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I am nothing (paulbuchheit.blogspot.com)
520 points by dwynings on Aug 20, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 125 comments

...you shouldn't compare yourself with others -- you didn't start in the same place or with the same challenges...

Reminds me of this:

Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham." Reb Zusha answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?' Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine."

This immediately made me think of the line from Desiderata.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Full text on wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desiderata#Full_text

This "I am nothing" mantra reminded me of Bushidō, which revolves around the awareness and acceptance of death, at which point one can possibly realise its true self.

A similar thought was formulated by Morihei Ueshiba: "There are no contests in the Art of Peace. A true warrior is invincible because he or she contests with nothing. Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within."

Study any martial art (preferably one where you can spar) and you'll forever understand the meaning of ego. You show up, do drills/padwork, think you're making progress and then spar someone who beats you up. You do the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next. Eventually you improve and make progress because you're training so hard. But there's always that one guy you can't beat, and that new kid whose far beyond his years in talent. Coach is also now telling you your making mistakes on things you thought you put behind you, and its frustrating the hell out of you that you can't fix it fast enough. Your technique isn't up to par, your cardio is garbage because you had pizza and beer, and your training partners are running circles around you.

That's when you realize you know nothing, that even after these years of training and experience, you feel even less knowledgeable about the art than when you began. Depressed about your progress, you figure you have two options to deal with it: 1) quit... or 2) keep showing up. But by now, you love it too much and its become apart of your life, so quitting isn't an option. All that's left to do then is to continue showing up.

Eventually, the ego is beaten out of you from every failure/loss/disappointment in your daily training. You've tapped out to newer people, younger people, smaller/bigger/"dumber" people that it doesn't even shock you to perform poorly against a total beginner. From here, self-realization naturally guides you into a more focused path for self-improvement. What you want to achieve today is far different from what you thought you'd wanted out of martial arts in the beginning. Telling apart someone who thinks they "know", and someone who truly "knows", is far easier. You'll realize how little you know, as it will humble you. But hopefully you'll come to peace with who you are, and realize what it takes to be where you want to be.

I think this happens in any context where you're learning from talented people and you still have your mind open. I think it's just part of growing up and maturing.

Perhaps martial arts make the feedback more direct than other areas of expertise.

Reminds me of a lecture given on Beginner's Mind that emphasizes the pitfalls of intellectualism:

'Can we look at our lives in such a way? Can we look at all of the aspects of our lives with this mind, just open to see what there is to see? I don't know about you, but I have a hard time doing that. I have a lot of habits of mind—I think most of us do. Children begin to lose that innocent quality after a while, and soon they want to be "the one who knows." We all want to be the one who knows. But if we decide we "know" something, we are not open to other possibilities anymore. And that's a shame. We lose something very vital in our life when it's more important to us to be "one who knows" than it is to be awake to what's happening. We get disappointed because we expect one thing, and it doesn't happen quite like that. Or we think something ought to be like this, and it turns out different. Instead of saying, "Oh, isn't that interesting," we say, "Yuck, not what I thought it would be." Pity. The very nature of beginner's mind is not knowing in a certain way, not being an expert. As Suzuki Roshi said in the prologue to Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's there are few." As an expert, you've already got it figured out, so you don't need to pay attention to what's happening. Pity.'

As an expert, you've already got it figured out, so you don't need to pay attention to what's happening. Pity.

Not necessarily a pity. You have to be an expert at some things in order to become a beginner at others.

"Not necessarily a pity. You have to be an expert at some things in order to become a beginner at others."

True, but I don't think that's the point of the passage. Rather, the idea is not to seal one's mind off at the "expert" level in any field of endeavor. At that point, we replace questions with assumptions. Those assumptions might be based on knowledge, and they might be right (for now). But who's to say that they're going to be right tomorrow? Or the next day? Or that a better way won't emerge? (It definitely will not emerge from the one who assumes he's mastered it, because he won't question what he assumes he's mastered).

Thanks for this.

Reminded me a little of this quote from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Lord Henry stroked his pointed brown beard and tapped the toe of his patent-leather boot with a tasselled ebony cane. "How English you are Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman -- always a rash thing to do -- he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices. However, I don't propose to discuss politics, sociology, or metaphysics with you. I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world. Tell me more about Mr. Dorian Gray. How often do you see him?"

Thirty or forty years ago, people apparently had much stronger identities, according to an old french psychologist I heard on the radio. People were much more inclined to think of themselves as 'a communist' or 'an artist'. It's true that these thoughts are prisons, but not having them sends people to the psychologist for other reasons. Unfortunately I don't remember what he said about these new problems.

I guess one problem with discarding your identity as a father is that you are also questioning responsibilities that are vital to your children. Another problem of going without identity is that having a sense of belonging to some community becomes more difficult. That's something I have been missing personally.

I once had a lecturer who asked us which particular school of thought on -foo- we were - to which we responded that we were pragmatists - if it works, it works. He denounced us as boring.

Looks like a riff on "Keep Your Identity Small":

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.


And IMO isn't nearly as good as the earlier one. "I Am Nothing" has a self-help tone that puts me off, and the number of sentences per substance is too low for my liking.

Paul Graham did end up with a similar conclusion, but on the process of leading to it, he kept exploring possibilities. What social behaviors could be objectively explained by the excess of identity? Although he did end up telling his readers what to do, that was just a coincidence. He looked out for the truths and they happen to lead to something that could be applied in real life.

