I previously wrote a summary of every "Highlights from the Sequences" post.

I also made a tier-list, ranking the posts based on how helpful or insightful I found them. I've included quotes from the posts in my top 5.

I'd be excited for others to share posts from The Sequences that they've found particularly helpful. 


Why do most of us, most of the time, choose to "pursue our goals" through routes that are far less effective than the routes we could find if we tried?

We do not automatically:

  • (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;
  • (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;
  • (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;
  • (d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past);
  • (e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work;
  • (f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
  • (g) Make sure that our "goal" is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won't continually sap our energies;
  • (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;

Lonely dissent doesn’t feel like going to school dressed in black. It feels like going to school wearing a clown suit. That’s the difference between joining the rebellion and leaving the pack.

To be a scientific revolutionary, you’ve got to be the first person to contradict what everyone else you know is thinking. This is not the only route to scientific greatness; it is rare even among the great. No one can become a scientific revolutionary by trying to imitate revolutionariness.

You can only get there by pursuing the correct answer in all things, whether the correct answer is revolutionary or not. But if, in the due course of time—if, having absorbed all the power and wisdom of the knowledge that has already accumulated—if, after all that and a dose of sheer luck, you find your pursuit of mere correctness taking you into new territory . . . then you have an opportunity for your courage to fail.

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all.   Or any of their short synonyms.  And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead.  Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

Albert says that people have "free will". Barry says that people don't have "free will". Well, that will certainly generate an apparent conflict. Most philosophers would advise Albert and Barry to try to define exactly what they mean by "free will", on which topic they will certainly be able to discourse at great length. I would advise Albert and Barry to describe what it is that they think people do, or do not have, without using the phrase "free will" at all. (If you want to try this at home, you should also avoid the words "choose", "act", "decide", "determined", "responsible", or any of their synonyms.)

What you must avoid is skipping over the mysterious part; you must linger at the mystery to confront it directly. There are many words that can skip over mysteries, and some of them would be legitimate in other contexts—“complexity,” for example. But the essential mistake is that skip-over, regardless of what causal node goes behind it. The skip-over is not a thought, but a microthought. You have to pay close attention to catch yourself at it. And when you train yourself to avoid skipping, it will become a matter of instinct, not verbal reasoning. You have to feel which parts of your map are still blank, and more importantly, pay attention to that feeling.

I suspect that in academia there is a huge pressure to sweep problems under the rug so that you can present a paper with the appearance of completeness. You’ll get more kudos for a seemingly complete model that includes some “emergent phenomena,” versus an explicitly incomplete map where the label says “I got no clue how this part works” or “then a miracle occurs.” A journal may not even accept the latter paper, since who knows but that the unknown steps are really where everything interesting happens?

Marcello and I developed a convention in our AI work: when we ran into something we didn’t understand, which was often, we would say “magic”—as in, X magically does Y”—to remind ourselves that here was an unsolved problem, a gap in our understanding . It is far better to say “magic” than “complexity” or “emergence”; the latter words create an illusion of understanding. Wiser to say “magic,” and leave yourself a placeholder, a reminder of work you will have to do later.

It's a common trope that courage isn't about being fearless, it's about being afraid but doing the right thing anyway. In the same sense, caring about the world isn't about having a gut feeling that corresponds to the amount of suffering in the world, it's about doing the right thing anyway. Even without the feeling.

The "care feeling" isn't usually strong enough to compel us to frantically save everyone dying. So while we acknowledge that it would be virtuous to do more for the world, we think that we can't, because we weren't gifted with that virtuous extra-caring that prominent altruists must have.

But this is an error — prominent altruists aren't the people who have a larger care-o-meter, they're the people who have learned not to trust their care-o-meters.





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Initial reaction: I would rank The Bottom Line, Rationalization, Local Validity as a Key to Sanity and Civilization very highly in terms of importance. Surprised to see them at the bottom.