How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

I have a confession to make. My life hasn’t changed all that much since I started reading Less Wrong. Hindsight bias makes it hard to tell, I guess, but I feel like pretty much the same person, or at least the person I would have evolved towards anyway, whether or not I spent those years reading about the Art of rationality.

But I can’t claim to be upset about it either. I can’t say that rationality has undershot my expectations. I didn’t come to Less Wrong expecting, or even wanting, to become the next Bill Gates; I came because I enjoyed reading it, just like I’ve enjoyed reading hundreds of books and websites. 

In fact, I can’t claim that I would want my life to be any different. I have goals and I’m meeting them: my grades are good, my social skills are slowly but steadily improving, I get along well with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. I’m in good shape financially despite making $12 an hour as a lifeguard, and in a year and a half I’ll be making over $50,000 a year as a registered nurse. I write stories, I sing in church, I teach kids how to swim. Compared to many people my age, I'm pretty successful. In general, I’m pretty happy.

Yvain suggested akrasia as a major limiting factor for why rationalists fail to have extraordinarily successful lives. Maybe that’s true for some people; maybe they are some readers and posters on LW who have big, exciting, challenging goals that they consistently fail to reach because they lack motivation and procrastinate. But that isn’t true for me. Though I can’t claim to be totally free of akrasia, it hasn’t gotten much in the way of my goals. 

However, there are some assumptions that go too deep to be accessed by introspection, or even by LW meetup discussions. Sometimes you don't even realize they’re assumptions until you meet someone who assumes the opposite, and try to figure out why they make you so defensive. At the community meetup I described in my last post, a number of people asked me why I wasn’t studying physics, since I was obviously passionate about it. Trust me, I had plenty of good justifications for them–it’s a question I’ve been asked many times–but the question itself shouldn’t have made me feel attacked, and it did.

Aside from people in my life, there are some posts on Less Wrong that cause the same reaction of defensiveness. Eliezer’s Mandatory Secret Identities is a good example; my automatic reaction was “well, why do you assume everyone here wants to have a super cool, interesting life? In fact, why do you assume everyone wants to be a rationality instructor? I don’t. I want to be a nurse.”

After a bit of thought, I’ve concluded that there’s a simple reason why I’ve achieved all my life goals so far (and why learning about rationality failed to affect my achievements): they’re not hard goals. I’m not ambitious. As far as I can tell, not being ambitious is such a deep part of my identity that I never even noticed it, though I’ve used the underlying assumptions as arguments for why my goals and life decisions were the right ones.

But if there’s one thing Less Wrong has taught me, it’s that assumptions are to be questioned. There are plenty of good reasons to choose reasonable goals instead of impossible ones, but doing things on reflex is rarely better than thinking through them, especially for long-term goal making, where I do have time to think it through, Type 2 style. 


What do I mean by ‘ambition’?

Here is the definition from my desktop dictionary:

(1)           A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work: her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

(2)           Desire and determination to achieve success: life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

The first definition sounds like a good description of me. Since around tenth grade, I’ve had a strong desire to study nursing, and it’s required a moderate amount of determination and hard work, especially the hands-on aspects, which are harder for me than academics has ever been. I want to be the kind of person described in (1).

What about the second half? More people than I can count have asked me why I’m not studying medicine. Or physics. Or just about anything aside from nursing, which is apparently kind of low-status. I inevitably get defensive when these conversations occur, and I end up trying to justify why nursing is the morally correct thing for me to do. For some reason, in some deep-down part of me that I don’t normally have conscious access to, I don’t want to be the sort of person described in (2).

Introspection isn’t accurate enough for me to automatically find my true rejection of ambitious goals, but I will take the rest of the post to speculate on my own personal reasons. They may or may not be reasons that generalize to anyone else. 

 

1. Idealism versus practicality

My mother tells me I would be a good academic, and enjoy it too. She’s usually right about that kind of thing, but I decided around eighth grade that academia wasn’t for me.

