Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about personal growth (any form of deliberate gain in capability or subjective wellbeing).

We were talking past each other a lot. Eventually it became clear that most of their recent growth had been healing and blocker-fixing based, whereas most of mine had been skill based. And this was shaping where we were naturally inclined to look.

This prompted me to take stock of all the strategies I could think of for growth. Here's what I've thought of so far. These aren't quite natural clusters (some overlap, or don't quite fit into the same ontology), but seem like they cover most avenues:

  • Low-Key Practice
  • Serious Practice
  • Learning
  • Changing environment and incentives
  • Discovering things you enjoy/are-good-at (Try things!)
  • Blockers and Cheat Codes
  • Healing
  • Deep Improvements to Mental Architecture (Internal Alignment)

This is somewhat related to Lifelonglearner's Development Framework of Rationality, and Brienne's 4 quadrants, but through a somewhat different lens.

Overview of Strategies

Low-Key Practice

Working on a skill or habit you mostly understand, occasionally, in the background. Typically yields a pretty small return (but one which adds up over the years, especially if you do it consistently).

Serious Practice

Working on a skill with your all – spending hour(s) each day on it. This can yield more return but is requires more cognitive focus and energy. This seems qualitatively different from low-key practice.

Sometimes this is Deliberate Practice in the technical sense (quick feedback loops, building mental models that your brain can cache into chunks), but not always.


Sometimes you're learning new information, that is able to rapidly turn into a skill at a much faster rate than normal. You could try to learn math/violin/programming from first principles and practice, but a tutorial or a teacher who has carefully optimized their explanations can quickly give you entire new skills in a short timespan.

(Making the best use of them may require practice as well, but during the initial learning period you may be gaining huge returns)

Changing Your Environment and/or Incentives

The fastest route I've personally found to overall self improvement is changing environment – a new job, a new apartment, a new social network. These can radically change how you feel about yourself, or what is easy, or what behaviors are reinforced.

I know multiple people who had trouble focusing at work, got a job that they actually cared about, or which required the skills they enjoyed most, or had coworkers that provided subtle reinforcement in the right directions.

I briefly lived in an apartment building with a gym, and I found it way easier to exercise there than I did at other places. (Even homes where I got some exercise equipment)

It's possibly to reshape your environment on purpose (which I think yields improvement roughly on par with moderate skill practice), but the most powerful returns here have been sort of random and hard to control in my experience.

Discovering Something You Enjoy or are Well Suited For (Try Things)

People vary how much certain skills and activities resonate with them, and how fast they can improve. If you find something you really enjoy, you may be much more able to put in the hours to practice it, or you may gain skill much more rapidly than other other people.

I have a friend who would never have predicted they'd be good at dancing a priori, but who tried it on a whim and it was amazing and changed both their physical well being and social life.

Blockers/Cheat Codes

Simple things, that if you only knew to do them, would radically change your quality of life or capabilities.

Sometimes there's a concrete thing blocking you:

  • You're not getting the right nutrition (or consuming food you're allergic to without realizing it).
  • You turned out to be an extrovert (while thinking you were an introvert because you fit some stereotypes), and simply bothering to get more socialization has a huge impact on your mood.
  • You were sick, or depressed, and taking some pills each day radically changes your capabilities.

Sometimes you're able to find a cheat code – instead of painstakingly dieting for months with little benefit, it turns out keto works well for your biochemistry. You're addicted to the internet, and you find out about SelfControl or Freedom.


This is sort of the intersection of "realizing you have a blocker", but where removing the blocker requires effort, skill or just time, rather than an immediate "oh, I just need to do X differently."

  • Maybe you have trauma.
  • Maybe you have some deep seated sense of "I'm not allowed to want X", and unravelling that sense of not-allowed requires skill at introspection, mindfulness, or finding people who can simply say in a confident voice that your system-1 believes "you're allowed to want X."
  • Maybe you are just physically sick and need to recover.

Internal Alignment – Deep Improvements to Mental Architecture

Sort of like healing, maybe?

I haven't done this myself, but I've heard some people describe a process of actually getting all the pieces of themselves into alignment, where instead of fighting themselves ("I want cake!" "no I want to diet!") they reach a point where all their drives have a shared understanding of the world and are operating as a single agent.

There's minor versions of this that resolve alignment on one particular issue, and I'm told a deeper version exists where your entire self trusts itself to do the right thing, and then you no longer have to think in terms of willpower or energy expenditure (and other things that the sort of paradigm that cares about willpower or energy expenditure isn't even able to see)

What to do with this?

