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.
I've put in a bit of effort into running a local self-improvement community (link in Finnish), but one of the problems I've had in making self-improvement be actually a group effort is that a lot of it is actually something that you just need to do yourself.
To be more specific: we can do workshops on dealing with various problems and figuring out your values, we can do coaching meetings where people say what they've done since last time and what they'd like to try/discuss next, we can do coworking spaces... but if your problem is, say, "I need to complete my thesis", there's only as much that we can do to help. At best we can offer a co-working opportunity where there's slightly more social pressure for you to work on your thesis while everyone around you is also working on their own stuff. But you're still the one who needs to do 98% of the work and there's not that much we others can do.
I've personally even had several periods when I've been thinking, "man, I'm really preoccupied with this thing I need to solve... so I think I'll miss out on some of our community stuff because I'm too busy solving my problem". I've heard similar tales from some others - them d... (read more)
It's simply wrong to say that self-directed improvement doesn't work. Many people make lots of progress with self-reflection, reading, intentional practice, etc.
It would be equally correct (and equally misleading) to say "classes don't work". Personally, I dropped out of college after 2 years because I just wasn't getting enough from the structured, semi-useful coursework. There's LOTS of studies that show extremely weak correlation between class time (at reasonable margins, correcting for other factors) and later achievement.
Presumably, the best for any individual is some idiosyncratic mix of the two. In fact, it takes a fair bit of self-reflection and desire for improvement to identify the classes and groups which will help your goals, so there's no escaping that level.
This is a mean vs median or Mediocristan vs Extremistan issue. Most people cannot do lone wolf, but if you can do lone wolf, you will probably be much more successful than the average person.
Think of it like this. Say you wanted to become a great writer. You could go to university and plod through a major in English literature. That will reliably give you a middling good skill at writing. Or you could drop out and spend all your time reading sci-fi novels, watching anime, and writing fan fiction. Now most people who do that will end up terrible writers. But when someone like Eliezer does it, the results are spectacular.
Furthermore, because of the Power Law and the "Average is Over" idea, most of the impact will come from the standout successes.
I cannot disagree with this more strongly. I am serial entrepreneur, and a somewhat successful one. Still chasing the big exit, but I've built successful companies that are still private. Besides myself I've met many other people in this industry which you'd be excused for thinking are lone wolfs. But the truth is the lone wolf's don't make it as they build things that fail to have product/market fit, fail to listen to feedback if and when it is even made available to them (since they don't seek it), and usually fail to raise or maintain funding from lack of communication and organizational skill.
The successful entrepreneurs, hedge funders, etc. are not afraid of thinking that conventional wisdom is wrong. The success they have is not from trailblazing a new path -- that just goes with doing something new -- but from having the tenacity to ask "but why is that so?" of conventional wisdom. Every now and then you find something that just shouldn't be so -- it has no good justification except historical accident -- and then you execute. And a very important part of execution is building a team that can work together to avoid the heuristics and biases that follow lone wolfs around.
Don't be a lone wolf. Be a social rationalist willing to question everything and go where that takes you. It's not the same thing.
Taking classes is a relatively Mediocristan-style way to work with others, but there are other ways that get you Extremistan-style upside.
One way is to find a close collaborator or two. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman had an extremely close collaboration, doing most of their thinking in conversation as they were developing the field of heuristics and biases research (as described in The Undoing Project). It's standard startup advice to have more than one founder so that you'll have someone "to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong." Etc.
Another way is to have a group of several people who are all heavily into the same thing. If the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys is accurate, many innovations in skateboarding came from a group of teenage skateboarders who hung out together in Southern California in the 1970s. People who are trying to understand the state of the art in an intellectual field often put together a reading group to discuss the latest essays in that field and spin off their own ideas (e.g., John Stuart Mill talks about studying political economy and syllogistic logic in this way, which led to new ideas & publications). Etc.
The most important aspect of collective improvement (e.g. attending a class, or working together on a project) is that you have forced exposure to other ideas that you would not have thought up or consider yourself. I'm an introvert by nature, but nevertheless I crave working alongside others simply because it works better. I end up having better ideas and being more productive, even if it is emotionally draining as an introvert.