Why? Well, my mother and father both studied science at the undergraduate level (biology and physical chemistry, respectively) and then both went on to complete PhDs. From the sound of it, those student years were among the happiest in their lives. My father went on to do a postdoc at Cambridge, and then to get a crappy part-time teaching position at a small university in Washington State. He hated it. Eventually he quit and we moved up to Ottawa, Canada, where he worked at Nortel, was laid off during the company’s decline, and eventually found another job at a small company that takes apart computer chips and analyzes them. Meanwhile, my mother spent most of those years as a housewife, and has only recently begun working again, part-time and for a token salary.

I’ve asked my father what he thinks of the decisions he made, and he told me that his biggest problem was that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He told me that he still doesn’t. His job is boring and stressful, but he can’t quit because he didn’t start saving for retirement until he was 40. As a grad student, he worked with John Polanyi, a well-known academic; much later he told me he “always sort of thought I would end up being well-known and cool like that, but all of a sudden I’m almost 50 and I realize that’s not going to happen.”

I remember the year when he developed a sudden passion for career self-help books, of the ‘What Color Is Your Parachute’ and ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ variety. I must have been about thirteen years old. He encouraged me to read them, and warned me that “it’s better to think about what you want to do, not what you want to be.”

The lesson my 13-year-old self I took from all this: don’t have hopes and dreams, especially not ambitious ones. You won’t achieve them, and you’ll end up in a mid-life crisis with no retirement savings, full of regrets. Far better to have a practical, achievable life plan, and then go out and damn well achieve it. I read the self-help books, figured that nurses did around the same stuff all day as doctors and didn’t have to spend eight years in school paying tuition, and never looked back.

The lesson I didn’t learn from all this: my parents weren’t actually ambitious either. They enjoyed their studies in university, but primarily they had fun: going to the philosophy faculty parties, getting drunk with chemistry students, volunteering on coffee plantations in Nicaragua... Those are the stories they tell me from their studies, not stories of the research they did and the papers they published. I can’t be sure what their true feelings were at the time, but I don’t think they cared especially. They were smart young people who wanted to have a good time and didn’t especially care if they had no money. And I don’t think they have as many regrets as I assumed when I was thirteen. They didn’t exactly make life goals and then fail to achieve them. They just hadn’t made their long-term goals ahead of time. 

The lesson I should have learned: if you head into adulthood without big goals, don’t be surprised if you don’t achieve them. 

 

2. Fear of failure

The second life lesson about ambition happened a few years later, when I was around fourteen. I had been training as a competitive swimmer for a number of years. My parents didn’t sign me up because they wanted me to go to the Olympics someday; they wanted me to stay fit and have opportunities to socialize. It was a good decision; swim team made me happy, to the point that I often forget how unhappy I was up until then.

But after a while I started to get good at swimming, and coaches, even kids’ coaches, implicitly want their athletes to win, and keep winning, and maybe someday they’ll be known as the one who coached an Olympic athlete. Training made me happy, but competition emphatically did not; anxiety, stress, and bursting into tears before a race soon became part of my day-to-day life. My coaches told me that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything. But eventually I hit a point when I was racing kids who were simply more talented than me: taller, slimmer, bigger hands and feet, a genetic predisposition to fast-twitch muscles, whatever. And then I hit my body’s limits, and I stopped getting faster at all, no matter how hard I trained. My coaches accused me of not trying hard enough. Understandably, this made me feel worse, since I certainly felt like I was trying as hard as I could.

The lessons my 14-year-old self learned from this: don’t have high expectations for yourself when competing against other people. You’ll just end up feeling worthless and depressed. In fact, don’t compete against other people at all. Do things that are solely based on how good you are, as opposed to how good you are relative to other people who might be more talented. Even better, do things that aren’t that hard in an absolute sense, so that you don’t risk failing.

