January 13, 2023
What is a "quasi-monk"? How hard is it to govern one's own speech and thoughts? What is "maximum deep benefit"? And how does it differ from effective altruism? How can we best direct our energy, time, and resources to do good in the world? Should more people become monks and/or adopt a lifestyle of service to others?
Tasshin Fogleman is an extremely online wandering quasi-monk on indefinite pilgrimage for the benefit of all beings. He lives a simple life, dedicating his life to being of service, supported by the generosity of others. He has three main endeavors: spreading love, following his curiosity, and empowering others. Follow him on Twitter at @tasshinfogleman or learn more about him at his website, tasshin.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Tasshin Fogleman about living a life of service, loving-kindness, and maximum deep benefit.
SPENCER: Tasshin, welcome.
TASSHIN: Thank you, friend.
SPENCER: This is a rare opportunity to talk to someone who lives a monk-like existence and get to ask you all my questions that I never had a chance to ask a monk or maybe quasi-monk. So yeah, I'm excited for this conversation.
TASSHIN: Yeah, likewise, Spencer. Thanks for having me, friend.
SPENCER: So first of all, what do you mean when you call yourself a quasi-monk? How would you describe that?
TASSHIN: Yes, I trained at a monastery in Vermont for some time, the Monastic Academy. And that was a really wonderful place for me to grow up. I spent my twenties there. I think the more I think about it is like I came into adulthood there, and I left last year. It's been about a year since I left, and I'm still living a life that's pretty simple. And it's supported by generosity, and, importantly, it's dedicated to being of service. So, I spend my time on different service projects and try to help people. I wandered from place to place. I'm on this sort of pilgrimage where I travel to different people that put me up and spend time with them, get to know them, and help them. And that's the basis of my life, being of service. And it feels like a very simple, honest, good way of life that's connected to the people that I know. And it's dedicated to being of service and certainly informed by my training in a monastic setting. That's sort of why I call it a quasi-monk way of life.
SPENCER: Are there certain rules that you abide by?
TASSHIN: Yeah, that's one of the reasons that it might be more on the quasi-end of the spectrum because I'm sort of doing my own thing. I don't have a formal tradition that I'm connected to, or any specific rules that other people have imposed on me. I think I've found having rules for oneself to be a helpful constraint on action — certainly been very inspired by Buddhism — so I took the five ethical precepts that are for lay people and for monastics, and I found those to be helpful. One that I talk a lot about is speech. I think it's been helpful to have various guidelines for speech. Not lying, but there are other ones in the Buddhist tradition, like making sure that what you're saying is useful and relevant and kind, both in the words that you use and the state of mind. And also, that what you're saying is timely, that it's at the right time and in the right context, at the right moment. That's been a helpful set of rules for me with speech, not only with things like this, now that we're talking, but also with writing online. I have a Twitter presence, for example, and I've found sticking to those rules keeps things happy and useful for my presence there, and I don't get into too many disagreements or things that you see people saying about Twitter. I just tend to have a nice time and make friends there. And that's been a really enjoyable experience for me. So yeah, that's one set of rules that I follow that's less an external set that I'm obligated to follow that other people will punish me if I don't follow, but more like some guidelines that I've found helpful.
SPENCER: As someone who does a podcast, I know that one doesn't always know what they're gonna say when they start talking. You just respond to what the person said, and you kind of hear the words come out of your mouth. I'm wondering, do you find that you violate the rules by accident, or do you find that you're able to actually stick to them quite accurately?
TASSHIN: Hmm. I think that frame isn't quite how I experience it, and that part of it might be these guidelines or rules of thumb. And so I try my best, based on my experience and the way that I understand things, to live up to that with each speech act that I have. And whether it's verbal, like we're speaking now, or written. But also, I listen and pay attention to the responses, so I do my best with each speech act. And then notice what happens as a result. I notice people's facial expressions or what they say in response, or what causal action seems to follow. And that itself is feedback for me on each speech act. And so by paying attention to the feedback that I receive, I get better and better over time. So it's not that I ever break it. I'm always doing the best that I can just to get information and feedback from every speech act, and so I'm always improving. ‘Never failing and always improving', I guess you could say.
SPENCER: So one thing that strikes me about the way you're talking about this is I know a lot of people that are trying to do good in the world. But the way you're describing it is like you're thinking of every action you take as an opportunity to do good, rather than thinking of doing good as like a big project you're working on, or, a long-term goal you're trying to achieve. Would you say that that is a difference between the way you think about it and the way many other people do?
TASSHIN: Yes, I think that's astute. I do have projects and goals and find that to be helpful frames. But recently, I just think every action we take is very important and often underestimated by people that I see. They think, “Oh, this moment doesn't matter. This action doesn't matter. What I do doesn't matter. Who I am, doesn't matter.” But I put a lot of value on who I am, and my actions, and even actions that might seem quite small to other people, like the way that I fold my clothes, or the way that I walk around, or which word I choose to use, or even what thoughts I have in my mind. And that's an act of self-respect and kindness. And I find that to be a helpful beneficial way of looking at these things. That's naturally already being good in the world is making choices on every scale that are of benefit to oneself and others. And then you don't need to have some enormous world-saving project if you're being kind in this moment.
SPENCER: You mentioned your thoughts. And I find that interesting because I think a lot of people feel they don't have control of their thoughts. At best, they can observe their thoughts. So could you unpack what you are doing with regard to having thoughts that abide by the principles?
TASSHIN: On the one hand, this is a standard piece of Buddhist dogma, you might say, in the Noble Eightfold Path, which is one of the core parts of Buddhism. Right Thought is the second of the eight pieces of the Noble Eightfold Path. And before that is Right View, the way that you see things. And things like mindfulness and concentration come later at the end of the steps towards ending suffering. And so, from a Buddhist perspective, thinking is a kind of action. And that happens even before you say something out loud, or move with your body. It's prior to that. And so we just take thought very seriously. And I think that's similar in other traditions as well. And I really started to notice this for myself with various experiments I was doing with meditation. I noticed, actually, I do have control over my thoughts, it seems. I can choose not to have a certain thought, and I can choose to think certain thoughts. And yes, thoughts do arise and pass away. And they have this aspect of non-control over them, where thoughts can arise spontaneously. But often, those are based on thoughts that we've had previously. And so, if you intentionally try to think certain thoughts and intentionally try not to think other thoughts, then that shapes the kinds of thoughts that you tend to have. And so, I take that very seriously, both as a philosophical point, but also something that I've seen experientially for myself. And there's not a common view in the world today. People don't think that they have control over their thoughts, and they don't think that their thoughts matter. But I found the opposite to be the case for myself.
SPENCER: I find that really interesting. Because for a while, I've suspected people really underestimate the role of your thoughts you're having throughout a day in your experience. For example, what's really different about someone who's happy versus someone who's unhappy? And there's a lot of different factors there. But it seems like one major factor is literally the thoughts they have throughout the day. There are environmental differences that could be causing it; there could be pain, there could be all different things. But then there's like the happier person is having happier thoughts, usually, or thoughts of gratitude, or thoughts of optimism. An unhappy person tends to have other types of thoughts. And it seems like this is sort of an underlooked area, maybe because people just view this as you can't really change the thoughts people have, or maybe at best, you can kind of do cognitive therapy exercises that help you challenge some of your core beliefs. And maybe over time, that can shift your thinking a little bit. But it's sort of this very slow, arduous process. And most of the time, your thoughts are just going to be coming, and at best, you can catch them. I'd be really interested to have you, if you're up for this, give an example of a thought that you don't want to have as much of and how would you approach that.
