[Letter] Re: Advice for High School

by lsusr12 min read30th Apr 202115 comments

32

Practical
Frontpage

This is amazing. Thank you, so, so much. I'll start coding in Hy with Vim. I'll start doing weekly blogs once my tennis season ends (three weeks from now), and I likely wouldn't have the guts to start if it wasn't for your advice. On the general high school advice; it's invaluable. I look forward to reading the books you've recommended. As a sidenote; I love books, and read as many as I can; any books that you'd recommend, on any subjects? I've started using Anki on a daily basis; the main bottleneck right now is that I'm making too few cards/day, but that can be addressed with more dedicated time, I think. Starting Strength is what my personal strength training needed. Meditation will be a useful intervention; I thank you for the guidance. I read How to... a year or so ago, and my social skills have improved significantly as a result; definitely a good recommendation. Luckily, I don't have any especially angry people in my life, but your Anger post serves as an excellent life guide. Do you know of any rationality/recommended programs near [redacted]? I've failed to find anyone near my intellect at my school/any other program I've done, and there aren't any rationality meetups nearby other than the [redacted] one, which I plan to go to, whenever possible. Again, thank you so much.

Yours truly,

[redacted]

Dear [redacted],

Don't worry about having too few cards in your Anki. Reviews pile up fast. Sustainability is more important than intensity. If you need more cards you can go to Ankiweb and download a frequency-based vocabulary deck for the foreign language of your choice.

Finding someone near your intellect…

Young people are sorted by geography. The average IQ at a typical high school is 100. Going to college bumps it up by a standard deviation to 115. An MD gets it a little higher to 120.

Enrolling in the hardest college major brings the IQ distribution a full two standard deviations above average to 130 which equals the average IQ of a science PhD. If you have an IQ of at least 145 (three standard deviations above the mean) then no undergraduate degree is sufficient.

College Undergraduate Major IQ
Physics & Astronomy 133
Mathematical Sciences 130
Philosophy 129
Materials Engineering 129
Economics 128
Chemical Engineering 128
Other Engineering 128
Mechanical Engineering 126
Engineering 126
Electrical Engineering 126
Physical Sciences 125
Banking & Finance 125
Other Humanities & Art 124
Chemistry 124
Computer & Information Science 124
Civil Engineering 124
Industrial Engineering 123
Religion & Theory 121
Earth, Atmosphere & Marine Science 121
Biological Sciences 121
English Language & Literature 120
Humanities & Arts 120
Art History, Theory, Critical Theory 120
Political Science 120
Foreign languages & Literature 119
Anthropology & Archaeology 119
History 119
Architecture 118
Library & Archival Sciences 117
Other Natural Sciences 117
Social Sciences 115
Agriculture 115
Arts-Performance & Studio 114
Life Sciences 114
Sociology 114
Business 114
Psychology 113
Communications 111
Curriculum & Instruction 111
Health & Medical Sciences 111
Business Admin & Management 111
Other Social Science 110
Education 110
Accounting 110
Evaluation & Research 109
Public Administration 109
Other Education 109
Elementary Education 108
Administration 107
Home Economics 106
Student Counseling 105
Early Childhood Education 104
Social Work 103

An eminent theoretical physicist is at least 160. An IQ of 160 makes you 1 in 32,000. An IQ of 175 makes you 1 in 1.5 million. There are 200 such people in the entire United States—and that includes adults. If you have an IQ of 175 then there might be three equally-smart teenagers your age in the entire country. How do such people find each other?

When I worked at a particle physics laboratory it was the first time I felt like I was interacting with my own species. But the physicists didn't feel alive. My colleagues weren't Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman. The first time I felt like I was talking to cognitive equals was at the Y-Combinator interview pool when I met a pair of Nigerians (this is not a joke) who were attempting to monopolize the entire African financial system.

The second time was when I met someone on Less Wrong who runs his own hedge fund.

If you are four or more standard deviations above average then you won't find equals at your high school. You won't find them at teenage chess tournaments or teenage music tournaments either because success there is driven by parents—training outweighs innate talent. Maybe try math or debate tournaments?

I don't live near you so I can't recommend anything specific to your region. I have never been to an IRL rationality event. Here is general advice for meeting smart people. Try it out to discover what works for you. Discard strategies that don't work.

