Feeling “motivated” is fundamentally ideological (to the idealistic AKA k-selected personality)

This truth has been the big impression on me of the last couple of years. As I alluded in the inattention post, I was expecting prolonged effort on something I don’t want to do (college) to wear me down. A big problem with being disagreeable is that compliance-type tasks are draining, even if you see them as a means to an end you actually want. But the main problem is that, college being a big conscientiousness filter, it sucks up all of your bandwidth and demands more (like a narcissistic boyfriend simulator). This leaves no time to remind yourself why you’re doing it (hence my emphasis on audio recordings of visualizing the outcomes I want).

Let’s imagine someone who works what we internet types would consider a “dirty job”: grinding up plastic at a recycling center. There’s a great bit on this at the beginning of an R.A. Salvatore book:

The Grind


The noise was deafening, a twenty-horsepower motor spinning eight heavy blades. It only got louder when a chunk of scrap plastic slipped in through the creaking hopper gate and landed on that spinning blur, to be bounced and slammed and chipped apart. In mere seconds, the chunk, reduced to tiny flakes, would be spit out the grinder’s bottom into a waiting barrel.

Gary Leger slipped his headphones over his ears and put on the heavy, heat-resistant gloves. With a resigned sigh, he stepped up on the stool beside the grinder and absently tipped over the next barrel, spilling the scrap pieces out before him on the metal table. He tossed one on the hopper tray and pushed it through the gate, listening carefully as the grinder blades mashed it to ensure that the plastic was not too hot to be ground. If it was, if the inside of the chunks were still soft, the grinder would soon jam, leaving Gary with a time-consuming and filthy job of tearing down and cleaning the machine.

The chunk went straight through, its flaky remains spewing into the empty barrel beneath the grinder, telling Gary that he could go at the work in earnest. He paused for a moment to consider what adventure awaited him this time, then smiled and adjusted his headphones and gloves. These items were his protection from the noise and the sharp edges of the irregular plastic chunks, but mostly they were Gary’s insulation from reality itself. All the world—all the real world—became a distant place to Gary, standing on that stool beside the grinder table. Reality was gone now, no match for the excitement roused by an active imagination.

The plastic chunks became enemy soldiers—no, fighter jets, variations of a MiG-29. Perhaps a hundred of the multishaped, dark blue lumps, some as small as two inches across, others nearly a foot long, though only half that length, lay piled on the table and inside the tipped barrel.

A hundred to one, both bombers and fighters.

Overwhelming odds by any rational estimate, but not in the minds of the specially selected squadron, led by Gary, of course, sent out to challenge them.

An enemy fighter flashed along the tray and through the hopper gate.

Slam! Crash and burn.

Another one followed, then two more.

Good shooting.

Work blended with adventure, the challenge being to push the chunks in as fast as possible, to shoot down the enemy force before they could get by and inflict damage on your rear area. As fast as possible, but not so fast as to jam the grinder. To jam the grinder was to be shot down. Crash!

Game over.

Gary was getting good at this. He had half the barrel ground in just a couple of minutes and still the blade spun smoothly. Gary shifted the game, allowed for a bit of ego. Now the enemy fighters, realizing their enemy, and thus, their inevitable doom, turned tail and ran. Gary’s squadron sped off in pursuit. If the enemy escaped, they would only come back another time, reinforced. Gary looked at the long line of chunk-filled barrels stretching back halfway through the large room and groaned. There were always more barrels, more enemies; the reinforcements would come, whatever he might do.

This was a war the young man felt he would never finish.

And here was a battle too real to be truly beaten by imagination, a battle against tedium, against a day where the body worked but the mind had to be shut down, or constantly diverted. It had been played out by the ants of an industrialized society for decades, men and women doing what they had to do to survive.

It all seemed so very perverted to Gary Leger. What had his father dreamed through the forty-five years of his working life? Baseball probably; his father loved the game so dearly. Gary pictured him standing before the slotted shelves in the post office, pitching letters, throwing balls and strikes. How many World Series were won in that postal room?

So very perverted.

Gary shrugged it all away and went back to his aerial battle. The pace had slowed, though the enemy still remained a threat. Another wide-winged fighter smashed through the creaking gate to its doom. Gary considered the pilot. Another man doing as he had to do?