TASSHIN: Sure. I think that this is very connected to the work that I do with loving-kindness, which is about having loving thoughts and feelings for oneself and others. And so this is actively a practice that I do for myself and try to share with others. And one of the things that I tend to notice about other people is that people care more about what they say than what they think. And people are already following lots of rules with what they're thinking and what they say. For example, I wouldn't say something mean to you now in this conversation. Most people try to say nice things in conversations. On the other hand, people say all kinds of unkind things to themselves in their mind. Often, people will say these out loud to me just in passing, and I'm shocked by the things people will say to themselves that they would never say to me or another person, but they're very happy to say to themselves. And so a very simple example of this is I try not to say unkind things to myself in the same way that I try not to say unkind things to you now or to other people that I might be interacting with. I treat myself with the same respect that I would treat someone else. And there's all kinds of mean things I could potentially say about myself, even things I don't like about myself, or don't love about myself. But I try not to say mean things in my mind to myself about myself.
SPENCER: I can relate to that because I also try to avoid saying mean things to myself that we wouldn't say to another person. Although, I would say that I don't tend to have a strong tendency to do that anyway. So, I do have a principle of trying to avoid that. But I'm wondering, how do you work on stopping yourself? Is it more that when a thought like that bubbles up, you have a certain kind of way of reacting to it, or are you doing something else?
TASSHIN: Yeah, this is a skill that I've learned over time. I think that doing various exercises with one's mind and consciousness help to make this possible. But just as a metaphor, if you're in a house, and you're deciding which room to go into — say, a living room or a bedroom — you make that choice physically with your body constantly. You say, “Okay, I'm going to go into the living room, or I'm going to go into the bedroom.” And those might be arbitrary. But in an actual real-life setting, it might really matter which one you go into at a given time. Maybe there's a fire in one room, for example. If you're like, “Okay, I'm not gonna go into that room.” It's very similar just with your thoughts. You have some kind of value judgment about which kinds of thoughts are good to think and which ones aren't. And so you try to think of the ones that are good and not the other ones. And it's very much like going into a room or not, except it's with your thoughts. And so it's really about what you pay attention to, and what words you allow to rise in your mind. If you don't want to go in a room, metaphorically with your thoughts, then you just pay attention to something else, anything else. You can think of positive thoughts, you can think about something else that's neutral. You just don't think about that specific thought. I found it helpful to have a lot of body awareness with this. Often, before a thought arises verbally, it has some kind of felt sense in the body. And all kinds of practices can help you cultivate body awareness. And you start to recognize a flavor like, “Oh, this kind of feeling is associated with a negative thought.” And often I have the experience of having a thought arise in the body where I can feel “Oh, this is of a certain tone and has this content even before it's become verbal in my mind.” And at that point, you can choose, “Oh, I'm just not going to go into that room or I would like to go into that room.”
SPENCER: Would you say that it's your meditation training that's enabled you to do that because I think a lot of people would not feel that they have that capability?
TASSHIN: Meditation and lots of other things that I've done. There's many practices that I've done. Even within meditation, there's just so many practices. It's like saying, “Is it because of exercise that I've done?” Well, I've done lots and lots of different kinds of exercise. They all have different advantages and disadvantages and benefits. And it's similar to meditation. So yes, I would say it's from that. On the other hand, a simple thing that people can do is just practice having thoughts that they want to have, thoughts that they think are good things and are commendable. And, that's itself a kind of meditation practice, I would say. Closely connected to are the same as loving-kindness practice. And when you start to do that, that's sort of flexing a muscle of intentionally using thoughts for something good. And it sort of follows naturally, that you would weigh your thoughts higher and see the value of them. And that's a consequence you'd start to gain—the ability to not think thoughts that you didn't want to think.
SPENCER: I like that approach because I think too many people would be more actionable to, say, try to purposely have certain thoughts. I think most people know how to do that. But I don't think most people know how to prevent a thought as it's bubbling up or do this practice before it even starts. I have this little exercise I've done sometimes where I'll walk around New York City and just try to find something good about everything I see. And it just really changes your perspective to a shocking degree, where you're like, “Oh, there's some moss growing out of the sidewalk. Moss is awesome.” There's just so many thoughts that you would never normally have — at least I would never normally have — started occurring when I'm just in that mode of finding something good about everything.
TASSHIN: Yeah, that's such a beautiful example of this. I think two people can be in literally the same place in space and time and yet have a very different qualitative experience. And that really comes down to what kinds of thoughts you're thinking and the way that you see things. And you have choice and agency over that.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think that's something that can be hard for people to identify in the moment when they're dealing with something difficult. It's that for every situation you're in, you can go try to change it to make it better. And you should do that, right? But at the same time, you can simultaneously change the way you're seeing everything and that doesn't have to interfere with trying to make it better. And I think a lot of times when people are dealing with bad things, they're sort of reluctant to do the second thing, or they don't even see the second thing as an option. They're kind of so stuck in and being bad that they forget that there's also this framing issue or this prospective issue where you can see everything differently in a way that makes it better, actually.
TASSHIN: Absolutely. The way that we perceive things and the way that we act or behave are very closely related. And if you're stuck in one way of perceiving or stuck in one way of behaving, then it's hard to change either of them. But that's why some of these practices can be so powerful because they give you an opportunity to practice changing the way that you're perceiving things. And naturally, your behavior changes as well, when you perceive things differently. And so that changes the equation.
SPENCER: You mentioned loving-kindness a couple times. Could you elaborate on what that technique is and how would people practice that?
TASSHIN: Sure. Loving-Kindness comes from Buddhist practice. It's a form of meditation focused on having positive thoughts and feelings, where you're intentionally creating positive thoughts and feelings. And this can trip people up if they've just done things like following the breath, or doing body scans that are what I call observation practices, where you're just noticing experience without trying to change it. That's a helpful approach for certain kinds of techniques. But with loving-kindness meditation, you're intentionally creating loving thoughts, loving feelings in your body, in your mind. And the way we've been talking about this is a very simple way to practice it. Try intentionally to have verbal thoughts that are kind and loving, or you can use mental images instead. I often find people tend to resonate with one or the other more strongly. They find auditory thoughts to be easier or mental images to be easier. Either way, you have some kind of positive, loving image or loving thought. And then eventually, that starts to create feelings in your body, feelings of love and warmth, and happiness and joy. And then it kind of shifts gears and you focus on those rather than the thoughts, and you allow those feelings to spread through your body and inform your actions. And it's a really pleasant form of meditation. A lot of people find that that makes them very happy. And it's enjoyable and easy. For some people, it can be quite difficult actually, especially if they have some kind of trauma background or difficult childhood. It can bring up difficult feelings sometimes. And that's totally okay if that happens. And there's ways of working with that. But also, a lot of people just find this easy and enjoyable and delightful. And I just feel really happy when I do it. That's a nice experience, in contrast to the experience I think a lot of people have, which certainly I had for many years with meditation where I'd think, “This is good, and probably it's good for me, so I'll do it. But it's not actually that enjoyable. I'm kind of bored, or I'm in pain. And I don't actually like this very much. I'll just keep doing it because I think I should.” It's nice if you just enjoy it.
