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Temptation or Inspiration: how to overcome doubt

This is the fourth and final part of a series of posts I’m writing about why I quit my software engineering job at Microsoft to make a game. I mostly talk about the revelations that I had during a time period of introspection before I could make that decision.

apple

This is the last post of the series and just like the series finale of Game of Thrones, it’s twice as long and half as fun. So, buckle up! In the past three posts, I talked about my journey from thinking about quitting my job to actually doing it. It took a long time to sort through my thoughts and I had to overcome multiple mental barriers one by one. At every stage, I had to use my internal monologue to have an honest discussion with myself, although at times it felt like a crowded hallway with a thousand voices mixed together. These types of self-reflections can be very difficult; it sometimes feels like every thought you had in your life is manifested as a loud and nasty debater in your head raising its voice to talk over other voices, and at some point you have to find the voice that is “you” and is in control (or is it?) and tell everyone to shut the f*** up. Hopefully, you can manage the discussion and call in these voices to your imaginary office one by one and listen to what they have to say. I talked about how I had to deal with the growing shadow that was getting bigger the more I escaped it, and then the calculative accountant telling me I could maximize my financial security, and then the scared voice with the anxiety of freedom. Ultimately, I had to have a final and difficult discussion with the devil himself; a voice that was telling me that this whole thing is a temptation; that you, the guy sitting in the office calling in other voices, is actually not you! It’s the devil, and it’s been in control this whole time, and the other guy —who was just called in last— is the real you (or maybe God?) trying to save you from this big temptation. Which one is the real you? Which one do you trust? Wait, who is the person trusting one of these voices? Is that the real you? It was getting too abstract, so I fell to my knees and prayed to The Almighty to help me… just kidding, let’s sort this out.

serpent

"I tempt you... I double-tempt you..."

You are neither of these voices

This is the oldest story in the book. In ancient religions, it’s the Serpent’s temptation to the forbidden fruit. In ancient Chinese philosophy, it’s Yin and Yang. In ancient Greek philosophy, it’s Socratic dialogue. In modern philosophy, it’s Hegelian dialectic. You get the point… I’m smart. I know stuff. Let’s move on. My point is that you ARE this dialogue, this back and forth of ideas. Any decision making leads to this final battle between the two forces. You are not either of these forces, but the boundary where they clash; the force between the Serpent and God; the line between the Yin and Yang; the synthesis… okay, I’m not doing this again. You get it. If you don’t realize this, you will pick one side as “the real me” and grow it into a big ego that oppresses the other half of you and those around you. You’ll leave little room to learn, compromise, and grow. I suspect if you are reading this sentence, your ego can only be so big, because I would’ve either annoyed or bored the s*** out of you long ago. You’re fine. We’re cool. (Yeah… let’s validate each other… let’s stroke each other’s ego… what could go wrong? yeah…)

Beyond good and evil

tldr; To tell a temptation from an inspiration, you need a value structure.

Outside the context of a value structure, temptations and inspirations are the same thing: an urge to do something; to transform the Universe in some way; to be. Outside the context of a value structure, good and bad don’t mean anything, creation and destruction are the same thing, your decisions are all equally significant, and that makes the decision-maker a.k.a. “you” insignificant. The good news is that you already have values, whether or not they’re conscious, whether or not you admit them, whether or not you’re Goth or Emo or a cosmic nihilist with no will-to-life who somehow ended up here reading this!

chigurh

In the great Cohen brothers’ movie “No Country for Old Men”, the character Chigurh is an active nihilist and a vicious murderer who decides the fate of his victims by a coin flip to escape any sense of a moral value that would guide his decision. One could argue that he is still bound to a value structure imposed on him by the mere fact that he is a human being. I think the ending of the movie has a similar point. I highly recommend watching it.

Making your values conscious

We have existing values that guide our decisions, but they are not always conscious. We have notions of good and bad on different layers of our psyche, each planted there at some point in life, most at a very young age when we were very receptive as a child, when we had not developed any critical thinking abilities and don’t remember much from. It’s extremely difficult to articulate these values unless one spends a lot of time thinking about them. Nonetheless, they are the primary force behind our decision making process. The process of plying open your own psyche layer by layer to reevaluate these values can be as painful as it sounds, but it’s a pain well worth the gain. After all, how could one reach self-actualization without self-awareness? I think ultimately the process of self-actualization is about forming these values, refining them and living them. Although, there is a way to stay true to our values without being able to put them to words. There is a compass that can show us the direction, even if the destination is out of sight. I’ll get back to this.

