[Morose. Also very roughly drafted.]

Normally, things are distributed normally. Human talents may turn out to be one of these things. Some people are lucky enough to find themselves on the right side of these distributions – smarter than average, better at school, more conscientious, whatever. To them go many spoils – probably more so now than at any time before, thanks to the information economy.

There’s a common story told about a hotshot student at school whose ego crashes to earth when they go to university and find themselves among a group all as special as they thought they were. The reality might be worse: many of the groups the smart or studious segregate into (physics professors, Harvard undergraduates, doctors) have threshold (or near threshold)-like effects: only those with straight A’s, only those with IQs > X, etc. need apply. This introduces a positive skew to the population: most (and the median) are below the average, brought up by a long tail of the (even more) exceptional. Instead of comforting ourselves at looking at the entire population to which we compare favorably, most of us will look around our peer group and find ourselves in the middle, and having to look a long way up to the best. 1


Yet part of growing up is recognizing there will inevitably be people better than you are – the more able may be able to buy their egos time, but no more. But that needn’t be so bad: in several fields (such as medicine) it can be genuinely hard to judge ‘betterness’, and so harder to find exemplars to illuminate your relative mediocrity. Often there are a variety of dimensions to being ‘better’ at something: although I don’t need to try too hard to find doctors who are better at some aspect of medicine than I (more knowledgeable, kinder, more skilled in communication etc.) it is mercifully rare to find doctors who are better than me in all respects. And often the tails are thin: if you’re around 1 standard deviation above the mean, people many times further from the average than you are will still be extraordinarily rare, even if you had a good stick to compare them to yourself.

Look at our thick-tailed works, ye average, and despair! 2

One nice thing about the EA community is that they tend to be an exceptionally able bunch: I remember being in an ‘intern house’ that housed the guy who came top in philosophy at Cambridge, the guy who came top in philosophy at Yale, and the guy who came top in philosophy at Princeton – and although that isn’t a standard sample, we seem to be drawn disproportionately not only from those who went to elite universities, but those who did extremely well at elite universities. 3 This sets the bar very high.

Many of the ‘high impact’ activities these high achieving people go into (or aspire to go into) are more extreme than normal(ly distributed): log-normal commonly, but it may often be Pareto. The distribution of income or outcomes from entrepreneurial ventures (and therefore upper-bounds on what can be ‘earned to give’), the distribution of papers or citations in academia, the impact of direct projects, and (more tenuously) degree of connectivity or importance in social networks or movements would all be examples: a few superstars and ‘big winners’, but orders of magnitude smaller returns for the rest.

Insofar as I have ‘EA career path’, mine is earning to give: if I were trying to feel good about the good I was doing, my first port of call would be my donations. In sum, I’ve given quite a lot to charity – ~£15,000 and counting – which I’m proud of. Yet I’m no banker (or algo-trader) – those who are really good (or lucky, or both) can end up out of university with higher starting salaries than my peak expected salary, and so can give away more than ten times more than I will be able to. I know several of these people, and the running tally of each of their donations is often around ten times my own. If they or others become even more successful in finance, or very rich starting a company, there might be several more orders of magnitude between their giving and mine. My contributions may be little more than a rounding error to their work.

A shattered visage

Earning to give is kinder to the relatively minor players than other ‘fields’ of EA activity, as even though Bob’s or Ellie’s donations are far larger, they do not overdetermine my own: that their donations dewormed 1000x children does not make the 1x I dewormed any less valuable. It is unclear whether this applies to other ‘fields': Suppose I became a researcher working on a malaria vaccine, but this vaccine is discovered by Sally the super scientist and her research group across the world. Suppose also that Sally’s discovery was independent of my own work. Although it might have been ex ante extremely valuable for me to work on malaria, its value is vitiated when Sally makes her breakthrough, in the same way a lottery ticket loses value after the draw.

