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.
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.
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?
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 s... (read more)
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:
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 talkin... (read more)
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.
Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres prefers the phrase
Another possible memory aid: "Sum, ergo cogito" = "putting Descartes before the horse".
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.
When I was graduating from high school, I was warned a lot that when I go to university: "your grades will tend to drop a letter grade". When I mentioned that I was going to study engineering, I was additionally told that "half of you will flunk out or drop out in the first year". I very self-consciously tried to manage my expectations about how good my grades should be, trying to find a reasonable goal that was (1) achievable so that I wouldn't get stressed out, but still (2) sufficiently "ambitious" so that I'd be sure to graduate and be able to find a good job and feel good about having spent four years of my life.
The way you describe your attitude toward "ambition" resonates with the feeling I had toward it then. If I set my ambitions too high (acing all my courses), I'd feel like a failure when I missed those goals. But if I set my goals just right, I'd feel the contentment of meeting them, but with minimal risk of failure. A safe emotional bet with no risk to my status, since as you say, I'd have "a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me".
But as it turned out, I have a good brain for engineeri... (read more)
Oh, man. The fatal event in my failed study of engineering was getting 99% on a first-year dynamics exam. I'd reduced the semester to a page of notes, then the page to a quarter page, then the quarter page to four equations [which of course I can't remember now - this was 1988], which it seems had been the point of the entire semester. I then proceeded to ace it. (Got a sign wrong in one problem, hence 99%.) This was absolutely fatal to doing well henceforth, since I had no idea how I'd managed to do that well except showing up at lectures and usually doing my homework.
Damn it! I wish I still had classes like this! ...I love classes where literally just understanding the material (in a deep, comprehensive way) is enough to get 100% if you don't make stupid mistakes. I suspect this is the reason I did well in high school chemistry, physics, and bio–if you tried to really grasp the underlying concepts, the memorization required was trivial, or at least it didn't feel like memorization.
Whereas many of my classes now are pure memorization of stuff with hardly any underlying logical structure (like pharmacology...stupid list of over 100 drug names to memorize, generic AND commercial!), or based on legal standards and "best practice guidelines" which, although they must be based on research results, don't yield easily to my attempt to find underlying concepts. One class consisted almost entirely of memorizing the names (and acronyms, in French and English) for the various nursing regulatory organization in Ontario, and the documents they released on stuff like ethics. Gaaaah. There have been so many classes where I finished with an A- not because the class was hard, not because an A+ would have been ridiculously difficult, but because the ma... (read more)
This is why I got frustrated with foreign language class. It's impossible to derive one word in a vocabulary list from the others. Being able to recall the words for "red", "blue", "orange", "grey", "white", and "black" doesn't help you at all to remember the word for "green".
TVTropes knows all about this.
That moment when I close the tab and remember why I've been on TVTropes for the last hour, it's a bit like waking from a dream.
Before discovering Less Wrong, i took an unusual view of ambition. I actually managed to use excessive ambition to justify a total lack of ambition. I would deem unachievable goals to be the only goals worth achieving. Since this made it impossible for me to achieve any "valuable" goals, i would be able to accept having no goals as a suitable alternative. As you've probably noticed, this is eerily similar to a Mysterious Answer. I never believed in any Spiritual ideals (although i did subscribe to intelligent design due to a misunderstanding of Occam's Razor). I still am baffled by the lengths i went to to screw myself up in this regard. As you can probably imagine, this idea led to a great deal of depression, lowered self esteem, and worsened relationships with family members. I was seriously considering suicide (i probably wouldn't have done anything, but the idea was still there). Despite Scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized testing, I was resolved to avoid college.
Upon reading the Sequences and Methods of Rationality, I instantly realized how absurd these ideas were and disposed of them appropriately. Though this bias (which i highly suspect to be related to... (read more)
I've changed the post title to "How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious" and promoted.
Reasons for change: More specific description of actual content; worry about titles that countersignal at the expense of such specificity (original was "Why Less Wrong hasn't changed my life (yet)".)
I know this was from good motives (and I agree that the new title is better), but I think that changing somebody else's post as you promote it sends off bad signaling, compared to saying "Really want to promote this, but the title looks wrong for the post. How about...?"
You know, you're right. I felt bad for not having promoted the post already and felt the title needed to be changed before it was promoted, and worried that Swimmer wouldn't have seen the request for a while; but in retrospect I should've posted the proposed change first and then waited 4 hours to see if there was a reply.
I was just about to comment and ask why the title changed...after I figured out it wasn't some other "copycat" post that someone else had made on the same theme. Thanks, though... I spent quite a while switching titles and trying to find a good one, and yours is better.
Out of everything you said, I notice this is the one that you don't seem to have actually changed, or at least it's not as clear from what you said.
