Instrumental rationality for overcoming disability and lifestyle failure (a specific case)

by CAE_Jones4 min read14th Nov 201225 comments

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I read things like "Rationality should win!", and I feel validated. That's basically what I've believed as far back as I can remember (and though my memory isn't as reliable as I'd like, I do think it is pretty decent, based on comparisons I've made with video evidence. Not that said video evidence includes much of me talking about my beliefs.).
 
Yet, clearly, I am no master of rationality, given that my situation at present is not what I would define as having won. When my father was my age, he was employed, married (to his second wife, with whom he is still married), and I was three years old. It wasn't long after that when my sister was born and my dad started work for his father-in-law, whose business he eventually came to own and still runs for a viable profit today. He did set some goals for himself that he hasn't quite met--gaining enough self-sustaining wealth to retire at age 45 (he turned 45 in February 2012) and/or spend his days lounging at the beach without negative consequences--but considering how much money he's put into vacations to the beach, and that he's still able to support his business and family (my stepmother makes a non-negligible contribution to this), I'd call him much closer to successful than me.
 
So, clearly I didn't pick up everything that made my father successful. I don't think dwelling on the differences will help much, but relevant is that I was born with no vision in one eye, and had some vision loss in the other a few years later, until it finally dropped to near-useless starting around age fourteen. (Incidentally, this is my excuse if I fail to catch any spelling errors in this post.) I was taught to believe strongly in the power of human intelligence, and that peer pressure is evil, and that education is the most important thing ever.
 
By 2008, I'd discovered that most of this was extremely flawed, and it was too late to correct the damage that acting on my perceived value of these beliefs had caused (I hadn't realized the extent of that damage by then, but was beginning to pick up on some of it). I'd gotten into an expensive college because the best education possible was apparently important and expensive... yet between my vision, attention to what I thought of as rationality, and rejection of many social conventions, I was completely lacking the skills to get much out of the college experience other than some basic details on a few foreign cultures. After six years of that, I'm back with my parents, $30,000 in debt, unemployed, lacking in the social department to an extent that seems more uncurable than not, still require a French credit to receive a diploma that will in all likelyhood be of very little utility to me, with a serious defficit in skills necessary for independence. Oh, and have less than $400 that I can use ($90 may or may not be in a bank account I don't know how to access, $123.51 in paypal, and the rest in cash). I was recently reapproved for supplemental security income (which I don't expect to be any more than $400 per month), conditional on me living at the property my grandmother left me.
 
I said all of that to ask: how do I fix these problems? I think I've gone on way too long with this post, but explaining some of the obstacles won't help me find solutions without goals, so I'll list some.
 
