This is a follow-up to my last post about optimizing, which I intended to spread to nonrationalist friends of mine. Initial feedback let me know that a lot of the language was a put-off, as well as the dry style and lack of opposing counters to arguments against optimization.
I've tried to take some of those ideas and put it into a new essay, one that tries to get across the idea that planning is important to accomplish goals.
I'd appreciate any/all critiques-- the comments last time were very helpful in learning what I could improve on:
Why Try Hard?
Life is pretty hard. Seriously, it scores an 11/10 on the Mohs Scale. Scratch that (eyy), it’s more like a 12/10. Which is probably why many people go through life without too many dreams and ambitions. I mean, it’s hard to just deal with daily problems of living, not to mention those pesky social interactions no one seems to get the hang of (“So you grasp their hand and apply pressure while vigorously shaking it a few inches up and down?”).
But you’re going to be different.
You’re going to try and make a difference, and change the world. Except that everyone around you seems to be talking about the “naivete of youth” and seems pretty jaded (6.5 Mohs) about life. Obviously their cynicism isn’t sharp enough to scratch all of life (6.5<12), so you listen their warnings and run off to face the final boss anyways.
After all, if you really try hard, things should work out, right? You’ve got the drive, the dream, the baseball cap, and the yellow electrical mouse. Why wouldn’t things work out for you, the main character?
Deep down though, you probably also already realize the futility of trying to create systemic change. I mean, those jaded mentors of yours once had your idealism too. And they also wanted to make the world a better place. But they ventured out into the world, and came back, battered and wizened-- more attuned to the reality we live in.
“Might it be smarter,” that little voice in your head asks, “to bow to the reality of the situation, and lower your sights?”
And the reality of the situation is terrible. We have hundreds of thousands of lives being lost each day. Terrible diseases that cripple our livelihood and tear families apart. Climate change that causes loss of biodiversity and threatens to flood communities across the globe. We could very well be crushed by an asteroid, or suffer terribly at the hands of full-scale nuclear war. A lonely blue and green speck in an unkind, frozen nightscape.
Against such unequal odds, people tend to localize: “Fighting worldwide hunger is impossible,” they say, “what can one person like me do?” This is a normal response. The perils and problems in this world are enormous! How can we even hope to solve them?
“But maybe, that voice nags, “if I do my part, if I donate to my community’s food bank, I can make that little bit of difference in my own little world. And I can be satisfied with that.” There is something poetic about this-- doing what you can in your own little world. “Forget saving the world,” it cries, “if I can inspire change in my community, that will be enough for me. I will have done my part.”
But will you really? Will you be truly satisfied that you’ve done all that you can to try and solve the world’s problems?
Hi, I’m the other voice.
You know, the stupid one? The delusional one that refuses to accept reality as-is? The one that insists, no matter the odds, that we should try to make things better? The one that looks at the huge problems the world is facing and says, “If so much is wrong, it’s all the more reason to try and set them right!”
Your mentors may have wanted to improve the world, but did they have a map, a strategy, an action plan?
“Of course,” you may respond, “who doesn’t have a plan? You really are the stupid voice.”
But for many of us, in our heads, trying to solve these big world problems looks a little like this:
Step 1: Learn that world hunger is a big issue.
Step 3: Solve world hunger.
First off, you’ll probably notice that Step 2 is missing. You’ll also probably notice that the above plan looks a little simple. There’s a lot of heart (caring about the problem), but it’s missing a lot of head (trying to come up with an actual plan to solve the problem). Sort of like the Headless Horseman.
You may ask: “What good are plans? If you care enough about things, you’ll find a way!”
Plans are deliberate maps to your goal-- getting what you want. We use plans because they are more effective at getting to our goals than just hoping that our goals happen. It’s just a feature of our universe: If we want to affect reality, we’ll have to do things in reality; we can’t just imagine something and have it happen-- it’s just not how our world works.
In the same way, if we want to achieve our goals, we’ll be looking for the best plan possible. A better plan is one that has a higher chance of getting us what we want. So, to solve complex, global problems, we’ll need a great plan.
And therein lies the key.
Everyone that came before you who wanted to make a difference probably had a fairly good notion of what the problems were, but how many of them actually took the time to really research/create a strategy of what to do about it?
“But that’s not fair to them,” you may cry out, “they didn’t have access to resources like we do today! The Internet has exploded in the past few decades, and my phone has more computing power than what used to require an entire room! You can’t expect them to have been able to create detailed plans or research things out fully! It was good enough that they even cared, at least a little!”
They might not have had access to the wonderful resources we have today-- which would have seriously hampered their researching ability/ability to make plans.
“Right,” you may say, “then how can you expect anyone to do anything about these issues? They’re too large-- you just admitted that it’s impossible to make plans that solve anything this big!”
But you can totally research to your heart’s content. You are living in a world where information is literally at your fingertips. As a human being, you’re already hard-wired to make plans and achieve your goals!
<Cue motivational music>
So don’t give up on your plans of solving worldwide problems just yet! You have at least two advantages over all the idealistic youth that came before you in generations past:
With the Internet, you have access to a vast majority of all of humanity’s acquired knowledge-- over 5,000 years of accumulated lore.
Armed with the idea that plans get things done, you can create strategies that actually lead to your goals.
To end, I’ll be giving you a basic framework that you can apply to create plans that allow you to achieve your goals: The General Action Plan (GAP):
The main idea is broken into 4 steps:
Identify your goal:
This is what you want to get done. It’s going to be the focus of all your actions.
EX: “Convince all my friends that procrastination is terrible; get them to change their
What do you need to do to get it done?
If the goal is large, break it up into subsections of things you can do. Identify categories. If
you end up with a few general sections, identify subgoals for each section. Repeat as
EX: “I will need to focus on Outreach, Persuasion, Creating a Movement, and Publicity if I
want to get my friends to change their habits.”
What is stopping you from getting it done?
Identify things that make it hard for you to start. List smaller things you need to do for
EX: “I will have difficulty convincing people. I need to motivate myself to get this done. I
will have trouble getting the social media attention I’ll need.”
Break it down again.
Take all the vague-sounding things you wrote down earlier, and break it down again into
smaller actions. The trick behind the G.A.P. is to take conceptual things that are hard to do into actual actionable items.
EX: “Outreach becomes:
Create a poster
Talk to friends
Make a Facebook post.
Breaking it down again:
Create a poster:
Ask friend to supply visuals
Post around school
Talk to friends:
Make a list of friends who would be interested
Find out what your main idea should be
Find opportunities to talk with them
and so on for each action.”
When faced with impossible odds, don’t try to shoot lower-- make a better plan. We’re living in a really great plan where we can network with people across the globe and learn about almost anything.
No matter what things you want to accomplish, having a basic understanding of breaking it down should make it much easier to understand how to get big, complex, and fuzzy ideas like “teach the value of persistence” done.
Instead of focusing on the abstract “idea-ness” of the goal, focus on what the goal would look like if you were successful, and focus on cultivating those symptoms. And remember to take all the general concepts and clarify them.
A lot of paralysis when it comes to getting anything done is uncertainty . If you don’t know what you can do to solve a problem, it’s much scarier. But if you can hone in on what exactly you need to get done, even if it’s an impossible task, you at least know what you can do.
So back to the original question, “Why try hard?”
I suppose the answer is, “If you aren’t trying hard, you aren’t really trying at all.”