These are all things I'd thought about before, but I hadn't thought about them all at once. And I'm finding it shapes how I think people and communities oriented around self-improvement should direct their attention.

It matters what strategies you're even considering.

I don't think I'm currently have any specific blockers that need removing, and I can clearly see skills that I need to gain. But, people with blockers or in need of healing often don't see that they have them. And fixing them can radically change your landscape.

I'm currently seeing all the above strategies through a finance lens. There are things you can do that reliably output 1-3% return, year after year if you just stick with them. There are high risk / high return exploration moves you can make – discovering ways in which you need healing or are blocked or are missing cheat codes. When they pay off it feels like they have 50-300% returns in the space of a week, but actually finding the right ones takes time and amortized over the years it takes searching (and building prerequisite skills of self-awareness), it's probably more like a 5-10% rate.

I'm not a person who currently understands healing, and I've updated a bit that that's an important part of the overall paradigm that the rationality community doesn't tend to be that good at (although to be fair, I don't think most people are).

I think the original mythology of the rationality community is based around cheat codes – if we can munchkin our way through the lowest hanging fruit, we can win at life. But this doesn't actually happen that often, and meanwhile it can be demoralizing to be expecting bursts of 300% returns when in fact 2-3% should be your default assumption.

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I think the original mythology of the rationality community is based around cheat codes

A lot of the original mythology, in the sense of the things Eliezer wrote about in the sequences, is about avoiding self-deception. I continue to think this is very important but think the writing in the Sequences doesn't do a good job of teaching it.

The main issue I see with the cheat code / munchkin philosophy as it actually played out on LW is that it involved a lot of stuff I would describe as tricking yourself or the rider fighting against / overriding the elephant, e.g. strategies like attempting to reward yourself for the behavior you "want" in order to fix your "akrasia." Nothing along these lines, e.g. Beeminder, worked for me when I experimented with them, and the whole time my actual bottleneck was that I was very sad and very lonely and distracting myself from and numbing that (which accounted for a huge portion of my "akrasia," the rest was poor health, sleep and nutrition in particular).

As a counter to this, I got very very far with this sort of self-improvement for a very long time (though I think LW was very bad at teaching it, and I mostly got it from other sources.) I've recently focused on the alignment based models as I was starting to get to the point of diminishing returns with the other way, but I did get a lot out of the previous paradigm

I think the alignment based models are very very powerful, and I also think that the overriding the elephant models are quite powerful and get too much of a bad rap.

Huh. Can you go into more detail about what you've done and how it's helped you? Real curious.

Not mr-hire, but I got a lot of value from things more in the space of "improve your ability to control the elephant." I expect the lowest hanging fruit will vary from person to person, and part of the point of this post was to alert people to the fact that there are different strategies that they might not be considering (either for themselves or people they're giving advice to)

I think there was a general skill of "learn how to focus on a task", which I learned by combination of:

– finding projects that I cared enough about to actually want to focus on them (importantly, this was not sufficient to keep me going through the less shiny parts after the honeymoon period and in some cases even during the honeymoon period)

– getting, which wouldn't have worked on it's own if I'd just been forcing myself to use it

– establishing persistent habits and meta-habits to stay focused and to build incentive loops for myself.

Once I gained the relevant skills, they remained applicable even in areas that were less viscerally exciting.

Most of the lack-of-system-1-yumminess I fixed by changing my environment rather than changing myself.

This makes sense, but I also want to register that I viscerally dislike "controlling the elephant" as a frame, in roughly the same way as I viscerally dislike "controlling children" as a frame.

Just pointing out that I very much agree with this, mostly because I can relate to it. It really seems as though LW is written for people who are seeking to improve their lives without actually having mental health or similar issues that mean they’d need the improvement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean LW is actually written by such people. We’re very open about the mental health issues some here actually have, but we’re fixing them the way we would do regular self-improvement. LW does seem to do self-improvement quite well, though, although, being an online forum, it’s not that good at providing the practice that is always most of what it takes to improve.

I like having these distinctions laid out to think about. While it's on my mind I'd like to share an extension of Brienne's quadrants I'd made in my own notes.

To "Easy vs. Difficult" and "Fast vs. Slow", I added a third dimension of "Hype vs. Signal". A grand epiphany can turn out to be insight porn. A long gruel to attain wizardry could be an investment scam. Bug patches can be surface-level fads. Tortoise skill practice might be lotus-eating distraction.

(I may have been a bit disillusioned with rationality lore at the time I named these. Because yes, it *was* demoralizing to get 2-3% returns when I expected bursts of 300%.)

A useful core can have many subtly-off instantiations. The expected signal-to-noise ratio matters, when you're figuring out where it makes sense to focus your efforts.

