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you can care about things by Vincent H. '23

revisiting stoicism

i. recently i was thinking about my relationship with other people both in the context of writing a blog and in the context of being a friend. i was pretty confused, so i asked on twitter

“a dilemma I’m currently thinking through – when I write (or do any other public work), how much do I care about changing other peoples’ minds vs focusing solely on personal expression and craft?

people often say you can’t/shouldn’t try to change others. i think that’s very reasonable- other peoples’ choices are out of your control, so it doesn’t make sense to put too much weight on their decisions. doing so can be exhausting and bring lots of emotional pain

on the other hand: advertising works. recruiting works. activism works. these fields are built around the premise that you can change the people around you, often in significant and long-lasting ways

how do people in these areas reconcile “not being able to change other people” with the fact that their work literally depends on it?

when should i try to influence my friends’ decisions? when is it within my right to do so? how do i deal with the disappointment that comes when a friend makes a choice that i think is obviously wrong?”

in other words, most of my interactions with other people come either from us being friends or from them reading content i write, and i wasn’t sure how much i cared about actively being a positive influence and shaping other people vs just doing my own thing and not worrying about my impact on others

 

ii. at some point during the pandemic i was introduced to stoicism. one of its main premises is that we can only control ourselves; external factors like other people and current events and the weather are beyond our control, so wishing for specific outcomes from these things inevitably leads to disappointment and therefore we should not concern ourselves with them. instead we should focus on maximizing our own thoughts and actions, the only things we actually have power over. this is illustrated in quotes like the following one from meditations, which i’ve written about before: 

“Start praying like this and you’ll see:
Not ‘some way to sleep with her’ – but a way to stop wanting to.
Not ‘some way to get rid of him’ – but a way to stop trying.
Not ‘some way to save my child’ – but a way to lose your fear.”

i think it’s important to note that this stance is primarily a defensive one – it doesn’t actually reveal how to accomplish anything you want, but rather explains how to avoid unnecessary suffering and how to protect your own well-being. this is one of the reasons i was initially drawn to stoicism – at the time i was suffering from a lot of social anxiety, insecurity about my competence, and various other problems of my own making. so what i needed then was an ideology to ground myself and stop my mind from wandering, and i am grateful to stoicism for providing that

 

iii. one of my friends saw my tweets and disagreed with the assumptions i’d made. i don’t think recruiters are actually emotionally invested in convincing any of their targets to join a company, they said. their job isn’t to change your mind as much as it is to flood your brain with positive information about a subject you might not have thought critically about before

in hindsight this makes a lot of sense: if recruiters were actually attached to every candidate they wanted to hire, most of them would probably burn out within a few months. conversations with good recruiters might feel like targeted emotional messaging, but that doesn’t imply they care about you; it could just mean they’re very effective at delivering customized information. i think this distinction is similar to the difference between persuasive writing and biased expository writing – it’s easy to mistake the latter for the former if you’re not reading carefully, but they originate from very different mentalities. in my experience, producing persuasive writing requires thinking much more carefully about the reader than producing biased expository writing does

if you accept this view on recruiting and writing, then maybe maximizing impact on others actually has very little to do with how much you care about or understand the people around you. maybe it’s actually about developing the most efficient and scalable systems for outreach and projection. and maybe that also means impact maximization isn’t as humane or benevolent of a goal as it’s often made out to be

 

iv. of course, the problem with believing external events are out of your control is that this belief is often self-fulfilling. for instance: you see your friend making bad choices, you tell yourself that your friend’s behavior is beyond your control, and as a result you decide not to explain to your friend how they’re being dumb, thereby ensuring you have no say in your friend’s decisions

(i think the stoic counterargument here would be something like: you can’t control what your friend does, but you can control how good of a friend you are, so you should tell your friend anyway because that’s what a good friend would do. but arguments like these manage an extremely delicate balance between involvement / responsibility / control / attachment that i think is too difficult to navigate in practice)

in other words: delineating the things you can and can’t control, and then letting go of the latter, can become very limiting. sometimes it’s important to believe you can control things even when that’s not strictly true

 

v. the other day i was thinking about basketball and i realized that being a committed sports fan basically means you consent to adding a random number to your happiness level each week

that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just means you’ve agreed to increasing the variance in your mood for some reason. maybe you actually like chaos, or maybe you’ve decided the camaraderie or sense of community or whatever else you get from following sports is worth the extra uncertainty

this is true for everything else in the world as well. caring about external events means adding randomness to your mood; variance can only increase when you add independent random variables and different facets of life are usually pretty close to independent, so deciding to care about more things is akin to allowing the world to dictate more of your emotional state

 

vi. one concept that’s become popular among my friends recently is that all advice is directional. the meaning of the phrase:

advice often takes the form “you should do X, because it will produce Y outcome in your life”. eg. “you should exercise to become more fit” or “you should speak up so people take you more seriously”. this type of statement is rarely universally applicable though – usually, when people say it, what they really mean is “if you do X more often, it will produce more of Y outcome in your life. you seem to be lacking Y in your life, so i think you should do X more often; however, if someone had too much of Y in their life, i would suggest that they do X less often”. in other words, advice is often phrased as a suggestion to perform an action, but it is more accurate to interpret the advice as highlighting a relationship between an action and an outcome, and this relationship can go in either direction

applying this principle to the ideas of control and attachment, we can similarly transform them from absolute statements into directional ones. specifically: people who are currently struggling with mental health might benefit from reducing the extent to which they care about the external world, so that they can better manage their own emotional state; however, for people who currently feel stable enough to weather more emotional turbulence, they might actually benefit from caring more about things they can’t control

all of which is to say that i feel better than i did last year. i feel like i can afford to care more about other people and about problems that are not my own. if i ever feel overwhelmed i can always withdraw back into myself again, but for now everything actually feels alright