Recently I started picking up French again. I remembered getting something out of Duolingo a few years ago, so I logged in.
Since the last time I was there, they added an “achievements” mechanic:
I noticed this by earning one. I think it was “Sharpshooter”. They gave me the first of three stars for something like doing five lessons without mistakes. In the “achievements” section, it showed me that I could earn the second star by doing twenty lessons in a row flawlessly.
And my brain cared.
I watched myself hungering to get the achievements. These arbitrary things that someone had just stuck on there… in order to get me to want them. I noticed that I could get the second and maybe third star of “Sharpshooter” by doing earlier lessons and googling words and phrases I wasn’t quite sure about…
Yes, we could quibble about that. Maybe perfect practice makes perfect, yada yada. But the point is: I disagree, I think my disagreement comes from knowing what I’m talking about when it comes to my learning, and someone’s arbitrary gold stars immediately overrode all that insight by grabbing my motivations directly.
I don’t have a problem with gamification per se. What bugs me here is that this specific gamification didn’t fit my goals, and that fact didn’t at all affect how well the system grabbed my wanting. I just… wanted those achievements. Because they were there.
If I hadn’t noticed this, and if I’m right about what I need to learn French, then I would have wasted a bunch of time pursuing a useless proxy goal. And I would have felt pleasure in achieving it. I might have even thought that was a meaningful sign that I was learning French — never mind that my goal of holding my own in conversations isn’t really helped by carefully avoiding typos.
Duncan Sabien sometimes talks about “lotus-eating”. He’s referring to a part of the Odyssey where they land on an island of “lotus-eaters”. It turns out that once you eat some of this kind of lotus, all you want to do is eat more. You stop caring about your other goals. The lotus just grabs your wants directly.
I claim you can notice when something grabs your wanting. Just… look. Just pay attention. Here are some lotuses I’ve noticed:
- Most computer games are full of these. I sometimes play one called Alto’s Adventure. You flip a little character over and land some tricks, and then get a speed boost. If you collect enough coins, you can get special items or level them up to a maximum. If I start playing it, I notice I care about these arbitrary coins and flips and so on. And if I’ve been playing it recently, I notice myself wanting to pull the game out and play it some more. But what is gained by doing so? Maybe something, but if so then that’s a happy accident. My life isn’t any better after unlocking all the made-up achievements on this little made-up game. But each time I land a trick: BAM! A tiny burst of satisfaction, and a wanting to keep going.
- Scrolling down on Facebook. There’s something about wanting to scroll a little farther. I get a “Yes!” and a “Just a little more” each time I scroll down and see a new post. Just another couple more minutes on Facebook, right? Oops.
- Email. Where does the impulse to check email several times a day come from? Or to “catch up” on email? What are you trying to do? What does it feel like when you’ve just clicked “Send”?
- Inbox zero in particular does this a lot for me. If I have just two emails, I want to reply to them right away, so I can get back to that oh so sacred inbox zero state. But then people reply, and I reply back, and my time gets eaten up… but at least I’m maintaining inbox zero, right?
- Porn is loudly lotuses. The website Your Brain On Porn goes into this a ton.
- YouTube has lotus nature. It’s actually designed for it, just like Facebook. When you watch a video, it tries to guess what video you might want to watch next, and adjusts depending on what you click or sit through.
- The card game Dominion has a bunch of expansions. I found myself wanting to buy each expansion as it came out, because then my set would be complete, you see. Notice how the completeness is defined by someone else.
I think this kind of thing isn’t very hard to notice if you try. What suddenly has you caring? What drives you into a kind of action? Just notice.
Also notice when someone else built the want-grabber. Their incentives are probably different from yours. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get hijacked.
And then you’re prone to rationalizing your addiction — like thinking that Facebook keeps you connected to your friends, but not really caring that maybe that’s false.
I claim you can come to notice what lotuses taste like. Then you can choose to break useless addictions. And it’ll feel good to do so: you’re breaking free of distractions and can tell.
I find this gets easier if you give yourself permission to eat lotuses if you want to. Then I don’t have to lie to myself about whether I am or not. I can just play Alto’s Adventure, or clear out my email, or whatever, and it’s fine. I just pay attention to the actual consequences — including the impact on what I later find myself wanting to do.
I ended up finding the taste of Duolingo’s lotus disgusting. I could tell I wanted more, and that wanting was distracting me from my goal. I could do more, but now I just don’t want to. It feels satisfying and empowering to resist the impulse to go back there and get one more star. I’m listening to French radio instead.
I invite you to learn what lotuses taste like, and reclaim your wanting for yourself.