Lately I’ve been thinking about how my thinking works, and how it can be improved. The simplest way to do so is probably to nudge myself towards paying more attention to various useful habits of mind. Here are the ones I've found most valuable (roughly in order):

  1. Tying together the act of saying a statement, and the act of evaluating whether I actually believe it. After making a novel claim, saying out loud to myself: “is this actually true?” ” and "how could I test this?"
  2. Being comfortable with pausing to reflect and thinking out loud. Trying to notice when my responses are too quick and reflexive, as a sign that I'm not thinking hard enough about the point I'm addressing.
  3. Asking for specific examples, and using more of my own. Tabooing vague abstractions and moving away from discussing claims that are too general.
  4. Being charitable and collaborative, both towards new ideas and towards conversational partners. Trying to rephrase other people’s arguments and pass Ideological Turing Tests on them. Helping my conversational partners build up their ideas.
  5. Noticing the affect heuristic, and which claims stir up emotions. Noticing when I'm talking defensively or heatedly, and when it’d be uncomfortable to believe something.
  6. Thinking in terms of probabilities; cashing out beliefs in terms of predictions; then betting on them. I haven’t done enough bets to calibrate myself well, but I find that even just the feeling of having money on the line is often enough to make me rethink. Being asked whether something is a crux gives me a similar feeling.
  7. Thinking about how the conversations and debates I participate in actually create value, and when they should be redirected or halted.

Then there are social influences. I think one of the greatest virtues of the rationalist community is in creating an environment which encourages the use of the tools above. Another example: my girlfriend fairly regularly points out times when I’ve contradicted myself. I think this has helped me notice and limit the extent to which I behave like an opinion confabulation machine.

I’d classify most if not all of the tools listed above as tools for evaluating ideas, though, rather than tools for generating ideas. What helps with the latter? I’ve personally found that one very useful strategy is to make and then justify bold claims based on vague intuitions. In the process of defending my position, I’m forced to actually flesh it out and make it coherent (although I do need to be careful not to become overly attached to the untrue parts). And what's helped the most is that after having interesting conversations, I now write posts inspired by them much more frequently. I often feel like Feynman in this story: "When historian Charles Weiner found pages of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman's notes, he saw it as a "record" of Feynman's work. Feynman himself, however, insisted that the notes were not a record but the work itself." Arguing and writing are not just ways to transmit my thoughts, but also the key mechanisms by which I generate new thoughts.

(Edited to add: a friend pointed out that the last line is a good indicator that I'm being insufficiently empirical. I think I agree; it should also include the mechanism of looking at the world and noticing something confusing going on.)


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I’d classify most if not all of the tools listed above as tools for evaluating ideas, though, rather than tools for generating ideas. What helps with the latter?

I've often found it useful to have a random word generator throw a few words at me in order to help me generate new thoughts / ideas when thinking about some problem.

I could imagine a language model tool like Write With Transformer outperforming a random word generator for this, have you tried it? They even have one trained on NLP arXiv papers!

Not yet, though I'll keep it in mind for the future (I don't end up using this technique very often now because I'm no longer bottlenecked on ideas; I suspect I haven't used it since Write With Transformer was created).

Also tbc I tend to use this for more mundane problems rather than research problems.

I would add "identify bottlenecks". I discuss this a bit here and it's also the topic of The Goal, the only business novel I've read. To summarize, in situations where completing a task requires taking a sequential series of steps, e.g. producing good thoughts, you're often rate-limited by the slowest step, so effort put into speeding up other faster steps is mostly wasted.

For example, I've actually seen something like the following play out in a software context. There's a team working on a project. Completing the project involves two high-level phases--coding and not coding.

Writing the code is parallelizable across team members and takes X hours per person. All the other stuff--actually running all the tests, deploying the code, etc. takes hours per person--where . The team manager becomes frustrated that the project's taking too long and proposes adding more people to speed it up. However, even if adding more people cuts down coding time by the optimal amount, i.e. per person coding time goes from something (hand-wavy) like to where is the original number of people involved, the actual time to completion of the project will still be bottlenecked by !

But what does this have to do with being a "highly effective mind"? I think there's a similar dynamic at play with the ideas to crystallized theories/principles/heuristics pipeline. If someone has a lot of ideas but takes a long time to crystallize them, they're're better off practicing at crystallizing ideas than trying to have even more ideas. On the flip side, if they can crystallize ideas quickly but take a long time to come up with them, they could benefit from practice that emphasizes generating a lot of ideas quickly.

The above may seem obvious, but I think the useful part is using the frame of "identify bottlenecks" to figure out when different advice applies, even if the actual advice being applied is standard.

I’d classify most if not all of the tools listed above as tools for evaluating ideas, though, rather than tools for generating ideas. What helps with the latter?

It seems like this might be useful for that as well:

Then there are social influences.

Hmm, could you say more? I tend to think of social influences as good for propagating ideas - as opposed to generating new ones, which seems to depend more on the creativity of individuals or small groups.

(Social influence might not be the best word here.)

1) rewarding creativity (its opposite might be more infamous)


a) Convening for idea generation, esp. regularly on a schedule (Purpose, Method)

b) via joining hallways and close proximity. (Method for increasing Creativity/Productivity[3])

Examples that come to mind:

People in the same/similar fields can achieve more working together[1]. People in different fields working together[1] can as well, both for similar reasons (2 heads > 1, identical shared problems[2]) and different ones (seeing if stuff from one domain is useful in another instead of overlapping competency protecting against errors).

[1] /talking with each other

[2] Some 'fields' might be better (off) than others if they manage to solve basic issues better - more widespread use of better teaching/learning methods, distilling more (and having less 'research debt') or being better at coming up with explanations that are easier to understand, being better at encouraging/enabling collaboration[3], etc.

[3] See this post; it's rather empirical, and goes fairly in depth:

relying on co-location over processes for information sharing is similar to relying on human memory over writing things down: much cheaper until it hits a sharp cliff. Empirically that cliff is about 30 meters, or one hallway. After that, process shines.

See the butterfly and the net for generativity.

Great list! I was happy to be reminded of all these points for myself too.

I've recently been experimenting with being a Hammer. That is, applying ideas I come up with/things I learn aggressively to figure out their limits and occasionally discover an unexpected connection. I just started trying this recently, in particular with Linear Algebra, so I can't promise amazing results, but it does seem useful as a less magical way to generate more ideas.

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