Signaling, Or What I Learned in 2010-2011

As usual, I will first define a term:

Signaling: acting with the purpose of causing others to form beliefs (correct or incorrect) about your abilities or accomplishments. [1]

I have found my tendency towards signaling is perhaps the most crippling, yet predictable, obstacle I face in achieving my goals.

If you knew me well in 2010-2011, then you might have noticed I was having a crisis of career optimization.  I had staunch utilitarian preferences motivating my behavior, and I was convinced that I ought to choose a career-beginning move with an optimal expectation of world-healing over the course of my life.  (To be clear, I did not have the misconception that my life’s work would be fully decided by my first post-undergraduate job.  Nor did I believe that these utilitarian preferences ought to be the only important consideration in my choice of occupation.)

Yet I still utterly failed to obtain a job that came close to optimizing my expected world-healing for the first 10 months of my search.  And this failure was not due to what I could easily believe was a mere combination of variance, macroeconomics, my conception of the good or any other ethical confusions.

There was a huge red flag in my thought process that led me away from applying for jobs that rationally worked towards my goals.  I mulled over it dozens of times, and it was additionally pointed out to me by wise people on several occasions, yet I failed to identify it for months.  The red flag was that I had, in addition to my utilitarian preferences, a strong desire that my day-to-day work feel satisfying.  I would often think, “If I cannot directly appreciate my contribution to world-healing at the end of each day, I will have great motivational problems.”  In my defense, this was motivated by my abject horror at witnessing many idealistic people confuse themselves into thinking they were optimizing their world-healing.  I decided I needed an acid test of value-contribution to prevent myself from committing this error.  This is a classic example of overreacting to a bias one has noticed in others [2].

In retrospect the error that I made is quite clear.  I was working towards a job that would feel as though it would satisfy my utilitarian preferences without actually doing so.  By helping impoverished residents of D.C. fill out their medicaid forms, I would be quite far from optimizing my world-healing expectation.  This seems trivial and practically indisputable.  Why was it that I thought otherwise?

The answer, I have come to believe, lies in the nature of signaling.  Working as a receptionist at a free-health clinic is an iconic example of a job that promotes world-healing.  Such a receptionist will be considered a world-healer by virtually everyone, even those who feel that such world-healing is misguided.  To take that job would be to signal that I was world-healer. I would have the job benefit of a steady supply of positive reinforcement.

And of course, I, like most of us, am susceptible to the tragic human error of confusing the contents of the signal I would be broadcasting with the truth.

I will now define a new term:

Self-Signaling: acting with the (likely unconscious) purpose of causing oneself to form a believe (correct or incorrect) about one’s abilities or accomplishments.

How does one prone to self-signaling regarding one’s contribution to the world differ from a true world-healer?

  • Firstly, the real world-healer does not seek approval for his world-healing.  In fact, she regards work accompanied by strong positive reinforcement with great suspicion.
  • Secondly, the real world-healer realizes that most who aspire to world-healing fall terribly short of their maximal contribution.  This is usually due to some combination of an inability to properly formulate the world’s problems, a poor understanding of economics and/or politics, a delusional cosmological view, and perhaps most commonly, the desire for the social status as a world-healer.
  • And thirdly, the real world-healer sees no important connection between the value of their contributions and the status they would derive from these contributions.  Achieving status in this regard is likely still a desire of the real world-healer, but such a goal would be unrelated to her world-healing goal.

I am proud to say that, by understanding my tendency towards self-signaling, I am much closer to optimizing world-healing today than I was a year ago.  And if you happen to come across an opportunity to validate my status at my new job, I’ll happily appreciate your praise as a job perk.



[1] Adapted from here.

[2] This is a great read.

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One Response to Signaling, Or What I Learned in 2010-2011

  1. Anon says:

    All great truths live in and spring from the heart. While analysis is essential to understanding, it is in the end reductive. You have a good heart. I encourage you to listen carefully, and follow your heart’s call.

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