No, that notion didn’t work for Gary. Imagining a man being killed by his handiwork destroyed the fantasy and left him with a cold feeling. But that was the marvel of imagination, after all, for to Gary, these were no longer pilot-filled aircraft. They were robot drones—extraterrestrial robot drones. Or even better, they were extraterrestrial aircraft—so what if they still resembled the Russian MiGs—piloted by monster aliens, purely evil and come to conquer the world.

Crash and burn.

“Hey, stupid!”

Gary barely heard the call above the clanging din. He pulled off the headphones and spun about, as embarrassed as a teenager caught playing an air guitar.

Leo’s smirk and the direction of his gaze told Gary all that he needed to know. He bent down from the stool and looked beneath the grinder, to the overfilled catch barrel and the pile of plastic flakes on the floor.

“Coffee man’s here,” Leo said, and he turned away, chuckling and shaking his head.

Did Leo know the game? Gary wondered. Did Leo play? And what might his imagination conjure? Probably baseball, like Gary’s father.

They didn’t call it the all-American game for nothing.

Gary waited until the last banging chunks had cleared the whirring blades, then switched off the motor. The coffee man was here; the twenty-minute reprieve had begun. He looked back once to the grinder as he started away, to the piled plastic on the dirty floor. He’d have to pick that up after his break.

Victory had not been clean this day.

The conversations among the twenty or so workers gathered out by the coffee truck covered everything from politics to the upcoming softball tournament. Gary walked past the groups, hardly hearing their talk. It was too fine a spring day, he decided, to get caught up in some discussion that almost always ended on a bitter note. Still, louder calls and the more excited conclusions found their way through his indifference.

“Hey, Danny, you think two steak-and-cheese grinders are enough?” came one sarcastic shout—probably from Leo. “Lunch is almost an hour and a half away. You think that’ll hold you?”

“…kick their butts,” said another man, an older worker that Gary knew only as Tomo. Gary knew right away that Tomo and his bitter group were talking about the latest war, or the next war, or the chosen minority group of the day.

Gary shook his head. “Too nice a day for wars,” he muttered under his breath. He spent his buck fifty and walked back towards the shop, carrying a pint of milk and a two-pack of Ring Dings. Gary did some quick calculations. He could grind six barrels an hour. Considering his wages, this snack was worth about two barrels, two hundred enemy jets.

He had to stop eating so much.

“You playing this weekend?” Leo asked him when he got to the loading dock, which the crew used as a sun deck.

“Probably,” Gary spun about, hopping up to take a seat on the edge of the deck. Before he landed, an empty milk carton bopped off the back of his head.

“What’d’ye mean, probably?” Leo demanded.

Gary picked up the carton and returned fire. Caught in a crosswind, it missed Leo, bounced off Danny’s head (who was too engrossed with his food to even notice), and ricocheted into a trash bin.

The highlight of the day.

“I meant to do that,” Gary insisted.

“If you can plan a throw like that, you’d better play this weekend,” remarked another of the group.

“You’d better play,” Leo agreed, though from him it sounded more as a warning. “If you don’t, I’ll have him”—he motioned to his brother, Danny—”next to me in the outfield.” He launched a second carton, this one at Danny. Danny dodged as it flew past, but his movement dropped a hunk of steak to the ground. He considered the fallen food for a moment, then looked back to Leo.

“That’s my food!”

Leo was laughing too hard to hear him. He headed back into the shop; Gary shook his head in amazement at Danny’s unending appetite—and yet, Danny was by far the slimmest of the group—and joined Leo. Twenty minutes. The reprieve was over.

Gary’s thoughts were on the tournament as he headed back towards the grinding room. He liked that Leo, and many others, wanted him to play, considering their interest a payoff for the many hours he put in at the local gym. He was big and strong, six feet tall and well over two hundred pounds, and he could hit a Softball a long, long way. That didn’t count for much by Gary’s estimation, but it apparently did in many other people’s eyes—and Gary had to admit that he enjoyed their attention, the minor celebrity status.

The new skip in his step flattened immediately when he entered the grinding room.

“Now you gonna take a work break?” snarled Tomo. Gary looked up at the clock; his group had spent a few extra minutes outside.

