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.

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THE (incomplete) OVERHUMAN CURRICULUM

Okay, so we all know that there’s an awful lot of things to learn if you want to become Overhuman: martial arts, meditation, languages, mnemonics, deductions, strategy… The list goes on and on and on, and it doesn’t seem to stop.

Obviously, we are in need of prioritizing: deciding what gets learned and in which order. Otherwise, you might start by learning new languages, which is cool by itself, and it’s cool if that’s what you’re into, but if you’re into the whole Overhuman business, you’ll probably want to learn how to choke someone out before you go into your third foreign language.

This article is to serve as a guidepost if you’re improving yourself in this particular way. I tried to explain why this particular order is better than any other order, but if you disagree, it’s up to you to decide which order you’ll follow. I’ll just say that I wish I had something like this four years ago when I was starting out. Without ado, here is the (incomplete) list of what you should learn and in which order:

1. Always go back to the basics.

This is a sort of meta-rule, a rule about rules, and about itself. Always return to this very rule – it is by far the most important thing you can do. Remember that the most important thing in your journey is rule number 1, “Always go back to the basics”. Then think about the basics, and redo them. I cannot overstate the importance of this rule. I’ll give an example. You know that being constantly aware (hyperaware) is the cornerstone of your development as an Overhuman. You know this, you talk about this, you believe in this, but the problem is that you also forget this. We humans tend to forget the very things that got us somewhere in the first place. When was the last time you fully appreciated the fact that there such a thing as public transportation which can move you 10+ kilometers under 20 minutes and you don’t have to maintain it or do anything except pay a small fee and simply be taken somewhere? Never, right? That’s just the way the world is: there is a thing called “public transport” and it’s simply there, it always has been. Well, it hasn’t. But maybe you’ve never actually experienced a world without public transportation, so you’re not to blame for not fully appreciating it. But look at another example: your smartphone. You probably have one. You probably didn’t have it when you were a kid. This is an incredible device. You can complete financial transactions with it. You can communicate with a person on the other side of the planet with it. You can read books, listen to music and watch films on it. You can record your experience of the world. You can learn languages or play games. You even have a flashlight.

You probably do not appreciate the full value of an artifact of such immense power. Much the same with the basic notion of Overhumanity: hyperawareness. You know that you should be listening and watching intently the world around you, but you start thinking when you’re walking, or somebody comes into the room and you simply glance at them instead of studying them meticulously. You don’t listen deeply to what people are saying, you simply note their words. You forgot how important it is to be aware of your surroundings, despite the fact that you believe very firmly that it’s important.

This is something that you must remedy, and I am telling you this because I myself am most guilty of forgetting what the important things are. Repeat after me: always go back to the basics. Always go back to the basics.

Always go back to the basics.

Always go back to the basics.

Always go back to the basics.

If only I had a bigger font, I swear I’d use it.

So what are the basics then?

2. Hyperawareness

There is a term “hypervigilance” and it is usually meant as something bad, due to it being a key part of PTSD. Some people call it “condition yellow”, according to the Cooper Color code. I simply call it hyperawareness, from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

TV Tropes has a good description of it (bold added by me for emphasis):

“The Bene Gesserit use their hyper awareness as a tool for manipulation. Descriptions of Bene Gesserit thought processes in the novels are often comparable to chess masters watching the world around them like one big chessboard, and calmly noting their accruing advantage. At one point a Bene Gesserit correctly deduces that there is a hidden room on the other side of a large banquet room by noting the subtle geometry of the walls of the room and the objects in it as being specifically designed to produce a slight echo where those in the hidden room can listen in. ”

It’s simple: the very basic notion of Overhumanity is hyperawareness, or condition yellow, or hypervigilance (in a positive sense). You do actually need to pay very close attention to what’s happening around you, and do so at a conscious level. It is largely a matter of habit to train yourself to be hyperaware on command. But first, you need to qualify your senses in a different way, for example:

