Hello! I'm a big fan of your work. Your perspectives on issues, while I may not always agree with them, are always insightful; thank you for helping make the world a more interesting place. I'm interested in learning Lisp and Vim, as it's been recommended many times by writers I find interesting. While I won't be able to dedicate my full time towards it now (due to good old high school+an intensive summer program), at some point in the future I am interested in putting work into learning these. Any courses or books you'd recommend? How did you learn? Also, any advice for getting started blogging? I think it'd be a productive use of my time and help improve my writing skills, but haven't been able to give myself the initial push. Finally, if there's any advice that you would have given to your high school self that may prove relevant to me, please pass it on; if I know I'm going to learn something in the future from future mistakes, I may as well try to learn the lesson now. Hope you're doing well.



Dear [redacted],

I am happy to hear you do not always agree with me. Sometimes I am wrong. You should not agree with people when they are wrong.


My favorite book on Vim is Practical Vim by Drew Neil but the free books here are probably fine. My post on Vim is enough to get you started. The most important thing is that you write everything in Vim. I wrote this blog post in Spacemacs with Vim keybindings before cut & pasting it into the Less Wrong Markdown editor.


The utility of a programming language comes from its syntax and its libraries. Lisp has the best syntax. Good libraries come from popularity. Lisp has never been popular. The best Lisp dialects appropriate libraries from other languages. Hy (which integrates with Python libraries) is the one I use but I have heard good things about the others.

There are no good books on Lisp. The Lisp books I know of all use obsolete dialects. I learned by reading a few chapters of Practical Common Lisp and On Lisp and then working out the rest on my own. There is no well-trodden path.

I recommend you just use Hy in place of Python and then try to write short code. The rest may take care of itself.


My favorite book on creative pursuits is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Like Vim, the important thing about blogging is that you just get started. Create a free Wordpress, GitLab or Less Wrong account and write stuff. Use a pseudonym that doesn't commit you to a single topic. At first your posts will be bad. Period. This isn't my first blog. I deleted my first blog. It was awful. Yours will be too. Don't let it discourage you.

It will never be the right time to start a blog.

If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

What You'll Wish You'd Known by Paul Graham

High School Advice

High school is fake. The English classes don't teach you how to write. The foreign language classes don't teach you how to communicate. The art classes don't teach you how to draw. The history classes are pure propaganda. The physical education involves no physical conditioning. The math classes are designed for students of average intelligence. Putting a smart teenager in a high school math class is like putting an average teenager in an insane asylum. The science classes are like the math classes.

Adults lie to kids. Here are some books, articles and lectures to start getting the styrofoam out of your head.

  • All of Paul Graham's articles plus this article by Sam Altman
  • The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
  • Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
  • The first couple chapters of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • Jordan Peterson's lectures on IQ and the Big Five Personality Traits
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  • The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond

Even if high school did teach you something important it wouldn't have economic value because economic value is driven by supply and demand. Everyone goes high school. Therefore the market value is low.

My dad practiced Chinese in army school. His American commanding officers thought he was taking notes but actually he was reciting poetry. Randall Munroe printed books in a tiny font so he could read them during class. I wish I had read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards so I could practice drawing. All I achieved was really good cursive handwriting. You might want to try using your time to write blog posts. I give you permission to use a pencil instead of Vim while in class if that's what it takes.

It is worth paying attention in class because a tiny bit of knowledge is better than none at all. Also your grades matter for getting into college. After you graduate high school, nothing matters except what college you got into and the things you learned—most of which you taught yourself. Everything that merely embarassed you ceases to matter. Gamble things you can afford to lose. What really matters in the long run is what you teach yourself.

College Advice

Technical and economic leverage increases every year. The marginal value of teaching yourself has never been higher. Going to college used to be a no-brainer. Now it's complicated. It depends on who you are and I don't know who you are.

If you go to college then most important thing is to graduate with minimum debt. Indentured servitude counts as debt.

Cheat Codes for Life

Everything in the following list has an absurdly huge payoff compared to the investment required.

  • Learn to use Anki flashcard software.
  • Read Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. If you're a skinny guy following the program and you aren't gaining weight then eat more. If you're still not gaining weight and you're lactose tolerant then drink a gallon of whole milk everyday. Round things out by reading Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnston.
  • Start a meditative practice. [WARNING: Meditation comes with dangers. Read Ingram's book for details so you know what you're getting into.] My favorite book on this topic is Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment by Philip Kapleau Roshi. It is very Japanese so it may not make sense to you. Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram is written for a Western audience. Meditation should feel like it's working. If it doesn't feel like it's working then you should stop doing it because you're doing something wrong.
  • Read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Learn to sell things.
  • Ruthlessly prune angry people from your life.
  • Learn to use Vim. 🎉 You are already doing this!
  • Learn to program computers. 🎉 You are already doing this!
  • Start writing a blog as early in your life as possible. 🎉 You already plan to do this!