The growth I've experienced in the past several years:

  • Emotional introspection, via low-key practice (over several years, mostly through the lens of improving my relationship with my girlfriend, occasionally through noticing stuff during non-romantic drama).
    • Brienne's Noticing Sequence, and Focusing were both helpful.
  • Emotional impulse control, via low-key practice (i.e. noticing "I'm feeling angry or spiteful", and then running a check of "is this a useful emotion to feel? Do I endorse this?" and then more complicated stuff downstream). Also over several years, generally in tandem with the introspection.
  • Ability to focus at work, combination of:
    • Changing environment (getting a job that mattered to me, tasks that were difficult-but-at-my-skill-level)
    • Cheat code (
    • Low-to-moderate practice cultivating habits, plus Try Things. The first several years of habits did not appear to work for longer than 2 weeks.
  • General Agency I via having a major project I was excited about, and gaining a social environment that fostered my belief that that sort of project was worth doing. (This was mostly inventing Solstice, which started at my current skill level. Rationality community encouraged "ambition", which led me to attempt to scale it much larger than I otherwise would have.
    • I had serious plans to scale it to the "millions of people" range, which I eventually gave up on because it didn't seem worth it, but the process of trying still changed me permanently)
    • (remembering this makes me want to consider "having a project" as a strategy unto itself. It's sort of like changing environment but the environment is largely internal)
  • General Agency II via "realizing it was up to me", combination of:
    • reading inspiring texts that led me to care more about the world, by reframing it in terms that resonated more with me
    • Being in a social environment where "try to have a big impact on the world" was incentivized (similar but subtly different from the version of this that encouraged Solstice). Having friends who were trying to do that.
    • Realizing in turn that I didn't trust any of those friends to have quite the same values as me and/or approach it a way that I trusted.
    • Years later, I now trust the people around me more, but having been through a period of "the world's all fucked up and nobody seems to quite see it through the same lens as me" left a permanent change
  • Thinking Strategically Similar to general agency II, but coupled with being at a job where there were strategic questions just above my current skill level that would require me to level up to answer them (who I couldn't get help with answering).
    • Got a one-time upgrade by reading an email from a colleague that thought about some strategy in detail, outlining their thought process, which showed me how I could improve. (I guess this falls under Learning?)
  • Improved Epistemic Rationality – low-key practice + social environment over several years, building off of introspection skills. Having people around who also practiced betting, model building, etc. Somewhat noticing that there weren't enough people around who practiced that, which gave me a sort of spite/smugness based motivation to do it myself (felt more smug than the desperation which fueled General Agency II + Thinking Strategically)
  • Math – Social environment incentivized me to learn calculus to understand AI landscape better. Actual practice was maybe the closest thing I've done to "serious practice", although it still felt more like "moderate practice." I only did this for a week. It gave me a small boost to my actual math knowledge, coupled with an upgrade to my self-image as someone who can learn math. (Sort of improvement to mental architecture / healing? Maybe more like just an "Epiphany" in Brienne's grid frame)

Writing this out crystallized:

  • Some things feel like Epiphanies moreso than healing, cheat codes, changing social-landscape or mental architecture (although if I were to force them into my OP's framework, mental architecture upgrade seems okay). Some epiphanies are triggered by being in a new social environment, but the upgrade is (semi)permanent rather than dependent on that environment.
  • I think "having projects" is important and maybe is worth considering it's own category. It's sort of like changing environment but it's a more internal environment

I've been curious for a while about the stuff I've been coming across about rationalists 'not seeing themselves as 'someone who can learn math.'' Aside from wondering where this comes from, where do you excel?

(What kind of things do you see yourself as someone who can learn those things?)

What got you interested in rationality?

I'm curious because in hindsight the things I'm good seem to be the things I tried because I wasn't self conscious about, and the things I'm not good at seem to be the things I was self-conscious about, and I'm trying to figure out how to do that - to 'heal/upgrade mental architecture' in order to progress.

I actually think this _particular_ subproblem is because I live among rationalists.

In high school and college, I was good enough at math that I didn't feel any sense that I "couldn't" do it. (I wasn't excited by it per se, but I think if I'd pushed ahead with it I'd have been fairly competent)

But, living among rationalists gave me a weird sense that "excelling at math" was something other people were better at that me.

In the years in between college and rationality-community, I didn't do anything particularly math-related, so it's not like there was a keen interest that the rationality community squashed. But I think there can be a response to people seeming better at a thing than me (where I have a comparative advantage at other things) that leads to me just focusing on those other things so I don't have to compete as hard.

