← Replacing Guilt :: Book Review

We say we “should” and divert responsibility to a nameless third party. We play video games all night then feel awful the morning after. We’re constantly self-sabotaging ourselves.

Replacing Guilt by Nate Soares does what it says on the tin: to teach you how to replace guilt, but far more than that, it provides a systematic guide on how to overhaul your motivation system.

I. Why guilt?

Imagine someone you have never seen in your life comes up to you on the street and says “you’re losing”, would you change your life plans to appease them? You might entertain the thought for a minute if you’re bored or ignore them outright, but you surely wouldn’t drastically change your life to try and win whatever game they’re peddling to you.

Yet that’s how we’re most of our goals are. Before any replacing of guilt, Soares argues we have to first acknowledge the lies that we live by.

Firstly, most of our guilt is unfounded. It’s guilt which we don’t need to feel. Guilt that has nebulous origins yet still has such a grip on our life.

Secondly, the goals which generate that guilt are probably nonsense too. Do you need to get an A? Do you need to work your ass off every day at a job you dislike? Are these truly goals you want?

When it’s written like this, these ideas almost seem blatantly obvious. We know there isn’t some large hand in the sky dictating us to get off League of Legends to go finish a problem set, but we live like that’s true and hate that large hand. We hate that it directs us to do what we don’t want. Barking out orders that we don’t believe in. We begrudgingly follow its orders while promising to ourselves that one day we’ll break free.

You’ll never break free like this. You’re stuck in an endless cycle of pursuing that hand with all the hatred and energy you can possibly muster, but it dissipates into shadows and smoke every time it seems within grasp.

You’ll never defeat the hand because you are the hand. Through some stunning mental gymnastics, you’ve packaged up agency in the word “should” and forgotten that you ever possessed agency to begin with. You don’t have to get off of League of Legends. You don’t have to finish the problem set. You’re free.

But, no! Some matters in life seem inevitable whether you want to do them or not. If I want to go to med school, I should study hard. If I want to get a graduate degree, I should find research.

Sure, but there’s no one dictating that I do anything. If I don’t find research and get bright letters of recommendation it might be near impossible to go to graduate school, but its important to acknowledge that the agency still resides within myself. I choose to study hard and find research opportunities.

II. Usefulness

You might object that wait, guilt can be useful though! If someone decides to steal candy from a random child, shouldn’t they feel guilt?

Soares argues not for the banishment of, but the replacement of guilt when it isn’t conducive to success. Guilt in his framework acts as a last resort. A way of indicating that your actions are far removed from the person you typically are and aspire to be.

Yes, if you’re stealing candy from a child then it might be time to feel guilt. But if you’re staying up too late, it’s probably best to evaluate why rather than feel listless guilt over it.

III. Productivity

Guilt pervades almost every aspect of society nowadays, but its presence might be most felt in the “productivity” niche.

You should do X, Y, or Z diet to instantly fulfill all your bodily desires. Don’t want to study? Use tomato timers to help keep yourself on track! It feels as if every technique abstracts from the genuine and concludes that the solution is to fake it while feeling guilty you don’t feel what you’re trying to emulate.

These aren’t solutions. Layered on top of someone who feels a deep sense of intrinsic drive, they can help push you to higher levels, but presented as lightweight hacks, they do more harm than good in the long term.

Rather than resolving the crux of the problem, we pretend it doesn’t exist. We share more and more esoteric motivation hacks while mutually ignoring the fact we have no motivation without these hacks. We churn through more and more “tasks” while ignoring the fact that what we’re looking for is a project we never want to finish.

There is no easy solution. You can’t read some half baked book review or even well written book on replacing guilt before instantaneously developing a strong sense of purpose. No Medium article that can distill this book into five simple, actionable steps that will solve all your problems.

The path is clear, but the path is not easy.

IV. Infinite Games

Beneath the guise of guilt, Soares is yelling at us to let go of winning arbitrary finite games to continue playing the infinite one.

That infinite game might be helping others feel a deep sense of community, spirituality, or love. Once you sift through all the cruft and find that diamond, don’t you dare let it go.

Others may tempt you with a thousand plastic jewels that look identical. They may judge you caring about that one diamond so much. They may judge you for ignoring all the plastic beads you could grab. But don’t you dare let go.

We surround ourselves with thousands of those plastic beads. We lie. We say that we want them. We say that it’s better to have thousands of those than to have one true diamond. We ridicule people who aren’t willing to play the game and have found a diamond.

They scare us. They scare us because they speak to the small part of us that is struggling to find a diamond. They scare us because we know that what we desire isn’t yet another plastic bead but to find a diamond for ourselves. We see that we’ve lost something critical, and we cling harder to our beads to ward ourselves from the truth.

You don’t have to keep playing the game. You can let all the plastic beads go. You might grab some because they pull you closer to the diamond, but you’ll let those go too once you reach that diamond.

V. Should

Contrary to Soare’s writing about how you should hit the target you set and no more, Replacing Guilt is so much more that it promises and so much more than I’ve covered.

Replacing Guilt is about freeing yourself from your imaginary shackles, so that when you find your “should”, it becomes the fire which fuels your will to continue pushing on rather than the hand you look upon with distaste.

Never stop fighting for that should.

Thank you to Neo Zhou for reading drafts, Chris Lakin for inspiring the connection between productivity and guilt, and Kevin Kelly for the productivity line.