Accomplishing things takes a long time

by JonahS2 min read15th Jun 201523 comments

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Personal Blog

At age 17, my future looked very promising. I had overcome a crippling learning disability, and discovered how to do research level math on my own. I knew that the entire K-12 infrastructure had failed to figure out how to teach the skills that I developed, and so I felt empowered to help others learn how to think about the world mathematically.

Things didn't go as I had been hoping they would. My years between 18 and 28 consisted of a long string of failed attempts to help people learn math, and to promote effective altruism. I learned a lot along the way, but I didn't have the outsized impact that I aspired to. On the contrary, I was only marginally functional, and I alienated most of the people who I tried to help. I found this profoundly demoralizing, and struggled with chronic depression. If I had died at age 28, my life would have been a tragedy.

Fortunately, at age 29, I'm still alive, and after spending a decade wandering in a wilderness, I've gotten my act together, and am back on my feet.

What I finally realized out is that my failures had come from me having very poor communication skills, something that I had been oblivious to until very recently. Recognizing the problem was just the first step.  It's still the case that most of what I try to communicate is lost in translation. I know that the issue is not going to go away overnight, or even over the next 6 months. Sometimes it's frustrating, because my self-image is so closely tied with my desire to help people, and even now, in practice, most of my efforts are fruitless.

But I'm not concerned about that. I probably still have 30 or 40 productive years ahead of me. I'm ok with the fact that no matter how hard I try, I fail most of the time. Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham emphasizes the importance of relentless resourcefulness. Every failure is a learning opportunity. I know that if I keep experimenting and learning, eventually I'll succeed. Figuratively speaking, I know that even if I lose dozens of battles over the next four decades, in the end, I'll win the war. And that's enough to keep me going.

Something analogous is true of everyone who has a strong passion, and is willing and able to learn from failure. Steve Jobs expressed a similar view in his 2005 Stanford commencement address (transcript | video):

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

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If you want to get feedback on your communication skills you should consider posting a link to a video of your teaching some concept.

Thanks. The issues come across in writing just as much as orally – you've already seen them.

I actually think you're a good communicator (at least when writing). Don't forget that LessWrong tends to nitpick, and don't fall into the trap of aiming at perfection by trying to make everyone happy. Keep in mind that commenters almost always tend to be more negative than the average reader, people who like or are indifferent to your ideas will generally not comment. Instead of worrying about minimizing the amount of bad reactions or misinterpretations your posts will cause, focus on maximizing the amount of good reactions and insightful realizations they will cause, even if you get less feedback on the second. "Premature optimization is the root of all evil."

Obviously it's fine to worry a little about bad reactions. But if you're calling yourself a bad communicator I think that's a sign you're worrying far too much, because I find myself nodding along with your posts about 10x more than I find myself wondering what you're trying to say. Most "good communicators" are harder for me to understand than you, so I think you deserve to give yourself a better label.

Maybe we need you to start a new sequence: On Innate Social Ability.

Thanks.

I know that I'm actually far above average after controlling for the complexity of the material that I'm trying to convey, but nature doesn't grade on a curve: it's not enough to be at the 99th percentile of academic mathematicians to actually successfully convey ideas to a broad audience of people without technical backgrounds :D.

I'm glad that you're understanding what I'm writing, but as a practical matter it seems as though I've been failing with > 50% of those who I've been trying to reach.

I don't think you're likely to make any breakthroughs with the crowd you've had a difficult time reaching thus far. What can you do differently next time? Try harder? Presumably you're already trying very hard, and you've also tried "trying harder" following each time you've received negative feedback. Write even more painstakingly nuanced sentences? You'll dilute the quality of your writing if you do that. I'd like to see you just ignore the portion of the audience that is consistently not understanding you - focus on getting the message across to at least a minority of people first, and then those people will be able to help you polish your message and deliver it to a broader audience.

I know that the content itself is clear. The main thing that I need to work on is making my writing more engaging to a broader audience. If the writing isn't appealing enough to motivate people to read carefully, I'm not going to get through to them :D. I think that Scott Alexander / Yvain would do a better job than I can. I don't expect to be able to get up to his level, but I hope to move in that direction.

