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How do I improve at being strategic?

by Conor1 min read17th Jan 202121 comments

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After reading Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic I realized I am not very strategic, and I want to improve. As practice I'm been using the recipe for strategic planning from that post to create a strategy to become more strategic. Specifically, creating a system or framework for forming strategies. 

That said, I'm new to LW and do not have rigorous science or math training, so perhaps strategy is background knowledge here? I've found little info on this topic on LW.  Most of which is tactical not strategic. Have I missed something? It seems like training in strategy would be an extremely useful framework to hang all these instrumental rationality techniques from.

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In my experience, the number one obstacle to strategic thinking is that people tend to confuse their impulses to virtue signaling with their actual goals. People tend to be very strategic about actual terminal goals: that is, things they genuinely desire, in the same way as one might desire ice cream when hungry, or air while drowning.

So my go-to tactic for helping someone to be more strategic is to test their desire: can they actually experience the in-the-torso feelings that are strongly correlated with desire and pleasure, when thinking about the goal?

If not, they probably do not have a terminal outcome that is actually desired, and instead are being confused by their brain's attempt to signal virtue, solve a perceived problem, or reduce cognitive dissonance.

(By "signal virtue", btw, I don't just mean conspicuous displays of morality, but also things like following in parents' footsteps or trying to live up to the expectations of others, trying to justify one's existence or purpose, and rather a wide variety of other weird things brains do to promote or maintain perceived self-worth and/or social standing.)

Anyway, when humans appear (in my biased sample of experiences) to not be being consciously strategic, it is generally because they are being unconsciously strategic about achieving an entirely different goal than the one they believe they're trying to achieve. And the goal they consciously believe they're seeking is in fact the result of their brain's strategic planning, rather than the input to another round of such planning.

The ultimate goal of such things is usually "to be a good, worthy, lovable person who visibly cares about the right things according to the value system(s) I have internalized".

Such goals, however, seem to run on different hardware than practical, desire-based goals. And if the non-desire-based goal is based on an idea that one "should" be a particular way, then it becomes virtually impossible to trigger the desire-based machinery at all.

(Because it is very hard to feel desire for something you believe you're already supposed to have done, had, or been.)

So.... if you want to be practically strategic, the very first step is to make sure you know what you want and why you want it. If the real goal cannot be defined in terms of a concrete observable outcome in external reality, that you can actually physically feel some form of pleasure at the idea of attaining (vs. merely feeling an anxious need to have), there is little point in going forward with any strategic planning, because strategic planning and social signalling tend to be mutually incompatible.

(Because our "desire to signal" wants to make our signalling-driven desires appear "honest", i.e. that they're not being done in order to signal.)

This makes it difficult to notice at first glance when we're doing so, so the desire test (aka the "mmmm" test", as in, "can you think about this in a way that makes you sound like you're enjoying yourself?") is a hack to work around this potential for self-deception. Our signaling desires seem to be injected on a different subsystem of the brain (maybe by rewarding certain directions of thought directly?) than the one that is used to pursue tangible desires like food or mates.

Food and mates make our mouths water or bellies rumble. Rest and safety make us go "ahhh" and relax. All of these pleasurable feelings arise from tangible goals, and motivate us to actually pursue them.

This one insight is, in my experience, worth a thousand abstract treatises on planning or decision-making. If you try to apply such ideas while actually pursuing a goal to virtue-signal, resolve cognitive dissonance, or fight something that seems "wrong", you're virtually guaranteed to use them in ways that will subtly sabotage any real action. (See, for example, all the vaccine distribution issues stemming from virtue signaling -- we are not immune to doing this sort of thing just because we label ourselves rationalists.)

I suppose the next step after passing the desire test, would be to actually verify that the goal will, in reality, provide that thing I imagine makes me go mmmm by researching and testing. 

I imagine walking around dressed like a doctor and telling people I'm a doctor. Adding M.D. to my online dating profile, job shadowing, going to neighborhoods where doctors live, luring some doctors into my van, learning to sew, digging a pit in my cellar, and buying some night vision goggles and buying a bunch of lotion...

Luckily, I don't want to be a doctor.

Try to figure out what is causally upstream of what you care about. Recurse.

The first step that Anna points out is "Ask ourselves what we're trying to achieve" or in other words, know your goal. Since you have a desire to be more strategic you probably already have a goal in mind and realized that being more strategic would be an effective subgoal. From the rest of your post I think you've substantially worked on some of the other steps as well.

If you're struggling fulfilling the rest of the steps Anna laid out my recommendation is to just do things which may work towards achieving your goal that are very outside your comfort zone. That will pull you out of your pre-existing habits and get you to start evaluating different strategies instead of continuing to follow the strategy you've already worked yourself into.

If you're a procrastinator, start working on something that's a long term goal immediately for at least a few hours without breaks even if you start to think it might not be effective. If you think it's not effective that may be because of akrasia taking over once you actually start working on it.

If you are fearful of offending people go to an online or in person marketplace and start low-balling people with ridiculous offers and continually press them to make a deal favorable to you. Make the situation uncomfortable enough and you'll realize you have the ability to deal with the social awkwardness when you're trying to work towards your goal.

This is Anna's step e and I encourage working on this step because from your post it seems like you've already put good work into everything that comes before it.