SPENCER: So to get specific, when you're thinking of these verbalized thoughts or mental images, what do you tend to imagine? Or what would you recommend people imagine?
TASSHIN: There's a lot of possibilities here. Often, people are introduced to sort of stock phrases like, “May you be happy,” or "May you be safe and healthy,” or “May you be free from suffering.” Those come from the Buddhist tradition, but often those sort of stock phrases tend to not resonate for people.
SPENCER: And are you supposed to be imagining specific people at the same time?
TASSHIN: Yeah, often you will imagine yourself or someone that you really love or a friend or someone you meet on the street. There's often sort of progressions that you go through, starting with someone that's easy to love and going to even towards all beings and all times in all places. I think just to start, it's helpful to have someone that you really love. That's what people call the ‘easy to love' person or animal. And so this might be, for example, a small child that you know, a baby or a pet or you know, a close friend that you just really love, or even just imagining a small child or a small animal even if they're not a real person that you know, someone that's just easy for you to love that you don't have complicated feelings towards or difficult interpersonal situation with. It just makes you feel warm and happy. And that's usually a good person to start working with.
SPENCER: Got it. So then you're imagining this person or animal and you're building up these feelings of love. And then you start redirecting your attention towards the feeling of love itself, right? Not just with regard to that person or animal?
TASSHIN: Yeah, in the beginning it's often very cognitive. And it's, again, using sort of verbal speech acts in your mind or images in your mind. And that's very helpful for getting started. But eventually, it becomes embodied, then you can feel it. And once you feel it, you sort of shift into that and spread those feelings and enjoy those feelings. And that becomes the primary part of the experience.
SPENCER: And I've heard sometimes people suggest that once you have those feelings that you're focused on, you can then start redirecting those feelings towards, let's say, strangers, or everyone in the world. Is that an approach that you suggest?
TASSHIN: I really like to take a very freeform, creative, open-ended approach to this. There's no right or wrong way to do it. Any positive thoughts or feelings are totally valid. And once you start having these thoughts and feelings, you can direct them towards anyone in any way that you like. So, again, I mentioned earlier that the sort of stock phrases that people have don't tend to resonate. And for me, I found that when I freed myself up to use any phrase that came to mind, like, “Oh, I hope Spencer's enjoying this conversation,” or “I hope he has some nice plans for after it,” or something like that, which is not a phrase I've ever thought before or that anyone told me to think. It's just one that comes up when I feel into our relationship and our connection right now. When I found myself having those sort of custom phrases that were customized to myself and my relationships with others, that really opened it up. And similarly, you can have any image you want. And it can be directed towards anyone you want, towards yourself or someone in your life, or a stranger, or someone imaginary even. It becomes this kind of landscape of possibility. And you can do whatever you want there. And this is sort of how I have these music videos that I've made that involve me sending love to different people. And I started imagining laser beams coming out of my hand. No one ever told me to do that. That just makes me really happy. And so that's what I do. I like to imagine that and send it to different people. And there's lots of different kinds of positive loving thoughts that I'll have for lots of different people and sort of having fun with it. And being creative is really the direction that I tend to go in. And as long as you're enjoying it, it's fair game.
SPENCER: And you try to weave this into your everyday life, rather than just doing it seated in a silent place?
TASSHIN: Absolutely. I think one of the things that's most exciting for me about it is the way that it impacts behavior. Like we were talking about earlier, when you have these kind, loving thoughts and feelings, you tend to act in kind and loving ways. And that tends to feed back into the thoughts and feelings in a really delightful way, where you make people happy. And then you're happy because they're happy. And then you have more thoughts and feelings, and then you act in more kind ways. And I really love to let that bleed into my life because it makes me happier and the people around me happier. And I think it's really an act of service when that happens. It's not an act of service that is sort of legible to the economy in a measurable way that's of benefit to someone's portfolio, or that's reproducible in a lab or something. But I just experienced that on a daily basis where when I'm thinking kind and loving thoughts, when I'm having kind and loving feelings, that shows up in my behavior, and then I'm happier, and other people are happier. And I really enjoy that. And that's a big part of why I teach it as well. Because since I view it as an act of kindness that helps people, I want that to spread and be of benefit in the world. I want more and more people to have these kind and loving thoughts that make them happy and make others happy and have that sort of ripple out and affect lots of people.
SPENCER: So do you try to sneak in these kind and loving thoughts when you're interacting with people? Or I'm just curious about how you actually weave them into your day.
TASSHIN: Yeah, big one with this with speech acts. I do this all the time with just talking to people. I try to say things to people that are true and honest. They're not fake. They're intentional, and they're constructed. But they're not lying, and they're not inauthentic, if that makes sense. So there's sort of a difference there between being intentional and being fake, and it's an intentional act. But I try to say things to people that are true and useful, and even if they're a stranger. Just recently, I was at a restaurant and I was walking downstairs and there were some people that looked sort of confused, and they asked for directions for where to find their seats. And so I told them and then I said just genuinely, “I hope you have a nice day.” And then they were happy because then the people that I was with were also happy and that's just what came out. So yeah, I try to use the words that I say in kind ways and I do think kind and loving thoughts towards people as much as I can when I am out and about. That's one really easy way to practice it because you get that instant feedback that people are happier when you genuinely wish them well.
SPENCER: You and I have never interacted before, but one thing that just strikes me talking to you is that you have a very gentle vibe, like you have a monk-like vibe (that's what I would say). And I'm wondering whether you feel people react to your vibe? For example, you said to these people, “I hope you have a nice day.” I feel like if I said that to people, they wouldn't actually feel that. But maybe there's something about the way that you interact with people that makes them feel different, like makes them feel like you're really being genuine, you're being compassionate in a way that's like just someone rattling off “Have a nice day” is not going to do anything for them.
TASSHIN: I think there's some truth to that. Maybe less than I'm a monk in sort of I dress a certain way, or there are certain circumstantial facts about the way that I live and more that this is a practiced way of life for me. So this is something that I've actually practiced in the same way that I can probably only lift, (I don't know) how many pounds or something. I don't even know what I could bench, for example. But someone that regularly practices the bench press could press a lot more visibly. And so I think it's the same way. I've done a lot of this kind of meditation and really practice letting it inform the way that I act in the world. And I think people can feel that. One of the traditional benefits that is said to come from loving-kindness meditation is people just like you. People like you, and animals like you. And I certainly noticed that to be true in my own experience. Something I really noticed a lot — it's just conspicuous — is babies and animals really like me a lot. Like I'm just passing them on the street, and they're really fast data and they seem to be really happy. Animals run up to me or little kids run up to me, and I like them and they like me. And that's sort of a sweet experience. And I don't think that's a magical thing. I think it comes from this practice and repeatedly doing it and just being kind and loving. And I think people pick up on that.
SPENCER: Do adults, strangers, react to you in certain ways that might surprise other people?
