Sink or swim (or get a life belt)

I used to be a proponent of  the sink or swim method (or baptism by fire): put someone in a challenging situation and watch them grow.

I’ve since changed my opinion because “sink or swim” is a mental shortcut like the ones I wrote about in Maxims. I think I will compile a sequence of short posts, challenging such maxims, shortcuts, and metaphors that we all use and often live by. Let this be the first one.

The problem with sink or swim is not that it doesn’t work. It works – and I would still do it in many situations. As with all of these mental shortcuts, the devil is in the details. Sink or swim doesn’t work in certain cases, and it’s important to know in which ones, and to stop blindly following a compressed life philosophy file when what you need is obviously something else.

People can take a lot of time to sink, but they may sink in the end. Same goes for swimming. Let’s say you get promoted on your job. Much more responsibility. Much more work. It’s now hard to juggle personal commitments with work. Things start slipping. You get fat. Your psyche doesn’t like you being fat and unhealthy. Stress gets to you. All the time, you’re thinking “sink or swim!”, waiting for that magical moment when you’ll finally start swimming. It doesn’t happen. 10 years pass. You’re still not in shape, you are still unhappy, and your marriage is ruined. You still haven’t sunk, but you’re not swimming either. By the time you start swimming (if it ever happens), you’ll have gone through changes that you cannot reverse, like your ruined health or marriage.

One of the root problems was that you believed in the sink or swim method, which can be a good method, but it simply wasn’t applicable here. You should have jumped in and tried it out. But when enough evidence piles up that you’re not swimming that well, you grab a life belt, and try out calmer seas to swim in.

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Warrior rationalists

(All of this is just a hunch and I may be wrong)

Descriptions that come to my mind when I think about “rationalists” (people interested in Less Wrong, Slate Star Codex, AI alignment, effective altruism etc.):

  • smart
  • high IQ
  • high achievers
  • rich (or with definite potential to get rich)
  • interested in: abstraction, math, technology, philosophy, debate
  • depressed
  • not very good at social skills (but not completely bad either)
  • white and male (mostly)
  • physically unfit

Obviously, I may be wrong, but that’s the general “vibe” I get online and offline. In short: geeky types.

To phrase it in “rationalist” terms, the set of possible experiences is usually defined in terms of the list above. Not that there is anything bad there – I think it’s amazing that there is a rationalist community and that people are learning how to think better. But there are certain qualities that I think should be cultivated – especially by the rationalist community, which I’m fond of – and these qualities usually come from experiences mostly outside of the world of rationalists.

In general, I think it’s a good thing to be very tough. I think it’s good that people learn respect, confidence and management of aggression through the practice of martial arts. I think it’s good that people move much more than 45 minutes every second day. I think it’s good for people to crawl through mud, experience physical hardship, go without food, obey commands, issue commands, get in touch with their immediate surroundings and support systems, like trying to grow food on their own, or to hunt, or to build a house, or to fix a car.

As a rule, I do not like softness and excessive intellectual “flexing”. Being geeky is alright, but I like better when it is paired with strength (and wisdom, but that’s for another post).

End notes and possible mistakes:

  • I don’t know if anything would significantly change if every rationalist was also tough and strong. I suspect it would – it seems to me that there are certain formative processes that you can undergo, but their outcomes aren’t easily measured (if at all). Martial arts, for example, are one of such formative processes.
  • I may not be sufficiently in touch with how rationalists are. Maybe they are already like this. I could find out if I’m wrong by meeting more rationalists.
  • I don’t know how much of a priority this is, precisely because of difficulty in measuring the effect of my proposed changes to the community.
  • I don’t have a lot of specific suggestions. Maybe: cultivate a practice of strenuous activity (weightlifting or wrestling or something along those lines). Get into survivalism a bit. Maybe go through basic army training.
  • It may be the case that I’m only criticizing because these are the things I do, and my subconscious thought process is “since I’m doing X, everyone should do X”.
  • This isn’t a testable prediction where I can put my money where my mouth is, but I think it’s also important to have an outlet where you can just throw the idea out there and get feedback or inspire thinking.

 

Themes

Being good at something feels really good, and being bad at something sucks. To be good at something, you must do the work: you must sprint the hill, repeat the notes, write out the code, and reread the books. Doing the work also sucks because you are aware at every moment how bad you are at the thing, whatever your thing may be.

