Crossposted from my blog

My roommate types with one finger; he literally only uses his right index finger. I made him do a typing test and his WPM turned out to be around 30-40, which is honestly higher than I thought it’d be.

When I first noticed this, I immediately thought: he’s limiting himself for no reason. He could probably get to 60 WPM with proper form pretty easily with as little as 15 minutes of practice a day.

So I asked him why he didn’t use both hands, and he said that he’d gotten used to it and never ran into any problems. If it works, it works, I guess.

I left that interaction a little bewildered, and it got me wondering if I have any habits that arbitrarily limit myself as well. I thought of a few examples.

I had a pretty bad track record with STEM classes in high school, so I started to label myself as a “non-STEM” person. I doubt that this label is doing me any favors; it’s just limiting my willingness and ability to learn STEM subjects in the future. Plus, at this point, I suspect it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I think I’m bad at STEM subjects, which subconsciously may lead me to actually do worse in those classes, which perpetuates my potentially misguided belief. 

Another area where I arbitrarily limit myself is my fashion style. I recently wrote a post about this, but to summarize: I’ve worn hoodies and sweatpants my whole life and have consistently refused opportunities to improve my wardrobe. Why? Because over the years, I’ve established an identity as an informal dresser to my friends and family, and I subconsciously feel the need to uphold that reputation. Which is pretty stupid. 

So8res writes a great piece about how complaining is a big way we arbitrarily limit ourselves. He offers an example of someone getting out of an abusive relationship: 

After they successfully exit, their friends are likely to be first in line with condolences along the lines of “they were gaslighting you” and “there wasn’t anything you could have done” and “how could you have known what to do?”

They are providing excuses, and these are toxic. They rob you of your power. They rob you of your ability to say “actually, I could have known, if I had been thinking more clearly. I could have acted differently, if I had known better. And that’s the good part, because it means that I am not a helpless victim, because it means that I can learn how to become stronger. Because it means that I cannot be trapped in that sort of situation again.”

I see stuff like this happen all the time in my life. If I fail to make a defensive rotation in basketball, I could easily make an excuse for messing up (it wasn’t my man, he’s just better than me, I’m tired right now). But those excuses don’t help me. If anything, they arbitrarily limit my growth as a basketball player. 

It seems to me that in general, the habits or actions that limit myself tend to be a result of pride or fulfilling an identity. They also seem to do with seeing reality as I want it to be, rather than how it actually is. I want to feel like I’m correct or included in the majority, so I go through mental gymnastics to justify my irrational behavior or I hate on TikTok (without having ever opening the app) because my friends think it’s dumb.

One piece of advice that Paul Graham gives is to keep your identity small. Keeping my identity small frees me of an identity’s social labels and their corresponding expectations, which makes it easier to more objectively assess my behavior or beliefs. For example, removing my “non-STEM” person label allows me to try picking up physics with more of an open mind.

Personally, I feel like most of this boils down to being humble, understanding that there’s always room to grow, and recognizing that being a human is hard. It’s inevitable that some of our habits and actions are going to be limiting ourselves in ways that we fail to even notice at all. The least we could do is to be more conscious of them, and try to limit ourselves less. 

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:08 PM

I think of this as developing curiosity as a deliberative skill. If left on intuitive level, it's liable to get persistent blank spots, topics or skills you flinch away from or become indifferent about and never explore. The heuristic is to make sure to investigate everything you repeatedly encounter, to prevent the situation where you don't look into something you deal with regularly for years.

I agree with your general point, but I wonder if your roommate is actually a good example of this. I've found that personally I'm essentially never bottlenecked by my typing speed, and instead I'm usually done typing and waiting for my brain to catch up and figure out what to say next. It could be that that's not the case for your roommate, but I wouldn't be confident without more investigation.

That could be the case, but I'm extremely skeptical that anyone might not be bottlenecked on communication speed with a mere 30-40 wpm. For reference, this random source says that e.g. conversations are 120-150 wpm.

And even if one does, in fact, have the subjective experience of not being bottlenecked by a typing speed of 30-40 wpm, I'm pretty confident that this sensation would magically disappear once one became able to reach a higher speed. (For reference, my own typing speed is >110 wpm on typing challenges like Typeracer, and though it's much lower when writing comments, e.g. because of taking time to think or edit, I still constantly appreciate being able to type quickly.)

All that said, this just means the roomate is bottlenecked by their communication speed, but not that the best solution for this problem is practicing speed typing. For instance, I have the vague impression that nowadays our voice typing technology and dictation software have gotten good enough that that's a decent alternative which doesn't require as much practice.

Fair enough. It just felt so jarring to observe (my WPM is ~110 on Typeracer) and it set off a chain of thoughts afterwards, so I thought it would be worth mentioning.

I can get to 120 with the right mental mode and setup, but I just tried it cold and got 67wpm, and I believe I'm much slower when mixing typing and thinking.  I think there IS a huge benefit from typing without looking or thinking about it, which mostly requires two hands on the home row as a baseline.  But I don't think that benefit is measured in wpm.  It's about cognitive load and whether it's a distraction.

I even advocate (and am really unhappy when I don't have access to) spending real money and energy to learn a great programmable keyboard (I prefer - again, it doesn't make me faster, but it does make me happier and it gets out of my way so I can think.

This could also be a labeling issue because you cannot identify the function of your habits. For example, limiting yourself in different areas could be a way of keeping your mind from being stressed too much. Trying to overcome this could be beneficial in general, but it could also be detrimental to your health. Of course, you could argue that my point leads to some kind of self-preservational self-deception because every questionable behavior could be considered as "helping in another way". But I just want to make sure that not every comfort zone has to be labeled as problematic, but merely those which have negative impacts on your primary goals. You should ask yourself: Is "growing"  my most important goal? Or is "growing" a means to an end?

Good observation. I agree that it's a good idea to first recognize places of growth that you care enough about to want to improve at.

Personally, I've noticed that I subconsciously filter areas where I want to grow and areas where I don't. 

I sit on the fence when it comes to investing, learning about web3, or deepening my coding knowledge because I don't really know much about them. But since the social and online circles I'm in say it's worth paying attention to, I remind myself that I should probably not limit myself there.  

But I don't really care about getting better at some particular video game, for example, so I'll limit myself to gimmicky tactics and never look back.