Predictions for 2021

Every year for the last few years, my local rationalist meetup (in Ottawa, Canada) has done a predictions night at the beginning of the year where we talk about the year to come, estimate and debate the probability of various events, and “score” our previous year’s predictions. Think something like Slate Star Codex publishes every year, only much less rigorous.

Historically we’ve done these events in person, on various scraps of paper, and it’s been pretty hit or miss: sometimes we’ve ended up with slightly different sets of questions, sometimes people can’t find their sheet the next year, etc. This year, because of the pandemic, we did it online in a Google Doc, so we’re theoretically in much better shape (though in hindsight it really should have been a spreadsheet, not a document; I spent way too long organizing it and formatting it after the fact).

For me, I think the majority of the value was in the discussions that arose ad-hoc when people put down divergent predictions. However, the predictions themselves are also pretty interesting in some cases, so with the permission of the group I’m publishing the anonymized predictions of Rational Ottawa for 2021, in five categories: COVID, politics, technology, media, and miscellaneous. A few notes before we get started:

  • We tried to be make clear, testable, and realistic predictions but we weren’t particularly rigorous about this. I’ve already found a few that are ambiguous as I’ve gone through reformatting them.
  • Some predictions ended up in “Miscellaneous” that really belong in other sections, just because of when we thought of them.
  • A few of these predictions are inside jokes but they’re hopefully pretty obvious (e.g. “Finland really doesn’t exist”).
  • I’ve pruned the personal section entirely rather than trying to redact individual questions to varying levels of comfort.
  • I’m not personally concerned about my anonymity in making these predictions, so I’m happy to note that I’m person #1.

COVID

Long-term health effects from those infected with COVID are common by EOY.
1: 10%
2: 35%
3: 15%
4: 65%
5: 15%
6: 50% 

Publicly funded economic aid for people with long-term effects from covid.
1: 5%
2: 7%
3: 5%
4: 10%
5: 3%
6: 15%

50% of US population vaccinated by end of summer.
1: 5%
2: 12%
3: 40%
4: 10%
5: 10%
6: 10%

50% of Canadian population vaccinated by end of summer.
1: 20%
2: 50%
3: 60%
4: 35% 
5: 70%
6: 30% 

50% of World population vaccinated by end of summer.
1: 10%
2: 5%
3: 1%
4: 5%
5: 2%
6: 2%

50% of US population vaccinated by end of year.
1: 65%
2: 50%
3: 60%
4: 55%
5: 25%
6: 65%

50% of Canadian population vaccinated by end of year.
1: 80%
2: 85%
3: 80%
4: 75%
5: 85%
6: 70%

50% of World population vaccinated by end of year.
1: 20%
2: 30%
3: 5%
4: 25%
5: 20%
6: 15%

Substantial subpopulation (>5,000) has ill-effects from vaccine.
1: 40%
2: 70%
3: 20%
4: 50%
5: 35%
6: 70% 

Mask mandate lifted in Ottawa by EOY.
1: 80%
2: 55%
3: 70%
4: 70% 
5: 80%
6: 50%

English (or other) variation overtakes Covid Original in case count by end of spring/summer/year.
1: 1/40/80 %
2: 1/30/55 %
3: 1/25/35%
4: 2/20/55%
5: 3/20/65%
6: 1/10/70%

More than 30k total COVID deaths in Canada by EOY (i.e. more in 2021 than 2020).
1: 60%
2: 35%
3: 30%
4: 60%
5: 45%
6: 50%

uOttawa Fall term live
1: 85%
2: 70%
3: 75%
4: 75%
5: 80%
6: 20%

Biden, McConnell, or Pelosi get COVID.
1: 10%
2: 10%
3: 10%
4: 10%
5: 10%
6: 5%

Someone in Rational Ottawa is diagnosed with covid by EOY.
1: 30%
2: 15%
3: 30%
4: 19%
5: 20%
6: 18%

