Life Spirit Distillation
Life, as the John Lennon song goes, is what happens when you're busy making other plans. Should you pay more attention to life or to your plans? This is probably the fundamental question that any life philosophy should ask. "Personal growth" philosophies nearly always answer "plans." This is why they mostly suck. And no, it makes no difference if you substitute "agile" plans. This is not agile-versus-waterfall, episode two billion.
I realize that many of you approach this newsletter like it's about personal growth, but I'm slowly coming to the realization that I've never actually believed in, or liked the idea. Anything I say that seems valuable for "personal growth" is unintended, and purely coincidental.
I have an alternative frame that I call life intensification; an idea of progressive fermentation and distillation of your life spirit (heh!) from an unfermented mash to a 140-proof alcohol (no actual drinking necessary). A path of increasing "life drunkenness" as you go from ethereal youth to fully alive adult maturity, aging like a fine scotch along the way. Think of the guy in the "most interesting man in the world" Dos Equis commercials for a caricature of what I mean, or perhaps John McAfee. Love him or hate him, he's certainly a very potently distilled version of himself.
The problem with personal growth frames
1/ Long-time readers have probably detected hints of my skepticism of personal growth in several past issues. My arguments and against deep work in particular, are arguments against the personal growth frame in disguise.
2/ I pull my punches a bit in this newsletter, but my skepticism is probably even more evident on my blog, ribbonfarm, where I've lately taken to openly, unironically, championing mediocrity.
3/ The alternative to "growth" is not stasis or passivity, but a growing aliveness to the actual change that you're undergoing in the process of generating responses to specific life challenges. If these challenges are real, then the way you change through responding to them is not entirely within your control.
4/ The question then becomes, w_hat do you do with the unexpected person you find you've turned into_? If you generated an imaginative response, you'll generally like that person and become more alive. If you haven't, you'll reject that person and become less alive, loss turning you into a loser.
5/ Here's the problem with personal growth frames: they encourage you to look at the evolution of your life in terms of its deviation from an aspirational idea of it. Ironically, "growth" is framed in terms of a deficiency. A gap between actual and aspirational selves.
6/ Think of it like this: at 14, you're something like a ghost: a cloud of potential, along with a bunch of ideas about how that potential should be actualized. You're not quite real. You are ethereal. Some people stay ethereal. As ghostly at 70 as 14. Others intensify with every experience, whether they win or lose.
7/ Life intensification is the process of consciously becoming increasingly real (and no, I'm not talking about being more "present" so don't jump to that conclusion) by letting go more and more of your idea of what your life should be like, and embracing the possibilities of what it is actually turning out to be like.
8/ You may not be able to spin this actuality as "growth" no matter how you hard you try. To others it may look like a descent into hell or a deal with the devil accompanied by moral decay rather than growth. Life intensification is a pre-moral framing of life.
9/ The premise here is that coming alive is the first order of business. Moral questions are moot until you do. Ghosts have no moral life because they have no life. A path to a more intense life, an couple of degrees closer to fully alive, may not conform to whiggish ideas of personal growth.
10/ "Growth" fixation makes you less alive to the realities and possibilities of what's actually happening, and inclined to go into denial or futile activity in response to changes that you cannot undo, like aging, losing a leg, or being caught up in wartime and strife.
11/ Unwelcome self-knowledge is the biggest source of such rejected change in the name of presumptive "growth" discipline. If you are attached to the idea of being a classical musician, but accidentally discover along the way that you have more of a talent for simplistic ad jingles, you cannot unknow that.
12/ Your choice at that moment of self-knowledge is to either use it to intensify your life and become more alive (going into advertising) or rejecting it in favor of continued ghostliness (reject the call of the advertising career and continuing an anemic pursuit of classical music).
13/ Viewed through the lens of life intensification, every challenge navigated ("success" or "failure" is irrelevant so long as you come out alive) brings you face-to-face with a newer, more intensely alive version of yourself that you can either accept or reject. A pull request from a possible future-you that you can either merge with or reject.
14/ "Personal growth" often encourages rejection of the more intense self because it does not conform to a preconceived plan for "growth." This is fundamentally why I am somewhere between skeptical to actively hostile towards it. Nothing is as self-limiting as a fixed idea of "growth" imagined by a younger version of you.
15/ This is the "I did not like who I was becoming" response many life events bring. Often, this line is trotted out as though the dilemma in question is a moral dilemma. That's usually just the public story. The private story is more often an intensification dilemma.
16/ A personal example: when I first discovered I was better than most people at behaviors generally thought of as sociopathic, I had a moment of doubt: "do I want to be this person I'm becoming?" But it wasn't a moral dilemma.
17/ It was an intensification dilemma lurking under a superficial moral dilemma. The real question was: could I live with the 10% greater intensity that this new self would require of me? Could I generate the 10% extra élan vital to actually power the possible newer version of me?
18/ Those of you who have met me know that I'm not a particularly intense person except in short bursts. I'm not one of those rare people who is natural-born 180 proof drunken master. I doubt I'll break the "80 proof" barrier in my lifetime. So it was a serious question for me.
19/ The moral question is always secondary and usually simple. Once you've chosen a new intensity level (higher or lower), you can nearly always synthesize a morality you can live with. In my case, it was developing my cartoon "slightly evil" persona that I blogged with for several years.