Lastly, check out Dresden Codak. It's really cool.

Yours sincerely,


The dialogue continues here.

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28 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:44 PM
  • It's not clear to me that reading about the problems with education is a good use of your time in high school. It might be interesting, but it's not really useful unless you plan to go into education-related politics.

  • I don't think graduating with minimum debt is good advice for college students. The ROI for engineering degrees is ridiculously high. The important thing is to not waste money (i.e. don't go to a tiny private school or get a Music Theory degree). Also, work while you're in school since work experience + school experience >> just school experience.

Understanding problems with the education system helps to decide how to educate oneself. 

Yeah I agree, I think you can get pretty far with educating yourself while having read maaaybe 1 or 2 of the 4+ books listed in the post, unless you find that that is something that really interests you. Of course reading nonfiction is a gr8 way to educate yourself (though you have to be careful, because a lot of published nonfiction has lower epistemic standards than would be ideal), but again, that nonfiction doesn't have to be about the flaws of the education system unless you really care about learning about the flaws of the education system.

sincerely, someone who reads a lot about the flaws in the education system

Yeah, I definitely recommend reading the given list of books if you're interested in the education system, but I would frame it that way. If you don't really care about the education system, you shouldn't feel like you need to read them.

High School (and even more so College) is a good time to try lots of different things. Don't pursue one thing obsessively, sample different kinds of activities.

Coding, writing, drawing, exercise, conversation, dating, "going steady," playing video games, playing irl games, playing sport, build things with your hands, clean every room in your house, cook, pontificate, take standardized tests (PSAT), visit other places - that could be other countries or just a different neighborhood depending on your parents finances, go camping overnight, watch live performances, perform live, eat new things, babysit various ages of kid, have a variety of part-time jobs.

As you build up a wide range of experiences, you will be able to get a sense of what you actually like to do, and can make a life plan from that.


  1. If you want to eventually raise kids, the most important thing you can do now is work on your own mindfulness, and improve your patience. The second thing you need is upper body strength.
  2. Unless you're in the top 0.1% of something (family wealth, acting ability, writing ability, etc.), having a BS degree will make your career easier. Talk to your financial advisor, but it seems like the best options are:
    1. If you aren't Asian, and live in the US, but not in New England, and you can get great grades and great test scores (ie perfect ACT / Over 750 on each section of the SAT, plus AP & subject exams with similarly good scores), you can get in to a school with a big endowment (Ivy or Ivy equivalent) and have them pay for it (as long as your parents can afford the "family contribution.") 
    2. If you just have the great grades and test scores, you can get a full academic scholarship to some rando university somewhere
    3. If you live in California or another location that has good community colleges, you can pay for and take classes there while living at home, and transfer to a full college, possibly while still living at home. You can even stop going to High School to do this - if you finish your BS or BA, no-one will care that you didn't actually get a HS diploma.
    4. If you don't have parents (or someone else) who can support you financially while you go to college, line up a job first. Big institutional employers often have educational support, and you can get a degree taking one class at a time, and having your employer pay for it (especially if it's a job-relevant program). Note that this requires you to work an 8-4:30 style job, not at an "unlimited vacation and food" startup where you're actually working 12 hour days, and 4 on Sunday, with one day off a year to attend your "Grandmother's Funeral."
  3. Get a credit card ASAP (or get added to your parent's account) (one statistic in your credit report is longest open account). Use it and Pay it off every month (% on-time payments is another). Open as many cards as you can, and get the limit raised whenever possible (low % of available credit used is another statistic). Don't ever buy something unless you already have the money in the bank - the card is just a convenience / source of free points.

Is there a reason you recommend Hy instead of Clojure? I would suggest Clojure to most people interested in Lisp these days, due to the overwhelmingly larger community, ecosystem, & existence of Clojurescript. 

I recommend Hy because it's what I personally use and I can therefore vouch for it. I have heard nothing but good things about Clojure. I even attend a Clojure user group. The Clojure programmers I meet tend to be smart which is a good sign.

