The Cost of Humility

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

-Matthew 5:5

What do you care what other people think?”

-Richard Feynman


I’ve been thinking a lot about validation lately – how we get it, why we crave it. My thoughts on the matter are still in flux, but the one thing I keep coming back to is:

Man, we sure do need a lot of it.

Seriously, the average person spends a truly prodigious amount of time and effort seeking out reassurance that they’re well-liked and popular. The rise of social media has certainly made this more obvious – look at the constant search for Likes, Retweets, and Shares – but by no means did it originate the phenomenon. We’ve always been obsessed with our image, our reputation, and our standing among our peers. And we don’t just need validation – we need a constant stream of validation. Praise almost seems to come with a built-in half-life: a compliment from five seconds ago is worth more than a compliment from five days ago, and a compliment from five months ago may as well have not happened.

What I find interesting about this is not so much that we care what other people think – that seems unsurprising and even expected, given that humans are social creatures. No, what I find interesting is how often we seek out validation for things that, at some level, we already know about ourselves.

Take the amateur artist, for example. We’re all familiar with the general archetype: they draw in a sketchbook while on the subway. They’re sort of superficially protective of said sketchbook – they put up a show of not wanting to let anyone see it, but will hand it over given some light prodding. And they’re preemptively self-deprecating about their work – they try to talk it down when they show it to anyone, saying “oh, they’re just some silly drawings I did” or “I was just messing around”.

Of course, the self-deprecation is almost always unwarranted. I don’t think I’ve ever looked in someone’s sketchbook and not been deeply impressed with what I saw. Amateur artists are usually really good. And why wouldn’t they be? If you’re going to go to the trouble of buying a sketchbook and then spend dozens or hundreds of hours drawing in it, odds are you have some talent. People don’t tend to go out of their way to embrace a hobby that they’re terrible at. I would wager that anyone who draws for pleasure can fully expect to impress any random person they show their work to, unless the person happens to be a professional artist.

And the strange this is, I think they already know this. I think amateur artists know, on some level, that what they’re producing is impressive. And I think they also know – again, on some level – that if they were to show their work to people, they would receive only praise and positive feedback.

But if this is true, then we have a puzzle on our hands. Because amateur artists do seem to care deeply about receiving compliments and praise. And they still care about receiving compliments and praise, even if they already expect to receive them.

Take a moment to think about how strange that is. If you already expect for something to happen, then having it actually happen should not cause any change in your thinking. It was…what you expected to happen, after all. You certainly don’t gain any new information when your expectations are confirmed. And yet somehow when it comes to praise, expectations aren’t enough – anticipating that you’ll get a compliment is a very different thing from actually hearing the compliment said aloud. It’s as though praise doesn’t “count” until you’ve actually received it from another person – even if you fully expect to receive it, and in fact would be very surprised not to receive it.

It’s not just amateur artists, of course – we all do this. And it’s hard not to find that a little frustrating. Because it’s one thing for us to have a deep need to seek out praise when we’re feeling insecure – that at least makes a certain amount of sense. But to find ourselves in situations where we’re not feeling particularly insecure – where we in fact have pretty confident knowledge of our own praiseworthiness – and yet still have a deep need to seek out praise anyway? That seems impressively pointless, even by “somehow-evolved-to-have-intrusive-thoughts” brain standards. It would be nice if we could just cut out the middleman, so to speak, and use our expectation of being validated as a source of actual validation. I mean, surely if you knew deep down that someone would compliment you, if they saw your work – surely that should be just as good as actually getting the compliment, right?

Unfortunately, validation doesn’t appear to work like that. We seem to be wired to accept praise only from outside sources, and discount anything we might say or think about ourselves.

And again, this is kind of frustrating. But it’s also interesting – I’m always intrigued when I notice my brain doing something seemingly pointless, because there’s usually some underlying logic to what it’s doing that I haven’t seen yet. This case is no different: I think there’s a reason we can’t self-validate at will, as much as we might wish we could at times. I want to go into what that reason is, why it ends up being a less than good reason in certain cases, and whether or not there’s anything we can – or should – do to work around it.