My bad if this is more of tactics rather than the strategy tips you were looking for.

If you are fearful of offending people go to an online or in person marketplace and start low-balling people...

 

That... is a great idea and I can see how to expand on it into other arenas.

Since I posted this question I've been working primarily on strategy and through that have realized improving my productivity would be a wise decision. Since they seem so intertwined (productivity is the strategic use of time and resources) I've split my time up into 40% strategy, 40% productivity, 20% execution of other goal-oriented tasks. 

I've drafted some wa... (read more)

2frontier6410moI'm glad you appreciate the advice. It seems to me that you've developed a very effective, structured way to improve your productivity and I'm going to try to emulate your strategy here with a few upcoming projects I have to work on and see how efficient I'm being.

On the first level being strategic means to have explicit goals and think about what the best way to achieve those goals are. Review your goals and spending explitict time to think about them either by talking with other people or by reflecting about them and the means of achieving in writing. That will bring you further then most people. 

I would be surprised if common games would transfer into real life strategic action. To be stategic in real life, a person has to think about how to achieve goals that they set for themselves over longer periods of time. Games don't teach thinking in longer timeframes then the few hours that the game lasts.

1Stuart Anderson10mo-
2ChristianKl10moThat has little to do with strategy. It doesn't do anything to help the person who thinks that they will learn to become a good comedian by watching Garfield and Friends. Strategy is about chosing the short-term goals based on the long-term goals. If you are playing a game you don't have that.
1Stuart Anderson10mo-
2ChristianKl10moThat misses the point. If you don't think Garfield and Friends is comedy you can exchange it for any comedy and the point would still stand. There are many tactical moves that help you to achieve what you want. Tactical moves are not strategy in the sense most people who write about strategy use the term. More importantly they are not strategy in the sense AnnaSalamon defines the term in the linked post. AnnaSalamon's post also isn't about competetive dynamics. If I play a game of Go, I can focus on playing to maximize my chance of winning in that game. I can also play with a focus on maximizing my learning from the game. If my end goal is to become a good player the strategic thing to do is to focus on maximizing my learning from the game even when it means that I will win an individual game less likely. Not focusing on winning individual game (winning individual battles) is the thing that's hard about strategy and where most people fail.
1Stuart Anderson10mo
2ChristianKl10moYes, you can learn something but it's a bad strategy for becoming a comedic. Being a good commedian is a lot of audience interaction. It's a lot about having deliberte practice as a comedian in front of an audience. It's not obvious from outside that focusing on getting stagetime is better then spending your time alone watching footage but it happens to be the better strategy. Without already knowing something about what it takes to become a comedian, to get a good strategy for becoming one, it might be required to go out and ask a few people with subject matter expertise about what kind of training is needed. It's possible for a person to spend effort into thinking what the most manipulatable element in a situation is and still fail at coming up with the correct answer. I think most people already fail at putting in the time to seriously think about it, so the first level is to actually spend the time. The second level is to think about how to actually get good at identifying the manipulative element. Then the third level is to actually stop putting your effort on other elements and focusing on the most manipulative element. (that usually learns being able to say no)
1Stuart Anderson10moWhere are all the comedians in the club when they're not on stage? They're not in the green room, they're all standing up the back watching everyone else perform. A single strategy alone is a typically a sub optimal strategy. IRL you don't typically act out LW thought experiments with the expectation they'll work out. There's no substitute for practicing at whatever activity it is you're trying to master, but it isn't the only thing to it. People study all the time. We call that education and find it so useful that we've made it compulsory for minors. I would argue that "do the same thing that many others did to achieve their success" is a blatantly obvious strategy. The only way to guarantee that you don't get an answer to a question is to never ask the question. Saying no may be your weak point, that is not the case for others. The most obvious strategy in that general situation is "no, but what can you offer me to change that to a yes?". That alters the dynamic of the negotiation in a way that can be useful. Besides, IME a hard no is never a negotiation.
2ChristianKl10moThat's about saying no to other people. I was more focusing on saying no to things that violate the general strategy but seem to be satisfying in the short-term. It's easy to have decide that eating no cake is a high leverage intervention when you want to lose weight. It's harder to say no in any individual instance.

I think that generally, skills (including metacognitive skills) don't transfer that well between different domains and it's best to practice directly. However, games also give one better feedback loops and easier access to mentoring, so the room for improvement might be larger.

 A meta-analysis on transfer from video games to cognitive abilities saw small or null gains:

The lack of skill generalization from one domain to different ones—that is, far transfer—has been documented in various fields of research such as working memory training, music, brain t

... (read more)
1Stuart Anderson10mo-
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I'm not sure offhand what Strategy is (as separate from tactics.) That said perhaps this Sequence will be helpful:

https://www.lesswrong.com/s/qRxTKm7DAftSuTGvj

Hammertime (sequence name)

Thirty days of instrumental rationality practice. (sequence description)


Your question is a good one, that I think gets asked periodically. There might be more/better answers on similar questions. If anyone who knows what the related tags are, that might help.

So far, I think of Strategy as a method for determining tactics to achieve a goal, and may include developing a step-by-step plan. I see a variety of techniques fitting this framework: 

I'll check out hammertime. Thanks for the suggestion.