When you were a kid, your life consisted of you sucking at pretty much everything and improving for years. After a couple of years, you found ways to not suck, and maybe even found certain things where not only you do not suck, you are even good at them.

Then you hit an “OK plateau” – you are good enough and you don’t invest the time and attention to further hone the skill you developed. For some skills, this may be alright. Do you really need to become the best driver in the world if that is not your profession, only your commute?

Base claim: Do what makes you happy.
Contrarian claim: Don’t try to do what makes you happy – instead, do what is useful, get good at it, and you will become happy as a consequence.
Meta-contrarian claim: Actually, if you have good reason to believe that activity X would be good for you (in terms of career, lifestyle, happiness – like, a generally good choice), then you should go for X. Just keep the contrarian claim in your mind (you may be fooling yourself, and it may be a good idea to work out alternative plans).

Since it’s not easy to become really good at things, and it also takes a lot of time, even the most intelligent and hard-working people will only ever get really, really good in a couple of areas. Some will go for a generalist skill set, some will go for a deep specialist one. I don’t know if that’s true actually. Even famous generalists in different fields (Elon Musk, Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Paul Graham…) actually have deep knowledge in certain fields. This is a nuanced subject because it doesn’t really work with the binary specialist – generalist framework. There is more to it. At a higher level of resolution, we can see that these “generalists” do in fact have deep knowledge of many things. So, if we are really honest about things, when we say “generalist”, we don’t actually mean “person who knows a little about a lot of things”, we mean “person who knows a lot about a couple of things”. A specialist is a “person who knows almost all there is to know about a narrow field, and doesn’t know or do other things”.

META: In this case, it seems that the generalist – specialist framework is a false dichotomy. It’s a mental model that simplifies, but to such an extent that when you dig a little, it doesn’t really ring true or useful. We use a lot of frameworks (and metaphors) but sometimes, like in this case, they appear false and not really useful. How in general do you know that your framework/model isn’t good anymore, or isn’t good for the question at hand? What other model oversimplifies a complex reality, and how in general do you know this?

In addition to the fact that even generalists must develop at least one deep skill (sprinkles are not enough), there are also combinations. Let’s say you take a set of a 100 skills, and pick any 5 skills randomly. Most of the combinations you’ll get will not be very good, or will not really work. You’ll get things like: “cooking, math, dog training, photography, graffiti”. Not that this particular combination can’t work, but it’s distinctly different from “math, programming, writing, entrepreneurship, finance”. In both combinations, you have deep knowledge of math, but in the second combination, it seems to work really well together with other deep skills. In the first combination, it’s just there, not really connected with anything.

The point here is that random picks from a list of skills will not result in optimal combinations. And since even generalists need to develop deep skills, seeing that these things take time and effort, it’s is probably really important to craft your combination to make the most sense. You know, to kinda find your “theme”, where different things you get really good at support each other, instead of being opposed or unrelated.

When I look at my own skill tree, it doesn’t seem to work that well together. My writing and speaking skills – satisfy the really good requirement, I think. I’m a really good translator (but only for English and Croatian – for French and Swedish, I’m just okay). And I’m a good instructor as well. Parkour and martial arts are connected to each other, but not to other things. But I’m not really good at any of them, I’m just decent. I’m learning to program, and that’s completely unrelated to any of the previous skills. I also play a couple of musical instruments and cook okay, I guess. So the “theme” is something along the lines of teaching or communicating, but more could be done so that the skills support each other.

Your skills make your theme (or they don’t, if you do a lot of unrelated things). First, it’s hard to get a theme in the first place. But when you have a theme, it’s even harder to change it completely or slightly, because now, you have to get new skills, get real good at them, and your old skills could die off if you don’t maintain them. So choosing a theme is a big deal.

And finally, how deep is deep enough? You don’t have to be literally the best person ever in a skill to say that your knowledge of it is deep enough. You just have to be really good. “I fear not the man who has practiced 10000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10000 times.” 10000 is a large number, but how do we know that just 1000 is not enough? Or maybe it takes a million kicks to be real good. Or tens of millions. There is no clear guideline to this, but when you are real good at something, you probably know it intuitively.

The big thing I get wrong

You interact with the world and you want certain results to happen from these interactions. I think I figured out a big piece that I have systematically been doing wrong.

