Thursday, June 19, 2014

Modeling me as many selves

My beliefs about the world tend to change slowly and continuously, but my emotions and especially my desires fluctuate a lot. Within a short period of time, I can get excited about very different things.

At a dinner with Harvard Effective Altruism this spring, Andrew Critch said he sometimes thinks about himself as two, somewhat distinct agents - a wants-to-work Critch and a wants-to-play Critch - whom he gets to cooperate on prisoner dilemma-style games in time management. 

In a similar spirit, I'm going to try thinking about my different moods as separate selves. Hopefully I'll learn something about who I am, who I could be, how to be who I want to be, etc.

Me, my selves, and I

Here are my most predominant and distinguishable selves, in rough order of relevance. I've designated one self as a baseline; I think much of my time is spent somewhere between that mood and one of the others. Sometimes I'm sufficiently immersed in another mood (or mixing of moods) that the baseline disappears.

John the clear and calm (baseline)
This is the one who talks slowly and deliberately, and who listens attentively. He feels like his model of the world is very consistent and straightforward, can explain things well, and is emotionally stable. When this John is distinctly himself (not mixed with any of the other moods), he often lacks excitement (which can induce time-wasting he feels bad about, e.g. Facebook) and/or is boring.

John the playful
This is the one who wants to argue for fun in the dining hall, host strange new social events, and generally jump around. He can be identified by a wide, unyielding grin, known to some as "the goon-face," and has no capacity for anger or sadness.

John the ambitious
This is the one who wants to be great. He likes to think about ideas he hopes no one has thought of before, argue seriously, read academic and skills-oriented books, study hard, write blog posts, etc. He is determined, aloof, a little bit excited, a little bit arrogant, and expects great things.

John the hedonist
This is the one who wants to experience pleasant things, and doesn't feel bad about being unproductive. He likes to wake up too early and go back to sleep, eat ice cream after long bike rides, watch action movies, etc.

John the meaning-feeling
This is the one whose heart is melting in a bath of emotions and feelings. He aches with sinking, Hemingway-style feelings of sadness, finitude, and meaning. He marvels at Borges-ian mystery in the creeping, orgiastic metabolism of summer nights. He has moments of emotional clarity, where he realizes how he feels about previously-undecided things.

John the obsessed
This is the one who fixates on individual projects - like planning hiking trips, writing code for CS projects, and trying to arrange housing lottery cooperation - and works on them without losing focus or excitement. His emotions range from a reserved, potentiality-feeling excitement to nearly manic. He has a hard time caring about anything other than his particular project.

Absent Selves

Other people have states that I don't have. Are there other states that I would like to have? I can think of at least one: I would like to have a "purposeful" self - one that has particular axioms of deep importance and feels particularly purposeful pursuing them. Sometimes, I can start to feel the inklings of such a self with respect to effective altruism; but usually I pursue EA from in clear-and-calm or ambitious moods. Such a self also seems important to raising children, which I would like to do in the distant future.

Are there states which - although I have them - I only experience around certain people? That's a question for you! Please tell me.

Balance of States


I spend most of my time in the baseline clear-and-calm with one other state on top. Writing this post, I'm between clear-and-calm and ambitious. Usually, when I'm hanging out with friends, I'm between clear-and-calm and playful.

I also spend some time in each mood alone. Distinctly clear and calm John exists most days; so does distinctly hedonistic John (often early in the morning, before he's really awake). Distinctly playful John and distinctly ambitious John each exist a few times most weeks. Distinctly meaning-feeling John and distinctly obsessed John exist only every few weeks.


I would like to spend less time in clear-and-calm states, especially distinctly clear-and-calm. That self is very comfortable and stable, but not as exciting (neither to me nor other people) as my other states, and it only does a few things particularly well. To me, clear-and-calm's overuse represents a kind of laziness.

Instead, I would like to spend more time being distinct, other selves - especially obsessed, meaning-feeling, and ambitious. I enjoy those three moods a lot, and I think they contribute more to my long term happiness than do the others. However, they are very tiring, and - perhaps more importantly - hard for me to transition into.

Transitioning between states

I have watched the first Iron Man movie several times, usually starting in a clear-and-calm or hedonistic state. Whenever I get to the part where Tony Stark is building his suit (not the cave-version, but the real one), I start to feel envious - why am I wasting my time watching movies instead of doing great things like him? I suddenly become ambitious John and sometimes turn the movie off and start doing "more important" things.

I have just given an example of how a particular action can help me transition from one self into another. Other such procedures include going walking in Princeton at night in the summer in order to become meaning-feeling John, and doing physically intense things to escape distinctly clear-and-calm John. I've also heard that visualizing end goals can motivate ambition (I think this is a CFAR trick).

If I were very skilled at transitioning between states, then I could shift from my current balance of selves to my desired balance - that would be awesome! But I'm having trouble coming up with simple techniques for transitioning between states. Do any of you have tricks for this? Please suggest things and I'll give them a try!


  1. I can understand most of my behavior as a mixing of one, two or three of the following selves: clear-and-calm (baseline), playful, ambitious, hedonistic, meaning-feeling, obsessed.
  2. Right now, I spend more time in clear-and-calm states than I would like to. I would rather spend more time in obsessed, meaning-feeling, and ambitious states.
  3. I'm not very good at transitioning between states. Does anyone have suggestions?


To Charlie for good editing.

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