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How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

107 Post author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 11:50PM

I have a confession to make. My life hasn’t changed all that much since I started reading Less Wrong. Hindsight bias makes it hard to tell, I guess, but I feel like pretty much the same person, or at least the person I would have evolved towards anyway, whether or not I spent those years reading about the Art of rationality.

But I can’t claim to be upset about it either. I can’t say that rationality has undershot my expectations. I didn’t come to Less Wrong expecting, or even wanting, to become the next Bill Gates; I came because I enjoyed reading it, just like I’ve enjoyed reading hundreds of books and websites. 

In fact, I can’t claim that I would want my life to be any different. I have goals and I’m meeting them: my grades are good, my social skills are slowly but steadily improving, I get along well with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. I’m in good shape financially despite making $12 an hour as a lifeguard, and in a year and a half I’ll be making over $50,000 a year as a registered nurse. I write stories, I sing in church, I teach kids how to swim. Compared to many people my age, I'm pretty successful. In general, I’m pretty happy.

Yvain suggested akrasia as a major limiting factor for why rationalists fail to have extraordinarily successful lives. Maybe that’s true for some people; maybe they are some readers and posters on LW who have big, exciting, challenging goals that they consistently fail to reach because they lack motivation and procrastinate. But that isn’t true for me. Though I can’t claim to be totally free of akrasia, it hasn’t gotten much in the way of my goals. 

However, there are some assumptions that go too deep to be accessed by introspection, or even by LW meetup discussions. Sometimes you don't even realize they’re assumptions until you meet someone who assumes the opposite, and try to figure out why they make you so defensive. At the community meetup I described in my last post, a number of people asked me why I wasn’t studying physics, since I was obviously passionate about it. Trust me, I had plenty of good justifications for them–it’s a question I’ve been asked many times–but the question itself shouldn’t have made me feel attacked, and it did.

Aside from people in my life, there are some posts on Less Wrong that cause the same reaction of defensiveness. Eliezer’s Mandatory Secret Identities is a good example; my automatic reaction was “well, why do you assume everyone here wants to have a super cool, interesting life? In fact, why do you assume everyone wants to be a rationality instructor? I don’t. I want to be a nurse.”

After a bit of thought, I’ve concluded that there’s a simple reason why I’ve achieved all my life goals so far (and why learning about rationality failed to affect my achievements): they’re not hard goals. I’m not ambitious. As far as I can tell, not being ambitious is such a deep part of my identity that I never even noticed it, though I’ve used the underlying assumptions as arguments for why my goals and life decisions were the right ones.

But if there’s one thing Less Wrong has taught me, it’s that assumptions are to be questioned. There are plenty of good reasons to choose reasonable goals instead of impossible ones, but doing things on reflex is rarely better than thinking through them, especially for long-term goal making, where I do have time to think it through, Type 2 style. 


What do I mean by ‘ambition’?

Here is the definition from my desktop dictionary:

(1)           A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work: her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

(2)           Desire and determination to achieve success: life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

The first definition sounds like a good description of me. Since around tenth grade, I’ve had a strong desire to study nursing, and it’s required a moderate amount of determination and hard work, especially the hands-on aspects, which are harder for me than academics has ever been. I want to be the kind of person described in (1).

What about the second half? More people than I can count have asked me why I’m not studying medicine. Or physics. Or just about anything aside from nursing, which is apparently kind of low-status. I inevitably get defensive when these conversations occur, and I end up trying to justify why nursing is the morally correct thing for me to do. For some reason, in some deep-down part of me that I don’t normally have conscious access to, I don’t want to be the sort of person described in (2).

Introspection isn’t accurate enough for me to automatically find my true rejection of ambitious goals, but I will take the rest of the post to speculate on my own personal reasons. They may or may not be reasons that generalize to anyone else. 

 

1. Idealism versus practicality

My mother tells me I would be a good academic, and enjoy it too. She’s usually right about that kind of thing, but I decided around eighth grade that academia wasn’t for me.

Why? Well, my mother and father both studied science at the undergraduate level (biology and physical chemistry, respectively) and then both went on to complete PhDs. From the sound of it, those student years were among the happiest in their lives. My father went on to do a postdoc at Cambridge, and then to get a crappy part-time teaching position at a small university in Washington State. He hated it. Eventually he quit and we moved up to Ottawa, Canada, where he worked at Nortel, was laid off during the company’s decline, and eventually found another job at a small company that takes apart computer chips and analyzes them. Meanwhile, my mother spent most of those years as a housewife, and has only recently begun working again, part-time and for a token salary.

I’ve asked my father what he thinks of the decisions he made, and he told me that his biggest problem was that he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He told me that he still doesn’t. His job is boring and stressful, but he can’t quit because he didn’t start saving for retirement until he was 40. As a grad student, he worked with John Polanyi, a well-known academic; much later he told me he “always sort of thought I would end up being well-known and cool like that, but all of a sudden I’m almost 50 and I realize that’s not going to happen.”

I remember the year when he developed a sudden passion for career self-help books, of the ‘What Color Is Your Parachute’ and ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ variety. I must have been about thirteen years old. He encouraged me to read them, and warned me that “it’s better to think about what you want to do, not what you want to be.”

The lesson my 13-year-old self I took from all this: don’t have hopes and dreams, especially not ambitious ones. You won’t achieve them, and you’ll end up in a mid-life crisis with no retirement savings, full of regrets. Far better to have a practical, achievable life plan, and then go out and damn well achieve it. I read the self-help books, figured that nurses did around the same stuff all day as doctors and didn’t have to spend eight years in school paying tuition, and never looked back.

The lesson I didn’t learn from all this: my parents weren’t actually ambitious either. They enjoyed their studies in university, but primarily they had fun: going to the philosophy faculty parties, getting drunk with chemistry students, volunteering on coffee plantations in Nicaragua... Those are the stories they tell me from their studies, not stories of the research they did and the papers they published. I can’t be sure what their true feelings were at the time, but I don’t think they cared especially. They were smart young people who wanted to have a good time and didn’t especially care if they had no money. And I don’t think they have as many regrets as I assumed when I was thirteen. They didn’t exactly make life goals and then fail to achieve them. They just hadn’t made their long-term goals ahead of time. 

The lesson I should have learned: if you head into adulthood without big goals, don’t be surprised if you don’t achieve them. 

