Too stressful? Not stressful enough!

Just a short post about an idea I just had.

Maybe you know the feeling of having a cramp in your stomach when you’re afraid. Maybe you’re mindful enough to literally feel the effects of cortisol on your body when you’re under stress. You definitely know how it’s a highly unpleasant feeling. That feeling when you had to exit the school building and you KNEW that you had to confront your bully. You feel the stress flow through your veins!

This is a very bad feeling, but I think we shouldn’t avoid it. We should embrace it. We should, instead of being in “neutral” all the time, feeling neither true relaxation nor true fight-or-flight, neither true testosterone nor true cortisol – instead of that, we should actually seek these more extreme states of body and mind. High stress and also high relaxation.

When you, as a grown person, have fear of ticket controllers in trains, when you have stomach cramps for what your boss or landlord is going to say about this or that, you know that you’re definitely not on the right track, at least if you’re trying to become Overhuman. An Overhuman must be able to navigate high-stress environments with ease. The mode of fighting for your very life should be very easy to slip into. It’s very important to be able to do this, and it is only practice that ensures that you will actually be able to do it. Fighting in MMA? Joining the army? Who knows. I don’t know what the best way to practice this is, but I do know that it actually has to be practiced.

Ensuring success: How practice time makes all the difference

One of big insight for me was finding out that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work is typically characterized as mundane, repetitive, unfocused and very segmented work. For example, answering customer service mails with frequent phone interruptions. On the other hand, deep work is focused, uninterrupted work, where all your attention goes to this one single thing. For example, turning off the phone and writing your novel for two hours straight. That’s deep work.

In Cal Newport’s book called Deep Work (very recommended), there is a notion that deep work can’t really be sped up. In other words, you have to dedicate a significant and uninterrupted chunk of time to work deeply if you want to reap the benefits of such work. Deep work will come, but focus takes some time, and you have to give it the time it needs.cal-newport-deep-work

Now, why would you want to do that? Working deeply on things is extremely important, and this is why:

  • deep work ensures that you’ll successfully complete very complex tasks or very creative tasks
  • deep work enables you to learn very complex new skills (i.e. coding) and in less time

If you are trying to improve your practice of anything, you would most certainly benefit from a dedicated practice of deep work. For example, you want to start exercising, so you watch this very good video and start applying its wisdom: build momentum instead of going for intensity. All is well: you start with maybe a couple of push-ups per day, then you progress to learning some martial arts, and soon, you get a couple of 1 hour sessions of boxing in. You start learning this new skill, boxing, and you start to get better at it. Your training sessions are around 1 hour long now. All of this is as it should be – you are building momentum.

But say that you want to get really good at boxing. You have momentum, you don’t want to build it any more, just keep it where it is, and you want to learn the skill now. If that’s the case, two sessions lasting 1 hour (a total of 2 hours) could be less good than 1 session of 2 hours. There are certain things that can only be learned by long, uninterrupted, deep practice.

1 hour of meditation brings something that 5 x 12 minutes of meditation cannot.

2 hours of playing the guitar get you somewhere where 4 x 30 minutes can’t.

etc.

So, practically speaking, when you’re organizing your day for tomorrow, you should probably reserve at least 2 hour chunks for deep work, whatever it may be in your life. It could look like something like this:

  • 7  – wake up, hygiene, meditation, food
  • 8 – 10 – uninterrupted coding session
  • 10 – 11 – communication, shallow work, stretching, snack
  • 11 – 13 – uninterrupted coding session
  • 13 – 14 – lunch
  • 14 – 18 – shallow (but necessary) work
  • 18 – 20 – uninterrupted boxing session
  • 22 – bed

Optimally, your entire day would be exclusively filled with deep work sessions, but obviously, not everyone can do that. The second best thing is to organize things in chunks, not in sprinkles.