So let’s talk about humility.

Humility is one of those universally admired virtues. We all like humble people, and aspire to be humble to some degree. We want our heroes to be humble – think of Gandalf, or Frodo (or Sam, for that matter…or Aragorn…or Faramir – man, Tolkien really liked humility). There are exceptions, of course: Sherlock Holmes comes to mind as a character who’s well-liked despite being arrogant. But such cases are rare, and rely on the character or person in question having a very specific set of compensating characteristics. I think it’s safe to say that, all else being equal, we like arrogant people much less than we like humble people.

Now, why do we value humility so much? That’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. I mean, yes, we all have an intuitive sense that arrogant people are jerks. But where does that intuition come from?

My own guess is that humility functions as a kind of sanity check on society. Without humility, people would have an incentive to talk themselves up – to brag about themselves as much as possible; to exaggerate their own worth without limit. Worse, in such a world people wouldn’t just talk about how great they were – they would actually have an incentive to believe they were that great as well. If you’re trying to convince someone that you’re amazing and deserve a promotion or a raise or whatever, you’re going to be much more convincing if you actually believe what you’re saying. And people are absolutely capable of this – it’s been proven again and again that we can change our own beliefs when it’s favourable to do so, without ever noticing that we used to believe differently. You can even see a variant of this in our own society, in the form of overconfidence bias, and that’s with a pretty strong norm of valuing humility. So I think the end result in a society without humility would be a bunch of people who had maximally high opinions of themselves going around bragging all the time. In other words, it’s probably a good thing that humility exists, all things considered – it keeps us tethered to reality.

But it’s important to note that it does so by taking the drastic step of essentially cutting us off from having opinions about ourselves. The idea behind humility seems to be that it would be really dangerous to allow people to self-validate at will. And so to avoid the problem altogether, we just say: okay, everything you think about yourself doesn’t count. Sorry. Doesn’t matter if you’re a very nice person who’s always been extremely humble in the past. Doesn’t matter if all you want is to feel good about one tiny little drawing you did, and you’re really really sure that the drawing is actually good anyway. Still: no self-validation for you. There’s just too much of a conflict of interest at play, and we can’t allow for any exceptions because humans are notoriously good at convincing themselves that the exact situation they find themselves in just happens to warrant an exception.

In practice, what we do allow is a strange sort of quasi-belief. You can think positive things about yourself, and you can know on an intellectual level that they’re probably true. But the beliefs have no force, no ability to provide validation. They don’t really count. The only thing that does count is validation that comes from another person. And the reason we allow that is because other people presumably don’t have the same perverse incentives that we do, incentives that would lead us to a runaway ego explosion if left unchecked.

So that’s what I think is going on in the puzzle I outlined above. Remember that the puzzle was not why we seek out validation from others – that makes perfect sense. The puzzle was why we still seek out validation even when we already know we’re worthy or meritorious or talented or whatever.

And the above picture of humility provides the answer. The reason we crave validation in such cases is because we simply can’t get it from ourselves. You can think you’re as worthy or meritorious or talented as you want, but it doesn’t really matter – when it comes to yourself, your own thoughts are always going to be discarded. In essence, humility is all about decoupling self-worth from self-assessment. And that means no matter how highly you assess yourself, you’re still going to have to look to others for praise.

Or, to put it another way: no matter how well you draw, you’re still going to have to show off your damn sketchbook.


If that were all that was going on here, I would say: good for humility. Clearly it serves a very important purpose, and I’m not sure our society would even be able to function without it. Forcing people to seek out a little external validation seems like a small price to pay for that.

But I don’t think that is all that’s going on here.

People internalize norms in very different ways and to very different degrees. There are people out there who don’t seem to internalize the norms of humility at all. We usually call these people “arrogant jerks”. And there are people – probably the vast majority of people – who internalize them in reasonable, healthy ways. We usually call these people “normal”.