But it all comes down to a matter of taste, and I do greatly admire Paul Buchheit as a person.

> But it all comes down to a matter of taste

Sorry, but here you just klll in the egg your interesting point above. If you think pg's article is better than pb's, why hide your opinion, which I happen to share, behind this pudic relativist curtain?

It's like doing a solid dissertation on why Python is more x and x and x than, say, Java, and then, in the conclusion, retract every statement behind a shy "matter of taste".

You caught me. In the past, I used to express my opinions, which are often strong and controversial, aggressively, but over time, I learnt that it's in my interest to make a consolation point toward people with opposite opinions in public places. "So this is my opinion and that is yours. We differ a bit but we are still friends, right?" I don't do that in my own writings, however.

> I learnt that it's in my interest to make a consolation point toward people with opposite opinions in public places

Well, you've just been shown the opposite. By dismissing your own argument - by claiming it is just a matter of random, arbitrary preference - you kind of write yourself out of the conversation. I guess you are less likely to offend, but you're less likely for anyone to listen at all. You may as well have not spoken in the first place.

Interestingly, PG thanks Paul Buchheit for reading drafts of his Identity piece.

I like both essays, though. It's hard to describe why, but they each affected me in different ways. PG's is more a detached observation about how he thinks things are, while "I am nothing" has a sort of visceral quality that appeals to me.

What a wonderfully thought-provoking and inspiring piece. Thanks, Paul, for sharing it.

In a similar vein, from David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

"If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.... Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on."


An oversimplification

suffering = your self image vs perception of reality self

The argument goes that man is a prisoner of his self image. This self image is a mixture of his desires, wants, tastes, hopes, fears.... This can be seen as a self image that arises out of conditioning by the society and self. You are like a frog in the well and imagine the well to be the universe. You are limited and shaped by the well. How can one know of what the possibilities are unless they ascend from their own intellectual/egotistical/scoietal wells or the well of self image?

On the other hand, I have noticed that rejection of natural tendencies leads to suffering as well. No matter how hard we try the self will never be a blank tape. When you reject the self image your self image becomes "Im he/she who rejects self image imposed on me". So now you are straight back where you started with a brand new self image, only this time you are more observant of your flaws(tendencies of self). So there is still suffering here.

Let me oversimplify again the frog = Neo in the matrix, Ignorance is bliss = Cipher in the matrix

It's about riding your life man. Not worrying about all the little details you just brought up. Letting go and seeing what happens. Personally, I don't think someone will acheive this by academic pursuit. You have to follow your heart to it.

We all think we are something. We an image of ourselves. When something happens that supports this image we are usually happy, otherwise we're unhappy.

The truth is that we are nothing in particular.

There is pain, there is hunger, there is thirst, etc.

The interesting part is: When does it become your pain, your hunger, etc?

A recurring theme from great thinkers (perhaps mainly more in the East, though) over the ages. Glad to see it finding an audience on HN.

This excerpt from Rumi seems apt:

  "Knock, And He'll open the door
  Vanish, And He'll make you shine like the sun
  Fall, And He'll raise you to the heavens
  Become nothing, And He'll turn you into everything."
My take on this line of thought is that as long as you consider yourself as being a "someone" or "having a self" you are always in conflict with other selves and only if you become nothing you remove the inherent conflict.

Zhuangzi: "Vomit your intelligence"

I think there is a fine line you need to tread. I agree with what paul has to say but sometimes what we care about is what drives us.

For the longest time i worked as a consultant but i never cared. When someone said to me so what do you do, i just said i work with computers, my rank didnt matter to me, my role , my status nothing. I wouldn't come to work in a suite or tie or even a shirt (i came in just a t-shirt and jeans) and it was very weird to many who were watching. I guess cause they cared and wondered why i didnt ...

They would say , "your a consultant, for a big4 how can you wear those clothes, cause i personally cant".

I would respond by saying, well i dont care , just wanna make sure customer is happy regardless of what my official role is, that way i could do my work , not have to redo things and then go home. Also one of the important things i think is i detached myself from being a consultant, i was nothing, not a manager, a consultant, a senior consultant , who has certain things attached to them so i felt free and just wore what i wanted with the one rule that the customer needs to be happy.

When i found out that i could get away with that i experimented with a few other things too, like if i was tired during lunch i would sleep on the park bench if it was a nice sunny day. I stopped thinking hey im a professional and cant be seen sleeping on a park bench cause thats what bums do and once i got over it and i thought , hey who cares, it was easy and i would come back to the office invigorated cause of a 20-30 minute quick nap :)

However the caveat is when you CARE enough about say programming . If you start to tell yourself you dont care anymore you loose a certain desire which if you care about it, isnt very good. if you keep telling yourself hey i am a programmer then that comes with certain things such as , writing code, being half decent at math, being logical etc etc and being good at those things isnt a bad thing.

So i think i get what paul is saying when he says "i am nothing" but i think you cant apply that to things you care about cause it will cause you to not care. But applying that way of thinking to things what you might care about but deep down know its just for perception or is kinda silly or even not really important has some surprisingly good results :)

It's true that fear, insecurity, etc can provide us with drive, but they are not the only or best sources of drive.

Great essay, but like the grandparent I'm confused how it allows for any sort of drive. How can you have goals without identifying with them, or at least their purpose? It seems great and healthy to stop identifying as a failed attempt at reaching certain labels, but I struggle to imagine a singular goal not attached to a label.