For me, I’ve found that work sessions have this effect:

  • up to 30 minutes: maintenance of a skill. A Parkour session of 30 minutes is basically just “greasing the groove”. It’s for not getting any worse, but not really progressing.
  • 30 minutes to an hour: mostly maintenance, but some acquisition also. A Parkour session of 1 hour will refresh my skill, and I may learn some new things also.
  • 1 hour to 2 hours: learning a skill. Provided it’s uninterrupted, this is a big enough time frame to get better at a thing.
  • 2 – 4 hours: deep work on a skill. Now you’re really shifting into gear. If you manage to regularly (this is important! sporadic interventions don’t work!) do 4 hour uninterrupted sessions with the skill you have chosen, you will be become great at it, no question about it.
  • more than 4 hours: I’m not sure. I think that there might be a time when it becomes too much, but since I haven’t actually had a very long uninterrupted session of something other than Skyrim, I can’t really tell.

When you’re organizing your day, take care to invest at least one deep work session per day, and more, if you are able to. Also, it’s better to do 20 minutes than nothing at all. If 20 minutes is all you can spare, spare it. But try your best to consolidate a couple of 20 minute intervals into a bigger chunk. You will actually get better at the skill, be it coding, boxing, cooking, whatever.

This is your task now: find 2 – 3 most important things that you want to be doing, and organize the next day with 2 – 3 sessions in mind, each lasting 2 hours. Ensure that you are free from interruption: turn off the phone, scare away the children, threaten the mailman. Do the things you want to do in theseuninterrupted sessions, and, in the meantime, organize the day after tomorrow in the same way. If you keep this practice, who knows where you might finish.
Good luck.

Obvious things that are not so obvious

There are some things that are obvious, that should be obvious, but people just ignore them or find clever rationalizations for why they’re not obvious. As years go by, I see more and more of these things. For me, the scary thing is how non-obvious they seemed a couple of years ago, because it reminds me that there could still be hundreds of such things around me right now and I don’t see them as obvious. These can be “cached patterns” of thought, logical fallacies, or lazy thinking. Maybe there are some complex problems that are not really obvious to a more trained eye: if you think I have made a mistake, present an argument for why that is so, I’ll be happy to change my mind. But, lacking that, here are 3 of some pretty obvious things that are not obvious:

  1. Death is not good. This is obvious for managing your everyday life (e.g. you don’t walk into traffic), but somehow, if you apply this thought to a longer time horizon, you get very different results from what is usual. Most of us don’t want death today, tomorrow, or even next year, but we (say we) want it in 50, 60, 70 years. Consider this: if I asked you “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would say no. If I asked you that same question the next day, you would say no. If I asked you that same question a year from now, you would say no. If I asked you that question on 5 March 2089, if I said “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would STILL say no. In other words, no matter when I ask you, be it today, tomorrow, next decade, or the next millennium, you will say no, and you will never say yes if you are in good health and have friends. Obvious conclusion: we should try really hard not to die: cryonics, fasting (or at least a healthy diet), applied gerontology, and other things. There is nothing beautiful about death, nothing poetic about allowing the destruction of your own soul. There is nothing nice in ceasing to exist.
  2. Optimization is good. But it’s non-obvious. Say that you want to learn Swedish. You go to a language school and follow the curriculum. It reminds you of your high school days: you all start with checking homework assignments in the workbook, then you talk for a couple of minutes, then you read from the book, then you write down some answers to the questions about the text, and maybe then the teacher explains some topic of Swedish grammar to you. Straightforward. If you were my student a couple of years ago, you would have followed this same curriculum. However, that is no longer so. I asked myself the question: “How can I make my students learn Swedish in the least amount of time possible with the highest possible results?” The answer was not the curriculum we were doing. The answer was: learn really well the most frequent 100 words and the combinations they can produce. That was all it took, a simple question intended to make something better. The result: my students get to a conversational level in probably half the time. If you don’t really get why optimization is good, ask yourself: “Would I like to learn good Swedish in 8 years or in 1 year, given the same amount of effort?” If the answer is obvious to you, then so should the method be. Obvious conclusion: most of the things in your life can be optimized, but aren’t, because of a lack of thought. If you want results, if you really want/need something, you optimize, you don’t do the usual/normal/expected thing.
  3. Saving 500 people from certain death is better than helping an old, blind woman cross the road. Yes, you might get warm, fuzzy feelings about that old, blind woman. She is so obviously in need of assistance! Okay, if you have to choose, do you a) save the lives of 500 people and let the old woman find her own way or b) help the woman and let 500 people die? Can’t do both. Depending on your answer, effective altruism could (should) be obvious to you. When you can’t do everything but only one thing, you do the one thing that saves the most lives, helps the most people. Saving your dog from drowning is better than sharing your friend’s band page on Facebook. Sending $100 every month to a poor single mother in a Kenyan village to feed and educate her children is better than giving $100 to a random poor guy in USA. He’s in need of assistance, yes. But you giving $100 to a family in Kenya is the equivalent of, I don’t know, giving $1500 to the guy in the USA. Your limited $100 has a much stronger effect in Kenya than in the USA. You save more lives, help more people. Many people resist to such a cold calculation: how can you be so COLD about it? So… machine-like? Well, if you aren’t, you have to live with the fact that you let 500 people die just so that you can help an old lady cross the road. You have to live with the fact that your dog drowned because you helped your friend with his band page on Facebook. If you don’t optimize for maximum effect in helping, you have NOT done your best. You have done something, okay, that is better than nothing. But you didn’t give it your best. The poor woman in Kenya and her children will be hungry for another month. Obvious conclusion: instead of donating to other charities and organizations, join Giving What We Can, the organization which aims to put your money where it has the largest effect. Read 80000 hours. Do what does the most good.