 

2. Fear of failure

The second life lesson about ambition happened a few years later, when I was around fourteen. I had been training as a competitive swimmer for a number of years. My parents didn’t sign me up because they wanted me to go to the Olympics someday; they wanted me to stay fit and have opportunities to socialize. It was a good decision; swim team made me happy, to the point that I often forget how unhappy I was up until then.

But after a while I started to get good at swimming, and coaches, even kids’ coaches, implicitly want their athletes to win, and keep winning, and maybe someday they’ll be known as the one who coached an Olympic athlete. Training made me happy, but competition emphatically did not; anxiety, stress, and bursting into tears before a race soon became part of my day-to-day life. My coaches told me that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything. But eventually I hit a point when I was racing kids who were simply more talented than me: taller, slimmer, bigger hands and feet, a genetic predisposition to fast-twitch muscles, whatever. And then I hit my body’s limits, and I stopped getting faster at all, no matter how hard I trained. My coaches accused me of not trying hard enough. Understandably, this made me feel worse, since I certainly felt like I was trying as hard as I could.

The lessons my 14-year-old self learned from this: don’t have high expectations for yourself when competing against other people. You’ll just end up feeling worthless and depressed. In fact, don’t compete against other people at all. Do things that are solely based on how good you are, as opposed to how good you are relative to other people who might be more talented. Even better, do things that aren’t that hard in an absolute sense, so that you don’t risk failing.

This is kind of a fallacy, of course. Success in anything is measured relative to other people, if only relative to the average. Even grades, because classes and tests and grades are set up for students of average intelligence, so students of relatively higher intelligence will find them easier, and students of lower-than-average intelligence will feel like they’re fighting a losing battle, as I did in swimming competitions. Possessing above average intelligence let me grow up seeing school as non-threatening, but I know that isn’t true for everyone. I’ve known people whose above-average athletic skills led them to be far more confident in sports than at school.

Still, fallacy or not, I later applied this idea to a lot of my decision. I was interested in physics all along, but my father’s tales of academia and the competition and pressure involved turned me off it. I also considered studying music theory and composition, but decided not to because, aside from being impractical for finding a job afterwards, I’d heard it was an incredibly competitive field. To a degree, this is why I chose not to make a career as a writer. (A degree in English didn’t seem particularly interesting to me, so I doubt I would have studied it, but even in high school I never really thought about earning money with my writing.) Success or failure was too far beyond my control for comfort.

The lesson I didn’t learn from this: find an area where you do have natural talent on your side, and use it for all it’s worth. In fact, I’ve done the opposite of this: one reason I chose nursing was because I felt that I was bad at a whole range of skills; empathy, social skills, fine motor skills and coordination, reacting in emergencies; and I wanted to force myself to improve. As a result, I’m far from the strongest student in my classes, and labs, simulations, and hospital placements bring me to a level of anxiety far above anything I ever experienced during academic tests or exams.

The lesson I should have learned from this: you never know what you are and aren’t capable of until you try it. I tried competitive swimming, and found out I didn’t have the raw talent to go to the Olympics. Who knows if this would have been true of physics? My father tells me that in his fourth year of undergraduate studies, he took several physics courses with a level of advanced math that he found almost impossible. He had reached his brain’s natural limit in math, which he might or might not have been able to exceed with hard work and hours of study; still, it was much more advanced than the first-year calculus I took as an elective. I have no reason to think that I’m worse at math than my father, and I suspect my obsessive work ethic would help me exceed any limits I did bump up against. And why not try?

 

3. The morality of ambition

There’s a third aspect of my aversion to ambitious goals, and I can’t say where it comes from. It might be my parents’ attitude of moderation in everything: they consistently disapproved of my involvement in any ‘obsessive’ activities, swim team included. It might be the way my mother always got mad at me for talking about my achievements, even my grades, in front of friends; it’ll make other people feel bad, she said. (For a long time I was incredibly self-conscious about high grades, and wouldn’t tell my friends if they were above 90%.) It might be the meme that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ or the idea that it’s greedy to be ambitious, or that power corrupts and wise people choose not to seek it.

I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral. That really good people lived simple, selfless lives and never tried to seek anything more. That doing something solely because you wanted more money or more respect, like going to med school instead of nursing school, was selfish and just bad. It might come from the books I read as a kid, or maybe it’s just a rationalization to cover up my other reasons with a nobler one. 

But if this is my true reason, then it’s a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me, of whom part of me is actually jealous, and that’s not the person I want to be.

 

4. Laziness

I don’t normally think of myself as a lazy person. Other people are constantly telling me that I’m diligent and have an excellent work ethic. But there’s a way in which all this hardworking dedication to my current occupations has prevented me from spending much time thinking or acting about what I’m going to do next. Working a bunch of 12-hour shifts makes me feel productive, brings the direct benefit of a fat paycheck, and leaves me pretty exhausted at the end of the day, too tired to do the (in some ways harder) work of searching for cool job opportunities, looking at online classes to take, and in general breaking the routine. I hate breaking my routine. It makes me anxious, and I have to spend more energy motivating myself, and in general it’s hard. I tend to only depart from that routine when forced. 

 

Conclusion

I think I was right about some of the conclusions I drew from these various experiences. Practicality is important: ask the English majors working at Starbucks. Thinking about what you want to do all day, as opposed to the title and respect associated with what you want to be, is good life advice and will likely result in a more satisfying career. Trying hard to project an image of success, i.e. “keeping up with the Jones’”, isn’t a good path to happiness. And relative talent is a factor to take into consideration; if my dream career were to be an Olympic swimmer, unfortunately I wouldn’t be likely to succeed.

But one of the problems with thinking things through too deeply when you’re young, and think you’re wiser than everyone else, is a tendency to over-generalize. Doing cool, interesting, world-changing things with your life...even if the actual job position are competitive and hard to obtain...well, on reflection, it doesn’t seem be a bad idea.

The lesson my current self has learned from this: investigate more. Spend less time on work and more time on actually planning future goals. Seek out interesting things to do, and interesting people to work with. Go for opportunities even if they're inconvenient and I have to break my routine a bit. Set concrete goals, and don’t wiggle out of achieving them because they’re ‘not actually that important.’ They’re probably more important than working at a community centre, and I seem to be able to dedicate 1000 hours a year to that... Try not to worry about sunk costs (although it’s worth finishing nursing school, since an RN certificate is incredibly versatile in Canada and will guarantee me a job if any other prospects fail.) Force myself to step out of my comfort zone once in a while and do something kind of crazy, but awesome. And if I can do that, succeed to the point that I can break my reflex-of-being-average...then I'll know for sure whether rationality, of the Less Wrong variety, will help me to 'win'. 