“And what’s this?” Tomo demanded, pointing to the mess by the catch barrel. “You too stupid to know when to change the barrel?”

Gary resisted the urge to mouth a sharp retort. Tomo wasn’t his boss, wasn’t anybody’s boss, but he really wasn’t such a bad guy. And looking at his pointing hand, with three fingers sheared off at the first knuckle, Gary could understand where the old plastics professional was coming from, could understand the source of the bitterness.

“Didn’t teach you any common sense in college?” Tomo muttered, wandering away. His voice was full of venom as he repeated, “College.”

Tomo was a lifer, had been working in plastics factories fully twenty years before Gary was even born. The missing fingers accentuated that point; many older men in Lancashire were missing fingers, a result of the older-design molding machines. Prone to jams, these monstrosities had a pair of iron doors that snapped shut with the force (and appetite, some would say) of a shark’s jaws, and fingers seemed to be their favorite meals.

A profound sadness came over Gary as he watched the old man depart, limping slightly, leaning to one side, and with his two-fingered hand hanging freely by his side. It wasn’t condescension aimed at Tomo—Gary wasn’t feeling particularly superior to anyone at that moment—it was just a sadness about the human condition in general.

As if sensing Gary’s lingering stare, Tomo spun back on him suddenly. “You’ll be here all your life, you know!” the old man growled. “You’ll work in the dirt and then you’ll retire and then you’ll die!”

Tomo turned and was gone, but his words hovered in the air around Gary like a black-winged curse.

“No, I won’t,” Gary insisted quietly, if somewhat lamely. At that point in his life, Gary had little ammunition to argue back against Tomo’s cynicism. Gary had done everything right, everything according to the rules as they had been explained to him. Top of his class in college, double major, summa cum laude. And he had purposely concentrated in a field that promised lucrative employment, not the liberal arts concentration that he would have preferred. Even the general electives, courses most of his college colleagues breezed through without a care, Gary went after with a vengeance. If a 4.0 was there to be earned, Gary would settle for nothing less.

Everything according to the rules, everything done right. He had graduated nearly a year before, expecting to go out and set the world on fire.

It hadn’t worked out quite as he had expected. They called it recession. Too pretty a word, by Gary Leger’s estimation. He was beginning to think of it as reality.

And so here he was, back at the shop he had worked at part-time to help pay for his education. Grinding plastic chunks, shooting down enemy aircraft.

And dying.

He knew that, conceded that at least that part of Tomo’s curse seemed accurate enough. Every day he worked here, passing time, was a day further away from the job and the life he desired, and a day closer to his death.

It was not a pleasant thought for a twenty-two-year-old. Gary moved back to the grinder, too consumed by a sense of mortality and self-pity for any thoughts of imaginary battles or World Series caliber curve balls.

Was he looking into a prophetic mirror when he gazed upon bitter Tomo? Would he become that seven-fingered old man, crooked and angry, fearing death and hating life?

There had to be more to it all, more reason for continuing his existence. Gary had seen dozens of shows interviewing people who had come close to death. All of them said how much more they valued their lives now, how their zest for living had increased dramatically and each new day had become a challenge and a joy. Sweeping up the plastic by the catch barrel with that beautiful spring day just inches away, beyond an open window, Gary almost hoped for a near-death experience, for something to shake him up, or at least to shake up this petty existence he had landed himself into. Was the value of his life to be tied up in memories of Softball, or of that one moment on the loading dock when he had unintentionally bounced a milk carton off of Danny’s head and landed it perfectly into the trash bin?

Tomo came back through the grinding room then, laughing and joking with another worker. His laughter mocked Gary’s self-pity and made him feel ashamed of his dark thoughts. This was an honest job, after all, and a paying job, and for all his grumbling, Gary had to finally admit to himself that his life was his own to accept or to change.

Still, he seemed a pitiful sight indeed that night walking home—he always walked, not wanting to get the plastic colors on the seats of his new Jeep. His clothes were filthy, his hands were filthy (and bleeding in a few places), and his eyes stung from the dark blue powder, a grotesque parody of makeup, that had accumulated in and around them.

He kept off the main road for the two-block walk to his parents’ house; he didn’t really want to be seen.

