We looked at the cloudy night sky and thought it would be interesting to share the ways in which, in the past, we made mistakes we would have been able to overcome, if only we had been stronger as rationalists. The experience felt valuable and humbling. So why not do some more of it on Lesswrong?

An antithesis to the Bragging Thread, this is a thread to share where we made mistakes. Where we knew we could, but didn't. Where we felt we were wrong, but carried on anyway.

As with the recent group bragging thread, anything you've done wrong since the comet killed the dinosaurs is fair game, and if it happens to be a systematic mistake that over long periods of time systematically curtailed your potential, that others can try to learn avoiding, better. 

This thread is an attempt to see if there are exceptions to the cached thought that life experience cannot be learned but has to be lived. Let's test this belief together!

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I spent 7 years playing a video game that started to become as important to me as the real world, at least in terms of how it emotionally effected me. If I had spent the 6ish hours a day, on average, doing something else - well, it makes me vaguely sick to think of the things I might have better spent the time and energy on. Don't get me wrong - it was fun. And I did not sink nearly so low as so many others have, and in the end when I realized what was going on - I left. I am simply saddened by the lost opportunity cost. FWIW - this is less about the "virtual" nature of things - I had good, real human beings as friends - and more about not having the presence of mind and fortitude to spend that time, oh, learning an instrument, or developing a difficult skill, or simply doing things in the real world to help society as a whole. I mean - 6 hours a day (average, 7 days a week) for 7 years is what, a doctorate program? Not that I value the paper and all, but the education means something.

On the other hand, you would not and quite possibly could not have spent all that time on learning valuable things. At least some of it would have been used up by some other sort of relaxation.

  1. I wrote about my startup failure here.

  2. I fail to anticipate disaster.

  3. I'm moderately biased towards inaction.

  4. I used to not know what the outside view was, and I didn't give nearly enough weight to "outside view evidence".

  5. I suffer from wishful thinking. I want to believe in people, but they continue to disappoint me.

  6. Related to 5, I instinctively model people as "thinking like me" moreso than I should. Ie. I assume that they perform cost-benefit analyses and stuff. (To be clear, I'm just saying that I have a moderate bias towards doing this, not that I'm incompetent and don't adjust my models at all to the fact that I know people don't think this way.)

  7. I'm biased towards self-consistency.

  8. I know about scope insensitivity, and I try to adjust accordingly, but I don't do nearly a good enough job. And I don't make nearly an honest enough effort.

  9. Arguing against weak opponents/arguments can make you too confident. It could lead to reversed stupidity. You have to argue against the strongest counterarguments. I know this. I've gotten a lot better at avoiding this problem, but I still have a ways to go.

  10. I should probably try harder to be happy (in the short-term). Things like paying attention to all the amazing things in the world. Ex. I got to eat a delicious dinner tonight. And be entertained by a great show (Prison Break!). And... I get to sleep in a comfortable bed in precisely the temperature I want. I live in a beautiful apartment that is literally a 90 second walk away from my job. I pretty much don't have to worry about money at all. I have access to a gym, a pool, a park with basketball, roads to run and bike on, a football stadium where I get to run the stairs which I really enjoy. I'm incredibly self-confident and legitimately like who I am. I get to shop for pretty much anything I want and have it delivered right to my door for free (Amazon is amazing!). I have access to some of the best courses in the world online. I live in a world where "the american dream is real", and the barriers to starting a startup are as low as ever. There's a ton of interesting information for me to read at moments notice (via the internet). I get to know a ton about how the world works because billions of people have been working at it for thousands of years before me. It'd really really suck if I had to start from the beginning. I get to learn from smart people like Eliezer and Nate Soares. I get to discuss things with smart people on LW whenever I want! Anyway, my point is that there are some legitimately amazing things in this world/my life, it's rational to acknowledge them, but I don't do nearly a good enough job of doing so. (That said, there's a lot of horrible things too...)

