[this is my entry for the Hammertime Final Exam. I answered all three prompts but took much longer than five minutes writing each part.]

1. Accommodate Yourself

(related: Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable; Design; Radical Acceptance as acknowledgement of reality. this is one of the first & most valuable lessons I have gained from the rationalist community, though I don’t think I’ve seen it stated in quite these terms.)

People often want to make themselves better - stronger, more hardworking, more able. We compare ourselves to ideals and we find ourselves lacking; we strive to improve ourselves to better fit the roles we want to play in the world.

What if, instead of taking the world as given and striving to adapt ourselves to it, we took ourselves as given and looked for ways to adapt our world to us?


  • “I can’t get around much because my feet hurt - and even taking public transit is bad because I have to stand while I wait for the train - so I have to fix my feet or else I’m doomed” → “My feet hurt, so I’ll look for other ways to get around, like a bike or an electric scooter. When I take public transit, I’ll carry a light portable stool to make waiting for trains painless.”
  • “I have to stop picking at my nails! Argh, why can’t I do it!” → “Let me see if having a thing to fidget with removes this urge. Oh, it basically does! Good!”
  • “Argh why can’t I follow this conversation, everyone else seems to be able to do it” → “Hmm, it seems I can’t follow conversations well in loud spaces, let me make plans in quieter ones instead.”
  • “I should be more hardworking and not procrastinate so much!” → “Hmm, it seems I don’t have a lot of energy and my executive function is often not very good. Let me scale back my plans to match my energy levels, at least for now, and think about how I might make my work fit my brains and/or find an environment that’s easier for me to work in and/or find a different way to support myself and/or look into ADHD medication.”
  • “I don’t fit into these jeans, I’m so fat, I need to lose weight.” → “Let me find some other jeans, these ones don’t fit me.”

To apply this mindset, think of a situation where a limitation of yours leads to failure or frustration. Now, flip your view of the situation around. You are as you are; it is the world that does not fit. Now, if the world were designed for people like you, how would it be different? What in your environment would change? Now, can you make that change yourself?

The title of this piece comes from the concept of disability accommodations, but I think the usefulness of this mindset extends beyond things commonly understood as disabilities. Pretty much everybody is subject to some kinds of expectations that they do not fit. We often take these as condemnations of aspects of ourselves, as judgments that our bodies or our brains in some way don’t measure up.

But the world contains many kinds of brains and bodies. It’s not useful for everyone whose brain or body is bad at some task to feel bad about themselves. Rather, we can take this diversity as a given and work on making the world fit all of us.

This doesn’t mean there is no space for self-improvement. But, firstly, accommodation is often much easier, sometimes to the point that accommodation is possible where fixing oneself is not. And second, even if self-modification is possible and desirable, accommodation is often a useful first step, providing some slack with which to take on the difficult project of change.

2. Kindness Is An Epistemic Virtue

In order to learn from each other, we must first feel safe. When a battle is pitched, when opposition feels like a threat, when losing an argument threatens one’s felt or actual safety - then humans fall into battle formation, arguments become soldiers, and changing one’s mind becomes virtually impossible.

Seeing such a battle, some with valuable knowledge may reasonably decide to stay out of the fight for their own psychological health; thus the combatants are left without their valuable knowledge.

Others will join the fray, motivated by a sense of urgency; they will learn something, they will share their knowledge, but they will be wounded and triggered and enter a psychological defensive crouch from which no change of opinion is possible, and they will lose their self-control and wound and trigger others in return.

(One time I had a particularly bad fight on Facebook and was extremely stressed and anxious for several days - and less open and charitable in arguments for months afterwards.)

So if you want participants in your discourse to be selected for valuable knowledge and not for battle-hardiness and thick skins, and if you want people to actually have the ability to change their minds - be kind.

(I want to acknowledge that this consideration can compete with others that are also important. Some people with valuable knowledge have come by that knowledge in painful ways and cannot share it kindly. Sometimes repressing anger for the sake of harmony is harmful in the long run. These are worth taking seriously, and sometimes they will be more important than kindness. But - I claim - kindness should very often win, and should always be considered.)

3. Privileging The Future

Human desires and intuitions are often highly biased in favor of the present. If we want to make decisions that are wise in the long term, we have to counteract this bias; the ability to delay gratification is a valuable skill that will serve you well if you have it.

However, a common result of this attempt at debiasing is a sense that delayed gratification is virtuous in itself, that one should always take the path that gives you enjoyment in the future rather than the present - or, failing that, that one should feel guilty when one doesn’t do that.

For example: I used to have a problem with staying up far too late far too often, which led to chronic sleep deprivation. This was clearly in part a result of prioritizing present over future on any given evening; so, I reasonably felt that it was better when I succeeded in prioritizing tomorrow’s well-being enough to go to sleep on time. But sometimes, something legitimately interesting and unique was happening late at night, something that was worth staying up… and I would stay up, but I would feel guilty, that I was doing a thing that would result in my suffering later; and the next day, I would regret my choice, even as I valued the experience I had had at night. In my mind, sacrificing future well-being for present enjoyment was always wrong, even if the tradeoff was actually worth it!

For another example: adults sometimes express regret that they quit an instrument they had played in childhood, even if they had never particularly enjoyed practicing it; I think this is often a result of a pro-future bias.

