I liked this recent post by The Ferrett (a blogger who discusses a number of issues including gaming, polyamory, handling mental illness, politics and various kinds of relationships).

In particular, this seemed like a clear encapsulation of one of the concepts I touch on at Sunset at Noon, without all the surrounding baggage.

The rationality community has this vague undercurrent narrative of "Self Improvement! You can Radically Change! All problems are fixable! Growth Mindset!". And this isn't false per se, but the tone of it often sort of implies overnight change.

I think occasionally people can change radically, but this most often seems to have to do with a change in environment (new job, new house, new community, etc). Changing environments is pretty expensive and a bit of a crapshoot.

For personal, dedicated self improvement, a more realistic rate-of-return is something like 3% (not quite sure on what timescale this means. "Per month" feels a bit too short and "per year" feels a bit too long. Maybe per quarter of 6-month interval?)

In Sunset at Noon I had referred to this as "the 2% incline". I like Ferrett's post as a canonical Post Referring To This Concept, and had sort of picked 2% out of a hat, so I'm editing the original post to use 3%.

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From the OP:

You know what feels crappy? 3% improvement. You busted your ass for a year, trying to get better at dating, at being less of an introvert, at self-soothing your anxiety – and you only managed to get 3% better at it.

The fact that 3% a year feels a bit too long is precisely the point. It's never going to feel good. If the change was visible day-to-day or even month-to-month, people wouldn't have trouble sticking with it. Part of the thing with 3% improvement is that for the first year or two, you just have to trust in the process and what you're doing. Only after a couple of years you start noticing results, and then you become motivated and keep the habit for life. But getting through the first year for just 3% is the hardest part.

The psychology is the same for investments, where you probably shouldn't expect a lot more than 3-4% a year. Some people see no difference between $10,000 now and $10,300 next year. Other people start investing when they're 25, and are a lot richer than the first group when they're 50.

Ah, yeah I managed to forget the key line in the article. :P

Also relevant is this oldie/goodie: How The Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.

Accomplishing worthwhile things isn't just a little harder than people think; it's 10 or 20 times harder. Like losing weight. You make yourself miserable for six months and find yourself down a whopping four pounds. Let yourself go at a single all-you-can-eat buffet and you've gained it all back.
So, people bail on diets. Not just because they're harder than they expected, but because they're so much harder it seems unfair, almost criminally unjust. You can't shake the bitter thought that, "This amount of effort should result in me looking like a panty model."
It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, "If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don't have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc)."

Yo, the Karate Kid post is awesome. You buried the lede.


Thanks for sharing this! I've been trying to collect thoughts on the nature of self-improvement for a while now. I think there's a lot here that has to with recalibrating our expectations, and the Typical Self Help Narrative certainly doesn't help.

In my head, I'm not quite sure what a 3% change looks like, but I'm also not sure what a better framing would be, especially one that allows you to stick with the compound interest analogy. Some potential contenders for alternate mental images:

1. Some sort of internal gamified EXP meter, borrowing from video games ("It's all about doing it over and over to rack up those points! Yeah, let me floss again today to rack up those Virtue Points(C)!")

2. Increased frequency, improved long-term performance. ("You might not do better today, but most days will become better!"), e.g. From journaling every 10 days to journaling every 5 days.

3. Base rates: It's 2 months for a habit. This is Empirically Backed. ("If you haven't stuck with X for 2 months, shut up and stick it out. Then we'll talk.")

Within the compound interest analogy, I was thinking something like closest to #2.

If you put in the effort to regularly exercise, or journal, or whatever (or, at least periodically making the effort to Spam Microintentions to exercise or journal or whatever), then over time...

a) you will get better at remembering to exercise

b) you will get better at exercising

c) you will get better at the follow-through effects that the exercise and journaling were aiming at (better introspection, better resting heart rate, higher strength, etc.

Compare this to the stock market, which gets a 5% rate of return on average, but on any given day may go up or down relative to previous day. A, B and C above may each wobble up and down, but overall you're improving at your object and meta level goals.


Endorse ferrett content.