I think the essay is great but i think it applies more when you are already in a happy place where your happiness is confirmed by your own view of yourself.

Its a way to stay happy once your happy. For example, lets say your a poor entrepreneur, you tell yourself, if i can flip for 5m+ ill be happy cause i will never have to work again, i can help my parents i can do so and so. Your dream comes true and your startup gets acquired and you have that 5m+ in your bank account.

You now have a label, people expect certain things from you. Your happy but because of your new found label and because of peoples expectations of what that label means "in this cause a successful startup founder acquired by XXXX" it forces you to try and comply with that label which could possibly making you unhappy again. (maybe you dont like doing talks, maybe you dont like giving advice, maybe you dont like being criticised ... whatever it may be)

However if you dont care and dont classify yourself as "successful startup founder acquired by XXXX" then there is no reason to comply with what that means and because you achieved your personal goal of getting acquired for 5m+ ... you stay happy.

I think for people that are not there yet, its still kinda hard to apply "I am Nothing" to things you are still striving for or care about.

Well this is my interpretation of the essay .. :)

I think even thinking about drive is a misnomer. Personal growth is more like the unfolding of a flower, it's not something that you (or anyone else) can will yourself to do. It just happens gradually given the right conditions.

I don't know much Zen, but after the "Zenish" comments in here, I guess lots of HN-ers do, right?

I maybe am a case of "western individuation syndrome", but for me, loosing individuation for protecting myself sounds rather like an oxymoron. Actually, when there's nothing to protect, there nothing to improve, whatever that guy says. And even if you might say that Buchheit didn't suggest to actually dissolve your personality, it very much seems like he did.

Low expectations, realism when faced with your own challenges, sane aggressiveness or indifference, confronting your own prejudices, vices and frustration, are all possible when one's brain is mentally trained, not when you're living with a general sense of "loosing yourself" or when one's dissolving one's ego.

I don't think "letting go of your identity" leads to "a better version of our selves" or "true self improvement", but to a toxic sense of not being who you are.

"But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself." - if you need to be nothing in order to be free, you ARE nothing.

"By returning to zero expectations, by accepting that I am nothing, it is easier to see the truth." - what do zero expectation has to do with nothingness?

"If I were smart, I might be afraid of looking stupid." - that's not being smart, that's being westernly-smart. Change "smart" with "wise" and see if that sentence makes any sense.

Why does someone always preaches extremes to get rid of another? Now I'm being artistically literal: when you say "I am nothing", just loose the "I".

Hey, I had frustrations, I had problems and conquered must of them, partly with indifference, partly with matured ego, partly with higher self-barricades, but not once I thought of dissolving my ego. What the deuce? - I kinda need it! I was learned to fight and gain knowledge, but then I learned that, when fighting something, you actually give it meaning, so then I learned to give up. So this blog post does resonate with my experience at some extent.

Preparing for "He didn't mean to ACTUALLY renounce your personality": it's dangerous to use metaphors or ambiguous expressions when your next paragraph if a plain-life description. Just don't. Use "lower your expectations" instead of "be nothing". This is logic/biologic-ally wrong. You can't be nothing, but you can't be all of it, neither, so, in the mediocrity principle, just be something, because you already are (how's that for metaphoric?).

Not only is this Zen Buddhism, but this is actually all Buddhism, in its ultimate form.

Letting go of yourself, and saying I am nothing, quite literally means that. We are nothing, simply mounds of flesh and bone. Even our thoughts, and our minds, are not a self. There is no such thing as free thought, no thinker behind the thoughts. All feeling and sensation, touch smell, taste; they all have an origin in the physical realm. Thoughts and ideas are the same, and they have an origin in the mental and physical realm. No idea is an idea floating by itself. They all originate from somewhere, like the sensation of touch or smell. Like, this conversation we're having. The ideas we both put forward have been taught to us, either by books, teachers, or our environments. They cannot be without cause.

An idea: The sun is bright. Why is the sun bright? Because the accepted lexicon of 'bright' is associated with a tingling, slightly painful feeling in the eyes. Why did I say the sun is bright? Because I needed an example in order to explain my words better. Why do examples explain words better? Because I've read words with examples, and felt I had understood more because of them, and so on. See? Where in thinking is there free thought? No where. Then, if we are neither thought nor sensation, what are we?

The pain and frustration we feel from life come from trying to fight with this, trying to see ourselves as a self; a self that has wants and needs that Must be fulfilled. We've become so accustomed to this idea of 'self' that we even shelter it, and protect it. We create elaborate explanations and excuses in order to protect this idea of self, when instead, it should be let go.

By letting go of oneself, you see this person realistically, and in an unbiased way. Pain or circumstance that befalls this person is simply as it is, neither good nor bad; it simply is. We then can improve this person: we are able to see these flaws and these unskillful actions objectively and clearly. Once these are seen, they can be easily changed, since there is no I or me, but a person. Unmetaphorically, and unequivocally, that is what is meant by 'I am nothing' and how it should be used.

It is not an oxymoron, it is a paradox, duly noted by Simon Leys an others: Only the ones with the strongest personality (hear "self") can truly wipe out their ego. For us normal people, the goal could be to lower expectations about oneself, but for those rare birds, usually monks, I believe it means something very deep (not much related to PB's note, though).

You're using "ego" with that "vanity" sense. I'm referring to ego as in "self". I agree that strong people have less "ego", less "self-importance". Try wiping out "your self" instead and see those strong people crumble.

