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Do You Actually Want to Make Progress?

I’ve written a lot to help people make progress. The basic premise is a reader who wants to make progress but runs into some problems. He fails to solve some of the problems. He gets stuck. He could, therefore, be helped with advice, with new approaches to try, by learning new skills that could improve his problem solving abilities, and with other knowledge.

But even the self-selected few who read my work generally do not seem to want to make progress. I think that is what stops them. They aren’t blocked by obstacles. They are blocked by not trying, not caring, not doing much. (It’s not that they are opposed to making progress, either. They merely don’t actively, positively want to. They’re approximately neutral on the matter.)

You could say that not valuing progress much is a problem. But it’s a different sort of problem than, say, being unable to calculate a mathematical expression, being ignorant of what sentences mean, making logical errors, or being biased.

People have those other sorts of problems. They may be bad at grammar and logic, and that may prevent them from e.g. productively debating philosophy or even from productively reading Popper. But I don’t think they have those problems so badly that they’re stuck with no way to make progress. They could work on things step by step. Often they don’t want to work on more basic skills; they want to work on advanced stuff but skipping steps doesn’t work so they get stuck.

Apparently, a lot of people value engaging with clever, impressive stuff. They want to work on complex philosophy not arithmetic. They want to talk about science not what paragraphs mean. In that case, they don’t really value progress itself in a way that would motivate them to work on prerequisites and develop their skills. They value some of the results they think progress would give them. Or maybe they think skill building would take too long, so they give up and look for shortcuts (which then don’t work).

A theme in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is that most people don’t value their lives, don’t really want to live, and don’t really try to make progress. (Nor do most people particularly want to die. They are bad at wanting things, valuing things or having goals.)

People who say they are ambitious, and claim to care deeply about making progress, are usually lying to themselves. If we talk, that results in them repeating the lies to me. Lying to yourself leads to lying to others. So I cannot trust people who say they want to make progress.

So I’m left considering options like:

  • Only talk to people who already have done a lot, e.g. written 100,000 words of philosophy that didn’t suck (prior to that, they’re welcome to read my stuff, and perhaps even have very brief exchanges with me on my forum, but no serious or lengthy conversations with me).
  • Write for people who want to make progress, should any exist, and not worry about the rest.
  • Have more ways to test people, more ways they can differentiate themselves.
  • Let them figure out for themselves some ways to differentiate themselves, if they can.
  • Try to figure out why people are so passive and lacking in values, and try to solve that problem which is very foreign to me, even though they don’t want me to solve that problem and will not help me (they aren’t opposed to me solving it either; they don’t know how to particularly care).

I can’t trust high prestige people to be better. Social climbing isn’t a good sign. Someone being respected or famous or rich doesn’t mean they’re very rational, or that they want to make progress, or that they’ll have much interest in learning and self-improvement. Conventional track records mean little.

The people who are so neutral, passive, boring and gray usually do care a lot, and react strongly, to some things. Some have a political tribe or care about celebrity gossip. Broadly, they’re second-handers who react to the opinions of others. Instead of having and living by their own values, they try to use the values of people around them as substitutes. The people around them are the same way, so you can get a chain of people trying to use the second-hand values of other people who are doing the same thing with other people still who are doing the same thing, and so on. Like in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand:

A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought—and so on, Peter, around the globe.

Anyway, I think I’ve assumed too much that people want to make progress instead of addressing the hard problem that they don’t really. And it’s hard to speak to someone who doesn’t really want to make progress, because what do I have to offer them? I can offer things like more effective ways to achieve goals, but what good is that to someone who doesn’t really care about their goals or their life? People generally don’t take their own goals very seriously.

Elliot Temple on January 6, 2023


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