This post describes the shape of my vanity and compels it to pay rent. As a step towards the integration of vanity into the Self, it is an example of The Solitaire Principle in action.
My particular brand of vanity, which I lovingly name innovanity, is characterized by an attachment to feelings of ownership and to my own creations. It is accompanied by a gut refusal to fix my life in ways that other people come up with.
I describe a short-term strategy called Derive and Reverse to leverage vanity as a productive force, rather than an unhealthy self-attachment and resistance to change. Derive by rebranding and making modifications to other people’s ideas to acquire a sense of ownership of and attachment to them. Reverse by understanding how you might become equally vain about the reversal of any given trait you are attached to.
The long term goal of this project is to entirely transmute capricious innovanity into a stable meta-confidence, a generalized confidence in one’s meta-processes no longer attached to particular object-level traits.
Derive and Reverse
In The Solitaire Principle, I wrote that much of self-improvement might better be understood as the alignment of distinct sub-personalities rather than the optimization of some monolothic whole. One of the key assumptions there is that a mental sub-process like Babble or vanity is more like an independent sub-personality, with its own values, beliefs, and perspectives, than merely an algorithm to be slotted into a hole at will.
The Solitaire Principle impels us to treat our sub-personalities like individual human beings of intrinsic value, and to engage in communication and empathy with them. Derive and Reverse are two exercises I came up with to build and understanding of and mastery over the vanity sub-personality.
Derive is an algorithm for resisting the inertia of innovanity. It is inspired by the following anecdote from Sunset at Noon:
“Rationalists obviously don’t *actually* take ideas seriously. Like, take the Gratitude Journal. This is the one peer-reviewed intervention that *actually increases your subjective well being*, and costs barely anything. And no one I know has even seriously tried it. Do literally *none* of these people care about their own happiness?”
“Huh. Do *you* keep a gratitude journal?”
“Lol. No, obviously.”
– Some Guy at the Effective Altruism Summit of 2012
Upon hearing the above, I decided to try gratitude journaling. It took me a couple years and a few approaches to get it working.
- First, I tried keeping a straightforward journal, but it felt effortful and dumb.
- I tried a thing where I wrote a poem about the things I was grateful for, but my mind kept going into “constructing a poem” mode instead of “experience nice things mindfully” mode.
- I tried just being mindful without writing anything down. But I’d just forget.
- I tried writing gratitude letters to people, but it only occasionally felt right to do so. (This came after someone actually wrote me a handwritten gratitude letter, which felt amazing, but it felt a bit forced when I tried it myself)
- I tried doing gratitude before I ate meals, but I ate “real” meals sort of inconsistently so it didn’t take. (Upon reflection, maybe I should have fixed the “not eat real meals” thing?)
But then I stumbled upon something that worked. It’s a social habit, which I worry is a bit fragile. I do it together with my girlfriend each night, and on nights when one of us is traveling, I often forget.
But this is the thing that worked. Each night, we share our Grumps and Grates. (We’re in a relationship and have cutesey-poo ways of talking to each other).
Walking in Raemon’s shoes (this is me projecting), this process is most gratifying because allows ownership of the process and gratifies one’s innovanity.
In general, Derive is a simple procedure:
- Find a striking piece of advice that you have an aversion to, because you are attached by vanity to your current identity.
- Modify it in a wacky and idiosyncratic way. This can be a useful upgrade, but it doesn’t have to be.
- Rebrand it to be catchy or personal.
I suspect that systematically applying Derive will substantially ease the intake of external advice. I am certain that a number of my recent posts are essentially Derivations of other people’s ideas (see for example Babble, Singularity Mindset).
A sub-personality is like an entire human being, although one who is stunted in several directions and overgrown in others. In the analysis of my vanity I understood a particular corollary of this fact: vanity is also capable of empathy.
We often think of empathy as sympathy for another person’s struggle and suffering. Reverse is the application of empathy to Vanity: to understand how other people might be proud about traits you disdain. Reverse has three steps:
- Identify a trait you are vain about, the Original, and its opposite, the Reverse.
- List all the reasons you are proud of the Original and disdainful of the Reverse.
- Pretend that you are the Reverse, and list all the reasons you would be proud of that and disdainful of the Original.
Your Vanity will keep you in your current house, no matter how squalid, if it doesn’t see anything to be proud of on the other side. The goal of Reverse is to build an equally nice house hither and thus release your attachment to the Original. Here are two portraits of Reverse in action:
Original: I’m a free spirit who never cleans my room – I don’t have time for such trivial pursuits. Besides, we would never have discovered penicillin without people like me. People who obsess about cleanliness are unstable freak shows cleaning to hide away from the real problems in their lives.
Reverse: I’m the kind of person who has the discipline and humility to clean my room and organize my papers. Attention to these details show that I’m put together at every level of scrutiny. I would never trust a slob – if he can’t do his laundry on time, how am I supposed to rely on him for more important matters.
Original: Look at all those neanderthal jocks outside lobbing their sportsballs around, they’re so pathetic. Meanwhile, I’m enriching the intellectual lives of my fellow cognoscenti with my wit and self-awareness.
Reverse: Look at that shrunken couch potato inside typing away maniacally. He’d probably get a stroke if he saw the sun. Meanwhile, I’m outside at the height of my physical prowess dominating the court with strength, agility, and intelligent play. Alley oop!
Reversal dispels the illusion that vanity can only be attached to the exact traits you currently have. It has the effect of pushing the abstract knowledge that one can be vain about anything to System 1.