Article — April 15, 2017 — lucidity, learning, organization
One of my favorite articles of all time is called Lost Purposes. It’s about the phenomenon of human beings forgetting their original intentions, and then pursuing the means as though they were the ends.
Ten years after it was written, I want to build on that article here.
To review, here’s one example of a lost purpose, from the original article:
The old Soviet bureaucracy was famous for being more interested in appearances than reality. One shoe factory overfulfilled its quota by producing lots of tiny shoes. Another shoe factory reported cut but unassembled leather as a “shoe”. The superior bureaucrats weren’t interested in looking too hard, because they also wanted to report quota overfulfillments. All this was a great help to the comrades freezing their feet off.
By the way, this is not a shoe. (source) Here we have a case where the goal is “make shoes”, and we forgot that this goal only makes sense as a means to the end of “have warm feet”. In this example, “have warm feet” is the lost purpose.
What I’ve noticed, after a couple years of living in community and observing myself and other human beings quite closely, is that lost purposes are a side effect of a more general phenomenon: unconscious purposes.
Hopefully, when you reach your goal, you’ll realize that’s what you were trying to do. Otherwise you might say, “Oh no! My ball is caught in that net! Now I can’t play anymore!” (source) An unconscious purpose is, simply, a goal that you don’t know you’re following.
It’s important to note that almost all of our purposes are unconscious. We just do not have the capacity, as human beings, to be conscious of more than a very small percentage of what we care about, at any given time. Plus, we rarely take the time to examine ourselves in enough depth to discover even as much as that very small percentage.
It’s important to take that time, though. To illustrate, I want to tell a story.This is fiction, but it may as well be the truth, because it’s indistinguishable from any number of experiences I’ve had in groups.
Once upon a time, there was an ecovillage. Two hundred people called it home, and thousands more from all around the world visited, every year, to learn how to live in community.
Interesting fact: people will happily gather for no reason at all. The attendance of your lecture is a very weak indication of how many people are interested in what you have to say. (source) The residents formed groups of thirty to fifty people. Each group met daily, and followed a similar pattern, dictated by the culture of the ecovillage as a whole: first an hour or so of studying the basic thoughts that led to the foundation of the village, and then an hour or so of listening to each other speak what’s on their hearts and minds.
One day, the study time was about the power of vision. The group leader introduces it: “Today it’s about the power of vision”, she says.
It’s said that only a common vision, wide enough to encompass the world, can hold a community together in a lasting way. It’s said that, when the vision is clear, conflict disappears and life is easy. Great works happen by themselves.
Given a space to speak publically, the average Westerner will take the opportunity to loudly complain. This is only a cultural habit. It has nothing to do with the quality of the speaker’s life. (source) Afterward, when the space opens for everyone to share what’s happening in their lives, a man steps into the middle of the circle and complains about the group time. “It’s boring!”, he says. “Why do we sit and listen to the same thoughts over and over, every day? I want to actually do something!”
The others explain to him that, if he’d been paying attention, he would have seen that his problem really has to do with being unclear about the common vision, and that’s the reason why studying is so important: to understand why we’re here together, and what we’re doing.
But he doesn’t understand. The conflict remains unresolved, and the pattern repeats, with other people, in other groups, the next week.
The most important skill you can learn, if you want to understand the world, is how to think of sufficiently interesting questions. (source) What needs to happen before this pattern can change, and the story can have a better ending?
First, let’s thoroughly understand what’s happening. We can question the underlying purposes of every event that takes place, and every pattern that it takes place within.
Why are there groups of thirty to fifty people? Why do they meet every day? Why do they study for an hour, and then share for an hour? Why does the man share his frustration? Why do the others answer his frustration the way they do?
Whenever I participate in a group activity, I always ask myself: what are we doing here? What is the purpose of this gathering? If I agree with the purpose, how can I support it? These questions helped me to be a good participant, whatever that meant,When the group as a whole is doing something wrong, being a good participant means refusing to participate. wherever I was.