(Related: somebody on Tumblr suggested that somebody should run the opposite of the canonical marshmallow test, such that a child can either eat two marshmallows now or one marshmallow in ten minutes, and then see whether in ten minutes the child regrets eating the two marshmallows because they can no longer have one now. Their hypothesis was that the child would indeed regret it, even though the decision was clearly correct - which would show that regret is not reliable information about the quality of one’s past decisions.)

If you’re facing a tradeoff between present and future - weigh the options and choose a tradeoff! Delay gratification if that’s the right thing to do. (And it is more often the right thing to do than your system 1 probably thinks.) But if it’s not - go get the good thing in the present, with no self-judgment and no regrets.


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I really really enjoyed reading this blog post. Your thoughts about privileging the future were new to me, and I think that's a really insightful way of looking at it.

I identify strongly with the "Accommodate Yourself" - a substantial fraction of things I figured out with rationality boiled down to realizations of the form "You didn't have to live like this!" I set up a Schelling point for my glasses so I didn't have to scramble around looking for them every morning. I got over the inherent virtuousness of cooking my own meals and tried Mealsquares. I got a monitor and mouse for my laptop. The list goes on...

Kierkegaard wrote "So only one lack remains [in our time], even though not yet felt, the lack of difficulty. Out of love of humankind, out of despair over my awkward predicament of having achieved nothing and of being unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, out of genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I comprehended that it was my task: to make difficulties everywhere." It seems to me, however, that despite all our progress, life is sufficiently hard as it is. We don't need to make it any harder than it has to be.

With regards to the thoughts on delayed gratifications, it seems like a valuable reminder that pendulums usually swing a little too far in the other direction. Most people most of the time would benefit from a reminder that the future exists, but some smaller fraction of them also need the reminder that the present exists too.

Thanks for following Hammertime, and I'd love to see more of your writing on here in the future. =)

life is sufficiently hard as it is. We don't need to make it any harder than it has to be.

It seems like Kierkegaard could distinguish between kinds of difficulties. It feels good to deliberately challenge yourself. It doesn't feel good to fight to avoid snapping at your partner because you're hangry because you forgot to go shopping.

Maybe some difficulties are challenges to overcome and some are just friction to avoid.

Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. I think mostly the challenges that are good are ones that help create a sense of meaning/broader life satisfaction even if they don't necessarily increase moment-to-moment happiness. Challenges that don't feel meaningful are just pointless pain.

Thanks for writing Hammertime and, among other things, providing me with an impetus to actually make a post! (I don't expect I would have done so otherwise, in part because making a post is sort of an implicit claim that it might be interesting, but the pretext of the final exam provided a nice excuse that let me avoid making that implicit claim...)

I agree that life contains more than enough difficulties for us all. I'm honestly somewhat puzzled as to how Kierkegaard could think it didn't - hell, things like refrigerators for home use didn't exist them! Though perhaps he had servants and/or women to perform life-sustaining labor for him.

I think one thing that had prevented me from adopting the "accommodate yourself" mindset very much was a sense that I should be able to just do things, and that certain kinds of needs or limitations were not things it was valid to plan around because it is not acceptable to have them in the first place. (Though of course, those limitations become much more of a problem if you don't plan around them!) It is in large part the neurodiversity/disability rights rationalist Tumblr cluster that helped me get past a lot of this.

Re: pendulums, when I had first read that in Duncan's essay I was not convinced that that's actually how societies work. But now that you mention it, on an individual level I think this model does make a fair amount of sense. I still think it is not quite accurate on the scale of entire societies, though I do think that there tend to be parts of societies that push "too far" on any given change.

I'm not sure I agree that only a smaller number of people need the reminder that the present exists (and matters as much as any future moment)! Maybe I'm typical-minding here or generalizing from a small and unrepresentative sample, but in my experience it seems like most people contain both type of error at once - e.g. in my case, the guilt about staying up late when it was actually a good idea to do so coexisted with a frequent failure to go to bed when staying up was a really bad idea. This is in some sense a system where the two biases keep each other somewhat in check - if you don't have any other tools for reining in your present-focused bias, a pro-future bias might be better than nothing - but it's in some ways not a great system as it not only can lead you to make suboptimal decisions sometimes (or push other people into suboptimal future-focused decisions - I think parents often do this) but also often comes with a guilt-driven motivation system which causes all sorts of problems in the long run.

I do agree that the native pro-present bias is generally stronger and usually more dominant in humans' actual decisionmaking. Just, everyone knows about that already so it didn't make sense to write about it :)

Their hypothesis was that the child would indeed regret it, even though the decision was clearly correct - which would show that regret is not reliable information about the quality of one’s past decisions.

Food for thought! I guess System 1's tendency to overvalue the present might cause us to discount the future as well as the past. I'm not quite sure to which degree I would consider this likely however. At least I personally usually do not regret decisions from the past that had positive effects on my well being, even if the alternative would be to experience that increased well being now.

But even then, the only purpose regret seems to have is to prevent us from repeating past mistakes. But this is 1) prone to overcorrecting and 2) we'd be much better off learning the lesson without having to suffer from that nagging feeling of regret for basically ever.