But then there are also people who internalize the norms of humility in highly unhealthy ways. Humility taken to its most extreme limit is not a pretty thing – you don’t end up with with wise, virtuous, Gandalf-style modesty. You end up with self-loathing, pathological guilt, and scrupulosity. There are people out there – and they are usually exceptionally good, kind, and selfless people, although that shouldn’t matter – who are convinced that they are utterly worthless as human beings. For such people, showing even a modicum of kindness or charity towards themselves would be unthinkable. Anti-charity is much more common – whatever interpretation of a situation puts themselves in the worst light, that’s the one they’ll settle on. And why? Because it’s been drilled into their heads, over and over again, that to think highly of yourself – even to the tiniest, most minute degree – is wrong. It’s something that bad, awful, arrogant people do, and if they do it then they’ll be bad, awful, arrogant people too. So they take refuge in the opposite extreme: they refuse to think even the mildest of nice thoughts about themselves, and they never show themselves even the slightest bit of kindness.

Or take insecurity (please). All of us experience insecurity to one degree or another, of course. But again, there’s a pathological, unhealthy form it can take on that’s rooted in how we internalize the norms of humility. When you tell people that external validation is the only means by which they can feel good about themselves…well, surprisingly enough, some people take a liking to external validation. But in the worst cases it goes beyond a mere desire for validation, and becomes a need – an addiction, even. You wind up with extreme people-pleasers, people who center every aspect of their lives around seeking out praise and avoiding criticism.

Both of these descriptions resonate a great deal with me. I mean, thankfully I rather emphatically do not think of myself as utterly worthless. But if I were to be honest, I would have to place myself somewhere in the “unhealthy” camp when it comes to humility. I find it extremely difficult to think thoughts that are charitable towards myself, or to ever give myself the benefit of the doubt. It just feels viscerally, cringe-inducingly wrong to take my own side like that. Heck, even describing myself in that manner – showing myself the charity of saying I deserve more self-charity, essentially – is hard for me to do. And the less said about my need for validation, the better.

This isn’t really about me, though. There’s a spectrum of unhealthiness when it comes to humility, and yes, I’m probably on it somewhere. But I got off relatively easy compared to what some people are saddled with.

I think some people have a picture of humility as this unalloyed good; something with no downsides whatsoever. And because of this they see no reason not to extol the virtues of humility as often and as widely as possible. After all, it could only lead to people being more humble, and what could be wrong with that? So we’ve ended up with a culture which is absolutely saturated with pro-humility messages, where every single hero you see is humble and every single villain you see is arrogant, where being humble is seen as almost synonymous with being good (Tolkien, anyone?). And this isn’t viewed as any cause for concern, because hey – it’s just humility, right?

But what I’m trying to say here is that this isn’t true. There’s a cost to humility. When you canonize the humble and hold them up as paragons of virtue…well, yes, maybe you manage to make society a little bit less arrogant, on average. But you also push some people who were already too humble for their own good into genuinely unhealthy places. The unhealthiness might not always be obviously related to humility – I’d bet that a good number of people who praise humility don’t make the connection, and complain in the next breath about how today’s Facebook-using teens are far too obsessed with what other people think of them. But the connection is there nonetheless.


All of this does strange things to the concept of self-esteem.

Take me, for example. Whenever people have asked me about my own self-esteem in the past, I’ve never known quite what to say. Usually I’ve just ended up mumbling some vague and half-contradictory response that didn’t really answer the question.

Because there are two different sides to me. On the one hand, you have my insecure side. This is the side that’s obsessed with what people think of me; the side that is desperate for validation and praise. It’s because of this side that I write blog posts and Dinosaur Comics, that I always try to get a laugh out of people, and that I try to be as clever and insightful as I can be in conversations. Insecurity is this side’s middle name: think “cross between a teacher’s pet and a class clown”, except turned up to 1000.