  • Start your own rationality meetup.
  • Find an existing group of people that does quantitative finance or similar.
  • Attend public scientific lectures at your local research university.
  • Create art (blog, YouTube, etc.) and post it online.
  • Do awesome stuff. For real. Not just reading about it.

The best way to live among the monkeys is to assume a leadership role for yourself. Organize events. Get groups of people to do novel things. Make stuff happen. You may be surprised by how much it is possible to accomplish out of sheer nerve. Especially when your competition is the ordinary high school students who happen to live in [redacted].

The most important thing for you right now is to try all sorts of different things. Don't wait until you feel ready to live your life. You never will. Just do it. Failure is fine, as long as you recover. Don't hurt other people. Don't cause significant financial damage. Don't injure yourself. Don't throw away years of your life. Mere embarrassment doesn't matter. It is best you decondition yourself ASAP.

More Book Recommendations

I have excluded all books mentioned in the previous letter. I have excluded math, science and engineering textbooks too along with drawing manuals. Nothing has prerequisites. Listening instead of reading is fine.

Books with extraordinary claims I have not verified are marked with a dagger †. Books I have not read cover-to-cover at the time of writing this letter are marked with a double dagger ‡.

Autobiographies

  • Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger
  • Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War by William Mangester
  • Silent Running: My Years on A World War II Attack Submarine James F. Calvert
  • "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of A Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
  • The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr by Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Built, Not Born: A Self-Made Billionaire's No-Nonsense Guide for Entrepreneurs by Tom Golisano and Mike Wicks
  • Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
  • Monster: The Autobiography of An L.A. Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur
  • Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang by William Queen
  • Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman
  • Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale
  • One L: The Turbulent True Story of A First Year at Harvard Law School by Scott Turow
  • The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World's Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena
  • iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak
  • Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond
  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny by Holly Madison
  • How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams
  • The Actor's Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer
  • Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory by David Plouffe
  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Biographies

  • Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
  • Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
  • Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

History

  • These three books about China
  • Destiny Disrupted by Tamin Ansary
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
  • Napoleon's Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 by Charles J. Esdaile,
  • The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention by William Rosen
  • The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 by John Toland
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer
  • Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees
  • Africa's World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gerard Prunier
  • The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall

Ethnographies

  • Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak
  • Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett
  • The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Cyber

  • The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy From Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh
  • Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley
  • The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder
  • The Art of Intrusion: The Real Stories Behind the Exploits of Hackers, Intruders, & Deceivers by Kevin D. Mitnick
  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
  • Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions by Ben Mezrich
  • The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It by Scott Patterson

Physics

  • A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking
  • Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century by Helge Kragh

Biology

  • Paleontology: A Brief History of Life by Ian Tattersall
  • The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane
  • March of the Microbes: Sighting the Unseen John L. Ingraham
  • The Nature of Plants: An Introduction to How Plants Work by Craig N. Huegel
  • Botany for Gardeners by Brian Capon
  • Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World by Helen Bynum and William Bynum
  • Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition by John E. Dowling
  • The Variety of Life: A Survey and A Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived by Colin Tudge

Sociology & Economics

  • Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan
  • Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  • An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • Roadside MBA: Backroad Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives, and Small Business Owners by Michael Mazzeo
  • The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein
  • Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class by Charles Murray
  • Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell
  • Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo
  • Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
  • Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail by Paul Polak
  • Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.

Psychology

Altered States of Consciousness

  • The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Cutler
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunarantana
  • Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality by Brad Warner
  • Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps
  • Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson
  • Saints and Psychopaths by William L. Hamilton
  • A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics by Dylan Tuccillo

Modern Art

  • Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
  • The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Donald N. Thompson
  • The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World's Most Expensive Painting by Ben Lewis

Science Fiction

  • 1940s-1950s | Foundation and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
  • 1954 | I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
  • 1963 | Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
  • 1966 | The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1974 | The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • 1974 | The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • 1979 | The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 1984 | Neuromancer by Willian Gibson
  • 1985 | The Postman by David Brin
  • 1985, 1999 | Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card
  • 1989 | On My Way to Paradise by Dave Wolverton
  • 1989 | Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • 1992 | Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • 1992, 1995, 2015 | Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
  • 1993 | Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • 2006 | World War Z by Max Brooks
  • 2008 | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • 2008, 2013 | Saturn's Children and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross
  • 2011, February | The Martian by Andy Weir
  • 2011, August | Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • 2013, 2014, 2015 | The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie
  • 2015-2020 | There is No Antimemetics Division by qntm