No significant social distancing in Ottawa by end of spring/summer/year.
1: 5/40/90 %
2: 2/35/65 %
3: 5/50/85%
4: 1/40/85%
5: 10/70/90%
6: 1/40/60%

Senators playing in front of full live audiences by EOY.
1: 95%
2: 80%
3: 80%
4: 85%
5: 85%
6: 60%

Predict a specific date when Rational Ottawa has an unsocially distanced indoor meeting again:
1: September 10th, 2021.
2: November 12th, 2021
3: August 22nd, 2021.
4: September 17th, 2021.
5: September 3rd, 2021.
6: December 3rd, 2021

Most office work in Ottawa no longer done from home by EOY.
1: 75%
2: 65%
3: 80%
4: 49%
5: 75%
6: 65%

The coronavirus crosses the species barrier (as with the Danish mink) and mutates into something that complicates the situation
1: 5%
2: 7%
3: 10%
4: 5%
5: 5%
6: 20% 

Politics

Canadian election called.
1: 15%
2: 15%
3: 30%
4: 35%
5: no clue
6: no clue

Trump still living in US by EOY.
1: 90%
2:  85%
3: 90%
4: 80%
5: 90%
6: 80%

Republicans win both Georgia senate seats.
1: 50%
2: 40%
3: 40%
4: 50%
5: 50%
6: 70%

Democrats win both Georgia senate seats.
1: 20%
2: 40%
3: 45%
4: 25%
5: 35%
6: 30%

Split Georgia senate seats.
1: 30%
2: 20%
3: 15%
4: 25%
5: 15%
6: 45%

Evidence of Mitch McConnell doing cocaine?
1: <1%
2: 1%
3: 1%
4: 2%
5: <1%
6: 5%

Kamala Harris president.
1: 2%
2: 4%
3: 5%
4: 5%
5: 5%
6: 35% 

Ontario election called.
1: 5%
2: 2%
3: 10%
4: 10%
5: no clue
6: no clue

Doug Ford reelected, assuming Ontario election is called.
1: 80%
2: 70%
3: 60%
4: 70%
5: no clue
6: 75%

The Queen yet lives.
1: 95%
2: 85%
3: 85%
4: 85%
5: 90%
6: 90%

New Scottish independence referendum scheduled.
1: 30%
2: 20%
3: 20%
4: 40%
5: 15%
6: 60%

Irish unification referendum scheduled.
1: 5%
2: 10%
3: 2%
4: 5%
5: 30%
6: No clue

NDP remains short on cash by EOY.
1: 70%
2: 50%
3: 60%
4: 60%
5: 60%
6: 50%

Finland really doesn’t exist.
1: -5%
2: 1%
3: 200%
4: 1000%
5: 50%
6: no clue

Technology

VR finally gets significant mainstream uptake.
1: 10%
2: 15%
3: 10%
4: 15%
5: 10%
6: 14%

Quantum computers used for something useful that we couldn’t cheaply do otherwise.
1: <1%
2: 10%
3: 10%
4: 10%
5: 15% 
6: 30%

SpaceX successfully launches 8+ more humans to space.
1: 30%
2: 60%
3: 15%
4: 90%
5: 20%
6: 20%

SN9 starship test RUD
1: 50%
2: 30%
3: 30%
4: 50%
5: 35%
6: 40%

A SpaceX Starship makes it to orbit by EOY
1: 30%
2: 15%
3: 20%
4: 20%
5: 30%
6: 40%

GPT-4 exists
1: 80%
2: 50%
3: 40%
4: 60%
5: 60%
6: 50%

Boston Dynamics starts leasing out atlas as well as spot by EOY
1: 5%
2: 10%
3: 30%
4: 15%
5: 20%
6: 25%

Driverless shipping-trucks approved (on public highways) in some country
1: 30%
2: 50%
3: 20%
4: 75%
5: 50%
6: 60%