More recently, as I gained more understanding of how groups behave, I started to ask other questions.
“Why are we meeting, again?” “It’s Monday.” (source) If I would ask everyone else what we’re doing here, how many different answers would I receive?
How well do our individual reasons for being here align with the stated intention of the meeting?
What is the stated intention of the meeting? Was any intention stated at all?
I’ve been surprised to discover that large numbers of peopleI’ve been part of these large numbers of people, and just as unconscious as the rest. Now I get to speak from a superior position, because I have the liberty of a temporarily clear mind. I’m enjoying it while it lasts. sometimes decide to come together and carry out complex tasks without ever saying one word about the reason for any of it.
Then, when the group’s activities aren’t satisfying for its participants, the same people who came together for no reason then complain that the group is failing to live up to expectations.
We built a giant wheel of metal, put chairs on it, sat on the chairs, and made it turn. Then we found out we were still unhappy, and started to wonder if maybe we should’ve thought about the reasons why, before we started to build. (source) At a certain point, we have to laugh at ourselves for this kind of behavior. If we would take a moment to ask what we expect from each other, we would very often find completely absurd things. We attend meetings that we expect to be a waste of time, and we do nothing whatsoever to change that expectation, as though it were entirely normal to intentionally make our lives worse.
Then, when we ask ourselves what wouldn’t be a waste of time, we find even more absurd things. Either we come up with trivial exciting ideas, without any connection to our reason for being together, or we can’t answer the question at all. Yet we are convinced that the meeting is a waste of time, no matter whether we can think of a better use of time or not.
The underlying cause of all this insanity, I think, is the existence of unconscious purposes. Making these conscious needs to be the very first step, when apparent problems start to emerge.
Smoking is a bad idea. We’re very sure of it. We don’t want to know why you smoke, because we already know it’s a bad idea, so stop it. (source) The man in the story is complaining about too much study and too little action. However, he doesn’t make a proposal for any specific action; he has no such idea in mind. The real reason why he stood up, although he’s unconscious of it, is only to call attention to a problem. He hasn’t put any thought into what he wants to achieve, beyond that.
The others in the story try to point this out to him. They even go further, talking about the need for a common vision for the whole community. However, they don’t say what this vision is. The unconscious purpose of their feedback is to get the man to realize that there is no problem where he’s pointing.
Quite obviously, “call attention to problem” and “deny existence of problem” are incompatible goals, and so the conflict remains.
The participants need to become conscious of the higher goals they share in common, as a prerequisite to deciding what strategiesIt should be noted that the human mind very easily gets confused about what’s a goal and what’s a strategy, what’s an end and what’s a means, what’s a terminal value and what’s an instrumental value. There’s another good Less Wrong article on that subject, although it’s a difficult read. make sense as a means to reach those goals. Until then, any question about whether there’s a problem or not is meaningless.
Another way the story might unfold begins with a different introduction from the group leader. Instead of, “Today it’s about the power of vision”, followed directly by reading a text, giving a lecture, holding an interview, or some combination thereof, I imagine a whiteboard.
At the top, a sacred word is written:
(source) Below it, there is a list of intentions. The very first one, as always, is “Clarify Agenda”. Normally, this part takes less than one minute, because everyone already knows and agrees with what they’re going to do today and why they’re going to do it.
However, today that isn’t the way it goes. Today there’s a man with a problem, and that problem is called “too much thinking, not enough doing”. He can see, written in plain language, that the intentions for today are all talk and no action. And he knows that clarifying the agenda may involve modifying it.
All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. Hopefully we are sufficiently awake to realize this, without needing to be told it by a wizard. (source) So, he has the obvious thought:
“What would I write on the agenda?”
And as soon as he asks himself this question, he realizes he has an answer.
“Instead of studying today, how about we go out for gardening?”
The truth is, no one had a particularly strong reason to study today, conscious or not, and so there is no objection.
This time it takes a minute and a half to clarify the agenda.