Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

Indirect pursuits

a list of vaguely related things

As a kid, I thought that The North Wind and the Sun had the wrong moral. It’s not about persuasion winning over force; it’s about not joining competitions you know you’ll lose. I mean, come on. There’s no way the North Wind could’ve possibly thought they could make someone remove their cloak, especially against the Sun! These days I give it a more charitable read—it’s about gentleness and indirection.

In how to sail against the wind I write about how you can’t sail directly against the wind. Instead, you tack, zigzagging in the direction you want to go, never directly heading against the wind. I write about how, even if my goal is to do as much work as possible, if I don’t feel like working, I shouldn’t, because I’ll produce more work if I take a break now and figure it out later.

The fundamental theorem of software engineering says that all problems can be solved by another level of indirection.

The goal of The Game is to avoid thinking about The Game. This isn’t something you can do directly. Thinking about not losing The Game means thinking about The Game, which you just lost. To not lose The Game, you need to think about other things. To not lose The Game, it’s best you completely ignore The Game. Similiarly: don’t think of the sensation of your tongue in your mouth. Don’t breath manually. Don’t think of a pink elephant.

I learned, from The Improv Handbook, three of my favorite improv games. The first game is Pointing At Things And Saying What They Are. The second game is Pointing At Things And Saying What The Last Thing You Pointed At Was. The third game is Pointing At Things And Saying What They’re Not. The Handbook claims most people find the third game harder than the second, even though you can do the same thing for the second and third games. Point being, spontaneity is not something you can directly go for.

Are you having fun yet? Maybe you’re not having fun because you’re not trying hard enough! If you come into every video game thinking I’m going to have the most fun I possibly can, maybe you’ll have more fun, right?

Here’s my caricature of the Four Noble Truths. Suffering sucks. Desire causes suffering. To stop suffering, stop desire. To stop desire, follow the Eightfold Path. Question: can you desire to stop desire? If “enlightenment” can only be achieved by letting go of desire, how can you desire enlightenment? The fix, apparently, is that you want to let go of all desires except for the desire to let go of all desires. Alright then.

The most-viewed post on the MIT Admissions blogs is, by far, Applying Sideways. It says that if your goal is to get accepted to MIT, then you should do well in school, be nice, pursue your passion. But wait, you say, none of this is MIT-specific! That’s the point. The message is less “here’s how to get into MIT” than it is “you shouldn’t want to go to MIT, because that’s not something you can pursue directly.” Worded differently in Stove-Cook Your Oatmeal and Never Look Back:

In other words, if you are lucky enough to have a singular greater vision or motivation behind applying to MIT, chase it. Don’t let the switch of a single stepping stone for another one disrupt your dreams and the progress you’ve already made.

If not, pick one, do it faster than me, and don’t look back.

Getting into a romantic relationship, or becoming closer to someone, doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can pursue directly. I think it’s weird to come to a dinner with friends thinking, ah yes, I’m doing this to get more friendship points. In the same way, I think it’s weird talking to someone thinking, ah yes, I’m doing this so we can do romance. At the least, you should make it look like you’re not doing it to get a date. This is why I don’t understand how dating apps work.

In contemplating envy, I realized that I don’t want popularity itself. Sure, getting bigger numbers is fun, and having people know you is cool, but it’s not what I want. What I want is to make something that people like, as measured by vibes. But it’s easier to measure Github stars, so maybe I should target that instead. What’s the real goal, and should I go for it directly?

I’ve always admired people who know what they want to be, where they want to go. From demons:

At the end of tenth grade, we were asked to write down what our ambitions were, which would be printed in our yearbook and displayed during our end-of-year ceremonies. Others had written things like “to be a successful doctor” or “to be an engineer”. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so on a whim, I wrote “to be truly happy”.

Imagine, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, being certain of what you want to do for the next few years. Want to be a doctor? Go to med school. Want to be a lawyer? Study for the bar. Want to be happy? I dunno, meditate?

These days the ambitions I see look a little different. They’re more “noble”, I guess. Maybe it’s about solving global warming, or stopping aging, or aligning AI. Cool, you can want that. Maybe I want that too. Maybe I want to be known in my field or make a lot of money or do cool things or have a flexible schedule or make a lot of friends. But these are secondary goals, goals that happen to be easier to target, than the goal I really have—to be truly happy.