20/ If life intensification is the process of regenerating into a new self (like Doctor Who, except with increased intensity each time), synthesizing an appropriate morality is like finding appropriate clothes for the new persona. A trivial challenge by comparison.
21/ One sign that a philosophy is a personal growth philosophy rather than a life intensification philosophy is that moral challenges are not even secondary: they are absent altogether. Another is that you never feel the need to drop people from your life (our important relationships tend to be our moral anchors).
22/ Personal growth often amounts to letting the decision of whether to become the person you have the opportunity to become ride on whether you've already picked out appropriate clothes to wear (the growth "plan"). Rejecting the opportunity becomes a "I have nothing to wear" decision.
23/ Why? If you never choose to be someone you didn't plan to be, you are never in a moral dilemma. You never have to choose a path that superficially looks like decay. You can focus on tertiary challenges like rationality, productivity, financial success, relationships, diet, and fitness because you've finessed the primary and secondary challenges.
24/ A good way to understand this is to plot your favorite "personal growth" tactics and strategies on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I guarantee that all of them will line up with the bottom four levels. "Self-actualization" is always about life intensification and moral clothing choices. It is rarely about esteem, belonging, security, or physiological needs (though it can often masquerade as those).
25/ Perhaps you were born with a spirit that needed no intensification, and happened to pick growth aspirations that were somehow harmoniously aligned with the way your life is actually unfolding. Perhaps you were born fully actualized. I doubt it.
26/ Not every life faces the life intensification challenge to the same degree. Everybody does not face the same number of moral-clothing-change decisions in their life. Not everybody is born equally ghostly.
27/ But still, it is unlikely that you were born in such a charmed state that those questions were already sorted out. In my experience, most people are far more ghostly than they're willing to admit and address with intensification and moral clothing decision-making.
28/ Doctor Who actually provides a nice allegory: imagine the 12th doctor (male) rejecting the regeneration into the 13th (female) simply because it would involve wearing female clothes (I imagine people dealing with gender dysphoria must face a literal version of this challenge).
29/ "Personal growth" frames lead to life trajectories that are a combination of two things: half-assed actualization of aspirational selves chosen by less intense versions of yourself based on poor knowledge of your potentialities, and the scars of rejected more intense lives.
30/ Such trajectories tend to lack the characteristic signs of a steadily intensifying life. They are often as ghostly at 70 as they were at 14, suffused by a sense of vague dissatisfaction that never dissipates, even if you actually check off every single item on the "personal growth" checklist made by 22-year-old you.
31/ This disease of ghostly, not-quite-here lives has actually gotten more challenging to navigate as the world has gotten more complicated. The more complex the environment, the easier it is to reject opportunities for life intensification as distractions from some anemic notion of "growth" you're attached to.
32/ In the past, the evolution of life had a certain coherent narrative to it (red squiggly arrow in picture on left). Aspirations were periodically reset so you felt okay for a while, until the next life twist (dotted blue tangent arrows on left). Opportunities for more intense lives were not very common.
33/ A more complex world, with no significant change in our capacity to handle complexity, looks to us like a more random world (picture on the right). Everything is stochastic. In the short-term, it feels like we're being tossed around on a roiling sea of technology-driven change.
34/ The picture on the right shows this complicated picture. In the short term everything feels random. In the long term, your life evolution feels like a secular drift in the noise (red arrows in red cone, averaging out to the big red arrow).
35/ Aspirations have gotten more complex, but less ambitious. Most have accepted the idea that the raw material of life is a random walk in the short term, and we aspire to "herd" the arrows so life at least drifts in an aspirational direction on average even if you can't steer it that way deterministically (big blue arrow).
36/ A reactionary response to a complexifying world makes you yearn for the picture on the left. You try to craft a "classical" life narrative where you'll grow (and be disappointed by the results) in deterministic, if unpredictable, ways.
37/ You try to retreat to more controlled, less alive environments, so the stochastic flow turns into a single, deterministic (if unpredictably twisty) narrative thread, and try to steer that. This is what naive waldenponding and "deep work" do.
38/ A non-reactionary personal growth response is only slightly better. In an effort to steer the stochastic flow rather than retreat from it, you resort to what I call "random acts of personal growth" (the dotted blue arrows in the blue cone in the picture on the right), trying to rebalance the "portfolio" of your life's "optionality".
39/ The underlying stock investing metaphor is something I find particularly depressing and anti-intensity. Thinking of your life entirely in terms of "optionality" and "returns" from an environment that you can "beat" if you're clever enough is a fundamentally passive, ghostly, arbitrage-focused acting-dead orientation. Ultimately you only cheat yourself of your more intense possible lives.
40/ Neither of these responses solves for life intensification. Reactionary retreat to deterministic personal growth actively defends a ghostly state. Stochastic personal growth is like trying to beat the "market" of life possibilities without factoring in your own capacity for unplanned change.
41/ What does lead to progressive intensification is recognizing the growing serendipity in the environment, and rapidly increasing potential for more imaginative solutions to life challenges, with more intense and unexpected rebirths, all around. It is about living life in a way that you might run into versions of yourself you didn't know were possible.
42/ There is no real formula here. Formulas are for tertiary challenges lower down on the Maslow hierarchy. Life intensification philosophies boil down to just two questions: A: will you choose the unexpected more intense versions of yourself you meet along the road of life, and B: what new clothes will you wear if you do?
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