I disagree that the author was exagerating when he said that you must become nothing to be truly free. I think it's not about permanently erasing your own identity, but about being able to change perceptions at will.

There are two states we can be in: acting and reflecting. When we are acting, we have to rely on all of our accumulated skill, so we must be confident that we know what we are doing. But afterwards, when we are reflecting on what we've done, we must drop all pretense of having skill and knowledge, and take an outsider's view of our own work. To make a fully honest appraisal of what we're doing we must forget that it is our own work. We must be nothing to see everything.

I am a husband. I am a father. I am a child of God.

There is a fine line between putting yourself in a box that you (or others) create for you and knowing who you are. The classifications that Paul lists in his post are of the first kind. The second kind, you can't really change.

Once you think you know, there's a risk that you stop learning, that you discard other possibilities.

I absolutely agree with this sentiment. This is the "box" that I was referring to above. It represents the limit of that which you are willing to believe, in many cases because you believe that you have already reached some level of understanding which cannot possibly be eclipsed by further investigation.

I also believe that it is at least as important to recognize that there are certain characteristics (for lack of a better word) that each of us possess which are an integral part of who we are.

Your claim that we are nothing presents a serious ethical dilemma, and one which I believe if not understood correctly can have disastrous consequences. Allow me to explain.

Each of the characteristics that I mentioned above directly ties me to a responsibility that I have to some "other". With regards to this other, I am something. It is the very essence of existence. The mere fact that I exist means that I will always have an effect on some other, whether good or bad. Without an other, I do not exist.

To choose to ignore the responsibility I have towards an other is an action. It may have a good or bad consequence, but it is still an action. I cannot avoid acting, as inaction itself is an action with regard to the other.

For example, I mentioned above that I am a father. Now, I could of course choose (as many men do for one reason or another) to simply walk away from my responsibilities as a father. I could decide essentially that I am not a father. But that doesn't change the fact that I have fathered children and that abandoning that responsibility will have some consequence on them. To them, I am something. I am their father, and I can't change that.

To pretend that I'm not a father is simply lying to myself. It's also being very selfish. That's why I say that this belief system can have disastrous consequences when applied broadly. Because if you're not careful it can lead to very selfish behavior.

Totally agree. However interesting and inspiring these posts and toughs might be, the ideas can be really applied verbatim only by people in their 20's - no family, no commitments, and so on.

Similarly to @mjijackson I'm a husband and a father. If I made a decision to become 'nothing' I might benefit myself, but that would be a disaster to others that depend on me.

Somehow I find most of these Zen-like thoughts quite selfish, but I'm open to suggestions, perhaps I'm missing an important point here...

Well spoken; thank you.

This reminds me of the chapter about "The Cosmic Joke"[1] from a Tibetan Buddhism book[2].

"[speaking about ego] We set up a background, a foundation from which we can go on and on to infinity. This is what is called samsara, the continuous vicious cycle of confirmation of existence. One confirmation needs another confirmation needs another…

The attempt to confirm our solidity is very painful. Constantly we find ourselves suddenly slipping off the edge of a floor which had appeared to extend endlessly. Then we must attempt to save ourselves from death by immediately building an extension to the floor in order to make it appear endless again. We think we are safe on our seemingly solid floor, but then we slip off again and have to build another extension. We do not realize that the whole process is unnecessary, that we do not need a floor to stand on, that we have been building all these floors on the ground level. There was never any danger of falling or need for support. In fact, our occupation of extending the floor to secure our ground is a big joke, the biggest joke of all, a cosmic joke."

[1] The chapter is fully available here: http://www3.telus.net/public/sarlo/Ytrungpa.htm.

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Freedom-Meditation-Shambhala-Libr...

I am rarely moved to comment on a post. This one seems to be especially thoughtful and sincere.

I understood the core message to be we shouldn't let labels that define some aspects of who we are constrain us.

Or, in programming terms: mixins not class hierarchies :)

Favourite quote: "True self improvement requires becoming a better version of our selves, not a lesser version of someone else."

> But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself.

But if I am nothing what entity is contemplating my nothingness? I most definitely must be a something - thinking of myself as a non-something is necessarily a delusion. It's illogical to engage in identity denial - instead I should try to engage in identity variation, approaching myself (and others!) with a different set of assumptions from time to time (which I believe was the spirit of the original post). It's silly to start a process of self-actualization by denying the very thing I am trying to actualize.

Or, as follows: I exist as a unique locus of space and time and so do you. I can share a room, a table, a meal, a conversation, even a lifetime with you but I can't be you - I can only be myself experiencing you. Your identity is yours and yours alone and you are always free to be yourself. In fact you are required to be yourself - after all who else could you be?

I intend to own my identity for the brief flickering moment that it exists. The mindless and momentous machinations of the universe have create the fragile consciousness that I am, and very soon these same machinations will erase me to nothingness. I see no reason to get a head start on being nothing.

The misinformation and misinterpretation of Buddhism and Western philosophy in the comments is embarrassing, as well as the pop-spirituality babble.

Excellent. Any true hacker must understand every level of the development process, and that includes one's own mind, standing back and questioning the inner thought processes that one normally thinks of as the self.

  I have abandoned my path.
  I have forsaken my role.
  I have forgotten my name.
  I have lost my soul.
-- unpublished fiction

Good post. Reminds me of that quote by Oscar Wilde: "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."

