The wise thing, of course, would be to prioritize which foolishnesses are most prudent to patch, at which times. A nice thing here is that wisdom basically assimilates all valid criticism as helpful, and often leads to teaching unskilled critics to criticize better, and this seems to make "living in the water" more pleasant (at least in my experience so far).


If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.

Worship your impact and you will always you feel you are not doing enough.

If you're into podcasts, the Very Bad Wizards guys did an ep on this essay, which I enjoyed:

Only vaguely related, but I think you might also enjoy Leonard Stecyk from David Foster Wallace.

(text copied from here)

It is this boy who dons the bright-orange bandolier and shepherds the really small ones through the crosswalk outside school.

This is after finishing the meals-on-wheels breakfast tour of the hospice downtown, whose administrator lunges to bolt her office door when she hears his cart’s wheels in the hall. He has paid out-of-pocket for the steel whistle and the white gloves held palm-out at cars while children who did not dress themselves cross behind him, some trying to run despite WALK DON’T RUN, the happy faced sandwich board he also made himself.

The autos whose drivers he knows he waves at and gives an extra-big smile and tosses some words of good cheer as the crosswalk clears and the cars peel out and move through, some joshing around a little by swerving to miss him only by inches as he laughs and dances aside and makes faces of pretended terror at the flank and rear bumper. The one time that station wagon didn’t miss him really was an accident and he sent the lady several notes to make absolutely sure she knew he understood that and asked a whole lot of people he hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to make friends with to sign his cast and decorated the crutches very carefully with bits of colored ribbon and tinsel and adhesive sparkles and even before the six weeks the doctor sternly prescribed, he’d given them away to the children’s wing to brighten up some other less lucky and happy kid’s convalescence and by the end of the whole thing he’d been inspired to write a very long theme to enter into the annual Social Studies theme competition about how a positive attitude can make even an accidental injury into an occasion for new friends and bright new opportunities for reaching out to others.
And while the theme didn’t even get honorable mention he honestly didn’t care because he felt like writing the theme had been its own reward and he’d gotten a lot out of the whole nine-draft process and was honestly happy for the kids whose themes did win awards and told them he was 100-plus percent sure they deserved it and that if they wanted to preserve their prize themes and maybe even make displayed items out of them for their parents, he’d be happy to type them up and laminate them and even fix any spelling errors he found if they’d like him to and at home his father puts his hand on Leonard’s shoulder and says he’s really proud that his son’s such a good sport and offers to take him to Dairy Queen as a kind of reward and Leonard tells his father he’s grateful and that the gesture means a lot to him but that in all honesty he’d like it even more if they took the money his father would have spent on the ice-cream and instead donated it either to Easter Seals or, better yet, to UNICEF to go toward the needs of famine-ravaged Biafran kids who he knew for a fact had probably never even heard of ice cream and says that he bets it’ll end up giving both of them a better feeling even then the DQ would and as the father slips the coins in the coin-slot at the special bright-orange UNICEF volunteer cardboard pumpkin bank, Leonard takes a moment to express concern about the father’s facial tick again and to gently rib him about his reluctance to go in and have the family’s MD look at it, noting again that according to the chart on the back of his bedroom door the father is four months overdue for his annual physical and that it’s almost eight months past the date of his recommended tetanus and T.B. boosters.

He serves as hall monitor for period’s one and two but gives far more official warnings than actual citations. He’s there to serve he feels, not run people down. Usually with the official warnings he dispenses a smile and tells them you’re young exactly once so enjoy it and to go get-out here and make this day count why don’t they. Heroes UNICEF and Easter Seals and starts a recycling program in three straight grades. He is healthy and scrubbed and always groomed just well enough to project basic courtesy and respect for the community of which he is a part and he politely raises his hand in class for every question, but only if he’s sure he knows not only the correct answer but the formulation of that answer that the teacher’s looking for that will help advance the discussion of the overall topic they’re covering that day, often staying after class to double-check with the teacher that his take on her general objectives is sound and to ask whether there was any way that his answers could have been better or more helpful.

