The Creation and Destruction of Habits

Just for fun, I decided to try and weave a tweetstorm-style chain of thoughts through a chunk of my writing over the last few years. As you might expect, it isn’t exactly short, but at 42 tweet-sized chunks, it’s a decent feat of compression. I’ll spare my twitter followers the actual storm though.

1/ There are two kinds of stories: about forming habits, and about preserving them. Superhero movies and Christmas movies.

2/ While you have room to grow in your life, forming habits is much easier than breaking habits. Neither is easy, however.

3/ A habit, once formed, demands use. This is because it exists as a sunk cost. Disuse would imply depreciating value.

4/ A living habit generates returns and grows more complex over time. This is growth. Growing habits occupy more room over time.

5/ A dying habit generates losses and grows  simpler over time. This is decay. Dying habits decay to occupy less room over time.

6/ You are grown up when you run out of room to grow and are forced to break old  habits in order to form new ones.

7/ The alternative to growing up is to preserve existing habits against decay through mummification. This is ritualization.

8/ To ritualize a habit is to decide to sustain steady losses for the indefinite future. This means feeding it with make-work.

9/ Living habits are ugly. Constant growth and increasing complexity means they always appear as an unrefined work-in-progress.

10/ The reward of a ritual is comforting, relived memories of once-profitable habits. These can be passed on for generations.

11/ Rituals are beautiful. Mummification is the process of aestheticizing a behavior to produce comfort instead of profit.

12/ Comforts must be paid for.  But it is an easy decision to rob the ugly to pay the beautiful. Growth must pay for decay.

13/ Living habits can be valued in terms of expected future returns. Comforts cannot because they are being sustained despite losses.

14/ Living habits have a price. Rituals are price-less. They represent comforts worth preserving at indeterminate cost.

15/ Price-less comforts evolve from things-that-cannot-be-priced to things-that-must-not-be-priced. This is sacralization.

16/ The sacred price-less is the economic priceless. We drop the hyphen and add a notional price of infinity. This is a sacred value.

17/ The ritualized habit associated with a sacred value becomes a virtue: a behavior that serves as is its own justification.

18/ Virtues are behaviors that are recognized as their own justification by their unchanging beauty. The sacred is beautiful.

19/ Vice is that which cannot visibly co-exist with virtue: it is behavior that justifies its own suppression or marginalization.

20/ Profanity is an inchoate mixture of virtue and vice. Experimentation separates ugly profanity into future virtues and vices.

21/ When your living habits cannot pay for their own growth, and you sacrifice beauty for experimentation, you get innovation.

22/ When your living habits can pay for their own growth and your comforting rituals, you have a beautiful life. This is individualism.

23/ When living habits can pay for themselves but not for comforts, you have a problem. This is failed individualism: depression.

24/ If you try to strip away comforts and retain only growth, you have cognitive-behavioral cancer. This is being manic.

25/ You can pretend that comforts are profits. To do this you deny new data and restate old justifications. This is called derping.

26/ You can also strip away rituals, deliberately making your life uglier by unburdening living habits. This is called empiricism.

27/ You can strip away enough ritual to keep your life ugly at work and beautiful at home. This is called being a loser.

28/ You can confuse the beautiful with the living and the ugly with dying and strip away the wrong things. This is called cluelessness.

29/ You can consciously develop your ability to contemplate both ugliness and beauty with equanimity. This is called mindfulness.

30/ You can strip away rituals up to the limit of your mindfulness, staying on the edge of manic-depression. This is being a sociopath.

31/ The most common response to failed individualism, however, is to get others to pay for your comforts. This is called culture.

32/ A culture that cannot pay for its own comforts overall is a called a tradition. One that has no comforts to pay for is called a frontier.

33/ Tradition is beautiful, frontiers are ugly. To mistake one for the other is the defining characteristic of the clueless middle class.

33/ A culture that is more tradition than frontier is a loser culture. Sincere partisan conservatism and liberalism are both for losers.

34/ A culture that is more frontier than tradition is sociopath culture. It offers few comforts and fewer sacred ones.

35/ A compassionate culture is one that drives each member to the limit of their mindfulness. It is inclusive by definition.

36/ A beautiful culture is one that highlights comforting tradition and hides profit and profanity. It is extractive by definition.

37/ A culture cannot be both compassionate and beautiful at once without ceasing to grow. To be a sociopath is to recognize this.

38/ A culture that ceases to grow is a culture that increasingly trades compassion for beauty, paying more for its priceless elements.

39/ A culture that chooses to grow is one that systematically devalues beauty and resists the allure and comfort of pricelessness.

40/ Civilization is the mortal tension between the imperative to keep growing and the imperative to remain beautiful.

41/ Those who choose beauty tell one kind of story, about a relatively shrinking set of beautiful things that define the human.

42/ Those who choose growth tell another kind of story, about an expanding zone of mindfulness that defines the superhuman.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. GreenEngineer says

    So, what distinguishes #23 from #26? Or is a distinction even possible?

    • #23 is a condition, #26 is a response that accepts the implications of the condition pragmatically. #24 and #25 by contrast, are non-pragmatic responses.

  2. Moritz Bierling says

    My try at analysing the emergence of group hatred through this lens:

    “In contained cultural groups, members share at the minimum on a superficial and visible level a set of sacred values (priceless comforts). In the open “visible-to-the-group” inter- and transactions reinforce these lip service values since they take advantage of natural human inertia and visibility to other group members, which makes possible status loss for “inappropriate” behavior and therefore increases vulnerability to attacks.
    Then, when an influx of differently culture people (let’s call them betas) transacts with members of the host group (alphas), the alphas are forced to evaluate the economic value of their sacred values and their respective comforts more closely, as it becomes apparent that betas do not care about, or even know of, the specific sacred values associated with routine transactions. Confronted with this problem, alphas experience confusion because they are made aware of the arbitrariness and non-universality of their values. As this happens for the most part on the subconscious level, they do not analyse this sensation and so react with aggressive defensiveness. Defenses need an aggressor they can defend against to be justified and so l the individual beta takes on that role in the alphas mind. Depending on the frequency of these transactions, the committedness to the sacred alpha values, and possibly the individual alphas intelligence, the inference from the individual beta to the beta group is made and so hatred of a collective starts to take shape.”

  3. #3: “A habit, once formed, demands use. This is because it exists as a sunk cost. Disuse would imply depreciating value.”

    Isn’t this the “sunk-costs fallacy”? A sunk cost “demands” nothing; it’s “water under the bridge.”

    • Precisely, that’s the rational view. I am making a remark on the psychology of how people actually behave around sunk costs: in a fallacy-ridden way.

      I have an essay on how to develop indifference to sunk costs (i.e. rationality towads them) in the Be Slightly Evil e-book.

  4. Tina Coffman says

    Some of these twitterlettes I get right off — others I need help with understanding how you are intending the interpretation. I think offering some interpretation/ discussions would be fun for each. Of course I am a new reader to this blog so maybe there is some underlying understandings that you and your long term readers have built up. Thanks – highly appreciate — some of these help me consolidate some thinking.

  5. As an American southerner by birth and breeding, statement 36 resonates with truth. My whole life I have watched as our sublimely beautiful but profitless and extractive culture has faded away. The best aspects of northeastern and midwestern culture are described in statement 22, the worst in 24.