Content note: discussion of fasting.
Three weeks ago, I announced a plan to fast from the 25th to the 27th, in honor of Nikolai Vavilov and the staff of his botany institute, several of whom starved to death in the service of ending famine (and were partially successful, although far from the sole contributors). The goal was to test/improve my own ability to do hard things in the service of worthy projects.
I had wanted to put much more research in the original post than I did, but decided it was more important to get the announcement out quickly and I should save something for the day-of post anyway. Since then, a lot has happened. Over three weeks I had 3 or 4 urgent demands around the size of “my furnace is maybe poison and my landlord is being difficult about it”. Everything is fine now, but it was a lot of effort to get it that way. I also had some emergency work drop in my lap for an extremely worthy project. I’m glad I got the opportunity to contribute and I’d make the same decision again but it ate up all of the slack I had left. And then my cell phone broke.
The immediate impact of this is there’s I’m not writing the highly researched post on Vavilov I wanted to. The internet is full of articles of the quality I could produce in the time I have available, there’s no reason to add to them.
But the more important impact is that I said I wanted to test my ability to do hard things, and then I did that, before the fast even started. My capacity was not as high as I wanted but more than I feared, and my capacity to respond to my limits gracefully instead of failing explosively exceeded my hopes.
So in a lot of ways the purpose of the fast has already been served. I thought about letting myself out of it, but there are a few dimensions this month hasn’t tested and I still want to play with those. However in light of the fact that I am starting from a place of much lower slack and much higher time value than anticipated, I will be removing some of the rules, such as “I have to work a normal workday” and “I have to do at least one physical activity”. Those rules were for someone who didn’t expend all her reserves doing intense cognitive work on no notice while angry people made horrible noises banging on her furnace for three days straight. As of writing this (Monday night) I haven’t made up my mind on relaxing the calorie restriction to allow for ketone esters, which for me are a small source of calories that greatly reduce the cognitive and emotional costs of fasting.
Tomorrow (the 26th) is the 69th anniversary of Nikolai Vavilov’s death. The day after is the 68th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad, which meant the institute staff no longer needed to starve themselves to protect their seed bank. I will be fasting from 10PM tonight (the 25th) to 10AM on the 27th, but no promises on doing more than that. And if that high-value project needs more no-notice immediate-turnaround work from me and the ketone esters aren’t enough, I don’t even promise to keep fasting. Because this was never about pain for pain’s sake, it was about testing and increasing my ability to follow through on my own principles, and one of those principles is “don’t pointlessly incapacitate yourself when high impact time-sensitive work is waiting”.
“…it was hard to wake up, it was hard to get on your feet and put on your clothes in the morning, but no, it was not hard to protect the seeds once you had your wits about you. Saving those seeds for future generations and helping the world recover after war was more important than a single person’s comfort.”unknown Vavilov Institute scientist
3 thoughts on “Vavilov Day Starts Tomorrow”
I also fasted through the prescribed period.
Thanks for making these posts! I fasted for the first 24 hours, and felt that I got something valuable out of the experience. For me, this was primarily about reflecting on the story of Vavilov and his compatriots and feeling a sense of solidarity across the generations and across humanity as a whole.
I decided on 24 hours because the hit to my work productivity, especially combined with the fact that I’m a new dad to a 10 week old baby, was too great for the full 36 hours to seem worth it this year. I was also primarily motivated by factors other than ‘doing a hard principled thing’, weakening the case for a longer duration. However, I got enough out of this that I’ll consider doing it again next year, and maybe going a little further if circumstances permit. Thanks again for the great idea!
what a weird coincidence, I started a 5 day fast on the 25th not having seen this(or the previous announcement) in my feed until now. I’ll likely do this again next year as I need biannual schelling points for fasting anyway. Nice writeup.
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