Failing is training

The argument to moderation is a fallacy in which a person claims that the truth lies between two extremes. For example, you have the pro-vaccination arguments, and the anti-vaccination arguments, and since they are opposing each other, you concede that both arguments have some merit and that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: maybe some vaccines, but not all.

And while going for balance may be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it will be a good thing.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider a society which tries to find a balance between slavery and non-slavery. It’s pretty fucked up to compromise with slavery, and it’s obviously wrong.

But if not used to make an argument, the Yin and the Yang can be useful for thinking about yourself. I’ve been looking for balance for a long time, and I will probably still be looking for balance for quite some time after this text.

One place where I’ve been looking for balance is between self-criticism and self-acceptance. If you’re too accepting of yourself, you’re soft and you don’t hold yourself to a high enough standard. That means that you cannot grow and do great things. On the other hand, if you smother yourself with criticism, you’re unhappy and always unsatisfied. None of these extremes look appealing: balance to the rescue.

Here’s one balancing thought that came to my mind yesterday:

I’m not failing; I’m training.

This isn’t an excuse – for myself, I am certain of this. I think that there are people who can twist anything to suit their needs, but I am fairly certain that at this point in time, I’m not using this as an excuse.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say that you have a track record of actually doing things. You’re an achiever – maybe not the achiever, maybe not a cocaine-modafinil IQ 180 monster, but you actually do things.

You have projects, and you try new things, and you branch out to new areas that interest you. This branching out could be, for example, trying out a new hobby, starting with a new sport, or applying to jobs in a new industry.

Of course you’re not successful or well-known. The world is not one big pond: you have many disconnected ponds, and being good or respected at one thing does not mean that anyone from the other pond knows about you. A successful boxer will fail for a long time before getting good at Jiu-Jitsu – but for him (or her), the pressure is much higher because (s)he is already a well-known boxer.

A small voice whispers to your ear then. It says: “Just quit, why are you embarrassing yourself here?”

This voice leads you to abandon new hobbies, new sports, new jobs, new relationships. Why? To maintain your high status – which you originally earned by starting at the very bottom.

Or a voice will whisper to your ear: “Maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were.” Maybe you continue with the new thing, but now you’re uncertain – because you’re used to win, and now you’re not winning, and now you’re permanently dissatisfied.

Not really necessary to say, but all of this is obviously stupid. Failing is training, and if you pursue new directions in your life – if you’re growing – then you will fail a lot, until you stop failing.

I’m not failing; I’m training.

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Time

I’m thinking about a couple of things right now. Here they are:

  1. Scott Adams’ career advice to become very good at a couple of things, instead of the best at one specific thing: “Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.”
  2. This video, which basically states that, with sufficient effort, two years is enough time for you to become very good (not the best) at most areas. “There is nothing that cannot be accomplished in two years with enough effort.”
  3. Peter Thiel’s advice on career planning: “Take your 10-year life plan and ask: Why can’t I do this in six months?”

Putting it all together…

You can become really, really good at something with two years of dedicated work. And if you have two or three things that you’re really, really good at, you’re a valuable and highly employable individual. You can probably achieve quite a lot in 6 months, if you really put the hours in. It all boils down to learning.

And learning is something that has certain prerequisites. First of all, you actually have to be interested in what you are learning. If you are forced to learn, you’re not learning. So having an intrinsic interest in knowing more about a subject is critical. But even if you’re interested, you might still find yourself in situations where you don’t really learn that much. You don’t put in the hours.

Discipline

There is a popular idea that you need a lot of discipline in your life. This may be true for some people. Industriousness is certainly a plus. If you can pursue long-term projects and keep grinding away at things, eventually you’ll get somewhere.

But to me, this seems like incomplete life advice. It kinda is true sometimes, but it misses quite a few things. And this is because it’s simple, easy, motivational, and works well with the “hustle hard” or “wake up and grind” mentality. It’s a celebration of hard work.

