Oct 2, 2013
This is based on a concept we developed at the Vancouver Rationalists meetup.
Different experiences level a person up at different rates. You could work some boring job all your life and be 60 and not be much more awesome than your average teenager. On the other hand, some people have such varied and so much life experience that by 30 they are as awesome as a 1000 year old vampire.
This reminds me that it's possible to conduct your life with more or less efficiency, sometimes by orders of magnitude. Further, while we don't have actual life extension, it's content we care about, not run time. If you can change your habits such that you get 3 times as much done, that's like tripling your effective lifespan.
So how might one get a 100x speedup and become like a 1000 year old vampire in 10 years? This is absurdly ambitious, but we can try:
Some experiences catapult you forward in personal development. You can probably systematically collect these to build formidability as fast as possible.
Paul Graham says that many of the founders he sees (as head of YC) become much more awesome very quickly as need forces them to. This seems plausible and it seems back up by other sources as well. Basically "learn to swim by jumping in the deep end"; people have a tendency to take the easy way that results in less development when given the chance, so the chance to slack off being removed can be beneficial.
That has definitely been my personal experience as well. At work, the head engineer got brain cancer and I got de-facto promoted to head of two of the projects, which I then leveled up to be able to do. It felt pretty scary at first, but now I'm bored and wishing something further would challenge me. (addendum: not bored right now at all; crazy crunch time for the other team, which which I am helping) It seems really hard to just do better without such forcing; as far as I can tell I could work much harder than now, but willpower basically doesn't exist so I don't.
On that note, a friend of mine got big results from joining the Army and getting tear gassed in a trench while wet, cold, exhausted, sleep deprived, and hungry, which pushed him through stuff he wouldn't have thought he could deal with. Apparently it sortof re-calibrated his feelings about how well he should be doing and how hard things are such that he is now a millionaire and awesome.
So the mechanism behind a lot of this seems to be recalibrating what seems hard or scary or beyond your normal sphere. I used to be afraid of phone calls and doing weird stuff like climbing trees in front of strangers, but not so much anymore; it feels like I just forget that they were scary. In the case of the phone there were a few times where I didn't have time to be scared, I needed to just get things done. In the case of climbing trees, I did it on my own enough for it to become normalized so that it didn't even come up that people would see me, because it didn't seem weird.
So tying that back in, there are experiences that you can put yourself into to force that normalization and acclimatization to hard stuff. For example, some people do this thing called "Rejection Therapy" or "Comfort Zone Expansion", basically going out and doing embarrassing or scary things deliberately to recalibrate your intuitions and teach your brain that they are not so scary.
On the failure end, self-improvement projects tend to fail when they require constant application of willpower. It's just a fact that you will fall off the wagon on those things. So you have to make it impossible to fall off the wagon. You have to make it scarier to fall off the wagon than it is to level up and just do it. This is the idea behind Beeminder, which takes your money if you don't do what your last-week self said you would.
I guess the thesis behind all this is that these level-ups are permanent, in that they make you more like a 1000 year old vampire, and you don't just go back to being your boring old mortal self. If this is true, the implication that you should seek out hard stuff seems pretty interesting and important.
Think of a 1000 year old vampire; they would have done everything. Fought in battles, led armies, built great works, been in love, been everywhere, observed most aspects of the human experience, and generally seen it all.
Things you can do have sharply diminishing returns; the first few times you watch great movies is most of the benefit thereof, likewise with video games, 4chan, most jobs, and most experiences in general. Thus it's really important to switch around the things you do a lot so that you stay in that sharp initially growing part of the learning curve. You can get 90% of the vampire's experience with 10% of his time investment if you focus on those most enlightening parts of each experience.
So besides doing hard things that level you up, you can get big gains by doing many things and switching as soon as you get bored (which is hopefully calibrated to how challenged you are).
You may remember early in the Arabian revolutions in Libya, an American student took the summer off college to fight in the revolution. I bet he learned a lot. If you could do enough things like that, you'd be well on your way to matching the vampire.
This actually goes hand in hand with doing hard things; when you're not feeling challenged (you're on the flat part of that experience curve), its probably best to throw yourself face first into some new project, both because it's new, and because it's hard.
Switching often has the additional benefit of normalizing strategic changes and practicing "what should I be doing"-type thoughts, which can't hurt if you intend to actually do useful stuff with your life.
There are probably many cases where full on switching is not best. For example, you don't become an expert in X by switching out of X as soon as you know the basics. It might be that you want to switch often on side-things but go deep on X. Alternatively, you probably want to do some kind of switch every now and then in X, maybe look at things from a different perspective, tackle a different problem, or something like that. This is the Deliberate Practice theory of expertise.
So don't forget the shape of that experience curve. As soon as you start to feel that leveling off, find a way to make it fresh again.
Another big angle on this idea is that every hour is an opportunity, and you want to make the best of them. This seems totally obvious but I definitely "get it" a lot more having thought about it in terms of becoming a 1000 year old vampire.
A big example is procrastination. I have a lot of things that have been hanging around on my todo list for a long time, basically oppressing me by their presence. I can't relax and look to new things to do while there's still that one stupid thing on my todo list. The key insight is that if you process the stuff on your todo list now instead of slacking now and doing it later, you get it out of the way and then you can do something else later, and thereby become a 1000 year old vampire faster.