  • You do not watch, you scan. Walking around, you’re not meant to lazily turn your gaze to some things and ignore the many others. To scan is to frequently observe everything around you, look up, down, left, right, behind. It means to watch the faces of humans passing you and then observing the position of their hands. Are their hands concealed? Do they have perspiration on their skin? Do they stare at you? Do they also scan the environment? It means to look at the environment, not in an everyday manner, but as if you are deliberately trying to detect danger, or detect anything (hyperawareness should not be a stressful event, or, it should be intense and demanding, but in a calm way and relaxed way, not as something that produces anxiety). Have you ever been really high up (like on a rooftop or a tree) and observed people? If you have, then you know that you can be invisible without any special cloaking devices, because people rarely look up. So observe the windows of a high building as if looking for a sniper, then quickly observe the traffic as if looking for a suspicious looking car, then observe the people on the street, then observe everything else in between, and do so quickly. Scan instead of watching.
  • You do not listen, you monitor. So many sounds pass our attention because they get filtered out too soon. It is probably the fact that we feel very safe at all times in our lives, mostly because we all live in cities where there is a certain order to how things function and people mostly don’t die. catExcept, they do, but still not enough for the rest of the population to start paying real attention to the world that surrounds them. Observe, for example, the everyday street cat. All the athleticism aside, the feat that is most impressive with this animal it is almost impossible to sneak up to. Yes, their ears are bigger, so certainly they do experience sounds more intensely than we do, but there is also another thing: they have to pay more attention to their environment, lest they be attacked by a dog or something else. They actively monitor what’s going around them, while humans don’t even need earphones not to hear the surrounding world. I’ve found that spending some time in nature, alone, in the woods, is the easiest way to get yourself to listen. You don’t even need to try: some animal-like quality awakens in you and suddenly you hear every animal that passes close to you. you hear every crack, you notice every noise, and it happens because, suddenly, the sounds around you are much more relevant for your well-being.

3-MINUTE BURSTS: An exercise I’ve found useful is setting a timer for, say, three minutes and then simply watching and listening to the world around me. After three minutes, the idea is to write down everything I saw or heard or felt: the position of books on my desk, the number of cars that have passed down the street, the duration of dogs barking outside, was it a bark of a big dog or a small one, the coughing of my next-door neighbor, was it a regular cough like when you take a sip of coffee in the wrong direction or was it a wet cough, when you’re really sick, then what’s the color of the first car that passed my street, what’s the model of the third one, then have I felt any odd emotion that simply popped up, like, for example, a very short burst of anxiety when I heard the car pass, what was that about, then noticing a short craving for ice-cream, then noticing the regional accent of someone yelling outside…

WATCH YOUR PARTNER: Another exercise I find useful is personal awareness, or deductions: you get a stopwatch and a partner. One minute of chitchat. Partner leaves the room, changes one aspect of their appearance: adds a hairpin, puts a knife in pocket, unties shoes, puts a dot on hand and so on. Again, one minute of chitchat, during which you try to figure out the change. If after one minute you did not figure it out, the partner tells you, and then you leave the room and do the same thing. Repeat. This gets you in the habit of observing people intently.

ZEN MEDITATION is another basic exercise that you must practice daily. It really is basic: when you meditate, you let go of thinking and start only observing. Since we have great need of just raw observational power – we need the eyes of an eagle or a fly, instead of the eyes of an amoeba – Zen meditation is very useful because it is pure observation, untainted with thought. There are many introductions to Zen meditation, and I have written extensively on it myself; this and this might help.

There are a million things you could observe – you should.

3. Rationality

(resources: CFAR, HPMOR, Less Wrong, 12 virtues of rationality)

Do you generally believe that maps should reflect the territory they depict? Like, if you take a map of a city, you would want a map that corresponds to how the streets really look like and how they stand in relation to one another. You definitely don’t need a map that shows every street name wrong, and half the streets are missing, and the remaining streets are misplaced, misdirected or otherwise don’t correspond to the real streets in the city.

map

A napkin-level map. You don’t want this.

Well, if reality is territory, then your mind is the map. And we spend little time drawing correct maps. Most people have those napkin-level maps, with a couple of streets and some directions, but few have detailed topographical maps of reality in their heads. Why? Because they either don’t realize how important it is to have correct maps or they just don’t know their maps are very wrong or incomplete. (I was both.)