The lesson my future self will learn from this: who knows? 

 

Comments (236)

Comment author: fburnaby 22 January 2012 04:52:00PM *  24 points [-]

When I was graduating from high school, I was warned a lot that when I go to university: "your grades will tend to drop a letter grade". When I mentioned that I was going to study engineering, I was additionally told that "half of you will flunk out or drop out in the first year". I very self-consciously tried to manage my expectations about how good my grades should be, trying to find a reasonable goal that was (1) achievable so that I wouldn't get stressed out, but still (2) sufficiently "ambitious" so that I'd be sure to graduate and be able to find a good job and feel good about having spent four years of my life.

The way you describe your attitude toward "ambition" resonates with the feeling I had toward it then. If I set my ambitions too high (acing all my courses), I'd feel like a failure when I missed those goals. But if I set my goals just right, I'd feel the contentment of meeting them, but with minimal risk of failure. A safe emotional bet with no risk to my status, since as you say, I'd have "a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me".

But as it turned out, I have a good brain for engineering and other mathy, sciency things. My initial commitment to strive for moderatley good grades (I recall promising myself a B+ average), paired with my expectation that the program would be very difficult kept me motivated to study a lot. As it turned out, this level of motivation converted into a perfect A+ GPA within 2 years. That felt really good. And surprisingly, the increased confidence I gained in academics transferred over to the rest of my life - I became more confident socializing and dating (from a previous baseline of 0 confidence) and life felt awesome.

It didn't take long before I became more ambitious. I got interested in all sorts of intellectual pursuits, including reading LW/OB and signed up for grad school in an essentially unrelated discipline. I was confident enough that I could just catch up with other students as I went. I committed to doing so publicly. My estimate wasn't way off. I got through the program and caught up to other students. But I sure didn't stand ahead of the pack like I'd hoped. Even a fairly minor failure, which is what I consider the last few years of my life to be, had a huge impact on my mood. I was depressed as I was writing my thesis and stayed so all last summer as I started planning the next phase of my life. It's just amazing, not only how much missing a big goal like this hurt, but also how much it impacted my ability to even try. Which created quite a terrible feedback loop, of course.

Your post, Swimmer, has reminded me just how important "tuning" my expectations has been in determining my happiness. I think your parents are very right that choosing achievable goals is very important for your happiness. That's been a completely new lesson for me recently.

And it makes sense: If happiness is mostly a reward for doing status-raising things like achieving goals or doing cool things, then choosing "easy" goals (nursing in your example, though I'm not trying to say "nursing is easy") and calling it wisdom may be one way to do it. Choosing "cool" goals (being a physicist or a doc) may be another good way to doing it, because you might tend to think about your goals in far-mode. In either case, you're doing things which in your mind should increase your status and are experiencing the utility that comes with such "winning".

Just to add: Since discovering this dynamic, I've taken a somewhat-cool fairly challenging job and my depression has decreased quite a bit. It wasn't immediate, but as I gradually change my self-image from "failure as an academic" to "pretty good up-and-coming engineer with a quirky job description", that depression has been lifting.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 January 2012 07:12:13PM *  9 points [-]

Oh, man. The fatal event in my failed study of engineering was getting 99% on a first-year dynamics exam. I'd reduced the semester to a page of notes, then the page to a quarter page, then the quarter page to four equations [which of course I can't remember now - this was 1988], which it seems had been the point of the entire semester. I then proceeded to ace it. (Got a sign wrong in one problem, hence 99%.) This was absolutely fatal to doing well henceforth, since I had no idea how I'd managed to do that well except showing up at lectures and usually doing my homework.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:22:06AM *  18 points [-]

Damn it! I wish I still had classes like this! ...I love classes where literally just understanding the material (in a deep, comprehensive way) is enough to get 100% if you don't make stupid mistakes. I suspect this is the reason I did well in high school chemistry, physics, and bio–if you tried to really grasp the underlying concepts, the memorization required was trivial, or at least it didn't feel like memorization.

Whereas many of my classes now are pure memorization of stuff with hardly any underlying logical structure (like pharmacology...stupid list of over 100 drug names to memorize, generic AND commercial!), or based on legal standards and "best practice guidelines" which, although they must be based on research results, don't yield easily to my attempt to find underlying concepts. One class consisted almost entirely of memorizing the names (and acronyms, in French and English) for the various nursing regulatory organization in Ontario, and the documents they released on stuff like ethics. Gaaaah. There have been so many classes where I finished with an A- not because the class was hard, not because an A+ would have been ridiculously difficult, but because the material was so boring that I literally could not make myself study for more than a few minutes at a time, and only then by bribing myself.

Weirdly enough, I probably would have preferred doing pharmacology the hard way, i.e. learning chemistry to an advanced enough level that I could understand approximately how and why different drugs have the effects that they do. This would obviously be harder, but it would also be interesting, which would make it psychologically easier–I spend a lot more willpower on studying boring things than on studying interesting things.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 January 2012 11:38:07AM 8 points [-]

Damn it! I wish I still had classes like this! ...I love classes where literally just understanding the material (in a deep, comprehensive way) is enough to get 100% if you don't make stupid mistakes. I suspect this is the reason I did well in high school chemistry, physics, and bio–if you tried to really grasp the underlying concepts, the memorization required was trivial, or at least it didn't feel like memorization.

This is why I got frustrated with foreign language class. It's impossible to derive one word in a vocabulary list from the others. Being able to recall the words for "red", "blue", "orange", "grey", "white", and "black" doesn't help you at all to remember the word for "green".

Comment author: Marian 24 January 2012 04:54:06PM 2 points [-]

I had the same problem when learning English; at least when I had to learn vocabulary for school (my native language is Spanish, so English would be our foreign language class). Later on I had the chance to take a couple of classes in Latin.