Uber owns a driverless fleet of over 200/2000 vehicles in operation
1: 5/1 %
2: 15%/1%
3: 5%/3%
4: 10/2%
5: 5/1%
6: 5/1%

Alpha (AI) used in medical assessment, as a tool
1: <1%
2: 20%
3: 1%
4: 99%
5: 20%
6: 50%

Go AI substantially better than any human player.
1: 90%
2: 95%
3: 99%
4: 99%
5: 99%
6: 90%

Tesla’s stock price higher on 2021/12/31 than on 2021/01/01.
1: 60%
2: 55%
3: 40%
4: 65%
5: 60%
6: 

Bitcoin value higher on 2021/12/21 than 2021/01/01.
1: 60%
2: 50%
3: 30%
4: no idea
5: 40%
6: 30%

OCtranspo electric bus trial goes well.
1: 60%
2: 70%
3: 80%
4: 75%
5: 70%
6: 40%

AI goes wrong somehow.
Everyone: 99.999%

Death by human-out-of-the-loop drone is publicized
1: 20%
2: 10%
3: 10%
4: 15%
5: 15%
6: 25%

Media

SSC substack launched in January as predicted.
1: 90%
2: 80%
3: 70%
4: 80%
5: 50%
6:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

NYT publishes an article on Scott/SSC/rationalists.
1: 20%
2: 10%
3: 20%
4: 40%
5: 15%
6: 50%

Dune releases in theatres only
1: 20%
2: 35%
3: 30%
4: 45%
5: 20%
6: 60%

Cinemas see drastic decline and new movies are released for streaming/VOD relative to pre-pandemic
1: 70%
2: 85%
3: 90%
4: 90%
5: 90%
6: 80%

Miscellaneous

[I] will subjectively rate the influence of the far left/far right as lower by EOY
1: 20/20%
2: 35%/30%
3: 40%/90%
4: 50/40%
5: 30/50%
6: 50/40%

At some point during 2021, one of the questions on this list will be rendered obsolete or inapplicable by changing circumstances and will need to be unasked.
1: 30%
2: 50%
3: 90%
4: 90%
5: 15%
6: 100%

Canadian airline closes forever
1: 10%
2: 5%
3: 5%
4: 5%
5: 5%
6: 5%

November/December 2021 is colder on average than in 2020
1: 50%
2: 50/50%
3: 60/80%
4: 85/95%
5: 80/80%
6: 40/40%

Enough snow for cross-country skiing on Christmas 2021
1: 30%
2: 20%
3: 40%
4: 40%
5: 30%
6: 10%

Hugging and kissing is practiced more than before the pandemic
1: 60%
2: 50%
3: 60%
4:…in rational ottawa? All the hugs 99%
5: 30%
6: 75%

Discarded non reusable masks become a waste problem in underdeveloped countries
1: 5%
2: 20%
3: 5%
4: 5%
5: 3%
6: 50%

2020 on Grand, Unified, Empty

In 2017 I did a nice “year in review” post because I’d finally restarted the blog, was writing regularly, and was getting somewhat consistent page views. The last two years I haven’t done such a post, largely because I was blogging more sporadically and didn’t feel like I had much to really celebrate in the blogging part of my life. But now we’re at the end of 2020 I think it’s time to do another year in review.

2020 was by far the highest-traffic year of my blog, with 4000 views and over 2000 unique visitors. It was also one of my most prolific years for writing; this post will be my 68th for the year. (In 2014 I managed 71 separate posts but I would hazard that they were mostly shorter and less effortful compared to my posts this year). These new records are due to two separate events. First, and most obviously, the pandemic; I had a lot more time to write while stuck at home this year. A close second however was that I started reading LessWrong more regularly, and cross-posting some of my writing there when I thought it would be of interest.

Compared to 2017 when Facebook was my dominant source of traffic, 2020 was a more balanced year. Organic search engine traffic, Facebook, and LessWrong accounted for around 400 hits each over the year, and a lazy pair of posts I shared onto Reddit resulted in 84 direct hits plus who knows how many follow-ups. I do want to give a special shout-out to Baidu; I’m not sure why or how, but about half of my organic search traffic came from Chinese users finding me through Baidu this year.

