Generalized Monasticism

Monasticism or monkhood is a religious way of life in which one renounces worldly pursuits to devote oneself fully to spiritual work.

Wikipedia, on monasticism.

Monastic life is most fundamentally about radical values. It’s about choosing that, at least for you, some value matters more than all typical priorities. It may matter more than nice food, time with friends, or even living as part of society at all, in more stereotypical instances of monasticism.

Regardless, it’s always about radical values. Don Knuth has a great saying regarding email:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

Knuth on email.

This is an instance of radical values. For Knuth, the focus on understanding computer science and pursuing the work in his book is so much more important than the allure of this sort of communication, that he pretty much avoids it entirely.

More specifically, monasticism seems to be about minimizing a few costs:

  • Overhead of various sorts. If you can do less of a thing you don’t value by sacrificing another thing you sort of value for the sake of the thing you value radically highly, this is a win. Examples include having a fixed routine to avoid planning/negotiation overhead, cooking simply or in large batches, avoiding cooking at all by eating soylent, or judicious use of eating out.
  • Branch misprediction. CPUs build up sequences of instructions in advance, based on guesses of what the future holds. This is efficient because otherwise the processor might have to sit around doing nothing, waiting on instructions to be loaded into the pipeline from wherever they may be stored.
  • Cache misses. When you need access to something, information or tool, it should be right at hand. Time spent fetching things is time spent away from the purpose.

Most generally, the goal is to shape the system of your life such that it minimizes time or energy spent on things not related to whatever purpose or value you’ve chosen to radically prioritize.

Generalized monasticism is about allegiance to a Purpose, and the will to use systems thinking to achieve that purpose.

It may be one that’s been around a long time, or one you came up with yourself. What matters is, it’s important enough to you that you’d reshape your life around it, or even sacrifice other things you care about for it. It probably needs to be important enough to you that you’ve figured out how to clearly, or at least concisely, state it.

If you don’t use systems thinking, it’s probably just fanaticism of some sort, and not generalized monasticism. Monasteries are complex environments designed to encourage focus on their Purposes. Zealotry is certainly also a thing, but it is a different thing.

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