* I have lived in the same town for 24 years, and in the same house for close to 20 of those, yet I cannot travel anywhere beyond our property on my own without serious risk (getting lost / injured / trespassing / doing accidental damage to someone else's property / etc). I have more mobility skills than my parents give me credit for (About a week and a half ago, I decided to go across the street to ask my stepmother about lunch, and my father said "There's a road! You'll get run over!". I have crossed more dangerous roads than that one unaided multiple times, though he wasn't witness to any of this.). I believe I could get to the store down the road from my grandmother's house unaided (getting back might be more difficult, though), but that's about it. Being able to travel independently seems likely to increase my abilities to accomplish other things tremendously, so this is a problem to be overcome.
* My financial situation is horrible. By my estimates, I could live on $500 per month, assuming I was efficient with food, electricity, etc, and still be able to afford internet access and possibly avoid incurring the wrath of whoever my student loans are paid off to (an understanding of my finances was never given priority before 2010, so I only vaguely know what's going on). I'd much rather have a bit more ($1000 a month would be spectacular, although if part of that is SSI I wouldn't be able to save more than $2000 at a time without losing it). I am led to believe that my employment opportunities are extremely limited (my region has handled the economic recession well, but my other issues seem likely to add to the difficulty). Actually finding local employment without being able to travel to locations independently and fill out application forms would be more than a little difficult, and I have a strong preference for something with a physical component that would make online work undesirable. (My programming skills are also less than spectacular; I've been able to develop accessible computer games and have actually turned a slight profit on that (by which I mean less than $300), but I don't believe I can program on the level that would get someone else to hire me. And if I could write on demand, I wouldn't have an outstanding French credit.). (Here's what the American Foundation for the Blind has to say on employment among disabled Americans: http://www.afb.org/section.aspx?SectionID=15&SubTopicID=177 ).
* Health. I'm sure just living on my own would have a serious impact on my ability to adjust my diet for nutritional value (I find that I tend to eat whatever is easiest, which is usually horribly unhealthy). I can cook with a microwave, and am told that a slow-cooker/crockpot is easy to use. I'm more concerned about exercise, seeing as I can't safely go running or anything of the sort. (I also don't like treadmills, for some reason. I'd be ok with an eliptical, if I could acquire one and find somewhere to put it...).
* I have no experience with romantic relationships (I'm not even sure about strong platonic relationships, for that matter). I am possibly interested in changing this. As a hint at some almost-definitely-harmful things that I haven't been able to remove from my mind, the previous statement was far more painful to write than those before it (as in, if I wound up in a romantic relationship, I would absolutely dread discovery from my parents, knowing that the worst they'd do is make comments intended to be humorous rather than harmful.).
* I've had my creative endeavors (writing fiction, game development, etc) as side-goals for a while, but recently I've started to consider that making them higher priority is probably a good thing. The problem, other than combatting procrastination and other sorts of akrasia, is that I'm at a point where, to keep moving forward almost definitely requires funding. (I can't see well enough to do graphics, and haven't been able to find a decent way around this that doesn't involve paying someone to do graphics; I can't do all the voice-work I'd need, and volunteer voiceactors are horribly unreliable; sound libraries, software licenses, web hosting, etc). The goal is of course the creation of the products to my satisfaction, not the funding itself, but funding seems like a crucial upcoming step.

Solving/accomplishing any of the above would be a significant victory, yet I feel extremely limited in my personal ability to do so. If we can call any one of those successfully resolved using methods promoted at LessWrong, I'd definitely try to provide as much evidence for the victory as possible, as all the questions about the utility of LW make substantiated claims of successes due to the methods of rationality seem valuable to the community.

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There are lots of blind people who are independently mobile and gainfully employed and you can become one of them. I don't know where they acquire the skills you say you lack. Maybe the AFB, which you mentioned, has advice on how to go about gaining suitable employment and training yourself in the basics like mobility?

You should finish your degree. Degrees are useful for getting jobs. They let the employer know that you finished something you started and avoid having a 4-year hole in your CV. If akrasia is stopping you from "writing on demand", then I guess LW has some stuff about akrasia, but as a first approximation, just do it.

Finishing his degree is probably the best thing he can do, and so this is good advice. You get very little from having "some college," whereas a college degree (of any sort, regardless of whether he thinks it will be useful) is an indicator of social status and a proven ability to meet deadlines and requirements. I would suggest that directly contacting the school, emphasizing his disability, may make them amenable to working out some sort of distance learning to finish this final credit. The best way to achieve this would be to call them on the phone, if physical meeting is impractical; schools typically employ people to help students in just this sort of way. This might be unpleasant or even humiliating to think about, but that's an ugh field at work.

Depending on his location, there may not be very many resources for the blind in his town, but contacting AFB is probably the best way to find out what is available.

If neither of these pan out, find some sort of employment. Gainful, steady employment is surprisingly effective at improving social skills, life skills, and other diverse aspects of winning.

Actually finding local employment without being able to travel to locations independently and fill out application forms would be more than a little difficult, and I have a strong preference for something with a physical component that would make online work undesirable. (My programming skills are also less than spectacular; I've been able to develop accessible computer games and have actually turned a slight profit on that (by which I mean less than $300), but I don't believe I can program on the level that would get someone else to hire me

If you've developed games (even small ones) on your own and even made some money from them, I bet your programming skills are more than sufficient for freelance programming work. You're probably overestimating the rest of the worlds' competence and underestimating your own.

I know you said you prefer non-online work, but you may want to take a look at elance or odesk anyway.

