Work as if you live in the early days of a better world

I just finished reading Semiosis, a novel by Sue Burke, which follows the story of a group of humans colonizing a new planet over the first 100 years. It reads a lot like The Martian — science and survival — but replace The Martian‘s solitude and desolation with community and competition.

It’s a deeply hopeful book about the prospects for the flourishing of sentient and intelligent life. The quote in the title of this post is not from Sue Burke, but it resonates for me as an attitude that, if held, is likely to make our present and future moments better.

Keep the channel open

James Clear shared a wonderful quote in his recent post.

This is Agnes de Mille, an American choreographer, recalling what her friend and mentor, the legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, had to say when de Mille asked Graham why a piece of her work that she considered merely mediocre had received so much attention while works that she considered superior were largely ignored:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Martha Graham, as recalled by Agnes de Mille in de Mille’s biography of Graham.

James Clear: happiness is the absence of desire

You get what you want and you’re happy, and you think the thing you got was what made you happy.

Another way to look at it, says Clear: what made you happy was simply that you stopped wanting something else.

If you don’t have a desire to change your current state, then by definition you’re happy — you’re content with where you’re currently at.

From James Clear on The One You Feed podcast, episode 250.

Love and conditions

Conditional love: I love you because of your merits. 

Unconditional love: I love you without respect to conditions. 

It’s interesting how unconditional love is not directly caused by conditions, but it’s not completely independent from conditions either. Eg I think you can intentionally cultivate unconditional love for someone, and you might choose to do that because of how good your life is with that person, which is conditional on their merits. And I think one way to cultivate unconditional love is to habitually feel appreciation for them, which will often be prompted by some little thing they said or did. 

If “bitterness” is anger that forgot its cause, maybe unconditional love is appreciation that forgot its cause.

Hacking the test

The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn’t something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

Paul Graham

The thesis of Paul Graham’s most recent essay is that school trains us not to learn or to be smart, but to hack tests. His framing is novel (to my eyes) and powerful. 

What does it mean to hack tests? It means focusing on succeeding at the evaluation mechanism rather than at the thing the mechanism was intended to evaluate. In school, it means cramming before the test, even though you won’t remember anything later. It means reading only the required material, because the rest won’t show up on the test. It’s possible — you may have done it — to get good grades in school while learning very little. 

By the time we get out of school, we’ve had years and years of exposure to this kind of training. This training makes us dumb. Most of our actual goals in life don’t reward test hackers. Graham gives an illustration from his own experience advising startup founders. You might hack parts of the process, like getting investors. But if your company isn’t a good investment, it won’t succeed, and you’ll have wasted your investors’ money and your life

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote about this in 2007 as “lost purposes”. He gave as a memorable example Soviet factories who were evaluated by the quantity of goods they produced, and who as a result produced useless goods (like tiny shoes) in large quantities. The system had lost track of the purpose of producing the goods. 

Graham’s framing led to insight in a number of areas for me. Some places test hacking shows up for me: 

  • A high school guidance counselor once called me the worst underachiever she’d seen in her career. Test hacking resonates as a description of the thing I disliked and mistrusted about school. It’s not a test of how smart I am. It’s not a test of how much I’ve learned. It’s a test of how much of a chump I am. How far I’m willing to go to win your approval, when you long ago lost sight of what you were supposed to be doing. I was not a rebel without a cause, as I’ve often described myself retrospectively. My cause was noble. I was too much a philosopher to participate in the bullshit. 
  • There’s a kind of illness I have observed in people who work at big tech companies for a few years. It might be explained by the fact that they’re forced to spend a huge part of their energy hacking tests.
  • In product management, people often fetishize some part of the process while having lost sight of the big picture. “Fail fast” is taken literally. A/B tests are performed one after another without an adequate understanding of the statistical inferences that can be drawn or the strategic landscape that’s being explored. 
  • In consciousness. Yudkowsky said that lost purposes only show up in organizations, and that these behaviors seen in an individual would be the mark of insanity. But if we take a multi-agent view of the human mind, it makes perfect sense that the mind-system would be full of test hacking. I think this is fundamental to understanding how our minds operate. 
  • My passion for deep conceptual understanding is the cousin of my deep disgust for test hacking. Insofar as it matters that you actually succeed, then you need to actually understand and not bullshit yourself. 

Morality for sociopaths: why to just be a good person

In one of my favorite Paul Graham essays, we learn something basic about Graham’s perspective on life.

In almost every domain there are advantages to seeming good. It makes people trust you. But actually being good is an expensive way to seem good. To an amoral person it might seem to be overkill.

The question he’s asking is: is it worth it to go beyond seeming like a good person, and to actually be one? 

He gives the example of Ron Conway, the legendary investor. 

No one, VC or angel, has invested in more of the top startups than Ron Conway.

And yet he’s a super nice guy. In fact, nice is not the word. Ronco is good. I know of zero instances in which he has behaved badly. It’s hard even to imagine.

