Allowing Personality to Flow

Greg is a 2013 blogging resident, visiting us from his home blog over at On the Spiral. His residency will explore the theme “Individuality and Decision-Making” over several posts.

A couple weekends ago, during a break in the scheduled programming at Refactor Camp, I was walking around with Kartik Agaram and as we passed by a concession stand he off-handedly remarked: “I know things are going well when I can walk by something like that without experiencing any temptation.”  This was one of those statements that easily eludes our cognitive filters, but it becomes rather perplexing when you begin to tease it apart.

Why should temptation be easier to resist when things are going well?

What does it even mean for “things” to go well?

There are easy answers like – when we are preoccupied with more engaging tasks, temptations are perceived as relatively less appealing.  However, the easy answers are easily contradicted.  Sometimes when things are going well we are so preoccupied that we find ourselves guzzling coffee and eating take-out every night.  Apparently things need to be going well in a particular way in order for temptation to diminish.

We could propose instead that temptation is easier to resist when we are satiated, i.e. when our needs are readily satisfied by our environment.  This is the direction our conversation went at the time.  We began discussing the idea of ego depletion and the conditions that cause it.

Unfortunately, this angle presents difficulties as well.  First of all, it doesn’t do much besides rephrase the question.  We are still left with the rather tautological relationship:

“things going well” == satiation == undepleted ego

And again the opposite can be equally true.  It is often when we are most comfortable that it is most difficult to muster the discipline necessary to resist temptation.  When people become habitually comfortable we say things like – “he has too much time on his hands” or “she is very set in her ways” – hardly indicative of someone demonstrating strong executive functioning.

In this regard the ordinary notion of willpower is more apt than the unidirectional ego depletion.  As is the case with physical exercise, too little stress can be just as disabling as too much.

Atrophy is tricky to avoid because much of what passes for willpower is actually nothing of the sort. Recall that in the famous marshmallow experiment it was the children who distracted themselves who had the most success.  The children who relied on direct application of willpower succumbed most quickly.

Similarly, the person who is set in his ways often believes himself to be strong-willed when in fact he has adopted a lifestyle that renders willpower unnecessary.  He is like the person who habitually goes to the gym every day but who long ago hit a plateau.  Far from being depleted, his ego has become an active impediment, resisting any activities that might demand adaptation.

This need for the just-right amount of stress reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of cognitive flow, which suggests that we require the just-right amount of strain to conjure up the fully engaged flow state.  Too great a challenge leads to frustration while too little challenge leads to boredom.

It is no coincidence that the flow state entails resilience in the face of distraction.  I think this was exactly the intuition underlying Kartik’s expression – “things are going well”.  His ability to resist temptation implies a kind of lifestyle flow – just enough strain to provide a challenge; not enough to produce exhaustion.  We can address the contradictions noted above by formulating lifestyle flow in terms of adopted personas…

Tempting foods are easier to resist when a given flow state supports an appropriate self-image.  On the other hand, a workaholic flow state only exacerbates an unhealthy diet.  If you have ever pulled an all-nighter you know that that particular flow state is not resistant to distraction from unhealthy food.  Rather, it is resistant to distraction from the guilt associated with eating unhealthy food.

In summary:

  • Atrophy occurs when habitually clinging to a comfortable persona
  • Ego depletion occurs when straining to adopt an unfamiliar persona
  • Lifestyle Flow occurs when practicing behaviors just beyond the capabilities of one’s existing persona

It occurred to me that this perspective might help explain the puzzle that concluded my last post, specifically why Tolstoy’s foxy constitution prevented him from manifesting his own conviction that people should be hedgehogs.


Last time I referenced Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider as a study of the extreme Fox.  It will be helpful now to add some meat to that assessment.  In one of his better articulations of the Outsider’s problem, Wilson writes:

For the Outsider, the world into which he has been born is always a world without values.  Compared to his own appetite for a purpose and a direction, the way most men live is not living at all; it is drifting.  This is the Outsider’s wretchedness, for all men have a herd instinct that leads them to believe that what the majority does must be right.  Unless he can evolve a set of values that will correspond to his own higher intensity of purpose, he may as well throw himself under a bus, for he will always be an outcast and a misfit.

This passage echoes Berlin’s characterization of Tolstoy as someone who possessed an acute desire for meaning but lacked the necessary credulity.  [Tolstoy also makes a brief appearance in Wilson’s work.]