Edit: I just remembered the fizzbuzz task, which may raise your confidence about your abilities compared to your competition (assuming you can implement fizzbuzz).

Ok, my first thought is that, since you have some programming skill, your victory condition is a programming job, and your side goals are improved mobility and a circle of good friends. If you've made money from a game you wrote, then you're probably already ready to try to get a programming job.

You mentioned having game development as a side-goal, but running into problems because you can't make graphics. This is actually a common problem - the more common case involves programmers who can't draw, but the principle is the same. The options are to join a group (or recruit people into a group), or to do something text- or sound-based such as interactive fiction or a roguelike. Alternatively, there are lots of non-game open source projects which would welcome your contributions. (The other issues you mentioned may not be as much of an issue as you expect; most of the relevant software is free, or has several alternatives including a good free one, and web hosting is also free if you're willing to accept a hosting provider putting a few ads on your pages.)

As far as mobility, you might be better off in a different city. Where I live (Cambridge, MA), most of the intersections with traffic lights have little noisemakers to tell you when it's safe to cross, the buses announce where they are and where they're going aloud at each stop, and I occasionally see unaided blind people on the sidewalks.

Also, I sent you a private message (click the little red envelope to see your Less Wrong messages/replies, or this link which goes to the same place).

Searching up local organizations for the blind would probably be helpful. At a minimum, they're likely to be useful on both the mobility and employment front.

Finding online or local communities of the blind would also probably be useful, since then you're talking to people that share experiences with you.

The only blind friend I had worked at a call center. From your descriptions and ability to write this post, I suspect you're about equally capable. He had to push a fair amount for ADA accomodations at the call center, and it wasn't terribly pleasant work. He since moved on to founding an online web store and publishing his own roleplaying game online, using Kickstarter to fund the game once it was at the point of just needing art and publishing costs.

[-][anonymous]8y 3

I have no experience with romantic relationships (I'm not even sure about strong platonic relationships, for that matter). I am possibly interested in changing this. As a hint at some almost-definitely-harmful things that I haven't been able to remove from my mind, the previous statement was far more painful to write than those before it (as in, if I wound up in a romantic relationship, I would absolutely dread discovery from my parents, knowing that the worst they'd do is make comments intended to be humorous rather than harmful.).

I want to commend you for this. The signaling of saying "my love life & romantic experiences are bad I want it to be better" is bad and there is stigma attached to trying to publicly saying you want to fix it. Let alone doing anything that might actually fix it! Yet it kind of is what you have to do.

I walked a very similar road of self-improvement several years ago and it also started with the painful admission to myself and then to others that I wasn't doing as well as I wanted.

Beware far mode well meaning advice people will give you on romantic relationships and sexuality. Much of regular advice is almost anti-knowledge.

[-][anonymous]8y 3

Sometimes I wonder how much a life optimizing task force of rationalists focusing on a particular person asking for help could do. Despite the pitfalls of other optimizing it seems to me it could do quite a bit.

This has been tried before and I believe Andrew was satisfied with the results.

How much of Andrew's success is attributable to the task force?

So, I asked him about it and it seems that they gave a suggestion that indirectly led to the job he has now. Almost all of the work eventually done was his, and so it's hard to quantify the impact of the task force relative to that standard. I'm also asking jsalvatier to weigh in on whether he thought the experiment was a success / things to keep in mind when trying future task forces.

My impression after being involved is: not very much. Perhaps it helped to have some cheerleaders.

So using a little algebra, I'm deducing you're 24 years old. You've got plenty of time to turn your life around. The most important thing is that you keep going.

I am not disabled so I'm doing a lot of other optimizing here. But this is based on what I've read from Scott H Young and Cal Newport.

Write yourself a weekly schedule. Commit yourself to doing 40 hours of work next week. No more, no less. The work can be anything productive, ex. writing fantasy, exercising, house chores. The important thing is that you learn the meta-skill of working on a schedule.

Once you achieve this, your confidence will rise and your obstacles will be easier. It is the first step of a success spiral.

I suggest committing to something less (maybe a lot less) than 40 hours next week, then a bit more the week after that, etc.