I have a story about not knowing about not knowing. Some 7 years ago, I started training Parkour. As my training progressed, I read more and more about physical exercise, about nutrition, strength and conditioning. At a certain point, I thought I had experience enough (and knowledge!) to speak openly and give advice to people about training, be it Parkour or general physical training. I didn’t think I knew everything – I definitely didn’t know the intricacies of human anatomy, or the minutiae of micronutrients – but I felt that I knew enough to give sound advice.

I was wrong.

My advice, nutrition and workout plans that I would propose to people were intuitive, made on the spot, very general: “Do 50 push ups, 70 squats and 100 crunches every day, and eat less calories, around 80% of your regular intake,  and run 5 km every second day.” I would simply blurt it out, you know, just throw it out there, no matter who I was dealing with. After all, everybody would benefit from such a regimen, right? Another thing I used to think was that muscle soreness was good and “burning” the muscles each workout, going to failure every time was also good.

“It is difficult to appreciate your own level of ignorance on a topic about which you are ignorant.”

Then I read “The 4 Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss. Then I listened to Pavel Tsatsouline talk. Then I listened to Charles Poliquin talk. Then I listened to Christopher Sommer talk.

I realized that I didn’t have a clue, and the most frightening thing was I didn’t have a clue that I didn’t have a clue.

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

“An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. ” (Dunning-Kruger effect)

Believe me this: you don’t know how much you don’t know about the art of rationality. You don’t know how much you need the art of rationality. You don’t know how complex the art of rationality is. You don’t know that the art of rationality truly is an art, and a very difficult one, at that. It is NOT simply knowing about biases and putting “critical thinking” in your CV. It is not something you add to your mind; it is an entirely different way of thinking. And it is the only thing that will allow you to get things right, or at least LESS WRONG.

However, you pay a massive price.

The first price you pay is your certainty. The rationalist does not live in a world of certainty, but probability. This will be the first shock. You will not want to accept how much you don’t know. You will not want to accept the implications of what you don’t know. You will want to flinch away from this realization, not think about it. The world will suddenly become a much more complicated place, filled with caveats and balancing probability at every single step. Everything will become horribly difficult and slow; you have to use MATHEMATICS to check if something is true, and even THEN you don’t know for sure, but only have an estimated probability? WTF? Without certainty, life will cease to be simple.

The second price you pay is your affiliations. What will you do if you find that a group you’re a member of is probably wrong about something? Of course, now you think that they certainly won’t be, because you would know about it, right? You are making a classic mistake, because you do not yet know true rationality, and how full of doubt and uncertainty you should be. Even now, you’re reading this and thinking “yeah, he’s talking about Christians or other religions”, smirking and at the same time being, for example, a green activist. What if, for example, your stance on ecology and green policy is put into question? What if you know that GMOs are bad, and you know you’re right – and then you find out the opposite? Will you simply change your mind, or will it hurt to do so? Will it be easy to say “Ah, I was wrong for the last 8 years and all my effort to protest against GMOs was a waste of time”?  Will you do so even at the expense of losing friends?

Because the third price you pay is your relationships. Most people are not rationalists. They have napkin-level maps of reality and they don’t know how much they don’t know. However, they are very certain of that which they think they know. You will receive anger, disappointment and even hate when you change your mind about a thing your friends think is true. Most of us have been there with our parents: we thought differently and had our share of fights with them (religion, career aspirations or sexual orientation are some of the usual reasons). Some of us received angry words and beating for thinking and speaking differently. We know the emotional price of thinking differently. We know how it is to be despised or to be a disappointment in the eyes of our parents. But many of us think differently despite the whole drama, and grow up, and don’t start agreeing with our parents just to get acceptance. Are you a lesbian and your parents are disappointed and resentful? You know that it is okay to be a lesbian, but they do not agree. They want you to change. They tell it directly. They put you in an emotional hostage situation. It is even worse when they control your resources: they feed you and clothe you, so they have power over you. You do not submit anyway, and grow up and forget about it, but you remember how hard it was.

Are you willing to go through this again, this time with your friends, colleagues, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife? Are you willing to go through this ALL THE TIME,  ALWAYS CHOOSING TRUTH INSTEAD OF ACCEPTANCE AND FRIENDSHIP?