Speaking of geography, the US passed Canada as my dominant audience this year, with 1400 hits. Canada came in second with 1100, with China, the UK, and (somewhat surprisingly) Italy all fighting it out for 3rd with around 300 hits each. The tail is very long on this list though; tenth-place Brazil gave me a respectable 58 hits, and I recorded hits from places as far afield as Ethiopia, Macedonia, and Gurnsey.

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid? was my most popular post of 2017, and also my most popular post of 2018 despite being a year old at that point. In 2019 it fell off the charts in favour of When is it Wrong to Click on a Cow? which is a post I’m still quite please with. In 2020 however, by far my most popular post was The Manual Economy; perhaps the lesson is that I should write more fiction. The other post that did quite well this year was 2019’s long sequence on conflict resolution. I’m sure part of that is due to my cross-posting it on LessWrong, but I hope some is also due to the fact that it is by far the longest and most effortful single piece of writing I’ve put up here.

My writing this year has been a bit all over the map. There was some proper philosophy in What We Owe to Ourselves. There was a random belated addition to one of my old foundational series. There was some really artistic rambling (Frankenstein Delenda Est) and some more personal diary posts (Roll for Sanity). There was some poetry (Stopping by my Brain, One Evening, and ‘Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas).

I can’t easily pick an overall favourite post for this year, but What We Owe to Ourselves and Frankenstein Delenda Est are definitely both competitors in terms of writing quality. There are also three posts I want to call out for their topics or insights, even though the writing itself was less polished: Abstractions on Inconsistent Data, The Axiological Treadmill, and Where Do We Go From Here?.

And now onward, to 2021.

Would the Real Economy Please Stand Up

More-or-less an exegesis of The Manual Economy. Warning: I am not an economist; this is speculative.

I.

What does “the economy” mean to you? What do those words point to in the world? If I say instead “the banana”, that’s a pretty well-defined concrete object. If I say “the marriage”, that’s way less concrete but still has pretty well-defined boundaries in a lot of ways. But when I say “the economy”… well. Isn’t everything kinda part of the economy? It starts to involve a lot of hand-waving and ambiguity.

Just as the idea of “marriage” is made up of roughly three distinct pieces in reality (a legal piece, a social piece, and a now-optional religious piece), I like to think of the “economy” as really made up of a few fairly distinct pieces. Like two kids in a trench-coat, every economy is really two economies trying to sneak into a movie theatre together: a concrete economy made of goods and services, and a virtual economic coordination mechanism. These two economies usually stay approximately isomorphic to each other; when I buy a banana there are two parallel exchanges, one in money and one in bananas. Think of it like double-entry bookkeeping.

To draw out this distinction, imagine two alternative worlds. Imagine first the world vaguely hinted at in The Manual Economy, the world where money and all other coordination mechanisms have completely disappeared, but life carries on completely normally. In this world people still work, and receive goods. There are still “rich” and “poor” lifestyles, and poverty traps, and all the rest. It’s just that there’s no terrestrial coordination mechanism anymore; the economy stays coordinated because some twisted god wills it to be so. In this world you don’t go buy a banana. You go take a banana from the store without giving anything in return. The twisted god controlling us all merely wills it so that poor people don’t go take all the bananas.

For our second imaginary world, take the mirror image of the first. In this world money, and banks, and mortgages and all the rest still exist. People get paycheques, and try to make their rent each month, and get punished when they’re late paying their bills. But also it’s basically The Matrix; everybody eats and sleeps and lives in a permanent tube with no actual goods or services being exchanged. In our first imaginary world, we had a concrete economy running somehow with no coordination. In our second, we have a coordination mechanism running somehow with no concrete economy to coordinate.

