I Meant to Do That

I quit my dayjob a few months ago. I said I was taking a sabbatical from my programming career to work on my own projects: there's a lot of math that I've been wanting to learn properly for a long time (game theory, Bayesian networks/structual causal models, analysis), and there's a lot of writing that I fear I must do (although for branding and market-segmentation purposes, I'm pretending that's someone else's story).

I have made some progress on these goals, but—as one would have predicted from an Outside (i.e., No Fun) View model trained on my historical behavior during periods of underemployment- or school-holiday-induced freedom—it's been disappointingly slow on a day-to-day level: it is easier to let an hour blur by in daydreams or low-quality internet reading than it is to actually study or actually write, and a day is only made of so many hours.

My dominant emotions surrounding this observation are guilt and shame. Guilt: that I'm failing my moral responsibility to be intellectually productive, a duty owed to the human spirit and maybe even the Bayes-structure itself. Shame: that a hypothetical adversary could use the fact of my slothfulness as evidence against my beauty, that the failure to live up to the promise of my ideals could be construed to deny or disparage the ideal itself.

Well, I do have a moral responsibility to be intellectually productive which is owed to the human spirit; this cannot be doubted. But I've been wondering lately if it might be better to let go of the shame and even most of the guilt. This not because shame and guilt can't be useful emotions, but rather that I might be thought of as having outgrown them.

I think the shame is born of insecurity: I spent a lot of years resenting school and resenting a culture that didn't have a concept of intellectual life or paths to economic success outside of school, resulting in a desperate need to prove myself: if I don't create given the time and freedom to do so, couldn't pawns of the system use it as ammunition to sneer at me and proclaim that no one can possibly do anything worthwhile without a teacher to command them to do it? And if I don't create, would they even be wrong?

Having something to prove was a useful motivation—it drove me to learn math, at least, to an extent that's probably hard to motivate without a status gradient at work. But now, at age 29—thanks to the software industry for a niche where my talents are economically legible, thanks to the aspiring-rationalist subculture for a community where I feel respected—I think I've exited the world I resented. Whatever I had to prove, I've either proved it by now or have extracted myself from the need to please any doubters.

What, then, should take the place of a desperate need to prove one's value as a source of motivation? What is to be the new emotional reaction to observations of slow progress, if not shame and horror and fear at what my enemies would make of this?

Shame creates an incentive to deny or minimize the culpable action, to distort the map of what actually happened in order to protect oneself: "I didn't do that; it's not what it looks like." I think I would prefer to draw on sources of motivation that don't have this property, that can accept the reality of what actually happened without pain ...

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