(For what it’s worth, I don’t really disapprove of this part of myself – the instinct to do praiseworthy things can be a good one, as long as it’s channeled in the right direction. I have a problem with the insecure side of myself not when it spends all its time looking to earn praise, but when it spends all its time looking to avoid embarrassment. That I think has done more harm than good for me over the course of my life)

On the other hand, though, I also have a confident side. This side is made up of the quasi-beliefs that I talked about above – the beliefs that I suspect, deep down, are true, but that I don’t really allow myself to fully accept because they come from my own brain. If you were to ask this side of myself what I’m like, it would say that I’m an exceedingly smart, funny, kind and thoughtful person. In fact, it would probably be fair to call this side of myself not just confident but arrogant. This is why I’ve always felt vaguely guilty when people I know call me modest – because they don’t know about the arrogant side that I have. Granted, the arrogant side may not have any real access to how I feel about myself, but it’s there all the same.

(I should also note that most of the time the two sides roughly cancel out, and I manage to approximate a normal, functioning human being. Not always, though)

Okay, so then the question is: do I have high self-esteem, or low?

And my own answer would be that I have no idea – it depends entirely on what you mean by self-esteem.

If self-esteem refers to that deep down set of quasi-beliefs that I have, then I guess I’d have to concede that I have high self-esteem. Certainly that side of myself doesn’t lack for confidence. But if so, it’s a very strange and almost hollow sort of self-esteem: it doesn’t help me feel particularly good about myself, or stop me from seeking out validation, or really do any of the things that you might expect having high self-esteem to do. So I’m not sure that this definition really fits.

On the other hand, if self-esteem refers to the insecure, validation-seeking side of myself – well, that makes a little more sense, since at least this side of me actually has access to how I feel about myself. And in that case, I suppose you could say that I have low self-esteem. But I’m not sure that this definition really fits either. Yes, my insecure side constantly seeks out praise, and worries about whether or not people like me, and does other things you might typically associate with low self-esteem. But it is also fundamentally outward-focused – the means by which my insecure side is able to affect my feelings is through other people, not through anything I think about myself. So yes, getting praise from another person can make me feel very very good – but it’s a good feeling that’s coming entirely from someone else’s opinion of me, and it seems strange to call that self-esteem.

No, I may be generalizing too much from my own experiences here, but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to see “self-esteem” as anything other than a contradiction in terms. As far as I can tell, the only way I ever truly get to feel good about myself – indeed, almost the way “feeling good about myself” is defined – is through external validation. Sure, I can have positive thoughts about myself, and some of those thoughts might even make me feel a little better about myself. But to the extent that they do make me feel better about myself, they do so by…well, by making it easier to imagine myself receiving praise and validation from others. Self-worth always seem to ground out in external validation eventually, if you dig deep enough. So talking about self-esteem, at least in terms of “feeling good about yourself as a result of your own thoughts and opinions”, doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s like talking about getting water from something other than H2O – you can’t just separate out self-worth from validation, because they’re basically the same thing.

I bring all of this up because there’s a particular strain of thought I’ve seen floating around – exemplified by the Richard Feynman quote included at the outset – that says you shouldn’t care what other people think of you. You’ve probably heard the platitudes: “Be comfortable in your own skin. Do what you want, and don’t worry if everyone else is doing it. Just be yourself.” The idea is that you should just try to feel good about yourself on your own terms, and not define your worth based on other people’s opinions.

But my problem with this line of thinking is that for most people, this simply isn’t possible – the only way they can feel good about themselves is through other people. The choice isn’t between external validation and self-validation – it’s between external validation and nothing. So when you tell someone “stop caring what other people think of you”, what that amounts to in practice is saying “don’t ever feel good about yourself again”. And needless to say, I don’t think this is a realistic – or even desirable – ideal for people to strive for.

No, I think we might just have to accept that we’ll always reside in a world where external validation is the fundamental currency of self-worth. And yes, that might mean we’ll always be saddled with a desire for praise – but it doesn’t mean there aren’t more and less healthy ways of seeking out that praise. I mentioned this above, but I think the best way to handle a need for validation is not to fight it but to channel it – to use it to shape our own behaviour in ways that we endorse. Even if praise is your ultimate motivator in some or even most situations, there’s still a big difference between praise motivating you do something you approve of, and praise motivating you to do something you disapprove of. The key is to try as much as possible to move yourself away from the latter and towards the former.

