Against lone wolf self-improvement

by cousin_it 2y7th Jul 201773 comments

30


LW has a problem. Openly or covertly, many posts here promote the idea that a rational person ought to be able to self-improve on their own. Some of it comes from Eliezer's refusal to attend college (and Luke dropping out of his bachelors, etc). Some of it comes from our concept of rationality, that all agents can be approximated as perfect utility maximizers with a bunch of nonessential bugs. Some of it is due to our psychological makeup and introversion. Some of it comes from trying to tackle hard problems that aren't well understood anywhere else. And some of it is just the plain old meme of heroism and forging your own way.

I'm not saying all these things are 100% harmful. But the end result is a mindset of lone wolf self-improvement, which I believe has harmed LWers more than any other part of our belief system.

Any time you force yourself to do X alone in your room, or blame yourself for not doing X, or feel isolated while doing X, or surf the web to feel some human contact instead of doing X, or wonder if X might improve your life but can't bring yourself to start... your problem comes from believing that lone wolf self-improvement is fundamentally the right approach. That belief is comforting in many ways, but noticing it is enough to break the spell. The fault wasn't with the operator all along. Lone wolf self-improvement doesn't work.

Doesn't work compared to what? Joining a class. With a fixed schedule, a group of students, a teacher, and an exam at the end. Compared to any "anti-akrasia technique" ever proposed on LW or adjacent self-help blogs, joining a class works ridiculously well. You don't need constant willpower: just show up on time and you'll be carried along. You don't get lonely: other students are there and you can't help but interact. You don't wonder if you're doing it right: just ask the teacher.

Can't find a class? Find a club, a meetup, a group of people sharing your interest, any environment where social momentum will work in your favor. Even an online community for X that will reward your progress with upvotes is much better than going X completely alone. But any regular meeting you can attend in person, which doesn't depend on your enthusiasm to keep going, is exponentially more powerful.

Avoiding lone wolf self-improvement seems like embarrassingly obvious advice. But somehow I see people trying to learn X alone in their rooms all the time, swimming against the current for years, blaming themselves when their willpower isn't enough. My message to such people: give up. Your brain is right and what you're forcing it to do is wrong. Put down your X, open your laptop, find a class near you, send them a quick email, and spend the rest of the day surfing the web. It will be your most productive day in months.

30