The big thing I get wrong

You interact with the world and you want certain results to happen from these interactions. I think I figured out a big piece that I have systematically been doing wrong.

I don’t reward agents.

You can think about the world as one big chessboard where you have different components independently interacting with one another. In chess of life, there are many more fields and figures than in regular chess. In chess of life, the pieces do different things, the rules for moving them are more complex and vary with time, the fields change in number and surface area. Just like chess, but much more complex. In chess of life, one important thing that you really want to do is to affect the behavior of intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) agents.

And psychological literature is very clear on how you do this: you reward good behavior and you punish bad behavior. All life on Earth adapts to positive and negative reinforcement.

Punishing is very tricky. Punishing humans is even trickier. Things can go very wrong, and punishing can easily be morally wrong. I don’t really do punishing. But I figured out that I don’t do rewarding either. I just… interact with people, and since we’re all equals (at least in my idea of the relationship in question), I don’t shape them: I neither punish bad behavior nor do I reward good behavior.

And this is stupid for a bunch of reasons: one, I have wishes or goals (utilities) but I systematically barricade my way from achieving them. Two, I probably do both rewarding and punishing but reactively, not like a planned thing. And three, there is no reason not to shape people, even if you’re equals.

I always look for ways of achieving my goals independently, as if I took no part in the real world of humans. This gives me the advantage that I get to learn to act independently, but if I systematically ignore a big aspect of human existence, that’s bad. That’s just throwing away a lot of good tools for no good reason. Shaping agents by reward is not bad, if you don’t do it for bad purposes. It’s not manipulative, within the standard meaning of the word. It’s no more bad or manipulative than bringing up a child is. Shaping agents by punishment isn’t necessarily bad either, but it can be bad much easier than rewarding agents. (Punishment is great at the level of populations – evolution doesn’t really reward populations, it just “prunes” them. But such pruning doesn’t do much good to the individual.)

This is a conceptual switch for me. Saying “good job”, getting someone some food, patting someone on the back – I guess I would sometimes do these things, either as learned behavior in specific scenarios, or just instinctively. But I never fully generalized this to an entire life philosophy: watch agents around you, figure out which rewards they would like, and when they do the thing you want them to do, reward them. Do this a thousand times and it compounds like crazy. Suddenly everything you want in your life is moving much faster and better because you have motivated agents that put effort into doing things. It’s not just you anymore.

This is just one of the many conceptual switches I had in the last couple of years. One of the more recent ones was presenting choice architectures with default choices (from the book “Nudge”), instead of giving absolute freedom in deciding or deciding for someone. That one goes hand in hand with this one, making the sequence look like this: watch agents around you, figure out which rewards they would like, present them with choice architectures with the choices you want them to make, and when they do something good, reward them.

Is saying “good job” manipulative or inappropriate in a relationship of equals? It isn’t, if you have good intentions. But there is something that bothers people (?) if this “good job” is deliberate – even if it is honest. The idea that another agent is deliberately shaping me seems shady – who are you to say “good job” to me? (if it is all a part of your master plan where I start doing more of the things you like)

But it’s not malevolent, it’s just deliberate, and it doesn’t take away another person’s agency… So I think that’s definitely in the realm of OK. (I’d be okay if someone with good intentions was shaping me towards a better version of myself)

Meta:

I practiced positive reward in dog training for quite some time, but it still didn’t occur to me that it can be generalized to life in general. What other things, like rewarding agents, do I already do, or know, but only in specific, closed-off domains? What else can become a more general tool?

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Meta-self-improvement

For the last couple of days, weeks, and maybe months, I’ve been going through a rough patch of my life. Not a really really rough patch, but things were harder than they used to be. Personal relations became strained, working became a drag, willpower tumbled and overall happiness decreased. I felt as if I was not in control.

After taking some time to clear my head, this is the lesson I think can be extracted from my experience:

 

Whenever I feel like I’m not doing well with some problem in my life, I shouldn’t ask myself: “How could I do this better?” Instead, I should ask myself: “How can I become the sort of person that finds this problem easy?”

There is a significant difference. Say that you want to perform well at some test, or read a book you’ve been putting off, or perform some athletic feat. For the book, instead of asking yourself: “How can I finish this book?”, or any of the sub-questions (“How can I find the time for reading?”/”How much reading per day should I do?”/etc.), you could ask yourself: “What do I have to do to become a person that doesn’t even need to ask that question? How can I become a person that finds reading this book an easy task?”