Don’t get me wrong – hard work can be great. But in order for it to be great, it has to produce great results – and leisurely work must not produce inferior results, because that means that you’re working with much more intensity than you need, and that means that you’re inefficient and burning through things. In simple terms, what can be done with leisure and easiness shouldn’t be done intensely, with hard work – unless this hard works does things faster, or better in some way. But surprisingly, it really doesn’t that much.

This is anecdotal experience and purely subjective thinking, but it seems to me that the mentality of “wake up at 4 in the morning and grind” just produces a feeling of intensity, but doesn’t put you an order of magnitude above people who wake up at 7 in the morning and work at a reasonable pace. But maybe I’m just trying to cover up for my lazy ass.

But in all seriousness, becoming better at things shouldn’t really demand that much discipline. Here’s Paul Graham:

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it’s only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.
Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it’s the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They’re all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they’re not interested in. One still hasn’t sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.
I’m not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I’m often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don’t run for several days, I feel ill. It’s the same with people who do great things. They know they’ll feel bad if they don’t work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

This brings us back to passion:

  1. Original thought: Follow your passion. (base level)
  2. Cal Newport: “Following your passion” is bad advice. Instead, become good at something you’re interested in and you’ll naturally develop passion for it. (contrarian level)
  3. This post (and many other people): Actually, following your passion is great if you’re actually passionate about something. Motivation will get you there, discipline will keep you there, but above all, you need to be happy and interested in what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s just a mindless grind. (meta-contrarian level)

As it usually is, the closer you get to truth, the uglier it is, and the less catchy it is. If you get into the specifics, you find that there are components of the advice that you need to differentiate. And you find that every next iteration of the advice isn’t actually an opposite claim – it’s just “unpacked”, it delves into more detail.

So what about it?

You can only do so much at once. “If you say “Yes” to one thing, you’re saying “No” to another thing.”

But still, you have 24 hours a day and most people aren’t really optimizing. So just by optimizing things a little bit, you’re already doing  more than most people. But you’re probably not interested in what most people are doing. You want to be among the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most successful. These people actually are optimizing. Nobody becomes great by accident. There is effort involved, and study, and resilience, and hours have been put in. If you want to compete with not the best, but the very good, you have to cut down on what you’re doing. You cannot do it all at the same time.

And so…

(I’m basically giving myself this advice, but if you want to, you can feel like I’m talking to you)

  • Take your 6 months to 2 years. You don’t need more than that.
  • Develop enough discipline to get started with things, and to keep working at them, but don’t believe that boredom is good. If you’re wasting energy just on keeping yourself working, if you’re not having fun while you’re doing something, don’t do it, and do everything you can to organize your life so that you don’t have to do it.
  • Have 2 or 3 things you’re working on. Now, this part is tricky because it’s hard to draw boundaries. Say that one of the things is becoming good at programming. But wait a second – programming is comprised of many different things. For example, the usual distinction between frontend and backend work. Do you need to go narrow here? If you do go narrow and choose e.g. backend, you can still go narrower. There are so many languages and frameworks and specific things withing this, and even then, if you go even narrower, you can still go narrower. So picking 2-3 things is a very, very loose idea. One thing means 28 things to a person who draws more detailed boundaries. For me, it’s still work in progress to know where to draw the boundaries. But yeah, work on 2-3 things.
  • Work on these things so that you become better than 75% of people. This is a rough estimate, but you do actually want to become very good at these things.
  • …?
  • Profit!

hrh

Two lists

As time goes by, I find myself uncertain if I have abandoned my original project of self-improvement. I feel like I don’t put as much effort as I should, but my days are full, and I don’t do too many useless things. I tend to ignore the “grind hard” people because they don’t really sleep enough for maximal learning. Yes, you should experience sleep deprivation just to find out how you deal with it, and to know what to expect, but you shouldn’t constantly be deprived, because that’s just taking away your processing power.

In order for a study plan to work, you should have some criteria by which you judge success – at the end of a successful study period, you should be able to perform a feat, and if you can’t, you know you were not successful, and you can return and study some more.

I originally did have criteria like that, but I feel that, a couple of years later, I have refined my thinking and can give a more seasoned view of what these criteria should be – what you should be able to do, if you follow an “Overhuman” plan of study.