To any high schoolers reading this: If I could send just one of the items from the above list back to myself in high school, it would be "lift weights." Starting Strength is a good intro.

The recommendation to lift weights applies to boys and girls. If you are a woman, lifting weights won't make you bulky. It will make you hot.

Fascinating question as what advice I would give my high school self if I could. "Dont be such a prat" would be good start. Listen much more than talk, figure out how people work without trying to change them. Try lots of things (safely) and have fun. Be an agent for good things. Read everything (not advice I needed). Dont wait till uni before trying to change the world. Dont be afraid to fail, just learn from it. Master calculus as fast as you can and then learn the science properly instead of way curriculum prescribes. Master some form of coding. Find some physical activity that you really like (with the old dictum of "if you cant do it well, learn to enjoy doing it badly"). 

I should add that my high school self failed badly at the "listen", "figure out how people work" and especially "dont be a prat". Didn't lose fear of failing till University.

Why do you suggest Calculus?

 C.S. Lewis said  "“I could never have gone far in any science because on the path of every science the lion Mathematics lies in wait for you.” I would say the lion was mostly calculus (though algebra skills are more or less assumed by calculus. At my high school and my son's high school, algebra and calculus were taught in same course). Even in stats, you can't move into the proofs for many theorems without calculus and I strongly recommend study of proofs so you know the real background to any theorem you might be applying (this is university level for most part). 

I work in earth science and too many of my colleagues take fright at sight of an integral or partial derivative sign in a paper. Lack of calculus becomes a limiting factor so master it if you can. If you can't, make good friends with colleagues who can.


I use Vim, but I'm a bit surprised to see (lisp + vim) recommended over (lisp + emacs), since aiui emacs is much more common/better supported in the Lisp ecosystem. (I learned Vim while using C-family languages, then later learned Lisp.)

Also, I'd recommend Racket and How to Design Programs for learning Lisp and programming. (This is based on me having taken the intro CS course taught by the book's author; I can't say for certain that the book on its own is as good as the course, but I expect it to be pretty good.) Main downside is that the only vim bindings plugin I've found for DrRacket isn't very good. (I believe it has some emacs features built-in, though.)

Apparently OP is recommending the vim keybindings system, not so much the application. They mention writing this post in Spacemacs.

I am also a convert to this philosophy: vim is the best language for editing, emacs is the best environment for editing.

Why do you see weight lifting as something that has an absurdly high payoff?

Weight lifting improves health, which has all kinds of physical and mental benefits. It makes you look stronger and more attractive, which via halo effect makes you look better at everything (smarter, more competent...). Being stronger is useful instrumentally (sometimes you need to move heavy things) and makes you more intimidating, giving you an advantage at social interactions (people are more polite), and increasing your chance to avoid physical conflicts or win the ones you can't avoid.

That's pretty impressive in my opinion for something that requires like 1 hour a day at home to get into the top 5-10% of population.

To me, those points are good ones if you're arguing that it is worth doing, but to argue that it is in that top tier of things with absurdly high payoffs (or even second, or third tier), the points need to be much stronger.

Research into exercise physiology plus personal experience lifting weights.

I accept that it successfully builds muscle. What I'm asking is why having muscle is something you see as really valuable.

That is a complicated subject which would require a dedicated post to explore in detail.

I'm curious about reading that post ;) It might help with motivation. I would expect that it might convince other people as well. 

I dropped out of high school. It's not a place for smart people.

Why would Vim be important ? I mean, everybody uses VS Code nowadays, and it's much more easy and versatile and no need to read a book to understand it...

Probably if you are a programmer you will be spending thousands of hours SSHed into this or that over your life, so you had better be able to view and edit files there.

You can SSH directly with VS Code in just one click with the remote extension.


Vim keybindings (whether you're using Vim, emacs, whatever) are faster than standard keybindings. If a lot of your time is spent editing code or writing then even a small pays off a lot over the decades. That alone is sufficient reason to learn Vim.

Perhaps more importantly, faster edits gives me a faster iteration time. I suspect this increases my effective working memory since there is less time between edits for me to forget things. There is evidence working memory and -factor are closely related, perhaps even the same thing. General intelligence is extremely important to writing advanced software. Anything which can give you a similar edge ought to be extremely valuable.

Visual Studio Code lets you perform most tasks directly from the keyboard. You can even use a Vim emulator if you like.

But more importantly, "faster edits gives me a faster iteration time" : when developing complex stuff, your writing speed is clearly not the limiting factor. Using proper file structure visualization and navigation tools is way more important.