So there are a few ways an Effective Altruist mindset can depress our egos:

  1. It is generally a very able and high achieving group of people, setting the ‘average’ pretty high.
  2. ‘Effective Altruist’ fields tend to be heavy-tailed, so that being merely ‘average’ (for EAs!) in something like earning to give mean having a much smaller impact when compared to one of the (relatively common) superstars.
  3. (Our keenness for quantification makes us particularly inclined towards and able to make these sorts of comparative judgements, ditto the penchant for taking things to be commensurate).
  4. Many of these fields have ‘lottery-like’ characteristics where ex ante and ex post value diverge greatly. ‘Taking a shot’ at being an academic or entrepreneur or politician or leading journalist may be a good bet ex ante for an EA because the upside is so high even if their chances of success remain low (albeit better than the standard reference class). But if the median outcome is failure, the majority who will fail might find the fact it was a good idea ex ante of scant consolation – rewards (and most of the world generally) run ex post facto.

What remains besides

I haven’t found a ready ‘solution’ for these problems, and I’d guess there isn’t one to be found. We should be sceptical of ideological panaceas that can do no wrong and everything right, and EA is no exception: we should expect it to have some costs, and perhaps this is one of them. If so, better to accept it rather than defend the implausibly defensible.

In the same way I could console myself, on confronting a generally better doctor: “Sure, they are better at A, and B, and C, … and Y, but I’m better at Z!”, one could do the same with regards to the axes one’s ‘EA work’. “Sure, Ellie the entrepreneur has given hundreds of times more money to charity, but what’s she like at self-flagellating blog posts, huh?” There’s an incentive to diversify as (combinatorically) it will be less frequent to find someone who strictly dominates you, and although we want to compare across diverse fields, doing so remains difficult. Pablo Stafforini has mentioned elsewhere whether EAs should be ‘specialising’ more instead of spreading their energies over disparate fields: perhaps this makes that less surprising. 4

Insofar as people’s self-esteem is tied up with their work as EAs (and, hey, shouldn’t it be, in part?) There perhaps is a balance to be struck between soberly and frankly discussing the outcomes and merits of our actions, and being gentle to avoid hurting our peers by talking down their work. Yes, we would all want to know if what we were doing was near useless (or even net negative), but this should be broken with care. 5

‘Suck it up’ may be the best strategy. These problems become more acute the more we care about our ‘status’ in the EA community; the pleasure we derive from not only doing good, but doing more good than our peers; and our desire to be seen as successful. Good though it is for these desires to be sublimated to better ends (far preferable all else equal that rivals choose charitable donations rather than Veblen goods to be the arena of their competition), it would be even better to guard against these desires in the first place. Primarily, worry about how to do the most good. 6


  1. As further bad news, there may be progression of ‘tiers’ which are progressively more selective, somewhat akin to stacked band-pass filters: even if you were the best maths student at your school, then the best at university, you may still find yourself plonked around median in a positive-skewed population of maths professors – and if you were an exceptional maths professor, you might find yourself plonked around median in the population of fields medalists. And so on (especially – see infra – if the underlying distribution is something scale-free).
  2. I wonder how much this post is a monument to the grasping vaingloriousness of my character…
  3. Pace: academic performance is not the only (nor the best) measure of ability. But it is a measure, and a fairly germane one for the fairly young population ‘in’ EA.
  4. Although there are other more benign possibilities, given diminishing marginal returns and the lack of people available. As a further aside, I’m wary of arguments/discussions that note bias or self-serving explanations that lie parallel to an opposing point of view (“We should expect people to be more opposed to my controversial idea than they should be due to status quo and social desirability biases”, etc.) First because there are generally so many candidate biases available they end up pointing in most directions; second because it is unclear whether knowing about or noting biases makes one less biased; and third because generally more progress can be made on object level disagreement than on trying to evaluate the strength and relevance of particular biases.
  5. Another thing I am wary of is Crocker’s rules: the idea that you unilaterally declare: ‘don’t worry about being polite with me, just tell it to me straight! I won’t be offended’. Naturally, one should try and separate one’s sense of offense from whatever information was there – it would be a shame to reject a correct diagnosis of our problems because of how it was said. Yet that is very different from trying to eschew this ‘social formatting’ altogether: people (myself included) generally find it easier to respond well when people are polite, and I suspect this even applies to those eager to make Crocker’s Rules-esque declarations. We might (especially if we’re involved in the ‘rationality’ movement) want to overcome petty irrationalities like incorrectly updating on feedback because of an affront to our status or self esteem. Yet although petty, they are surprisingly difficult to budge (if I cloned you 1000 times and ‘told it straight’ to half, yet made an effort to be polite with the other half, do you think one group would update better?) and part of acknowledging our biases should be an acknowledgement that it is sometimes better to placate them rather than overcome them.
  6. cf. Max Ehrmann put it well:

    … If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

    Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble…


New Comment
37 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:03 PM

There’s a common story told about a hotshot student at school whose ego crashes to earth when they go to university and find themselves among a group all as special as they thought they were.

But they went to a Uni where the peers were equal to them. They won.

If you're finding that everyone's smarter than you, if you know at least one person better than you at everything, rejoice and jump for joy. Being the local best by a large margin is an extremely bitter thing unless voluntarily chosen: unless you really are at some kind of peak it often means you have underachieved in life. Gifted underachievers are not a happy bunch, not at all. They feel lonely and isolated and no one they know really understands why. (Though partly this may be due to common sociological, psychological, etc factors determining both unhappiness and underachievement relative to ability).

[-][anonymous]8y 10

One thing that constantly amazes me on LW - already noticed it in the sequences - that I spent years going to Buddhist meditation centres trying to make my ego smaller, and it is here just casually assumed everybody has a small ego already out of the box. (Not sure it is the best terminology for it, but it will be clearer from the coming sentences.)

I mean here largely the aspect of relative status, praise, and similar things. With a big ego, feeling special can be very important and being outgunned by a bigger mind can feel very painful. This is something I cannot really describe well, it requires a good psychologists, but if you are not comfortable with yourself in general, you can easily invest all your ego into one feature of yourself, hopefully real, if not, fake. Such as that you are smart. But if you do that you need to feel the illusion you are the smartest person in the universe or else it shatters and you feel like a total nobody. Because there is nothing else you like about yourself or you base your identity on.

A psychologist would probably describe it as inner insecurity generatic outer narcissism, a lama would describe it as attachment to a fixed idea of the self. But what it is really like, if you have 20 things to like about yourself, then you can admit you are good but not best in some of them and you still have a good self image going. But if it is only one, you will feel the need to build a microuniverse where you are on the top of that scale.

Having a healthy small ego is not actually that easy.

I used to have this problem. Well, maybe still do, maybe just overcame this aspects of it. But I used to be just like the guys described here. (CW offensive language, Ignore if you can - the author is impersonating Begbie from Trainspotting.) Money quote: "I am extremely content with myself as a person. This state of mind is in fact not condusive to doing a technical job for a living. What drives people like engineers, surgeons, pilots or computer programmers to spend years and years mastering their craft, to go home and then do more research at home on their ‘pet projects’ (as a lot do) is a deep connection between their ego and their trade."

It is possible to overcome it. It is not easy. But I get constantly surprised how on LW it is more or less simply assumed that everybody has the kind of small-ego setup to use their intellect to actually useful purposes instead of desperately trying to prop up their collapsing self-esteeming by trying to loudly appear like the smartest kid on the block. And in this regard the blogger is right, about 80% of any STEM course will consist of the "look at me I am smart (if nothing else)" people not the "let's optimize things" people. So it is not easy at all and should not be taken for granted.

If having a "small ego" is counterproductive, then what makes it "healthy"?

Yes, having a "big ego" will result in pain if you're outgunned. But it will also result in working really hard to maintain that place. Maybe this just goes to the heart of my objections to Buddhism. In my view, a fixed sense of self is great. Desire is great. Inner peace is the enemy - once you achieve that, you won't achieve anything else (as your friend points out).