This is kind of a fallacy, of course. Success in anything is measured relative to other people, if only relative to the average. Even grades, because classes and tests and grades are set up for students of average intelligence, so students of relatively higher intelligence will find them easier, and students of lower-than-average intelligence will feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, as I did in swimming competitions. Possessing above average intelligence let me grow up seeing school as non-threatening, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. I’ve known people whose above-average athletic skills led them to be far more confident in sports than at school.

Still, fallacy or not, I later applied this idea to a lot of my decision. I was interested in physics all along, but my father’s tales of academia and the competition and pressure involved turned me off it. I also considered studying music theory and composition, but decided not to because, aside from being impractical for finding a job afterwards, I’d heard it was an incredibly competitive field. To a degree, this is why I chose not to make a career as a writer. (A degree in English didn’t seem particularly interesting to me, so I doubt I would have studied it, but even in high school I never really thought about earning money with my writing.) Success or failure was too far beyond my control for comfort.

The lesson I didn’t learn from this: find an area where you do have natural talent on your side, and use it for all it’s worth. In fact, I’ve done the opposite of this: one reason I chose nursing was because I felt that I was bad at a whole range of skills; empathy, social skills, fine motor skills and coordination, reacting in emergencies; and I wanted to force myself to improve. As a result, I’m far from the strongest student in my classes, and labs, simulations, and hospital placements bring me to a level of anxiety far above anything I ever experienced during academic tests or exams.

The lesson I should have learned from this: you never know what you are and aren’t capable of until you try it. I tried competitive swimming, and found out I didn’t have the raw talent to go to the Olympics. Who knows if this would have been true of physics? My father tells me that in his fourth year of undergraduate studies, he took several physics courses with a level of advanced math that he found almost impossible. He had reached his brain’s natural limit in math, which he might or might not have been able to exceed with hard work and hours of study; still, it was much more advanced than the first-year calculus I took as an elective. I have no reason to think that I’m worse at math than my father, and I suspect my obsessive work ethic would help me exceed any limits I did bump up against. And why not try?

 

3. The morality of ambition

There’s a third aspect of my aversion to ambitious goals, and I can’t say where it comes from. It might be my parents’ attitude of moderation in everything: they consistently disapproved of my involvement in any ‘obsessive’ activities, swim team included. It might be the way my mother always got mad at me for talking about my achievements, even my grades, in front of friends; it’ll make other people feel bad, she said. (For a long time I was incredibly self-conscious about high grades, and wouldn’t tell my friends if they were above 90%.) It might be the meme that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ or the idea that it’s greedy to be ambitious, or that power corrupts and wise people choose not to seek it.

I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral. That really good people lived simple, selfless lives and never tried to seek anything more. That doing something solely because you wanted more money or more respect, like going to med school instead of nursing school, was selfish and just bad. It might come from the books I read as a kid, or maybe it’s just a rationalization to cover up my other reasons with a nobler one. 

But if this is my true reason, then it’s a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me, of whom part of me is actually jealous, and that’s not the person I want to be.

 

4. Laziness

I don’t normally think of myself as a lazy person. Other people are constantly telling me that I’m diligent and have an excellent work ethic. But there’s a way in which all this hardworking dedication to my current occupations has prevented me from spending much time thinking or acting about what I’m going to do next. Working a bunch of 12-hour shifts makes me feel productive, brings the direct benefit of a fat paycheck, and leaves me pretty exhausted at the end of the day, too tired to do the (in some ways harder) work of searching for cool job opportunities, looking at online classes to take, and in general breaking the routine. I hate breaking my routine. It makes me anxious, and I have to spend more energy motivating myself, and in general it’s hard. I tend to only depart from that routine when forced. 

 

Conclusion

I think I was right about some of the conclusions I drew from these various experiences. Practicality is important: ask the English majors working at Starbucks. Thinking about what you want to do all day, as opposed to the title and respect associated with what you want to be, is good life advice and will likely result in a more satisfying career. Trying hard to project an image of success, i.e. “keeping up with the Jones’”, isn’t a good path to happiness. And relative talent is a factor to take into consideration; if my dream career were to be an Olympic swimmer, unfortunately I wouldn’t be likely to succeed.