One of Wilson’s refrains is that the Outsider is crippled by “seeing too clearly and too much“.  By this he means that the Outsider perceives too strongly the absurdity of civilized life.  As a result his world takes on a pall of unreality.  He is like a character in the Matrix who recognizes that his world is a fraud but has no red pill with which to wake himself.

In such a world nothing is worth doing.  Hence, the Outsider is trapped between his own disbelief in “herd values” and his inability to formulate a viable alternative.


This should lead us to reexamine Berlin’s analysis, given that the passage above contradicts the commonplace conception of the fox.  The person who “knows many things” is often thought of as a renaissance man.  If we wanted to be less charitable we might deride such a person as an experience collector or a shallow know-it-all.  In any case, this novelty seeking type of fox is quite distinct from the Outsider for whom nothing is worth doing.

Yet, it would be difficult to say that Tolstoy (or Wilson’s Outsider archetype) is less representative of the person who knows many things.  There is a definite sense in which “seeing too clearly and too much” does become dissatisfying.  Barry Schwartz coined the phrase the paradox of choice to describe how having too many options creates anxiety and regret.

Similarly, creative people of all stripes have recognized that too little constraint can be just as crippling as too much.  Constraints provide direction.  They focus attention and energy on a specific challenge, and in doing so they implicitly define a standard that distinguishes good work from bad.  The person without constraints tends to flit from one shallow curiosity to another…or wallows in purposelessness.

It seems then that we have uncovered two equal and opposite varieties of Fox, one positively oriented and one negatively oriented:

  • the novelty seeker, for whom everything is worth doing
  • the Outsider, for whom nothing is worth doing.


Are there also two kinds of hedgehogs?

The person who knows one big things would seem to be positively oriented.  Is there an analogous negatively oriented type?

Regular readers of this blog won’t have to look very far…the obvious reference here is Boyd.

Like Tolstoy, Boyd is difficult to classify because he exhibits characteristics of both fox and hedgehog.  No doubt, Boyd was foxy in regards to the breadth of his insights.  It would be difficult to argue that he accepted much of anything at face value, least of all any singular big ideas.  However Boyd did exhibit a hedgehog-ish side through his single-minded determination and the strength of his convictions.

What was it that enabled Boyd to focus his attention so powerfully?

I’ll propose one possible answer: The Enemy.

In some respects Boyd and Tolstoy are quite similar.  Isaiah Berlin could have just as easily been describing Boyd when he wrote:

Like all very penetrating, very imaginative, very clearsighted analysts who dissect or pulverise in order to reach the indestructible core, and justify their own annihilating activities (from which they cannot abstain in any case) by the belief that such a core exists, he continued to kill his rivals’ rickety constructions with cold contempt, as being unworthy of intelligent men…

What distinguishes Boyd from Tolstoy is that he knew those rivals precisely.  He could identify a specific source of “rickety constructions” upon which to focus his “annihilating activities“.  They were the “be somebody” career men of the military bureaucracy.  That target constrained Boyd’s thinking and seeded an organizing thread throughout his work.

Tolstoy lacked any such target.  Berlin writes that “what oppressed Tolstoy most was his lack of positive convictions“.  Colin Wilson offers a similar sentiment in describing the Outsider:

This book has been a study chiefly in men who ‘wrecked’ for different reasons, men who cared too much about something or other, and cracked under the strain…

What we cannot have failed to notice…is that the greatest men have been those who were most intensely concerned about the Outsider’s problems, and the question of how not to wreck.  The Outsider must keep asking the question: Why?  Why are most men failures?  Why do Outsiders tend to wreck?

We lack the concept of an enemy: that is the trouble.


If the negatively oriented Fox – Tolstoy – can be characterized as an Outsider, then the negatively oriented Hedgehog – Boyd – can be characterized as a Barbarian: someone whose big idea develops in opposition to a particular “civilized” ideology.

That allows us to invoke our favorite construct – the 2×2 matrix:

FoxHedgehog 2x2

I’m already running long so I won’t dissect this in detail but – looping back to where we started – I’ll just point out how the examples of Boyd and Tolstoy illustrate the importance of transitioning through adjacent types rather than attempting diagonal jumps.

Tolstoy can be understood as failing to develop a satisfactory big idea because he attempted to jump directly from Outsider to Hedgehog.  The excessive strain involved in that approach leads to ego depletion in the short term, and provokes mounting cognitive dissonance over the long term.