Boringly productive or excitingly useless

Whenever I’m unhappy with what I’m doing, it’s either because I find it too boring or it too unproductive. I think everybody has these two rewarding systems in their mind, although on extreme cases one could mute either of them, often at great cost.

The pleasure system (boring/fun detector) is related to our immediate experience of the world and the reward system of our brain in the moment. We just know that some activities are fun for us and some aren’t. It’s very subjective and the system builds up over long periods of time in our subconscious by constant reinforcement. You’d have a hard time changing it quickly if you wanted to. This is the system that can lead to addictions or make it so hard to form new habits.

The value system (productive/useless detector) is related to a longer-term experience of the world, involving memory and imagination for processing the past and the future. It’s what we reward or punish ourselves with over time. It’s usually more conscious, or can become conscious via introspection and critical thinking and planning. It’s still hard to modify, but much easier than the first system. It’s impressionable too. For example, a quick change in the environment could challenge this system much easier than the first one, which is a common starter to challenge one’s value structure. (Imagine a high schooler from a small town going to a big city for college.)

Now, let’s see how these two systems affect our decisions.

woodenbox

In Breaking Bad, Jesse once tells a memory about his teacher who asked him “can you do better?” after he puts the bare minimum effort into making a wooden box. The question triggers a moment of honest self-reflection that leads him to retry multiple times until he makes a perfect box; something he was proud of. He recites the memory in the final episode as he’s enslaved by his own doing; the consequence of living a life against his own values.

How to have fun suffering (and not in a masochistic way!)

The interaction between these two systems determine how you feel about your daily activities. There was a time that I was an unhappy grad student in a PhD program, and my contempt for my school work and research gradually led me to a video game addiction. Every day, I was swinging between two unfulfilling activities to keep these two systems fed to a bare minimum. One would make me feel productive, the other was fun. I could only break out of that cycle when I got inspired by the idea of finding a job in the industry. I started to spend some time researching and preparing for job interviews, and as I spent more time on it, the idea grew stronger and I worked harder for it, until eventually it led to a new chapter in my life. It was one of the best decisions of my life, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds right now. I was full of doubt at the time. Was it a temptation or inspiration? The idea of quitting my PhD for a job was an urge. Earlier, I said that you can only call an urge a temptation or inspiration based on your values. At the time, my value structure was challenged by a quick change in the environment (immigration) including the fact that I had a better idea of what my PhD program will look like. My decision was less between a PhD program or a job, and more about choosing which lenses I wanted to look at them through. This is where having conscious values helps you make conscious decisions. I don’t think I had a clear idea of what I was doing back then, but I did something right that makes me happy with that decision in the hindsight. Something that makes me call it an inspiration. I wanted to analyze it so I could use it for my current decision (quitting my job).

I think what I did right was that I paid attention to both systems. I did something that could feed both of those interal systems simultaneously. I was ready to take a cut out of my existing routine (both my work and my play time) to prepare for job interviews and I was excited to do so. It was hard, but I wanted to do the best I could, and that made me prepared for the suffering. I had fun suffering. I used my rewarding systems like a compass that showed me which direction is aligned with my values. One could argue that I’m saying it because things worked out and I’m happy with the results, but I think it’s the other way around. Things “worked out” because how I evaluate the results is aligned with the values that guided that decision in the first place, and what motivated me to work hard at it. Even if the objective parameters of the result were different, my subjective experience of it would have probably been the same. If that was not the case, I was probably regretting not having a PhD right now.