This post might continue. These three things are the most obvious ones that I’ve been thinking about, but I might add other stuff as well (doesn’t have to be so serious as these three). Do you have something that you find fairly obvious, but people around you don’t? Leave a comment, I want to know.

Quick! Solve your emotional problems now!

It is commonly recognized that if you have emotional, spiritual or psychological problems (NOT mental health issues – things like losing faith, or not being sure which career path to take, or noticing that you’re not anymore in love with your partner), they take some time.

I argue that we give them too much time.

This area of human psychology is fragile, so advice is often kind and “soft”, but we often completely ignore the fact that most problems shouldn’t take that long to solve. Here, decision paralysis reigns supreme. Hey, don’t you talk to me like that, don’t you know how I feel, don’t you understand that I’m in pain, recognize that I am suffering emotionally- STOP.

Pain is real, suffering is real and these problems are very real. I am not saying: “Just pretend they’re not there”. No. You should definitely take care of them, first, because you should generally take care of bad things in your life, and second, these problems are beneath an Overhuman.

But adopt the habit of asking this question whenever you feel stressed, bummed out and insecure: is this a problem that I could, at least in principle, solve more quickly than I am doing now?

Ask yourself that question. Could you, if you tried, solve it quickly? Sometimes the answer will be no, but it is still important to ask, because in most cases, the answer is a definite yes. Don’t play a role, play to win.

Playing a role mindset: this is a bad situation and I am supposed to suffer some undetermined (but relatively long) quantity of time, after which I may or may not find a solution/enlightenment.

Playing to win mindset: this is a bad situation. How can I solve it in the quickest, most effective way possible? If unsolvable, what can I do to minimize the amount and time of suffering and what can I do to get into a position of being able to solve it?

I look at it like this. We all get lost from time to time. Most of us find a way to somewhere, somehow. But for most people, it just takes too fucking long to reorient. You don’t need to spend a year contemplating your life’s purpose to find it. You don’t need to spend an additional two months in a bad relationship. Recognize this: at some point, you WILL reorient. No question about it. Nobody gets stuck forever. But if you know that you will reorient, why not do it more quickly?

Reality is intensely interesting

Many people find their lives boring and commonplace, with occasional streaks of fun and excitement. This is an emotional state which doesn’t at all correspond to the real world out there. It is stupid to say “you shouldn’t feel like that”, but in this case, you just… shouldn’t.

Understandably, you will sometimes perform boring work or otherwise engage in a boring activity, but the thing is – there is no such thing as boredom in the world around you. Boredom is produced when we fail to see what’s out there. If you wake up feeling bored, go to work and you’re bored there, go home, taking the usual route, do your exercise routine, you know, just boring old stuff – you’re out of touch with Reality. You’re living in the Matrix, or, better said, your image of the world is the Matrix.

Reality is infinitely and intensely interesting, not boring. Your sense of boredom overrides your sense of curiosity, but really it shouldn’t. It’s a defect in your thought-process. The world around you, from the most dull routine of existence to the most fantastic adventure is inherently interesting.