Neither of these imaginary worlds are intended to be realistic or “stable” realities in any sense. They’re designed to provide a sense of what these two economies look like when completely isolated from each other. In reality, they depend on each other to stay standing, just as both kids depend on each other to successfully purchase that movie ticket.

II.

I said before that these two economies, the concrete and the coordination, are generally isomorphic. But they aren’t always isomorphic to each other, and unsurprisingly, all the interesting stuff (bubbles, crashes, government stimulus, most white-collar crime, etc.) happens in the gaps where they diverge.

Let’s start with the dual-economy view of an economic crash. In fact, like “the economy” itself, the dual-economy view implies that there are actually two main types of economic crash, depending on which piece of the economy has actually crashed. The easy one to talk about is a concrete economic crash, which can happen when there’s a shock to actual production somewhere. Say that a new disease destroys all of the food crops in North America in the span of a few weeks; this is a real economic crash because all of a sudden the real economic capacity of the continent has drastically shrunk. The problem isn’t one of coordination; even if you coordinate everything perfectly, there just isn’t enough food.

This sounds bad, but the other kind of crash is in some ways worse. When the coordination mechanism crashes instead, there’s generally still enough real economic capacity for everybody to get what they want, it’s just wildly misallocated. This is what happens when for example speculation drives up the price of a particular good until the bubble finally bursts. That can happen even though production and consumption of the good in question stayed perfectly even throughout the entire run. There were no shifts in real supply or demand to justify the bubble. The bubble wasn’t created by a shortage, and didn’t burst because of a surplus in the market. The coordination mechanism simply failed. This kind of crash is what we’ve seen the most of recently: entire neighbourhoods evicted from their subprime mortgages while the homeless crowd the streets; people going hungry while food rots in a warehouse a few blocks away.

The virtual economy can crash because of a bug in the “software” of the coordination mechanism, without affecting the fundamentals of there being enough real capacity to produce all the food, shelter, goods, services, etc. that people actually want. Conversely, the concrete economy can crash (say because of a global pandemic that forces most real economic activity to grind to a halt) but as long as the software is resilient the coordinating mechanism will keep chugging along, coordinating whatever economic activity is left. It’s arguable whether this is a bug or a feature.

III.

Another interesting place where this dual-economy view comes in handy is getting a possible sense of why national debts are so weird. As far as I can tell, the consensus among professional economists is something along the lines of “you don’t want it to get too high relative to GDP, but an increasing absolute national debt isn’t a problem the way it would be for an individual”. This has always struck me as counter-intuitive, and I think a dual-economy model makes it a little clearer.

Debt is an abstract concept, which puts it firmly into the coordination side of the economy. It’s a promise of real economic activity in the future, which allows economic coordination across time. Importantly, there is no real economic “lack” behind debt; you can’t have a physically negative number of bananas. Debt is always just a number on a balance sheet. Just like personal debt can be a useful tool in the form of a credit card – assuming you hold up “both sides” of the temporal bargain by paying it off promptly in the future – so too can national debt. But whereas a personal debt is tied to your personal ability to pay it off, which is finite and limited, national debt is tied to the theoretically-infinite national future.

Now obviously we don’t expect any country to last forever. There’s the heat death of the universe to worry about after all. But the timescales are so wildly different that it’s hard to reason about. It seems plausibly reasonable to sell a twenty-year mortgage to a thirty-year-old human, even if they’re already in debt, but rather less reasonable to sell it to somebody already pushing one hundred. The earnings potential and lifespan just don’t seem to be there to support the future end of the bargain. But it’s entirely reasonable to believe that major economic powers might continue to exist in some form for hundreds more years, and even continue to grow economically through that time. Today’s national debt is an attempt to coordinate real economic activity across time with our future, much larger, national economic future.

Interestingly, a similar kind of analysis can be applied to fractional-reserve banking (with deposits viewed as individual loans to the bank).

IV.

