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.

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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.

Reality is intensely interesting

Many people find their lives boring and commonplace, with occasional streaks of fun and excitement. This is an emotional state which doesn’t at all correspond to the real world out there. It is stupid to say “you shouldn’t feel like that”, but in this case, you just… shouldn’t.

Understandably, you will sometimes perform boring work or otherwise engage in a boring activity, but the thing is – there is no such thing as boredom in the world around you. Boredom is produced when we fail to see what’s out there. If you wake up feeling bored, go to work and you’re bored there, go home, taking the usual route, do your exercise routine, you know, just boring old stuff – you’re out of touch with Reality. You’re living in the Matrix, or, better said, your image of the world is the Matrix.

Reality is infinitely and intensely interesting, not boring. Your sense of boredom overrides your sense of curiosity, but really it shouldn’t. It’s a defect in your thought-process. The world around you, from the most dull routine of existence to the most fantastic adventure is inherently interesting.

If you must feel negative emotions, then annoyance and anxiety are choices better suited for what’s really out there. You should rather be annoyed by the fact that you still don’t know how reality works, why there exists something in the first place, how ageing happens, why π is important, how to hack into Pentagon, who spoke the first language, how life came to be and so on… You should rather be anxious by the fact that you may die before you learn even the smallest particulars of True Reality. If you understand that solvable mysteries make up reality, and that humankind has really only solved a small percentage of all solvable mysteries, and that you concretely probably haven’t solved any (just because Feynman knows something doesn’t mean anything to you; you are still just as ignorant until you yourself understand a given phenomenon) – in short, if you see the rough sketches of how reality really looks like – boredom is absurd. It is seriously crazy not to be interested by all aspects of reality, from the most “boring” to the most exciting. If I performed a spell in front of you and summoned a fire monster, and you just said “meh”, there would be a serious, serious problem with you. A FIRE MONSTER, and you’re just “meh”?!? But that’s how many people actually are – electricity is normal, everyone uses it, therefore boring. There is nothing special or exciting in turning on a computer. Driving cars is commonplace. Why would you be excited by that?

puzzle-1You should! You should at least feel latent interest, a notion of, at least, in principle being curious about why electricity works and how cars are produced.

Anything else is just turning your eyes away from what’s really out there, and insisting on a lie that the world is boring. Anything else is just making up your own map, instead of drawing the map of the territory. Anything else is just laziness and bad habit. Anything else is just crazy.

The one thing most people don’t know about human communication

A lot of human communication is not at all information exchange but a dominance contest.

You can hear this around a lot if you practice deep listening. It’s intuitive to think about our communication as if it was information being exchanged. You tell me information A, I tell you information B, now we both know A and B. This is one way of looking at it and it is not wrong. But it’s not the only way.

Say that you walk your dog. You stop in a smaller park with an apartment complex right alongside it. You play with your dog, you throw a stick around and you accidentally hit a freshly planted tree, not damaging it, but shaking it significantly. A person appears on the balcony of one of the apartments and yells at you. Let’s consider this dialogue:

  • What the hell are you doing!? Do you know what these trees are?
  • Uhm… Peaches?
  • Why are you here with that dog? Don’t you have someplace other to be?
  • What?
  • Get out of here, right now! You’re damaging those trees!
  • It was an accident.
  • Do you have to throw such a big stick around? They’re freshly planted!
  • I already told you that I didn’t do it on purpose, it was accidental.
  • It better not be! You have no business being here!

Has there been any pure information exchange? Well, if you interpret it enough, all of this was just information, but without twisting it too much, the only piece of information came from you: “It was an accident.” Well, what is the remaining 90% of this dialogue?

It’s fighting for power.

A dominance contest, where the person that’s yelling is trying to assert his/her dominance over you. Your entire childhood was likely one big dominance contest with your parents. Some pure information transpired, naturally, but a lot of it was likely “do this” and “do that”.

This dominance contest, trying to be dominant over your speaker, is by no means a thing left in childhood. Ever get those people that want to give you advice you don’t need?

  • No, no, no, you shouldn’t eat fructose or gluten, both are bad for you, you need to eat a lot of protein and fat.
  • Yeah man, but I don’t need to lose weight or anything and I feel just fine.
  • You’re not listening, I’m telling you this is best, just try it!

Dominance contest right there. What I’m hearing is “I know much more than you do. You should listen to what I’m saying.” Okay, maybe with some people it’s not like that – sometimes you’ll really get well-intended advice you didn’t ask for. But a lot of advice givers… Man, they love to dominate. I myself am guilty of this, so I know.