Because the fourth price you may pay is your happiness. The truth might not be something that makes you happy. And the process of finding truth might alienate you from people that do not share your love of truth. You will have to accept that this is a possibility – not a certainty, definitely, maybe your friends will enjoy seeing you grow into a different person, and not hate you for being less wrong than they are – but it still is a possibility. A possibility you have to accept. (And, obviously, find a way to be happy with the truth).

Do you care to imagine what the final price is? Well, one needs only look in history books and see how society deals with those who think differently. Freedom and life, these are the final prices you might pay for being more right and less wrong than the people around you. Fortunately, today it’s 2016 and it is a good day indeed because we do not burn people alive anymore. Well, Europe doesn’t, anyway. But if you are an atheist in a morally corrupt society like Saudi Arabia, you may expect punishment of such sort. The world has grown to be a kinder place, all due to the thinkers that spread their ideas and called them the Enlightenment. But there are still dark corners of the world, where light does not shine, ignorance abounds and evil thrives. There are still quests to be had, Dark Lords to be defeated, ignorance to be exorcised. The battle is still not won.

4. Self-preservation

When I say self-preservation, I mean all skills and knowledge that directly contribute to your survival and well being, especially if you are endangered. In practical terms, you can divide this in two categories: prepping and martial arts.

Prepping

A prepper’s mindset is basically this: shit can always happen, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. You have survivalists too, and they are more into bushcraft type skills , but preppers simply think about the possible bad things that could realistically happen to them – and then they prepare. It just, you know, makes sense: if you drive a car, you put a seat belt on and you have air bags. You know that you might get into an accident, and so you make a small investment now so that you increase your chances of future survival and well being.

You can go into great detail as to what could go wrong and which specific steps you should implement, but even small adjustments are incredibly useful. The usual list of problems is this: lack of money, lack of food and water, shelter, disease, violence. That’s it. Maybe you want to go into detail as to your plan on how to survive a nuclear strike – and that’s fine! But big dreams of nuclear shelters and evacuation protocols might distract you from the more common, lurking danger of not having money. What do you do if you suddenly lose your job? How much do you have in savings? Could you live normally for two months without a job? One month? A week?

This is a general beginner’s list that everyone should think about:

  • MOST IMPORTANT: Make a bug-out bag. It should be a normal-looking bag filled with medicine (antibiotics if you can find them), dry foods (like peanuts), water, extra socks, maybe a multitool, stuff like that. So if at anytime you do need to actually evacuate your home and you have only minutes to do so, you know you can at least survive for a week. backpackA bug-out bag shouldn’t be a big, army camouflage bag that attracts attention. Just a normal, regular-sized backpack.
  • Increase income and increase savings. Also, diversify income and diversify savings. Always have some cash in your house. Maybe even have a batch of cash, say 500 dollars, that are hidden somewhere safe, like a buried jar in your backyard.
  • Have at least two months worth of food at your home. Rice and oats don’t spoil easily, and neither do cans of beans. This is your insurance policy: pay a small price now so that you don’t have to pay a big price if something bad happens.
  • Have a plan: where do you go if you have to go? Do you have another apartment? Is there an empty house you know? Don’t just be stuck or improvise, figure out in advance what’s your fallback line.
  • Keep medicine in your home. This should go without saying. Aspirin, painkillers, band-aids, antibiotics, ethanol.
  • Keep weapons in your home (if you know how to handle them; a gun is useless if you don’t know what to do with it). Sticks at every doorway; maybe a gun in a safe place.

A small amount of paranoia goes a long way.

Next:

Martial arts

Violence is prevalent in our world. And even though humans have gotten less and less violent through history, violence still happens. As it doesn’t hurt to be prepared and have a ready bag and some food supplies at home at all times, it also does not hurt to know how to defend yourself. In other words, if you want to prevent or stop violence, be skilled at violence. I have trained in several arts and I have changed my opinion on violence a lot during the last few years. I will not go at length about the virtue of martial arts when it comes to cultivating spirit and body, but I will simply try to give a few guidelines:

