On Becoming

We can all think back to a time when we were substantially different people, value-wise, from the people we are now. […] How did that change come about?
Agnes Callard, Aspiration

Having an end in view is, of course, merely a prerequisite for the characteristic activities that we usually think of as the mark of the practically rational agent: she reflects on whether this end is, in fact, likely to be achieved by her; she compares it with other ends and decides that it is to be pursued over them; she figures out the best means to achieve it.

The aspirant has trouble engaging fully in any of these activities, and that is because she fails the basic prerequisite of acting for the sake of some envisioned end. Her thought about what she is doing cannot be completely clear, both for the negative reason that she has insufficient contact with the [envisioned end] to understand how or why it is to be achieved and because her mind is positively clouded by the presence of distorting values, [namely her previous, potentially conflicting values]. – Agnes Callard, Aspiration

Becoming — the process of growth and change through which you become — is fundamentally a process of truth discovery.

You start with fuzzy aspirations and a vague understanding of what it will mean to transform yourself, you make assumptions about how much pleasure you’ll derive from reaching your goal, and how difficult it will be. Unavoidably, you will get a lot of this wrong. As Callard writes above, the details can never be completely clear at the outset. The worst flaws in your understanding are inevitably the ones you don’t even know about, making them impossible to correct for purely cognitively.

Resolving these errors — discovering truths about yourself and the world — requires confrontation with reality. It is too often overlooked that much of the information you need to make better and better decisions as you grasp towards your goal can only be found through action. This is why doing something 100 times is much more effective than simply thinking a lot when you’re learning a new skill. Reality pushes back and forces you to notice the intricate and the unexpected details your mind glanced over.

[…] no deep and continuing development of a person’s educational potential is possible except as the person is willing to venture and to risk himself. No liberating education takes place without entailing self-risk, as in trying to articulate what one may really feel and think as one is responding to things studied and meeting criticism. – Henry Bugbee, Education and the Style of our Lives

This confrontation is fundamental to Becoming. As always when truth is held as a goal, real resolution depends on the accountability provided by earnestly engaging in an adversarial process.

You are attempting to settle conflicts between your past and your aspirational self, as well as between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. The goal, to use Henry Bugbee’s words, is ”[…] bringing to pass the conversancy of the person and the world in their mutuality”, and this is not easily achieved.

Changing your self-image is not just a matter of deciding to be someone new since (to paraphrase Callard paraphrasing Augustine) your hands are already full. Change will necessarily require both rejection of elements which are currently core to your self-identity, and the discovery and integration of values you won’t fully grasp or appreciate until you have become (learning to fully appreciate these values is, after all, the goal!). Your past-self will fight back.

Changing how you are perceived isn’t any easier, despite its importance. There is very little benefit to becoming someone new if the world keeps on seeing you as the person you have stopped being and enforcing that image implicitly or explicitly. But it is unreasonable to expect others, even the most sympathetic, to simply accept you have changed without proof. Even easily persuaded peers (or peers deliberately engaging in your process of becoming) are bound to expose, through their expectations, the ways in which you are not yet your aspirational self. Note once again that the tensions in need of resolution are most completely revealed in situations with real consequences, and most convincingly settled through action.

This need to update your social image, and the inherent difficulty of it, is why people find labels signalling a liminal state so attractive. Student, Apprentice, Junior Developer, all help make you legible to others and help structure how the world interacts with you. Creating, promoting, and maintaining these labels is a critical public good, and one too often forgotten about by the players who hope to replace traditional institutions of becoming.

“Man is the creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture”. I think the aspirant makes pictures of himself in order to resemble the picture. – Agnes Callard, Aspiration

Your plans and the specifics of your goal will naturally change as you act and as the world reacts. Depending on your peer group, your environment, and your own abilities, you will experience radicalisation or dampening of your aspirations. I love this interview of Mr. Beast as an example of this dynamic. He finds peers who egg each other on and help each other achieve mastery, but he also needs to contend with his chosen path being fundamentally incomprehensible to his mom, which he solves by lying (this is why I’m skeptical that “learning in public” is unambiguously good advice, transparency is not an unadulterated good). It is ultimately money, as a legible and neutral proof point, which allows him to re-integrate into his previous social circle.

A lot is made of the increased ease in finding groups which are aligned to your values and your ambitions through the internet, but it’s clear to me that we can’t rely on this as the exclusive path through which people discover who they want to be. It’d be a mistake to assume the majority of peer groups lead to higher achievement. Most will dampen change, entrench bad habits, almost none structure themselves to effectively transmit skill and knowledge, and it is plainly true that almost none provide a repeatable path.

Traditional institutions like universities are not a panacea either. Most have become too self-referential, breaking their ability to help you calibrate and find your mistaken assumptions. They do help you Become, but it seems they often push you towards their own models, usually shadows of the real deal. You become Harvard’s image of a scientist, or Stanford’s image of an engineer, too detached from reality. This is the flip side of labels, and of over-indexing on them as outcomes.

The aspirant herself, and not (only) her parents, teachers, mentors, culture, etc., is morally responsible for developing into the kind of person she ends up becoming. – Agnes Callard, Aspiration

Even great institutions and peer groups don’t absolve you of responsibility, though. You still have to choose, commit, and act. It’d be silly not to to try and maximise your advantage by placing yourself in the right context, obviously, but in the absence of a perfect ready made alternative you will need to craft your own environment by giving yourself privacy when needed, assigning yourself legible labels, telling your own story, and teaching yourself what you need to know.

This moral responsibility and this need to pick a path can sometimes lead to panic, which feels like a pretty understandable response to the prospect of choosing badly and having only yourself to blame. In this panic, a natural response is to try and maximise optionality. It’s striking then that when I reflect on my own experience, it is situations where my actions had the most consequences (because my actions impacted others, or because it explicitly closed off other options) that I have found myself gain the most clarity about both who I was and who I wanted to be.

Becoming, like all pursuits of truth, is unavoidably difficult. Not engaging isn’t an alternative.

Transformative pursuits are recognized as such not only by those who have completed them but also by those who are on their way: one can see in advance that one cannot see in advance all of what is good about parenthood or friendship or scuba diving or immigrating to another country. Transformative pursuits aim at values, the appreciation of which is connected to the performance of the activity (or involvement in the relationship) in question. Indeed, this is because the pursuits themselves form a kind of value-education, gradually changing the agent into the kind of person who can appreciate the value of the activity or relationship or state of affairs that constitutes the end of the pursuit.

But one does not fully appreciate them until one is at, or close to, the end of the process of transformation. For it is the end state (teaching, parenting, translating) that offers up the actual engagement with the value on which any full appreciation of it must be conditioned. – Agnes Callard, Aspiration


I occasionally host essays on this site.

I'm most interested in communities, the process of becoming, education, and the culture of technology.

I'm also currently thinking about payments, and human computer interaction.

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© 2022, Arnaud Schenk