  11. I don't realize that X isn't about Y as often as I should. Ex. I thought that standups were stupid because the communication isn't valuable (in my situation), but then I realized that it's actually more about the social pressure. I'm learning.

(I have a ton of other confessions, but this is all that comes to my head right now.)

Arrogance: I caution you not to take this as advice for you to your own life, because frankly, arrogance goes a long, long loooooong way. Most rationalists are less arrogant in person than they should about their subject areas, and rationalist women who identify as females and are straight are even less frequently arrogant than the already low base rate. But some people are over-arrogant, and I am one of these. Over arrogance isn't about the intensity of arrogance, it is about the non-selectivity. The problem I have always had and been told again and again isn't generalized arrogance, it is leaking the arrogance into domains I'm not actually worth a penny. To see this with full clarity: that one should have a detailed model of when to be confident, when arrogant, and when humble took me a mere fourteen days, eleven months and twenty eight years, and counting.

Would you mind sharing examples? It'd help me to understand/internalize the idea your talking about. I too am sort of arrogant. Idk. I like to think that assign appropriate confidence levels based on the domain/information/situation, but I probably don't.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

Most rationalists are less arrogant in person than they should about their subject areas

You're joking, right? We're arrogant as all hell, most of us are. I know I am. And it needs to fucking stop, because arrogance is ugly even when you're knowledgeable.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

From my experiences in person, LWers are humble at LW meetings. However, outside of meeting in person, LWers are arrogant compared to most people On the computer, I can't tell because it's just text.

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Dunning-Kruger - learn it, fear it. So long as you are aware of that effect, and aware of your tendency to arrogance (hardly uncommon, especially among the educated), you are far less likely to have it be a significant issue. Just be vigilant.

I have similar issues - I find it helpful to dive deeply into things I am very inexperienced with, for a while; realizing there are huge branches of knowledge you may be no more educated in than a 6th grader is humbling, and freeing, and once you are comfortable saying "That? Oh, hell - I don't know much about that, and will never find the time to", you can let it go and relax a bit. Or - I have. (my favorites are microbiology, or advance mathematics. I fancy myself smart, but it is super easy to be so totally over my head it may as well be mystic sorcery they're talking about. Humbles you right out.)

Big chunks of this board do that as well, FWIW.

[-][anonymous]8y 11

The less painful ones:

Ugh Field / Wishful Thinking - when I came up with 10-12 truly clever explanations why I am not moderately depressed and not abusing alcohol: that probably means I am. I don't have 10-12 clever explanations why don't watch hockey. I just don't. Things you really aren't / don't tend to be simple.

Missing the level - trying a million things that would repair the consequences of the above rather than the root causes. For example, overcompensating for the feelings of inferiority instead of having that removed. Example: chasing girls who were pretty but empty, but still feeling like a womanizer made me feel less inferior. It is missing the level, theoretically, any treatment that kills minor depression should kill the inferiority feeling that it causes.

Not knowing what I want. I like and dislike to socialize at the same time. I like the idea of socializing. I just don't like people, usually. I would like being the kind of person who likes it.

Not knowing what I want. I like and dislike to socialize at the same time. I like the idea of socializing. I just don't like people, usually. I would like being the kind of person who likes it.

I sense that You don't get to know what you're fighting for might be a relevant read.

I think that "like socializing" might be a dangling node. For me...

  • I often get some sort of "superficial enjoyment" from socializing.
  • Sometimes I don't get that enjoyment and I'm bored.
  • I'm usually frustrated with people for being stupid when I'm socializing.
  • Sometimes I'm frustrated that I can't talk about more serious and interesting things.
  • Sometimes I feel "empty" because I can't have "real" conversations with people in person.

So these are all just descriptions of reality. Whether or not that makes the label "someone who likes socializing" apply to me, idk. But once you know the facts, asking that question is just a matter of semantics.

Does frequency of socialization change your feelings about it? I know, personally, that my ideal amount of socialization is about once a week with people I am close to, and once a month with strangers. There are others who need it every day, but still like a weekend away from people every now and then.

