Reply to: Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic

In "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic," Anna Salamon outlined some ways that people could take action to be more successful and achieve goals, but do not:

But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out.  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;

.... or carry out any number of other useful techniques.  Instead, we mostly just do things. 

I believe that's a fantastic list of achievement/victory heuristics. Some of these are difficult to do, though. Let's look to make this into a practical, actionable sort of document. I believe the steps outlined above can be broadly grouped. I've done it with some minor rephrasing to make it in first person plural -

Identify: (a) Ask ourselves what we're trying to achieve, (b) ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it and how we can track progress

Research: (c) Become strongly curious about information that would help achieve the goal, and (d) gather that information (through methods like asking how folks commonly achieve this goal, especially methods that aren't habitual)

Test: (e) Test methods that might work to achieve goals, especially non-habitual methods, while tracking what works and doesn't

Focus: (f) Focus most of the energy that isn't going into researching/exploring on methods that are starting to produce the best results, (g) make sure that the "goal" chosen is worthwhile, is desired for coherent reasons, and firmly commit to it at this stage so that doubt does not consume excessive time and energy

Persevere: (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to boost motivation, persist in the face of adversity and frustration, and not given in to temptation to quit or take it easy.

There's some implicit steps in the model. I think it would go like this:

Identify -> (make decision to begin) -> Research -> (begin) -> Test -> (analyze early results) -> Focus -> (make firm commitment at this stage) -> Persevere -> (achieve or re-evaluate) -> (back to step 1)

I believe Anna roughly laid out five key stages - Identify, research, test, focus, persevere. I believe there's seven other stages mixed in - make decision to begin, begin, analyze early results, make firm commitment, achieve or re-evaluate, repeat.

Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines for each stage:

Identify - the first stage to accomplishing a goal is to identify a goal. I believe this is one of the hardest stages, due to the subjective nature of it. There is no right answer. There are other potential pitfalls - people who are fatalistic ("things are already decided"), nihilistic ("nothing matters"), or believe they can't achieve will have problems with this stage. Additionally, people in this community might have another problem. People who have identities based on being intelligent tend to not want to confront goals they can fail at. The article, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise" describes a study based on praising kids for innate ability (intelligence) vs. effort.

Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” ... Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Potential Pitfalls in the "Identify" stage: Fatalism, nihilism, low self esteem, fear of failure, or identity being wrapped up in success/intelligence can dissuade people from setting goals. Also, just plain not seeing the value in setting goals.

Costs: This stage is one of the most expensive intellectually and emotionally - this is where you are choosing to dedicate your time at the expense of other things. It's a subjective judgment with an high opportunity cost, almost by definition.

Requirements: Introspection about what you want to achieve, patience, working and re-working at goals, and taking the time to describe and elaborate what success would look like.

Timeline: Varies, but I find the loose threads of identifying goals can take a year, two years, or more to start to come together. After actively planning and beginning to identify goals, coming to a really great definition can happen fairly quickly (10 to 30 minutes, for fairly straightforward goals) or can easily take one to three months to flesh a goal out.

Make decision to begin - I believe this is an underrated component to achieving. Saying, "I have now decided start pursuing this goal." 

Potential Pitfalls: Distraction, akrasia, procrastination, overwhelm.

Costs: Relatively low, since we're only moving to the research/information gathering stage. This is more like an easy checkbox on a checklist - important to do, but not particularly taxing.

Requirements: A tiny bit of decisiveness.

Timeline: Varies - people think things over for a while. But the decision to start exploring a goal can happen instantly.

Research - This stage actually takes some researching skills. Most Less Wrong users will be pretty good at using Google, Wikipedia, searching for books, finding scientific papers, or good podcasts and video. We shouldn't forget that a lot of people are unfamiliar with these tools, and would have to learn them to get started. 

Potential Pitfalls: Not knowing how to research, not having enough knowledge to know where to start looking and good questions to ask, distraction/stimulation ("let me just check XYZ website for a minute..."), underestimating yourself and thus not studying relevant people and events (for instance, ignoring great examples of innovators and producers because "how could I be like da Vinci?", so the person doesn't even bother learning what da Vinci did).

Costs: Varies greatly depending on the goal and information coming in. Also varies depending on intensity - there's passive, casual research like reading historical fiction, biographies, stories, and anecdotes. Then there's active research, testing, underscoring, studying, internalizing, which takes a much greater amount of mental strain.

