At the end of Replacing Guilt, Nate talks about the virtues of desperationrecklessness and defiance. None of these really hook neatly into my motivation system, but there’s a nearby virtue which does: determination, and in particular three facets of it which resonate strongly for me. I want to finish this sequence by talking about them.

The first is that I’m determined not to be a dumbass. I picture the trillions upon trillions of potential future people who could exist, looking back at us from the distant stars. As Carl Sagan put it:

“They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross, before we found our way.”

Or as Joe Carlsmith put it:

I imagine them going: “Whoa. Basically all of history, the whole thing, all of everything, almost didn’t happen.” I imagine them thinking about everything they see around them, and everything they know to have happened, across billions of years and galaxies — things somewhat akin, perhaps, to discoveries, adventures, love affairs, friendships, communities, dances, bonfires, ecstasies, epiphanies, beginnings, renewals. They think about the weight of things akin, perhaps, to history books, memorials, funerals, songs. They think of everything they love, and know; everything they and their ancestors have felt and seen and been a part of; everything they hope for from the rest of the future, until the stars burn out, until the story truly ends.

All of it started there, on earth. All of it was at stake in the mess and immaturity and pain and myopia of the 21st century. That tiny set of some ten billion humans held the whole thing in their hands. And they barely noticed.

And then I think about them focusing on me in particular, and my choices and decisions; all the good work I’ve done, and all the things I could have done better. And I don’t think they’ll blame me for the latter, not if they’ve internalized the types of thinking that I’ve described in the rest of this sequence. Regardless of what I do, they’ll think of me as a child in many ways, without the ability to see and shape the world to anywhere near the extent they can. But I’d prefer they think of me the way I think of a 10-year-old who can at least make meaningful plans and intentions, rather than a 5-year-old who is too incoherent to even really be seen as trying. When I fail to flesh out my plans or goals, it’s like a kid tripping over their own feet; and when I flinch away from tasks that I’m trying to do, it’s like one of my hands has decided to slap down the other whenever it moves. When you picture it that way, it just seems obviously good to be more of a robust agent, one who doesn’t twist themselves up in internal knots every time they try to act in the world.

The second facet of determination is a kind of grinding inevitability. Again, it feels like the best way to explain this is via quotes:

  • The Comet King, in Scott Alexander’s Unsong, lives by the mantra: “Somebody has to, and no one else will.”
  • Here’s a quote from Bruce Lee: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”
  • And here’s Churchill: “This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Crucially, I don’t think of these quotes as describing external obligations or impositions. The grinding inevitability is not a pressure on you from the outside, but a pressure from you, towards the world. This type of determination is the feeling of being an agent with desires and preferences. You are the unstoppable force, moving towards the things you care about, not because you have to but simply because that’s what it means to care. 

The third facet of determination is about camaraderie. I think of the torch of humanity, passed on from generation to generation by ancestors who fought through setbacks and hardship that I can’t even imagine now. I think of every scientist who slogged through a morass of confusion in order to make a breakthrough; and every political campaigner who kept pushing and pushing for a more just civilization.

And then I look at the present, and the communities that I’m in. When I go into the main hall of an EA Global and look around, I feel a sense of warmth, because I see whole crowds of people who are really earnestly trying; and although good intentions are so, so far from enough, they’re a crucial start. When I talk to my friends who are entrepreurs or scientists or engineers, I see people who deeply understand that the world doesn’t get better without people stepping into the trenches and grappling directly with whatever problems reality throws at them, and I feel grateful that they’re willing to do that. And when I go onto LessWrong and see hundreds of comments scrimmaging over every topic under the sun, I feel a sense of exasperated fondness—because even when I disagree with them, these are the people who are willing to sacrifice popularity and influence whenever it trades off against the guiding principle of figuring out the truth, and that’s something the world desperately needs.

I don’t think camaraderie can get you all the way to exceptional work, because at some point you need to stare directly at the failures of your comrades in order to figure out how to do better. But it can help you notice how heavy the boulder is and how few are pushing it directly up the hill, and decide to throw your shoulder against it and start shoving. And that never becomes easy—but eventually it becomes a kind of rest in motion: not an obligation, nor a duty, but more like a habit or background identity, punctuated by the excitement of each coming milestone. You are a person who pushes when humanity needs them—because, with your eyes open, why would you not? That’s how exceptional times make exceptional people: step by determined step.

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The grinding inevitability is not a pressure on you from the outside, but a pressure from you, towards the world. This type of determination is the feeling of being an agent with desires and preferences. You are the unstoppable force, moving towards the things you care about, not because you have to but simply because that’s what it means to care. 

Word.

Thanks for writing this. I thought it was really enlightening.

I think longtermism and the idea that we could influence a vast future is a really interesting and important idea. As you said, future people will probably see us as both incredibly incompetent and influential. Maybe the most rational response to this situation is to be determined to make the future go well.

I also thought it was really insightful how you mentioned that discovering past truths must have been hard. We take science and technology for granted but much of it is the result of cumulative hard work over time by scientists and engineers.

Strongly upvoted because of the excellent perspective.