In addition, forced socialization (if your work or school requires a lot of communication, poor or otherwise) can be especially draining.

On a meta note, I think that this should be a monthly thread. I really like this idea, both as a way of provoking thought about one's mistakes, and a way to get help for them. Thoughts?

You can carry it on by posting it monthly, there is no structure determining who creates threads. Like all else that matters in this world, it is done by those who show up for the job. I've made some bragging threads in the past noticing others didn't. Do the same for this :)

Ah, I wasn't aware of that! Very well then, I'll begin doing just that.

I misread a bug report right today and almost escalated the issue with the customer.

I shouldn't have dealt with the issue at all because I'm down with a cold and I know quite well that it reduces my mental capacity. But I saw the email and immediately thought: That's no bug. I covered exactly that case! And wrote back a small reply pointing to the change request specifying that. Shortly the project manager repeated the point - and quoted the spec. Full of self-righteousness I wrote a lengthy reply to the customer taking the report apart and quoting lots of spec (wrongly). The only thing the prevented a further escalation was that I realized that this was an instance of a pattern encountered earlier. Namely that even if I was right it might hurt my intermediary. So I decided to send the mail to him first. Luckily. Shortly I got a call, he wanted it explained and it became clear that the spec was right but the implementation indeed wrong - and my memory of the expected result clouded. The actual fix was easy. But the time collecting the reply and clarifying was still wasted.

Lessons: 1) Don't trust your mental capacity if ill. 2) Let hot mails cool or route them thru a supervisor.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

I am too down with cold (again, was so just 4 weeks ago) and sitting in the middle of a super important meeting. I think I explained the same thing 3 times in a row and people look a bit funny. But I think they understand it. I went through 30 tissues.

I consistently misinterpret what people are saying when in the heat of the moment, and get upset about it. For instance, I was recently playing Warframe with a couple friends, and one playfully grumbled at me for getting killed; and I got really upset in response, thinking they were being deliberately cruel.

This is quite an annoying habit for me given the people I hang around (they lack tact), and I'm doing my best to solve it. I suspect I'm falling prey to the Mind Projection fallacy and thinking them heated when I am, which only escalates it.

Dying in Warframe? What a casual!

Your explanation seems like it might be true. I know usually encounter that problem, on the other side. Incorporating failure as an opportunity to improve is how I've dealt with it in the past, but that may be akin to someone telling a depressed person "just be happy."

A friend who's willing to explain how you could improve, and be extremely polite about it might help.

I don't really have any problem with accepting criticism if it's couched as such. Or, for that matter, failing (I play Path of Exile hardcore, after all!). It's simply dealing with comments that are intended to be sarcastic, poking-fun-at, that I take to be serious when in the moment.

While I'm good at picking up social cues when given time to analyze them, while I'm playing a game it's difficult for me to recognize.

A Big Fish in a Small Pond: for many years I assumed it was better to be a big fish in a small pond than to try to be a big fish in the ocean. This can be decomposed into a series of mistakes, only part of which I learned to overcome so far.

1)It is based on the premise that social rankings matter more than they actually do. Most of day to day life is determined by environment, and being in a better environment, surrounded by better and different people is more valuable experientially and in terms of output than being a big fish in a small pond.

2)It encouraged blindspots. The more dimensions in which I was the big fish, the more dimensions nearby in vector space I failed to optimize. The most starking one: having a high linguistic IQ and large vocabulary made me care little about grammar and foreign languages.

3)One of the reasons for me to want to be big at a small pond was reading positive psychology showing most people prefer a 50k income in a 25k average world than a 75k in a 100k average. I was unable to disentangle "empirical study", which serves to inform me into two very distinct sets. "Empirical study about how people actually feel in different situations" and "Empirical study about how people judge abstract counterfactual situations with numbers attached to them". I was very proud of taking science seriously into my life (which in fact most people don't), but I was taking the part of science that is specifically about people being wrong without noticing, in my reckless youth.