Requirements: Research skills, judgment to pick the right places to study, concentration, time.

Timeline: Depends on the goal. Of course, research can be an ongoing process forever, but how much is enough to get started? Depends on the field. Younger fields probably require less research since they tend to have more long hanging fruit available for discovery/achievement, less established competition, and less regulation about beginning.

Begin - A massively underrated stage. Deciding, "I have decided, I will achieve this" goes a long ways. Most people never do this, instead half-working on their goals. There's some debate on whether publicly announcing your goals is helpful or harmful. Derek Sivers notes in, "Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them" that people who announce their goals get a sense of pride and feeling of accomplishment like they're already achieved. On the other hand, I wrote in "The Joys of Public Accountability" that having external commitment and pressure can help overcome feelings of laziness, procrastination, and fear. But regardless of whether you announce publicly or not, making a definite decision that "I will achieve this" seems to be very important and very underrated in goal achievement.

Potential Pitfalls: Why don't people begin on goals? Very many reasons. Fear of failure, fear of success, procrastination, feeling overwhelmed and like there's not enough time, and perhaps the biggest one - not realizing how important making a firm decision to begin is.

Costs: I find that being on the verge of beginning is intense and scary, and has a great mental cost. However, actually making the decision and beginning feels pretty good and is a release from a lot of that tension.

Requirements: A bit of decisiveness, and then, simply starting.

Timeline: Immediate, though people often take a lot of time to prepare to begin.

Test - Testing things that aren't fatal or too damaging if they fail is probably the only way to achieve in a new domain, and maybe the only way to achieve in a domain where how to succeed shifts over time. Anna identifies that testing non-habitual methods is especially key. I agree with all of it - at this stage, doing anything that could plausibly work with no serious downside is correct. A lot of people obsess over, "Where should I get started?" Well, why not start anywhere that might be valuable? There's probably some good ways to assess and choose the best jumping off point, but action of any sort that might work at this stage is quite valuable.

Potential Pitfalls: Not much, if you're dealing with things with low downside. That's the key - start by testing low-downside ways of getting your goal. If you're trying to get into something that has a significant downside by definition (investing money), be able to lose what you start out with, start slow, and pay attention to the fundamentals. You might lose whatever you put in, but if you can limit downside, there's not so many pitfalls to this stage. I suppose perfectionism could kill you here if you if you let it.

Costs: Depends on your mental makeup. Some people can stomach non-success better than others. In practical terms, it's not very expensive. But it can be embarrassing and frustrating, which does come with its own cost.

Requirements: Action orientation. Though speed isn't required, the faster you can try/implement something, the better.

Timeline: Depends on the discipline. You should start getting some feedback fairly quickly. 

Analyze early results - Here, you analyze what's working early on and put more emphasis/effort into that area. At the same time, Anna notes and I agree that you should still keep exploring things. Also, some things don't pay off often but offer incredibly high upside when they do - if you think an area offers that, it might be worth pursuing even if it hasn't shown tangible results yet.

Potential Pitfalls: Analyzing with too small of a sample size could give you bad data and make you quit too soon or be overly optimistic about a particular way. Focusing on something that produces short term gains with a relatively low local maximum could be unfortunate.

Costs: Sitting down and digging through the numbers takes a while, and a lot of people don't like doing it. It's incredibly valuable, I do extensive tracking, which I've written about extensively, including numbers/examples in "What Gets Measured, Gets Managed" on my site. Yet, it can be taxing or look scary for people. Perhaps another pitfall is thinking analysis needs to be perfect, getting overwhelmed, and not starting? This can be mentally taxing, if you look at it the wrong way. It's fun and light and breezy if you look at it from that angle and don't get overly serious.

Requirements: Analytical skills, especially with numbers, statistics, and trends help a lot here. Being able to make charts, graphs, and visualizations isn't necessary, but might help you easily spot long term trends.

Timeline: I find analyzing one week's worth of data can be done in between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the complexity. Unfortunately though, the first time you start analyzing and you're trying to pick what to measure and how to record it, it takes a lot longer. After analyzing for a few weeks, it becomes very quickly. If you do weekly analysis, larger scale analysis (monthly, annually) becomes pretty easy - you go through your already analyzed weekly data and see trends.