Is it merely a coincidence that the most successful investor happens to be such a nice guy? Taking an outside view, Graham notes that Conway isn’t an outlier. 

Though plenty of investors are jerks, there is a clear trend among them: the most successful investors are also the most upstanding. 

So what might be going on? Taking an inside view, it’s easy to draw a connection between Conway’s goodness and the good things that have come his way: 

All the deals he gets to invest in come to him through referrals. Google did. Facebook did. Twitter was a referral from Evan Williams himself. And the reason so many people refer deals to him is that he’s proven himself to be a good guy.

But couldn’t Conway and others have gotten the same benefits by being good strategically? Surely there are some occasions on which it’s beneficial to capitalize on an advantage, even if the other person wouldn’t call it “fair”. Maybe they won’t know. Maybe they can’t do anything about it.  

Graham offers two factors that weigh in favor of being good as a rule rather than opportunistically. 

The first is transparency. The more your actions and motivations will be on display for all to see, the more it matters that you be good. Put differently, the greater the transparency, the fewer opportunities for you to screw people over and not get caught. Graham notes that transparency seems to be increasing in the world as a general trend. 

The second factor is chaos. The more unpredictability there is in the world — the less you’re able to predict future events — the less capable you are of deciding accurately when it’s okay to be an asshole. The person that has no power to help or harm you today might be in a very different position next year. The farther out in the future you go, the less you’re able to predict how things will be.

Both of these factors weigh against being a moral opportunist and in favor of just being a good person. 

We might put it another way: there are long-term compounding benefits to simply being a good person. Humans reciprocate. If you are good to people as a matter of routine, then over time the number of people in the world that you’ve been good to will increase. You’ll be more and more likely to encounter people that you’ve been good to. They will want to be good to you. Furthermore, you’ll gain a reputation for being good. People that you’ve never interacted with will assume, based on your reputation, that you’re going to be good to them, so they’ll be predisposed to be good to you. 

A world where the people you encounter have a heightened probability of being friendly to you is a good world to operate in. So even for the sociopath motivated only by self-interest, it’s probably worth it to just adopt the rule of being a good person. Invest your scheming energy elsewhere. 

Jocko Willink: stop worrying or solve the problem

Jocko Willink, the former Navy SEAL commander, is very much the stern father and not the loving mother. Here’s his advice on dealing with stress.

Stress is a part of the human experience — it shows up on the battlefield and in civilian life. So we need strategies to deal with it. Jocko’s process is something like this:

  1. Prepare in advance by knowing that stress will arise, and knowing how you’re going to handle it.
  2. When stress occurs, detach. Notice that you are feeling stress. Gain perspective. Humans can withstand enormous stress. You, very likely, have withstood more stress than this.
  3. Decide. Is this stress caused by something you can control, or something you can’t?
    1. If you can control the cause, then your job is to solve the problem. Impose your will on the world and make it happen.
    2. If you cannot control the cause, then your job is to embrace the stress. Look at it from a different angle and let it make you stronger.
  4. Act. Do the thing. Either let it go, or solve the problem. How do you do that? By doing it.

Humans can withstand almost inconceivable stress — and you can too. So [when you feel stress] that is your first step: gain perspective. And to do that you must do something critical in many situations: detach.

Stress is generally caused by what you can’t control. The worst thing about incoming artillery fire is that you can’t control it. It is happening and you just have to accept it. Don’t stress about things you can’t control.

If the stress is something that you can control and you are not, that is a lack of discipline and a lack of ownership. Get control of it. Impose your will to make it happen. Solve the problem. Relieve the stress.

If the stress is something you can’t control: Embrace it. You can’t control it, but how can you look at it from a different angle? Make it into your ally. Turn it on itself. Use it to make yourself sharper and more alert. Use it to make you think and learn and get better and smarter and more effective.

From his book Discipline Equals Freedom.

Jocko Willink: overcome akrasia by commanding your mind

Akrasia is weakness of will. It’s the condition of knowing that you should do a thing and still not doing it. The word literally means “lacking command”.

So how do you get yourself to do stuff that you don’t want to do? Jocko Willink, the former Navy SEAL commander, takes a command and control approach. His answer, like Yoda’s and Morpheus’s, is to stop trying to do it and do it. Assert control over your mind. To all the parts of your mind that would have you not do it: don’t give those parts a vote.

Obviously this doesn’t work for everything in the universe. Want to fly like Superman? This is not a matter of mind control. But many things are within your control. Like whether you’ll get up early, make your bed, exercise, and eat well.

From his book Discipline Equals Freedom. Emphasis his (he’s very emphatic).

You, your mind, the thing that is reading and comprehending these words right now, that is you.

And you can control it. You are the machine, and you can control it.

People ask me, “How do I get tougher?” BE TOUGHER.

“How can I make up early in the morning?” WAKE UP EARLY.

“How can I work out consistently every day?” WORK OUT CONSISTENTLY EVERY DAY.