R.A. Salvatore, The Woods Out Back

Let’s imagine two different ideologues working this job: a Pagang Nazi and a 16th century English peasant. The Nazi is going to have a rough time because everything he’s doing is going against his most fundamental values: it’s un-aesthetic, all that plastic feels unnatural, it’s boring and anti-romantic, the job is an expression of out-of-control capitalism, and the whole time he’s stuck thinking “this existence should not exist”. Even if he’s earning a living for the express purpose of donating the excess money to party politics, he’s going to dread getting up in the morning. The English peasant, on the other hand, believes that life is suffering and Jesus particularly loves the poor and downtrodden, so when he goes to church on Sunday he feels like the Bible is talking about him personally. His downtrodden-ness is dignified. Even if he’s not moving toward a greater goal that’s particularly Christian, he’s not going to be all that bothered by the nature of the job itself.

I think the effect of ideology on motivation levels is massively overlooked in social science. It’s usually chalked up to IQ (the ability to be motivated by future payoffs), personality type (conscientiousness in particular), and social capital (AKA trust). But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the most motivated people on earth are ideological fanatics, and they are often low-conscientiousness men produced by very low-trust environments with unremarkable IQs. Normally, we see ideological people as more driven because they tend to be engaged in anti-pragmatic expressions of their ideology like playing dress-up and hand-to-hand street fighting. These are energizing activities because it’s very easy to make the emotional connection between the activity and the ideology. Even if they don’t have any practical effect, you’re living as your best possible self according to the value system you’ve internalized. You are become the man from the propaganda poster.

(Non-ideological people, on the other hand, are motivated by concrete things like eating good food, raising children, using drugs, or using power, and tend to be more shortsighted AKA r-selected, fast-life history strategists.)

Uh…this is the part where I’d write a concluding paragraph about how long-sighted ideological people maintain their sense of dignity through prolonged stupidities like coding apps for technically challenged rich people who don’t know their ideas are profoundly unrealistic. Except the only thing I know how to do is drop classes to raise my bandwidth so I can think clearly about why I’m putting myself through this bullshit. Do we have any heroes of time preference we can look to? The only one I can think of is Adam Smith from Myth of the 20th Century, and to be honest that’s probably just a personality/conscientiousness thing and he isn’t very ideological by nature. All the ideologues I can think of are unbalanced kamikaze pilots trying to go directly from A to B with no intermediary steps. You can tell the difference by the realism of their long-term plans (“where do you see yourself in five years?”) and, hopefully, the achievement of previous goals on a similar timescale.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t connect this to my working definition of moral courage:

the willingness and capacity to do and continue doing the right thing when it’s hard and no one is supporting you, and not fall into vices as a side effect

A good scientific definition of “hard” here would be psychological mismatch.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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11 Responses to Feeling “motivated” is fundamentally ideological (to the idealistic AKA k-selected personality)

  1. WW says:

    I suggest trying to see the inside of your own skull. Use your true eyes.

    (Note: dont actually try this, it will really fuck you up, same way as trying to imagine new limbs and how they feel really seems to cause some brain damagey feeling metal taste (its easy to make ones off existing ones, I mean true new ones, like off your abdomen, or maybe even worse like an arm miles away from your present body, and imagine them being touched or hot or cold or pain). Testing the limits of your both your consciousness and will always leads to interesting thingies probably becuase you are swimming against the free energy principle and thus likely causing a fucking storm of free radicals and shiet. Fish eggs!
    Also consciousness= fish. Imagine being a fish)

    I bet the REM dream state of the human is alot like a dogs life just add much stronger scents and visualizations of scents etc.

  2. MM says:

    Also I disagree with the post.

    Ps what is your system for information and task capture, processing, and categorization for all areas of your life?

  3. LOADED says:

    You and me and the characters of Good Will Hunting my friend.

    -Robin Williams

  4. Sturm Bringer says:

    Pagang unite!

    Wouldn’t both be discouraged, you are working to undercut your progeny with the tribute you pay to the hostile state a cog to keep the christ killer/ Hitler hater two legged tapeworm rule going.

    The peasant has no king or country and the Natsoc no folk state or leader(s).

    Honestly are you saying that a Christian would be more likely to submit to a grievous situation? That he would be a better slave than the Natsoc?

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