Mind you, I have no idea how to actually do that. But it seems like a good thing to try for.


Whenever I think about all of this, my thoughts always seem to be drawn, with puzzling regularity, to one subject in particular: the internet. That may sound like a strange connection to make, but I think there’s something important going on here – so bear with me.

Time and time again, I’ve seen someone put in the unfortunate situation of having to prove to the internet that they’re a good person. Take the infamous “nice guy” debates that periodically sweep the internet, for example. They always start off when some blissfully oblivious young man decides to ask The Question:

“I’m a nice guy, so why can’t I get a girlfriend?”

No doubt this seems, to him, like an innocuous question.

(ah, to be so innocent, so naive)

Anyway, so this promptly sets off a fight that makes World War II look like a minor schoolyard scuffle, accusations of sexism and misogyny and entitlement are hurled in every direction, and after the dust has settled everyone on the internet hates each other just a little bit more. Pretty much a normal day online.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of the nice guy debate here – that’s been done to death, and it does horrible things to my psyche anyway. But I would like to highlight one aspect of the situation that really bothers me. During these arguments, there’s always an attitude of…let’s say mild skepticism that the guy in question really is all that nice. The prevailing thought seems be that anyone who would say that they were nice couldn’t actually be nice.

And hey, fair enough. Probably this skepticism is often warranted – it’s very easy to claim to be nice online, after all. But let’s say for the sake of argument that, in this one particular case, our guy really is that nice. Like, super nice in fact – he wins niceness awards and has a PhD in Niceness from Nice University. My problem is that in a situation like that, where he actually is a nice guy, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything at all he could do to convince the internet of this.

Seriously, how would you do it? Anything you say about yourself is suspect right from the start – repeating “No, really, I swear I’m nice!” isn’t going to cut it. At best, claims like that are just going to be unconvincing, but at worst they’ll be anti-convincing – nice people don’t usually go around saying they’re nice. And if you try to back up your claim to being nice with specific examples – “But I volunteer at eight different soup kitchens!” – well, that’s probably just going to come across as more defensive than anything else. Not to mention that people will take it as further evidence that you’re conceited, because now you’re the kind of person who goes around talking publicly about all the nice things you’ve done.

So I have a great deal of sympathy for our hypothetical nice guy here, because I really don’t know if there’s anything he could do.

And it goes way beyond just the nice guy thing. I actually dread the thought of ever having to convince the internet that I have any positive quality – that I’m smart, or funny, or likeable, or anything like that. The notion of being put in that situation instills a feeling in me that is equal parts frustration and hopelessness. Because it’s basically a no-win scenario – practically anything that I could say would just sound like boasting, so it would either be dismissed, or taken as evidence against whatever I was trying to prove. It’s essentially being asked to brag while subject to the constraint of not being allowed to brag.

(hey, I think I just figured out why I hate writing online dating profiles!)

What it comes down to is that the internet is the ultimate context-free environment. Most forums are more-or-less anonymous, which means that anything you post pretty much has to stand on it’s own – you don’t really get to build up a reputation over time, or earn people’s trust. In a setting like that, faced with a skeptical audience who doesn’t know you, it’s practically impossible to credibly say something positive about yourself – you’re just going to come across as someone who’s lying or full of themselves. In the real world, you can always show people that you’re nice by doing things that are hard to fake – if you buy someone you know a thoughtful gift, or help them out when they’re in need, those are things you’re only likely to do if you’re actually a decent person. But that option isn’t available to you online – on the internet, there’s no such thing as hard to fake, because anyone can claim anything they want at no cost to themselves. There’s nothing to back up any boastful-sounding claims that get made, and so they’re inevitably met with either skepticism or hostility.

Okay, so that’s maybe kind of interesting, but you might be wondering what the big deal is. So it’s hard to convince people of things online – is that really worth getting so worked up about? After all, online dating aside, how often is it that you’re faced with the task of proving to the internet that you’re a worthy person?

And this is true – on it’s own it is kind of a niche problem to focus on. But I bring it up because it actually gets right down to the heart of what humility is all about to me, and how I experience it.

