Failing is training

The argument to moderation is a fallacy in which a person claims that the truth lies between two extremes. For example, you have the pro-vaccination arguments, and the anti-vaccination arguments, and since they are opposing each other, you concede that both arguments have some merit and that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: maybe some vaccines, but not all.

And while going for balance may be a good thing, there is no guarantee that it will be a good thing.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider a society which tries to find a balance between slavery and non-slavery. It’s pretty fucked up to compromise with slavery, and it’s obviously wrong.

But if not used to make an argument, the Yin and the Yang can be useful for thinking about yourself. I’ve been looking for balance for a long time, and I will probably still be looking for balance for quite some time after this text.

One place where I’ve been looking for balance is between self-criticism and self-acceptance. If you’re too accepting of yourself, you’re soft and you don’t hold yourself to a high enough standard. That means that you cannot grow and do great things. On the other hand, if you smother yourself with criticism, you’re unhappy and always unsatisfied. None of these extremes look appealing: balance to the rescue.

Here’s one balancing thought that came to my mind yesterday:

I’m not failing; I’m training.

This isn’t an excuse – for myself, I am certain of this. I think that there are people who can twist anything to suit their needs, but I am fairly certain that at this point in time, I’m not using this as an excuse.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s say that you have a track record of actually doing things. You’re an achiever – maybe not the achiever, maybe not a cocaine-modafinil IQ 180 monster, but you actually do things.

You have projects, and you try new things, and you branch out to new areas that interest you. This branching out could be, for example, trying out a new hobby, starting with a new sport, or applying to jobs in a new industry.

Of course you’re not successful or well-known. The world is not one big pond: you have many disconnected ponds, and being good or respected at one thing does not mean that anyone from the other pond knows about you. A successful boxer will fail for a long time before getting good at Jiu-Jitsu – but for him (or her), the pressure is much higher because (s)he is already a well-known boxer.

A small voice whispers to your ear then. It says: “Just quit, why are you embarrassing yourself here?”

This voice leads you to abandon new hobbies, new sports, new jobs, new relationships. Why? To maintain your high status – which you originally earned by starting at the very bottom.

Or a voice will whisper to your ear: “Maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were.” Maybe you continue with the new thing, but now you’re uncertain – because you’re used to win, and now you’re not winning, and now you’re permanently dissatisfied.

Not really necessary to say, but all of this is obviously stupid. Failing is training, and if you pursue new directions in your life – if you’re growing – then you will fail a lot, until you stop failing.

I’m not failing; I’m training.

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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?

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?

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.

Quick! Solve your emotional problems now!

It is commonly recognized that if you have emotional, spiritual or psychological problems (NOT mental health issues – things like losing faith, or not being sure which career path to take, or noticing that you’re not anymore in love with your partner), they take some time.

I argue that we give them too much time.

This area of human psychology is fragile, so advice is often kind and “soft”, but we often completely ignore the fact that most problems shouldn’t take that long to solve. Here, decision paralysis reigns supreme. Hey, don’t you talk to me like that, don’t you know how I feel, don’t you understand that I’m in pain, recognize that I am suffering emotionally- STOP.

Pain is real, suffering is real and these problems are very real. I am not saying: “Just pretend they’re not there”. No. You should definitely take care of them, first, because you should generally take care of bad things in your life, and second, these problems are beneath an Overhuman.

But adopt the habit of asking this question whenever you feel stressed, bummed out and insecure: is this a problem that I could, at least in principle, solve more quickly than I am doing now?

Ask yourself that question. Could you, if you tried, solve it quickly? Sometimes the answer will be no, but it is still important to ask, because in most cases, the answer is a definite yes. Don’t play a role, play to win.

Playing a role mindset: this is a bad situation and I am supposed to suffer some undetermined (but relatively long) quantity of time, after which I may or may not find a solution/enlightenment.

Playing to win mindset: this is a bad situation. How can I solve it in the quickest, most effective way possible? If unsolvable, what can I do to minimize the amount and time of suffering and what can I do to get into a position of being able to solve it?

I look at it like this. We all get lost from time to time. Most of us find a way to somewhere, somehow. But for most people, it just takes too fucking long to reorient. You don’t need to spend a year contemplating your life’s purpose to find it. You don’t need to spend an additional two months in a bad relationship. Recognize this: at some point, you WILL reorient. No question about it. Nobody gets stuck forever. But if you know that you will reorient, why not do it more quickly?