For the last two years I've been learning French with great success. I've not yet found out how it is it was so easy for me; I suspect it came from it being close-to-isomorphic with Spanish. The thing is, when learning vocabulary I found that knowing a little bit about the use (not necessarily the definition) of English words helped me a lot to derive the meaning of new words. Whenever I had a little knowledge of the etymology of a word (for example, from the latin course), this "logical derivation" of the meaning or usage of words (or even the less-preferred pairing with a word on another language) got a lot easier.

I think there's a little learning curve about vocabulary, after which you get better and better about deriving meaning from context and memory of previous known uses. Actually, I believe this might be what we do with our native languages; in my case at least I know I wouldn't be able to define or precise the meaning or definition of most words I use.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 23 January 2012 09:45:04AM 3 points [-]

Weirdly enough, I probably would have preferred doing pharmacology the hard way, i.e. learning chemistry to an advanced enough level that I could understand approximately how and why different drugs have the effects that they do.

Is this even possible with the current best theories in medical science? It was my understanding that it was no where near that advanced.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 12:49:03PM 2 points [-]

Probably not, but it's possible to go to a much deeper level of detail than we did, i.e. learning about receptors and physiology, to the point that all you have to memorize, pharmacology-specific, is "drug X is an antagonist for receptor Y", and the rest (uses, side effects, etc) flows naturally from that. We did some of this, for agonists/antagonists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. (Beta blockers, i.e. metaprolol are, let me draw out this memory for a moment...antagonists of the sympathetic nervous system, which is why they lower blood pressure, because increased heart output is something you get when you stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. I would not have remembered this if I'm just had to memorize it offhand.) I'm sure we could have done more learning of this style...it might have taken 2 or 3 semesters instead of just one, though. Also, some drugs do things that medical science doesn't understand, i.e. anti-psychotics, and that would still have to be memorized.

Comment author: Raemon 24 January 2012 05:11:43PM 2 points [-]

I suspect this is the reason I did well in high school chemistry, physics, and bio–if you tried to really grasp the underlying concepts, the memorization required was trivial, or at least it didn't feel like memorization.

This was my experience in physics, but didn't feel at all true in chemistry and bio. I understood the concepts fine, but nothing about the concepts seemed to let me derive anything on the fly or avoid rote memorization.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 24 January 2012 05:30:04PM 3 points [-]

One of the interesting things about taking both an intro to materials science course (basically solid-state engineering) and a more traditional introductory chemistry course targetted to roughly the same academic level was seeing the difference in the underlying approach. The solid-state chem focused on deriving the macroscopic behavior from the physical properties of the atoms much more than the trad chem.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 06:03:44PM 0 points [-]

I don't think it was taught that way in chem or bio, but I tried to understand it that way... My parents have always bought me science books, and I had already read most of my high school library's science section, so most of what I was learning wasn't new. The concepts I was learning didn't necessarily let me predict the other concepts, but they all fit together in a logical, meshed framework where they relied on each other, and I could use that to trigger my memory to retrieve particular concepts. Which is much harder in something like "nursing theory", which a) I didn't spend most of my childhood reading books about, and b) doesn't hold together in a logical framework, except in some superficial ways.

Comment author: David_Gerard 23 January 2012 09:00:04AM *  2 points [-]

There are memory courses that claim to teach one to remember large quantities of somewhat arbitrary information. Anything by Harry Lorayne, for example. (One day I shall bother with one of these courses. [i.e., I probably won't.])

Comment author: Caspian 24 January 2012 12:09:27AM 5 points [-]

I found spaced repetition systems easier to use on a regular basis than visualised-association systems such as the peg system and mnemonic major system, which were interesting to learn, but a bit cumbersome to practice regularly. Possibly I could become more fluent with practice of the latter but it's been procrastination-inducing so far.

Comment author: Swimmer963 06 July 2013 04:57:33PM 2 points [-]

Related: I used a mnemonic system for a good part of my pharmacology studying, mostly by using silly phrases to match generic and commercial names. This has stuck in some surprising ways; for example, whenever I think of the drug spironolactone, a diuretic with the side effect of gynecomasty (breast development in men), I have a vivid mental image of a man in Viking war armor with large, milk-oozing breasts (the "lactone"), holding a trident (unsure what this was a mnemonic for.)

I used spaced repetition (Anki decks) to study for the RN certification exam, and probably overshot-it was quite easy.

Comment author: Alex_Altair 24 January 2012 03:22:26AM 2 points [-]

I think spaced repetition is for natural amount of memory (e. g. 10 new terms each class) whereas visualization techniques are for unnatural amounts (e. g. 20 digits in 5 minutes).

Comment author: fburnaby 23 January 2012 01:35:26AM *  4 points [-]

I found this was a common theme in good engineering courses. The whole course would boiled down to three or four new concepts. By the time the final came around, it just felt like thinking hard about common sense even though at the beginning of the term, everything had seemed counter-intuitive.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 January 2012 06:06:50AM 17 points [-]

I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral.

TVTropes knows all about this.

Comment author: MBlume 23 January 2012 05:09:59AM 14 points [-]

That moment when I close the tab and remember why I've been on TVTropes for the last hour, it's a bit like waking from a dream.

Comment author: thomblake 23 January 2012 06:36:19PM 0 points [-]

That moment when I close the tab and remember why I've been on TVTropes for the last week,

FTFY

Comment author: alfredmacdonald 15 December 2012 08:53:04AM *  1 point [-]

Does anyone know if there is a similar trope website for rationality -- does the LessWrong wiki qualify? Or trope websites for humor? Or rhetorical devices?

Hell, Silvia Rhetoricae is sort of like TVTropes for rhetoric but managed by one person instead of a community.

Comment author: pjeby 23 January 2012 06:05:06AM 12 points [-]

There’s a third aspect of my aversion to ambitious goals, and I can’t say where it comes from. It might be my parents’ attitude of moderation in everything: they consistently disapproved of my involvement in any ‘obsessive’ activities, swim team included. It might be the way my mother always got mad at me for talking about my achievements, even my grades, in front of friends; it’ll make other people feel bad, she said. ... I can’t trace the roots of this idea completely, but for whatever reason, I spent a long time thinking that being ambitious was in some way immoral. ... But if this is my true reason, then it’s a way to feel superior to people who’ve accomplished cooler things than me, of whom part of me is actually jealous, and that’s not the person I want to be.

Out of everything you said, I notice this is the one that you don't seem to have actually changed, or at least it's not as clear from what you said.