Focus - Here, you isolate the one, two, or three things that provide the most results and bear down in those areas. This is why I originally posted the question that Anna replied to - why don't people focus on the areas that provide the most success? She mentioned that many people don't isolate achievement/victory heuristics. From her inspiration, I wrote this to begin to identify the pitfalls, costs, requirements, and rough timelines on each stage of achievement and victory. 

Potential Pitfalls: The whole post has been leading up to this point - you need to have identified a goal, researched how to achieve it, started working on it, gotten some initial results, and started to analyze them in order to figure out what's giving the greatest payoff. Most people don't do that. Additionally, there could be elements of "fear of success" and general akrasia/procrastination.

Costs: The most expensive costs have already largely been paid in the earlier stages - shifting your focus into high yield/high output areas now will result in more tangible rewards and more progress.

Requirements: The ability to identify high yield areas from your analysis, and be decisive enough to focus in the highest yield area or two.

Timeline: It might take a while to ramp up the effort in the highest yield area or there might be relevant equipment/supplies needed, but the decision to do it can be made very quickly after analysis.

Make firm commitment - These might seem redundant, but I think people don't commit to their goals enough. At least, I see normal people who seem to be wandering through life without having anything particularly meaningful happen. Whereas I tend to see results from people who say, "Yes! I will!" At this point where you're getting ready to focus, you have an idea on what things cost and what the results are going to be. Do you want it bad enough to firmly commit to get it at all costs? 

Potential Pitfalls: Why don't people make firm commitments? Fear of failure, fear of success? Identity? Fear of standing out? If you've come this far and identified the key area and gotten started on focusing it, you should already be on the way to succeeding.

Costs: This might be scary, or not. It might be slightly mentally taxing, or not. It might require an identity shift, or might not. It shouldn't be too difficult, but you're getting on the verge of success - you might have to confront some inner demons.

Requirements: Decisiveness, a bit of willpower.

Timeline: Instant.

Persevere - Anna astutely noted that building an environment that's conducive to success makes it much more likely. In this stage, you're gearing up for the long haul. Getting relevant supplies, tools, outreach, building an external environment, making relevant commitments, and otherwise positioning yourself for success, and then persisting.

Potential Pitfalls: A lot of people give up. You can reduce the chances of this by making the environment more supportive of your success, getting emotional support, and the old fashioned "burn your boats behind you."

Costs: I think if you've clearly identified the payoffs, it shouldn't be too tough, but the road can get weary at times. Persistence can be hard and tiring. The most expensive cost is doing the right thing when you need to, but you're not in the mood to do so.

Requirements: Constructing an environment conducive to success, staying motivated, persistence.

Timeline: Constructing a positive environment varies in time depending on what your environment looked like before you started. How long you'll have to persist depends on the scope of your goal and the methods you've chosen.

Achieve or re-evaluate - Time to see if your beliefs pay the rent. You're either starting to achieve your goal, or you're starting to reconsider if the path you chose was correct. If the latter, you might have to go back to the drawing board. If the former, congratulations! Time to celebrate briefly, and then move on. Either way, you'll be assessing, re-assessing, identifying, and re-identifying goals at this stage.

Potential Pitfalls: Quitting too soon before success. Getting arrogant and going too far after you've crossed the finish line and succeeded. The former comes from too much pessimism and not enough persistence. The latter comes from too much optimism and not enough re-analyzing.

Costs: Completing or abandoning a project both have their costs, the latter more than the former. Either way you'll get a sense of closure after this - consciously abandoning a project where you gave it your all, but then it didn't pan out or your high level goals changed can actually be very enjoyable. Maybe you can do a last creative act to "ship" something if it didn't work out - an analysis or write-up of the event. 

Requirements: If achieving, graciousness. If re-evaluating, emotional steadfastness to not quit too early, but pragmatism/realism to know when you need to go back to the drawing board.

Timeline: Funny enough, a lot of times when you're succeeding at an abstract discipline, you don't realize it for a while. Other goals are easier to notice. It depends on the specific goal and field.

Repeat - After completing or abandoning a goal, it's time to go back to the start, to identify the next things you'll devote yourself to and spend your life energy on. This is where you start identifying goals, researching them, committing to starting, and so on.