The problem with the people in your friend's link is just the opposite to what he says it is. Their reference-frame is not external enough. They are too interested in looking like the smartest kid on the block to themselves, and not sufficiently interested in societally-approved measures of respect, such as money, power and reproductive success.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

Why would it be counterproductive? It is productive for living a happy life and generating social utility for others. It is often not so productive for generating technical or scientific utility for others, but this later is just more of a correlation, and as such it was always understood that it is often a trade-off between these two, Fritz Zwicky predicted supernovae but you really, really didn't want to work in the same room with him. Reducing the ego may reduce STEM interest, but not necessarily so, it could be that it transforms into a curiosity-based one like Feynman's case.

The problem is IMHO that you consider achievement a terminal value and a rather exclusionary or overriding one. If there are terminal values at all, happiness or inner piece is a better one. Why achieve for the sake of achievement? I would rather not achieve anything and be happy than the opposite although the ideal would be to do both. Why would be working hard a sine qua non terminal value?

Even if you have this worky work work then work more type of value system, which does not rhyme with mine, it is still crucially important to be able to intelligently choose what to work on. This is why throwing ego into what you work on can be a huge problem. It anchors you. You tied down your ego into being the best typewriter repairman then technology moves on and ooops. Or not being able to give up an avenue of research that is not fruitful because you linked your ego to it and now it would be too painful to admit you were wrong. One remarkable thing about the Dalai Lama is that he can sit up on a stage watched by ten thousand people there and more on TV, get asked a question, and answer "I don't know" in a completely unfazed, smiling, no-fucks-given way. He's got zero ego invested into some kind of a wise-Yoda-who-knows-all role (which is how people tend to see him). This is the advantage in it. It would be SO easy to just come up with a cryptic mysteriously wise deep answer to just to protect his either external image or internal self-image, yet he doesn't, and that is a fairly great thing.

So at least one productive advantage of small egos is being able to change what you work on and being able to admit when you were wrong.

Your internal/external distinction is interesting. I would say, this type of very external attitude is small-ego. For example there are tennis players who care about winning and continuous improvement towards winning and nothing else and they are very critical with themselves, "I played really crappy today" because that is how you improve. They want to actually win, not feel like a winner. And it is a small ego thing, because their eyes are on the goal and not on themselves. People who have a big ego are the opposite, there is an excuse for every lost match, there is an excuse for everything, because very invested into feeling like being good at it.

I don't know how would a professional psychologist formulate it, but being focused on reaching external goals is definitely more small-ego and healthier than making sure you feel like and look like a winner through excuses and rationalizations, the later would be the big-ego case. And precisely that is difficult to overcome. As far as I can remember, when I was a child, all the children did the later. Every failed school test was excused. Growing up is overcoming it, but it is not even nearly universal nor easy that this happens.

The problem is IMHO that you consider achievement a terminal value and a rather exclusionary or overriding one. If there are terminal values at all, happiness or inner piece is a better one. Why achieve for the sake of achievement?

Achievement means taking actions in the real world. Inner peace is a fundamentally selfish pursuit. I could equally ask, why seek inner peace?

This is why throwing ego into what you work on can be a huge problem. It anchors you.

Anchors are good as well as bad, you know. A good ship is one that can both lift and drop the anchor, not one that doesn't have one.

Your internal/external distinction is interesting. I would say, this type of very external attitude is small-ego. For example there are tennis players who care about winning and continuous improvement towards winning and nothing else and they are very critical with themselves, "I played really crappy today" because that is how you improve. They want to actually win, not feel like a winner. And it is a small ego thing, because their eyes are on the goal and not on themselves.

See, it's interesting, because I agree with you that this behaviour is ideal, but it seems to me to be the opposite of what you claim elsewhere. These people do not have inner peace. They are not "extremely content with [themselves] as people." They are, as you say, intensely self-critical. Interestingly, they seem to be driven not so much by the desire to succeed as the desire not to lose - all the top professionals seem to talk about how physically painful it is to lose, and similar. Their focus is not on "living a happy life and generating social utility for others" it's on achievement (and in a zero-sum game, to boot).