A quick way to test: do you disapprove of other ambitious people? If so, imagine what it would be like if you didn't disapprove of them. Then notice any objections that come up from your brain.
(The pattern of a learned moral disapproval applied to a behavioral stereotype, subsequently interfering with individual goals is one we see a lot in the Mind Hackers' Guild; they are relatively easy to fix, but not always easy to spot. Your introspection skills are probably more accurate than you realize.)
The first person who comes up when I give my brain that query is a guy I knew in high school, who I find pretty obnoxious to spend time with. Let me revise: he was likeable enough in grade nine, when the two of us were both in the geeky outgroup of our school. He's ambitious in that he wants to be a politician, not a scientist. (For whatever reason, I find politicians a lot more irritating than scientists!)
He was our school valedictorian (which he deserved, he was involved in an incredible amount of volunteer work), and I remember finding his speech pretty irritating. I don't recall much of the substance...in fact, the problem may have been that there wasn't that much substance. Even my mom commented that he came across as kind of arrogant.
...In retrospect, I think I found him irritating because he seemed to be signalling a higher level of "coolness" than he actually had in the high school social environment, and my brain was like "you can't do that! That's cheating!" Now, I'm sure he's done a lot of neat stuff since then, and is probably respected for reasons that he deserves. (Every once in a while one of his Facebook upd... (read more)
I don't see the absurdity, actually. Seems on par for me with, "I think your taste in [death metal, anchovies on pizza, toilet paper roll direction] is horribly disgusting, but I don't have anything against you as a person".
Or for that matter, "I think what you say is disgusting, but I defend your right to say it."
Of course, AFAICT, this actually has nothing to do with what we're discussing, which is the opposite sort of issue: where one is, say, inappropriately disgusted by sports because when you grew up the people who were into sports were mean to you, so that now you make excuses not to go to the gym without really knowing why.... (read more)
Before I get bogged down in reading all the comments, I just want to say: nursing is one of the most admirable and versatile professions in existence. There are very few people I'd rather have available in any generic critical situation than an experienced and competent nurse. Good on you.
I am a PhD chemist (currently post-doc); my partner is a Physics professor. He has often said that the most selfless thing we could do would be to teach high school science. It is a super important job capable of changing lives, where talented people can really shine, but at the same time can be exhausting, soul-sucking, and tedious.
I think nursing is similar in a way.
My mom is a nurse, and my two younger sisters are nurses (the youngest still finishing school). When my youngest sister decided to start nursing school (she was undecided for a long time), I thought that really, it was an extremely practical choice. Unlike many jobs, nursing is unlikely to become obsolete. Also, there are jobs everywhere, the pay is good, the work brings new challenges every day, etc, etc. It makes sense.
I guess one of the big reasons I wanted to comment (I haven't commented on Less Wrong in two years or so), in addition to wanting to make the comparison with teaching at the high school level, is to offer a word of caution.
From my experience living in a family of nurses, I would say: "beware the administration trap." If you are really good at your job, you will likely be offered a promotion ... (read more)
There's something very interesting here. You say your goals are less ambitious and akrasia isn't a major problem for you. That sounds right. But what exactly does this entail? Your life sounds quite busy and productive. Although your goals might be less ambitious than what others are trying to achieve, I doubt they're really doing much more work than you, either physically or mentally. This, I think, hints at two possible sources of akrasia: uncertainty and bad goals. Becoming a nurse is something a great number of people have done before, so there's no great uncertainty surrounding its achievability. In that sense it's relatively straightforward. We can also be sure it's a good goal. A nurse is a really existing thing. You're probably not confused about what a nurse is or what you have to do to become one. I wouldn't be so sure about, say, developing the first seed AI. I could, in fact, be entirely confused about what this goal is, the concept could be incoherent, the goal may not break down into sub-goals because it's a mirage and I could end up unable to make progress and unable to explain why. Likewise, the goal is surrounded by uncertainty. Could akrasia be a signal of bad, or at least uncertain, goals?
"In fact, don’t compete against other people at all."
When I was a kid I was in a similar place. My parents wanted me to play Little League and I did and I was just terrible. I wasn't a very athletic kid and I always felt like a miserable failure every time I stunk up the field.
Later I found other things to do and one of them is chess. I love chess but I'm not very good at it either. Maybe average if one is feeling generous. I'm terrible at memorization so I have no opening book. I get my butt handed to me on a regular basis. This time, however, being destroyed doesn't have the same effect on me.
What's the difference? My self-image is no longer tied up in winning so losing is no longer ego-crushing. I do still compete, though. I've just adjusted my parameters a bit.
I still compete, however. I compete with myself, or my previous self, to be more specific. This is much more rewarding, allows me to have goals of increasing difficulty and doesn't make me feel like a loser. In fact, I learn more from the post-disaster post-mortem than when I win. I win in either case.
