The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Control the idiots

with 7 comments

Life advice from Jonathan Nolan’s short story Memento Mori, the inspiration for the film:

They were right. Lists are the only way out of this mess.

Here’s the truth: People, even regular people, are never just any one person with one set of attributes. It’s not that simple. We’re all at the mercy of the limbic system, clouds of electricity drifting through the brain. Every man is broken into twenty-four-hour fractions, and then again within those twenty-four hours. It’s a daily pantomime, one man yielding control to the next: a backstage crowded with old hacks clamoring for their turn in the spotlight. Every week, every day. The angry man hands the baton over to the sulking man, and in turn to the sex addict, the introvert, the conversationalist. Every man is a mob, a chain gang of idiots.

This is the tragedy of life. Because for a few minutes of every day, every man becomes a genius. Moments of clarity, insight, whatever you want to call them. The clouds part, the planets get in a neat little line, and everything becomes obvious. I should quit smoking, maybe, or here’s how I could make a fast million, or such and such is the key to eternal happiness. That’s the miserable truth. For a few moments, the secrets of the universe are opened to us. Life is a cheap parlor trick.

But then the genius, the savant, has to hand over the controls to the next guy down the pike, most likely the guy who just wants to eat potato chips, and insight and brilliance and salvation are all entrusted to a moron or a hedonist or a narcoleptic.

The only way out of this mess, of course, is to take steps to ensure that you control the idiots that you become. To take your chain gang, hand in hand, and lead them. The best way to do this is with a list.

It’s like a letter you write to yourself. A master plan, drafted by the guy who can see the light, made with steps simple enough for the rest of the idiots to understand. Follow steps one through one hundred. Repeat as necessary.

Your problem is a little more acute, maybe, but fundamentally the same thing.

Edit [2018-09-12]: I posted the above 8 years ago, and it matched the way I was trying to deal with my life then. Now (as of yesterday) I now think this is actually harmful advice, and would not recommend it. Well, if you ignore the metaphor, then at a superficial level, it still holds that it’s a good idea to make a list at the best time that you can rely on unthinkingly, when your thinking may not be very clear. But if the metaphor is real for you, with all these different selves within you, then it can be actively harmful to try “controlling” some of those selves. Instead each needs to be acknowledged and given its (guaranteed, e.g. scheduled) time and space, so that it is not perpetually dissatisfied and trying to forcefully grab control at inopportune moments (and still not satisfied, because the control has not been absolute / with the consent of the other selves). Ultimately these selves have to be in consensus, working together. All of them have to be satisfied. There may be some period of mourning/loss as they realize that they can’t have control *all* the time, but knowing that they will have control by unanimous consent (of all the other selves) at certain times can make up for this dissatisfaction.

In short: the list can be useful, but the “idiots” have to trust it / welcome it; they cannot be controlled by force.

Written by S

Tue, 2010-11-23 at 12:30:51

Posted in procrastination

Tagged with ,

7 Responses

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  1. Another interesting article(which you might have already read) is:

    I have been trying to get hold of the book mentioned in the above article(essays on procrastination); but in vain.


    Sat, 2010-11-27 at 17:13:53

    • Yes, I read the article… some quotes I’m saving here for (my) future reference:

      “Still, ignorance can’t be the whole story. In the first place, we often procrastinate not by doing fun tasks but by doing jobs whose only allure is that they aren’t what we should be doing… And people do learn from experience: procrastinators know all too well the allures of the salient present, and they want to resist them. They just don’t.”

      “Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers…”

      “…encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder.”

      “…lays great emphasis on classification and definition: the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it.”

      “Underneath… is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.”

      As for the book, I think it’s a new book, just published… it will be a while before it gets available, I guess.


      Fri, 2010-12-31 at 15:09:43

  2. Interesting. However, the bigger problem is deciding who is genius and who is the crazed lunatic. I think moments of clarity actually are more frequent for the lunatics. There is a saying – Fools are always sure of themselves. A wise man is one who doubts, yet acts.


    Wed, 2010-12-22 at 03:07:57

  3. Great stuff! This is the reason I hate “About me” questions!

    And I just watched Being John Malkovich a few days ago. Baader-Meinhoff all the way.


    Sun, 2010-12-26 at 09:50:21

    • Er, what’s Baader-Meinhoff?


      Fri, 2010-12-31 at 14:42:02

      • The Baader-Meinhof Complex, later known as the Rote Armee Fraktion, was a gang of communist militants in Germany a few decades ago.

        Some time ago, there was someone (I’m sorry for the vagueness, but I think this bit is unknown) who read in a newspaper or something about this gang that he hadn’t heard of before. During the following weeks, he somehow kept hearing and seeing Baader-Meinhof mentioned several times, even though it seemed he had never heard or seen it ever before.

        Was there a connection between his stumbling upon this name in the newspaper and his seeing it everywhere afterwards? It did feel remarkable. The explanation of this is the recency effect: you notice things that correspond to very recent stimuli much more than those to older stimuli, to the point of thinking that these corresponding things only started occurring after the time of the stimulus. This effect is also unofficially/popularly called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or Effect. See Wikipedia on the Recency Effect or the Baader-Meinhof disambiguation page.


        Fri, 2011-01-28 at 10:10:00

        • Thanks! I knew the recency effect by many names, but “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” was new to me.

          [Is there a name for the meta thing where you learn about the recency phenomenon and then suddenly start seeing it in several places? :-)]


          Sat, 2011-01-29 at 01:58:37

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