I don’t reward agents.

You can think about the world as one big chessboard where you have different components independently interacting with one another. In chess of life, there are many more fields and figures than in regular chess. In chess of life, the pieces do different things, the rules for moving them are more complex and vary with time, the fields change in number and surface area. Just like chess, but much more complex. In chess of life, one important thing that you really want to do is to affect the behavior of intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) agents.

And psychological literature is very clear on how you do this: you reward good behavior and you punish bad behavior. All life on Earth adapts to positive and negative reinforcement.

Punishing is very tricky. Punishing humans is even trickier. Things can go very wrong, and punishing can easily be morally wrong. I don’t really do punishing. But I figured out that I don’t do rewarding either. I just… interact with people, and since we’re all equals (at least in my idea of the relationship in question), I don’t shape them: I neither punish bad behavior nor do I reward good behavior.

And this is stupid for a bunch of reasons: one, I have wishes or goals (utilities) but I systematically barricade my way from achieving them. Two, I probably do both rewarding and punishing but reactively, not like a planned thing. And three, there is no reason not to shape people, even if you’re equals.

I always look for ways of achieving my goals independently, as if I took no part in the real world of humans. This gives me the advantage that I get to learn to act independently, but if I systematically ignore a big aspect of human existence, that’s bad. That’s just throwing away a lot of good tools for no good reason. Shaping agents by reward is not bad, if you don’t do it for bad purposes. It’s not manipulative, within the standard meaning of the word. It’s no more bad or manipulative than bringing up a child is. Shaping agents by punishment isn’t necessarily bad either, but it can be bad much easier than rewarding agents. (Punishment is great at the level of populations – evolution doesn’t really reward populations, it just “prunes” them. But such pruning doesn’t do much good to the individual.)

This is a conceptual switch for me. Saying “good job”, getting someone some food, patting someone on the back – I guess I would sometimes do these things, either as learned behavior in specific scenarios, or just instinctively. But I never fully generalized this to an entire life philosophy: watch agents around you, figure out which rewards they would like, and when they do the thing you want them to do, reward them. Do this a thousand times and it compounds like crazy. Suddenly everything you want in your life is moving much faster and better because you have motivated agents that put effort into doing things. It’s not just you anymore.

This is just one of the many conceptual switches I had in the last couple of years. One of the more recent ones was presenting choice architectures with default choices (from the book “Nudge”), instead of giving absolute freedom in deciding or deciding for someone. That one goes hand in hand with this one, making the sequence look like this: watch agents around you, figure out which rewards they would like, present them with choice architectures with the choices you want them to make, and when they do something good, reward them.

Is saying “good job” manipulative or inappropriate in a relationship of equals? It isn’t, if you have good intentions. But there is something that bothers people (?) if this “good job” is deliberate – even if it is honest. The idea that another agent is deliberately shaping me seems shady – who are you to say “good job” to me? (if it is all a part of your master plan where I start doing more of the things you like)

But it’s not malevolent, it’s just deliberate, and it doesn’t take away another person’s agency… So I think that’s definitely in the realm of OK. (I’d be okay if someone with good intentions was shaping me towards a better version of myself)

Meta:

I practiced positive reward in dog training for quite some time, but it still didn’t occur to me that it can be generalized to life in general. What other things, like rewarding agents, do I already do, or know, but only in specific, closed-off domains? What else can become a more general tool?

Decisiveness

Shark Tank is a very useful reality show that taught me actually quite a lot about the principles of business, its practicalities and underlying philosophies. I got a feel of the experience the investors have, which is not something you directly get from business books. As many failed pitches say after being rejected: “This was more useful than my entire college education.”

One of the lessons that I struggled accepting was being indecisive. When one of the investors says they’re out before giving the entrepreneur a chance of hearing other offers, I would get annoyed. Let them listen to other offers and then decide, right? I still think that’s okay, but I understand now why some of the Sharks insist on decisiveness.

Making a habit of deciding things right away, not postponing a decision, is a very important principle. Sometimes you might get to a decision that legitimately requires deep thought and consideration, and you should give it the attention it so requires. But, just talking about the way my own mind works, I find myself postponing a large number of decisions every day. Indecisiveness becomes a habit. And the consequence of this bad habit is that you drain your willpower much more than if you had made the decision right away, because decision.exe is still running in the background. Accumulate enough of unresolved decisions in one day, regardless of how tiny or petty they may be, and you feel exhausted. And it’s just plain stupid to limit your productivity on the basis of tiny, unimportant decisions.