But one of the problems with thinking things through too deeply when you’re young, and think you’re wiser than everyone else, is a tendency to over-generalize. Doing cool, interesting, world-changing things with your life...even if the actual job position are competitive and hard to obtain...well, on reflection, it doesn’t seem be a bad idea.

The lesson my current self has learned from this: investigate more. Spend less time on work and more time on actually planning future goals. Seek out interesting things to do, and interesting people to work with. Go for opportunities even if they're inconvenient and I have to break my routine a bit. Set concrete goals, and don’t wiggle out of achieving them because they’re ‘not actually that important.’ They’re probably more important than working at a community centre, and I seem to be able to dedicate 1000 hours a year to that... Try not to worry about sunk costs (although it’s worth finishing nursing school, since an RN certificate is incredibly versatile in Canada and will guarantee me a job if any other prospects fail.) Force myself to step out of my comfort zone once in a while and do something kind of crazy, but awesome. And if I can do that, succeed to the point that I can break my reflex-of-being-average...then I'll know for sure whether rationality, of the Less Wrong variety, will help me to 'win'. 

The lesson my future self will learn from this: who knows? 

 

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Generic "ambition" is a serious case of putting the cart before the horse. If you have ambition to do something, that's great; if not, deciding you should be "ambitious" and then trying to figure out what to be ambitious about rarely ends well.

I think this is why I get creeped out by ambitious people sometimes. I'd much rather my doctor be passionate about medicine than be someone who decided medicine was more "prestigious" than nursing. As a personal anecdote, I am currently in medicine because I want to specialize in psychiatry. I am passionate about psychiatry and plan to be an awesome psychiatrist. I am not quite as passionate about organic medicine with its heart attacks and kidney infections, and although I work hard at it and am pretty good, some of my classmates who get up every morning super excited because they've dreamed of treating kidney infections their whole lives are better. I don't begrudge them this and if I ever got a kidney infection I'm going straight to them and not to the doctor who went into medicine as a subgoal of something else; if they ever get depression I hope they'll come to me for the same reason.

I understand it's the same in many other fields. Paul Graham writes that successful startup founders start with a problem they want to solve, eg Larry Page and Sergey Brin were frustrated with terrible online search; unsuccessful startup founders decide they would really like to earn fantastic amounts of money and only worry about what business they'll do it in as an afterthought.

The only problem here is charity: I do think it may be morally important to be ambitious in helping others, which might even include taking a lucrative career in order to give money to charity. This is especially true if the Singularity memeplex is right and we're living in a desperate time that calls for a desperate effort. See for example Giving What You Can's powerpoint on ethical careers. At some point you need to balance how much good you want to do, with how likely you are to succeed in a career, with how miserable you want to make yourself - and at the very least rationality can help clarify that decision.

I consider myself lucky, because making money is what I intrinsically want to do due to all the turn-based strategy games I played as an adolescent. Fuzzy life goals like "find what you like and make a career out of it" don't really appeal to me--in practice, what I like has changed too often historically, and besides, there's nothing to optimize and no rules to game!

Alpha Centauri is an almost perfect example of a computer game that teaches optimizer thinking:

http://www.amazon.com/Meiers-Alpha-Centauri-Alien-Crossfire-Expansion/dp/B003NMA3DG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327214061&sr=8-1

Unlike the civilization series, the designers decided that since the game was based in the future, they would throw in all kinds of crazy stuff. This gives a big advantage to players who read through the entire manual and develop strategies like "I won't have to deal with drones if I build punishment spheres everywhere, but then I won't have any scientific research. So I'll have to probe the hell out of the other factions in order to steal their advances. Hm, the Believers would be perfect for this, since they're terrible at science but that won't matter." My brother and I have spent hours talking about the game and bouncing strategies like this one off each other. Did I mention that it's insanely fun and addictive?

