On Convincing Oneself
Those who leave their manners behind them when they come home from the dance or the sherry party have no real courtesy even there. They were merely aping those who had.
C. S. Lewis
Convince through actions, not through words.
Suppose one wants to prove that one is religious. One could say the right words. But that wouldn't be enough. Talk is cheap. Instead, one must pay the costs of the associated actions. Instead, attend religious services, wear the right clothes, stay away from alcohol, memorize texts, and volunteer. Each of these activities carries costs, and the fact that one is willing to pay them is evidence of devotion.
As they say, what you do is who you are.
In Ben Horowitz's book of the same name, he argues that to build a culture, one should create shocking rules, make decisions that express cultural priorities, and walk the talk. These are different ways of saying that one needs to prove to others that you are who you say you are. The value of a message is proportional to the cost paid to deliver it. An email with a list of values is not that persuasive. Being the first to arrive and last to leave –that says something. So does ending every day at 5 pm and taking time off to spend time with one's kids. These are two very different work cultures.
Signaling is not just useful for convincing others. It's essential for convincing oneself. What one says one values is some evidence that the values are genuinely held. Paying a high cost to follow through with one's values is more persuasive. Building a habit is evidence that one is a kind of person, the kind of person who can transform themselves.
There are a few upshots from this idea:
- Acts are not isolated. Whatever one does, one is providing evidence to himself and others. Evidence that in this situation, he does X. Evidence that he is that kind of person.
- Build self-trust. Make realistic goals. Follow through. Breaking goals harms one's self-confidence. Achieving them fuels future success. Note that trust is built over years, not days.
- Go deep. There's towards radically pursuing a goal and going overboard. What does this look like? If one wants to start a new fitness routine, buy fancy clothes, get a personal trainer, listen to podcasts, and go after it. Want one wants to become more Stoic? Immerse oneself in the philosophy, keep daily reminders around, and do the work.
But on my bedside table, no matter what carrier I was aboard, were my Epictetus books: Enchiridion, Discourses, Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates, and The Iliad and The Odyssey. (Epictetus expected his students to be familiar with Homer's plots.)
There are a few complexities:
- Don't wear oneself down. Sometimes one should throw in the towel and quit. It's hard to know when. A rule of thumb: in physical exercise, avoid hurting oneself. The same goes for other kinds of work.
- Directness is key. There's a risk that the message becomes more important than the goal. To create a successful business, the number of hours is an input - it has something to do with it, but it isn't everything. If one wants to get fit, that's what matters, not having fancy gym clothes. Check-in and ensure one is still pursuing the goal that began the work.
What you do is who you are even when no one else is there – perhaps especially when no one else is there.