The first principle is to not to decide at all, i.e. design your life in such a way that you are not the bottleneck for decision. Tim Ferriss explains this in a business setting in his book “The Four Hour Workweek”. But it applies to more than business. Limiting how much you have to decide is good because you conserve more decision-making power for more important things.

However, you will not always be able to design your life in such a way. And in these cases, it’s worth cultivating the habit of decisiveness. Yes, recognize the decisions that truly request deep attention and give them that attention, but if you’re pressured for time and have to decide (or if you have to demonstrate decisiveness), then you need to be able to do it. You need to be able to use your best judgment and decide at once upon the course of action.

So, to conclude, I’m not saying that you should be rash or stupid, but that you shouldn’t have the habit of indecisiveness. You should be able to decide things on the spot if so pressured, and you shouldn’t postpone every decision to a later date. And you definitely shouldn’t find yourself picking a tie for 15 minutes, or being indecisive about what you want to eat that day. If you already haven’t designed around that, then you need to decide quickly.

Meta-self-improvement

For the last couple of days, weeks, and maybe months, I’ve been going through a rough patch of my life. Not a really really rough patch, but things were harder than they used to be. Personal relations became strained, working became a drag, willpower tumbled and overall happiness decreased. I felt as if I was not in control.

After taking some time to clear my head, this is the lesson I think can be extracted from my experience:

 

Whenever I feel like I’m not doing well with some problem in my life, I shouldn’t ask myself: “How could I do this better?” Instead, I should ask myself: “How can I become the sort of person that finds this problem easy?”

There is a significant difference. Say that you want to perform well at some test, or read a book you’ve been putting off, or perform some athletic feat. For the book, instead of asking yourself: “How can I finish this book?”, or any of the sub-questions (“How can I find the time for reading?”/”How much reading per day should I do?”/etc.), you could ask yourself: “What do I have to do to become a person that doesn’t even need to ask that question? How can I become a person that finds reading this book an easy task?”

Sometimes, the steps for both types of questions will be the same. For some things, becoming better at those things simply means doing them more. But I think there is much more to it, in the majority of such cases.

I think you always have to look one level “above”, you always have to go meta on your problems. Instead of finding hacks and solving individual problems, you should make yourself into a fully general and adaptable problem solving tool.

The essence of becoming Overhuman is in perfecting the meta-level skills that allow you to breeze through the object-level problems. So, it’s not about learning foreign languages, but learning how to learn foreign languages. It’s not about performing well at a job interview, but acquiring a set of personal skills that is fully applicable to the job interview. It’s not about doing this one particular move in chess, but in understanding the principles of the board.

So my question to myself is this: how can I become the sort of person that finds the problems from my last couple of weeks/months – stupidly easy? I can almost imagine this better version of me: every issue I had was prevented or solved in no time by this better version of me, and he didn’t get angry, and didn’t get frustrated… He just breezed through all that stuff. No sweat. If I can imagine him, and if I imagine that he actually finds my problems easy, then what do I need to do to become him? What concrete steps should I take? You might want to ask yourself that very same thing for the issues you’re having.

I think I have my answer, or at least a part of it. I think more meditation is definitely in order. Much of my mental disarray happened just because I was not sufficiently in touch with what I was feeling and lost sight of the wider picture. I also think that I failed on certain habits like early rising and doing one big thing in the morning. I sort of relapsed into an older method of doing things – not completely bad, but not optimized for a good “results to happiness”-ratio. Basically, I got tired and lost form. Meditating, resting, maintaining particular productivity habits… These are some of my meta-level things. What are yours?

What is it to be Overhuman?

What is it to be Overhuman?

It is not realistic to expect that a definition will capture concepts completely. Definitions are good for preliminary understanding, for getting an outline of something, but they will not paint a picture.

Here, I want to do just that: paint a picture. These aren’t for and against arguments, this is just a picture of what something is. You can like or you can not like my picture. Both are fine. I don’t like some paintings, don’t understand some, but some I adore and some I would hang in my home. There are plenty of paintings to choose from.