I don't believe Wilde said that. This is boomer self-actualization language, and the underlying concept of authenticity is a 20th century creation.

Here is something Wilde really wrote: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."


I can relate. I too am trying to abandon my self and my "brand" because it's spiritually suffocating. I don't want to care what - oh, someone just voted up my last comment!

It's on the todo list anyway.

...And it starts with nothing. ...

I disagree, it starts with love.

What is good?

Having zero expectations and being humble are both noble. But being nothing is just impossible. You already are something. Goodness comes from love, Integrity comes from knowing what is good, so don't be evil, be good.

What is true?

I guess the point being made is that knowledge of the truth starts with knowing i am ignorant, like the beginner's mind, or a childlike curiosity, free of prejudices, a free mind, or to paraphrase Plato "— This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing [anything]. On the other hand, I - equally ignorant - do not believe [that I know anything]." [1]

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_that_I_know_nothing

Premise: we are what we think about. Being nothing requires one to think about nothing. It's actually quite a lot of work to think about nothing! The brain is constantly solving problems while awake and while asleep, building up momentum.

Proposal: Instead of expending massive amounts of energy bringing an object of such high inertia to rest, why not just change the inputs you are feeding it to gradually alter its direction? Don't focus on the cessation and extinction of the turning of mind. Focus on feeding the turning of mind solvable or aesthetically pleasurable problems, to decrease the bandwidth occupied by unsolvable\fear based problems.

tldr: I'm not convinced the epicness of ego destruction is necessary for ego transmutation, if that is one's goal.

edit: Well, I just realized my analogy does not hold for all cases. In Physics, if you want to change the direction vector of an object in motion, to the opposite of its present heading, it will require at least as much energy as bringing the object to rest. So focusing on ego destruction could be worth it depending on where you want to go and where you are now.

Additionally, we also know from Physics that all motion is relative, velocity cannot be measured without a frame of reference. I think the Buddhists would argue that cessation of the turning of thought provides this otherwise missing frame of reference, enabling the thought\ego vector to accurately be measured when the turning of thought restarts.

Being nothing is not the goal here. By being nothing, with no thoughts or motion, we would be dead!

The point here is Understanding that we are nothing, to make it easier to let go of the material world, or to let go of any pains that befall us. In this way we have calmness, and gain wisdom.

As for your analogy, that our thoughts and selves are an object in motion, which we must curb to reach a desirable point in space: the reality is, there is no object.

>As for your analogy, that our thoughts and selves are an object in motion, which we must curb to reach a desirable point in space: the reality is, there is no object.

Ah, how convenient, a single objective reality where nonexistence is possible :)

To more precisely define my analogy and convey my understanding: current thought is a recurrence relation with previous thoughts. Inertia is the strength of the recurrence relation, the degree by which previous thoughts determine present thought. This is measurable as neural adaptation and learning. Ego or self is an observed distribution of thoughts occurring during a certain duration. As with statistical distributions, we tend to construct parameter estimators to make sense of the data[1].

Now, as with statistics, whether these generated parameters contain information and are useful in describing the distribution is up for debate and dependent on the question the investigator seeks to answer. But simply stating 'there is no object' is as sensical and productive as claiming 'there is no mean, there is no standard deviation'.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_moments_(statistics)

Ah, I see. I'm sorry, I thought the object was ego, but if it's thought in that abstract form, then that was my misunderstanding of your explanation. Indeed, you are correct in that analogy, to that extent.

No apologies necessary, I did indeed use a newtonian object as the particular for ego in the first analogy. In regards to abstract forms and mental constructs as not existing in the same manner as objects, I'd disagree with you and the OP and hold that they do exist, at least in the same manner that everything else can be said to, if anything else is said to. In other words, I would assert there is no difference in types of existence nor duality between existence and nonexistence, object and nonobject, that is derivable and non-arbitrary. What I would concede is that an ego (and everything else) is "empty" of perfect causal independence. In other words, it must be emergent and generated.

Reminds me of this:

"Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God."

- 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 (NLT)

Love the post, but nothing? I say adopt 2 or more senses of self, and get really good at using them at the right time.

I think moving beyond an ego-based sense of self is the best way to think rationally and accomplish a goal. In fact, the biggest benefit is probably being able to rationally understand other people's point of view without a sense of self clouding up your interpretation. But, for me at least, it has not been pragmatic to abandon a sense of self at all times.

For instance, it is much easier for me to relate to my grandmother with a stronger sense of self - or at least project a persona that gives that appearance. You can't really like people or things (in the most basis sense) without ego. Nor, can you fully extend emotional empathy in the purist sense when you have no sense of self. With no ego there are many professional environments that will simply drain your energy - even if you have a decent persona for relating emotionally with others.

For me, the better answer has been to look at my self (more specifically my brain) as a library of different selfs. Yes, I am nothing, but I must at least be a controller that responds to my environment with the most relevant sense of self at any point in time. I would suggest there is an evolution of self beyond nothing.

On the one hand, he says, "if we aren't changing for the better, then we are just slowly decaying," suggesting that there is such a thing as "better."

On the other hand, he talks about "returning to zero expectations" and being "nothing."

I conclude that Paul wants to be a better nothing. Or possibly that he is slowly decaying. I'm not sure you can be nothing and also have a standard for getting better.