“How can I stop eating sugar?” STOP EATING SUGAR.

You can even control your emotions: “How can I stop missing that girl or guy or whoever broke up with me?” STOP MISSING THEM.

You have control over your mind. You just have to assert it.

You have to decide that you are going to be in control, that you are going to do what YOU want to do. Weakness doesn’t get a vote. Laziness doesn’t get a vote. Sadness doesn’t get a vote. Frustration doesn’t get a vote. Negativity doesn’t get a vote.

Survival is not enough

Imagine that the year is 12019 — ten thousand years in the future. Humans long ago populated the galaxy — and almost as long ago, were effectively enslaved, Matrix-style, by a superior intelligence. They keep us alive in order to harvest a resource from us. They are really good at keeping us alive — so good that we’re effectively immortal. This is the case for billions upon billions of humans —  alive, immortal, and enslaved.

And suppose that, to our terrible misfortune, the resource that this alien intelligence wishes to harvest from us can be extracted from each human in proportion to the magnitude of suffering experienced by that person. As a result, the aliens are maximizing not just our survival, but also our suffering. This is just about as bad as it gets.

Which would you prefer: that world, or the world in which it’s 12019 and all humans are extinct? Do you want existence with infinite suffering or non-existence?

The point is that survival is not enough. There’s something else that has to accompany survival in order for the world to be good. If we want to evaluate the goodness of a possible world, our evaluation must take into account not just the bare existence of humans, but also the degree of psychological suffering or happiness that they experience.

I think that Sam Harris uses this thought experiment or something like it in his argument for a science of ethics. 

How to complete projects without last-minute panic

I struggle to complete longer writing projects without last-minute panic. If it’s an email or a short blog post — something I can finish in one sitting — I’m okay. I can sit down and do the thing like a productive human. But if it’s a longer essay or report that might take ~20 hours to complete, I’m reliably unreliable.  The only time my success rate for longer projects is high is when I have a believable deadline with real consequences looming imminently. When that’s the case I’ll finally force myself sit still and grind out the writing, and I’ll often complete it overnight in a state of panicked desperation.

I want to be able to complete these projects during normal working/daylight hours without requiring last-minute panic to motivate me. But since college (~14 years ago) I’ve been unable to reliably do so.

What’s causing this? How do I fix it?

In the Bay Area Rationalist community, they might say that my problem is one of “urge propagation”. I’m able to feel the urge to reach the end state — delivering the completed piece to its audience. But somehow that urge fails to propagate back to the instrumental steps that would lead to the end state. So I don’t feel intrinsically motivated to, for example, complete an outline, then complete a draft, then revise that draft, then seek feedback for further revisions.

I suspect that every time I start on a well-intentioned plan to complete some big writing project (say by creating an outline or a first draft) but then fail to complete the project, my System 1 takes this as evidence that creating an outline or a first draft does not lead to the desired outcome. And as a result the back-propagation channel that passes urges from the final outcome back to the early steps becomes more attenuated. My long history of false starts would explain why in the present day my System 1 is so thoroughly disinterested in those early steps.

Another metaphor — one used by people working on reinforcement learning in the artificial intelligence community — would describe this as a problem of “credit assignment”. My brain isn’t doing a very good job of doling out rewards (to itself, in terms of good feels and a sense of accomplishment) as I take each progressive step along the path toward completing the thing. In other words, when I reach the final outcome state and deliver the finished piece, my brain recognizes this as a Very Good Thing and I experience lots of good feels. But when I make progress on one of the early steps — like writing a first draft — my brain is like “meh. Don’t really see what’s the point of that.”

So what to do about it?

Both of these metaphors point to a similar kind of solution. I need to help my brain see and feel (and believe) the connection between early steps and the final outcome.

How might I do that?

Here are three things I will try (I already have a project with a looming due date).

First, I will explicitly break the project into discrete chunks at the outset. I typically have some vague sense of these chunks in my mind (eg outline, first draft, feedback, revise, done) but I need to make them explicit. Seeing them written down, and scheduling them in the calendar, and checking them off as I complete them, will help me to feel a sense of accomplishment and forward progress as I work on the thing.

Second, I will review that chunk list with a trusted advisor. Part of the issue is that my brain doesn’t believe that “create a first draft” is necessary or even valuable for getting to the final outcome. And often enough, my brain is ostensibly right: I create a first draft, but don’t wind up getting to the final outcome. If I review my chunk list with a trusted advisor, we’ll have a chance to review and edit that list. We can improve it and make it more believable that by completing the chunks I’ll be making real progress towards the desired final outcome.

Third, I need to give myself rewards for completing instrumental steps. I like chocolate and candy and chocolate chip cookies. Each time I START a chunk I’ll give myself one reward. Each time I COMPLETE a chunk I’ll give myself another reward.

A step I may experiment with later is adding an accountability coach into the mix. Therapists practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will have plenty of experience helping clients with problems like this one. Online services like Joyable and CoachMe might be a good fit.