So lately, I’ve been focused on projects. Object-level problems – how to make money in a particular way, how to finish one translation project in time, how to start doing paperwork in order to start my business, and so on.

My large developmental focus has for the last year been on mastering the Art of Rationality. Not only thinking right, but doing right. Making decisions that are consistent with what I believe and expect of the world. For example, I believe that death is bad, and I believe that, if everyone were immortal, nobody would willingly choose to… expire. And so, doing what needs to be done to minimize chances of death and maximize chances of survival – for example, signing up for cryonic preservation in case I die, eating foods that won’t cause me a heart attack when I’m 65, exercising, and other such lifestyle choices – I’ve been doing these things. I have seen how much I have been lacking in action, and I have seen how little I have prepared myself for the things that I should have prepared myself for. Makes no matter. The only thing that remains is to do what needs to be done now.

But, having been so oriented toward these problems, I feel I have neglected – not a lot, but still, some – the goal and the aspiration to become Overhuman. I have become more rational, and to be rational is a part of becoming Overhuman, but the two aren’t synonyms, the overlap is not complete, the Venn diagram isn’t just one perfect circle.

And so, in order for me not to forget what I wanted to become, and what I still strive to become, here is my painting.

To be Overhuman is to have a large bag of useful, but rare tricks. It’s not an ideology, it’s a skill-set. You know how to do certain things, and when you get to a certain combination, you call that Overhuman.

The combination is some kind of hard-to-kill, smart warrior type, with specific goals and ideas on how to improve the world.

To be Overhuman is to flow through the world effortlessly (or to seem to be doing so), but also to breeze through it easily, but also to be a gale wind, a hurricane, a force of destruction, when the need is such.

Overhuman is that person that always has active plots and plans; it’s that guy who, through some magic power, managed to procure tickets for a sold-out concert for his girlfriend. How he does this is a mystery, but he always seems to have ways. If you dig, he might tell you he knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but you don’t really understand how he got whatever he got.

Overhuman is to read faces. When you see that someone squinted for just a quick moment, and when you see how someone had a little happy face about something, and when you pay attention to these things, that is Overhuman.

Overhuman is to watch people around you as if you were spying on them. It’s to watch them as if you weren’t with them. You talk to them, yes, but constantly you’re looking at them as if it were a movie and you were trying to discover the plot before the end.

Overhuman is to have the habit of looking at hands and pockets. Overhuman is not to get stabbed in an alley because you were occupied with someone’s face so much that you forgot about where they held their hands.

Overhuman is when you don’t get punched in the street because you weren’t there where the punch went; Overhuman is, to other people, receiving a strike to the throat from nowhere, trying to retaliate against something you don’t see, being blinded, being completely and utterly overcome.

Overhuman is when you know how to talk to people; you know how to talk sweet, you know how to talk strict, you know how to ask questions, and you know who it is that you are talking to. All these things are to be Overhuman.

Overhuman is to be a generalist with no apparent specialty, but a seeming capacity to be very good at a great many things. It’s to remember your personal identification number without having to write it down, it’s to know how to pick a lock when you have to enter somewhere, and it’s to have stretchy fingers and toes that don’t break easily.

Overhuman is thinking deeply about what people say, how they say it, and why they say it. To be Overhuman is to think about what people’s motives are, and to be constantly aware of what is going on around you.

Overhuman is to be in touch with your emotions. When you are angry, you say to yourself “I am angry”, and then you ask yourself “Why am I angry?”, and then you realize that you actually DO have an issue with something someone said to you, and that thought, “Nah, I don’t really care”, that was a lie that you told yourself. To be Overhuman is to know yourself.

To be Overhuman means to be rational about things. It means to read, write, learn, and advance in whatever is necessary. It is to find a way to win in all things, and doing what needs to be done, whatever it might be.

Overhuman bends, not breaks, is supple, not hard, is fast, smart, efficient, and more. An Overhuman goes through life seeing everything as a system with its little workings, its little mechanics. An Overhuman looks at these systems and games people play and finds ways of hacking the machine, of exploiting weaknesses, of playing with the structure. An Overhuman is a hacker, a mastermind, a choice architect, a deductionist. If the Overhuman is also a good person, it’s a good day for mankind.

To be Overhuman is to be all these things and more.