  • Weapons beat fists. I am not an advocate of carrying a gun, but I would learn how to use it. Focusing exclusively on unarmed combat is like getting really good at horseback riding in an age where we have cars. Guns are a more effective way of killing, so if you’re looking to defend yourself from someone literally trying to kill you – guns.
  • Not all conflict necessitates escalation to guns, not all violence is killing. I suppose that most people still do not carry guns on them (except certain places in the US, I guess), so unarmed violence happens. Learn MMA. Seriously. When it comes to physical violence, aggressiveness and athleticism beat specialized skill. Be a well rounded striker and grappler, with enough aggression and athleticism, and you’ll probably fare well. After you’ve reached a level where you feel like you can stay “afloat” in a fight, after you’ve felt what fighting feels like, then start doing more self-defense scenarios that include groin, throat and eye strikes, thereby getting more realistic. Maybe you’ll do Ninjutsu. Maybe you’ll do Krav Maga. Maybe Wing Chun. Whatever. First get a feel of how fighting really is, get enough mileage, enough experience with handling violence, and only then go into self-defense: I don’t recommend the reverse. Experience first, refinement second. (And also, many self-defense schools are somewhere between useless and dangerously bad. If you have a couple of years of MMA under your belt, you learn to differentiate. If you start out in a self-defense school, you’re taking an unnecessary risk: MMA will really teach you more than enough for street scenarios.)

5. Acting

Now, this might come as a bit of surprise because I haven’t written about this topic yet, but I assure you that acting is one of the top skills you can gain. This skill revolves around the fleeting concept of identity. Every Zen master knows that a person is not their story, their name, their political dispositions and so on. A Zen master knows about the duality of the self: there is the story and there is the awareness of the story. This is a thing that actors naturally use, maybe even without any knowledge of this duality: they simply slip into different personalities and stay in them for as long as necessary.

Think about this for a second or two: acting is the ability to instantly become a different person. Acting is actually being somebody else for a given period of time. Naturally, this ability must be at the heart of what Overhumanity is: switching between faces as necessary, and as fits the occasion.

Now, this may sound all evil and stuff, but it really is not. I’m not advocating intentionally deceiving people where something can be done with honesty, and I’m not advocating changing your ethics at a whim. There still is the one true person behind it all, the controller, and that is who you are.

Ok, let’s say you need to do something that requires a lot of confidence, and let’s say that you’re not a naturally confident person. If you can overcome the initial weird feeling of being a different person, then you could totally switch into, say, Conor McGregor and actually BE Conor McGregor for as long as you need. Or let’s say that you need to sell something, but you are not a salesman, you are not silver-tongued and you simply feel you don’t have what it takes. Why not become Jordan Belfort from “Wolf of Wall Street” for a couple of hours?

jordan

So, learn to act: learn to do accents, learn to do impressions, read books on acting and get into an acting class, get mentors, train and hone your art. There is nothing inherently immoral in being more than one person, if you don’t do immoral things. It is only the conventions of society that see this as a bad thing if it happens outside of a stage or theater (despite the fact that everyone enjoys and laughs when you do a really spot-on impression of someone ). We all have some ability to act, some are more gifted, some less, but most of us never get in touch with the weird feeling of actually being somebody else, because we’re raised that way. Get comfortable with putting one face on and then changing it for another one when the opportune time comes.

However, the true importance of acting lies not only in being able to imitate, but in being able to think like they think. The true importance of acting lies in…

6. Strategy

The greatest art humans are capable of. To be able to play out different scenarios in your head, without them having to happen in reality… This is a formidable power. It really means to have a portion of the universe in your head, with all its probabilities and possibilities.

Strategy is a key skill in politics, in war, in business, but also in everyday life. Strategy is what takes you from an indefinite view of the world to a definite worldview: understanding that you actually do make a lot of difference, and that you are not a pawn to be moved, but a mover of pawns. Strategy is what gives you power to steer the course of your life, and do so smartly. Because truly many of us lead lives of unfulfilled potential, oblivious to the forces that shape our existence. However, in strategy, you are aware of forces. If life is an ocean, without strategy, you are floating on a raft. You have some control, but not a lot, and the ocean carries you easily around. With strategy, the ocean still carries you around, but you’re in a boat, or even a ship: you find ways to navigate the treacherous currents and winds. Sometimes, life still happens to you, despite your best effort. Nature simply doesn’t care. But sometimes, it is you who happens to life: you navigate the currents smartly and get nearer and nearer your desired destination. However it may be, the best chance of actual control is to be in a ship, instead of being on a raft, or simply floating without any help.

