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Maybe your desires are delusional

The vast majority of my desires are not the reasonable desires that I had once believed them to be. They’re actually completely delusional desires dressed up in shoddy “reasonable desire” costumes, and I’ve just been pretending not to notice.

How do you recognize a delusional desire? You’ll have what seems like a totally innocuous desire, like “I want to publish a book”. You waffle around with various sentences. You read the first third of Stephen King’s On Writing. You spend an hour and a half pondering word choice in your opening paragraph. You idly wonder whether you get to write your own About the Author section.

Dimly, some part of you registers that if you continue at your present rate, your magnum opus is on track to be completed in 2187.

That’s not a welcome thought. Your mind puts on its best customer service smile and dutifully explains that yes, it might seem like your current plan is doomed to fail, and sure, it seems like there are other, more deliberate courses of action you could take that would be much more likely to succeed, but there are very good reasons for avoiding a reasonable chain of decisions. Specifically, a reasonable approach:

  1. Would require getting serious: developing some kind of actual plan, or at least being honest with yourself about timelines and rates of progress. It would require a lot prerequisite tasks that seem unpleasant (cultivating the necessary discipline to stick to a plan, getting honest feedback, editing, etc). Doing all of that seems hard.

  2. Would require doing things you find sleazy (e.g. promoting your work)

  3. Also, this other, unrelated thing you want seems more important, maybe you should do that first (e.g. maybe your career or relationship or another hobby or whatever)

  4. Also it’s not like it matters because it wouldn’t work out anyway

  5. Also it’s not like you really want it anyway

Whenever I have a desire and reach this point of self-interrogation, pressing on tends to unleash a torrent of unpleasant emotions and half-baked justifications, so I generally just let it lie.

But that’s probably a mistake, because there are follow-up questions worth asking. Questions like

  1. Are all of those prerequisites necessary? Do I need to do them right now, or can I do the most important stuff now and the other stuff later? If this is the work that’s required, then is attempting to do it in a less structured way likely to result in unexpected spontaneous bursts of productivity, or just never doing anything at all?

  2. Why don’t I want to do those things? Which ones are really in contradiction of my values, and which ones are just frightening? If some things really do feel unethical, then can I find a way to get what I want that doesn’t require doing something wrong?

  3. Is the other desire actually more important? If it isn’t, then let’s return to the matter at hand. If it is, fine, let’s turn our attention to that thing and consider it with the same level of honesty.

  4. Do I really believe success is impossible? If so, then am I absolutely confident that there isn’t another way to achieve my goal? Am I sure I’m not using the comforting illusion of a predetermined failure to pretend I don’t have agency? If I had honestly tried to the best of my ability, why would I be ashamed if I failed?

  5. Why not? Have I achieved a profound state of cosmic peace, or am I just downplaying what I want so that I don’t feel obligated to get it?

With enough gentle-but-unyielding scrutiny, you can usually pick apart a desire into a reasonable core with a bunch of completely absurd limitations and stipulations hanging off of it like leeches. You’ll find something like

“I have this cool story that I really want to tell, but it’s kind of personal so I don’t want people to read it, but also I don’t want to be a bad writer, I want to be a good writer, but it should come naturally, I don’t want to have to work and work and work to become mediocre, and I don’t want to have to develop a deeper understanding of literature or the human condition, I just want to write and have it be really good.”

There’s a reasonable core in that desire, but there’s a bunch of other superfluous limitations that, while understandable, are only going to hold you back. This essay, then, is an invitation to carefully examine your desires, going over each self-imposed requirement, and consider whether it’s there to serve your goals and values, or if it’s there to serve your ego.

In Dan Luu’s 95%-ile isn’t that good, he discusses people who claim they want to get better at a skill (his example is the video game Overwatch), but who regularly make egregious and easily-fixable mistakes. His conclusion is that in any given area of performance, most people can dramatically improve their abilities by addressing fairly obvious issues via coaching, critical self-review, deliberate practice, etc.

So why don’t they? If people are willing to sink hundreds of hours into a game, why aren’t they willing to spend a bit of time taking specific steps to get better? Why not spend time practicing individual techniques? Improvement isn’t easy, but why not look for low-hanging fruit, follow some tutorials, solicit feedback, etc?

My proposed explanation is simple: the players do actually want to get better, but there’s a whole bunch of requirements attached to that desire. They don’t want to have to criticize themselves, don’t want to have to spend time on practice when they could be playing, don’t want to do the boring, deliberate, extensive work they’d need to improve. They kind of want to get better, but mostly they want to magically be better, and have this next game be the one where their transformation finally manifests.

It’s easy to see this in others, but hard to see in ourselves. We miss out on achieving so much because we saddle ourselves with unnecessary limitations, and it only gets worse as we age.

Ideally, the more I matured, the more reasonable my desires would become. If anything, though, I’m probably more limited now than I used to be. None of the stipulations have gone away: my desires can’t challenge my ego, can’t require me to risk failure, can’t demand anything of me, but the older I get, the more embarrassing I assume it’ll be to be unfinished. I know that the pursuit of what we want but don’t have is the main mechanism by which we grow, but part of me wants to be fully formed because I wish I could avoid ever feeling embarrassed or childish again.

Confronting the narcissistic, delusional parts of your desires is unpleasant and feels degrading, so it can be tempting to perform a sort of violent rejection of self: I’m so weak, but getting what I want will require someone strong. It’ll be uncomfortable, it’ll be tough, so I need to toughen up. Seek discomfort, court rejection. Become someone who isn’t a mess of fear and denial and avoidance. All you have to do is become someone else. All you have to do is be strict with yourself, look over your own shoulder every second of every day. Maybe you can push yourself away so definitively that some different, better you will take your place.

It can feel darkly vindicating to think these thoughts, to tell yourself you’re finally being boldly honest with yourself, but hating yourself isn’t progress. You might end up lecturing yourself, getting frustrated with yourself, promising new self-inflicted punishments for each transgression—everything but going back to the work you were supposed to be doing. Unwittingly, you trace out sad little circles of a new, darker form of procrastination. Or maybe you’ll throw yourself into your work, convinced that now that you’ve disowned yourself, everything will change.

I’ve tried this strategy in the past, and I burn out every time. Even if I could sustain it—plenty of people do—and even if it “worked” in terms of results, that’s not how I want to treat myself. I don’t think there’s a better me waiting in the wings unencumbered by my entitled, flawed desires. I am the only me I have. Rejecting myself is just another plan doomed to fail, another ‘strategy’ that places an artificial barrier between me and anything I might want: first, become someone else.

I don’t know myself well enough to make claims about how to proceed from here, but just being honest with myself about having delusional desires feels like a good start. I didn’t leap up, inspired, to do all the things I’ve been neglecting. I didn’t transform into some shining beacon of self-actualization.

But all of my excuses for what I do and don’t do seem slightly clearer now. I’m ruled by the same absurdities, but I can see their mechanisms a bit better, watch their inner workings, and with that understanding comes the opportunity to take back a little more freedom.

For now, that’s enough.