When I say that I dread the thought of having to prove to the internet that I’m smart, it’s not at all that I expect to ever encounter that situation. That does indeed seem unlikely, and not worth worrying about. No, the thing that bothers me is just knowing that if I ever did have to prove that, I wouldn’t be able to.

See, I have a very strongly-felt sense that everything I believe or think should ultimately be defensible. To me, it feels as though I’m not allowed to hold any opinion unless I can justify it to anyone imaginable, even the most skeptical of critics. This goes double for thoughts that I have about myself. And my brain doesn’t go halfway with this – no, in the interest of being “fair” (read: anti-self-charitable) it has to construct and defeat the worst skeptics it can imagine. But of course the worst skeptics it can imagine are exactly those context-lacking internet commenters I described above. And so they’re exactly who I have to convince if I want to have an opinion about myself.

That’s why I find the nice guy scenario described above so frustrating. I may not have literally experienced something like that, and don’t really expect to – but I run through it in my head about a billion times a day when I’m trying to justify things to myself.

It may sound silly, but every time I’m tempted to think something charitable about myself, an anonymous internet commenter pops up in the back of my head and demands that I justify it to them. And unless I can, I don’t get to think the thought.

(I usually can’t – I may have mentioned that I don’t think many charitable thoughts about myself?)

What it comes down to is that I have a desire – a need, even – for defensibility in my opinions about myself. And this is very closely related to humility – in fact, it might even be the same thing. I think the way that humility manifests itself in me is as a kind of fear of being called out – there’s a sense that at any second, I could be held to account for any positive thoughts I might have had about myself, and I need to have justifications ready for each of them. What counts as a justification, though? Well, definitely not my own thoughts and feelings – those might be enough to satisfy my friends and family, but there’s no way that they would sway a stranger on the internet. Remember, we need to convince everyone. No, pretty much the only thing that might do it would be something neutral, like…well, like someone else’s opinion of me.

And hey, look at that – we’ve arrived back at external validation.

I think the reason we “count” external validation but not self-validation is because external validation can be used in self-defense. You can hold up someone else’s opinion of you and say “No look, it’s okay! Someone else thinks I’m smart too, see? It’s not just me!” It’s something you can use as justification, something that offers proof that you’re not just being arrogant. And it’s one of the few things that has half a chance of satisfying even skeptics on the internet – which I think is why I crave it so much.

Without it, though – absent a set of external opinions for you to fall back on – it really isn’t clear to me that there’s anything you could do to prove to the internet that you’re smart, or funny, or (heaven help you) a nice guy. I think people are just too good at pushing back against what they see as unjustified examples of arrogance. Without context, pretty much all self-advocacy is just rounded off to bragging, and that has a way of blocking off any route you might want to take.

If I had to describe the feeling of humility, it would be that – the feeling of having no way, even in principle, of convincing someone else that you’re a good person. And as a result, being unable to believe it yourself.


In the end, though, there are always trade-offs.

I talked about the harm that pro-humility messages do, but of course some people need to hear messages like that. Just as there are those who could do with a little less humility in their life, there are also those who could do with a little more. Any societal norm you want to set has to walk a balancing act – if you push humility too much you’ll end up with overly scrupulous and insecure people, and if you push it not enough you’ll end up with people that are much too arrogant and full of themselves.

And to its credit, I think society actually recognizes this – sort of. The way we deal with this in practice is by trying to push both pro- and anti-humility messages at the same time, and hoping like hell that they find the right kind of people. Messages promoting humility are of course ubiquitous: from a young age we have it drilled into our heads that it’s wrong to brag, that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, that “pride comes before a fall”, et cetera et cetera – there’s no shortage of examples. But it’s easy to forget that there are also messages that go in the other direction – things like “don’t be so hard on yourself” and “you’re your own worst critic” and “be kind to yourself”. The idea – or the hope – would be that people who are already too humble would hear the latter set of messages, people who aren’t humble enough would hear the former, and the world would get a little bit healthier on the whole.

