Why do I even train?

I used to say that I train because I want to maximize my chances of survival. I used to say that it was rational to train if you want to live. At least, to train martial arts and Parkour. This, in fact, is a rationalization. I mean, it IS rational to train martial arts and Parkour if you want to maximize your chances of survival, but that’s not REALLY why I do it.

I train martial arts and Parkour because there exists an impulse within me – a thing that wants to be superior, but in a skilled and manly way. There is a part of me that yearns for stress, battle, danger and all the chances that these extreme states provide. Indeed, I train because I still want to be a hero.

If it was truly a decision coming from a wish to maximize chances for survival, then I would take care of this graph first:

And, I mean, now I actually do take care of this graph. Statistics, as Kahneman points out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, are not just some arcane realm divorced from this world: statistics and numbers and ratios and percentages – that actually is real life. So, if a rationalist wants to maximize their chances of survival, by necessity, first they must take care of the ENORMOUS cause which is heart disease and cancer. I mean – compare murder to heart disease. Look at how tiny the circle is compared to the behemoth of circulatory disorders. If you eat meat but train martial arts (as I used to), thinking that you’re rationally maximizing your chances of survival, then you’re either lying to yourself about why you’re training (a deadly rationalist sin – thou shalt not lie to thyself) OR you’re ignoring “sheer” numbers (also a deadly rationalist sin – thou shalt not evade the base rates).

So, if I am to be completely honest with myself, even if it is rational to exercise for a bunch of health reasons and even if you’re simultaneously optimizing for survival of murder and even if you’re participating in a community, also shown to increase longevity, the actual big reason is that I want to be a hero. I want to be someone that reacts calmly and effectively faced with stress; someone that blocks a sucker punch and defends a friend from attackers; someone that can, at a moment’s notice, go into full Jason Bourne mode and just, like, extremely own the entire situation. That’s the impulse I have, and, looking back, it seems that I’ve always had it. Some guys I know have it as well. I’m thinking it’s something genetic, maybe an expression of the DRD4 gene (the “adventure gene”).

But the thing is, even if this is a part of my make-up as a person, something that I can’t really influence, it doesn’t matter. It’s okay. This can be turned into a good thing. I can be a junkie, sure. But I can also use my obsession with novelty and excitement and danger, couple it with odds-defying optimism (which I am also suffering from), plug in a lot of algorithms like rationalism, effective altruism, hacking, quick modeling etc. and actually use my “shortcomings”, if they can even be called that. Even if my drive stems from an evolutionary genetic variation intended for wanting to hunt bears, risking my life, succeeding and ensuring the survival of the tribe and my own offspring – it still doesn’t matter. If our stupid hunter-gatherer brains were able to be retrained to do mathematics, then this is no different.

So yes, I do want to be Jason Bourne, I do seek danger and excitement and novelty, I enjoy competition and beating my opponents. And all this can be poured into things that really matter, instead of things that matter only a little bit, or things that don’t matter at all. This drive can be poured into things like stopping factory farming, or ensuring mosquito nets for malaria, or beating unfriendly AI in advance. It took some time to actually convince my hunter-gatherer brain that mathematics are, considering the scope of all things that are happening, orders of magnitude more dangerous and exciting than some guy trying to punch me in the face. It took some time to convince my brain of this; if you’re like me, it might take some time as well. But don’t give up on being a hero. Maybe you won’t be a hero in some typical heroic profession, but you can definitely be a hero where it really matters. Use your brain; figure out where things are worst and where a hero is needed. The next step is both simple and impossible, but you will do it regardless: become that hero.