I don't think it's about competing or not competing. I think it's about what you're trying to get... (read more)
I watched Grave of the Fireflies for the first time last night. Cried a bit. And even now, Millions and millions dead. But it doesn't have to be this way. More is possible. Maybe someday, no more kids dying, no more human beings dying. If I need a crusade, that can work.
Traditional rationality tells us that just contributing to society helps move us forward. Transhumanism and LessWrong's about groping, fumbling, toward optimizing how we contribute. Hacks and shortcuts, fixing inefficiencies, so maybe eventually our species will move up the Khardashev scale.
I get the feeling a large portion of this story can be classified as learned helplessness.
Several studies(google for cal newport) have shown that base talent has little effect on how good you can be at something, the real variable is deliberate practice, pushing the limits of what you can handle a tiny bit to slowly keep improving. ( obviously your swimming example does have harder limits imposed by the limits of your body, this does not seem to apply to fields outside of sports though and in sports like boxing there are different classes because of the di... (read more)
This reminds me of a video I saw recently, Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta on Goals. It seems to me that if the goal of your goals (metagoal?) is to be happy, then going all appreciation & no goals can work (think of the wandering Taoist monk), but going all achievement & no appreciation will make you miserable. You can also be successfully happy by balancing the two: appreciate & achieve. This post resonates with me quite a bit because I have a high appreciation level that sometimes gets in the way of motivation to achieve.
Thank you for this post! You have an unusually high level of introspection, and I haven't noticed any of the standard fallacious justifications anywhere in your story. Maybe you are naturally rational, that's why LW has not changed your life much. Or maybe it enabled you to write this excellent analysis of your feelings and motivations.
I'm surprised that I liked this very personal post so much. You don't seem confused. You explain clearly.
Perhaps you've been able to see yourself more clearly after reading about specific emotional/perceptual obstacles. Perhaps you've always been so introspective. Perhaps you've merely produced a story about yourself that sounds convincing. In any case, if you now feel freer of avoidance/defensiveness, that's a boon.
Of course I recommend you do something you're well suited for, provided that your competitiveness isn't abnormally low. Alternatively, if you... (read more)
I chose that role deliberately when I was about 13. Come to think of it, that was probably a direct reaction to figuring out that I'd wasted 4 years before that believing I was secretly a powerful princess fighting against some vaguely defined, evil adult conspiracy.
Like Swimmer, I like to romanticize the simple and selfless life. I resolved to be the friendly lady down in apartment 2B whose kind words echo dramatically upon recollection and bring the main character to some significant insight that helps them save the day and get the girl. But somewhere along the line I realized that I could still live in an apartment and give sage-like advice and cookies to passerby if I was mind-numbingly rich, I'd just do it well dressed and with a very wide budget margin. Which I could then spend on just about -anything-. And possibility space is infinite! Forget helping Peter Parker down the hall, I could be messing with the heads of the entire next generation of characters! Why just be a Mrs. Figg when I could be a Mr. Hat and Cloak too?
Attitudes and actions that can change your life:
People who come across lesswrong and stick around long enough to actually read some posts often already have those attitudes and actively try to become less wrong.
In a sense, people on lesswrong could be compared to people who voluntarily visit a psychiatrist because they recognized that they suffer mental problems and whose attitude allows them to accept and admit their own weaknesses.
If you ... (read more)
Well, this post aged interestingly for those of us who know the author (who ended up working for a high-profile EA organization for some time).
Less Wrong is entertainment, if it surprises you that it didn't change your life, your expectations were very irrational.
Like all entertainment, sometimes it has some positive (or negative) side effects, but they're not the real reason people are here.
Reading LW is fun. In that sense, it's entertainment, just like some people read physics textbooks for fun. People also watch reality TV for fun. Does that mean reading LW, or physics textbooks, is equivalent to watching reality TV? I would say that physics textbooks have a lot of fringe benefits aside from their entertainment value–you end up understanding physics really well. LW maybe isn't as good as a physics textbook, because it's based less on tried-and-true science and more on a bunch of concepts, hypotheses, and ideology thrown together into the idea of "rationality." But I'd bet most people get more fringe benefits out of LW than out of reality shows.
It is a bad sign that you labeled her expectations with that symbol alone.
This looks like the beginning of an argument about whether or not LW is "really entertainment." If it is really entertainment, then that doesn't prevent it from being useful in any other way, unless its being entertainment precludes it from being those things by definition, which would of course be irrelevant.
Saying that LW is entertainment is somewhat relevant as an evolutionary debunking argument, to explain its popularity as being from something other than usefulness, which all else equal makes it less likely LW is useful. But I don't like how the comment was phrased, nor is that argument terribly strong.
Almost all causes have multiple effects, almost all effects have multiple causes.
