Knowing what you want is a prerequisite to getting what you want

by nwthomas10 min read12th Jul 201119 comments

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Personal Blog

Frequently, we decide on a goal, and then we are ineffective in working towards this goal, due to factors wholly within our control. Failure modes include giving up, losing interest, procrastination, akrasia, and failure to evaluate return on time. In all these cases it seems that if our motivation were higher, the problem would not exist. Call the problem of finding the motivation to effectively pursue one's goals, the problem of motivation. This is a common failure of instrumental rationality which has been discussed from numerous different angles on LessWrong.

I wish to introduce another approach to the problem of motivation, which to my knowledge has not yet been discussed on LessWrong. This approach is summarized in the following paragraph:

We do not know what we value. Therefore, we choose goals that are not in harmony with our values. The problem of motivation is often caused by our goals not being in harmony with our values. Therefore, many cases of the problem of motivation can be solved by discovering what you value, and carrying out goals that conform to your values.

I will begin by making clear the distinction between goals and values. A goal is time-bound, contingent, and concrete. A value is permanent, unconditional, and abstract. A few goals are:

  • Become a comedian.
  • Bring about the Singularity.
  • Graduate college.

A few values are:

  • Humor
  • Transcendence
  • Money

For good measure, I'll list a few more values:

  • Truth
  • Love
  • Beauty
  • Social justice
  • Happiness
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Money
  • Power
  • Spirituality
  • Rationality
  • Imagination
  • Security
  • Excitement
  • Self-expression
  • Life

I argue that goals are always in service of values. If we look at the terminal values in our decision tree, they will be big, mysterious abstractions such as these. Why would I think this? Why not have concrete things as the terminal values of our decision tree?

Because it's simpler. Consider this example. I can have a terminal value, "pleasure," and then sub-goals to this terminal value: let's say, "drinking," "smoking," and "eating." On the other hand, I can have "drinking," "smoking," and "eating" all as terminal values, without the node "pleasure" anywhere in sight.

The latter seems rather un-parsimonious. Why have multiple specifics in my utility function, when I can have one generality that replaces them all? Scientific theories are developed by subsuming specifics in generalities. Also, I think that the case in the previous paragraph is a fairly representative example; that for every specific desirable, we can name a more general desirable, or a set of more general desirables, which it serves.

So it seems to me that the simplest theories of value are those which have mysterious abstractions as the terminal values in the decision tree. These mysterious abstractions are what I have called "values." Our goals, in turn, are non-terminal nodes which point towards our values.

In order to achieve our values, we must figure out how to achieve them, and then do so. We must choose our goals, and carry them out. But, there is another step in the process: we must figure out what we value. It is this step which I wish to examine here.

I make the following claims:

  • Every person has a relatively stable set of values.
  • No person has a perfect understanding of what they value. There is a disconnect between what we value, and what we understand ourselves as valuing.
  • It is possible, through introspection and analysis of experience, to discover more perfectly what one values.
  • Some instances of the problem of motivation are caused by pursuing a goal which is not sufficiently in harmony with one's values. In these cases the solution is to understand the nature of the disharmony, and change the goal, or the approach to the goal, to eliminate the disharmony. This will probably involve making new discoveries about one's values.
  • Pursuing a goal which is strongly in harmony with one's values does not require effort or willpower; it comes naturally.

Unfortunately, I do not have any scientific evidence to support these claims. Also, the usual qualifiers to self-help advice apply. I will conclude the post by giving several examples of how these principles have been played out in my life.

I spend a lot of time on creative projects. For years I struggled with the problem of not being able to finish anything I started. I now finish most of the things I start. This is probably due to many factors. One factor, I believe, is that I now put more careful attention into making sure that the message I have for each creative effort strongly embodies what I value. I concentrate more of what I value into each piece, and this is possible because I have a better understanding than I used to of what I value.

Most of this has to do with the detailed content of the pieces. It also has to do with the media I use. I used to write music, but I no longer do so. Now I write a lot of philosophy. This is better for me because the greatest value which music embodies is beauty, and the greatest value which philosophy embodies is truth. I value both truth and beauty, but I value truth more than I value beauty, and so philosophy is more gratifying for me.

The biggest mistake of my life so far was my attitude in a relationship with a certain girl. I spent a lot of time trying to "fix" her or "improve" her, mostly by giving her advice or knowledge about herself and her personality. The information that I gave her about herself, while true, hurt her self-esteem, and this weakened our relationship, ultimately contributing to our breaking up.

What I should have done, as I realized in retrospect, was to love and accept her for who she was, rather than trying to fix or improve her. This experience taught me the value of love. Love is something I value more than I ever knew. It has proven difficult to propagate the belief "I value love" throughout my mind, so that I often forget it. Therefore I suspect that I value love even more than I know.

(This might seem like a paradox, but it is not. When I say that "I value love more than I know," I mean simply that I don't feel, continuously and at a gut level, the value that I believe that love really has. This is similar to the rationalist who is afraid of ghosts. He knows intellectually that ghosts don't exist, but he hasn't managed to convince the rest of himself of this.)