I adopted the metaphor which works for me here from Ken Wilber, though I'm sure that the idea appears in the works of other writers, and much earlier: hierarchies of growth vs hierarchies of domination. The former (your "one hand") are nested hierarchies (inclusive); the latter (your "other hand") are conventional hierarchies (exclusive). The way I understand this is that "I am nothing" puts the "I" - whatever it is - at a leaf node if the reference is an exclusive hierarchy (a "hierarchy of domination"), whereas if the reference is an inclusive hierarchy (a "hierarchy of growth"), "I am nothing" appears at the root node.

Edit: typos.

It's about finding an unconstrained perspective. Perhaps re-read the last paragraph?

Fair enough, I re-read it.

I'm thinking about "perspective" -- the word suggests a relationship to something bigger. For example, when an artist draws with perspective, there is a point on the horizon toward which lines extend. Removing constraints may be a useful exercise, but removing all constraints would, in a sense, remove all perspective as well. So I think I'm looking for a perspective that's constrained by what's true, rather than one that's unconstrained.

I guess this is what I find inconsistent. There's this idea: "Until we let go of our mental images of who we are or who we should be, our vision remains clouded by expectation." But in the same paragraph, there's a notion of "self improvement." If I remove all expectations of who I should be, how can I measure my self improvement (assuming I intend to improve myself in the first place)?

There's the potential here to replace stressing out over a question like "am I a good father?" with stressing over things like "am I nothing? Am I improving? Am I myself yet?" Might this be just another "path to insanity?" Just a thought.

This is good. Reminds me of my observations on Hugh Everett's life and my conclusion to believe in anti-solipsism. http://www.whattofix.com/blog/archives/2007/11/the_first_ant...

I'd encourage Paul to take the next step, and realize that not only are you nothing, what you do really doesn't matter at all (Perhaps very difficult for Paul to believe, given his accomplishments! But true anyway)

Once you realize you're nothing, and what you do in life won't really matter -- life is fundamentally and irrevocably absurd -- then you can really be free to make the most with what you have. Because just realizing you transcend labels doesn't take the existential pressure off until you realize you also transcend existence itself -- you are truly and deeply nothing. At that point, you realize that the decisions a person makes is the only thing they truly own. This is the beginning of freedom.

It all sounds a lot like existentialism 101. Good stuff!

If you truly believed and accepted that what you do in life does not matter then you will also believe that whether you live or not does not matter. And you will also believe that whether other people live or not does not matter. Your philosophy is dangerous because you do not make what you are trying to say clear.

Your message "look beyond meaning" I agree with. But it is clouded by and runs counter to most of what you wrote. to people without the context of your thoughts. It took effort to extract the message in order to ensure I was replying to what you wrote. My top paragraph was my initial reaction.

Note that even whether your decisions are yours or not does not matter. You can draw evidence from philosophical, to genetics or neurobiology to show why you may not be choosing. But so long as you make them in a way that you think leads to the best you it does not matter.

If a person is "truly and deeply nothing" then how is that person making decisions? I can understand feeling like nothing - but something has to exist to have a feeling of nothingness in the first place.

I do not mean "truly and deeply nothing" in some sort of sense that it is impossible to perceive you, or in the sense that somehow you should be depressed. I meant "nothing" in the sense that in the cosmic scale of things, no matter what you do, nobody will ever remember it and it will make no significant difference ten thousand years after you are gone. Yes, in a very temporary way, you have the properties of existence, but the time-frame is so narrow, your impact so minuscule, that the limit approaches zero. I'm not sure if there is some other word for it -- nothing seemed the most appropriate.

This is not nihilism. As I said, understanding the astonishingly small (and basically non-existent) nature of your life is one of the necessary steps to understand what it really means to exist in the first place. That is, as Paul says, if you think you are X or Y, then you are never freed to be a better version of yourself. This is because you are comparing yourself to some external standard that you can never be. Likewise, if you think that somehow "being a better person" is a journey that leads you somewhere that has lasting consequences you are also lying to yourself -- it really doesn't matter. What you need to understand that it is the daily decisions to be a better person that matter, not the comparison between yourself today and some future state that you are headed towards. This is the same mistake that Paul describes, only he is talking about comparing yourself to some label, while I am talking about comparing yourself to some future version of yourself that you are headed towards.

Does that make sense?

Pop philosophy doesn't stand up to that kind of logical scrutiny. It's usually bike shed painting rationalized by ego or emotion.

I love the near-perfect unintentional parody of the Jewish tale of three old men arguing over who was most unworthy.

Reminds me of Tyler:

It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything.

i invite you lose everything ,and see how free you will be to do what you want

Awesome essay from Paul, very insightful.

This mindset is good at not only helping yourself become yourself, but placing the best people in your life.

If you spend your entire life trying to please everyone you meet, decide who you should be friends with and who you shouldn't, and become a person that others will like more, you will ultimately not make friends who you would have by just being yourself. And those are the friends you want most.

Perhaps even worse, you could waste endless amounts of time on people who you think you should be friends with or have in your life, but really shouldn't. Sooner or later, the relationships with these people that you built on the foundation of some artificial idea of yourself will crumble. If you know that you are nothing, then become yourself, you will be surprised how many amazing friends you will find in your life.

No so simple. Having no identity can pose its own set of problems.

Paul addresses the problems posed by over-committing to your identity. But if you do run with the title of his post and remove all identity, you don't automatically get a self that is eager to learn new shit. That is the best case scenario.