Speaking selfishly, personally, I would be more engaged with the content if you tackled some specific mathematical problem or set of ideas and used it as an example to make a broader point about learning math. This could be done, perhaps, by talking about some concept that gave you a lot of trouble until you finally found the right perspective that made the issue "click"? Not just as a hollow example, make it so that we too are puzzled by the oddity or frustrated by the difficult situation, and give us the actual answer and the process necessary for finding it. Or if that's not an accurate understanding of how you actually go about learning new mathematical concepts, then talk about that issue instead, maybe even while addressing the "click" misunderstanding. Be more specific and involve more applied knowledge please. Give us a strongly flavored taste of what it is like to experience high level mathematical understanding and to work with the nitty gritty of mathematical issues.

You linked to a "visualizing machine intelligence" post a few days ago, I really enjoyed that, although I didn't understand too much and am still processing some of its ideas. Do more things like that please and thank you.

Thanks for the suggestion.

The actual situation is that over the past 3 months I've had a cluster of insights that's extended far beyond math education as typically conceived, and I think that I've finally uncovered a road forward for people in our reference class to (as a group) increase our productivity by ~100x+. (As a point of reference, Bill Gates makes ~$10 billion a year: that should make the factor of 100x less far fetched.)

There are so many things to say that it's difficult to know where to start. I have ~500 unpublished pages on the subject, but a lot of it is in the form of correspondence and so not easily shared in its current form.

May I asks what your own situation is, so that I can better address it? Feel free to email me at jsinick@gmail.com.

There are so many things to say that it's difficult to know where to start.

If there is a part that doesn't require other parts, write that one first. Repeat until finished. That is, do not use forward references to things you haven't written yet (that is a huge mistake many people do), but feel free to use references to things you have already published, especially if the comments suggest they were well understood.

If you can do the same thing on multiple levels (i.e. find a subset that doesn't require other subsets, publish it using this algorithm, then continue with another subset) that would be even better, because the articles would be groupped by topic.

Give specific examples. Tell a story, if possible.

Thanks, this is great advice.

To put Viliam's (very good) suggestion in more concise, specific terms: try casting the network of ideas in your head into a directed, acyclic graph of dependencies. That might make it easier to systematically begin with the ideas that lack dependencies, and proceed from those.

(There's a good chance you've already reformulated, in your own mind, what Viliam wrote into these terms. But I thought it worth mentioning in case you haven't, though I run the risk of patronizing you!)

Deleted. I pushed the retract button expecting the delete button to come up as normal but it did not, so this edit will have to suffice.

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Probably better to send me private messages via the LW interface then rather than communicating by email them - do you know how?

Yup, done.

In the process of emailing you now, draft is saved, feel free to delete your email info now so no bots take it.

Hey Jonah, great post, but I suspect you might be hiding something from yourself here. Verbal communication is much harder for people than written, and has it's own slew of failure modes (verbal speech has a lot to do with body language). I highly recommend treating them as separate issues, particularly since verbal communication is so socially significant.

Verbal communication is much harder for people than written.

Um, this is really not universally true at all. In fact, it's possible more than 50% of people find verbal communication easier. (Although this community may contain an overrepresentation of people who find written easier.)

Oh, sure, I know that, I have a very long ways to go. What I meant to convey was that I already have a lot to work on with written communication alone :D. But I am in fact spending more time talking with people in person as well, just only have so much time in the near term...

I've been reading The Craft of Research; I don't know if you've read it, but apparently even people who have done lots of research, like you, have found it useful, and there are chapters on the implicit social roles taken on by the reader and researcher. That seems to be a thing that's affected your reception here in the past; you have a role for yourself and your audience, your audience has a role for themselves and you, the two assignments aren't compatible, and confusion and upset result.

That brings me to a larger point, with regards to your perspective on improving your communication skills. I'm sure there are things that apply to communication with all individuals, but I also don't think it's like raising a Charisma/Charm/Speechcraft Stat. So maybe sometimes it's better to view the process piecemeal: "How can I communicate better with an average LW user/a particular LW user/this particular person I know in physical life?" as opposed to "How can I communicate better?" which might sometimes be too general to be useful.

Thanks.

There are meta-principles that are relevant to learning how to communicate with any group of people, that I'm just starting to learn. Reaching the LW community would be a great starting point, but only makes a small dent in the general problem of knowledge of how to think about the world mathematically in general being very rare, in juxtaposition with the fact that far more people are capable of learning than are currently learning.

[-][anonymous]6y 2

Yeah, that's basically how it goes. "The drill is my soul" and all that.

What does "I will win" mean to you? What are your criteria of winning?

I was speaking figuratively / poetically. If I can disseminate what i know to 100 people I'll be happy, though I hope for more, and it might prove to be unrealistic.