If you must feel negative emotions, then annoyance and anxiety are choices better suited for what’s really out there. You should rather be annoyed by the fact that you still don’t know how reality works, why there exists something in the first place, how ageing happens, why π is important, how to hack into Pentagon, who spoke the first language, how life came to be and so on… You should rather be anxious by the fact that you may die before you learn even the smallest particulars of True Reality. If you understand that solvable mysteries make up reality, and that humankind has really only solved a small percentage of all solvable mysteries, and that you concretely probably haven’t solved any (just because Feynman knows something doesn’t mean anything to you; you are still just as ignorant until you yourself understand a given phenomenon) – in short, if you see the rough sketches of how reality really looks like – boredom is absurd. It is seriously crazy not to be interested by all aspects of reality, from the most “boring” to the most exciting. If I performed a spell in front of you and summoned a fire monster, and you just said “meh”, there would be a serious, serious problem with you. A FIRE MONSTER, and you’re just “meh”?!? But that’s how many people actually are – electricity is normal, everyone uses it, therefore boring. There is nothing special or exciting in turning on a computer. Driving cars is commonplace. Why would you be excited by that?

puzzle-1You should! You should at least feel latent interest, a notion of, at least, in principle being curious about why electricity works and how cars are produced.

Anything else is just turning your eyes away from what’s really out there, and insisting on a lie that the world is boring. Anything else is just making up your own map, instead of drawing the map of the territory. Anything else is just laziness and bad habit. Anything else is just crazy.

To-do-again lists

Many people have to-read lists: lists of books and/or articles they wish to read at some future point. Reading new material is good: you expose your mind to new ideas and that way, you grow. But, as I found out when I set myself a goal to read one book every (two) day(s), the challenge is not so much to read and understand the books – speed reading takes care of that – but to actually implement the things you read. It’s relatively easy to read a book a day, if you set the time for it and if you are dedicated, but it is not neessarily a good idea: implementation of information takes more time than acquisition of information. And when I say implementation of information, I simply mean this: to put in practice what you know in theory; to actually do the things that you think about.

Some books will have quite concrete implementation advice, like books on nutrition and exercise: stop eating sugary foods; don’t do weight training more than 3 times a week; fast for 16 hours, then refeed. This is all very practical and concrete advice, but if you only read the book and only know that it’s good advice, but don’t follow it, you’re sort of wasting your time. This information has not become a significant part of your life – it is just trivia, something you know about but haven’t experienced, haven’t actually worked with it, tested it, saw how it felt, interacted with it. It’s like paying to get a new smartphone and just never using it for anything – while you could use it to phone your friend, write a blog post, tweet an idea, snap a photo of your dog, listen to a podcast, play an interesting game etc. Ideally, all knowledge that you receive is actionable, and you do not receive unactionable knowledge.

To give an example: currently, I read a lot about physics. Unactionable knowledge would be a bunch of physics trivia that I cannot possibly at this point tie with what I already know – like, for example, giving me an advanced equation that I am many inferential steps behind. Actionable knowledge would be something that I can work with: an elementary grasp of mechanics, for example. At some point, your super advanced equation will become actionable, but at this point, it is just clutter and simply knowing about it does not mean knowing it.

Other books, like many books of fiction, do not necessarily offer concrete advice, but interact with your mind in a different way – they “infect” your mind with recurring ideas and themes: you start thinking about what someone said or did while you do the dishes; your mind wanders and plays out scenes from the book while you cook; while out in a pub with your friends, you maybe act more like a character you particularly like, simulating their way of speaking or general behavior. Despite no concrete advice, these books are really very actionable.

But we have limited attention spans and our fallible human minds struggle with keeping valuable ideas in mind. I’ll give a personal example: I know the value of 80/20 and how doing just one big thing first thing in the morning, distraction-free, is like a first-class ticket to Productivityland. However, I sometimes – not always – struggle to keep up with this rule. Same with the slow carb diet – it just kind of gets ignored sometimes. Why does this happen? Nominally, I still subscribe to these ideas. I still think they are valuable. I invested serious time in them, they are not just trivia, I actually worked with them for a significant period of time. So why don’t they just stick effortlessly?

