Overcoming Helplessness

by Neel Nanda10 min read22nd Feb 20211 comment

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Hamming QuestionsPracticalRationality
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Introduction

A concept that I find extremely useful for understanding my life and failure modes is the notion of helplessness. Helplessness is when I have a problem in my life that I don’t even try to solve. The problem feels big and overwhelming, and I have no idea where to start. It feels like a background fact of my existence, rather than something that I have agency in and can make progress on.

This is an important concept, because it often surrounds the biggest problems in my life - problems of motivation, life goals, career plans, health, romance, fulfilment, etc. I am aware there are problems, I maybe vaguely intend to do something one day, but I don’t actually do anything about it. And this is insane! I am much more able to fix a small, inconsequential problem in my life than I am to fix the largest, and most consequential. Larger problems are, naturally, harder to solve. But the times when I have managed to overcome helplessness, I’ve always been able to make some progress - helplessness causes me to massively misallocate effort for improving my life. This is a key example of upside risk - the returns of making progress on my biggest problems is massive, and is almost always worth a shot.

Helplessness is a particularly insidious problem because it often passes unnoticed. When I am helpless about a problem it doesn’t feel like I am carefully evaluating the possible options, probability of success, and expected value of pursuing an option. Rather, the idea of solving the problem feels unthinkable. I flinch away from the idea before I can even begin to evaluate the pros and cons, and have a systematic blind spot around working through my helplessness.

Accordingly, I find it valuable to reframe the issue away from solving the problem to making progress on the problem. If a problem is large enough, making incremental progress is still extremely useful to me. And this makes it feel far less overwhelming - redefining the problem so that the idea of doing anything is thinkable is the first step towards a solution, and it is far easier to imagine making progress than solving a major problem outright. Often, one of the sources of helplessness is a fear of trying to solve the problem and failing - reframing it to be about making progress makes failure a much less visceral possibility

To be clear, I think that sometimes helplessness is justified. Our largest problems sometimes are overwhelming and intractable. Sometimes the best choice is to just avoid the pain of thinking about them. The core claim I am arguing is that it is very hard to distinguish between justified helplessness, and giving up too early. And that the ability to tell the difference is immensely valuable, and worth far more than the cost of sometimes working on intractably hard problems.

In this article, I will argue for two key techniques for making progress on helplessness:

  1. Actually make time - when I notice myself feel helpless on a problem, and do not feel like I have ever really tried to solve it, block out a few hours to actually think about it and try to make progress. If I haven’t tried for at least an afternoon to solve a major problem, I have no way of knowing how hard it actually is
  2. Gain surface area - Rather than focusing on solving a problem, focus on understanding the problem.

Noticing Helplessness

The first step to overcoming helplessness is noticing when I feel helpless, promoting this to conscious attention, and deciding to something about it. This is significantly harder than it sounds, because it is rarely obvious from the inside that I am being irrational - rather, it feels like I am stuck, like the problem is hard and overwhelming. I flinch away from the idea of solving it. The idea of actually doing anything about it is unthinkable.

To notice the major background problems in my life, I find the concept of Hamming Problems valuable. Richard Hamming was a researcher at Bell Labs who went around asking other researchers “What is the most important problem in your field?” and then “Why aren’t you working on it?” (this made him surprisingly unpopular). This is an extremely important question to ask yourself in research, and surprisingly hard to think to ask yourself - it’s easy to feel helpless when thinking about the biggest problems, and instead focus on the easy and tractable minor problems you come across. Yet, the returns of identifying and focusing on the most important problems tend to be far higher.

Just as this is a valuable mindset in research, this is a valuable for thinking about my life. My Hamming Problems are my biggest bottlenecks, the most important problems in my life. And I rarely have a good answer for why I am not working on them. This worksheet is a great way to elicit these. I think most people are helpless about their Hamming problems, or haven’t even explicitly conceived of them as a problem - they just feel like a background fact. So one powerful way to notice helplessness is to introspect on what your Hamming Problems are and then check whether you feel satisfied with how much you are currently working on them.

Another way is just to regularly prompt yourself to check for helplessness. Eg adding ‘what is my current Hamming Problem?’ or ‘what am I currently feeling helpless about?’ to a weekly or monthly review. Or having regular debugging calls (with a friend or with a professional coach), that prompt you to actually think about your problems and search for these failure modes. There are major benefits to making it the default to reflect on your life

It is far easier to notice helplessness in someone else than yourself. I often find it valuable to ask other people advice on what they think I am being helpless about in my life, or to try to give them advice in turn. You can also hack this by other-ising - imagine you were looking at your life as an outside observer. What is this person missing? What are their biggest bottlenecks? How are they failing to make progress?

