Strategic Withdrawal

A new week, a new whatever. Thankfully there was far less in terms of emotional crash yesterday, which is hopeful. I also allowed myself to do a lot less over the weekend, which may have helped.

A couple more things have crossed my path, both of which seem like the next step in not fighting my own nature. The first is a book, El túnel by Ernesto Sábato. It is, at least on its face, the memoir of a murder, but the part that strikes me is the narrator’s rejection of many “normal” aspects of the nitty-gritty of socializing, being a social being, etc. The other is a blog post by Gwern Branwen, who is into a lot of things I find rather unhelpful (rationalism) or actively negative (effective altruism, crypto), but whose website I find ridiculously well-designed. I first came upon his site at some point due to a long post (all of his posts are long) on rubrication, which I enjoyed. I came back to the blog recently after something from there was posted on Hacker News, and I was intrigued by the title of the post I linked above.

Most of the actually-good bits I found in the Gwern post are from other people. But the long and short of it is questioning whether we should really be trying to push people out of subcultures and into the “main” one. A lot of it is about social status and the size of groups we compare ourselves to, which isn’t particularly helpful in my case (at least not now). After all, this question requires there to be something you seek to be proud of, and I have not remotely found such a thing in my own life. But the more significant question for me is simply whether a greater degree of “opting out” (in the post’s words) is something I should really consider embracing. Or, better said, something I should stop fighting.

The book’s ultimate purpose (and how the protagonist’s words should be interpreted) remains to be seen, as I haven’t finished it yet. But it’s pretty short, so I’m hoping that won’t take long. What has grabbed me so far, at least, is the way the narrator simply decides he’s not going to do things a certain way. Sometimes it’s a case of recognizing that he’s terrible at the “normal” way of doing something (e.g. talking to an unknown woman), others it’s just a (simple?) decision not to do it that way. These are typically left unexplained.

I think as always it’s a question of balance. On the one hand, I can certainly envy the people who have that one thing that they seek to perfect to the best of their abilities. But, as the blog post points out, we tend not to ask what that kind of life leaves out, what the cost of that pursuit of perfection actually is. At the same time, I do think there’s such a thing as over-extending oneself, and that’s definitely where I am: trying to straddle too many different groups/areas/foci/whatever.

This same thought applies equally to the idea of “opting out,” of course. Entirely isolating myself is not really any better than over-extending. Unfortunately, I haven’t the first idea how to work towards being part of a group, which is something that we tend to forget is a thing. This 2003 essay (quoted by the Gwern post) describes it as follows:

Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. And popularity is not something you can do in your spare time, not in the fiercely competitive environment of an American secondary school…

…Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. In general, people outside some very demanding field don’t realize the extent to which success depends on constant (though often unconscious) effort. For example, most people seem to consider the ability to draw as some kind of innate quality, like being tall. In fact, most people who “can draw” like drawing, and have spent many hours doing it; that’s why they’re good at it. Likewise, popular isn’t just something you are or you aren’t, but something you make yourself.

This is (at least out of context) more than a little reductive, and overstates just how much control one has over the result. But I do think it’s accurate to say that being popular isn’t entirely something that just happens. Even if you can’t always make it happen by choice, you can absolutely take deliberate steps to make sure it doesn’t happen.

At the same time, I’ve been told for much of my life that you shouldn’t go looking for people, you should go looking for stuff that you like, and then find people that like that too. Unfortunately, I haven’t the foggiest how to do that given how quickly my interests change. I’ll be curious to see if this settles down any, but it’s far too soon to know. Related to this, I don’t have a good sense of what I want to devote more (read: sufficient) time to in order to have it go anywhere, since I still lack a good sense of why I do much of anything…at least beyond “it seemed cool at the time.”

This focus on socialization vs. withdraw is, in a way, at the core of what I’ve been trying to sort out for the last few years. My instinct is to be 99.9% reclusive, but I often worry about whether that’s too self-indulgent, and wish that I could be clearer about what I’m doing outside of my internal ambit.

Too often, I think, we conflate knowledge of a thing with power over the thing (cf. that fantasy trope of being able to control someone/something if you know its “true” name). Mass media/communications wildly skew this, as we can know a little about a lot and can find out plenty more. But knowing about the shady things one’s government is getting up to doesn’t equate to much in the way of influence over the problem. (An interesting side-note from the Gwern piece is the suggestion that nationalism/national identity breaks down as people retreat into subcultures. He seems to suggest a negative here, but I would say good riddance.) Growing up as I did, straddling the Internet Age (I was online in some sense as a kid, but these were the days of dial-up and BBSes), I think some or even many of us got the idea that all this new access to knowledge and overall interconnectedness would mean a lot more than it actually does.

It’s also far easier to indulge in the human tendency to see single people as the driving force behind something, which is almost never actually the case. We can find a lot more people to compare ourselves against, and it’s much harder to keep that kind of thing in perspective. Our culture also tells us to ignore all the ways that successful people lucked into their success, leaving us to wonder why we “couldn’t” make it. The more important side-effect, though, is the fact that once we come to that realization, few of us have an idea where to go next. We’re told we too can be the next [great person], so we internalize that, and then are deeply damaged whenever we come to understand that this is just wrong.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know one thing it’s not: you can’t just forcibly shrink your horizons. Just deciding that you’re not going to care about things that used to matter, or that you’re not going to be as curious about the world are recipes for frustration at best. There’s a more pernicious angle as well: trying to force ourselves to look more closely around us (especially in terms of the people in our lives) without a true refocusing just makes the people and things we care about look small. This metaphor of refocusing (rather than trying to completely change how we think) seems like the best way, even if I haven’t a clue how to actually do that yet.