I don't think most people who are in an office for 40 hours work anything like 40 hours. (Not that that's a bad thing--taking breaks is good, and I think most people underestimate how much time they need to spend recharging in order to operate at peak effectiveness.)

I agree. (I certainly spend much less than 100% of my office time doing useful work. It's not clear to me how the difference should be partitioned between "taking necessary time to recharge, process things in the background, etc." and "being a lazy slacker".)

Well yeah, maybe work your way up to 40 hours. But you should have an upper-limit on how much you work.

This is a clever idea, but could you provide more information? I see how it would make sense intuitively, but is there any evidence suggesting that doing any work, regardless of what it is, for a certain amount of time can improve performance/focus on a very specific task?

If I 'work' for forty hours next week on reading LW, it will have a direct improvement on other areas, say on how much school work I would be comfortable doing?

If I 'work' for forty hours next week on reading LW

Reading Less Wrong is consumptive, not productive. You need to have something to show for your work, ex. a novel draft, a fitter body, a cleaner house.

If you want to accomplish anything in a post-forager society, you're going to need to learn how to plan, and how to follow through with those plans. How are you going to get anything done if you don't have the discipline to put in the hours?

And yes, self-discipline in one area is linked to self-discipline in another. You have a "tank" so to speak of self-control that gets depleted when you are doing something difficult, and gets renewed when you are resting or leasuring. Using your self-control in any area depletes the amount of self-control left for another. If you have small tank (low self-discipline) then you run out of fuel faster (you quit working sooner). In the long run though, you can increase the size of your tank by by doing difficult tasks, such as working for a specified number of hours each week.

Reading Less Wrong is consumptive, not productive. You need to have something to show for your work, ex. a novel draft, a fitter body, a cleaner house.

Isn't easy/hard the more useful distinction than consumptive/productive? After all, reading the news is productive in the sense of having something to show for it, because you will seem more informed in conversation. And working out can be a form of consumption, if you buy a gym membership.

Personally, I've always loved working out. So I don't have much to gain by trying to motivate myself to work out even more, because I'm obviously already very fit. And "forcing" myself to work out isn't going to test my self-discipline either. If I'm going to put in 40 hours of scheduled "work" next week, then at least some of it should be spent on things I find hard, and therefore don't do often enough.

Similarly, if reading geeky blog articles is what you do for fun, CAE_Jones, (which seems probable since you're here) it's unlikely that reading even more geeky blog articles will improve your life. That said, you might want to start off scheduling things you would expect yourself to do anyway, for the same reason that you might want to start off scheduling less that 40 hours a week, and slowly work your way up. Just to ease into it.

Yeah that's a better way of putting it. Reading Less Wrong might be work for some people, but it's not for me it probably isn't for CAE_Jones.

I am aware of ego depletion. What am I not convinced of is that general work, in any area, will increase the time it takes prior to ego depletion. Could you perhaps point me in the direction of any appropriate research?

Furthermore, if this were true, why would it only apply to what you termed 'productive' and not 'consumptive' work? Would studying for a class not apply to this rationale? If not, why not? If so, wouldn't reading Less Wrong also help extend the 'time to ego-depletion'?

Aaronde corrected me. I should have said "things that use your willpower".

[-][anonymous]8y 2

Ouch! is a podcast produced by the BBC. All the hosts, all the guests and all the production staff are disabled, but not all are from the UK and not all are similarly disabled. Where you are, where you'd like to be and what is in between is often discussed by people who know what they are talking about. Plus, it's funny.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/podcast/

If your student loans are from the fed: http://ibrinfo.org/ If they're private, talk to your lender. You defaulting is bad for them too.

Finding a writing group or a LW meetup or other relevant group (linux users? game devs? recent grads looking for Actual Work?) might help with both relationship inexperience (if it stems from a more general lack of social contact) and with writing akrasia (if your LW group takes time to share anti-akrasia goals.)

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Not a step by step solution but maybe inspiring, the Badir brothers are blind hackers who made a ton of money. Not suggesting you become a hacker, but computers are definitively a possibility. That Badirs use a special Braille display to read.

EDIT: sorry, I posted this comment before I read the part on you not being a good programmer.

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