Well, there are a couple of views on this situation. First, a habit has not been formed. A habit is something you don’t struggle with: it is just automatic behavior, necessisitating no decision, no willpower. I should work more on consistency – simply insisting that I make the right choices every day, all the time, making my behavior automatic. The other view is that it is simply a normal course of things: it is behavioral entropy, the ever-present tendency for humans to revert to old patterns. In other words, certain things are simply never efortless to maintain: they can become easier, but it never becomes literally 100% effortless to maintain a certain habit. A third view on this situation is exposing your mind to triggers that produced the original change in behavior. So, if you originally read a book that made you stick to a new nutritional plan for weeks and now you feel yourself giving in, slowly losing the strength of your habit, it might be a good idea simply to reread the book! Because, during these last couple of weeks, you have been exposed to other kinds of information and other ideas, and now, your “viral infection” has ended – it has become repressed by other information.

A good idea is to build not only to-read lists and bucket lists but to-reread lists, to-do-again lists: lists of books, articles, shows, movies, people, whatever – things that at some point made you change your behavior, and expose yourself to these things again, periodically, maybe setting an alarm 3 times a year for a certain book, or once every month for a specific article that influenced you, or setting time once a week to talk with a specific person that makes you think about the world in different/better terms.

Take your calendar, think about the most influential things you consumed in the past, and set some alarms for the following year. Redo the good stuff.

Powerful and Powerless

(I haven’t yet read Robert Greene’s “48 laws of power”, it’s on my reading list; these are just some things that I’ve been thinking about)

Power is not binary

It’s not a question of having or not having power, but having less or more of it. Imagine you’re renting an apartment. Who has power here, you or the landlord? You provide the landlord with a steady inflow of money. Not only that, but you, if you’re a good tenant, provide the landlord with a sense of security: they know that they’ll both get the money every month and that the apartment will not be ruined in some way. So you could argue that it is you, the tenant, that has the power.

On the other hand, the name landlord doesn’t have “-lord” in it for no reason; indeed, the landlord is the owner and they have the possibility of your eviction in their hands (generally you’re protected by law not to be evicted immediately, but still). Obviously, the landlord is the possessor of power in this situation.

So who really has the power?

Answer: both of you have relative amounts of power to one another. Power is not binary, power is a quantity that can be distributed in a binary fashion, but usually isn’t. You wield some power over the landlord and the landlord wields some power over you. Sometimes you have more, sometimes they have more.

Forms of power

What is power, actually? Let’s arbitrarily define power as “good probability (>50%) that what you want actually will happen”. So, by this definition, power can come in many forms and the only thing that matters is that it brings >0.5 probability of you achieving your goals, seeing your plans to fruition.

Here are some forms of power that I can think of (there are probably others too):we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-wallpaper-2

  • money
  • influence
  • strong character
  • knowledge
  • technology
  • numbers (of people)

 

So, let’s revisit the apartment example again. Let’s say you’re paying 1700 a month for the privilege of living in another person’s space (doesn’t matter which currency, I’m using arbitrary numbers). Let’s also say that your total earnings per month are usually around 4000. So, you have 2300 left to cover the bills, food and other spending. Say that it takes 800 for the bills. You now have 1500. Food, around 1200. You have 300 for any other spending (not a lot, you have to make ends meet, but you regularly survive). You are person A.

Person B, on the other hand, earns twice as much – 8000 per month. After all your costs, person B still has 4300 left to spend, enough to rent another apartment simultaneously.

It is recognizable that person B has more power than person A, but it is not immediately clear why this is so. I’ll explain.

Say your landlord starts giving you a hard time; maybe they’re broke and need to squeeze out the money, or they simply smell that you’re not really powerful. They start to demand earlier payments every month; when the equipment in the apartment breaks down, they refuse to pay for the repairs and insist you do it; they ask for advance rent payments; in short, they become very needy and demanding and “unreasonable” (funny word that – generally it’s used if you don’t have power to say no).

What does person A do? They submit, and submit, and submit, because they know that even if they find another apartment at this cost, which is unlikely, they’ll still get in the same sort of situation (a landlord that’s more powerful and demands things). And also all the hassle with moving and trying to earn a living at the same time… It’s easier to submit to the ever growing demands and small pokes and prods than to leave this increasingly abusive situation.

Person B? Hah! Person B says to the landlord at the first sight of “unreasonable” demands: “No.”

Just no. No explaining. No nothing. No.