4)It has a unidimensional function Max(deltaBigness) which doesn't capture the complexity and beauty of our actual multidimensional lives and feelings. There are millions of axes in which it is personally valuable to nudge, to push, to move, and to optimize, relative importance is a relatively unimportant one.

I think this depends on how exactly the big fish treat the small fish in the pond/ocean. For example, if you take a job where your colleagues are more skilled than you, which of the following scenarios is more likely?

a) You will have a lot of opportunity to learn from your colleagues: you will be able to watch them work, to see how they solve problems; if you make a mistake they will explain you what that was wrong and what you could have done instead. You will learn a lot, and a few years later you will be one of those experts.

b) You will be the at the bottom of the status ladder, and everyone will treat you accordingly. You will always get the worst work that everyone else wants to avoid (for a good reason), and also the worst tools because no one cares about you. Your more respected colleagues will pick any promissing projects first. A few years later you realize you are getting old and you were never allowed to touch anything remotely interesting.

I think both situations happen; and when the environment is abusive towards the lower-status people it is better to be the big fish in the small pond. Then use all the opportunity to learn, so you can later switch to a greater pond.

(Of course it would be better to find a supportive environment instead, but that is sometimes easier said than done.)

Exactly this. I am a big fish in a small pond. I have been seriously programming for about a year now and I am far and away the most technically skilled person at my (completely-non-technically-focused) business.

I have learned more in this past year than I did through all 4.5 years of college. I am given a tremendous amount of freedom in the approach I take to solving problems which allows me to constantly say to myself, "hey, the way I've been doing this before works...but I bet I can take an hour and learn a better way."

Initially I was writing VBA macros to automate the more menial aspects of my job. That eventually became insufficient for what I wanted to do and I moved on to C# and wrote a sizeable WinForms application which expanded my automation to other departments within the company. This eventually led to a promotion to a more formally technical position and I now have the pleasure of learning the ropes of ASP.NET, JavaScript, CSS to continue the development of our online inventory tracking system - used by employees, clients and various business partners.

(I use "pleasure" a bit loosely as web programming is turning out to be far more absurd than anything I've done in desktop development. I've spent hours and hours working around various quirks that only affect specific versions of IE under certain circumstances. Which I'm sure is par for the course but holy hell what a culture shock.)

I have gotten better at dealing with internal bureaucracy and politics; I've learned how to speak slower and give effective, understandable presentations; and I've become proficient at learning the ins and outs of a business that I have no inherent interest in outside of the fact that understanding it allows me to design more effective software for the people I work with day in and day out.

While my situation is certainly not the norm, being a "big fish in a small pond" can open many doors for personal growth and learning if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in a job where you are able, willing and allowed to exploit your position to relentlessly learn and improve your skills throughout the course of everyday activity.

edit: more in the spirit of the thread, this sort of position can lead to a lot of undeserved self confidence and leads to some harsh wakeup calls when you run across a big fish in a big pond. It can also get rather lonely when you don't have a mentor figure to turn to on a daily basis and more or less have to wing things you don't quite understand yet. I've had several moments of intense embarrassment where, leaning on past successes, I pushed my position far too aggressively and ended up unnecessarily costing myself and my company time and money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Yeah, being the big fish can give you great opportunity for autonomous growth, because there is no one to revise all your decisions. Or a great opportunity to sleep on your laurels. Different people will use the same opportunity very differently.

Re: JavaScript.

It has essentially two parts: the language itself (objects, functions), and the browser-specific stuff (DOM). My advice is to learn the language itself well, but use JQuery for everything DOM-related.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

I tend to think like that and I tend to see how 1) is indeed a mistake. I would now prefer to be surrounded by brighter people than being the locally brightest. I am not sure I understand 2) and 3) is interesting I am not sure I understand 4) but maybe I can add a 5) it all comes from school socializing us to classroom sizes. We are used to thinking what matters to be the best of the local 30. Lesson: de-schooling, learning how comparisons over 30 people, say, eight billion, work. Our local school brightest would be nobody at MIRI.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