So a friend and I have internalized this a bit more and started really noticing those opportunity costs, and actually started knocking things off faster. I'm sure there's more where that came from; we are nowhere near optimal in Doing It Now, so it's probably good to meditate on this more.
As a concrete example, I'm writing tonight because I realized that I need to just get all my writing ideas out of the way to make room for more awesomeness.
The flipside of this idea is that a lot of things are complete wastes of time, in the sense that they just burn up lifespan and don't get you anything, or even weaken you.
Bad habits like reading crap on the Internet, watching TV, watching porn, playing video games, sleeping in, and so on are obvious losses. It's really hard to internalize that, but this 1000-year-old-vampire concept has been helpful for me by making the magnitude of the cost more salient. Do you want to wake up when you're 30 and realize you wasted your youth on meaningless crap, or do you want to get off your ass and write that thing you've been meaning to right now, and be a fscking vampire in 10 years?
It's not just bad habits, though; a lot of it is your broader position in life that wastes time or doesn't. For example, repetitive wage work that doesn't challenge you is really just trading a huge chunk of your life for not even much money. Obviously sometimes you have to, but you have to realize that trading away half your life is a pretty raw deal that is to be avoided. You don't even really get anything for commuting and housework. Maybe I really should quit my job soon...
I have 168 hours a week, of which only 110 are feasible to use (sleep), and by the time we include all the chores, wage-work, bad habits, and procrastination, I probably only live 30 hours a week. That's bullshit; three quarters of my life pissed away. I could live four times as much if I could cut out that stuff.
So this is just the concept of time opportunity costs dressed up to be more salient. Basic economics concepts seem really quite valuable in this way.
Do it now so you can do something else later. Avoid crap work.
I notice that I'm most alive and do my best intellectual work when talking to other people who are smart and interested in having deep technical conversations. Other things like certain patterns of time pressure create this effect where I work many times harder and more effectively than otherwise. A great example is technical exams; I can blast out answers to hundreds of technical questions at quite a rate.
It seems like a good idea to induce this state where you are more alive (is it the "flow" state?) if you want to live more life. It also seems totally possible to do so more often by hanging out with the right people and exposing yourself to the right working conditions and whatnot.
One thing that will come up is that it's quite draining, in that I sometimes feel exhausted and can't get much done after a day of more intense work. Is this a real thing? Probably. Still, I'm nowhere near the limit even given the need to rest, in general.
I ought to do some research to learn more about this. If it's connected to "flow", there's been a lot of research, AFAIK.
I also ought to just hurry up and move to California where there is a proper intellectual community that will stimulate me much better than the meager group of brains I could scrape together in Vancouver.
The other benefit of a good intellectual community is that they can incentivize doing cooler things. When all your friends are starting companies or otherwise doing great work, sitting around on the couch feels like a really bad idea.
So if we want to live more life, finding more ways to enter that stimulated flow state seems like a prudent thing to do, whether that means just making way for it in your work habits, putting yourself in more challenging social and intellectual environments, or whatever.
So how fast can we go overall if we do all of this?
By seeking many new experiences to keep learning, I think we can plausibly get 10x speedup over what you might do by default. Obviously this can be more or less, based on circumstances and things I'm not thinking of.
On top of that, it seems like I could do 4x as much by maintaining a habit of doing it now and avoiding crap work. How to do this, I don't know, but it's possible.
I don't know how to estimate the actual gains from a stimulating environment. It seems like it could be really really high, or just another incremental gain in efficiency, depending how it goes down. Let's say that on top of the other things, we can realistically push ourselves 2x or 3x harder by social and environmental effects.
Doing hard things seems huge, but also quite related to the doing new things angle that we already accounted for. So explicitly remembering to do hard things on top of that? Maybe 5x? This again will vary a lot based on what opportunities you are able to find, and unknown factors, but 5x seems safe enough given mortal levels of ingenuity and willpower.
So all together, someone who:
Often thinks about where they are on the experience curve for everything they do, and takes action on that when appropriate,
Maintains a habit of doing stuff now and visualizing those opportunity costs,
Puts themselves in a stimulating environment like the bay area intellectual community and surrounds themselves with stimulating people and events,
Seeks out the hardest character-building experiences like getting tear gassed in a trench or building a company from scratch,
Can plausibly get 500x speedup and live 1000 normal years in 2. That seems pretty wild, but none of these things are particularly out there, and people like Elon Musk or Eliezer Yudkowsky do seem to do around that magnitude more than the average joe.
Perhaps they don't multiply quite that conveniently, or there's some other gotcha, but the target seems reachable, and these things will help. On the other hand, they almost certainly self-reinforce; a 1000 year old vampire would have mastered the art of living life life at ever higher efficiencies.
This does seem to be congruent with all this stuff being power-law distributed, which of course makes it difficult to summarize by a single number like 500.
The final question of course is what real speedup we can expect you or I to gain from writing or reading this. Getting more than 2 or 3 times by having a low-level insight or reading a blog post seems stretching of the imagination, never mind 500 times. But still, power laws happen. There's probably massive payoff to taking this idea seriously.