Fantasy

  • 1943 | The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • 1976 | Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
  • 1993 | The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • 1995-2000 | His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  • 1997-2007 | Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  • 2001 | The Magicians' Guild by Trudi Canavan
  • 2009 | Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  • 2010 | The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • 2010, 2012 | The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  • 2010-2015 | Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • 2020-2021 | Luna Lovegood and the Chamber of Secrets by me

Fiction, Other

  • ‡1813 | Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • 1899 | Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • 1973 | The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • 1996-present | any two novels by Chuck Palahniuk
  • 1998 | The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • 2012 | The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Classics

  • Late Spring and Autumn Period (5th Century BC) | Sun Tzu's Original Art of War: Special Bilingual Edition by Sun Zi and Andrew W. Zieger
  • Tang Dynasty | 《花非花》 by 白居易
  • Tang Dynasty | 《静夜思》 by 李白
  • Edo period | ‡Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Oral

  • Folktales from Iraq by C. G. Campbell
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Miscellaneous

  • Citizenship in a Republic by Theodore Roosevelt
  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • The Amateur Magicians Handbook by Henry Hay
  • ††Sorcerer's Apprentice by Tahir Shah
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig
  • Fluent in 3 Months: The Radical New Way That Anyone, at Any Age, Can Learn to Speak Any Language From Anywhere in the World by Benny Lewis
  • The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris

Podcasts

YouTube

Lastly, check out Code Geass.

Yours truly,

Lsusr

32

15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:00 PM
New Comment

As I read this post, I couldn't help but feel like it crossed over from reasonable advice into elitism. I wouldn't argue with the basic idea of surrounding yourself with smart, interesting people who will help stimulate you intellectually and push you to grow. But spending your time worrying about how many standard deviations above the mean everyone's IQ is seems like it's crossing a line from reasonable to excessive, particularly when you describe normal life as "living among the monkeys." 

So what I'd say to this is that yes, finding and befriending people who are smart is great. Same with people who are kind, people who are sincere, people who have a deep understanding of their emotions, people who make art, people who can build things with their hands, people who care for others, people who support their communities...

If you're a smart kid in high school it can be especially frustrating to not feel like you have intellectual peers. I absolutely get that, but I want to caution against advice that deemphasizes all the other worthwhile things about people in response. People are good and valuable and can teach you in myriad ways.  

What, precisely, do you mean when you use the word "smart"?

I think of "smart" as (at least approximately) referring to g. 

When you say "a smart kid in high school", what threshold or range of are you referring to? (Insofar as "smart" refers to .) A kid with a two standard deviations below the mean isn't smart. A kid four standard deviations above the mean is smart. Where do you draw the cutoff?

I don't want to get too into the weeds here. But I think that someone in the top few percent of their school would be smart. The kind of kid who might be feeling without intellectual peers and posting here about it could be the smartest in their school or their town (or they could not). But I don't think that really changes the conclusions. 

You have used the word "feel(ing)" twice. The core question isn't whether he feels he has intellectual peers he can talk to. It is whether he genuinely does or doesn't have intellectual peers of his caliber. I believe this high school student when he implies he doesn't have anyone near his intellect at his school and at other programs he has tried out. You do not. I think this is the crux of our disagreement.

I put so much effort into standard deviations because "smart" papers over a broad range of intelligences. Someone with an IQ of 115 is "smart". Someone with an IQ of 175 is "smart". The difference between someone with an IQ of 115 and someone with an IQ of 175 is four standard deviations. Four standard deviations is huge. It is equal to the difference between a PhD in science and someone hovering on the edge of an intellectual disability. It would be absurd for a PhD in science to look for intellectual peers in the same place as someone bordering on the edge of intellectual disability. The same goes for someone with an IQ of 115 verses someone with an IQ of 175.

I don't quite think that's the crux of our disagreement. I think he probably is that smart, and even if he isn't, someone else reading this post probably will be. I'm wondering if the crux lies with your line 

"When I worked at a particle physics laboratory it was the first time I felt like I was interacting with my own species. But the physicists didn't feel alive."

I work as a spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control engineer, and my colleagues are really smart, talented people. But I haven't had a similar experience as you in terms of feeling like people in my previous environments weren't the same species, and I don't find my coworkers to be lacking in aliveness. Is our difference in experience due to you just being a lot smarter? Honestly it's possible, I don't have a real way of knowing. But I think that this kind of emphasis on IQ that leads to calling other people monkeys can lead to unhealthy ways of thinking about one's interactions with others and others' value as people. 