Exercise: Set a 5 minute timer and brainstorm ‘what am I currently feeling helpless about?’

Actually Make Time

Now you’ve identified a problem you feel helpless about. What can you actually do about it?

My main advice is to actually make time to think about it. Concretely, block out an hour in your calendar to think about the problem, go somewhere quiet and without distractions, and try to explore the problem and make progress.

I think this advice can seem weird at first glance, or like it trivialises the problem. But I think this is an important and powerful insight. As I’ve discussed before, it is extremely hard to distinguish between the feeling of ‘this problem is genuinely impossible’ and ‘I cannot solve this problem in < 5 seconds and feel stuck’. Only by making time can you tell the difference. For an embarrassing amount of problems in my life, I have spent less than ten minutes making a genuine attempt to solve them.

Further, even if the probability of making meaningful progress in just a few hours is low, it can often still be extremely worth it. For the biggest problems in my life, I would happily trade hundreds of hours of effort for a robust and lasting solution. I try to have the rule for myself that if I ever have a problem that feels important, and I have not spent at least an hour thinking about it, something has gone wrong. Ultimately, spending a few hours fruitlessly thinking is no great loss, while the potential benefits are massive. And in practice, I’ve had a great success rate with trying this. This is an excellent example of upside risk.

Interestingly, despite it feeling clear on a meta level that it’s worth spending large chunks of time working on the problems I feel helpless about, it rarely feels worth it on a gut level. These problems are mostly background things, and rarely feel urgent. My existing commitments and goals always feel far more important, and I feel too busy to make space for this kind of thing. Accordingly, I think a valuable pre-condition to being able to make time is having Slack in your life - having enough spare capacity that you can afford to make time for this kind of thing without it feeling like a major sacrifice. The mindset to aim for is ‘sure, I can spend two hours thinking about this - it’s no big deal if it doesn’t go anywhere’

In general, I think it is extremely difficult to judge the value of spending time working on a problem - it is hard to simulate the worth of the ideas you haven’t had yet. So I think people systematically underestimate the value of taking time to think about a problem. If you feel sceptical that this idea would actually help, I urge you to try it! On a meta-level, there’s significant value of information in trying this - if it fails once, you’ve lost an hour. If you find it useful, this is a tool for making progress on overwhelming problems again and again!

Gain Surface Area

Hopefully I have now convinced you to make time on the problems that you feel overwhelmed and helpless about. But this isn’t concrete. What do you actually do in this time?

Part of the pathology of helplessness for me is a perceived need to solve the problem. It feels like it’s only worth working on a problem if I can solve it, it’s a hard problem so I obviously won’t be able to solve it, so I just give up and don’t even bother. My main solution to this is to redefine the problem, my goal is to make incremental progress, not to solve it.

The next step is to orient towards what I call gaining surface area. The surface area I have on a problem is the knowledge I have about it: how well I understand it, the links between it and other problems, the solutions that I know don’t work, the way it connects to the underlying way my mind works, etc. And the main way I think of making progress on a problem is trying to gain surface area. This approach breaks the loop of ‘fear of failure -> doing nothing’, because it’s easy to gain surface area. If I think about the problem and explore it, I’ve gained surface area. If I try an experimental solution and it fails, by examining why it fails I have gained surface area. To solve a problem, it feels like I need to find the right place to start, but to gain surface area I can start anywhere. I find this concept particularly useful when trying to solve personal problems, but also useful for thinking about ideas and confusions in general, eg when trying to get unstuck during research.

The mindset of gaining surface area is very different from the mindset of trying to solve a problem - it feels far more exploratory and curiosity driven, in free association mode, seeing what connections arise. While to me, deciding to solve a problem feels much more focused, yet laden with obligation and anxiety to be getting somewhere and to be making progress fast enough.

Gaining surface area is much easier than solving the problem outright, but it is also extremely useful for actually solving it. Often a problem feels overwhelming because I just don’t understand it. Once I have enough surface area, it is far easier to generate solutions and see where my thoughts take me. If I don’t understand a problem well enough, I can easily focus my effort on the symptoms while neglecting the root cause. Even if I don’t make any progress, often just understanding where a problem comes from makes it feel more emotionally OK, and easier to deal with.