Unfortunately, I have a sick suspicion that this isn’t happening – that in fact, the messages are reaching exactly the sets of people who least need to hear them.

Consider who is likely to take the message “don’t be so hard on yourself” to heart. Would it be the humble people that you’re trying to reach?

I doubt it. To think “I am too hard on myself” is not a humble thought. It is a thought that asserts one’s own adequacy, a thought that says yes, I have gone far enough in policing myself – too far, even. And humble people are not noted for the ease with which they think self-charitable thoughts.

On the other hand, I could totally see a somewhat clueless and self-congratulatory jerk hearing that message and thinking “Hey yeah, I am too hard on myself” and then going off to be even more of a self-congratulatory jerk, because there are people out there who do not have a single self-reflective bone in their body.

The problem is that humility is self-reinforcing. If you’re not already in the habit of being charitable to yourself, then it’s tough to start. To do so, you’d have to decide that you’re currently not charitable enough to yourself…but of course that itself is a self-charitable thought, which you’re not likely to think unless you’re already sufficiently charitable…

(man, meta-humility is just the worst)

I guess my hope in writing this essay was that it might break a few people free from that trap. That by laying out the whole messed-up system of thought that produces humility, it might allow some people to step outside that system for a moment, and bootstrap themselves up to self-charity.

It’s tough, of course. Even if you manage to convince yourself that you need to be more self-charitable, old habits die hard – thinking nice thoughts about yourself can feel really really awful, like you’re being a bad person. If that describes you, though, then I’d urge you to keep trying. Erring on the side of humility is always going to feel safer – when you do that you’re only harming yourself, after all. But remember that you count as a person too, and harming that person isn’t virtuous, even if no one is going to blame you for it.

All that’s putting the cart before the horse, though. Before you could even get to that step, you’d first have to convince yourself that you really are too uncharitable towards yourself. And that can be a hard thing to do. Maybe you have a suspicion that it’s true, a suspicion that you’re too hard on yourself. But that probably doesn’t feel good enough.

The million-dollar question is: how do you know for sure if you’re too humble?

And the answer is you don’t. You can’t. You can look for hints – like say if you identified with this blog post, or if you’re thinking thoughts like “oh god, maybe I’m not really humble enough for this to apply to me”. But you can’t know, not for sure.

Ultimately, you have to take the first step towards self-charity on your own. There’s always a temptation to look for permission to take that step, to find someone to reassure you that it’s okay. But you can’t do that – to do so would be to defeat the whole purpose.

No, in the end you’ll just have to make the judgement for yourself. If you really think that you should take the step, then take the step. I can’t say for certain that you’ll be justified in doing so. But I can guarantee you for sure that there are people reading this who need to be more self-charitable.

And deep down, I think you know who you are.



By the way, I’m aware of the irony of writing a validation-seeking blog post in order to decry validation seeking. So don’t bother pointing that out.

Is there an echo in here?

I’m starting to wonder if I might have been too hard on echo chambers.

The standard position these days is that echo chambers are uniformly terrible; that surrounding yourself with people who agree with you on every issue can only lead to closemindedness, toxic ingroup/outgroup dynamics, and increased polarization. Many people have commented on how the rise of partisan news networks and isolated internet communities have led to a society where people never have to have their beliefs challenged, or interact with those who disagree with them. And this is obviously a very bad thing – there’s almost nothing that runs more counter to the spirit of rationality and truth seeking than the kind of self-congratulatory patting on the back you commonly see in intellectually closed-off communities. But despite all this, I still feel an impulse speak up in favour of echo chambers, at least a little bit – I now think they might also serve a useful psychological function. Just as there are people who can benefit from reading Ayn Rand, I suspect there are people out there who could use a little bit more agreement in their life.