One thing I can say in advance is that deduction (like from Sherlock Holmes) goes out the window. It’s because you cannot have a consistent test for deduction because it’s so situation-specific. Sometimes, someone has a stain on their clothes, and you can infer something from the stain, but sometimes they don’t, and they don’t have any particular details that would allow you to make smart conclusions that others can’t. As such, deduction like from the books does not apply because it works to a much lesser extent, and is much less impressive than in the books. Same goes for strategy and people skills. You should be good at strategy, and you should know how to speak clearly, understand motivations of others etc., but there is no way to test this. So work as much as you can on this, without specific criteria to fulfill.

Here are two lists, one moderately and one very ambitious. The very ambitious one seems extremely hard to achieve, and probably is. Maybe even impossible.

One very important thing is that “Overhuman” skills should be used on something else. Meaning, just learning these skills may be an interesting exercise, but you should actually be doing useful things in the world independently of these skills, and they should, ideally, help you do these useful things. If not, you’re training just for the sake of training. This makes even the “moderate” list very hard because you also have to study these other things – for example science, programming, business, engineering etc.

A moderately ambitious list:

  • can lip read
  • can speak the biggest 5 languages in the world, without native speaker proficiency
  • can open conventional locks using lockpicks
  • can defeat an amateur MMA fighter or an aggressive, strong, untrained opponent
  • can shoot fairly accurately with a handgun at conventional shooting distances
  • can speed-read/skim texts and extract info fairly quickly
  • can sprint 100 meters in around 10 seconds
  • can drive/cycle aggressively
  • can climb/boulder at an amateur level
  • can drop and roll without injury from up to 4 meters
  • can perform 20 consecutive pull-ups and can deadlift 2x bodyweight

A more ambitious list (basically same as the moderate one, just amped up):

  • can lip read
  • can speak 5+ languages with native proficiency, in particular the bigger languages
  • lockpicking, just like before
  • can defeat a professional MMA figher or several untrained attackers
  • very good shooter with a range of pistols and rifles
  • speedreading
  • 100 m sprint under 10 seconds
  • advanced aggressive driving/cycling
  • professional climbing skills
  • drop and roll from up to 6 meters, no injury
  • 30 consecutive pull-ups and 2.5x bodyweight deadlift

The Jason Bourne Test

“Callum Tips no.340 – If you like to think you do Parkour with the intention of using your skills to get from A to B for real world emergency application, you’re better off practicing long distance running, sprinting, driving, carjacking, hot wiring cars and picking bike locks. If you just want to do jumps and shit, continue as you are.” (source)

The Jason Bourne Test simply asks, for any given physical practice, whether or not you could imagine Jason Bourne practicing it.

Would Jason Bourne practice flips? Maybe just for fun, but not really.

Would he practice sprinting? Yes.

Kong precisions? Probably not.

Wall run-ups and climbing and drops? Definitely.

Rail rolls? No. Laches? Maybe, but not a lot. Muscle-ups? Yes.

As you see, you can go into as much detail as you want with the Jason Bourne test. It’s a good method to boil down your physical practice to the truly most important survival stuff (if that’s what you’re looking to do).

That being said, there is a difference between working on attributes (like strength or mobility) vs. working on skills (like dive rolls or speed vaults).

Sometimes, even if you’re optimizing your training and doing only the survival stuff, the things that pass the Jason Bourne filter, you might want to work on an overarching attribute, like coordination, and perform a skill which, by itself, wouldn’t pass the Bourne filter, but that is a good training tool for any given attribute. For example, you might practice kong precision jumps to work on your timing and coordination, even though you don’t really expect that you will do kong precisions in emergency situations.

The Zombie Apocalypse Test

I think I’ve found a really good and simple test for whether or not you’re full of shit.

Would people want you on their team for the zombie apocalypse?

It’s really simple, and really good. When the stakes are high, and people start looking after their own survival, and everything is changing, and there is danger everywhere – are you a desired member of the community in that case?

Everybody knows at least a couple of bullshitters. These are people who bounce from one project to another, people who have changed 38 jobs but are 23 years old, people who hang with other people just to be cool, people who have custom race bikes made that they never ride, signalers, posers, social media gurus, self-help wizards and spiritual leaders.