A quick way to test: do you disapprove of other ambitious people? If so, imagine what it would be like if you didn't disapprove of them. Then notice any objections that come up from your brain.

(The pattern of a learned moral disapproval applied to a behavioral stereotype, subsequently interfering with individual goals is one we see a lot in the Mind Hackers' Guild; they are relatively easy to fix, but not always easy to spot. Your introspection skills are probably more accurate than you realize.)

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 12:44:25PM 3 points [-]

You're right, I didn't make it clear whether or not I've changed this. The answer is, I don't really know. I've noticed it, which is about as far as I've gone with the other reasons, too...noticing alone doesn't mean I'll be able to overcome my instincts next time I face a decision. However, it's the kind of thing where just knowing makes it less likely for me to obey it, because to me it's not a flattering reason and I would get pretty annoyed with myself for obeying it.

Do I disapprove of ambitious people? Not really. I still get some strong conflicted emotions when I think about it, but I suspect that has more to do with jealousy...and I'm okay with it being about jealousy. I don't want to be the kind of person who doesn't feel jealousy, but there are circumstances in which I'd expect any given person to feel jealous, and it's okay for now if I feel jealous in those circumstances too. I haven't spent much effort on changing it yet.

Comment author: pjeby 23 January 2012 06:49:29PM 1 point [-]

You're right, I didn't make it clear whether or not I've changed this. The answer is, I don't really know. I've noticed it, which is about as far as I've gone with the other reasons, too...noticing alone doesn't mean I'll be able to overcome my instincts next time I face a decision.

I could be wrong, but my interpretation of what you've written is that the other things are things you changed through your questioning them, and that this one is the one you haven't really questioned at the same level yet -- to the level of specific scenarios imagined, and seeing through the mistaken assumptions made by your earlier selves.

Do I disapprove of ambitious people? Not really.

In other words, yes, you do. ;-)

Let me rephrase the question: Can you approve of ambitious people? (Think of specific ambitious people, and imagine what it would be like to approve of them, inwardly smiling warmly at them as people.)

"Disapproval" is actually almost synonymous with "withholding approval". So, if you can't approve of someone (independent of approving their behavior), then you almost certainly disapprove of them.

I still get some strong conflicted emotions when I think about it, but I suspect that has more to do with jealousy...

There are two separate things there: disapproval is not equal to jealousy. You may be unwilling to approve of someone because you are jealous, but that doesn't make them the same thing. Can you not approve of someone and be jealous of them at the same time?

There's a difference between, "I'm so jealous -- and I hate her", and "I'm so jealous -- I want to have what she's having". One is with disapproval, the other without. Jealousness itself is the same in both cases, the desire to have what someone else has, and that it ought to have been yours by right.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 09:49:11PM *  7 points [-]

Think of specific ambitious people

The first person who comes up when I give my brain that query is a guy I knew in high school, who I find pretty obnoxious to spend time with. Let me revise: he was likeable enough in grade nine, when the two of us were both in the geeky outgroup of our school. He's ambitious in that he wants to be a politician, not a scientist. (For whatever reason, I find politicians a lot more irritating than scientists!)

He was our school valedictorian (which he deserved, he was involved in an incredible amount of volunteer work), and I remember finding his speech pretty irritating. I don't recall much of the substance...in fact, the problem may have been that there wasn't that much substance. Even my mom commented that he came across as kind of arrogant.

...In retrospect, I think I found him irritating because he seemed to be signalling a higher level of "coolness" than he actually had in the high school social environment, and my brain was like "you can't do that! That's cheating!" Now, I'm sure he's done a lot of neat stuff since then, and is probably respected for reasons that he deserves. (Every once in a while one of his Facebook updates comes up on my news feed, and it's something about campaigning for Israel, and my religion-mixed-with-politics detector goes off and triggers annoyance. But I expect a lot of people respect him for that work, too, and at the very least he's more involved than me, which I should be able to respect.) Still...even thinking about him now gives me an "ick" reaction.

The second person that comes to mind when I ask myself to think of ambitious people is my boyfriend. Obviously I don't disapprove of him. He doesn't come across as arrogant to me at all, even though his area of ambition lies in economics and finance, which isn't an area I necessarily approved of before. (I have an uncle who constantly mails us conspiracy-theory films about how banks are evil. I wouldn't say I agree with him, but my family's general attitude towards the financial sector is "parasites!", and I couldn't help absorbing it a little.) My boyfriend is passionate about economics (we've ended up literally lying in bed, in the dark, discussing the state of Third World economies), and for entertainment he reads books about it. He wants to be a "baller", but that ambition seems to stem from his parents, Chinese immigrants who came to Canada at the cost of their own careers in order to do better for their children. I don't know, but somehow my brain labels that reasoning as healthy. And most of the work of noticing my own lack of ambition as a motive came from the discussions I've had with him, the times our ideology has grated and made me realize it was ideology after all and not just the way the world was.

Come to think of it, one significant reason why I became apathetic with regards to the activities the "ambitious kids" did in high school is that they annoyed me so much. The idea of spending a lot of time with the kind of people who were in Volunteer Club in high school is pretty unbearable. I haven't dug deep enough yet to figure out why that is.

Comment author: pjeby 23 January 2012 10:22:21PM 5 points [-]

Come to think of it, one significant reason why I became apathetic with regards to the activities the "ambitious kids" did in high school is that they annoyed me so much. The idea of spending a lot of time with the kind of people who were in Volunteer Club in high school is pretty unbearable.

Yeah, it's that sort of "annoyance" and "ick" that's the sort of disapproval I'm talking about. When you have one attached to a group stereotype, it means you'll have an aversion to expressing any characteristic of yourself that "means" you'd be one of "them".

For example, at one point I found vegans annoying, and this made it difficult for me to switch to a mostly-vegetable diet, because then I'd be one of "them".

Unfortunately, this ingroup/outgroup signaling by our brains has almost nothing to do with actual morality OR personal utility. Our brains will rationalize like crazy to give us high-sounding reasons for our annoyance, to make us feel we're taking a principled stand somehow, but in actuality the whole thing is moot. You approving of the "ambitious kids" (or your status-cheating valedictorian friend) as people won't actually contribute to some sort of moral decay in society, no matter how much your tribal brain makes you feel like it is.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 10:34:09PM 1 point [-]

You approving of the "ambitious kids" (or your status-cheating valedictorian friend) as people won't actually contribute to some sort of moral decay in society, no matter how much your tribal brain makes you feel like it is.