Your comment is far below the standard for you. Standing alone, it implies a broken ideology and worldview, and looks like many useless internet comments. Only from your other comments is it clear that this one is an aberration. A bad one, one that looks as if it were written by someone else.
Everyone has to have a worst comment, my worst is probably worse. But please rethink this issue, or express your thoughts better.
See here and the OP (emphasis added):
(People rarely exhibit long-term planning to acquire social status any more than we/they exhibit long-term planning to acquire health. E.g., most unhappily single folk do not systematically practice their social skills unless this is encouraged by their local social environment.)
Just before writing this comment I was reading a calculus book just for fun. I am currently working part-time as gardener and don't need calculus and don't expect that I will need it any time soon for anything other than understanding ideas that are even more fun. I get an incredible kick from understanding new concepts.
People are psychologically very different. I had some of the greatest fun in my life reading lesswrong.
ETA I also like to take photos, read science fiction and play games...and A LOT more :-)
Some people program computers for fun, and some people watch Jackass. It isn't clear to me that the people who don't watch Jackass suck at entertaining themselves ....
I have been a baker and I always cringe from the thought that some people do it for fun.
My dad has been a construction engineer for the German Railways. He told me about people who came to his workplace and took photos of the bridges and tracks he was inspecting. Those people literally knew every screw being used in the construction. They did that stuff for fun. There are whole clubs.
I even heard of people who collect stamps and travel to international meetings. Crazy huh?
Tourist railways. People volunteer to get up at 3am and do jobs that 150 years ago were incitements to socialist revolution.
YMMV. I take LessWrong strictly  out of my internet-as-television budget, and find it more consistently interesting than 4chan.
 though I'll often Google to link a remembered post in random Internet philosophical arguments.
I am not cynical here, I find lesswrong very entertaining to read for similar reasons to I regularly read research papers on things I'll never need in my life for fun.
I cannot possibly be alone - just ask anyone what happens when they want to quickly check a random article on Wikipedia or even worse TvTropes and end up spending an entire day on the site, learning minutae of things they have no use for whatsoever.
XiXiDu's and David_Gerard's responses suggest there's plenty of people who see lesswrong the same way.
I go back to chans every now and then, but it tends to get boring after a few days.
If you want helpful advice (wrt "sucking at rationality"):
One super-simple and very practical exercise I recommend is - every time you go shopping try to... (read more)
I know this is completely outta sync with what you were going for, but I couldnt resist quoting good ol' rational Quirell:... (read more)
What's your facial width-to-height ratio?... (read more)
If you're having trouble changing, one easy thing I have found to work for me is: Take it upon myself to do the things I would normally do out of habit, and do them on purpose. Take it upon myself to do the things I would normally do as a reaction, and do them independently.
This, for me, sets my mind on the path of being conscious of and in control of what I was previously unable to change. So, I think you should do the opposite of the lesson you've learned from this. I think you should, for a short period of time, purposefully act the way you are current... (read more)
One of the most important things I consider myself to have ever done is break out of my routine. It is scarring in a serious and personal way, but it's necessary if you want to excel at anything you put your mind to.
Besides, what can guarantee that some catastrophe might break your routine against your will? Pre-empting the break is a way of ensuring that you've got a thick skin in case catastrophe strikes.
I suspect I could have lots of ambition if I knew what I wanted to focus on, and weren't excessively risk-averse IRL.
I really enjoyed reading your post. I actually felt that you implied that you indeed had ambition. I wonder then, what made you decide on the title of the post?
I came upon your article because I was trying to figure out why I was lazy. I wanted to understand if it was because I had no or little ambition. When I read the part where you were explaining what you meant by ambition, I realized I never really defined what it meant to be "lazy". After coming up with a concrete definition of laziness, I was finally able to reason about why I was lazy. I have saved it as a draft in LW. All thanks to you.
I'm quite ambitious in the status/career sense. Rather averse to unnecessary effort (necessary effort I can handle, but I won't work for the sake of working) and extremely averse to having goals that aren't mine thrust upon me. I'm protective of my mental state and I don't do things that cause me undue stress. That kind of goes against the rationalist ethic of "always push yourself, psychological pain is unimportant, tsuyoku naritai." But meh. It's what I want to do. So far, it seems that I can have fun in a way that advances my professional goals, and so I don't have to be a martyr. Desperate efforts are for later, if ever.
I'm somewhat similar. I'm pretty easily satisfied and right now don't feel any discomfort pushing me toward change. LW is interesting entertainment. I continued reading it when it split from OB, but I never had interest in self-improvement or saving the world. I lack "something to protect" as Eliezer put it.
A while back somebody I had done a favor gave me a deal on a used bass guitar. I figured since it had four strings it should be easy to learn, but I didn't put that much effort into it. Almost two years later and I never even learned to get a consistent sound out of one note and I'm about to sell it (for a profit of course).