What does it mean to “stay grounded”? Why does it matter? How does one stay grounded?
Let’s start with a bunch of examples of grounding failures - i.e. people failing to stay grounded.
- The person who Volunteers to End Hunger, or End Poverty, or what have you, yet they do not actually make any significant difference to any actual people in hunger/poverty/etc (despite possibly believing that they have).
- The cancer researcher who does lots of Experiments in the lab, and runs Statistical Calculations, and Publishes Papers, yet does not actually come any closer to understanding or curing cancer.
- The person who does lots of Things Which Happy People Do in commercials, but is deeply unhappy anyway (despite possibly even convincing themselves that they are happy).
- The person who makes themselves miserable to Eat Healthy and Exercise, yet is still far over their own preferred weight.
- The person who gets Good Grades in high school, goes to a Good College, gets a Good Job, is generally Successful, but realizes sometime in middle age that they’re deeply unsatisfied with their life.
- Cargo cultists: the pacific island tribes on islands which hosted airstrips during WWII who, after the war, would sometimes Talk into elaborate wooden “Radios” and Wave Sticks on the abandoned airstrip in hopes that planes would land with supplies.
- Also, the various areas of academic study for which Feynman used the cargo cults as a metaphor.
- The person who eats Good Food (possibly Healthy Food, possibly Expensive Food, possibly Ethical Food, depending on their social circles) but never really notices how much they enjoy the actual taste of different foods.
- The person who buys Nice Clothes which are neither comfortable nor flattering for them in particular.
- The startup founder who Writes Code, and Iterates, and Gets Funding, but never stops to think about how many people actually want their product or how much those people would pay for it.
- The political activists who Organize The Movement and Raise Awareness to help X, get lots of media coverage and some laws passed, but in the end X doesn’t actually change much.
- A regulatory agency puts in place lots of Rules and Regulations and Processes in order to Make People Safe, yet doesn’t end up actually making people safer.
- The military (or guerillas) who Shoot Enemies and Destroy Their Stuff, but never manage to institute lasting regime change (or whatever else their primary goal may be).
- The company which hires Graduates From The Best Schools, and Highly Regarded Consultants, and the like, yet the work is never much better than any other company’s employees/consultants.
- The hedge fund which hires Brilliant People, and buys Lots Of Data And Compute, but never outperforms the market or even has a concrete strategy to do so.
Note that these “failures” are not necessarily unintended/unwanted. Lots of hedge funds stay afloat mainly by bringing in investors, despite never beating the market. And hiring Brilliant People is a great way to look good to investors, regardless of whether they manage to beat the market.
In particular, many of the examples involve strategies which are good for winning social status, just not for whatever they’re nominally about. Graduates From The Best Schools or Volunteering to End Hunger or Publishing Papers or eating Good Food or Raising Awareness are all good ways to win social status, even in cases where they don’t actually help much with their nominal purpose. Humans often act as though social status is their “real” subconscious motivator, but they self-deceive about it.
The Unifying Idea
In each of the examples above, some Symbols (capitalized in each example) have decoupled from what they represent. The Symbols are “ungrounded”, in the sense of the symbol-grounding problem.
There’s some socially-recognized Symbol of the thing - sometimes something which actually does help with the thing, sometimes a generic status symbol, but always something which people associate with the thing. Publishing Papers is a symbol of scientific progress, Good Grades are a symbol of a successful life in the making, Nice Clothes are a symbol of generic high status. People spend time and effort and resources on the Symbol, but obtaining the Symbol isn’t always sufficient to get them the thing. Publishing Papers isn’t enough to cure cancer, getting Good Grades isn’t enough to lead to a satisfying life, buying Nice Clothes isn’t enough to make one look good or feel comfortable, etc. Even if the Symbol can help somewhat, people often continue to pour resources into the Symbol long after it has ceased to be a bottleneck to obtaining the thing.
Another way to put it: grounding failure means Goodharting on the Symbol, and failing to actually get the thing as a result.
If your main goal is in fact to accumulate social status (regardless of whether you explicitly acknowledge this fact), then the situation is a bit different. The Symbols are far more important to your objective than the things they nominally represent; welcome to Simulacrum 3. So focusing on the Symbol over the thing is not a failure at all; the Symbol is what you actually want, on some level. If the suggestions in the next section about how to stay grounded sound aversive, unpleasant, or like they’re not really what you want, then consider that you may actually subconsciously want the social status more than the thing. If that’s you, then don’t worry about staying grounded - that’s not the game you’re playing.
But for those of us who are more interested in the thing than the Symbol, how can we stay grounded?
Fuck The Symbols
The most reliable way I know to avoid grounding failures is to say “Fuck The Symbols”. Make a point of not pursuing the Symbols, and try to obtain the thing anyway.
Make a point of not engaging in the standard academic research performances, and figure out how to cure cancer anyway.
Make a point of finding ways to be happy without doing the things which happy people do in commercials.
Make a point of not going out of your way to get good grades, and find a profitable/rewarding career path anyway.
Find ways to build a profitable business without Ivy League MBAs.
This isn’t always the best choice, but it’s usually worth at least thinking about how to do it - because the process of thinking about it forces you to recognize that the Symbol does not necessarily give the thing, and consider what’s actually needed.