Personally, the thing I find people constantly lacking in isn't raw mental horsepower, or pattern recognition, or any of the things IQ generally maps to.

It's just being willing to think.

When I was younger, I wanted to meet the smart people.  I've met the smart people since then, and they're not any more willing to think than anyone else; if anything, smart people are more frustrating to interact with.

My username, and my posts, may hint at a particular interpretation of the above statements.  I'm not talking about that, although those kinds of interactions are no more immune to the phenomenon than anything else.  I'm talking about the user, who is fully capable of writing their own SQL, who routinely sends said SQL to me for editing after running into efficiency issues with it - and who, when I send back the edited SQL with explanations of why each change was made, will then, a week later, send me SQL containing the exact same mistakes.

The thing you want is not somebody who is very smart; in fact, I think selecting for "very smart" is likely to select away from actually interesting thinkers.  The thing you want is somebody who is willing to be wrong, over and over and over again, in different ways.  The people who go into fields where the very smart people are, I think, tend to be the sort of people who want to find out the right answer so they don't have to think anymore.  You want people who aren't afraid to look foolish.

If you're looking for interesting thinkers, and you spend your time looking for smart people, you're going to look right past all the genuinely interesting thinkers, because interesting thinkers spend most of their time thinking being horribly wrong.  People who want to be right can't afford to think interesting thoughts - because most interesting thoughts are, when you get down to it, incorrect.  Being at the edge of the map of truth means spending most of your time being wrong; once you start being right, it's time to move on, because there's nothing left to explore.

I think your perspective on Intelligence vs. Willingness to Think is interesting, but wrong – my model is that how willing you are to think is strongly correlated with how easy thinking is for you, and how easy thinking is for you is pretty directly just what intelligence is (yes, correlation isn't transitive, and tails come apart, but I think both hold in general for non-weird cases).

I think that's a somewhat more literal interpretation than I was aiming for; what I'm gesturing at is also partially conveyed in the final paragraph, where I talk about willingness to be wrong.

If what you're thinking about is easy, what this translates to, I think, is that it's easy to be right.   If you're wrong most of the time, then it's not actually very easy.

This is not to say you should think with the intent to be wrong - that's just another way of doing things the easy way, and is also, I suppose, another way of taking what I'm saying more literally than I intend it.  This is a difficult set of concepts to convey, but - if you're unwilling to struggle, you're unwilling to think, in the sense that I mean.

Yeah, that clears things up. Thanks!

How do tail come apart - on intelligence versus easy to think?

I guess both stages, but more willingness to think & easiness to think.

Nonfiction

For tech history - it's worth knowing how modern industrial civilisation arose! - I'd recommend

Why read old books to understand technology? Because they come for a different world-view and make very different assumptions about the direction that things are going - because they have only the context of their past, and can't fit it to the usual narratives about WWII and post-war economic and industrial history. "The books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy From Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh

I haven't re-read it in years, but this is the book that got me interested in computer science (and later reading The Art of Unix Programming on a hike got me into software engineering).

I'd also recommend Quantum Computing Since Democritus by Scott Aaronson as the single best introduction to quantum computing from someone who actually knows how it works and what it can't do.

Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott

Disagree - it's a good book, but you're better off reading the linked review and then James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism instead.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A colorful author, but there's plenty to learn from his books. If you can read more than one, I'd suggest Fooled by Randomness and then Antifragile instead (the preceeding and following books; between them they cover almost all of The Black Swan).

On the mathematical end it's also worth skimming through his Statistical Consequences of Fat Tails. Pair with Gwern's statistical notes, and if you're going to do it properly Judea Pearl's Causality and E.T. Jaynes' Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

Fiction

The Art of Unix Programming helped me get into software engineering too—especially Chapter 2. Jason Crawford has written up his highlights from the Carnegie book. I replaced The Black Swan with your recommendations.

You are right about Seeing Like A State. I have removed Seeing Like A State from the list. The Secret of Our Success belongs with Seeing Like A State.

Why read old books to understand technology? Because they come for a different world-view and make very different assumptions about the direction that things are going - because they have only the context of their past, and can't fit it to the usual narratives about WWII and post-war economic and industrial history.

Yep!