TASSHIN: I think it's often a little bit harder to notice for me than babies and kids. But I do tend to notice this as well. Often, people sense that I'm willing to listen to them. So sometimes, they'll talk for a long time at me, for example, because I'll just listen to them and be kind and loving while they talk to me. And that happens a lot. Or people will open up to me quite easily and say things about themselves that they might not say to someone else, because I think they sense “Oh, this is someone I can trust. And this is okay to share with this person.” That happens a fair bit. And yeah, I think sometimes people might be otherwise sort of grumpy or unfriendly or something seem to be somewhat conspicuously friendly or warm around me and less grumpy and less irritable or something like that. That's something that I've noticed as well. It's a little less conspicuous to me than the babies and animals and children and sort of thing. But I do think that happens as well.
SPENCER: It's really remarkable how much people react to kind of subtle cues. Like for example, one thing that I have observed is that almost nobody ever talks to me when I'm outside. It's really, really rare. And I know other people that people just constantly start conversations with them in the same places that I go. So there must be something, and it could be a lot of things, like my facial expressions, the way I look, all kinds of stuff like that. But it's just kind of shocking to me how different people's experiences are. I remember one time when I was younger, going to a dance thing. And two of my female friends were dancing on the dance floor. And men just kept coming up to one of them and dancing with them. And nobody came up to the other one. And I don't think it was like one of them was more attractive or something like that. I think it was just some kind of subtle cues being given off about, like receptivity. And so, I just think there's a lot of information exchanges that most people are not consciously aware of.
TASSHIN: Absolutely, yes. I think there's a lot of these things happening all the time, and people are picking up on them on a low level and being affected by them, even if they don't notice them or understand them. One of the things that's been really helpful for me is, I don't think this explains everything or is a complete model. It's a pretty simple model. But it's one that I found very useful, especially with the loving-kindness meditation, but also with other things. It is thinking of this emotional heart, that there's this emotional heart that's in the center of your chest, not at the left side of your chest. And it's the way that people talk about it. And certainly, the way that I experience it is that it's either open or closed. Your heart can be closed, and that's sort of a protective mechanism where you're like, “Oh, it's not safe right now. And it's not okay to be vulnerable with other people. I can't be at ease right now.” It's actually totally valid to have your heart closed for those reasons. And it's not always safe. There are people that you might not feel comfortable with, or that it might not actually be safe to be interacting with. But it doesn't feel very nice to be closed in your heart internally, and it doesn't feel nice to be around someone that has their heart close to you. And so if your heart is open, and basically what that means is that you're allowing yourself to feel whatever emotions are there, whatever emotions they are, then that's a lot nicer internally. And that's a lot more pleasant for other people to interact with. And so, loving-kindness meditation really allows you to feel into your heart and start to allow those feelings to be there. And then also to put some positive, loving thoughts and feelings into the system. That makes for a very pleasant experience internally, and it's also much more pleasant for other people to interact with.
SPENCER: Could you unpack a little bit what it means to you to have your heart open?
TASSHIN: Yeah. I had someone that was really good at noticing this sort of thing that I became friends with, who started to give me feedback about this. When I was interacting with them, they would basically tell me, “Oh, you just closed your heart.” And they would tell me that and then, over time, I started to notice for myself what that was and what they were referring to. And I noticed, “Oh, this doesn't feel so good for me, and it doesn't feel so good for them when my heart is closed. And when my heart is open, this feels a lot better internally, and it feels a lot better for them.” And I started to notice that in other people, too. And so, I think for starters, just having awareness in your body, in that region, emotions happen in sort of the region between your face and your neck and your upper chest and your lower chest and your stomach. And just having awareness in that region of your body, knowing that that's where emotions have happened is sort of the first order of business, and then allowing yourself to feel whatever you find there. Often, when people open their heart, it's kind of painful, because they have this backlog of emotions that they haven't felt. And so, there's grief, anger, other feelings that are quite intense, and might be unpleasant, and might be associated with old memories, and that sort of thing. And that can be a really painful and unpleasant experience. But once you really allow all of the feelings to be there, then it's like (I don't know) unclogging a pipe or something like that. And it's much more fluid and then there's a happiness and freedom and peace that's associated with that, of just allowing yourself to feel whatever it is that you're feeling. It's not some kind of transcendent on top of mountain peace. It's like, “Oh, yeah, there's just whatever is actually here. I'm allowing myself to feel it.” And that's really nice internally, and it's much easier to be around for other people as well.
SPENCER: It's a shame because I think not everyone experiences emotions in their body. I definitely do. Pretty much every emotion, I could tell you where in my body I feel it. Like sadness, I feel it in my face. Happiness, I tend to feel it in my face. Anxiety, I tend to feel up my chest and so on. I was talking to a friend of mine a few years ago about this, and she was very confused about what I was saying. And she was like, “Yeah, I don't know what you're talking about. Emotions aren't in the body.” And then we talked about this at length. And then a couple years later, I was talking to her again and she was like, “Yeah, after that conversation, I started paying close attention and thinking about a lot. And now I can feel my emotions in my body.” And I was like, “Wow, that's awesome.” And she actually found having that shift really useful. I don't exactly know how she got there, but I do think there may be some people that just can't feel them in their body at all. But there's also the possibility that some people could, and they just haven't unlocked that. I don't quite know how to get them to unlock it, but maybe just thinking about it can be helpful too.
TASSHIN: The way that I think about this both with emotions and with other things that I've experienced is less about whether people can or can't, or whether it's really here or really there, but more about whether you're noticing it or not. I think emotions do happen in the body. I think that happens even for people that aren't noticing that or don't understand it that way. They might not be aware of it, certainly. But I think that is where it's happening. To me, it's like saying, “Oh, digestion doesn't happen in the stomach or something.” Well, that's actually where the digestion happens. You might not know what digestion is or understand it, but that's where digestion happens. And so, I think there's a lot of things like this, where our experience and reality is a lot more complex than we might be able to notice or understand. But that doesn't stop reality from happening. And so similarly, just in this particular case, I think emotions do happen in the body. They're stored in the body. They're experienced in the body. They flow through the body. They do tend to happen in specific regions. And, a lot of people aren't aware of that. They don't notice it. They don't have a familiarity with it. But you can start to become familiar with that, and I do think body awareness is a really good first step for that.
SPENCER: I'm a little confused about what you're saying here. Because certainly, muscle tension happens in the body, right? Like physically in the body. If we are anxious, a lot of people will tend to their muscles. But what does it mean for an emotion to actually occur in the body? Because I guess my admittedly limited biological understanding is that emotions are really happening in the brain. And there are some side effects in the body like muscle tension.
TASSHIN: I don't know so much about the neuroscience or the anatomy or things like this. I think there have been some interesting studies around this. I've seen maps, for example, of where the emotions tend to be experienced. And there's been some science and psychology on this sort of thing.
SPENCER: Yeah, I see that there's an interesting paper on that, where they asked people where in the body they feel different emotions. Maybe that's what you're referring to?
TASSHIN: Yeah, that's definitely what I'm referring to. And it's kind of neat to look at those maps and say, “Oh, yeah, this is where this is experienced,” and that sort of thing. But, I think what I mean is, phenomenologically, you experience certain emotions in certain regions of the body, and you feel them internally in certain regions of the body.