I think I get that more now...I wouldn't use my annoyance to claim that he was a bad person. What I find annoying is a fact about my brain, not a fact about the outside world...and anyway, intellectually I know that I have no good reason to disapprove of people who try, and that the fact that I do disapprove of them doesn't make me any better a person.

When I try to analyze it in my head, the thought of joining, I don't know, the student council or something doesn't so much turn me off because I'll be "one of them", but because I'll have to be in the same room as "them." I respect the kind of people who do student council, and politics later on...it's a hard thing to do, and someone has to do it. It's just really, really not my thing...and it's possible that some of the unpleasantness I experienced doing certain activities rubbed off, in my head, on the people who did those activities. Which I can now say is unfair to them, but my thinking wasn't that sophisticated when I was 15.

Comment author: pjeby 23 January 2012 10:41:53PM 7 points [-]

intellectually I know that I have no good reason to disapprove of people who try, and that the fact that I do disapprove of them doesn't make me any better a person.

Right - but intellectually knowing that doesn't help. What does is imagining what it would be like to actually approve of them.

Try it. It won't lead to you actually spending time with people you annoy you, but it will either lift the feeling of annoyance or move you towards surfacing your real rejection here.

You might notice that I suggested imagining being approving and smiling warmly at the people in question; you might also notice that it's the one thing your brain has consistently avoided doing ever since. ;-)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 December 2012 07:10:09AM 0 points [-]

This is generalizing from the inside of my head, but I think part of what drives that sort of annoyance is fear that if one doesn't resist other people taking part in an activity, one would be obligated to do it too.

Comment author: pjeby 24 December 2012 10:15:11PM 0 points [-]

This is generalizing from the inside of my head, but I think part of what drives that sort of annoyance is fear that if one doesn't resist other people taking part in an activity, one would be obligated to do it too.

Meh. Those sorts of feelings usually drive reasoning, rather than being driven by it. (Which is not to say that you might not also be correct about your personal case. Perhaps you learned that it's disloyal (i.e. worthy of disapproval) to not do what your group is doing? If so, then that'd be a source of self-disapproval even if you merely lacked a positive desire to do what the group is doing.)

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 22 December 2012 11:41:03PM 0 points [-]

You approving of the "ambitious kids" (or your status-cheating valedictorian friend) as people won't actually contribute to some sort of moral decay in society, no matter how much your tribal brain makes you feel like it is.

I'm... not actually convinced this is true. Actually, the opposite seems true. If I approve of people whose activities (I believe) constitute "moral decay" (i.e. who do things that I disapprove of), then that encourages such behavior. The more other people approve of them, the more the behavior is encouraged. Moral decay results.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 December 2012 02:14:46AM 2 points [-]

I think the original writer's point is more nuanced than that. A) Something that is annoying to me/that I disapprove of isn't necessarily something I consider "moral decay", if I actually think about it. B) Many of my attitudes are acquired from childhood and thus don't represent society as a whole, or anything objective–so I should be suspicious of my judgements of morality anyway. C) I don't know most of the 'annoying ambitious people' very well, and this is why the human morality-judging instinct is a misfire; yeah, if my tribe consisted of 20 people, my disapproval could have a big effect on any given person, but given the size and complexity of our current society and the number of other friends all these people have, I'm likely to have a negligible effect even on the person I'm judging, much less on society as a whole.

Your point is valid for groups that closely represent the human ancestral environment–for example, small-ish tightly knit groups of friends, like those seen in middle and high school, or among people who go to the same church. In which case disapproval of 'moral decay' does have a significant effect. But I'm not in the tight-knit circle of any of the people I disapprove(d) of.

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 23 December 2012 09:18:53PM 0 points [-]

A) Something that is annoying to me/that I disapprove of isn't necessarily something I consider "moral decay", if I actually think about it.

Something that is annoying to you isn't necessarily immoral, no, except insofar as your annoyance is a real negative externality that should enter into consideration by the person whose behavior is under discussion (even if the effect is in the end judged to be negligible), i.e. if I find my upstairs neighbor's all-hours drum-playing annoying, that doesn't mean that it's immoral except insofar as said neighbor ought (morally speaking) to take my feelings into account.

Something that you disapprove of should be something you consider immoral, or else it's nonsensical to say that you disapprove of it. There isn't any other sensible interpretation of disapproval, I think; some people do use the term in ways like "I disapprove of Bob the Casual Acquaintance's gambling and skydiving", but I don't think that's an appropriate use of the word. In such a case we should say "I don't like that he does that" or "I wouldn't do that in his place" or some such. Considered disapproval ought to be reserved for things we think are immoral.

B) Many of my attitudes are acquired from childhood and thus don't represent society as a whole, or anything objective–so I should be suspicious of my judgements of morality anyway.

Whether your attitude represents society as a whole, whether it represents something "objective" (see Eliezer's posts on naturalistic metaethics for why that may not be the ideal term), and whether you should accept your attitude after consideration, are three quite different issues.

As for this:

given the size and complexity of our current society and the number of other friends all these people have, I'm likely to have a negligible effect even on the person I'm judging, much less on society as a whole.

First of all, your judgments of approval and disapproval have an effect on you, and on your moral sense and moral judgments. That's pretty important, I think. Second of all, a small effect isn't necessarily a negligible effect (i.e. one that may in fact be safely neglected). Thirdly, you are presumably in the tight-knit circles of some other people, and if I am close friends with Alice, my approval or disapproval of Bob has an effect on Alice, regardless of whether I am close friends with Bob and can affect him or not.

Really, the core of my objection is to the notion, apparently expressed by pjeby, that we just shouldn't approve or disapprove of people's behaviors, or of people on the basis of their behaviors. I don't agree. Certainly if not wanting to be "like those people" prevents me from doing something that would be good for me to do, that's bad. That doesn't mean I should stop not wanting to be "like those people" in the ways that make them "those people".

Comment author: pjeby 24 December 2012 09:41:14PM 1 point [-]

Something that you disapprove of should be something you consider immoral, or else it's nonsensical to say that you disapprove of it.

Disapproval -- in the sense being discussed in this thread -- is an emotional response. An alief, not a belief. The entire point of what I wrote to Swimmer963 was to encourage her to rationally evaluate whether her feelings were just an irrational "ugh" field rather than a justified moral disapproval.