I am not very confident in the above analysis, but even if it’s mostly garbage I think that treating the virtual and the concrete economies as separate entities has helped me. “The economy” has always seemed like a big ball of spaghetti with a bunch of arbitrary rules, and I feel like this is a good step towards drawing out a gears-level understanding, even if a lot of the details are wrong.

Hopefully it helps you, too.

‘Twas the Night Before the Night Before Christmas

This started out as a good idea but I feel like it maybe got away from me a bit, oh well. Merry Christmas everyone!

'Twas the night before the night before Christmas
And all through the tumbledown house
Not a creature or critter was stirring;
Except for one old little mouse.

No stockings were hung by the soot-darkened flue.
No children were nestled and sleeping.
When that old little mouse left her little old shoe,
And out 'cross the floor went a-creeping.

The shell of a plum in her vision appeared
And danced when it rolled off the counter.
It fell in the cinders and smoke that was smeared
On the floor and the walls all around her.

The moon pierced the clouds and shone in through the panes
Of a window whose sash hung in tatters.
The mouse scurried on as she spotted some grains
Left behind in the ash and the splatters.

St. Nick had been here many long years ago
Bringing presents and comfort and joy,
And a young little mouse who arrived in his tow
Hiding out in the box of a toy.

Little feet marked the passage of time in the dust
Making patterns which could only be read from the sky.
The house slowly fell into mildew and must
As life on the outside went by.

At the end no-one came because no-one was there.
The world in eternal December.
'Twas two nights before Christmas, that a glow filled the air,
And only old mouse would remember.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Previously: Frankenstein Delenda Est | Roll for Sanity | The Great Project
Or perhaps: Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the 21st Century | An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

I.

Well.

Joe Biden will in all likelihood be the next American President come January. You can practically feel left-leaning elites the world over unclench their weary paranoia. Much remains to be dealt with as the last few votes are counted and legal challenges get addressed by the courts, but the climax is past. The denouement, of course, will last decades. It always does.

Well.

The pandemic rages on. More than a million people are dead, and thousands more are dying every day. Imagine a medium-sized city, slowly crumbling as every last inhabitant dies over the course of a single year. Only the bones remain. And yet we adapt: deaths per thousand cases continues to fall. The world’s most populous country, more than a billion people, has reported only a single COVID-19 death since April. The rest of the world is slowly learning, through trial and terrible error, which parts of the economy can be reopened or adapted, and which cannot.

Well.

Technology rushes on, heedless of the rest of the world. Competitive satellite internet. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Newer, faster, stronger, better. The pope is praying for friendly AI.

I just finished re-reading A Canticle for Liebowitz. [spoilers follow] A monastic order tries to preserve human knowledge for hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse. They succeed, civilization is reborn, and their reward is a second nuclear apocalypse, far worse. Humanity is not to be trusted with great power, nor great responsibility.

Well.

II.

America is increasingly divided. Biden may have won, but those hoping for a repudiation of Trump must be bitterly disappointed. The long future is violently uncertain. Healing? Secession? Civil war?

Beliefs are not isolated things. The human brain is remarkably adept at ignoring inconsistencies, but doesn’t necessarily resolve them correctly, even when forced to. Whichever side you take in this battle, your enemies believe in gravity. They believe in food, and air, and airplanes which fly. Their epistemology is intact.

Where people on both sides go wrong is that their priors create a self-reinforcing web of false beliefs that are too far removed from immediate empirical evidence to be emotionally falsified. The media could report that hotdogs cause COVID-19. Whether you believe that hotdogs cause COVID-19 has nothing to do with your beliefs about hotdogs, or COVID-19. The only way those beliefs could actually be related in your mind is if you see someone eat a hotdog, and then become deathly ill moments later. Instead, whether you believe in hotdogs-causing-COVID-19 has everything to do with whether you think the media lies. Fake news?

The next time the media reports something, you remember. Didn’t they run that hotdogs-cause-COVID-19 story? Your priors have shifted. The gyre widens.