SPENCER: That I agree with. I guess I interpret that as sort of, ‘that's what it feels like', as opposed to 'it's sort of really there.' And I guess I'm less confident that that's going to be true across all people. Going back to what you're saying about some people are more comfortable with verbal thoughts versus images, it seems like there's just so many differences between people. I think some people are almost incapable of actually visualizing images in their mind. And some people have a verbal loop, like whenever they're reading, they hear their voice in their mind, and other people don't have that. So I guess I just assumed that there might be more individual differences here where it might be possible that some people just actually don't experience emotions in the body.
TASSHIN: I do think there's quite a bit of nuance and differences with this sort of thing: which flavors you tend to feel, when and how you experience them, what they're associated with, and what they mean to you. I think some things are pretty common, though, like anger and sadness, and fear and happiness. Those are sort of emotions that everyone I've ever met seems to experience and seem to happen across cultures. And one thing that I tend to really notice is the language around these sorts of things is, there's different phrases that people use that are associated with those feelings actually happening in certain regions of the body or being experienced in certain regions of the body. Heartbreak, for example. if you go through a breakup, that's a really difficult experience and a painful experience, and you'll often literally have pain in your heart. And if you're aware of your body, you'll notice that. “Oh, around my upper chest in the center, it hurts there. And it's an emotional pain that I'm actually feeling there.” And there's all kinds of cues to this and language. So while I do think there's individual differences, and subjectivity, and probably across cultures, as well, I do think these experiences are more shared and more common than we might tend to think.
SPENCER: With a number of the topics we've been talking about, something that strikes me is that these are things that many people interpret in a sort of magical way or spiritual way. For example, we were talking before about picking up on subtle information that people are giving out in the world. The way I think about that is like, the human brain is amazing. We're able to pick up on incredibly subtle things about people's behaviors, or the way they act gives us a vibe about them. And that vibe actually has real information in it. Yes, we can come to false conclusions or jump to judgments, but there's also real information there. And that's so cool. But I view it very much through an algorithmic lens. And similarly, with feeling emotions in the body or opening your heart, a lot of people are going to interpret that not as sort of something that the brain does, but they're gonna interpret it in a more spiritual way or more magical way. I'm just curious, because it seems to me like you're interpreting this through a more scientific lens. Is that right?
TASSHIN: That's a really interesting question. Could you help me out and describe what you think is the fundamental difference there?
SPENCER: That's a good question because I have to be able to steelman the spiritual view. I guess, the algorithmic view (the view that I have) is like, the human brain is this incredible machine that was created through evolution. It's able to do things, like pick up on subtle information. It's also an embodied machine, like it's deeply intricately linked into our bodies. And so it's not like, “Oh, you've got your brain, and you've got your body.” It's like, “No, the body is used in the processing of the brain.” And so, it can do things like make you feel anxious in your chest, or make you feel happy in your face, so you actually experience those emotions in an embodied way. Whereas, I guess the more spiritual view, or a more magical view, would be that these processes are not merely algorithmic. It's not like your brain is running an algorithm to do this stuff. There's something beyond the physical or there's something, like some connection to the divine that's going on in these instances. Although admittedly, I don't know how to make that precise, but maybe making that precise is the sort of thing that someone with an algorithmic view tries to do more so than someone with a magic view.
TASSHIN: I'm just absolutely fascinated by this question because I don't know that I fall neatly into one category. The other reason is because I tend to find science pretty useful. And a lot of the things that I've read are pretty interesting and informative, and they seem like good explanations for a lot of things. And then, I've also found various spiritual traditions that I've been exposed to very helpful and useful and beneficial. And I can sort of validate things that they say in my own experience, and I wouldn't disagree with most of the things that contemporary science seems to be finding. I don't disagree with evolution, for example, or that the brain is extremely important and powerful, and that sort of thing. There's no point of contemporary Western scientific sort of dogma in a broad sense (not a pejorative sense) that I disagree with. On the other hand, I find a lot of these teachings to be very valuable and worth looking at in my own experience. And I think a lot of these contemplative traditions involve looking at your own experience and taking that as extremely valuable and important. That's something that I've done quite a bit and does tend to make you see things very differently. Like, I don't like this point about whether what you think matters or not. As far as I can tell, from my own experience, it does matter what I think. There's lots of different ways that I've sort of verified that result, in my own experience, from different things that I've practiced. And so, I take my thoughts quite seriously. And that's maybe one of the pieces that at the heart of the disagreement is whether thoughts matter, or real, or something like that. What the value of matter versus thoughts are...I don't think I'm really prepared to reason about this in a philosophical way or to defend it. But I think that, from my own experience, I tend to see that my thoughts are quite important and worth protecting and thinking good thoughts and not thinking bad thoughts. And there's other things associated with that. But (I don't know) it's not so much in disagreement with science. I don't disagree with most of the science that I've been exposed to, but it's maybe a philosophical departure that is from my own experiential experiments.
SPENCER: I would say that I don't think that anything about the scientific paradigm suggests that thoughts are not of high value. So to me, that's really compatible with viewing the brain as algorithmic. I think where science has the most trouble explaining things is when you get into consciousness, like, why is there anything at all that it feels like to be ‘you' as opposed to there's probably nothing in it that feels like to be a rock, presumably. And science doesn't really have much to say about that. It can talk about some correlates of consciousness, like, certain brain regions are activated, like people seem to be able to report conscious experience where, like with certain brain damage, they may be able to see something. And we know they can see it, because they'll catch a ball if you throw it at them, but they don't report an unconscious experience of seeing the ball. Things like that. But that feels like a very limited explanation. So to me, nothing that you've said seems incompatible with the sort of algorithmic scientific viewpoint. But I do think we're getting close to the territory where science has trouble talking about or trouble explaining it.
TASSHIN: Yeah. That makes sense. I'm reminded that there's all kinds of things that I believe in ways that I see the world that aren't really compatible with that. But they've sort of come from my own experiments, as I say, and so maybe a way of putting how I see things is, I find all of the science and reasoning there that I've found useful and beneficial and seems true and explanatory. But if there's something that I haven't seen explained, or that maybe disagrees with my own personal experience, I'm going to put my own personal experience first and foremost and trust that more than some study or something that most people in our culture tend to agree with. I'll put my own experience at the forefront.
SPENCER: It's funny because I think a lot of people say that you should put science before your own personal experience. But I find in practice that they rarely do that, even the people who would profess to do that. Like, if the science says that this pill works, they should take it. But then they try it, and they don't feel it works for them. So, they stopped picking it. Maybe you could say, the science just says it works on average, but then you get your own personal experience of whether it works or not. But I think most people's personal experience is so convincing to them that they do put it above science, even if they believe in science.
TASSHIN: Right, that makes sense. I think one thing that both science and religions and spiritual traditions would agree on is that the world is really mysterious. And there's a lot more to learn, and it's more complex than we think it is. So all of these are various attempts at explaining what's happening, in a way that makes sense to us and is useful and practical. But I certainly think that there's more to learn and more to discover. And that makes it delightful for me, rather than like, “Oh, I've explained everything, and I understand everything perfectly.”
SPENCER: Changing topics now. I knew you had this idea of maximum deep benefit. Could you explain what this idea is and what it means to you?
