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Dukkha Bias: Why Nothing Is Ever Good Enough to Be Published

Have you ever achieved something that filled you with regret? It’s been a while since I began to think publicly on this blog. When I look back at how much I’ve written and accomplished so far, I’m in disbelief why I didn’t start earlier. Then I return to one of my essays of the past and remember. They’re all flawed. Nothing is ever good enough to be published. So it seems. Or is that my Dukkha Bias talking?

What Is Dukkha Bias?

Dukkha Bias is a term coined by podcaster Chris Williamson. He surfaced it in the context of the creator economy. During his Modern Wisdom Podcast #328 with master iterator Jack Butcher. I paraphrase it as an aphorism:

The product you have created is always going to be a bit lousier than the product you could have created. You’re biased to focus disproportionately on how your creation is unsatisfactory, no matter how perfect it is.

Ancient Modern Wisdom

At the core of this modern wisdom is an ancient noble truth of Buddhism: ‘Life’, so the tenet goes, ‘is dukkha‘, which is often translated with suffering. Chris remarks:

Some scholars contest that ‘dukkha‘ doesn’t translate to ‘suffering’, it translates to ‘unsatisfactoriness‘. […] There is built into the substrait of our being a degree of unsatisfactoriness.

Every experience that you have will be tarnished just slightly. We’re anticipatory beings, we’re imagining this amazing thing and then we get there and: “We should’ve had it blended instead of an iced Mojito,” or: “There’s a little bit of sand between my toes,” or “I wish I had gone for the medium-well steak instead of the medium-rare steak”.

Even though it’s almost perfect, there’s always something because that’s how it’s built in.

See how many examples of this phenomenon you can list. Chris’ idea is almost perfect, isn’t it? (If only there were peer-reviewed papers to back it up.)

A Feature That Bugs

Still, it’s an observation as mundane as it is profound. You can’t cheat your way out of it either. Even a genuinely perfect experience has the flaw of being flawless. Don’t you just hate it when something’s too sleek, too good to be true? There’s got to be a catch.

Echoing this sentiment, Chris concludes:

Dukkha bias is a feature of life, not a bug. There isn’t anything wrong with the situation. The situation will always have something wrong with it.

The idea that everyone runs on the same source code is both frightening and consoling. Even — and perhaps especially — when we think of wildly successful people. AI researcher and promising Turing test candidate Lex Fridman is Chris’ prime example. None of Lex’s remarkable achievements, not his BJJ black belt or fascinating podcast, make him immune to perpetual self-criticism.

Our inner critic will keep moving the goalposts forever. That’s the very nature of Dukkha Bias.

Dealing With Dukkha Bias

So the question then becomes: What do you do in the face of inevitable unsatisfactoriness? This is where I think Dukkha Bias can have two opposing effects:

  1. Dukkha Bias may tempt you into nihilism. Obsessing over the short-term negatives and knowing you will never be satisfied with your work can paralyse your creative efforts. The only way out, you might think, is not to pursue them at all.
  2. The alternative is to play the long game, establish a long-term goal and shift your focus towards it: a mission, a purpose, a guiding star if you will. It’s going to move considerably less. Does your short-term dukkha interfere with you achieving this goal? If not, you can safely wave it hello and farewell as it passes by. If it does, it’s not a short-term unsatisfactoriness to begin with. It’s something that needs your attention.

It seems like Dukkha Bias is a wonderful way to keep you on your toes while you follow Jack’s advice to iterate towards your long-term goals with stoic consistency.

Nothing is or ever will be good enough to be published. But the individual flaws of all your work combined pale in comparison to how they move you closer to your purpose.