Why do I even train?

I used to say that I train because I want to maximize my chances of survival. I used to say that it was rational to train if you want to live. At least, to train martial arts and Parkour. This, in fact, is a rationalization. I mean, it IS rational to train martial arts and Parkour if you want to maximize your chances of survival, but that’s not REALLY why I do it.

I train martial arts and Parkour because there exists an impulse within me – a thing that wants to be superior, but in a skilled and manly way. There is a part of me that yearns for stress, battle, danger and all the chances that these extreme states provide. Indeed, I train because I still want to be a hero.

If it was truly a decision coming from a wish to maximize chances for survival, then I would take care of this graph first:

And, I mean, now I actually do take care of this graph. Statistics, as Kahneman points out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, are not just some arcane realm divorced from this world: statistics and numbers and ratios and percentages – that actually is real life. So, if a rationalist wants to maximize their chances of survival, by necessity, first they must take care of the ENORMOUS cause which is heart disease and cancer. I mean – compare murder to heart disease. Look at how tiny the circle is compared to the behemoth of circulatory disorders. If you eat meat but train martial arts (as I used to), thinking that you’re rationally maximizing your chances of survival, then you’re either lying to yourself about why you’re training (a deadly rationalist sin – thou shalt not lie to thyself) OR you’re ignoring “sheer” numbers (also a deadly rationalist sin – thou shalt not evade the base rates).

So, if I am to be completely honest with myself, even if it is rational to exercise for a bunch of health reasons and even if you’re simultaneously optimizing for survival of murder and even if you’re participating in a community, also shown to increase longevity, the actual big reason is that I want to be a hero. I want to be someone that reacts calmly and effectively faced with stress; someone that blocks a sucker punch and defends a friend from attackers; someone that can, at a moment’s notice, go into full Jason Bourne mode and just, like, extremely own the entire situation. That’s the impulse I have, and, looking back, it seems that I’ve always had it. Some guys I know have it as well. I’m thinking it’s something genetic, maybe an expression of the DRD4 gene (the “adventure gene”).

But the thing is, even if this is a part of my make-up as a person, something that I can’t really influence, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay. This can be turned into a good thing. I can be a junkie, sure. But I can also use my obsession with novelty and excitement and danger, couple it with odds-defying optimism (which I am also suffering from), plug in a lot of algorithms like rationalism, effective altruism, hacking, quick modeling etc. and actually use my “shortcomings”, if they can even be called that. Even if my drive stems from an evolutionary genetic variation intended for wanting to hunt bears, risking my life, succeeding and ensuring the survival of the tribe and my own offspring – it still doesn’t matter. If our stupid hunter-gatherer brains were able to be retrained to do mathematics, then this is no different.

So yes, I do want to be Jason Bourne, I do seek danger and excitement and novelty, I enjoy competition and beating my opponents. And all this can be poured into things that really matter, instead of things that matter only a little bit, or things that don’t matter at all. This drive can be poured into things like stopping factory farming, or ensuring mosquito nets for malaria, or beating unfriendly AI in advance. It took some time to actually convince my hunter-gatherer brain that mathematics are, considering the scope of all things that are happening, orders of magnitude more dangerous and exciting than some guy trying to punch me in the face. It took some time to convince my brain of this; if you’re like me, it might take some time as well. But don’t give up on being a hero. Maybe you won’t be a hero in some typical heroic profession, but you can definitely be a hero where it really matters. Use your brain; figure out where things are worst and where a hero is needed. The next step is both simple and impossible, but you will do it regardless: become that hero.

Trigger people vs. triggered people

Some things you’ll do exclusively when a certain person (or thing) is nearby, even if you don’t usually do this thing. If you’re into self improvement, for example, you might be working on not letting your ego control your actions. And so, as time goes by, you get better and better, and your ego is very small. Sometimes it peers from somewhere and tries to say something, but you are mindful enough to be able to notice it and ignore it. But. There is this one person, situation, thing, whatever – that has the ability to get your ego out of you and, at least temporarily, make it do things. These people are trigger people, as they trigger certain unwanted behaviors in you. This can be ego, but it can also be any other sort of thing you usually don’t do (because you’ve worked on it), like any sort of addiction, anger, sadness, etc.

Basically, what you want in life is to be a trigger person to others, but not to be triggered by anyone. An exception can be made for people that trigger positive things in you, things you want to cultivate. If you are positively triggered, I would keep that connection. But generally, you really don’t want to ever allow this sort of thing. Obviously, we are all primed by our environment to a larger extent than what we acknowledge, but still. Ideally, you want to be as independent as possible, and you want the qualities you’ve cultivated to last even in adverse conditions. In other words, it’s one thing to be calm and relaxed when things are going well; the whole point is to have that same calm while things are not going well!

So, if it ever happens to you that you behave differently than you would normally, and it always happens with this one person, this one situation, this one thing – remember this article! Don’t do the thing anyway! If you’re trying to be more zen in life, then being more zen applies even in these situations. In fact, it applies even more in these situations than in regular, everyday life. Depending on the thing you’re trying to solve, a wise course of action could be simply to remove these trigger people from your life entirely. If you’re a drug addict, that’s probably the best thing you can do for yourself. But if you have a realistic shot at actually overcoming this obstacle, for example if you’re always anxious when you go to work even though you’re generally trying to be less anxious… I would not advise you to quit your job. You’d be better off having learned not to be anxious instead of simply running away from the issue.

Ultimately, the goal is Shoshin – the beginner’s mind. The goal is to always be open, doing the same things just as if you were doing them for the first time, every time you did them. Not bringing any emotional baggage. Just seeing how things are and not being compelled to react to them.

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.