In any sane description, these people have invested their ego in being the best at tennis. This isn't keeping your ego small, in any sane description. Now, you are right that one possible problem mode is to redefine the terms of what it means to be "the best," so as to excuse failure, but this is almost the definitional problem of the small-ego case, where you always "win" because there's no way to declare your life a failure.

We can draw up a 2*2 table:

  • Invest your ego in being the best, judge by external achievements - Roger Federer
  • Invest your ego in being the best, judge by internal processes - Harvard sociologist
  • Don't invest your ego in being the best, judge by external achievements - Nepalese peasant
  • Don't invest your ego in being the best, judge by internal processes - Jeffrey Lebowski
[-][anonymous]8y 4

I admit it is an incredibly difficult thing to express in words, because 1) it is not very well observable for others 2) for the individual in question, it is an inner attitude not an external object, and observing them accurate is FAR harder.

One way to verbalize it with some amount of accuracy is that the problem is not selfishness but self-centeredness. The problem is focusing the attention on the self. Often it is a negative one like a nagging doubt of worthlessness but still self-attention. It is better to focus it outward, keeping it on goals, and look on the self only if the self -as a tool - needs changing in order to become more efficient for pursuing the goals. Even if the goals are selfish, still it is better to focus the attention on selfish goals than on the self itself. And of course on unselfish goals even better. E.g. Lama Ole Nydahl: "I think of myself more as a program than as a person. I am what I have promised I will do." This is a form of dynamic inner peace. No nagging doubts.

It is possible to have goals without having desire, but it is a bit complicated. Again it can easily devolve into arguing the definitions of words, but basically typically a desire means feeling incomplete without something, and it is possible to pursue alturistic or curiosity based goals without this. But it is rare and hard.

These people do not have inner peace. They are not "extremely content with [themselves] as people." They are, as you say, intensely self-critical.

This is really complicated to express in words. My point is more like that the efficient tennis player is self-critical only so far as it is necessary for self-improvement. Does not dwell or ruminate on it. Does not wallow in masochistic self-hatred. Finds what sucks, fixes it, and instantly takes his attention off his self and puts it back on the goal. This is peaceful enough, close to a "flow". They are not content with how they played, but they are content with themselves as such, as persons, as overall people, HENCE they don't feel the need to either act out artificial roles, project false images, excuse away failures or ruminate.

Anchor: now having a heavy ego but being able to control it at will instead of being enslaved by it is a very novel idea to me. It happens?

E.g. Lama Ole Nydahl: "I think of myself more as a program than as a person. I am what I have promised I will do." This is a form of dynamic inner peace.

On the other hand, if you don't call yourself a Lama and express the same idea as "I don't have any actual desires, I feel like I'm just going through the motions of living, doing what I have to do", you are well on you way to being diagnosed with depression.

Whether it's depression or not depends on whether you are distressed by the thought.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

You guys keep telling me I am depressed, sooner or later I will even believe it :) Seriously, put yourself into the shoes of say a blue collar guy 100 years ago in the first world. He must eat. Hence he must work. 14 hours a day. And that pretty much described all. Having a life not driven by necessities is pretty big a privilege. Why would we consider the opposite of it depression instead of normal? Or look at animals, they do everything because they must. Only humans really choose. To me being driven by necessities is pretty normal and I don't really understand why should it be a mental illness. It's just the lack of luxury basically.

But, yes, it is not really the happiest ways to live, sure, and I think about the essence of your comment it is so that things on the low and and the high end can look very similar when described with words. When you look at the actual experience such as when how much joy people's faces radiate then not.

I don't know why but the low end superficially similar to the high type of heuristic works surprisingly well in many human things. For example alpha males don't chase women, they let them chased by them, beta males chase women, gamma males don't chase women because they think they are unworthy for their love.

I too don't know why does this heuristic work but it does. I think it is something like, non-climbers don't climb mountains, climbers who have already climbed the mountain and are on top don't climb it either, so it is superficially similar non-climbing, and those climbers who have not yet climbed it are climbing. Or healthy people don't get healing medical treatments, people dying also don't really healing treatments just palliative ones, people who are ill but have hope healing get healing treatments. You could lack desires because you are too unhappy or because you are too happy. Something like that.