You can just as easily be the guy who knows a lot - but lacks confidence to progress because he doesn't think he is a good developer or plumber. Or you can be the guy who doesn't know much and thus doesn't have an identity.

We've all met people who know exactly who they are("i am a kickass ruby developer beyond anything else in life") and we know people who know shit load of something but continue to ponder who they really are("kickass ruby developer professionally but really what am i?"). Both, at certain extremes can be equally harmful.

These lines of thinking that involve rejecting an entire set of propositions about something always end up devolving into something like Russell's paradox if you take them to their natural conclusion. In this case, being in a state of true nothingness would preclude the possibility of considering nothingness an ideal state to be in, as that is in itself an individuating characteristic. It's the same problem that arises with pure moral relativism, which is itself an absolute moral position.

I'd be willing to bet that human nature is as complicated as the system of natural numbers; perhaps we keep butting our heads into walls like this because we're trying to find answers that would violate Godel's incompleteness theorems...

I'm also reminded of Daniel Dennett's secret to happiness: find something bigger than yourself and devote your life to it. That too allows you to drop your baggage and become 'nothing'. And it's a great way to leave a lasting impact on the world too.

It seems a little ironic that he would copy the standard religious formulation. The problem with this approach is that you may devote your life to the wrong bigger thing and then end up in the middle of a "religious" war.

Consider it a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness.

From what i've seen, we all have something we worship, God or not. This entity is perceived by us to be greater and may or may not benefit us. It's like we're wired to worship, only we have different opinions on the deity.

The only thing is life I worship are my kids. They are, consequently, both greater than I and the direct benefit has already been apparent. With continued effort, it is also likely to grow.


This isn't relevant to the actual message of the post, but something that caught my eye was in the paragraph about thinking you are "too X to be Y". Most of them make sense, and I can understand people thinking the Y because of feeling the X. Except these two:

  too effeminate to be straight

  too smart to be kind
Am I being foolish or do those two not fit? I can imagine someone thinking "I'm too sensitive, that's not how a man should be", I can't imagine someone thinking "I'm effeminate, I guess I can't be straight after all".

They are all false. The point is that people hide parts of themselves so that they can more cleanly fit into whatever categories they identify with. How many straight men act macho out of fear of seeming gay?

Ah, I mis-understood your premise for that paragraph then - sorry!

On another offtopic note, I think the whole having to be macho thing is changing pretty fast though - not yet disappeared, but on its way. One of the biggest things I've noticed (in England) is that it's very common to see boys, aged 7-16 wearing pink tshirts. Even in my childhood ~10 years ago I don't think I remember any friends or anyone my age wearing pink for it being too feminine a colour. And that's just one random thing, but that trend seems to hold true in my experience in adults too, and not just in clothing.

Having a realistic sense of self is great; diminishing your self into a nothingness (i.e. totally altruistic) is not something to be admired. Then again, maybe I've read too much Ayn Rand.

I don't think Paul's saying he's an altruist when he says "I am nothing". It's about not assigning attributes to our identity.

True, I re-read the article and see it now, and agree 100%. However, I still think "I am nothing" is a poor turn of phrase for it. I would prefer "I cannot be labeled" or "I am none of the above".

But "I am nothing" is so much more poetic! :)

Here's the thing, though: as long as others see themselves according to some paradigm, they will likely see you in relation to them and cast you in some social role.

In social interactions, we assume some identity to relate with those around us. Inevitably, those interactions (if we're receptive and respecting of who we interact with) will affect our own thoughts, including (sometimes) our sense of self.

No man's an island, and no man's nothing so long as he lives in a society. Saying "I am nothing" is just as bad as saying "I am X"

There is clear resonance between his main point and Kazantzakis's famous epitaph:

Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβούμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος.

I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.

That said, awesome post.

I agree. Having ego is so outdated. Ego is like believing that blacks are an inferior race, or earth is flat, or earth is 6000 years old.

In other words, "apple is being eaten by you just as much as you are eating the apple". It's not so much that you have chosen to eat the apple, as much as the apple chose to hit the receptors in your brain that will make you eat it. But it's all ridiculous: you and apple are one harmonious system.

This is why I like to do science. I feel like I am constantly learning. I know that I know nothing and I can only know a little bit more by science. When I acknowledged my limitations and just sat down and calculated then I performed better. Sort of a zen like way of thinking. I know that I know nothing and instead I must just calculate and manipulate symbols.

Conversely, this is why I like reading things in the realm of philosophy and political science. As an engineer by trade, I feel there's a more freeform in those areas and I tend to read philosophy and political science to escape and relax. Perhaps I became an engineer out of expectation and my true nature would have led me to the liberal arts. There's nothing wrong with either science or liberal arts, as long as one is nothing and knows who they are and studies what interest them.

The article resonates with a branch of philosophy called non-duality. Lately I have been reading a lot about non-duality, mainly from books written by J Krishnamurti. It all boils down to living in an ego less state and getting rid of the illusion of choice. It's very easy to understand it intellectually, but problem lies in realizing it in everyday life.

Inspirational read. Our own insecurities mean nothing in the end. Enabling others to erase theirs means so much more.

This post is great, and from reading the comments, I'm happy to see plenty of people being touch. So not having read the Zen Buddhist book on my shelf, I do have this to say... I am not nothing, I'm amazing. While I may disagree with others, they are beautiful and I have much love for them. Nobody is nothing.

I'm sorry, but this article is saying a lot of nothing... and I felt like I wasted my time when finished reading it.