By default, our brains use ugh fields for moral reasoning, and generate moral reasons after the feeling of disgust pops up. This is, as far as I know, quite settled science at this point.

Really, the core of my objection is to the notion, apparently expressed by pjeby, that we just shouldn't approve or disapprove of people's behaviors, or of people on the basis of their behaviors.

Actually, "shouldn't" is too strong; I'm simply saying it's not really that useful. If a bunch of LWers got to living together in one place, then it might be useful to go around automatically having ugh feelings about certain behaviors, because it would actually do something positive for group norms. But most of us live in situations where any impact our disapproval might have on something is likely outweighed by dozens of competing forms of disapproval going in different directions.

Do understand, though, that "disapproval" here is strictly referring to automatic feelings of revulsion. It is quite possible to decide that a behavior has negative utility or that your life would be better off without having to interact with someone enacting that behavior, without having any automatic feelings of revulsion being involved.

Is that clearer now?

Comment author: pjeby 23 December 2012 04:57:49AM 0 points [-]

yeah, if my tribe consisted of 20 people, my disapproval could have a big effect on any given person, but given the size and complexity of our current society and the number of other friends all these people have, I'm likely to have a negligible effect even on the person I'm judging, much less on society as a whole.

Exactly!

Comment author: pjeby 23 December 2012 05:05:01AM 1 point [-]

If I approve of people whose activities (I believe) constitute "moral decay" (i.e. who do things that I disapprove of), then that encourages such behavior.

Note that it's possible to approve of a person while still disapproving of a specific behavior - "that's disgusting" vs. "people who do that are disgusting". The latter lacks utility outside of a context where your signaling will actually affect the behavior.

The more other people approve of them, the more the behavior is encouraged. Moral decay results.

Note that failing to disapprove actually equals ignoring the behavior, not reinforcing it. Also note that disapproval (especially of the personal, all-or-nothing variety) is punishment, not negative reinforcement. Punishment is not a reliable way to extinguish a behavior, unless there are always punishers around.

Unfortunately, we are biased towards believing our punishment is important, and so we'll rationalize it on the basis that if we don't, then everything will fall apart and chaos will reign. In truth, this is just our instinct to punish non-punishers talking. (i.e., he who speaks in favor of leniency towards those caught doing X must want to do X himself... Get him!)

Comment author: SaidAchmiz 23 December 2012 09:01:22PM 1 point [-]

Note that failing to disapprove actually equals ignoring the behavior, not reinforcing it. Also note that disapproval (especially of the personal, all-or-nothing variety) is punishment, not negative reinforcement. Punishment is not a reliable way to extinguish a behavior, unless there are always punishers around.

Yes, we need to punish the behavior and encourage its opposite. Failing to do both of those things is still bad.

In any case "failing to disapprove" is a red herring. The sentence of yours to which I was responding, and my response, was about approving of people. That's encouragement.

I'm also not sure what it even means to "approve of a person" in some general sense while disapproving of their behavior. There isn't some essential core of a person that can be separated from what they do. That sort of view leads to "hate the sin, love the sinner" type arguments where I say that your homosexual behavior is horribly disgusting but I don't have anything against you as a person. (I'm not equating your point with that one, just giving an example where separating approval of a person's behavior from approval of a person leads to clear absurdity.)

To bring this back to a more concrete discussion of Swimmer963's comment — if being "ambitious", whatever that means, leads people to behave like those high-school classmates of hers, then that should be a strike against being ambitious. Where is the fallacy?

Comment author: pjeby 24 December 2012 09:56:29PM 5 points [-]

That sort of view leads to "hate the sin, love the sinner" type arguments where I say that your homosexual behavior is horribly disgusting but I don't have anything against you as a person. (I'm not equating your point with that one, just giving an example where separating approval of a person's behavior from approval of a person leads to clear absurdity.)

I don't see the absurdity, actually. Seems on par for me with, "I think your taste in [death metal, anchovies on pizza, toilet paper roll direction] is horribly disgusting, but I don't have anything against you as a person".

Or for that matter, "I think what you say is disgusting, but I defend your right to say it."

Of course, AFAICT, this actually has nothing to do with what we're discussing, which is the opposite sort of issue: where one is, say, inappropriately disgusted by sports because when you grew up the people who were into sports were mean to you, so that now you make excuses not to go to the gym without really knowing why.

To bring this back to a more concrete discussion of Swimmer963's comment — if being "ambitious", whatever that means, leads people to behave like those high-school classmates of hers, then that should be a strike against being ambitious. Where is the fallacy?

Your statement only makes sense if there is a natural reality-clustering around the term "ambitious" -- or any other term. One of the techniques I teach people to use in this sort of situation is to ask if there are any ambitious people who don't display those annoying qualities, to focus attention on counterexamples. The essential idea is to cleave your brain's concept clustering to better match the diversity that exists in reality.

Sadly, our brains don't often update on this sort of thing without an extra push from the outside. A lot of common personal development problems essentially consist of this sort of accidental agglomeration of concepts.

Think of the story of the neural network supposedly trained to spot camouflaged tanks, which had in fact only learned to distinguish between pictures taken at different times of day. (Because the pictures with tanks were all taken during a different part of the afternoon than the non-tank pictures.) In the same way, if something always goes together during our formative years (like being ambitious and being an asshole), our brains learn that "asshole" is part of what the word "ambitious" actually means.

Correcting (and equally important, detecting) that sort of mistaken learning is what mindhacking (or at least the sort I practice and preach) is all about. Hence the heuristic of always questioning feelings of moral indignation or superiority: they have a strong prior probability of being a source of motivated reasoning and confabulation.

To put it another way, any time you find yourself indignantly arguing for the value of moral disapproval, the prior probability that you are engaging in confabulation motivated by your existing feeling of disapproval is pretty astronomical, regardless of whether your reasoning is actually correct.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 December 2012 05:08:29AM 0 points [-]

The latter lacks utility outside of a context where your signaling will actually affect the behavior.

To be more precise it lacks utility outside of a context where your signal will actually affect the behavior or the behavior or perception of any other person including yourself.

Comment author: pjeby 23 December 2012 05:31:15AM 0 points [-]

To be more precise it lacks utility outside of a context where your signal will actually affect the behavior or the behavior or perception of any other person including yourself.