So, how does one go about learning strategy? Well, there are many things to consider. One is being another person (acting). The other one is thinking deeply. Third one is reading books on strategy. I have much to learn and improve myself, so bear in mind that if you do go along with what I say, you are listening to a beginner.

When I say acting, what I mean is to put yourself so deeply into another person’s shoes that you start to think like they do. Obviously, in a competitive context, this is a valuable skill to have. “Keep your friends close, but enemies closer” can be interpreted in various ways, one of which is simple, physical proximity. However, to keep your enemy close will in this case mean close in mind. It means to have a mental model of the enemy that is so natural to you that you can practically spontaneously put on the face of your enemy and actually become your enemy for a given time, in order to explore his thinking.

When I say thinking deeply, I mean to simulate: going through scenarios in your head in extreme detail, all the time calculating probabilities and plan B, C, D, E, F… It is an extremely complicated sequence of “if-then’s”, every “if-then” branching into more “if-then’s”.What is important to think deeply (simulate) is, of course, practice. It seems obvious in words, but many things are obvious in word, but not action. Constantly trying to predict the behavior of others, what this situation will cause, what that situation will cause, observing the many individual sequences that stem from a single action as they branch out. Understand the consequences and always try to understand implications, additional consequences, reasons. Understand the forces. This will necessitate raw intelligence (computing power), among other things.

Alongside pure computing power, certain heuristics, mental models and techniques will help in your thinking: Bayesian probability estimates come to mind. (They are mentioned in the chapter about Rationality). Another thing you will have to develop is mental fortitude, or willpower: to sustain deep, focused thought, for a long time.

And, as always, read books.

7. Learning to learn

Learning is at the heart of Overhumanity. We who try to become better humans are differentiated from everyone else by our skills, our abilities and our knowledge. We must learn how to learn better. We must not only know different languages – we must know how to learn new languages faster than average people do. We must not simply excel in a physical skill – hard as that is by itself – we must learn how to be able to excel in any physical skill. We must not only read, think and know – we must read about reading, think about thinking and know about knowing.

You understand the principle – it’s recursion. Don’t only improve on X, improve on your improvement of X. I would also like to advise you to improve on your improvement of your improvement – the more “back” you go, the more anterior levels you improve upon, the more results you get at the level of X. Not to let this stand at such an abstract explanation, I’ll try to give a real-world example:

X = cognitive psychology. If you want to improve your understanding of X, you will probably read books and studies. Now, how would you improve your improvement of X? You would find a way to read more effectively – maybe speedreading. Okay, so that’s one anterior level of improvement. How about improving the improvement of improvement? For that to happen, you would need to improve yourself in a certain way that would make speedreading easier. So maybe you could improve your general attention through a disciplined meditative practice. So the final scheme looks like this: meditate (to achieve attention/focus) so that you can speedread better so that you can learn about cognitive psychology. Three levels, three layers of improvement.

This is the main principle, going one level “back” if you can. From this principle flow certain techniques that work for practically everybody, and they are:

Speed reading

Books are little objects of magic: a person pours their thoughts into a paper-box-thing, and then you look at the paper-box-thing and then you can read their thoughts. It’s magic, pure and simple.

Normal reading is okay, but to find things out, it’s very useful to know how to speed read. If you can read a 500 page book in 5 hours instead of 5 days or weeks, that means that you have more time to read other books. (And nothing is stopping you from slow reading them again, if you like).

Start by reading any of the popular books on speed reading and develop your own system from there. I currently go through a 100 pages in around an hour. I say “go through” instead of “read”. Why? Because the truth about speed reading is that what you’re actually doing (at least in my system) is rushing through the text and discarding as much information as possible. Why would one want to do that, as it defeats the purpose of reading? You discard information already known to you. All the speed reading I do is based on this idea: go as fast as allows you to generally have an idea about the content of the pages you’re looking at and discard everything you already know. Simply put, when I speed read, I aim to track down the bits of information that aren’t already known to me. (There are several ways to do this; read a couple of books and you’ll get the idea… Or leave a comment and I might write a detailed article on speed reading).

Example:

“In this sentence, because we are talking about speed reading, and more generally, about improving your skills in life, I will try to explain the following principle, which I already mentioned before: speed reading is nothing more than eliminating all you already know, and finding things you don’t.”

