On Being Robust

by TurnTrout2 min read10th Jan 20207 comments


Robust Agents

Inspired in part by Being a Robust Agent. Flipside of Half-assing it with everything you've got.

Do you ever feel... fake? Like, at any minute, Scooby Doo and the gang might roll up and unmask you as a freeloading fraud impostor in front of everyone?

There are a lot of things to say about the impostor syndrome on a psychological basis (the fears are often unrealistic / unmerited, etc). But I'd like to take another angle. For a few years, I've tried to just make a habit of being un-unmaskable. Although this is a useful frame for me, your mileage may vary.

My point isn't going to just be "do the things you know you should". I think we're often bad at judging when corners are okay to cut, so you probably do better just by having the policy of not cutting corners, unless it's extremely obviously alright to do so. That is, generally err against using scissors when confronted with corners, even if it makes sense in the moment.

Concrete examples

  • Making insights truly a part of you. This doesn't mean one should freak out about the Math Gestapo checking whether you've memorized what Jordan normal form is. Rather... when I was just beginning to learn formal proof-based math, I worried "I'm about to go work with some of the smartest people in the world, and they'll instantly see I'm a fake who just picked up shallow knowledge". The internal response was "just get good enough that in no conceivable world could you be a fake who secretly can't do formal math".
  • Working out regularly, taking care of the small things, building the key good habits. Having your shit together.
  • Learning a lot of related areas, just in case they have key insights.
  • Regularly and automatically backing up your files, in multiple locations.
  • Using a password manager to generate and store strong passwords, automatically syncing your database over Dropbox, etc.
  • Rather than having embarrassing things on Facebook which you hope people won't find, just use a tool to search-and-delete incriminating cringey material from your past.
  • Keep your exhaustive resume up-to-date, using a slick template like you know you should.
  • Following best practices (e.g. when writing code, so there isn't a secret layer of gross code underneath the most prominent functions; when dealing with git repos, so future collaboration / merging works out okay).
  • Responding to emails after reading them. Not leaving people on read by mistake (I'm bad at this, actually).
  • Using spellcheck on your documents.[1]
  • Scheduling meetings and showing up on time by leaving a lot earlier. Avoiding the planning fallacy. Setting multiple alarms before flights.
  • Having enough slack.

The general philosophy

This robustness is a kind of epistemic humility - it's the kind of reasoning that robustly avoids the planning fallacy, only generalized. It's the kind of reasoning that double-checks answers before turning in the test. It's best practices, but for your own life.

I try to live my mental life such that, if people could read my thoughts, they would think I'm doing things right. That doesn't mean I'm always being polite to people in my mind, but it means that I'm not being deceitful, or unfair, or secretly cutting corners on work I'm doing for them.[2]

Again, the point isn't "have good habits and be happy". The point is that I think we often cut too many corners, and so I recommend a policy which leans towards not cutting corners (even when it locally makes sense). The benefits for me have been twofold: getting better results, and feeling more secure about myself while getting those results.

  1. Ironically, the first draft of this spelled "impostor" as "imposter". ↩︎

  2. Naturally, I probably fail anyways sometimes, because I'm somewhat biased / unable to achieve full transparency for my thoughts. ↩︎