I played Alpha Centauri for a few weeks back when it came out, ended up going back to Civilisation, more out of habit I suppose than anything else. These days I'm playing Civilisation IV Beyond the Sword.

What is interesting about being taught optimizer thinking within a computer game is that if that thinking stays within the game, then it's not real world applicable as optimal. If however one stops playing the game and then takes the learned strategies applicable in the real world, into the real world - then gaming is useful, otherwise gaming is just entertainment. I love gaming, don't get me wrong - it's just that (simplistically) x hours of gaming translates into x hours of missed revenue/earnings in the real world, or x hours of real world knowledge unlearned.

I agree, it's not inevitably going to be useful. In my case, I was spending so much time planning my games out that I was no longer having fun, so I started to wonder why I didn't put forth the same optimization efforts in real life. Explicitly trying to transfer the optimizer mindset might help ("Here's a decision about my life I have to make. Oh yeah, I remember, making decisions is fun!")

Railroad Tycoon II might be a better choice for making money in particular–you can fantasize about how if you actually were alive at that time and you had $10K in capital, investor connections, and railroad knowledge you could have made a fortune too. Then after playing the game for a while, you could start looking around for equivalent present-day opportunities. (Did you know that at one time, railroad stocks made up over half the value of the US stock market?)

I was spending so much time planning my games out that I was no longer having fun, so I started to wonder why I didn't put forth the same optimization efforts in real life.

That thought helped break a friend of mine out of a Farmtown addiction. Iirc, she was considering making a spreadsheet for Farmtown when the light dawned.

Railroad Tycoon II might be a better choice for making money in particular–you can fantasize about how if you actually were alive at that time and you had $10K in capital, investor connections, and railroad knowledge you could have made a fortune too.

The best lesson I got from the Railroad Tycoon games was pausing at the start, carefully inspecting all of the cities, and finding the 3-4 best pairs to set up routes between, then snagging those before the AI could. (The AI would politely wait a minute or so for you to move first, then start building, and if you built a station in a city they wouldn't. So you set up the best one as a route to make money off of, claim the others, and then they only have terrible routes to pick from, and so stagnate while you grow massively.)

That sort of strategy doesn't work well in real life, but the meta-strategy - know your environment and plan carefully - is rather useful.

SMAC is one of my favorite games. I find it unsatisfying from a strategy standpoint, though, because the factions are so unbalanced- the University is top-tier (unsurprising for a game set in the future!) and the Believers are terrible.

(For example, the example you mention- Believers going probe-heavy- is the best strategy for the Believers, but will lose out to Hive doing infinite city strategy. Hive can outproduce you, use police to keep their drones in line more effectively, and doesn't have the crippling early-game research penalty.)

Back when I played SMAC a lot, I found the unbalanced thing was useful for player-vs.-AI games; once I got good enough to reliably beat the AI with the powerful factions, I could play the weaker factions as a challenge. For multiplayer games, though, not so much.

It did, however, make me long for a version of SMAC where you programmed units with AI guidelines rather than control them individually, and where probes could read and alter enemy unit programming.

Generic "ambition" is a serious case of putting the horse before the cart.

...cart before the horse?

Every time I have ever used that phrase I have gotten it wrong, even when I specifically think about it beforehand and resolve not to get it wrong this time. I think it's because there are two related sayings, "keep the horse before the cart" and "don't put the cart before the horse", and I always sort of combine them.

Thank you.

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres prefers the phrase

Like starting a meal with dessert, only bad.

Another possible memory aid: "Sum, ergo cogito" = "putting Descartes before the horse".

In this instance, it might help to remember that following your true passion wherever it leads is keeping the course before the heart.

Every time I have ever used that phrase I have gotten it wrong, even when I specifically think about it beforehand and resolve not to get it wrong this time. I think it's because there are two related sayings, "keep the horse before the cart" and "don't put the cart before the horse", and I always sort of combine them.

Some (who have a different attitude towards ambition) would perhaps consider the mistaken version appropriate!