Rationalists believe that demanding consistency from your beliefs raises the sanity waterline. I believe that consistency, on balance, would give us more false beliefs, not fewer. Too much of the world we believe in is disconnected from direct observation. Science, democracy, journalism… all merely webs of hearsay becoming webs of heresy.

III.

The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

The printing press. The New World. Machines. Electricity. Computers. Internet. We feast on these whales, and for a time, we flourish. But whales are finite beings, and their corpses must eventually return to the dust.

Some Republicans view Donald Trump as a sign of the apocalypse, and long for the return of Mitt Romney. I view Mitt Romney as the unwitting sign of a far worse apocalypse; not because he is a Republican, but because he is a Mormon. Low first-world birth rates in the last fifty years are a blip, a memetic aberration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, by all indications, a decisive first-mover advantage among the next wave of Malthusian population-promoting memeplexes. The birth rate will recover when America is mostly Mormon. Evolution requires it.

We can hunt new whales, new technologies, new vistas, and prolong our civilization one flickering light at a time. This is a worthy goal. But we are Ahab, and the whales we hunt will surely destroy us in time.

We can coordinate, cooperate, and create a world where consuming the whale does not consume the world. This is also a worthy goal. It is, in fact, part of the goal; step two of The Great Project.

But we cannot compromise with our enemies, and so our enemies must become our friends.

IV.

And yet? And yet nothing. There is no one else. If civilization is to flourish, it must survive, and it must grow so mighty that even Moloch trembles before it.

So go, live your life, dream your dreams, hunt your whales. But to save civilization we must unite it, and to unite it we need a shared belief that unity is important.

Spread the good word.

Imperfect Perfectionism

[Introspection, and a bit of unoriginal psychology.]

Like many people, I tend to think of myself as having a perfectionist streak, and I think that’s reasonably justified. Upon entering my school’s french immersion program in grade 7, I had a fairly major meltdown due to the sudden increase in difficulty and workload, and the concomitant reduction in my grades. I used to think of myself as having “gotten over” the worst of my perfectionism in working through that incident, but that’s giving myself too much credit. Perfectionism is in my blood.

My belief that I’d “gotten over it” was surely bolstered in part by the oft-repeated descriptions of perfectionism coming from other people I talked to, the media, etc. as a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, or “you’re not talented enough”. After all, these are phrases that I basically never say to myself, or believe of myself in most aspects of my life. If anything my ego is flawed in the other direction; I have a deep-seated confidence that I have the capacity to do just about anything if I put in the necessary time and effort. Obviously there are physical limitations – I’ll never play in the NBA at my height – but I sincerely believe that I could become a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, pro curler… standing in my way of these goals is time and effort, not talent.

But as I learned recently, perfectionism comes in many guises. For a lot of people, it seems to come in the way I described, to question their talent. This certainly seems to be the predominant form talked about. But for me and surely for others, perfectionism never doubts my talent. Instead, it doubts my effort.

When something I do doesn’t measure up to my impossible standards, I don’t hear a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, I hear one saying “you didn’t try hard enough”. When I got a question wrong in school, it was never “you’re not smart enough”, it was always “you didn’t study hard enough”. And when I somehow end the workday further behind on my to-do list than when I started, I don’t hear “you’re not good enough for this job”, I hear “work harder”.

This makes it really difficult to disconnect at the end of the day.

Oh, it’s easy enough now to close the laptop and physically walk away from my desk; I built that habit through sheer force of necessity. Dinner won’t make itself. But it’s really hard to get that stress out of my head. It seems wrong to spend my evening on something frivolous like TV or a book when there’s something imperfect at work, and I can fix it by working harder. After all, anything that goes wrong is my fault because I just didn’t try hard enough.

I guess the stress is better than the alternative, which seems to be workaholic tendencies. At least when I distract myself with something sufficiently engaging I can usually forget about it until it actually goes away. But I think perhaps I would do better to acknowledge that perfectionism is still a major force in my life, and try to deal with the problem at its root.

Maybe then I’ll be perfect.