The words in bold are what would be considered new information: everything else in the previous sentence is just repeating already mentioned knowledge. If you apply this principle to entire books, instead of just sentences, you save a lot of time.

It goes without saying that some books are not really speed readable… I don’t think you would want to speed read poetry, for example, or Musashi. I reserve speed reading simply to get information faster.

Read the right books

Your number two strategy for learning how to learn will be books on learning and thinking. Some of the books that have helped me:

Understanding how your brain operates and then taking advantage of this knowledge to learn better in general is a very important thing. Cognitive psychology will be your primary resource – Kahneman’s work is, as I understand it, the best there is (haven’t read it yet, but Thinking: Fast and Slow seems to be on everyone’s must-read-list).

And the commonsense advice also applies when it comes to learning to learn: if you want to remember something, repeat it; socialize with people smarter than you are if you want to get smarter; don’t do rote memorization but understand the material.


 

Some finishing thoughts:

A lesson to be learned: go and find specialists, and then learn from them. A master grappler will teach you better grappling than a general strategist; Kevin Spacey’s acting Masterclass will make you a better actor than my post will. Break everything into tiny pieces and then find people that are really, really good at those little pieces.

If someone is really good at something, it doesn’t mean that they are really good at a different thing. Yes, some skills are transferable, but what does this mean? It means that if you are really good at, say, boxing, you will learn wrestling faster than someone that doesn’t know the first thing about fighting. But it does not mean that you’re automatically good at wrestling too – it simply means that it will come faster to you.

Nobody will openly claim that they know everything, but many will act like that. A martial arts teacher should not be revered as a life guru. A good businessman should not be consulted for much else besides business practice. This very blog should be considered not with a grain of salt but with piles of salt: make your own judgement and don’t listen to everything I say.


 

The good thing about all these things you can learn is that they help each other to a certain extent. For example, Bayesian probability estimates are something that belongs to Rationality, but you will benefit enormously from it in Strategy. The prolonged focus in Strategy is the same one in Hyperawareness, though the latter one is toward the outside, instead of the inside. Things help themselves, a bit. Skills are transferable.


 

That is it.

  1. Go back to the basics. (because you just have to)
  2. Hyperawareness. (because you don’t want to be blind if eyes are an option)
  3. Rationality. (because Google Maps are better than sketches on napkins)
  4. Self preservation (because living is a good idea)
  5. Acting (because you suddenly become a multi-tool instead of being just a knife)
  6. Strategy (because you don’t want life just to happen to you)
  7. Learning to learn (because you want to actually achieve things in your life)

This curriculum is not complete, but it should help.

Plotting in the real world

Okay, first things first, if you’re a Harry Potter fan (and quite honestly, if you’re not, I don’t understand you as a human being) there is this incredible fanfiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality and believe me when I say it’s one of the best new things I’ve read in a long, long time. And I do not say such things lightly. The reason why this fanfic is so great is that it challenges my ideas about the world. Might be that I’m just getting old and my brain is getting calcified, but I’d wager that there’s not so much out there that is challenging – not to read, but challenging to the mind. (There are, naturally, a lot of books challenging to read, but absolutely debilitating to the mind – complicated doesn’t necessarily mean smart.) This is a gem and I mean it.

So anyway, go and check it out. You might like it, you might not, I personally don’t like the writing style, but there are many wonderful things on that website and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Inspired by this fanfic, I’ve thought about today’s problem – plotting.

Plot (noun): a secret plan or scheme to accomplish some purpose, especially hostile, unlawful, or evil purpose: a plot to overthrow the government. (source)

I’ve never been much of a plotter. Whole my life I’ve lived in a world where people are nice when they want to be nice and where they are rude when they want to be rude. In a world where you get invited to a cup of coffee because that person actually wants to hear from you, not to accomplish some hidden goal. As I grow older, I grow wiser, and I begin to see that around me, people have hidden agendas, hidden goals, hidden wishes and wants. And they plot. Without being cynical and saying everyone does it – even though, quite honestly, everyone does it to a certain extent – I’ll say that there are real plotters among us and that they do plot.

First thought that comes to mind: who gives a fuck? Let them plot, I won’t be a part of their game.