Having a life not driven by necessities is pretty big a privilege.

No, I don't think so. See e.g. this.

Also note that you're coming from the region tainted with Weber's Protestant work ethic X-)

being driven by necessities is pretty normal and I don't really understand why should it be a mental illness

Depression isn't about being driven by necessities. In this particular context "not having desires" is the important part. I understand that from the Buddhist point of view that's entirely backwards :-)

[Edited to remove incorrectly applied cached language]

There's a difference between self-obsession and self-worth. The most narcissistic people I know all hate themselves; I couldn't hazard to guess which way causality flows there. I rarely think of myself, but I doubt you have ever met anybody who thinks as highly of themselves as I do.

The issue is that we have a single word - "ego" - to describe both of these things.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Yes and I don't even know the history of the word, how the meaning changed. Esp. that it was in Buddhist centers with Tibetan stuff all over it where this word I heard used the most often - yet what business does a Latin word have there at all? It may be a reuse. "Meditation" is actually a reuse and a pretty lossy one - it used to mean "thinking things over".

We have very similar threads running parallel right now. We both converged on the important thing being that ego is tied to something outside of oneself, rather than self-referential self conception. I called it "truth+outcome orientation" and you called it "external". Do you have thoughts on my conceptualization of it?

Unlike yours, I think ego size is irrelevant. A person with a small ego cares not what others think, nor do they really care what they think of themselves and thus live free from pain and guilt but also pride... however, they can still care about underlying reality a lot in a consequentialist sense.

Whereas, a person with a very large ego might have virtue-ethics style self perceptions tied to how they behaved in a certain scenario, which comes out to the same thing if they're philosophically consequentialists. Essentially rendering ego size irrelevant except as a personality difference which will manifest in social presentation and emotions.

Your external vs internal dichotomy means "self opinion vs. others opinions".

But truth+outcome orientation with low ego means "focusing primarily on the effect you have on reality, disregarding both the opinions of others and your self perceptions."

and truth+outcome orientation with high ego means "tying your self perception to the effect you have on reality, disregarding the opinions of others, and not trying to trick your own self perception but still being emotionally driven by it."

Honestly, for me personally it's not that I have a small ego - It's that my ego would be more offended if I was stuck in the sort of backwaters where I was the smartest person. I want to be the very best, not feel like the very best. To end up the stereotypical tragic genius who complains about how no one they know really understands or thinks like them, while everyone around them quietly smirks at how self important and arrogant those words sound, is not only sub-optimal but also a sort of failure, a blow to my ego.

Lesswrong (the name less wrong is relevant), transhumanism, all that is about being perfect, in a sense. We're striving to eliminate the minor imperfections in our thinking, so that we can actually be right all the time.

I don't think it has to do with "ego" so much as orientation towards truth and outcomes. The ego is attached to actually being right and actually being successful. Some people find it easy to admit to being wrong because it offends their ego more to be wrong than it does to admit to being wrong. The ego is still firmly in place, it's just less able to deceive itself due to the sort of mind it is piloting.

I guess what I'm saying is that ego, and the arrogance/humility spectrum in general, isn't a good model to describe the difference. You can be humble or arrogant to various degrees, but your orientation towards truth is a separate dimension.

For example, an extremely arrogant person might feel bad when faced with someone better than them, but if they have the truth orientation they can't take that feeling away by shunning that person because their ego cares about truth and won't let itself be tricked that way. So instead they hungrily observe that person and eat up their good qualities. And an extremely humble person with a truth orientation will do the exact same thing, simply because they do care about truth and outcomes.

And when these two people, humble and arrogant people with truth orientations meet, they hopefully understand each other and see that the differences in each other's arrogance/humility related mannerisms is just a superficial personality trait, and not that important.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Hm, the way you describe it it sounds like an individual version of guilt vs. shame cultures. Getting caught at being wrong without excuses is shame, being wrong even if nobody notices it but it matters for you is closer to guilt.