TASSHIN: Yes. I think this has come to me from really taking the Bodhisattva vows, which come from Mahāyāna Buddhism. I took these vows in 2018, and that's when I received my name Tasshin and these huge, enormous vows — there's four of them — and it begins myriad of lives without number of how to save them. Or, some people say, like vow to save all beings. And it's like, “Well, what does that even mean, and how do you do that?” That was really terrifying for me before I took these vows. And at a certain point, I sort of decided, “Oh, well, I'm going to take them anyway. And this is the only thing that makes sense, even if I don't understand it or know how to do it. Even if it's emotionally overwhelming for me, it's still the right thing to do.” And my experience of it has changed over the years. There's multiple ways I think of it. One of them is just “I'm giving my life to being of service.” And that's what makes sense, and I try to help people and everyone I can. How do I actually do that? In practice, I found it very useful to connect that with various ideas that I've been exposed to about strategy. That was an interest that I've had for some time: how do you actually have a positive impact in the world working with other people, working with other organizations, working with other groups? A lot of the questions that I had about this, I found really good answers in an unlikely place, which was military strategy. I got very interested in military strategy for some time. I've also vowed not to harm or kill people. That was sort of an amusing surprise, but there's some really good answers about this sort of thing. Those sort of fused in my mind. And the way that I think about it at this point is — well, I still don't know how to save even one being, let alone all beings, even though I've vowed to do that, but — I can help people and I can be of service, and I'm going to do my best to try to be of service. And how do I actually do that? Well, I want to help as many people as I can, as deeply as I can. And I try to structure my life around that and do various projects that I think will do that, that they'll help as many people as possible, as deeply as possible. That's something that really resonated for me. So, I have sort of coined this phrase ‘maximum deep benefit' to mean that helping as many people, as many beings as possible, as deeply as possible.
SPENCER: How would you contrast that with the kind of effective altruist philosophy that some effective altruists have of trying to have maximum impact in kind of an expected value sense?
TASSHIN: I've been very interested in this for some time and very curious about the effective altruists. I think, in some ways, the way that I see things is not so far off from them, and I feel quite aligned with them. And in other ways, it's quite different. I don't know that I'm able to give a full and charitable account of their perspective, because it's something I'm still learning about, but I think there's maybe two differences. One is — I have certainly heard a lot of EAs talk about problems with burnout, and not being very happy, and things not working well for them subjectively, personally. And so, for me, the way that I actually implement this really has to start with myself. I have to be of service in the world that makes me happy. Because if I don't do that, then I'm not actually going to be able to help other people. So I take my own happiness very seriously. And I try to do things that are fun and enjoyable for me. I'd rather do a service project — or really any action in the world — that's fun and enjoyable for me, rather than one that's not. And of course, it still can't hurt other people or be of harm to other people. I'm following various ethical guidelines that help with that. And there's a lot of possibilities for what I can do with my time and energy. So given two options that seem like they benefit other people, I'd rather choose the one that's enjoyable for me.
SPENCER: That's interesting to me, because the way that you talked about that is that by focusing on something that's also enjoyable for you, it makes you better at helping others. And I'm wondering, would you still focus on what's enjoyable to you even if that weren't true? Like, let's say you could help people more by doing stuff that you hated doing. What would your reaction be in that case?
TASSHIN: In that case, I'd be harming myself. I want to help as many beings as possible, not harm them. And so, I would be harming one being, namely myself. So, I don't think I could actually do that. I think the sort of trade-off would be to not focus on helping other people, if that meant that it would harm myself. Thankfully, in practice, that doesn't seem to be a real trade-off, and there are ways to help other people that I do enjoy.
SPENCER: Got it. So this strikes me as a core difference in the way of looking at things then many EAs have, which is that you're operating from this ‘don't do harm' principle. And that also applies to yourself not doing harm, which is quite different than merely thinking of maximizing expected value to all beings.
TASSHIN: I think it's actually intrinsically related. It might not present that way on the effective altruism side. but if you want to help as many beings as possible, that's also either the same as or very connected to hurt as few people as possible. And maybe the other part is including yourself, that you are one of the many beings. And so, I want to help as many people as possible, I want to hurt as few people as possible. And that includes myself.
SPENCER: Right. What I guess the straight up utilitarian lens on this would be, “It's okay to hurt others, as long as you help more as a consequence.” Like, it's okay to sacrifice a few to help many. And I suspect that you would push back against that view. Is that true?
TASSHIN: That is true. Yes. I'm not willing to hurt anyone intentionally. That is quite difficult, but I strive for that.
SPENCER: Yeah, I agree. Actually, one of my intrinsic values is not causing suffering, even if it's as a means to create a better situation later. So I think I lean in that direction as well. So, what about the point of measurement? Because I think that's something not all effective altruists think is essential. I think some of them say, “Well, it's okay to work on projects that are not measurable, as long as you have good enough arguments that they have high expected value.” But there is a strong element of focusing on measurement in effective altruism. So, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on that as well.
TASSHIN: I have noticed that there are many things that seem to be a benefit that either I haven't measured, or I'm not even sure how you could measure. And so, I'm not really focusing on measuring things. I just am taking value in my own assessments of whether something seems beneficial or not. That includes things like loving-kindness meditation. I think that when you have a kind, loving thought towards yourself or others that that's of benefit. When you say something kinder, loving to others or yourself, there's a benefit. I think that when you do something kinder, loving to yourself or others that that's a benefit. And I've seen that again, and again, in my own experience. And I want that to spread and there's no measurement of kind and loving thoughts or feelings or actions in the world. I have some ideas about ways you could measure that, but I'm not especially interested in that. I just want to make it easier for people to have kind and loving thoughts and feelings, and I know that will spread. Also, I recently read this book I really enjoyed called, “Why greatness cannot be planned.” It talked a lot about, sometimes it's not useful to over-optimize for a specific objective in advance, and instead, it's useful to do something that's interesting or fun or new or just seems valuable and without expecting something in advance. And so, I really try to have that at the core of my own service projects as well. I've done all kinds of things that I never expected myself to do, like make music videos, for example, or I recently wrote a bedtime story that I really enjoyed, and it's a beautiful story that I never expected myself to write. I never expected myself to make music videos. If you told me five or 10 years ago that I was going to make a music video, I'd be like, “You're crazy.” But those are things that I found enjoyable for myself and also really do seem to be of benefit to others. And so that's really what I'm trying to optimize for. In a way this is connected to EA, I am trying to optimize for certain variables, but I don't think they're measurable. I'm more trusting of my own subjective assessment of these things. And the two variables are my own fun and enjoyment, and then the benefit that my actions have in the world.
SPENCER: So how do you think about prioritization? Are you actually considering different projects, and kind of considering, “Okay, this one seems like it'd be more fun to do and potentially more beneficial.” Or do you feel like prioritization is not the right framework?
TASSHIN: It is the right framework. I think I'm really doing this at every scale of my life, both from moment to moment, from day to day, and from month to month with different projects. I think about this constantly. It's sort of less of a rational analytical decision and more of a felt intuitive decision that I've made many times. And I'm going to keep making that decision over and over again, optimizing for these two variables: have fun and benefit. And sometimes push comes to shove, and there's some kind of conflict, and if that happens, then I'm going to choose the thing that seems fun and enjoyable over the thing that seems more beneficial. I don't really want to do something that's not fun and enjoyable. And that would be, again, sort of harming myself in a certain way. And I tend to really trust the things that are fun that there'll be a benefit, even if I don't understand why in advance.
SPENCER: With the nomadic lifestyle that you lead, how does that play into your choice of projects? Are you looking for opportunities to help the people that you happen to be living with at every particular time? How do you think about that?