In my case, the "other things" included community organizing, and certain kinds of art/design stuff that led me to spearhead Solstice, etc.

(I think the math thing was... basically fine – it's still the case that I don't think math is my comparative advantage and I'm not sure how much it's worth learning it for the sake of following certain conversations. But it *is* the case that, via a similar pattern, being in the rationality community stunted my strategic growth for 3 years because I kept asking other people to solve strategic problems for me)

Note that this isn’t a necessary problem. Being around people better than you doesn’t mean you’ll do this - doing a math undergrad surrounded by better mathematicians doesn’t tend to cause people to stop learning math.

It sounds like your environment wasn’t encouraging you to work on strategic problems, just get them solved, and we could change that fact if we wanted.

I like this a lot! I also think this is an entirely appropriate kind of post for LW.

Right now I'm doing a lot of finding & fixing blockers and also healing and attempting some internal aligment, along with low-key practice of various stuff. I guess some of those things are made more effective by learning sometimes. I would like to be doing a lot more serious practice of certain skills because I sometimes find that very rewarding, but that is an "eventually" thing.

The "I feel more comfortable on FB" part was more like "I'd prefer this post to have felt like just writing up something quick and easy as part of a casual conversation", and instead it ended up feeling like I was, well, writing a blogpost, with some degree of "it needs to look polished and feel defensible."

It looks polished, and I liked the graph. Now I know what wizardry means.

It seems to me that defining whether something is low-key or serious practice by the amount of time spent is a wrongheaded approach.

There's work that's very hard but that requires a low time investment and that has high returns.

Fair. I think all of the descriptions given are somewhat hazy and were motivated by a couple particular examples shaped a particular way, and there are likely examples that are shaped a different way.

What examples did you have in mind for "hard work with low time investment?"

Many fears can be faced in relatively low time investment. If you for example have a fear of talking to women spending 10 minutes every day approaching woman on the street is hard work that doesn't take that much time.

Negotiating prices would be similar. If you switch from not doing it at all to regularly doing it two times per week and the negotiating takes 10 minutes each that's likely going to do a lot.

Tony Robbins has a personal development seminar that includes a firewalk* over about glowing coals. It's framed in the seminar as being about the ability to do something despite feeling huge resistance. Afterwards whenever there's resistance it's possible to think back "I did walk over literal coals, so this isn't a big deal in contrast".

Belief change work has the same quality for me but but it likely takes longer for other people.

*Don't try at home to walk over coals, there are a bunch of factors like picking the right coals involved to reduce the chances of getting hurt.

I disagree with having "Try Things" identified with one of these strategies. IMO it can be applied to (nearly?) any strategy. e.g., You can try different ways of doing low-key practice, or try different skills or subskills to practice. Or you can run experiments in internal alignment, like what happens if I let the part of me that has been saying "I want cake!" have complete control of what I eat for the next week?

Fair. The important bit is that Try Things *is* important enough to have separate from each of the other strategies – if you don't remember to do it, you may end up in a rut with one particular strategy applied to one particular cluster of skills/ideas without noticing low hanging fruit in other areas.

I actually started by just calling it "Try Things" and then tried to make it a bit more concrete, and then most of the examples I could think of seemed to fit into the skill-oriented camp.

Promoted to curated: Most of the stuff in this post is stuff that I learned from Ray in person, but it has been quite valuable to me, and am happy that it now exists in written up form. It's also good for being more accessible than the average post in the last few weeks.

This has been useful for me in crystallising things that I had noticed but not made as clear.

In particular, it...

  • highlights the importance of practice, the value of which I think is neglected in the rationality community. (The thing that caused me to stop neglecting it was training to become a cfar instructor, and being put in the environment where it was expected that anything you taught should be grounded in actual, real examples; and that if you didn't have any you weren't ready to teach, and it would not be unreasonable to practice a technique for 20+ hours; and that techniques are learnable skills just like playing the piano or something; and that any person working at cfar, regardless of seniority, will attend classes and think anew about the content and how they can improve)
  • deconfuses several self-improvement concepts that are often batched together

Something I feel unsatisfied with, a year after posting this (and yet another year after Sunset at Noon) is that I think the most important habit to cultivate is "Try Things", because it unlocks all the higher return options. But I don't really have a good framework for doing that systematically or reliably.

I could do things like have a "go to at least one new meetup a week or month", as part of a general increase luck-surface-area thing. That feels like only one dimension of the thing though.

Can someone please tell me what FB stand for? (It's mentioned in the very first sentence) Thanks!

Ah, Facebook.

Right, I forgot about the biases I attained from choosing to not have social media.