Sometimes, the steps for both types of questions will be the same. For some things, becoming better at those things simply means doing them more. But I think there is much more to it, in the majority of such cases.

I think you always have to look one level “above”, you always have to go meta on your problems. Instead of finding hacks and solving individual problems, you should make yourself into a fully general and adaptable problem solving tool.

The essence of becoming Overhuman is in perfecting the meta-level skills that allow you to breeze through the object-level problems. So, it’s not about learning foreign languages, but learning how to learn foreign languages. It’s not about performing well at a job interview, but acquiring a set of personal skills that is fully applicable to the job interview. It’s not about doing this one particular move in chess, but in understanding the principles of the board.

So my question to myself is this: how can I become the sort of person that finds the problems from my last couple of weeks/months – stupidly easy? I can almost imagine this better version of me: every issue I had was prevented or solved in no time by this better version of me, and he didn’t get angry, and didn’t get frustrated… He just breezed through all that stuff. No sweat. If I can imagine him, and if I imagine that he actually finds my problems easy, then what do I need to do to become him? What concrete steps should I take? You might want to ask yourself that very same thing for the issues you’re having.

I think I have my answer, or at least a part of it. I think more meditation is definitely in order. Much of my mental disarray happened just because I was not sufficiently in touch with what I was feeling and lost sight of the wider picture. I also think that I failed on certain habits like early rising and doing one big thing in the morning. I sort of relapsed into an older method of doing things – not completely bad, but not optimized for a good “results to happiness”-ratio. Basically, I got tired and lost form. Meditating, resting, maintaining particular productivity habits… These are some of my meta-level things. What are yours?

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?

Powerful and Powerless

(I haven’t yet read Robert Greene’s “48 laws of power”, it’s on my reading list; these are just some things that I’ve been thinking about)

Power is not binary

It’s not a question of having or not having power, but having less or more of it. Imagine you’re renting an apartment. Who has power here, you or the landlord? You provide the landlord with a steady inflow of money. Not only that, but you, if you’re a good tenant, provide the landlord with a sense of security: they know that they’ll both get the money every month and that the apartment will not be ruined in some way. So you could argue that it is you, the tenant, that has the power.

On the other hand, the name landlord doesn’t have “-lord” in it for no reason; indeed, the landlord is the owner and they have the possibility of your eviction in their hands (generally you’re protected by law not to be evicted immediately, but still). Obviously, the landlord is the possessor of power in this situation.

So who really has the power?

Answer: both of you have relative amounts of power to one another. Power is not binary, power is a quantity that can be distributed in a binary fashion, but usually isn’t. You wield some power over the landlord and the landlord wields some power over you. Sometimes you have more, sometimes they have more.

Forms of power

What is power, actually? Let’s arbitrarily define power as “good probability (>50%) that what you want actually will happen”. So, by this definition, power can come in many forms and the only thing that matters is that it brings >0.5 probability of you achieving your goals, seeing your plans to fruition.

Here are some forms of power that I can think of (there are probably others too):we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-wallpaper-2

  • money
  • influence
  • strong character
  • knowledge
  • technology
  • numbers (of people)

 

So, let’s revisit the apartment example again. Let’s say you’re paying 1700 a month for the privilege of living in another person’s space (doesn’t matter which currency, I’m using arbitrary numbers). Let’s also say that your total earnings per month are usually around 4000. So, you have 2300 left to cover the bills, food and other spending. Say that it takes 800 for the bills. You now have 1500. Food, around 1200. You have 300 for any other spending (not a lot, you have to make ends meet, but you regularly survive). You are person A.

Person B, on the other hand, earns twice as much – 8000 per month. After all your costs, person B still has 4300 left to spend, enough to rent another apartment simultaneously.

It is recognizable that person B has more power than person A, but it is not immediately clear why this is so. I’ll explain.

Say your landlord starts giving you a hard time; maybe they’re broke and need to squeeze out the money, or they simply smell that you’re not really powerful. They start to demand earlier payments every month; when the equipment in the apartment breaks down, they refuse to pay for the repairs and insist you do it; they ask for advance rent payments; in short, they become very needy and demanding and “unreasonable” (funny word that – generally it’s used if you don’t have power to say no).

What does person A do? They submit, and submit, and submit, because they know that even if they find another apartment at this cost, which is unlikely, they’ll still get in the same sort of situation (a landlord that’s more powerful and demands things). And also all the hassle with moving and trying to earn a living at the same time… It’s easier to submit to the ever growing demands and small pokes and prods than to leave this increasingly abusive situation.