TASSHIN: Yeah, absolutely. I think my aspiration for each person that I stay with is that both of us will be deeply benefited by my time with them. And so I know that I learned a lot and grew a lot from the people that I'm staying with. And I've just learned so much about so many different things from so many people at this point. And I feel really blessed by that opportunity. I also like to think that I have something to offer the people that I stay with. And that's different for different people, sort of different capacities come in line with different people. I seem to be able to help different people in different ways. But I like to think that the people I stay with have benefited from my time with them. And I tried to pick the people to stay with that will be most fun for me and also of benefit in the world, both for myself and for them and for the world. And those two variables are something I'm optimizing for as well.
SPENCER: How do you think about life's purpose? Do you feel that you have a purpose? And if so, how would you articulate that?
TASSHIN: Yes, this is something that I've thought a lot about recently. And it's really dear to my heart. I think one of the failure modes that happens with a life purpose frame is that there's a sense that there's some sort of static, predetermined entity that exists out there, or maybe that God assigned to you or something like that. It's like, “Oh, this is your life purpose. And you will either do it or not.” In practice, I've found it helpful to have a similar frame, but one that's much more dynamic and emergent, where I'm sort of steering towards things that seem good. And both of these ways, really, that they're enjoyable and beneficial. And the more I steer towards that, the more I find things that surprised me that I didn't expect that I didn't anticipate but really are enjoyable for me and really are beneficial to others. And that seems connected to some kind of purpose in life, but it's not something that I could have determined in advance because it's so surprising. It's like I never expected myself to do this. But the more I steer towards it, the more it's sort of validated. “Yeah, this is a good way to go.” That's kind of how I think about it. I like the term ‘vow', which my teacher Soryu Forall used, that your vow is something where your own desires meet the world's needs. That's been a really useful frame for me. I've recently really liked the word ‘gift' for this, that one's gift is something that you're excited to give that you enjoy giving, but it's also a benefit and service to others. And that's really what I'm trying to steer towards. It's something that's delightful for me to give and seems to be of benefit to others.
SPENCER: And how do you think of applying this idea of purpose to the lives of other people or like empowering people with their own purpose?
TASSHIN: I found it really helpful to sort of look for or anticipate other people having this kind of purpose or vow or gift, to look at the people I know in my life that I have the privilege of interacting with and sort of deal into or sense what is their purpose, what is their value, what is their gift. And there's some sort of specific questions I like to ask that are like: What are they good at? What do they enjoy doing? What do they seem to be trying to do in the world? And most importantly, how can I help? When I ask myself those questions, I find pretty consistently, actually, I think most people really do want to be of service in the world. Most people want to be of benefit. I think that they might be more or less skilled at doing that. And the way that they want to do that might be more or less legible to them. They might understand it more fully or less fully. But, I think most people want to help other people. And so, I tried to look how I can help them — I'm not able to help everyone, and there's not necessarily a good way to connect to them that is of benefit to them, but — I try to sort of anticipate that and help people where I can.
SPENCER: It seems like in order to help people, you have to really understand them. And I'm curious how you think about that. How do you think about understanding people's strengths and weaknesses?
TASSHIN: This is something I'm actively trying to get better at and really have worked on for quite a while. I think that there's a skill to this and something that I feel like a student of. But, I think it's been helpful just to have that frame that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. And for one, that makes it easier to be okay with my own weaknesses, or easier to be okay with other people's weaknesses. It's good because everyone has them. We're just good at some things and not so good at other things. And it's helpful to be aware of what those are. I try to have some kind of explicit or implicit understanding of this for the people that I'm connected to, the people that I work with, those I'm friends with and I have various kinds of relationships with. What are their strengths, what are their weaknesses? And not really in a judgmental way, but just sort of as a sober, sane assessment. Everyone has them, so it's useful to be aware of what they are, and you can't have total knowledge of these in advance. I think it really takes time to understand someone and to see how they respond to different situations. But you can kind of get increasingly good models of who someone is and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and that helps you make better decisions about how to interact with them.
SPENCER: Do you feel a tension sometimes when you identify weaknesses in someone that you know that it could be a benefit to themselves, to the world, to work on them, but also that they would be hurt by having those weaknesses acknowledged or brought to light?
TASSHIN: I can see how that would seem at conflict. But I think that in practice, there's usually a skillful way to work with that kind of situation. Again, I'm thinking of the qualities of right speech from Buddhism, which are saying things that are accurate, that are useful, that are kind with the words that you say, and that the state of mind that you're saying it from is also kind, and that you're saying it at the right time and the right context. Often, in those situations, it would be very easy to say something that is accurate about that person, but isn't kind, that the words you use are unkind, or that the state of mind that you say it from isn't kind or even something that's not useful to them. They're like, “Well, I am that way. If that's true, what am I supposed to do about that? How am I supposed to act on that?” And it also might not be the right time to say something. So (I don't know) I think if you look at those variables, there's usually a way to say something that is true, but it's also useful to them, that's kind in both ways and is at the right time. That's a very tall order. That's a very high challenge-level speech act. But I practice having those qualities in my speech all of the time. And so, it makes it easier when it's hard to do something like that. But I think in most situations, you can find something that's kind of useful to say.
SPENCER: So for the final topic before we wrap up, I'm curious to hear your thoughts about infrastructure, and in particular, how do we collaborate with others effectively to achieve more than we could on our own?
TASSHIN: That's a question I'm constantly asking myself because I do want to have this sort of maximum deep benefit. I want to help as many people as possible, as deeply as possible, and very quickly run into very practical questions like, How do I spend my time? How do I spend my energy? Who do I work with? How do I fund my projects? If I have multiple things I could work on, how do I balance the time and energy and resources from these different things? And so, (I don't know) I think some people are very practiced and experienced and expert in this. From afar, it seems like you're quite good at this. It's very impressive to me. I've sort of worked on this skill on my own. I found it helpful to have sort of a portfolio approach where there's different things that I'm working on, and none of them are the sole thing that I'm working on. But I know that there's different focuses that I have, and different long-standing projects that I'm working on. And for each of those things, I found it helpful to find specific collaborators that I can work with that will have the skills that are useful for that, that will enjoy working on the thing, and that project will go better because they're involved. And it's like a win-win thing to work on it. But actually doing this in practice can be quite difficult. And for some time, I've had some sense of like almost if it were a video game that I'm at a level of 10 or 15 or something, but there are people that are level 50 or level 60. And I am very curious about how to get to a higher level of skill with this sort of thing.
SPENCER: I think there's a fundamental tension between working on one thing and giving it your full focus to maximize the probability that it goes well versus to spread your attention out to multiple projects where you don't have all your eggs in one basket. You're taking a portfolio approach where maybe you can kind of adjust as something's going better, something's going worse, you can kind of reallocate resources. I tend to be on the extreme end of working on multiple projects. But I think that that also has severe downsides. And I'm wondering, how do you think about that trade-off?