Sometimes this fight for power comes in more subtle nuances. I feel that when people change the subject, it often leads to them trying to dominate the conversation. Not always, but I’ve heard it enough times to see a pattern. Example:

  • I’m doing mostly pistol squats for lower body strength now. I figured it’s better than to pay a gym fee, at least in the beginning, when you can’t squat a lot, cause you practically have the additional weight on your body anyway, it’s just a matter of-
  • That’s dangerous.
  • Dangerous?
  • Look at how wobbly your knee is.
  • Yeah, I know, I need to do more work on controlling the movement-
  • I wouldn’t do it. I mean, why not do regular squats?
  • I can, but I can do a lot of them, while I want to achieve maximal strength.
  • Can you do a thousand of them?
  • A thousand? Well, I suppose no, but-
  • Well Shaolin monks do thousands of them. They repeat and repeat. They’re dedicated to what they’re doing.
  • Aha… Well, that’s… cool.
  • You see now what I’m talking about? There’s no need to push yourself too hard, because you’re actually slowing your progress down. You should focus on quality and rest enough, then the progress will come.

At a first glance, this is a normal enough conversation, but if you look at it deeply, you see that the second person is simply trying to dominate the conversation through subtle changes of subject. Look at the final advice (“focus on quality and rest enough”) and look at what person A was saying: “I’m trying to get stronger through pistol squats”. Is there any conflict between “focus on quality and rest enough” and “I’m doing pistol squats for strength”? No. They’re similar, but they speak about entirely different things. And yet, we feel like person B somehow “won” this conversation, despite the quite apparent lack of connection. I mean, what do Shaolin monks have to do with anything? They don’t, but person B feels like he won this discussion and, even more importantly, the listeners also feel like he won it.

By the way, all these examples are from my personal life (except the fructose and gluten, I made that one up). These are the things people say to me and I look at them, confused. Should I call them out on this or let them ramble? Should I also try to dominate or not?

Here’s another one, more recent (here you can see that monologues within dialogues can signal a dominance contest):

  • Sifu, have you heard about Steve Morris?
  • No, who’s that?
  • He’s a martial arts teacher, very interesting guy, speaks a lot about psychology in fighting.
  • He does Wing Tzun?
  • No, he’s a boxer, well, more of an MMA fighter than boxer to be honest, but does a lot of different styles, and I think I saw a wooden dummy in his gym in one video.
  • How old is he?
  • Around seventy, I think.
  • I don’t know him, but there are a lot of guys that do all kinds of things. A lot of people teach. They have their methods and they teach people. I mean, this guy, he’s a boxer. But what can you do, you cannot challenge him, he’s too old.
  • No, well, he’s actually quite youthful despite his age, he doesn’t look seventy at all.
  • Yeah but still, what can you do. There are a lot of people doing different things, teaching different things, but they all try to be the best, say they’re the best. They all try to sell you their system, their teachings. They convince you that this method or that method is better than the other one. I’ve had Wing Tzun guys trying to steal my concepts and my ideas, and then they sell them like it’s theirs. But you know, I’m not doing that, I’m teaching you mathematics, you know. Angles, distances, principles. I’m teaching you the scientific principles of Wing Tzun. It’s not Emin Boztepe Wing Tzun, it’s your Wing Tzun, it’s scientific Wing Tzun.

Who “won” this conversation? Clearly not person A (me). Despite the fact that there is no conflict present, we feel that person B “won” in this conversation and that I lost. I have been dominated. Again, what does the final conclusion have to do with my first mention of Steve Morris? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

How to handle people trying to dominate conversations?

It should be noted that this dominance contest is usually not a consciuos thing, and it is also usually not harmful in its intent. It simply happens, without anyone meaning any harm (or meaning anything, for that matter). This, however, does not change the fact that it is irritating.

I’ll disappoint you, but I don’t think there is a lot you can do. Because these people are seeking dominance, good argumentation will simply be ignored. And even good argumentation is not applicable sometimes because you have people that will change the subject much more often than you can counter-argument them.

One thing I do absolutely know now is this: don’t nod your fucking head.

Nodding your head is bad for two reasons: 1) you give approval to people trying to dominate you and 2) you set yourself up for believing their bullshit. You’ll find that not nodding your head is actually difficult, especially with someone that says some bullshit and nods his head at the same time. You almost do it instinctively, mirroring the movement. And if you don’t, they have some leverage over you, calling you out, making a joke, asking you if you agree. But still, don’t nod.

That being said, I will usually simply leave the conversation. I feel that it is not productive to listen to people that try to dominate over you. Just break the contact and leave.

Know this: if you decide that you will stay in the conversation, no dialectic (i.e. rational argumentation) will get you anywhere with these people. You have to use rhetoric, manipulating emotions and changing the frame of the conversation, as well as switching subjects. When I say changing frames, this is what I’m talking about. I dislike rhetoric as much as the next man, but it is the only thing that will work against someone trying to dominate.

Do you have any examples of people trying to dominate conversations? I’d love to hear them, leave me a comment.