Obvious things that are not so obvious

There are some things that are obvious, that should be obvious, but people just ignore them or find clever rationalizations for why they’re not obvious. As years go by, I see more and more of these things. For me, the scary thing is how non-obvious they seemed a couple of years ago, because it reminds me that there could still be hundreds of such things around me right now and I don’t see them as obvious. These can be “cached patterns” of thought, logical fallacies, or lazy thinking. Maybe there are some complex problems that are not really obvious to a more trained eye: if you think I have made a mistake, present an argument for why that is so, I’ll be happy to change my mind. But, lacking that, here are 3 of some pretty obvious things that are not obvious:

  1. Death is not good. This is obvious for managing your everyday life (e.g. you don’t walk into traffic), but somehow, if you apply this thought to a longer time horizon, you get very different results from what is usual. Most of us don’t want death today, tomorrow, or even next year, but we (say we) want it in 50, 60, 70 years. Consider this: if I asked you “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would say no. If I asked you that same question the next day, you would say no. If I asked you that same question a year from now, you would say no. If I asked you that question on 5 March 2089, if I said “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would STILL say no. In other words, no matter when I ask you, be it today, tomorrow, next decade, or the next millennium, you will say no, and you will never say yes if you are in good health and have friends. Obvious conclusion: we should try really hard not to die: cryonics, fasting (or at least a healthy diet), applied gerontology, and other things. There is nothing beautiful about death, nothing poetic about allowing the destruction of your own soul. There is nothing nice in ceasing to exist.
  2. Optimization is good. But it’s non-obvious. Say that you want to learn Swedish. You go to a language school and follow the curriculum. It reminds you of your high school days: you all start with checking homework assignments in the workbook, then you talk for a couple of minutes, then you read from the book, then you write down some answers to the questions about the text, and maybe then the teacher explains some topic of Swedish grammar to you. Straightforward. If you were my student a couple of years ago, you would have followed this same curriculum. However, that is no longer so. I asked myself the question: “How can I make my students learn Swedish in the least amount of time possible with the highest possible results?” The answer was not the curriculum we were doing. The answer was: learn really well the most frequent 100 words and the combinations they can produce. That was all it took, a simple question intended to make something better. The result: my students get to a conversational level in probably half the time. If you don’t really get why optimization is good, ask yourself: “Would I like to learn good Swedish in 8 years or in 1 year, given the same amount of effort?” If the answer is obvious to you, then so should the method be. Obvious conclusion: most of the things in your life can be optimized, but aren’t, because of a lack of thought. If you want results, if you really want/need something, you optimize, you don’t do the usual/normal/expected thing.
  3. Saving 500 people from certain death is better than helping an old, blind woman cross the road. Yes, you might get warm, fuzzy feelings about that old, blind woman. She is so obviously in need of assistance! Okay, if you have to choose, do you a) save the lives of 500 people and let the old woman find her own way or b) help the woman and let 500 people die? Can’t do both. Depending on your answer, effective altruism could (should) be obvious to you. When you can’t do everything but only one thing, you do the one thing that saves the most lives, helps the most people. Saving your dog from drowning is better than sharing your friend’s band page on Facebook. Sending $100 every month to a poor single mother in a Kenyan village to feed and educate her children is better than giving $100 to a random poor guy in USA. He’s in need of assistance, yes. But you giving $100 to a family in Kenya is the equivalent of, I don’t know, giving $1500 to the guy in the USA. Your limited $100 has a much stronger effect in Kenya than in the USA. You save more lives, help more people. Many people resist to such a cold calculation: how can you be so COLD about it? So… machine-like? Well, if you aren’t, you have to live with the fact that you let 500 people die just so that you can help an old lady cross the road. You have to live with the fact that your dog drowned because you helped your friend with his band page on Facebook. If you don’t optimize for maximum effect in helping, you have NOT done your best. You have done something, okay, that is better than nothing. But you didn’t give it your best. The poor woman in Kenya and her children will be hungry for another month. Obvious conclusion: instead of donating to other charities and organizations, join Giving What We Can, the organization which aims to put your money where it has the largest effect. Read 80000 hours. Do what does the most good.

This post might continue. These three things are the most obvious ones that I’ve been thinking about, but I might add other stuff as well (doesn’t have to be so serious as these three). Do you have something that you find fairly obvious, but people around you don’t? Leave a comment, I want to know.