Anna wrote:

So, to second Lionhearted's questions: does this analysis seem right?  Have some of you trained yourselves to be substantially more strategic, or goal-achieving, than you started out?  How did you do it?  Do you agree with (a)-(h) above?  Do you have some good heuristics to add?  Do you have some good ideas for how to train yourself in such heuristics?

Indeed, that was a very good and insightful post, and thank you for the inspiration and jumping off point. I have used some of these methods in my own life to become more successful, but I think this exercise of posting the fallacy, getting your feedback in "not automatically strategic," and writing this has been very valuable. I've tried to lay out the beginnings of understanding each stage in the process.

My questions for you, and everyone else at Less Wrong - do these stages seem accurate? How about my descriptions of them, along with the potential pitfalls, costs, requirements, and timelines for each stage?

I think there's a lot of potential to build out in each specific area, identify and apply these methods to common goals, and so on. Perhaps we could go through the list for developing in rationality, or becoming more healthy, or wealthy, or an accomplished artist, or any other number of valuable pursuits.

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the reason I don't find this article useful is that it's not 'specific' (and I will be more specific on what I mean by that). my observation is that, most people's problem is not that they can't give out a reasonable sounding methodology like you outlined, but that they are unable to carry it through. A most simple example is staying on a diet, or going to the gym. The deciding factor is not knowing how it should be done, but actually doing it.

Now let me be more specific. Here's one place I felt it's glaringly unspecific. To quote you (from "making firm commitment"): "Requirements: Decisiveness, a bit of willpower."

But that's the whole point, no? How do you become decisive and acquire will-power, if you aren't/doesn't have it? decisiveness, willpower, firmness -- it reads like tautology. Some specific tips/hacks would have helped. I remember reading someone's blog with a tip of keeping up some activity (like going to the gym). A very specific tip is given: "paste row of large sheets of paper on the most noticeable side of your living room wall, and mark on it, in a long row, in large fonts and screaming color, the dates of everyday for the next 6 months (or years, whatever, long period of time). everyday you went to the gym, put a large X under the date. keep up for a couple of weeks. after that, the sight of the continuing extending row of deafening X will be enough motivation to keep you going."

That's a specific to overcome one's laziness, and I can imagine it working for someone. The point I am trying to make is this: abstract reasoning might be good for deciding what to do, but is hardly sufficient to get us to do it. It's like keeping telling oneself that "it's good to go to the gym", or "studying for school", or "making that sales call" -- rarely it does us any good, and almost never lastingly.

Here's another example from your article (from under "identify"): "Requirements: Introspection about what you want to achieve"

What are your insights for introspecting? I am serious about this question, because I have been doing a lot of introspection since high school, only to realize later that talking to myself (what I thought introspecting was) is a lousy way to understand myself better. I see people around me, and many times it was clear they couldn't get very good understanding of themselves either. So I suspect introspection is very difficult, few can do it well, and for this reason, if you have any insights to share on this, it would be of great value. but just saying "introspect on what to achieve" is hardly useful insight, particularly consider the crowd at LessWrong.

A strategy like the one you described if fine, but it's all in the details of how you pull it off. One rule of thumb I use (for both communicating to others, and as a self-checking mechanism when I convince myself that I know how to do something) is to try to include something clearly actionable. E.g.

  • "be more decisive" is not clearly actionable.
  • "paste your living room wall with long row of paper" is.

One immediately actionable thing that I hope the reader will get from reading this response is, when reading, ask yourself the question, "is there any specific action I can take?".


There's some great thinking in this post, but it needs some editing. LessWrong articles are very rarely this long, so it decreases the chance that it will be widely read. Some more attention to formatting would go a long way.

Are you Sebastian Marshall? Cool, I like some of your writing quite a bit! Glad you're here.

There's some great thinking in this post, but it needs some editing. LessWrong articles are very rarely this long, so it decreases the chance that it will be widely read. Some more attention to formatting would go a long way.

Good point - I didn't intend for it to be so long. I had a concept in mind, started writing, and it came out much longer. About formatting - yes, probably there as well. Good feedback - ideas don't do much good if their presentation isn't good.

Are you Sebastian Marshall? Cool, I like some of your writing quite a bit! Glad you're here.

Indeed, I am! Thank you for the kind words. I'd been following the community for quite a while, before Less Wrong existed - I wanted to contribute a little bit back, and happy to be here :)

I think your very first step Identify is the key to all this.