By contrast, Boyd can be seen as a Barbarian who effectively transitioned into adjacent personas – gradually expanding the scope of his refutations (Barbarian –> Outsider) while also gradually developing his own big ideas (Barbarian –>Hedgehog).



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  1. That is a very useful 2×2. I had never thought in terms of the content of what is known. Assigning a polarity to the knowledge is a very useful step.

    This makes Nietzsche also the ultimate Outsider-Fox. His favored method of philosophical attack was to subject views he disagreed with to a ‘death by a thousand paper cuts’ type criticism, poking at weak spots with sharp, foxy jabs until the thing fell apart under its own weight.

    By contrast, the Hegelian dialectic tries to counter a hedgehog view with an alternative hedgehog anti-thing.

    This is why I classified both Taleb and Boyd as “talents of a hedgehog, values of a fox” — anti-Tolstois (“values of a hedgehog, talents of a fox”). Both Tolstois and anti-Tolstois fall outside the nominal fox-hedgehog scheme, but in different ways I think.

    You’ve added a third dimension here: knows/refutes, to yield a total of 8 archetypes. Fox/hedgehog in this 2×2 would be the pure foxes/hedgehogs in the skills/values 2×2… needs some reorg to get the cube right, but I think there really are 8.

    • Nietzsche is one of the main characters in Wilson’s book so he definitely fits the Outsider type.

      I’m not entirely understanding the third dimension that you are suggesting. I was using knows/refutes as synonymous with positively-oriented/negatively-oriented. There certainly are additional dimensions that we could incorporate but there is also the possibility that certain combinations aren’t viable.

      In other words, this third dimension could be describing the diagonal – the dimension that the Outsider shares with the Hedgehog and that the Barbarian shares with the Fox. If that is the case then the three dimensions would only produce four possible combinations.

  2. Something that might be worth looking into is the concept of picoeconomics. I think the best general introduction is Breakdown of Will (I’m reading it now). The general idea is that we hyperbolically discount future rewards, which affects our decisionmaking and sometimes results in a breakdown of will.

    It’s probably better if I just quote the description from the website:

    Picoeconomics (micro-micro-economics) explores the implications of an experimental discovery: that people (often) and lower animals (always) discount the prospect of future rewards in a curve that is more deeply bowed than a “rational,” exponential curve. Over a range of delays from seconds to decades, there are pairs of alternative rewards such that subjects prefer the smaller, earlier reward over the larger, later alternative when delay to the smaller reward will be short, but prefer the larger, later reward when the smaller alternative will be more delayed, even though the time from the earlier to the later reward stays the same. The curves that fit the observed data best are hyperbolic, that is, show value as inversely proportional to delay.

    The existence of regular temporary preferences for small-early rewards predicts the development of a relationship of limited warfare among successive selves. At any given moment, a person is motivated to lock in her current preferences by creating influences or commitments to constrain her own future choices. Such strategic behavior suggests that patterns seen in the interpersonal marketplace may underlie intrapersonal decision-making. The clearest implication is that the elusive power and freedom of the human will may represent an intertemporal bargaining situation analogous to a repeated prisoner’s dilemma.”
    To link to Boyd/Tolstoy/the Outsider, perhaps having some unified focus/enemy (Schwerpunkt?) can align the preferences of these metaphorical selves. Ainsilie mentions something like this in the book, IIRC.

    • Yes I think that fits the pattern. If I see everything as arbitrary or impermanent then naturally I will prepare for the future by spreading my bets around and opportunistically seizing gains as soon they appear.

      In order to behave “rationally” (in the sense of rationally discounting future rewards) I must have some reason believe that future conditions can be extrapolated from present conditions. A hardy enemy would be exactly the kind of institution that would allow for such extrapolation. In Boyd’s case, he could reasonably believe that his concentrated investments of time/energy/attention would pay off so long as the military bureaucracy continued to exist as an obstacle.

  3. Greg – great piece, and I’m aligned with the triplet of precepts around persona. There’s a ton to unpack here.

    Not sure I concur with the references to Nietzsche or Tolstoy in context (I’ve read them both extensively), as I actually think there is a third (to Venkat’s point) and a fourth dimension to this cube — the third being “(agent)/knows/assumes” and the fourth being “(actor)/doesn’t know/questions”.