Some approaches for gaining surface area:

  • Take a blank piece of paper, and just brain-dump whatever comes to mind on to the paper. Have low standards for relevance, and just see what happens
  • Try to write out a complete model of the problem from scratch. Notice the parts that feel like holes or confusions
  • Generate hypothetical scenarios where the problem might arise. Mentally simulate these and see whether the problem arises. Introspect on how you feel, and try to notice subtle details
    • Or think through past examples and introspect on how you felt
  • Suppose it’s a month from now and you solved this problem - it no longer feels like an issue. What happened?
  • Ask friends for advice, see if they relate to your problem, and which examples feel relevant to them
    • Ask them for the ‘obvious advice’ - what’s the first thing they’d try to solve the problem?
  • Be creative. Generate as many ideas relevant to the problem as you can. Babble - focus on quantity over quality
    • Eg solution ideas, past examples, connected problems
  • Put yourself in a low pressure environment, eg going for a walk with no distractions, and gently explore the problem. See what associations come to mind
  • Experiment with ways to solve aspects of the problem. Make time to reflect on how it went, review, patch and iterate. If it succeeds, awesome! If not, try to understand why it failed - if you understand this, you’ve still learned something!

Examples

This has all been pretty abstract so far, so here are some examples of ways I/my friends have used this. Hopefully at least one resonates with you!

  • Problem: I don’t have clear high-level goals and lack direction
    • Solution: Spend an hour trying to write out a list of high-level goals, introspecting on which goals feel most exciting. Check in on whether the list feels complete
  • Problem: I think I might want to take a year out, but the idea feels overwhelming and I’m concerned that I’ll waste it
    • Solution: Make a list of at least 50 worthwhile things to do with a year out. Just try to get ideas down, rather than having high standards for only “good” ideas
  • Problem: I buy the idea that AI Safety is really important on an intellectual level, but feel a gut level skepticism
    • Solution: Spend an hour writing out the arguments for and against, and trying to poke holes in them
  • Problem: I feel fully invested in my career plan, and find it difficult to entertain the idea that an alternative path might be better
    • Solution: Assume I cannot do my current path. Spend an hour generating alternate paths and fleshing them out. At the end of the hour, check whether I feel excited about any of them
  • Problem: I feel anxious and overwhelmed at work, and feel like I am meandering rather than having direction
    • Solution: Write out my progress so far and possible next steps. Write out my possible high-level goals, and evaluate which ones I care about on a gut-level. Convert this into a concrete plan that I feel excited about
  • Problem: I lack close friends and companionship, and feel lonely
    • Solution: Think about how I am currently meeting people and trying to connect with them. Generate at least 10 ideas for meeting new people and forming connections. Pick my favourite, make a concrete plan for doing this, and implement it.
  • Problem: I feel stuck in a rut at work, kinda bored, and like I’m not learning much
    • Solution: Introspect on what skills I could learn over the next year, and which ones feel most important. Pick my favourite, and generate ways I could develop this at work, and make a plan to do this
  • Problem: I feel unfit, and know I should be exercising more, but feel confused and overwhelmed by what to do about this
    • Solution: List at least 10 ways I could do regular exercise. Pick the one that I feel most excited about, and commit to doing it for the next week. At the end of the week, check in on whether I want to continue, or try the next one on the list

Exercise: Pick a problem you feel helpless about. Do you feel satisfied with how much effort you’ve put in? If not, schedule yourself an hour to think about it. Beforehand, write down a prediction for how useful you’ll find the exercise, and compare that to how you feel afterwards

Conclusion

Overall, I think that the feeling of helplessness on important problems is extremely common, insidious, hard to notice and a major bottleneck on me and many of my friends. I think that time spent overcoming helplessness is extremely well spent.

The core mindset shift I am arguing for is to notice when a problem is important, and to feel excited about any incremental progress you make on important problems. Get to a point where you want to try, rather than flinching away from fear of failure and perfectionism. Even if the problem is hard and overwhelming, orient such that you are satisfied with it being better, rather than frustrated that it is unresolved. Experiment, be in flow, and be willing to try anything and see what sticks. Build the reflex of actually trying - when you notice ‘I am complaining about a problem I have put absolutely no effort into’, make some time to do something about it,

But this reflex is just one way of achieving the mindset, the mindset is the important part. Some alternate ways to make progress on helplessness:

  • Ask friends for help and advice
  • Seek professional help, eg from a coach or therapist
  • Other-ise: imagine you are instead giving advice to a friend who shares your problems. What are the obvious things for that friend to do? And are you already doing them?

And finally, helplessness is often the most important when it is hardest to notice. What are your biggest problems? What do you feel most powerless about? And do you feel satisfied that you’ve put in as much effort as you could have?

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Richard Hamming was a researcher at Bell Labs who went around asking other researchers “What is the most important problem in your field?” and then “Why aren’t you working on it?” (this made him surprisingly unpopular).

I wonder what would be his reaction to an answer like this: "The most important problem is X. It is quite difficult problem, because the easier important problems are already solved. The reason I am not working on it is because there is a chance I wouldn't make any visible progress in the following months, and then I could get fired. In which case I would need to find another job, and probably wouldn't be able to work on important problems at all."