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Our Choosing Skills are Rusty
Chatbot life coaches, goal-setting, self-dogification, and how we've gotten so out of practice with making our lives our own.
As I was browsing through the New York Times on Friday, I noticed a headline I couldn't resist: "How to Turn Your Chatbot Into a Life Coach."
I clicked. The subhead read: "A chatbot can be an effective motivator that helps you set goals and organize your schedule to achieve them."
And I thought, "Great! Now I know what I'm writing for Monday."
First things first—a chatbot is not a life coach. And there is much more to setting and achieving goals than making a plan and organizing your life around it.
Now, I don't believe writer Brian X. Chen believes that a chatbot is really a useful coach, either. Instead, it was a good hook for a newsletter designed to teach readers a new skill for utilizing AI. But the basic conceit of the article—that you can pick a goal, make a plan, set up reminders, and be on track to achieve what you want—is just the same old yarn spun on a new machine.
Goal-setting is often reduced to a sort of input-output equation.
We assume that the prescribed input (i.e., our actions) will result in the intended output (i.e., our goals). When the equation doesn’t work out, we take it as a given that the reason we don't achieve our goals or stick to our plans is our personal deficiencies.
I wrote a book about goal-setting. At least, that’s what it says in the subtitle. Except, it’s not really about setting goals at all. It’s about the dizzying complexity of the systems (internal and external) that impact how we live. These systems turn the seemingly simple task of making a plan and executing it into a real challenge. And yet, rather than engaging with this complexity, we continue to return to reductive goal-setting and planning processes.
Chen's clever demonstration of ChatGPT's ability to help one make a plan and even provide "coaching" around common challenges typifies this input-output approach to goal-setting.
The input-output approach offloads conscious will to a system.
We learn to react to the system and its outputs, rather than learning to choose consciously. Within this type of system, we don't engage with the structural, psychological, and cultural environments we're acting in. The result is that we blame ourselves when we don't react "properly" to the system. We can't perceive the complex web of factors we act (or don't act) within.
We become alienated from our own will and desire. As philosopher Rahel Jaeggi puts it, this approach masks the practical questions inherent in acting as an agent in our own lives.
If the existence of a domain of practical questions, along with the capacity to pose and answer them, is a constitutive condition of a self-determined life, then a structure that leads to such a masking—a life that, as described, takes on a dynamic of its own (or is experienced as such)—undermines the conditions of self-determination and the capacity for action.
The systems taught by most mainstream self-help and productivity gurus are structures that undermine self-determination.
We train ourselves to do what the calendar tells us to do, to follow the schedule laid out before us. And we chip away at our own ability to reason or feel what we actually want to do.
To put this another way, the If Books Could Kill podcast recently tackled James Clear's Atomic Habits. Hosts Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri discuss how much of the advice in the book echoes the same techniques one would use to train a dog. Shamshiri, who refers to this process as "self-dogification" muses:
A lot of the book is about building habits by creating associations in your brain which will, over time, make those habits feel second nature.
On one hand, it's interesting because you're making the machinations of the human mind work for you. And on the other, you're utilizing the same basic tactics we use to make a dog roll over. It's inherently degrading, perhaps, but also maybe the single most practically useful tidbit in this book. So, I don’t know.
He's right. This approach is practically useful. It will yield results—to a point. But as we become more and more inured to the system's reactive controls, we lose touch with our will. We become detached from why we're doing this stuff in the first place. And that might be fine for a dog. To the best of our knowledge, dogs don't experience existential crises. But we do.
Self-dogification leads to self-alienation.
Jaeggi describes this aspect of alienation like so:
Here, too, one is no longer asked to make decisions, to act, or to pose practical questions. Everything appears as though it could not be different. Here, too, one is passive and no longer an active participant in the relations in which one lives; one is, instead, determined by them. And if everything appears as though it could not be different, then an acting subject is superfluous.
When we approach life as if we were training a dog, life becomes a series of "one weird trick" tactics that distance us from critical feeling and critical thinking. Over time, we lose the sense that our lives are our own—that we have the freedom to choose from one moment to the next. Sure, we reduce the number of decisions we have to make—which, theoretically, increases the likelihood we accomplish what we set out to accomplish. But it also reduces our sense of agency in that accomplishment. What we achieve isn’t really our doing. We’ve trained ourselves to react to a certain stimulus—the appointment on the calendar, the notification we receive, the to-do list on the kitchen table.
We react rather than act.
And we end up feeling superfluous in our own lives.
We get the impression that life is a set of choices that’s already been made for us. And so even when we desire a change, we seek out a system that is comfortably similar to that if this, then that protocol. We fail not because the system is bad or we didn’t want it bad enough, but because we have lost the skills of deciding and acting. "Practical questions must be posed not just once but over and over," writes Jaeggi, "even with respect to familiar, longstanding practices."
Sure, like Pavlov's dogs, you can train yourself to go for a run in the morning when you set out your running shoes and shorts the night before. But the real growth happens when you ask yourself the practical question, "Will I go for a run this morning?" and consciously consider how you'll answer that question. It's the deliberate act of choosing that makes us feel more connected to our daily lives and the people we're becoming.
I hear from many, many more people who believe they lack willpower or discipline than those who proudly own those "character traits." My position, however, is that the perceived lack of willpower or discipline isn't a function of personal deficiency but rather a logical consequence of adopting systems that claim to do the willpower and discipline for us. We're profoundly out of practice when it comes to doing what we want to do!
How do we combat this?
We start making critical feeling and critical thinking parts of our daily practice. We pause throughout the day to ask the practical question: did I choose to do this, or was this choice made for me? Why am I doing what I'm doing right now? Is this really what I want to be doing? And if not, what would I want to be doing?
While that might sound self-indulgent, it's not. Not that there's anything wrong with self-indulgence! The answers to these questions give us crucial information about how we're showing up in the world. They form the basis for how to guide ourselves into the future. And, most importantly, they provide a bridge back to ourselves and our own will.
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