What is it to be Overhuman?

What is it to be Overhuman?

It is not realistic to expect a definition to 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. Only thing that remains is to do what needs to be done now.

But, having been so oriented on those 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 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 that 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.

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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.

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.