As far as it goes, you're absolutely right. I think that's one of the good lessons that my dad taught me, with his self-help books...it matters more (in terms of happiness, and of being good at what you do) that you like what you do all day, as opposed to enjoying the reputation of what you are.

The problem is, I think I would enjoy the day-to-day work of a doctor more than that of a nurse-there's more thinking involved, more theory, and that's always been the part I liked. I would almost certainly enjoy the schooling more than nursing school, too–I can't pretend I'm not bored and underchallenged in the academic aspects of nursing. And my mother is almost certainly right that I would like many aspects of academia–the thinking and researching and studying, if not the competitive atmosphere. I used to read physics and biology books for fun, something I can never claim to have done for nursing textbooks.

Side note:

I am passionate about psychiatry and plan to be an awesome psychiatrist. I am not quite as passionate about organic medicine with its heart attacks and kidney infections, and although I work hard at it and am pretty good, some of my classmates who get up every morning super excited because they've dreamed of treating kidney infections their whole lives are better.

I was pretty meh about my psychiatry placement this fall. The theory is pretty fascinating, and I had some surreal conversations with patients, but in general the nurses don't have a lot to do with theory-basically we just gave out meds, wrote notes in the chart, and then had lots of down time. I loved med-surg partly because of the lack of downtime, which didn't give me a chance to get bored.

I've known at least one person (and possibly more, it's hard to remember...) who went for a MD after years as a nurse, a couple who went on to nurse-practitioner or PA, and one or two who have shuffled between RN and EMT-P positions as pay and adventure dictate. If you spend some years as a nurse and decide later that you want more schooling, you'll be experienced regarding the options available and probably in a more financially stable position. If you continue to yearn for academia, there are a both teaching and research avenues out there in the nursing and nurse-practitioner fields.

The versatility was a big plus for nursing when I was choosing my major... That being said, if the people cited in our textbooks are any indication of what nursing research is like, I don't want to go there. I don't like qualitative research in general–either it sets off my "social sciences bullshit" detector or I just can't make any sense of it at all–and I like "nursing paradigms and conceptual models" even less. Give me a nice hard science problem to work on and I'll be happy...

The only problem here is charity: I do think it may be morally important to be ambitious in helping others, which might even include taking a lucrative career in order to give money to charity. This is especially true if the Singularity memeplex is right and we're living in a desperate time that calls for a desperate effort. See for example Giving What You Can's powerpoint on ethical careers. At some point you need to balance how much good you want to do, with how likely you are to succeed in a career, with how miserable you want to make yourself - and at the very least rationality can help clarify that decision.

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people and successfully stuck to it. Do you?

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people and successfully stuck to it. Do you?

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people in an efficient utilitarian way, full stop. I know juliawise was considering it, but I don't know what happened.

Do you know of anyone who tried and quit?

If you'll drop the "in an efficient utilitarian way" clause, then I submit that quite a few working parents qualify as an example of both "career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing" and "successfully stuck to it". Choosing between the more-enjoyable (artistic, non-profit, low-stress, whatever your preference is) career and the more-likely-to-put-your-kids-through-college career is practically a stereotype.

If you'll go one step further and allow "themselves" to count as "people", then I'd say that nearly every person in history qualifies as an example of "career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people". Unless you have very extraordinary preferences, skills, and/or luck, odds are that the activities you enjoy most are relatively unproductive activities that other people also enjoy, and that this weak demand-to-supply ratio prevents those activities from being paid a liveable wage. An Office Space quote keeps running through my head: "If everyone listened to her we wouldn't have any janitors, because nobody would clean shit up if they had a million dollars."

Do you know of anyone who tried and quit?

No, I don't. This thread touches on important issues which warrant fuller discussion; I'll mull them over and might post more detailed thoughts under the discussion board later on.

I think this is why I get creeped out by ambitious people sometimes. I'd much rather my doctor be passionate about >medicine than be someone who decided medicine was more "prestigious" than nursing.