Response: not so easy. You can chose to remain on the outside, but if you don’t understand what’s going on around you, you’re a pawn and that means you’re the weakest figure in their game.

So the only responsible thing for an aspiring overhuman is to understand plotting. I’m not saying practice it. Practice it, maybe yes, to a certain extent, somewhere, sometimes. But simply understand it as good as the best plotter would.

Petyr Baelish - one of the best plotters I know.

Petyr Baelish – one of the best plotters I know.

Who are these plotters among us? Well, obviously, politicians and men of power. But also people around you, people you wouldn’t even suspect. I’ve written a post on the matter: The secrets of the everyday. Just to give you a short version: there is always something around you to discover, something other people don’t want you to know, and you have to 1. accept this fact, 2. perceive what goes around you and 3. ask the right questions. There are secrets to unveil in this world. Some might find this worrisome, but I find it beautiful. This means that your little stupid boring everyday is everything but not that. But I digress. Politicians. They do actually plot and you’re an idiot if you think you’re not a part of their plot. Do you want to be blindly carried and pushed and controlled? Or do you want to actually understand the game that’s being played? Because even if you live in a cottage in the mountains, having no contact with the state, the state can still decide to make a mine of your precious mountain, or cut down your precious forest. Ignorance is never a good strategy. You might be thinking “well, it’s not fair, why do I have to know about these things? Why can’t I just live my own life and have fun and enjoy?”. Why indeed. My response is more or less the same as for the question of martial arts (“Why do I have to learn the martial arts, why must I give away precious time and energy to learn to fight when there are many more interesting and better things to do than to fight other people, like reading, or building a house, or discovering a cure for cancer? It’s not fair!”)

It is not fair. It would be better to do these other wonderful things with your time, and not, well, waste it on plotting or fighting. But you know the cliché: the world’s not fair. If you just accept it right away, it’ll make the transition much easier.

But there is a catch. Nietzsche says:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

If you do decide to do the only rational thing and learn to fight and learn to plot, do not become a person who solves their troubles through fighting or plotting. These things are bad, but they must be known. They must be understood. But they really are very bad.

One big issue with plotting is that it becomes the cultural norm. This relates to the previous quote – people that usually wouldn’t resort to plotting do it but then it becomes something normal to do, the regular way to do things. Let me be clear on this: plot only when you have to. The truth is a better weapon than empty lies. Open dialogue, truthfulness, discussions, honesty – everything should be tried before escalating to plotting, that is the only way plotting doesn’t become the norm, and we don’t want a bad thing to become a norm. In other words, if you’re in an organization where there is a culture of open dialogue, make sure that you do not destroy that culture. If however you’re in a plotting culture, try to turn it away from the dark side and begin a practice of honesty. Plotting is the last resort, something you do if you have no other way.

Plotting is always a way to gain power. It basically goes like this: I have a great idea, I want to change the world to fit to this idea, I see I need power to change the world, I go after power, I plot to get power. Some do it because of their ideals, others because of money and self-interest, but basically everyone goes through these steps and one might argue that the worldwide political-economic-religious net is a result of plotting, and one wouldn’t be in the wrong.

Let’s summarize:

Understand that there are plots around you. These plots are “big” (as in big businesses, politics, etc) and “small” (as in, people you know, people you live with and so on).

Understand who benefits from what.

Learn techniques and strategies that really good plotters would use.

Identify the smartest people around you and among them, identify the smartest plotters. Keep an eye on them.

Question all motives.

Don’t become paranoid.

Plotting is always a way of getting power, so understand the relations of power around you.

Some practical exercises you might do:

  • Read the politics section in the newspaper and imagine that what happened is the intended result. Ask yourself who benefits from this result.
  • Whenever somebody wants something, question their motives and try to discover true motives if you have a feeling that they’re lying.
  • Identify powerful people around you and discover how they rose to power.
  • Whenever there’s a confrontation, ask yourself if that’s  just a part of a bigger picture i.e. if somebody provoked this confrontation deliberately.
  • Look for signs of deliberateness everywhere around you.

It is indeed a thin line between someone that sees the world clearly and a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Do not make the mistake of becoming the latter at the expense of the former.

Become the best plotter you can without actually plotting and you will see that it’s a whole new world that just opens up if you look at it the right way.