    To use literary analogies, the plight of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad is one that is both self-referential and recursive: the targets exist in multidimensional states between an ego (sense of self), a superego (sense of self as relating to others) and something akin to Adler’s notions of an Id (a socialized, collective sense of self). In other words, we don’t actually lack the concept of an enemy, we seek out the persona of one to define various states of being. Interestingly, Tolstoy employed little if any soft text (metaphor) in his writings to describe these states, and I would argue that his target – a perceived enemy – was quite clear, even if it did not entail a single persona or a single entity. Back to states of being, the manifestations – meta-, physical or not – constitute the present realities and futures we create. Jung talked a lot about this with respect to archetypes, and Kant routinely cited dualistic and multivalent properties in his explorations of inner and outer intuition. Rationalists such as Wolff and Hume ultimately conceded that a greater, collective context for understanding free will would erase the dogma associated with it; germane to this thread, they were probably alluding to the creation of “anti-herd values”.

    With that said, perhaps the immediate decision-making properties of a fox-hedgehog-outsider-barbarian construct are subject to transcendental outcomes, which ultimately (sans a time-space constraint) result in a “personality free flow”. Hence, the mention of a third and fourth dimension: we don’t know what we don’t know until we actually make the transition to an adjacent self.

    Or, maybe I’m just way off here… Nonetheless, this is/was fun!

    • Hey Gunther, two thoughts…to some degree we have to distinguish the works of Nietzsche and Tolstoy from their real-life personas, and secondly, I think there is a meaningful difference between a discrete enemy and a diffuse enemy.

      Zarathustra in particular is a highly idealized character. Nietzsche may have seen Zarathustra’s enemies as his own enemies, but Nietzsche could not pragmatically adopt the lifestyle portrayed in Zarathustra. In his personal life he was a basketcase, stifled by civilized social norms and socially crippled by his compulsion to over-analyze everything. Wilson quotes a passage from one of Nietzsche’s personal letters:

      “Yesterday an oppressive storm hung over the sky, and I hurried to a neighbouring hill called Leutch…At the top I found a hut, where a man was killing two kids [goats] while his son watched him. The storm broke with a tremendous crash, discharging thunder and hail, and I had an indescribable sense of well-being and zest…Lightning and tempest are different worlds, free powers, without morality. Pure Will, without the confusions of intellect – how happy, how free.”

      Those last couple lines are pretty revealing of his state of mind…the association of zest and well-being with this primal scene, “Pure Will”, and the cessation of intellect.

      With regard to the second point, the character of Zarathustra was himself an archetypal Outsider – the person who abandons civilization in search of true wisdom. He might have some concept of that civilization as an enemy but it is not the kind of enemy that can be opposed directly a la the Barbarian. His only option is abdication, i.e. becoming a literal outsider.

      • Hi — good points, well stated. I also think you allude to dimensions of ‘will’ and ‘intellect’ (or intelligence) that express an operational duality in archetypes. Might be worth a hack at the grid ;)

  4. I was kinda aware that I was stating a tautology. For me the value lay in connecting up my head to my gut. Since it’s possible to change one’s mind about how things are going, there’s value in being able to cross-correlate the “things going well” signal to other signals.

    Seemingly tautological statements are sometimes profound. Zen masters and others know this.

    Then again, I think I was saying something a lot less interesting than your post. My statement can be compressed down to

    • Yeah, you’re right…a good deal of insight can be gained simply by rephrasing things in ways that emphasize different sets of associations. It is impossible to predict in advance what phrasing (or perspective) will make a given concept or a given bit of wisdom click.

      The idea in the link – that the happiest people are those who are busy but not rushed – is one of those bits of wisdom that seems unambiguous only to the person who has already achieved the associated state of lifestyle flow. In other words, it represents the view from the inside rather than the instructions to get you there from the outside.

      The person who is rushed is left to wonder what commitments he should cut back on, while the person who is bored must determine what she should busy herself with. Once you are engaged these questions are easily set aside but for the person attempting to achieve flow these are *the* questions. I don’t think we can assume that just any answer will do. There probably are some people for whom that is the case – people who can just pick something and stick with it – but they are probably not the people who struggle with such things in the first place.

      • Yeah the inside/outside distinction makes sense. But it isn’t black and white. People don’t divide neatly into insiders and outsiders. Instead we all spend sometime on the ‘inside’, some more than others, some of getting better at staying on the inside. But everyone probably has mornings when the cool thing you did last night seems flat and everything turns to ash in your mouth.