I practice mysticism. I use meditation, and in the past have used physical exercises and rituals, to induce mystical experiences.

I value mystical experiences because they efficiently serve a significant number of my values. They involve intense positive emotions and aesthetic ecstasies, serving my values of happiness and beauty. They often give me new ideas, serving my value of truth, and indirectly serving my value of self-expression by providing me with things to write about. (I came up with the idea for this post while meditating this morning.)

For a long time I did not have a clear understanding of what I was trying to get out of mysticism. At times, therefore, it became a lost purpose, which did not get me anywhere.

I now practice mysticism with a clearer idea of what I am trying to accomplish. This has made my practices more effective. Mysticism involves subtle manipulations of one's mental processes. Rather than engaging in mental processes which are simply "what you're supposed to do in mysticism," I now engage in mental processes which I know will lead to the results I want. This has been made possible by connecting the processes with the values they serve.

It is not only true that my mysticism has become more effective for me by connecting it with an understanding of my values; it is also true that it has become easier. Previously, I would exercise a significant amount of willpower to engage in mystical practices for an hour or two a day. Now, I meditate for three hours a day without any exercise of willpower. It doesn't require willpower because I simply want to do it. I want to do it because it serves my values.

I wish to analyze in detail a particular way in which I previously went wrong with mysticism. I used to meditate in a half-lotus position. Because I was born with low hip flexibility, this position put a lot of stress on my body. I was initially in a lot of pain from this position, but I continued using it. Eventually the pain went away. Further down the line, I gave myself a knee injury from meditating in this position, which probably would have required surgery if I had continued to do this.

There are a few things that I learned from this incident. I was meditating in half-lotus to conform to my image of "spiritual purity," based on cultural memes which I had absorbed. My knee injury made me realize that I had been on the wrong path in this respect, and I saw that I was wrong in valuing "spiritual purity." It was not part of my value system, but something that had been imposed from outside.

My knee injury also made me realize that I had been wrong in putting my body through all of that unnecessary stress in the service of mysticism. This was one of the data points which allowed me to discover the value of self-love: of being nice to oneself.

Another data point which allowed me to discover the value of self-love came in editing the book I am working on. Editing this book has been quite painful, because I am so critical of it. Reading it makes me disgusted by it, and then I am disgusted with myself.

For example, about a week ago I came across two paragraphs which contained some statements that I felt to be wrong. I was so disgusted by these wrong statements that I could not bear to look at them. I had to spend days psyching myself up to the point that I could look at these paragraphs for long enough to delete them.

The basic problem here is that I am hyper-critical of my writing, and in criticizing my writing I am criticizing myself. This makes the editing process a terrible stressor on my self-esteem. This constitutes a clear message about my values: it indicates that I value self-love, but do not love myself enough. If I was nicer to myself, then I could edit painlessly, and I want to edit painlessly.

A final example will illustrate once more the connection between values and the problem of motivation. I am a psychology major and a philosophy minor. I got the psychology major at the beginning of college, and the philosophy minor two and a half years later. I enjoy my philosophy classes, and find my psychology classes tedious. It is therefore easier to be motivated to do well in my philosophy classes than in my psychology classes. I chose philosophy at a time when I better understood my values than I did at the time when I chose psychology. If I had this knowledge of my values when I started college, I could have chosen a major that I would enjoy more and do better in.

I hope that the reader has found these examples illustrative. I have attempted to throw some light on the process of discovering one's values and revising one's goals to conform to these values. It seems to me that this is a basic tool of instrumental rationality. One cannot achieve one's values without knowing one's values. Furthermore, one cannot sustainably pursue anything other than one's values, and many cases of the problem of motivation can be explained by this fact.

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:04 PM
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'Decision tree' has an established meaning you probably don't intend.

Knowing what you want is a prerequisite to getting what you want

Strictly speaking it is not. But it is certainly recommended.

This is a worthy topic, but the post isn't polished enough for the front page; I suggest switching it over to Discussion.

The information that I gave her about herself, while true, hurt her self-esteem, and this weakened our relationship, ultimately contributing to our breaking up.

This is kind of tangential to the post, but I've ran into the same problem in my previous relationship as well. I value truth for the sake of truth, and I am often very blunt about it (I have since learned to be more polite/roundabout). Being polite, however, means answering questions like "Do you think that girl is prettier than me?" with a "No." regardless of what I believe is true. Doing that continuously hurt me, yet I've continued to do it because that's what my partner preferred. I think this is telling me that I value love almost as much as truth.

The information that I gave her about herself, while true, hurt her self-esteem, and this weakened our relationship, ultimately contributing to our breaking up.

Yeah, this is exactly what I did too. I thought I was doing her a favor, but since then I've learned to be a lot more tactful in how I actually present my beliefs.

Being polite, however, means answering questions like "Do you think that girl is prettier than me?" with a "No." regardless of what I believe is true.

One might say being polite means not forcing other people to answer awkward questions.

To expand on this: the essence of politeness is to not consciously convey unpleasant thoughts, either by dodging communication on certain topics or by making use of subtext to convey them subconsciously (so as to avoid painful mutual knowledge).