I strongly disagree. Most classes are pathetically slow and boring, not to mention expensive and time consuming. For one example, I've learned more history just reading books on my own than I ever did in History class, and it's not like I got bad grades back when I was in school. Showing up and being "carried along" was basically worthless.
It's likely that there are some kinds of classes that are functionally better than learning on your own, but given that the vast majority of classes on most topics are de facto going to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, you're gonna have to put in a lot of work to find good ones.
This relates to why online education hasn't replaced traditional schools. As I wrote for InsideHigherEd:
"But having a real-human teacher watch them causes most students to pay more attention, and this comes without any cost in rigor. Just by sitting next to my son I can increase his level of attention and I suspect the same is true with most learning. So even if online education drastically improves, and is able to present in a fascinating manner everything currently taught in college courses, having an instructor -- plus online material -- would all... (read more)
Hahahaha, this is so funny. You've never attended a seriously challenging class your entire life, I take it? There are a lot of topics/subjects that there's no feasible way to learn successfully, other than banging your head against them over and over until they finally sink in. This is painful in a quite literal way, and doing it ... (read more)
But... if lone wolf self-improvement doesn't work... how come it worked so well before I married, had a kid and got a regular job?..
Bullshit. Or, more politely, an overly broad generalization.
In my experience, some people learn very well by themselves and some do need a class/group/teacher. It's just a personal characteristic and I know smart people of both kinds.
For example, here is a very old description of hackers:... (read more)
A qualifier: If you're going to do this, make sure it's a class where the other people in the class actually want to be there. Otherwise the social reinforcement will be misdirected. This is an obvious failure mode of grade school and a less-obvious failure mode for the sort of extracurriculars where the students are there mostly by parental insistence.
(also, make sure you actually want to be there too. Otherwise you'll be the one screwing it up.)
It would appear that people disagree with you. I would caveat that lone wolf can be useful for some problems but useless for others. Don't go reinventing the wheel instead learn from other people's experiences.
Will write a post on it.
At first I read the title and thought that the idea is that lone wolf self-improvement will result in creating dangerous self improving AI, if it has any chance of success.
The post seems to implicitly assume that groups are better for Reasons. I just want to explicate on why that might be the case:
Additional ideas / new perspectives: typical mind fallacy is prevalent and gaining more opportunities to see how others operate can be helpful. Also, you might find novel solutions to your own problems.
General benefits from socializing. Pretty sure that problems from social isolation are fairly well-documented.
Precommit to doing things: positive peer pressure + social bonds mean you might feel more compelled to make progress.
Relevant recent post.
Classes do fail a lot, too... they tend to be boring and stressful, among other things. As a practical matter, I often ended up learning everything in my room on my own anyway; the difference was that I actually did the work instead of slacking off because I feared the punishment that would come from not doing it. :(
My formal education left me with a ridiculously strong aversion to taking classes. :/
My experience attending classes in universities was extremely negative. They didn't work for me.
Title is misleading, I thought you were going to talk about self-improvement in general for which this was an interesting statement but it's about academic learning so why not "against lone-wolf learning"? What you said is both, (1) already consensus pretty much everywhere, everyone thinks taking classes is best, it's improbable that even someone from LW isn't aware of this viewpoint (2) clearly wrong, but not something I feel discussing and I'm only replying to complain that I was click-baited into reading this.
A related phenomenon: going to therapy versus going through a workbook on say, CBT, that teaches you all the theory and techniques. If you can self-hack from the workbook, all power to you, but a large portion of people need the accountability and the feedback from sitting in a room with another person going through workbook-type things together.
It doesn't work in the way people hope, since they do not succeed in accomplishing what they planned to accomplish. But it does succeed in the sense that people's lives get better over time. This happens even when they are bad at it. It is kind of like natural selection; if something is making your life much worse, you stop doing it, and sooner or later you will happen on something which makes your life better.
I don't quite know how to make this response more sophisticated than "I don't think this is true". It seems to me that whether classes ore lone-wolf improvement is better is a pretty complex question and the answer is fairly balanced, though overall I'd give the edge to lone-wolf.
And now you can take all the classes you want without leaving your room! (I got freakishly much value from this I think. I also occasionally pay $50 to get a certificate and it's well worth the money in motivation)