TASSHIN: Oh, first off, I'm just admiring that because the kind of concern that someone who has thought about this would really have is like, yeah, there is a tension there. In some ways, I think it would be more effective to focus on just one thing. On the other hand, my choice not to comes from a kind of self-knowledge of knowing that I personally would not be very happy if I was just focusing on one of the things that I tend to work on. I find them all enjoyable and useful. But if I was just doing one of them, I'd get bored or overwhelmed in various kinds of ways and have a sense of how each of them would degrade me if I just focused on that. And I'm like, “No, I'd rather balance things out.” And so the way that I've found that seems to work for me is not just to have different recurring buckets of things that I'm working on that's been very helpful, but to find ways for them to be mutually supportive for them to feed into each other to have feedback loops between them that I intentionally structure so that they help each other out. So that can create kind of a snowball effect, where even though I'm focusing on multiple things, because I've created feedback loops between them, if one thing improves, then they all improve.
SPENCER: Yeah, that's an interesting way to think about the problem where, if you're working on multiple projects, it's ideal if they have some synergy between them so that it's not just like, “Oh, I'm splitting my time. And each time I work on one thing, it detracts from my time working on another.” it's like, “Oh, there's some way in which they're enhancing each other, obviously.” There can be a limit to that. I suspect that there are certain types of projects where you really have to be all-in to have a reasonable chance of success, like a fast-moving startup. If you're trying to build a product and grow it really rapidly, I think it's very hard to do that if you're kind of torn across many different things simultaneously. Whereas other projects maybe lend themselves much better to be like 1/5 of your time or 1/3 of your time, and it still can make forward progress, and you can still get it to where you want it to be.
TASSHIN: That's probably true. I don't think I would really have the disposition to be a startup founder, for example. I like my way of life, sort of I wander from place to place and do different things at different times. And that seems to work for me. I do think those who tend to be in those types of environments tend to have issues like burnout, psychological and physical damage. And I think that those things are connected, that if you just sort of grind on one thing very intensely, that might have sort of repercussions down the line. And that's part of why I'm not willing to do that for myself. Instead, I try to take a sustainable approach where I don't have — the way I think about it is I work every day, and I try to have everything that I do be work, but I also try to have everything that I do be enjoyable for me. And that is a very sustainable approach for me.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think you're absolutely right. There are certain things, like startups, that do increase the chance of burnout. They're sort of fundamentally stressful and usually involve huge amounts of work. None of that is great, but maybe it's just a sacrifice people make because they have goals, or there's something they want to do in the world. And maybe people don't know of other ways to do those things. I think that's true. There's a certain type of project where you sort of have to be all-in. And yes, that comes with the shitty side effects of like, stress and working your ass off. But maybe, maybe that's just what it takes.
TASSHIN: It may very well. There's a lot of things that I don't know about, and it does seem very possible that in the realm of (like) technology or medicine or new inventions or things like that, that you need that kind of all-in, all hours of the day effort for many years. And yeah, I think it's very possible that there's a real trade-off in those fields.
SPENCER: It does raise something about your philosophy, which is, do you feel the other should live the way you do? Or do you think of it really as just a personal philosophy, it's just your way of living?
TASSHIN: I don't know that I would actively try to persuade someone to live the way that I'm living or that I would try to spread it at scale as a philosophy in a sort of enforced way. But I do think I would like to demonstrate it to other people. And if it feels resonant to help them to live this way because it's working so well, for me, I'm happy to share it with other people or to answer their questions. And I do really think it's a beneficial way to live both for the world, but also for the person whose life it is because it's very enjoyable. But, I don't know that I would want to sort of top-down enforce it at scale or something like that.
SPENCER: So talking to you makes me think about this distinction, which you might call like ‘micro do-gooding' versus ‘macro do-gooding', which is like you're trying to do good and serve every action you do, both for others and for yourself. Whereas, this other approach is like trying to look out at the world, at what could affect the world long-term, at what could have a really big impact, making a plan, and then trying to achieve that thing in a way where maybe, at a moment to moment, it doesn't feel that good, maybe it's stressful and unpleasant, maybe it involves doing things that you don't feel that great about, but you're doing it for this bigger cause. And it seems to me that maybe there's just a role for both of these types of ‘do-gooding' in the world. And so I'm just curious to hear your reaction to that.
TASSHIN: That is a very interesting frame. I think I resonate a lot with the people that want to do good for the whole world and are very concerned about these large, complex global problems. I think that my own way of approaching this is not disconnected from that. I do care about those things. But it's a sort of practical and strategic approach to some of the same kinds of things. I think, strategically, the whole world is a very large, complex system. And it's hard for one variable to affect the whole system in a predictable way in advance. It's not that what we do doesn't matter, but that it's hard to predict how we will impact the world in advance. And certainly, with questions of scale, that one person affecting the whole system is hard to do. Doing it in a predictable good way is an even harder thing to do. So instead, I want my life to be a benefit. So that does involve moment-to-moment decisions. But it's also just my own time and my own energy and the way that I feel. And so, my life and my time and my energy, what I do in this moment, those are things that I have control over, that I can actively choose, that I can seem to have predictable effects on. And so, I try to do my best at the skills that I have control over, which are really moment-to-moment things but also involve my time and energy and my values. I do believe that that has effects that ripple out to the global scale, to many other people. But it's hard to predict those in advance. So, I try to do things locally that seem good for me and other people.
SPENCER: Tasshin, thanks so much for coming on. It was a really interesting conversation.
TASSHIN: My pleasure, Spencer. Thanks for having me.
JOSH: A listener asks: If you could travel to the past knowing that it would affect your current timeline, would you do so?
SPENCER: I think there could be altruistic reasons to travel to the past. That might be a justification. But in terms of selfish reasons, I think that chaos theory is true in the sense that there are very tiny perturbations of the past that would cause the future to be radically different. Like, one thought experiment I do is like, imagine that you just were going to drive somewhere. Let's say a long-distance drive, and you left five minutes later than you plan to. Let's compare the world in terms of how it would have been had you not left five minutes later. As you think about how many different cars on the road you now are in front of that you wouldn't have been, who now end up going slightly faster or slower, and then all of those cars are going to get to their destination slightly faster or slower, also are going to influence other cars slightly more or less. And it just seems like that's going to ripple out into changing lots of things in the distant future, like everything's going to eventually get slightly changed. So I suspect that if you went to the past, and then you could come back, things would actually be really, really different. And it'd be shocking. So I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to do that on a selfish basis. It may be that you don't even exist. Like, if you go back far enough. If you go back before you were born, it may be that the default thing is you don't exist, because if that sperm got there one second later, a different sperm would have impregnated that or whatever. So, I don't know, it's complicated.
JOSH: Is there a solution to the grandfather paradox that you know of?
SPENCER: There's one view that says, if you could go back in time, you actually couldn't kill your grandfather. Because if time was the sort of thing that has already happened, and so it's just this fixed set of time, all the events are what they are, then you couldn't have killed your grandfather, because you wouldn't have been able to exist and go back in time. That's one solution. It just says that anything you could do in time travel must have already happened, and therefore must be consistent with now. And so you can't do things like kill your grandfather. There's other views of time travel that involve like, what if you do have different timelines now? And then maybe things like that could happen because you go back in time, you kill your grandfather, but now you're in a different timeline. So in that new timeline, you don't exist, but you still exist in the old timeline. Now, I don't know if there's any theories of physics that actually make that make sense. But I don't think that time travel is actually ruled out by physics right now. Obviously, we don't know of any way to do it, but I don't think that physicists are absolutely convinced it's impossible based on physics principles.
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