I’ve been going through a pretty rough patch in my life lately. I’m still trying to figure out why exactly this is, but I think part of it may be due to a feeling of intellectual isolation. Right now I feel like I’m living in an anti-echo chamber. It seems like almost everything I hear or read – either from friends, or on facebook, or on the general internet – is someone disagreeing with an opinion I hold. And it seems like any agreement people might have with my beliefs is either whispered or not voiced at all. Obviously this isn’t literally the case – it’s probably mostly just selective memory and a very human tendency to notice criticism more easily than agreement. But I do have a lot of weird and semi-controversial opinions that very few people in the world share, and people are generally not shy about disagreeing with those opinions.

Now, normally this wouldn’t really bother me – and from a purely intellectual point of view, it doesn’t. After all, why should I care if other people think I’m wrong about something? I’m pretty confident in my weird opinions (otherwise I wouldn’t hold them), but in the end I’m not afraid of any challenges to my beliefs. If someone convinces me that something I believe is wrong, I’ll just change my mind. *Shrug*. The goal is not to never be wrong, the goal is just to find the truth.

But saying these words doesn’t erase the reality that humans are social animals. We evolved to care a lot about other people’s opinions – in the ancestral environment it was probably extremely relevant to know whether or not the majority of people around you agreed with you. Having popular or unpopular opinions could literally mean the difference between life and death (or, even more relevantly from evolution’s point of view, between mating and not mating).

I worry that ever since [Bad Thing] happened last year, and I lost a major source of intellectual solidarity in my life, I’ve been feeling more and more like no one agrees with me, and that I’m all alone in believing what I do. And I worry that this has been slowly wearing me down, psychologically, and tripping some ancient mammalian brain circuits – circuits that say things like “YOU HAVE NO ALLIES” and “YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE SHUNNED AND EXILED BY THE TRIBE”.

So now I wonder if maybe people need a certain amount of agreement in their lives. If maybe perceiving everyone around you as constantly disagreeing with you is just as bad, psychologically speaking, as perceiving yourself as useless or unwanted or unattractive. If maybe – just maybe, to some tiny, infinitesimal extent – having a self-congratulatory echo chamber among friends is necessary to be emotionally healthy.

And on top of that: in addition to individual mental well-being, I wonder if agreement is more necessary for friendship than I realized. I’ve always sort of implicitly believed that it didn’t really matter if you disagreed with your friends on philosophical or political matters. All that was required for two people to be friends, thought I, was that they enjoy each other’s company, and that they have each other’s back in times of need. And I still think this is at least normatively true, in the sense that this is probably how friendships should work in an ideal world. But I’m less confident that this is how friendships really do work, in the world as it is right now. I mean, who knows? Maybe the more you disagree with friends, the more you sow subtle, barely noticeable seeds of dissent. Maybe you end up gradually weakening ties to your friends with every contrary opinion, because you subconsciously signal to them that you wouldn’t be a reliable ally if they were to ever really need you. Friendship is all about trust, after all, and maybe trust is really difficult in the face of persistent disagreement.

Or, you know, maybe not. I have no idea if any of this is true. I came up with all of this last night when I couldn’t sleep. I was lying in bed, mind racing and feeling generally frustrated about some article I had read, when I realized I was getting way more bothered by other people disagreeing with me than I used to. And so I set about trying to figure why that was, and the result is this post (which I’m not all that confident in). One natural question one could ask is: why now? Why do I all of a sudden feel so isolated when my opinions haven’t really changed that much recently? I mean, yes, I did lose that source of intellectual solidarity I mentioned (and before that I had far fewer weird and semi-controversial opinions). But it could also easily just be that I’ve been depressed lately for whatever other reason, and that in such a state I’m more likely to notice negative things like criticism and disagreement.

Either way, I definitely do feel kind of isolated right now, and all of this is why I’m so glad that [Friend Who Agrees With Me About Basically Everything] is moving to Toronto soon. I think being able to talk with him more frequently could be helpful. Although, come to think of it, despite the fact that we agree on almost everything, our discussions almost invariably end up honing in on the few topics we disagree about. Granted, I enjoy that because our 99%-shared worldview tends to allow for unusually productive disagreements. But still, since I know he’s reading this: we should probably skype sometime and vent about how obvious atheism is, or how much reality is definitely objective, or something.

You know, just so I can hear an echo.