Person B? Hah! Person B says to the landlord at the first sight of “unreasonable” demands: “No.”

Just no. No explaining. No nothing. No.

Person B, you see, doesn’t care. Person B doesn’t try to make things work out for everyone and cooperate and compromise, because person B has enough money on their account to be able to simply say “no.” What’s the result? The landlord doesn’t even try to milk out more money because they know that they’ll lose a good tenant that gives them a steady inflow of money and a sense of security.

But did you see what just happened here? Both tenants were good tenants that provided the landlord with money and security, but only B had the possibility (>0.5) to leave. So person A has less power than the landlord, and B has more, simply because B has more options – in the form of more money.

All this serves to drive in a key lesson that I am learning: do your best to get (enough) power. This is a top-level priority. There will be kind people that will not turn to predators when they smell that you’re not strong, but the world generally doesn’t function like that, I think. Lions attack the weakest buffaloes. Street thugs attack the weakest victims. School bullies bully the weakest kids.

If you see the world as a battle between good and evil, you know that the battle will only be won if the good guys are stronger than the bad guys. So if you want to do good in the world, you have a moral obligation to get more power. Being powerless just gives more power to the evil tyrant, to the rapist, to the bully, to the corporation that puts toxic chemicals in children’s toys, to the landlord that doesn’t want to pay for repairs, to the policeman that beats on peaceful protesters. Don’t shy away from power, saying “Power corrupts!” Instead, get power and find some way in which you won’t get corrupted by it. Yes, power can corrupt, and you should be careful not to become one of the people you despise, but not all people with power are evil scum – be like them! Be Albus Dumbledore, not Voldemort. Be Luffy, not Doflamingo. Be Sherlock, not Moriarty.

Powermongering for World Optimization: the Minimal Guide for Good People

  • Money: options. More money, more options. How to get more money? (1) Be more valuable to other people and, ideally, (2) be a master of some thing. A cook is valuable (and paid), a better cook more valuable (and more paid) and a master cook is the most valuable of all (and has more money than all). Mastery, if done right, will mean a lot of money.
  • Influence: manipulation. If you know your practical psychology well, you will be able to make other people do what you want them to do. Read Influence by Cialdini. (Also, fame sometimes equals influence, but not always.)
  • Strong character: power recognition. Don’t be a weakling that feels powerless despite the fact that you actually do have power. If you are person B, don’t be anxious about your landlord giving you a hard time – you are in a position of power, recognize it.
  • Knowledge: currency of power. The more you know, the more you can exchange this knowledge into other forms of power. You could know a lot about influence and become influential. You could know some information and exchange it for money. You could know BJJ and pin some attacker to the ground. If power is the product, then knowledge is the currency with which you buy it.
  • Technology: the counter to other powers. In a world of knives, a gun makes all the difference. Tech can give you an otherwise unobtainable upper hand. If you went alone against a hundred Viking warriors, you would definitely be killed. Unless if you had an atomic bomb. Then you, alone, would beat a hundred armed warriors. Whenever you can have technology, or just learn it and use it, you should.
  • Numbers: the primal form of power. Sometimes, a lesser force will beat a bigger one. But often, it will not. If you can count on a lot of people, either for some sort of conflict or just as help, you will be a very powerful person indeed.

Power doesn’t flow from “could-happen” ideas

When the bully pins your head to the window of the bus and you’re all alone with him, you might be thinking “I could kill him. I could make an evil and ingenious plot and take his life. I could get him to- OUCH OUCH OUCH OUCH PLEASE STOP”.

Stop speaking or thinking nonsense. Power only comes from things that can actually happen. You know that you’re not going to kill anyone, despite your fantasies. The bully is powerful and you are weak. You can, in fact, obtain more power and thwart the bully: you can read books on influence and make his life really ugly by using Slytherin skills; you can earn money and pay someone bigger to beat him up; you can learn boxing and break his nose; you can get a couple of friends and collectively beat him up etc.

But dreaming up things that you’ll never ever ever do is just fantasy, and you are trying to put yourself into a position of power based on fantasy. Wrong. Don’t do that. Instead, recognize who has power, in which amount, and then do what is necessary to obtain more power. You don’t have to become the bully yourself, but you have to have enough power not to be bullied.


How do you think about power? Are you a powerful person or are you powerless? Leave a comment! I know I’m slowly getting to more power, but I originally come from a victim-mentality, zero-power personality, so I have a longer road than some. But you know, you gotta do the work, and do it every day…