*Of course, there are some legit people – but there’s a lot bullshit.

If you’re sufficiently honest with yourself, this test allows you to see if you’re actually useful in some way to others. And it doesn’t have to mean that you have to be a war veteran, bushcraft and survivalism expert with 3 nuclear shelters. Can you cook? Can you comfort other people? Look after children? Can you resolve conflict within your group? Can you turn $10 into $100? Can you grow food? Can you hide your tracks? Can you fight? Can you break computer security? Can you automate a repeated task? Can you drive? Are you a good diver? Can you speak another language, or explain why something works, or successfully coordinate a group?

And if you find out that you are full of shit, stop it and do something about it.

Cringe == improvement

Cringing at your former self means that you’ve improved. You always cringe at how stupid, or inexperienced, or socially awkward you were – but are not anymore.

In this sense, you should celebrate every cringe that you have for yourself. If you find that your self from 5 years ago isn’t that cringy, that means that your learning and growing curve has stopped.

Obviously, our cringiest times are our adolescent years – that’s the time when everyone hits real lows. The time of drunken messaging, obviously bad life choices, extreme social idiocy… The list goes on and on.

I once asked myself this: “If I know that I will cringe at myself two years from now, what could the possible causes of the cringe be?”

Like, if I know today what are the things that my future self will see differently, then I should do all I can to speed the process up and just skip the present stupid me, and try to imitate the smarter future me as much as possible.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I succeeded at all in this. For example, I recently reviewed some business emails from just two years ago and found them cringy – even though I wouldn’t cringe that much at my Facebook or blog posts from that period.

Here’s the deal: the domain in which I cringed (at my former self) happened to be business – something that I wouldn’t have guessed two years ago when I asked myself the future cringe question. I mean, I was way off. I thought that I would cringe at my impatience or lack of meditation. What I really cringed at (just yesterday) was related to business.

If you’re interested what the concrete cringy thing was: I didn’t really get what contracts meant. In particular, I didn’t really understand what was the exact business relation that I was in. It’s clearly visible from my emails, I’m just lost. I don’t understand the things I can do or the things I can’t do. Like, imagine a police officer who isn’t sure if he’s allowed to arrest someone or not. Sounds silly, right? Police should obviously know such things and act with complete understanding of the situation.

I’m not really going anywhere with this – except saying that I haven’t found a way to predict what the future me will cringe at. I still think that this would be a great method… If only it worked.

Now, I don’t bear any hate towards my past self – I just find it cringy, but in a funny way. Now, I’m looking forward to finding out what I’m currently doing wrong. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to wait a couple of years to find out. But hey, at least I’ll find out!

Problem-specific and tool-specific

When you have a problem, you can try to solve it from two angles: from the angle of the problem, or, if you’re lost, from the angle of tools.

Let’s say that you don’t have money. You can analyze your situation and make the most reasonable plan that fits your situation – this is solving from the angle of the problem itself.

Or you can think of any number of tools – for example, a tool might be asking yourself what would person X do – and try to solve the money problem like that. “What would Delboy do?” – and then you try that. You just “blindly” apply the tool and see what the result could be.

This approach – solving from tools, not from problems – can be useful when you don’t know what else to do, so you just throw your entire toolbox, one tool at a time, at the problem, and see if anything new will come up. An analogy: you’re trying to crack someone’s password. Approach A: think about what that person would put as a password. Put a keylogger on their computer. Watch their keyboard when they type. Create a phishing site for them. Approach B: Just try to type a bunch of random things, see if it will stick.

One tool that’s particularly useful is asking yourself “What is the easiest solution to this problem?” Even if you have a problem-specific solution, you may still sometimes prefer to take a step back and ask yourself this question.

For example, there are many possible solutions for congestion problems in cities. To solve these problems, you could make metros, new train lines, experiment with Uber, taxi, air drones, whatever. The simplest solution would probably be to make the residents use bicycles and existing public transport much more. That’s the easiest solution. That’s the low-hanging fruit. Invest more effort into that which already works.