A person X can, for example, turn an acquaintance Y down for a date by giving a proximal explicit reason, but do so in a subtly dismissive way that Y will subconsciously pick up on (and not ask X out again), and yet subtly enough so as not to constitute mutual knowledge of romantic rejection; Y may never consciously realize they've been rejected.

(Things get awkward when one party or the other botches such an exchange.)

Wow, you are right! For someone who is trying to be as open as I can, I sometimes forget that option. I should just say "Those kinds of questions make me uncomfortable, so I would really appreciate if you didn't ask them". Thanks!

Personally I try to avoid being involved with people who try to emotionally blackmail me into bolstering their self-esteem, but that's not a lot of help once you're already involved with them.

In that situation I'd probably try and turn it into a strategic joke by saying something like "Eugh, no...look at those horrible shapely legs and disgusting pert breasts; yuck, no way," or something to that effect. Bonus points for picking characteristics where your girlfriend has the edge.

Use this at your own risk. I take no responsibility for its efficacy.

Postel says you should answer awkward questions but not ask them. (Also, that you should say this girl isn't prettier than your interlocutor, but be fine when told she's prettier than you.)

Therefore, many cases of the problem of motivation can be solved by discovering what you value, and carrying out goals that conform to your values.

This is pretty interesting, because that's exactly what I did last week. I want to outline the process that I went through, in case it will be helpful to others.

I started writing what I want. (Examples: I want to have concrete accomplishments. I want to finish my game. I want to be healthy. I want FAI to be created successfully.) You can also do wants that you have for others, but I find those to be not as helpful or insightful.

The I take each 'want' and answer various questions about it. A lot of the questions I borrowed from worksheets provided by Academian at the rationality minicamp, and he asked us not to redistribute them. But the questions basically serve to analyze the 'want' and understand what you are trying to get from it. Eventually, you will break it down into goals, like so:

I want to have concrete accomplishments. => Goals: To get a sense of accomplishment, history, progress, self-worth.
I want to finish my game. => Goals: Accomplishment, money, personal and professional experience.
I want to be healthy. => Goals: Live longer, be adept at physical activities, fit, good looking.

Each goal becomes a want in its own right. You can take each one and see if you can break it down further. At the end I end up with an (almost) acyclical graph, whose leafs are the terminal values (big mysterious abstractions, just like you said). The ones I ended up listing for myself: accomplishments, life experiences, physical affection, immortality, fun/happiness, FAI, moral/social obligations. There is also a set of meta-skills that I have identified, which help me with a lot of things, and are therefore worthwhile to pursue almost in their own right: knowledge, rationality, fitness, social skills.

After I've determined my terminal values, I should have sorted them by how much I value them like you suggest, which I haven't done. What I did was to look for any substitutions I could make. Example: to fulfill FAI and Accomplishments values, I could either create games to raise the sanity waterline, or I could do FAI research.

Another interesting thing you can do is find various sets of nodes in your graph, whose children (directly or indirectly) include all your terminal values. For example, just picking the Money node, covers almost every single terminal value I have.

See the 'Meaning' section here.

While this approach may not have been discussed on Lesswrong before, it is a foundational part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT).

Specifically, ACT advises people to make choices based on experientially-based terminal values. That is, on things that you value doing or experiencing, rather than on states of the world or states of your mind. This is a bit stricter than the approach you're laying out here, in that an ACT therapist would probably not accept "Money" as a valid "value" in ACT's terms. He/she would want to know what you will want to do, once you have the money.

To put it another way, ACT basically says we screw up our motivation because we direct our attention to goals that are not directly connected to experiencing our terminal values... which I believe is pretty close to what you're saying here, is it not?

To put it another way, ACT basically says we screw up our motivation because we direct our attention to goals that are not directly connected to experiencing our terminal values... which I believe is pretty close to what you're saying here, is it not?

It is pretty close, and even insofar as it's different, I think I agree with it. I'm not particularly a fan of the idea of "we can have values over states of the external world," because it seems to me that most, if not all, of our actual terminal values are mental states. In my opinion, if you think you have a value over a state of the external world, this is probably a case where you've misunderstood what your values are.

This of course is not a necessary truth about minds-in-general. I am not suggesting that all possible minds would only value mental states; rather, I am suggesting that this happens to be true of human minds.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, I'd be happy to disconnect from my body and the external world, and spend an eternity exploring various possible mental states, as long as there were other disembodied consciousnesses there to share the experience with me.

In my opinion, if you think you have a value over a state of the external world, this is probably a case where you've misunderstood what your values are.

I value placing value in the external world. I think that having "value" as a synonym for "motivation", "pleasure", "wanting" etc. is not valuable. In my conception, values are not biological givens, but are constructions, empirically grounded in "pleasure", "wanting", "what is awesome" and "what works".

Geoff Anders' Connection Theory has a lot of overlap with what you're saying. So does Core Transformation.

The information that I gave her about herself, while true, hurt her self-esteem, and this weakened our relationship, ultimately contributing to our breaking up.

It sounds like a case of other-optimizing.

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