Hmm....yes, guilt and shame distinction does get close to what I mean.

But you must also add to this mix, the meta-cognitive skill of not fooling yourself to avoid guilt, to get the truth orientation I'm talking about. (Even the shameless who are perfectly happy displeasing others will get defensive and rationalize to fool themselves if you imply they are guilty by their own standards.)

Those with shame hide away from the judgement of others. Most people with guilt orientations will look for ways to justify to themselves, pull out all the arguments to avoid being ashamed in front of the their own mind rather than other people. In truth orientation, you don't worry about whether you feel guilty, you worry about whether you are and you additionally have the cognitive toolkit to avoid accidentally misrepresenting reality to spare your own feelings.

(Assuming large egos. A truth+outcome oriented person with a small ego isn't obsessing about guilt or non-guilt in the first place, they just notice the feeling of guilt as a useful indicator (of truth) and then act (for the preferred outcome). But the end result is the same regardless of the size of ones ego. (Whereas a person with a small ego who isn't truth+outcome oriented will just placidly dismiss the feeling of guilt but never really act.))

This is getting very Gita-esque isn't it. Which is interesting, because in many ways the Gita is intended as a rebuttle to the contemporary rapidly spreading Buddhism...

[-][anonymous]8y 0

I understand everything except what the Bhagavad Gita has to do with it. The smartest programmer I know is a non-theistic krishnaist (apparently smart people can make non-theistic versions of everything, buddhism, judaism, paganism were the versions I saw as of yet), so I would like to know what you mean by this because it could help me figure out what he is doing there.

We had this weird discussion when I said the goal is to dissolve the ego and become impersonal in a good way, and he said yes, but then on a higher level you reassemble personality again and he said it is somehow related to the Gita.

Sure! But I think theism is irrelevant in this case. And this isn't mine, just the standard folksy Hinduism, the sort of wisdom you might get from a religious old lady. (And non-Abrahamic religions often do not map well to "atheism/theism" dichotomies. You won't really capture the way Indians think about differences in beliefs by using those terms, it's often not an important distinction to them.)

Now, keep in mind that a lot of what I'm saying is modern hindu exegenesis of the Gita. As in, this is what the Gita means to many Hindus - I can't speak to whether this interpretation actually reflects what people in ~5 BC would have read in it.

In the story Arjun doesn't want to kill his cousins (they're at war over who will rule) because he loves them and violence is wrong. We have to assume for the sake of argument that Arjun should kill his cousins.

Post-Upanishads and spread of Buddhism, a recurring theme in Vedic religion is duty vs. detachment..

Arjun first argues that he's emotionally attached to his cousins and therefore can't fight, and Krishna shoots it down with all the usual arguments against attachment that you're likely quite familiar with.

Then Arjun argues that it's his duty not to kill, that it would be a sin. Krishna replies with some arguments which could fairly be called consequentialist.

Finally Arjun argues that he's detached from the world and therefore he has no need to do bloody things, because he doesn't care about the outcome of the stupid war in the first place. To that, Krishna says "You do your duty without being attached to the consequences."

That bolded phrase is taken as the central, abstract principle of the Gita...it's the part people cherry pick, and we like to ignore or minimize the fact that it was originally spoken in support of violence. If you are feeling sad about a failure, an elderly person might come and try to console you with this aphorism. That idea has a life bigger than the Gita itself, growing up I heard it from people who've never read the Gita. (Just like many Christians don't actually read the bible, but have various notions about what it says).

Which is how it relates to our discussion - You can be very driven and truth+outcome oriented without actually tying your ego to the outcome. Loss of ego need not imply loss of drive.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

That is interesting, because disregarding consequences to oneself is pretty heroic, but disregarding consequences to others... can be pretty dangerous. I can see how a dictator could abuse it Rwanda style "your duty to your nation is to kill all the Others, regardless of the consequences to them"... and yet, India is largely a democratic place today not known for unusually many atrocities e.g. not massacring civilians in the Kargil War or stuff like that, so it seems like that bullet was kind of dodged and this kind of very dangerous interpretation not used.