The problem of creative mania and impulsiveness

There is a flip side of the coin. Not long ago, I was exhausted because I was putting energy into every exciting idea that came to my mind. Once in a while, I have these manic phases where I would come up with a new interesting idea every day. Apparently, this is common with personalities with high openness (attributed to high creativity) and in extreme cases it’s attributed to bipolar disorder. The closest term I could find for it is hypomania (mild mania). Creativity has positive cultural connotations, but it’s not necessarily a positive quality. It’s an urge that needs to be balanced out, otherwise it can wear you out quickly or even lead to disorders. I think this happens when the value system becomes too loose and gets overruled by the pleasure system easily. It’s an elusive form of addiction that is hard to acknowledge, because you can feel productive by doing pretty much anything and you impulsively switch between them. You will try everything and commit to nothing. It even might work for some people, but it can backfire if you have ideals about long term achievements in life. I didn’t work for me for long, so I had to find a way to deal with it, which I’ll talk about towards the end of this (long) post.

The feedback loop and the balance

At this point, you might be questioning a loop in my logic. I trusted my rewarding systems as a compass to guide me, but my values are part of the systems. This is not a logical loop; it’s rather a feedback loop. The two systems are like two legs. One keeps you grounded while the other one moves you forward. If you oppress yourself by telling yourself “I just have to do get my PhD” maybe because that would make your dad happy on a conscious or subconscious level, then you may never move forward based on your own values. On the flip side, if you completely reject your existing values and rebel against them mindlessly, then you may end up impulsively dancing around like a one-legged chicken. If you keep moving, your legs will get stronger too. At every stage, you have to pay attention to both your urges and your existing values to make a decision, that decision will put you into a new situation that gives you feedback, which adjusts your systems for making new decisions in the new environment. Hopefully, if you listen to both voices honestly and make decisions based on critical observation of your environment, you will lead a fulfilling life at every stage.

You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.

— Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Be a sincere manager to yourself

One of the most helpful advice I’ve ever heard is the second rule from Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Think about your ideal manager/supervisor. How would they treat you when you go to them with a new idea? A too oppressive manager would immediately shoot it down. This is when you tell yourself that your idea is stupid, invaluable or unimportant; that you have more important things to take care of; or there are more noble causes to pursue. A too indifferent manager wouldn’t give you a meaningful guidance and let you go on your own, just to blame you later when things go wrong. I think an ideal manager would at least acknowledge the existence of your idea! They might ask you for some kind of research or evaluation, a feasibility study, a proof of work and real interest.

This is how I try to treat my new ideas. I don’t shoot them down immediately because I’m too busy or it’s not the right time. I first acknowledge them, and just let it sit in my mind for some time, which takes almost no time and energy. If it sticks around, I’d do some browsing on it, maybe watch a video, or listen to someone with experience on it. If it still sticks around, I promote it to a small hacking project. Most ideas burn out their initial fire during these stages and vanish from my mind. Some sound stupid after a day, some look too difficult early on and go in an archive, some may become an occasional hobby. The key is to let them pass the test of time, and every time they pass a level, give them just a bit more attention and time and see if they still feel worthy; if they still make you feel both productive and excited. Eventually, you’d have a hierarchy of ideas and projects at different levels, and you’d prioritize and promote them when they are due for a promotion. They rarely can climb to the top of the hierarchy, where you’d consider cutting some time out of your main projects or quit them altogether to make room for them. Remember that throughout this process of filtering and spending time, you’re also modifying your value structure and sharpening your skillset just a little at a time. It’s a big structure with feedback loops built into it that grows slowly but constantly. Out of thousands of ideas I’ve had over the years, only one stuck around in my head for long enough to convince me it’s worth quitting my job for. I did a lot of exploration and made a lot of prototypes before it got to that level, and because of that, I was well prepared and confident when I did so.

A side note

Much of what I described in this post has almost a one-to-one mapping in psychoanalysis. You might have heard of id, ego and superego. I intentially refrained from using those terms, because I didn’t want to imply that I have worked backwards from an existing structure and put my experience into that structure. I wanted to keep the text honest to the fact that I have started from my own experience and in the process of making sense of it I have stumbled upon the existing concepts. I think this approach makes the text more honest and relatable and less like a course on psychoanalysis.

That’s it

This was a long post despite my attempts to make it concise. I couldn’t find a meaningful splitting point, so I posted it as one post. There is so much more to talk about every aspect of this. Let me know if you’re interested in exploring a specific topic further. If you found the link on a social media platform, you can leave a comment there. You can also tweet at me or shoot me an email. It’d be great to hear from you. Thank you for reading.