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Purity of heart: The ultimate effectiveness hack
What are the odds you'll get an ice cream cone today?
You’ll immediately notice this question is absurd. It's not about odds at all — it's about decisions. Will you go to Dairy Queen or not? You decide whether the odds are 0 or 100%.
Apply the same logic to harder questions: What are the odds you'll become a rock star? What are the odds you'll solve fake news?
Both of these aren't about odds, but about decisions. Will you do what it takes or not? Do you want it over and above every competing alternative, or not? Would you rather have comfort, ease, privacy?
Many things we think of as unlikely or low-odds are actually based on our decisions.
When we say “what are the odds” we usually mean “what are the chances this happens by accident?” If we factor in things we’re attempting on purpose, the odds change dramatically, as to no longer be a question.
Why do odds seem to apply to some decisions, and not others?
There are a few main ways we fail to make the kinds of decisions that increase the odds of “unlikely” things happening:
Competing options —If you want too many things, you won’t do what it takes to turn the odds drastically in your favor. You need to want that thing as exclusively as possible. This seems to apply even small goals: you won’t even make it to Dairy Queen if every 5 seconds you’re wondering whether to go to Wendy’s instead. (I’ve literally been in this scenario… a story for another post)
Psychologically adjacent bullshit — In one of my favorite Twitter threads of all time, Venkatesh Rao pointed out the hard thing about doing hard things is wanting it for real, as opposed to wanting "psychologically adjacent bullshit."
You have to want the thing because you value the thing, not some kind of ego gratification the thing would give you. There are many ways to get ego gratification, so if an easier way to get the same gratification comes along, you may mysteriously abandon the goal and do that instead.
When I was in my early 20s, spiritual work was my #1 priority. But my heart for spiritual work was impure — I wanted to get close to God, but underneath that I was desperate for something far more mundane: self-respect. I wanted some psychologically adjacent bullshit — not God, so much as “What God will do for me.”
What happened? I stayed in a relationship with a highly-respected woman — partly because it felt like an easier path to self-respect than doing spiritual work. My brain said: “if she respects me, and she deserves respect, then I deserve respect.” And I feared the opposite: “If we break up, it’s because I’m not as worthy of respect as I think I am.” I basically abandoned my spiritual work to keep her. This shocks me to admit even now.
A shortcut to my psychologically adjacent bullshit came along, and that “#1 priority” mysteriously fell by the wayside.
Purity of heart: the ultimate effectiveness hack
If you attempt a grand undertaking for psychologically adjacent bullshit (PAB) reasons, then when a shortcut to it comes along, you might abandon your grand undertaking and go the easier route — and not even know why.
Our will seems to follow paths of least resistance, like electricity, or water flowing downhill.
When you want something for its own sake, it carves a path of least resistance that leads you to it:
Pure of heart: If you want to read Moby Dick because you want to read Moby Dick, then Finnegan’s Wake just won’t do. You won’t stop until you get Moby Dick, no matter what alternatives present themselves.
PAB: But if you want to read Moby Dick because you want to feel smart and cultured, then Finnegan’s Wake could do just fine, and you’ll gravitate toward whatever is easier.
Purity of heart — the ultimate effectiveness hack — involves discovering what you want for its own sake. Clearing away the Psychologically Adjacent Bullshit and seeing what remains.
I’ll describe some specific tactics for doing this in a later post.