Person B, you see, doesn’t care. Person B doesn’t try to make things work out for everyone and cooperate and compromise, because person B has enough money on their account to be able to simply say “no.” What’s the result? The landlord doesn’t even try to milk out more money because they know that they’ll lose a good tenant that gives them a steady inflow of money and a sense of security.

But did you see what just happened here? Both tenants were good tenants that provided the landlord with money and security, but only B had the possibility (>0.5) to leave. So person A has less power than the landlord, and B has more, simply because B has more options – in the form of more money.

All this serves to drive in a key lesson that I am learning: do your best to get (enough) power. This is a top-level priority. There will be kind people that will not turn to predators when they smell that you’re not strong, but the world generally doesn’t function like that, I think. Lions attack the weakest buffaloes. Street thugs attack the weakest victims. School bullies bully the weakest kids.

If you see the world as a battle between good and evil, you know that the battle will only be won if the good guys are stronger than the bad guys. So if you want to do good in the world, you have a moral obligation to get more power. Being powerless just gives more power to the evil tyrant, to the rapist, to the bully, to the corporation that puts toxic chemicals in children’s toys, to the landlord that doesn’t want to pay for repairs, to the policeman that beats on peaceful protesters. Don’t shy away from power, saying “Power corrupts!” Instead, get power and find some way in which you won’t get corrupted by it. Yes, power can corrupt, and you should be careful not to become one of the people you despise, but not all people with power are evil scum – be like them! Be Albus Dumbledore, not Voldemort. Be Luffy, not Doflamingo. Be Sherlock, not Moriarty.

Powermongering for World Optimization: the Minimal Guide for Good People

  • Money: options. More money, more options. How to get more money? (1) Be more valuable to other people and, ideally, (2) be a master of some thing. A cook is valuable (and paid), a better cook more valuable (and more paid) and a master cook is the most valuable of all (and has more money than all). Mastery, if done right, will mean a lot of money.
  • Influence: manipulation. If you know your practical psychology well, you will be able to make other people do what you want them to do. Read Influence by Cialdini. (Also, fame sometimes equals influence, but not always.)
  • Strong character: power recognition. Don’t be a weakling that feels powerless despite the fact that you actually do have power. If you are person B, don’t be anxious about your landlord giving you a hard time – you are in a position of power, recognize it.
  • Knowledge: currency of power. The more you know, the more you can exchange this knowledge into other forms of power. You could know a lot about influence and become influential. You could know some information and exchange it for money. You could know BJJ and pin some attacker to the ground. If power is the product, then knowledge is the currency with which you buy it.
  • Technology: the counter to other powers. In a world of knives, a gun makes all the difference. Tech can give you an otherwise unobtainable upper hand. If you went alone against a hundred Viking warriors, you would definitely be killed. Unless if you had an atomic bomb. Then you, alone, would beat a hundred armed warriors. Whenever you can have technology, or just learn it and use it, you should.
  • Numbers: the primal form of power. Sometimes, a lesser force will beat a bigger one. But often, it will not. If you can count on a lot of people, either for some sort of conflict or just as help, you will be a very powerful person indeed.

Power doesn’t flow from “could-happen” ideas

When the bully pins your head to the window of the bus and you’re all alone with him, you might be thinking “I could kill him. I could make an evil and ingenious plot and take his life. I could get him to- OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH PLEASE STOP”.

Stop speaking or thinking nonsense. Power only comes from things that can actually happen. You know that you’re not going to kill anyone, despite your fantasies. The bully is powerful and you are weak. You can, in fact, obtain more power and thwart the bully: you can read books on influence and make his life really ugly by using Slytherin skills; you can earn money and pay someone bigger to beat him up; you can learn boxing and break his nose; you can get a couple of friends and collectively beat him up etc.

But dreaming up things that you’ll never ever ever do is just fantasy, and you are trying to put yourself into a position of power based on fantasy. Wrong. Don’t do that. Instead, recognize who has power, in which amount, and then do what is necessary to obtain more power. You don’t have to become the bully yourself, but you have to have enough power not to be bullied.


How do you think about power? Are you a powerful person or are you powerless? Leave a comment! I know I’m slowly getting to more power, but I originally come from a victim-mentality, zero-power personality, so I have a longer road than some. But you know, you gotta do the work, and do it every day…