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?

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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.

What should I do with my life

This article will try to answer the fundamental question: “What should I do with my life?” Usually, this is a question that falls into the domain of self-help books, spirituality writings, and articles that use the word “millennial” a lot. But also a question that is never really answered, and it’s generally perceived as something that cannot be answered, for some reason. (And I guess that if you do answer this question, you come across as naive or presumptuous – I mean, who are YOU to tell me what the world is like or give me instructions on what I should do.) I think that, with this question in particular, people insist on feeling confused. It is almost like a lot of people conditioned themselves to experience the feeling of confusion whenever such a question is raised. Obviously, I do not think that this question is at all that complicated to answer. It’s actually easy, therefore – one article. There is complexity – in action, in solving certain problems, in achieving a certain mindset. But the answer is relatively clear and simple, and follows a certain philosophy that I, with my current state of knowledge, think is better than others.

And yes, you may wonder who I am to tell you what to do with your life. I’m nobody. It doesn’t matter who I am, what matters is what I say. If what you read resonates with you and you deem it reasonable, then what does it matter who wrote it?

In a nutshell: just do whatever is most useful.

This is basically it. I say “basically” because, without additional clarification, this idea isn’t all that useful, but in essence, it boils down to that: find useful things to do, and then prioritize them, and then do the more useful things first.

Troubleshooting

Why should I do this and not something else?

You can do whatever you like, but if it’s all the same to you, you might as well choose to do the most useful things, instead, say, travel the world or smoke pot all day or whatever. I can’t stop you from going after the things you want, but if you’re missing a feeling of purpose, of actually doing something that matters, adopt this simple philosophy, and the feeling may well come.

What about happiness?

Happiness is a stupid goal to pursue directly. Happiness can come from several sources, and if you work towards a good purpose, you can achieve happiness, without having to travel through South East Asia to “find yourself”. Also, always trying to be happy is dumb. You should generally be relaxed and appreciative and aware, but just being happy all the time… That’s just emotional junk food. You don’t NEED to be happy all the time, the same way you don’t NEED to eat something juicy, sweet, creamy and fat all the time. Sometimes, it’s okay to eat plain oats and vegetables, and sometimes, it’s okay to feel shitty. It’s okay to feel a bit depressed. Be grateful for what you have and be mindful of what happens around you, but don’t worry if you’re not happy enough. It’s really not that important.

How do you find what’s useful?

Generally, people don’t have a problem with this step. We kind of know that US college dropouts begging for travel money on third world country streets – we know that’s not useful. We also may intuitively think that certain arts are not really useful, and working in certain industries is definitively not useful. And certain study programs are not useful, and certain positions in companies are not useful, and so on and so on. So… Basically things that aren’t improving anyone’s life or health in any way, things that aren’t legitimately making the world a better place – these things are not useful. Don’t do these things, do the useful things.

But what does “most” useful mean?

Now we come to the complex part. Depending on how you calculate it, “most” useful generally means “what saves the most number of human and/or animal lives”, “what ensures the largest number of QALYs (quality-adjusted life years)”, “what ensures the survival of the human species” etc.

Generally, the world looks like this: Many die horribly and for no good reason, every minute of every day. You don’t see them, you don’t hear news about them, but easily preventable diseases produce blind babies, unnecessary consumer habits ensure Holocaust-level torture of billions of animals, and irresponsible technological development may risk total extinction of the human species.

Simultaneously, we have the potential to make our planet into a beautiful garden of exploration and sharing, healing the sick and feeding the hungry, visiting other planets, and learning the secrets of the Universe.

So, a lot of bad stuff happening, but a lot of potential to be good. What do you do?

You find where you can make the largest difference and then you DO THAT.

That’s it.

But how?

Get your ass on 80 000 Hours and start reading. Find a way to make the Earth a better place. Become a Rationalist. Become an Effective Altruist.

Think about this: you go out and decide to have a couple of drinks with your buddies. On the way to the bar, you see a person dying on the street – maybe a car accident, or something. You simply ignore the person and go have your drinks. It’s been a tough week, you deserve to relax a bit. That person isn’t your fault or responsibility.

It’s obvious that, if you do that, you’re maybe the biggest asshole in the universe. You’re just a very, very terrible person. Now, what difference does it make if this person is in another street nearby? For most of us, none. We would still help. But what if the person is in another city? We know we can’t make there in time or actually do anything ourselves… So we might call emergency medical help, or something. What if the person is in another country? Another culture? We may or may not know what’s happening, we could be unsure of whether it’s true or not, we could be skeptical that any help we send will actually make a difference… So we go to the bar and have our drinks.

We shouldn’t do that. We shouldn’t insist on inaction because we’re unsure. If you do your research and go read the three links I posted above, you will know enough to do something.

That’s it. That’s what you do. You find a way to make the world a better place, you help the dying person on the street, you make yourself more and more useful. Then and ONLY then… You can go have your drinks.

This is the answer – and it’s simple. The execution is what’s complicated and there are many dead ends that lurk. It’s treacherous to become this kind of person because there are a hundred ways to do well, but a million ways to fail miserably. So tread with care, but tread with resolution. That’s what I am trying to do.

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.