On the topic of social rankings, it seems that physical attractiveness, which seems to cause higher social ranking, may actually be confounded by variables like confidence. Or alternatively, physical attractiveness confounds confidence. I'm sure there's a statistical term for this, I just don't know it. I've based this on personal experience. Here are some quotes from Quora answers from people who self-claim attactiveness to illustrate:

for men:

'What a lot of guys don't realize is that the power that comes from being attractive comes more from the internal things you develop by being attractive (confidence, charisma, boldness etc) and not physical attributes. I know guys with average looks who get with more girls than me, or are more captivating speakers, or more popular. I didn't have to work at any of those things, but guys who did and did it well can often do it better.'

for women it may be very different. In fact, looking into this, it seems like at least one woman differentiates men's interest into predatorial and admiratory:

'There is enough and more sexual and romantic attention. You start taking it for granted and sometimes are a little afraid of it. The truth is that you become a little cynical and jaded because most of these men aren't really interested in you as a person. You are either a conquest or a trophy. There are exceptions of course, but they are not so easy to come by. And some attentions that are forced upon you are intrusive and sometimes even violative (I have been stalked twice).'

Interestingly, she doesn't pass any value judgements, implying either doesn't change their social status...rather, she feels it lowers her social status, as if it devalues her non physical traits.

That being says, she goes on to say:

'A lot of women, including me, say that they would be valued more for their mind than their looks. I have been thinking about this lately about why intelligence should be valued over looks, although the more immediate reaction is the opposite. Beauty is ephemeral. But the mind fades too. You are blessed/cursed with either by some random genetic lottery and neither determines what good you do in the world, how you treat people or your moral compass (everyone has their own moraltiy, that they fall short of). In a work situation, I'd obviously prefer my competence to be appreciated. But otherwise I wonder how it matters.'

Suggesting she's not just buying into traditional values and has calculated that her beauty depreciates faster than her intellect, and she isn't confident in her ability to trade for a man's attention in the long term.

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[-][anonymous]8y 4

Whenever I read sources of rationalist authority, I just take it as a given that the community has vetted that knowledge as the standard to which I should align my beliefs.

It's hard to give an example, since rationalists examples get very abstract, but here is a different example: today I wanted to look up the state of research on the economics of psychiatric interventions. I found a WHO document (http://www.who.int/mental_health/economic_aspects_of_mental_health.pdf) which I scanned through and thought okay cool, and skipped my attention to anything actionable.

This caught my eye: 'Specifically, there is a need for evidence showing that mental health care strategies can be cost-effective'

Arguably, the most obvious example of policy-based evidence making I had ever seen. I expected better, but I guess that kind of thinking is inevitable for any institution which is governed top-down by non-researchers.

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[-][anonymous]8y 3

Fell prey the planning fallacy with my new course, and didn't leave enough time to get partners.

Since the launch, I've been pretty unproductive and eating pretty unhealthy - I'm not sure what the failure here was but it happened.

I become incrediby "blamey" when I get stressed at work - given my dream job as CEO of a large company, this is a response I have to work on.

The typical mind fallacy/other-optimizing/illusion of transparency is the mistake I keep making and see others making all the time. Yours and mine interaction on this forum is a good example of both sides falling prey to this.

[-][anonymous]8y 1

Oooh, I've got another one:

My mum was really abusive growing up. She probably has intermittent explosive disorder or something else of that sort. I tried to classically condition her by threatening (and sometimes delivering) to damage the house - like kick holes in the wall and such when she lost it.

This was obviously a terrifying gambit, but it eventually paid off. However, I was aware I was scared and that it was inhibiting my ability to make a concerted effort to change her behaviour long before I did anything of this sort.

In hindsight, I would have tried to get my hands on propranolol or another Beta blocker to enhance my confidence. It probably would have helped me grow out of the shell I sunk into and continue to rise from after all the negative stuff I heard.

Ironically, propranolol is used as a treatment for intermittent explosive disorder...but that's beside the point.

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