It's great to let go of labels--it helps you stop worrying about whether you're being a good enough <whatever>. But saying that you're "nothing" isn't a good way to put it. You're still something, you just don't have to worry about being a particular, externally-defined thing.

I've seen once on Discovery Channel, that Buddha said: "You will only be happy when you kill all your desires, when you want nothing". It was something like that, so, as soon as you want nothing, you are free, and then you are happy.

I am kind of curious as to what prompted this post now than at any other time.

The question is: are you genuinely trying to become nothing or are you trying to become nothing in order to become somebody by accomplishing something, which means that you really aren't nothing.

Bliss is overrated. The greatest achievements often come from discontented, even tormented people. I for one don't want to live in a world where every book reads like Deepak Chopra.

Great essay! I'm definitely going to identify myself with others that value the "I am nothing" mantra. I hope I don't begin to think I am something, that could cause anxiety.

"many of our weaknesses are actually strengths"

So when you say that you are nothing you mean that you have many strengths, flip the ladder again, this is a circular double helix

If I were nothing, I might be afraid of being something.

To be completely honest I stopped reading when I saw the picture of a man with a big automatic weapon.

Well known person or not, advices and weapons do not go together.

As I read this, I kept thinking of the movie American Beauty. If you found this post through-provoking or disagree with it, watch this movie.

...funny, I kept on thinking of the line in WarGames when WOPR says the only way to win is not to play.

I see the sense of this, but I find it very difficult to accept.

Anyone else struggling with this?

It eventually becomes a necessity, else you simply go deeper in insanity and exhaustion.

Your genuine humility and down-to-earthness never cease to amaze and inspire me.

You may enjoy early Socrates if you haven't already.

As Heraclitus would say, all flows.

what's the implicit context here? it's hard not to think that this is related to the nym-wars, but how?

(i hope it's not "if we can be happy with who we are, then we will not mind using fixed identities"...)

its not good to loose ones ego.

I 've never seen so many "reminds me of" comments on a post before.

I find not caring about what people think ends up hurting my personal relationships. I have to try really hard to be aware of my identity and how that fits in with the people around me. Naturally I am aloof. Is that what this article is saying I should be?

I think identities are layered. Perhaps underneath your day-to-day persona, you are aloof and solitary, but what's beneath that? Perhaps if you explore where that comes from and try to understand it, you can find a way to engage with others and feel true to yourself. After all, a belief like 'I am aloof', is exactly what the op is advising against. You aren't aloof. You aren't anything except what you decide to be in any given moment. Your aloofness is a box of your own construction.

Thanks. I think it's a matter of getting out more. You're right, we can choose what we want to be. It may just take some time to get there. :)

This is a major component of Christianity. (I'm not preaching here) I thought it was interesting that the non religious world is figuring out things that have been core teachings for the last 2800 years.

In the christian world, it is called "taking yourself off the throne and putting another entity on it". The entity that gets put on it is variable, but the constant is that you are not on it.

I'm not Christian, but I am familiar with the concept you describe, and it seems very different to me.

Paul is I think advocating people to mentally distance their selves from roles or identity-classes, like straight, Christian, or atheist. The Christian throne metaphor advocates for centering or focusing on something other than the self, while entirely allowing for roles or identity classes.


That sounds like a very different concept actually. Worshiping a king seems more likely to narrow your perception.

Before we get too caught up in "what Christians believe" let's point out that it is a big tent religion and the story is much more complicated.

Perhaps, as Chesterton said, GP is being "as narrow as the universe".

When I read your essay I immediately thought of the negative way, which is the strain of Christian philosophy that denies affirmative statements about God, and denies to some extent settled knowledge.


There is also an equal and opposite affirmative way that takes God as knowable not literally, but by analogy.

And this to me is the missing element in the essay. This egoless vehicle that we are cleaning so carefully, where are we to drive it? What shall we use to measure improvement? How will we understand progress?

Agreed. I was born and raised in a Christian family, attended church every week until I was about 18 years old (and after my parents sent me off to a private Christian school, where I was fined $20 for skipping chapel amongst other things like wearing shorts before 5 PM), but Christianity comes with a wide variety of strong predispositions and beliefs. I don't like to debate theology in general, but it goes farther than just "worshipping a king," there are a lot of ideologies that get tossed in with it and there's a strong social pressure to unquestionably believe all of them or you risk being ostracized. You better not bring up abortion for example, even if you've admired the statistics in Freakonomics.

It actually sounds exactly like you are preaching.

Meanwhile Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg are focusing on making the world a better place, not on being nothing.

It seems to me quite difficult to follow the philosophy described in this essay. It also seems to me an undesirable life, though I can see why a person would want it. Much satisfaction in my life comes from seeing myself as a "good" x, and I experience very little dissatisfaction from these labels. Perhaps this will change as I age.

yes grasshopper, to be nothing is to be everything, to be everything is to be one with the universe. Now snatch the pebble....

So is this proof that money rots your brain? Because this guy is very smart, but he sounds...like a homeless guy in Berkeley. I would know, I've had conversations with them. I mean, I wouldn't want this guy on my board if I was crazy/stupid/motivated enough to ask him for money for a start-up, just on the basis of this slightly alarming essay.

Two things come to mind: PUA theory and having so much money that the boredom literally drives you nuts. So I'm thinking this guy may be headed for cautionary tale territory.

Anyway, rock on, faggots.

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