Right, but you're not literally disregarding the consequences - Krishna was very much in favor of consequentialism over deontological constraints (In this scenario, the deontological constraint was "thou shalt not murder" and Krishna said "except for the greater good") ... at least within that particular dialogue. The consequences are all that matter.

What you're doing is not being attached to the consequences. To put it in effective altruist terms, disregarding the ego makes you favor utility over warm fuzzies: Warm fuzzies appeal to your ego, which is tied to the visceral sensation that helping has on you, rather than the actual external objective measures of helping.

(Ultimately, of course, squeezing philosophy out of thousand year old texts is a little like reading tea leaves, and the chosen interpretation generally says more about the reader than the writer. It's not a coincidence that my interpretation happens to line up with what I think anyway.)

The cultural meme for non-violence for vedics is pretty strong. As far as I know, it's the only culture for which vegetarianism is a traditional moral value (though I suppose the availability of lentils might have contributed to making that a more feasible option.)

The cultural meme for non-violence for vedics is pretty strong.

I think that's a necessary safeguard, because otherwise "doing what must be done without being attached to the consequences" can lead to pretty ugly places.

That idea has a life bigger than the Gita itself, growing up I heard it from people who've never read the Gita.

Interesting -- before your post I associated the idea of ego-less duty with bushido, the samurai way of life / honour code.

[-][anonymous]8y 6

If you're finding that everyone's smarter than you, if you know at least one person better than you at everything, rejoice and jump for joy.

Yes, this!! I felt like this when I discovered LessWrong.

But they went to a Uni where the peers were equal to them. They won.

From Holy Hunter as Jane Craig in "Broadcast News":

Paul Moore: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room.
Jane Craig: No. It's awful.


I've had the following conversation. It was frustrating.

Me: You're better than me at X. I've put a lot of effort into X and would like to be better, but I've done all I think I can on my own. Can you help me?
Someone I know: Sorry, I don't have time to take on an apprentice right now. Come back when you're closer to being a peer, then we can work together.
Me: Sigh...

Well, you want something (likely, considerable effort) from another person. What are you offering in exchange?

Perhaps they are worried that in many apprentice/master relationships, the master gets out less than she puts in. Consider making it worth their while (I don't necessarily mean money) -- people do not owe you energy.

Two quotes about the same person, both written after his death, both illuminating: "When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer."

"Alexander cried when he heard Anaxarchus talk about the infinite number of worlds in the universe. One of Alexander's friends asked him what was the matter, and he replied: 'There are so many worlds, and I have not yet conquered even one.'"

If your goal is to win, sooner or later, you will have no challenges left, or you will have lost.

Neither outcome is satisfying. Choose better goals.

Please get rid of the formatting. Copy it into notepad and then back or something.

[-][anonymous]8y 3

That is a good method. I use Notepad as an intermediate stop for every copy-paste, as for example Excel tends to put quirky invisible characters into fields that I don't want in a database.

Many applications have a "paste just the text" function (sometimes behind an operation called "paste special" that allows other less-usual ways of pasting too). This may or may not actually be easier or better than going via a text editor.

Suppose you were given two options, and told that whatever money results would be given to an EA charity. Would you find it difficult to choose a 1% shot at $1000 over a sure $5? What if you were told that there are a thousand people being given the same choice? What if you're not told how the gamble turns out? What if all the gambles are put in a pool, and you're told only how many worked out, not whether yours did?

One solution is not to compete -- not measure oneself by the right-tail outlier yardstick.

[-][anonymous]8y 2

Some people can't really help it; it's a natural way of thinking. I think more competitive people are more drawn to EA, actually. Both competitiveness and EA are rooted in comparison.

Some people can't really help it; it's a natural way of thinking.

Have they spent even five minutes trying?

There are a lot of things that can very much be helped by staring directly at one's ways of thinking and exploring all the other possibilities.

Fair point. Though I don't know if more competitive people are more drawn to EA -- compared to whom? To your average corporate drone or to a Wall St. trader?