The boy’s mom has a terrible accident while cleaning the oven and is rushed to the hospital and even though he’s beside himself with concern and says constant prayers former safety, he volunteers to stay home and field calls and relay information to an alphabetized list of concerned family friends and relatives and to make sure the mail and newspaper are brought in and to keep the home’s lights turned on and off in a random sequence at night as officer Chuck of the Michigan State police’s Crime Stoppers public school outreach program sensibly advises when grown-ups are suddenly called away from home and also to call the gas company’s emergency number, which he has memorized, to come check on what may well be a defective valve or circuit in the oven before anyone else in the family is exposed to risk of accidental harm and also, in secret, to work on massive display of bunting and penance and Welcome Homeland World’s Greatest Mom signs which he plans to use the garage’s extendible aluminum ladder—with a responsible neighborhood adult holding it and supervising—to very carefully affix to the front of the home with water-soluble glue so they’ll be there to greet the mom when she’s released from the I.C.U. with a totally clean bill of health which Leonard calls his father repeatedly at the I.C.U. payphone to assure the father that he has absolutely no doubt of (the totally clean bill of health), calling hourly, right on the dot, until there is some kind of mechanical problem with the payphone and when he dials it he just gets a high tone which he duly reports to the telephone company’s new automated 1618 Trouble Line.

He can do several kinds of calligraphy and has been to origami camp twice and can do extraordinary free-hand sketches of local flora with either hand and can whistle all six of Telemann’s Nouveaux Equators and can imitate any birdcall Autobahn could even ever have thought of, don’t even mention spelling bees.
He can make over twenty different kinds of admiral, cowboy, clerical and multi-ethnic hats out of ordinary newspaper and he volunteers to visit the school’s K-through-2nd classrooms teaching the little kids how, a proposal the Carl P. Robinson Elementary principal says he appreciates and has considered very carefully before turning down.

The principal loathes the mere sight of the boy but does not quite know why. He sees the boy in his sleep, at nightmares’ ragged edges; the pressed checked shirt and hair’s hard little part, the freckles and ready, generous smile; anything he can do. The principle fantasizes about sinking a meat hook into Leonard Steel’s bright-eyed little face and dragging the boy face down behind his Volkswagen Beetle over the rough new streets of suburban Grand Rapids.

The fantasies come out of nowhere and horrify the principal, who is a devout Mennonite.
Everyone hates the boy. It is a complex hatred that makes the hater feel guilty and awful and to hate themselves for feeling this way and so makes they involuntarily hate the boy even more for arousing such self-hatred. The whole thing is totally confusing and upsetting. People take a lot of Aspirin when he’s around. The boy’s only real friends among kids are the damaged, the handicapped, the slow, the clinically fat, the last-picked, the non-grata. He seeks them out. All 316 invitations to his eleventh birthday Blow-Out Bash—322 invitations if you count the ones made on audiotape for the blind—are off, sent printed on quality velum with matching high-rag envelopes addressed in ornate Philippian calligraphy he spent three weekends on and each invitation details in Roman Numerated outline-form the itinerary’s half-day at Six Flags, private Ph.D.-guided tour of the Blanford Nature Center and reserved banquette-area-with-free-play at Shakey’s Pizza & Indoor Arcade on Remembrance Drive, the whole day gratis and paid-for out of the paper and aluminum drives the boy got up at 4 a.m. all summer to organize and spearhead, the balance of the drive’s receipts going to the Red Cross and the parents of a Kentwood, MI third-grader with terminal spina bifida who dreams above all-else of seeing Landry and Greer and ‘Night Train’ Lane live from his motorized wheelchair and the invitations explicitly call the party this: A Blow-Out Bash in balloon-shaped font as the caption to an illustrated explosion of good cheer and good will and no-holds-barred, let-out-all-the-stops fun with the bold-faced proviso: Please, no presents required in each of each card’s four corners and the 316 invitations—sent via first-class mail to every student, instructor, substitute, aid, administrator, custodian and physical plant employee at C. P. Robinson Elementary—yield a total attendance of nine celebrants, not counting parents and L.P.N.s of the incapacitated, and yet an undauntedly fine time was had by all was the consensus on the Honest Appraisal and Suggestion cards circulated at party’s end. The massive remainders of chocolate cake, Neapolitan ice cream, pizza, chips, caramel corn, Hershey’s kisses, United Way and Officer Chuck pamphlets on organ tissue donation and the correct procedures to follow if approached by a stranger respectively, kosher pizza for the Orthodox, biodegradable napkins and dietetic soda in souvenir Survived Leonard Steel’s Eleventh Birthday Blow-Out Bash, 1964 plastic glasses with built-in crazy-straws the guests were to keep as mementos all donated to the Kent County Children’s Home via procedures and transport that the birthday-boy had initiated even while the big Twister free-for-all was underway, out of concerns about melted ice cream and staleness and flatness and the waste of a chance to help the less blessed and his father, driving the wood-paneled station wagon and steadying his cheek with one hand, avowed again that the boy beside him had a large, good heart and that he was proud and that if the boy’s mother ever regained consciousness as they so very much hoped, he knew she’d be just awful proud as well.