Is it rational to pursue an irrational goal rationally?

Our culture focuses on external validation, achievement and winning. My concern is that this is a form of manipulation focused on improving a societies economic measures of value over an individual's personal satisfaction.

In contrast, the science of happiness seems like a good start. This work seems to focus on developing techniques to come to feel satisfaction with ones current state. Perhaps a next step is to look at how communities and organisations can be structured to support this. Speaking for myself I naively assumed that making computer games would be an enjoyable career because I thought that making a game and playing a game would be similar, this is not the case. Does anyone have any suggestions for careers or lifestyles where one can feel a sustained sense of satisfaction? Or indeed a rational means to select/create one?

Does anyone have any suggestions for careers or lifestyles where one can feel a sustained sense of satisfaction?

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, different careers provide satisfaction in different ways. Some jobs, such as that of a beautician, provide the satisfaction of a job well done several times a day. Others, such as computer-game programmer, provide that kind of satisfaction several times a decade. Which appeals to you?

What balance of success and failure do you want? There are jobs in which success is achieved only one time in ten tries, yet the psychic payoff from that one success more than makes up for all the failures. Personally, I couldn't live like that. How about you?

What kinds of social interaction do you want out of your career? There are careers in which you work in almost monastic seclusion and others in which you are in continual interaction with colleagues. How do you feel about interaction with the public as a whole? Repeated contact with complete strangers? Contact restricted to particular age groups or particular social classes? It is up to you.

Are you the kind of person who draws satisfaction out of simply getting the job done, or are you only satisfied when it is done with a certain artistry? Do you want recognition? Do you detest criticism? Would you rather find the cure for disease or cure many patients with various diseases? Prove a theorem or explain a proof? Make a fishing pole, or catch a fish? Or maybe save a species of fish?

The answer to each of these questions may be relevant in making a good career choice. But the trouble is that the typical 20-year-old is completely unequipped to answer them truthfully. Truthful answers to these questions are learned by experience. But the answers that our twenty-year-old actually gives are based on what kind of person he/she wants to be, rather than what kind of person he/she is.

For this reason, I would suggest that every young person take a few years out of the standard educational career track to learn something about his/her self, before committing to a difficult and costly period of training or apprenticeship in some narrow specialty. "Wasting" those years may appear inefficient, but it is far better than wasting a life.

Thank you for your reply. It really highlights the difficulty of making an appropriate choice. There is also the difficulty that a lot of professions require specialised training before they can be experienced.

I did not find any of the careers guidance information at school or university to be particularly helpful. However after working in games for a number of years it was clear that there were a number of types with very similar backgrounds. I think it would be very valuable to read honest autobiographical accounts of different professions and ideally some form of personality assessment that meaningfully matches them. The closest I have found is the book "What type am I?" which guides the reader through a Myers-Briggs personality test and indicates common professions for each type. My current career (academic) was selected from this list and is a much better choice for me.

I find the balance of emphasis in existing research and books disturbing. There is a lot of emphasis on productivity, being a great manager and making lots of money but not so much on finding a good fit for ones personality. Perhaps, there is a need for more scientists and rationalists to focus on these sorts of issues. Issues that directly affect the enjoyment of the majority of peoples lives. Much as how positive psychology has started to redress the fixation on pathology.

Does anyone have any suggestions for careers or lifestyles where one can feel a sustained sense of satisfaction? Or indeed a rational means to select/create one?

I see the following occupations as absolutely required to live a happy life: one has to be (1) an Artificial Intelligence researcher, to change the world to be a better place, (2) a dancer, to experience one's own embodiment to the fullest, (3) a writer/poemer, to explore and reify one's understanding of existence.

ETA: ;-)

This post is excellent, although it doesn't fold on the main site and takes up a lot of space scrolling through recent posts.

This post is excellent, although it doesn't fold on the main site and takes up a lot of space scrolling through recent posts.

Thank you, and I apologize for my brutish formatting. I tried to edit, but didn't find a setting to make it wrap? Could someone point me in the right direction?

"Insert summary break" on the toolbar, next to "Text color" and "Blockquote".

"Insert summary break" on the toolbar, next to "Text color" and "Blockquote".

Done, thanks for pointing that out.