Like the alt-text here: "I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at."

Agreed. People are different. There are tons of different things that could be the "limiting factor" for someone's success in the world; some are overcome-able, like akrasia, and some aren't. However, people don't know themselves perfectly, and a lot of the reasons I articulated to myself for why I wanted to be a certain way were bad reasons, in that they weren't entirely consistent with my actual preferences, interests, and talents.

Things like akrasia, which prevent people from achieving goals they've already formed, have been discussed in detail on LW. However, the factors that decide which goals people choose, and whether those goals are easy or hard relative to their abilities, haven't been discussed as much. Undoubtedly some of those factors are hard to change, but some might not be.

For several years I have known that I 'max out' at groups of five. If I'm in a conversation with up to four other people I'm charming and relaxed. Add a sixth and I clam up and turn into a totally different person. My working explanation is that my, as you call it, social modeling circuitry gets saturated and can't handle the combinatorial jump. For me it feels like an exponential increase in difficulty. I can't get the timing right, I don't feel like anything I say is interesting enough to cut in.

Interestingly, I am excellent at public speaking, because there's no need to model the audience on an individual basis.

Can you train yourself to pretend certain people do not even exist?

besides this.

That is the funniest thing I have seen in quite a while.

I'm pretty sure this is the most joke-theoretically perfect joke I've ever encountered. Not only did I laugh, but 3 minutes later I was still laughing again for new reasons.

I'm pretty sure this is the most joke-theoretically perfect joke I've ever encountered.

Joke theory is such that the maximisation thereof is bestiality puns? I mean, it cracked me up too but my theoretical conception calls for a perfection where the lewdness is on the subtle side of the spectrum!

I trained myself to pretend that people exist.

Could you expand on that?

I'm now being entertained by contemplating the difference between an occasional solipsist who believes that they are occasionally the only real person in the world, and one who occasionally believes they are (and have always been) the only real person in the world.

I wonder what the first kind of occasional solipsist would think happened to all the other people when they became the one real person.

Well, if one considers p-zombies a coherent idea (which I don't), I can't see how it's noticeably less plausible to have someone who is sometimes genuinely conscious and sometimes a p-zombie. From there, to the idea that everyone is like that, seems a small step.

Of course, this also allows for the occasional solipsist who believes that occasionally there's only one real person in the world and it isn't them.

Years ago someone said to me "There are only forty-seven real people in the world, the rest are just bad special effects" to which i replied "I take exception to that: I am a damn good special effect!"

I actually find a variation on the part-time zombie to be...spot on, In terms of what the algorithm feels like. All you need is a bit of sleep deprivation.

This is a decent suggestion, but limited. I'm similar to moridinamael (except I find my cliff isn't as steep; 6 is when I start feeling my ability degrade and ~9 is where it's almost gone), and I find it easy to see most people as irrelevant in technical contexts (lectures, work, etc.) but not in most social contexts. If I'm at a party with 12 people, the only way I've found effective to stay talkative is form a subgroup that's 5 or fewer and just focus on them. Writing off active participants is a recipe for awkwardness / hurt feelings, which shutting down prevents.

That's really interesting!

I have a similar "transition mode", but it's between one-on-one conversations and groups of three. If I'm talking one-on-one, I usually contribute at least 50% of the conversation, sometimes significantly more. In theory, talking to two other people should result in me contributing about 1/3 of the conversation...but it's more like 5%. I think part of it is because the conversation dynamics with three people are more complicated, making it hard to manage things like taking your turn without interrupting the others. Part of it is because in a group of three, I'm not needed to avoid awkward silences.

The amount I'll actually talk in a group conversation drops even more steeply above three. I wouldn't say specifically that I'm less relaxed, that I'm uncomfortable, or even that my comments become less interesting, but I tend to go to "listening mode" instead of "talking mode", which is less work for me anyway.

I have no problems in public speaking, or elaborating on a question someone asks me specifically during a group discussion.