I probably should've said "net utility", as I meant "useful on balance given the cost of biasing yourself, including the costs of feeling bad and being unable to enact the relevant personal changes".

Comment author: wedrifid 23 December 2012 08:06:17AM 0 points [-]

I probably should've said "net utility", as I meant "useful on balance given the cost of biasing yourself, including the costs of feeling bad and being unable to enact the relevant personal changes".

I totally agree. It's almost always a terrible idea.

How do you rate it as a direct means of influence? (I tend to resist letting it work on me but it does have an effect on some. Do you think that is worth using in some cases and on average?)

Comment author: irrationalist 27 January 2012 05:23:57AM 0 points [-]

Yeah. I feel this way about attractive and popular people. I hate them too much to ever consider imitating them. (not sure why I have to give up the hatred though.)

Comment author: pjeby 27 January 2012 09:22:49PM 1 point [-]

not sure why I have to give up the hatred though.

You don't "have to" do anything. But you'll likely experience "ugh fields" and akrasia trying to do anything that will make you too much like an "attractive and popular" person, until/unless you drop it.

Comment author: irrationalist 31 January 2012 12:07:01AM 0 points [-]

true dat.

Doesn't even need to go as far as ugh fields and akrasia -- it's an explicit choice.

Comment author: pjeby 31 January 2012 06:58:19PM 1 point [-]

Er, true, but that's not what I meant. I mean that you might have other goals -- goals you might not expect to be related, but which, as a side effect, might make you "like" (be similar to) those people in some minor way, and end up with a puzzling ugh field or akrasia, if you didn't consciously notice the connection.

This is a common enough occurrence that I have patterns for working on it, in myself and in people who consult me for akrasia problems.

Comment author: JenniferRM 27 January 2012 02:10:38AM 1 point [-]

The pattern of a learned moral disapproval applied to a behavioral stereotype, subsequently interfering with individual goals...

...his translation to English said, as if that were one short word in his own language :-)

Is there a name for this? Can you recommend a good book or essay on the subject? It sounds a little bit like the thing Leadership And Self Deception is about preventing from forming in the first place and handling when contributing factors arise in specific interpersonal relations, but you clearly have a better theoretical command of the general subject and less need for dark arts story telling.

Comment author: pjeby 27 January 2012 03:13:57AM *  2 points [-]

The pattern of a learned moral disapproval applied to a behavioral stereotype, subsequently interfering with individual goals...

...his translation to English said, as if that were one short word in his own language :-) ... Is there a name for this?

I just call them "disapprovals", although my browser's spellchecker always seems to chide me for turning an adjective into a noun in such a fashion. ;-) I used to call them judgments, but after I read Love Yourself and Let The Other Person Have It Your Way, it seemed to me that "disapproval" was a better term, as it is a more direct description. One may disapprove because of judgment, or perhaps judge because of disapproval, but the actual relevant behavior that needs changing is the disapproving part.

Can you recommend a good book or essay on the subject?

The one linked above is the only one I know of, outside of Guild materials. You have to wade through a lot of new age to get to the meat, which mainly consists of two things:

  1. Showing how approval and disapproval are a major, if not the major driving force not only in human relationships and interactions between different people, but also within individuals, and

  2. A simple method, for letting go of such disapprovals, repeatedly demonstrated until it becomes a hypnotic chant, one which the reader is encouraged to also practice.

Once practiced to a skill, it's rarely necessary to actually use the incremental approach given in the book; once you know what it feels like to let go of a disapproval it's relatively straightforward to just do so directly, rather than letting go of it gradually as described.

(Things not in the book: the symmetry methods, imagining and surfacing objections. Those are general Guild mindhacking patterns, adapted from other sources and from practice.)

It sounds a little bit like the thing Leadership And Self Deception is about preventing from forming in the first place and handling when contributing factors arise in specific interpersonal relations

Perhaps? I haven't read the book; the Guild's application of this concept is strictly for personal growth, in that disapprovals create a certain type of systematic bias in thinking. It is hard to conceive of -- let alone take -- courses of action that conflict with what we disapprove of.

That is, our disapprovals of other people are a major source of "ugh" fields, because our brains self-apply the same labels we attach to others. Our system 2/"far" brains spin-doctor the labels away at the conscious level, even as our system 1 brains match the pattern and make us feel uneasy... resulting in the infamous "protest too much, methinks" pattern.

Comment author: pleeppleep 22 January 2012 08:54:53PM 12 points [-]

Before discovering Less Wrong, i took an unusual view of ambition. I actually managed to use excessive ambition to justify a total lack of ambition. I would deem unachievable goals to be the only goals worth achieving. Since this made it impossible for me to achieve any "valuable" goals, i would be able to accept having no goals as a suitable alternative. As you've probably noticed, this is eerily similar to a Mysterious Answer. I never believed in any Spiritual ideals (although i did subscribe to intelligent design due to a misunderstanding of Occam's Razor). I still am baffled by the lengths i went to to screw myself up in this regard. As you can probably imagine, this idea led to a great deal of depression, lowered self esteem, and worsened relationships with family members. I was seriously considering suicide (i probably wouldn't have done anything, but the idea was still there). Despite Scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized testing, I was resolved to avoid college.

Upon reading the Sequences and Methods of Rationality, I instantly realized how absurd these ideas were and disposed of them appropriately. Though this bias (which i highly suspect to be related to undervalue of the mundane) does rear its head at times, it is generally under control. In any case, I think i can say with at least 85% certainty that Less Wrong and all it represents have had an amazingly positive effect on my life. Even discounting the incredible boost to mental well being, since finding rationality, my GPA has gone up two letter grades (would be more if not for akrasia), I have begun learning programming, took up an after school project, and resolved to go to college.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:15:19AM *  2 points [-]

ince this made it impossible for me to achieve any "valuable" goals, i would be able to accept having no goals as a suitable alternative... Despite Scoring in the 99th percentile on standardized testing, I was resolved to avoid college.

What did you do all day? Weren't you bored? ...Then again, I should avoid generalizing from one example and assuming you shared my tendency to get antsy if I wasn't doing something "productive" during a significant enough fraction of my time. Obviously you didn't have this tendency. Or the tendency to get incredibly frustrated with yourself and feel worthless if you weren't progressing towards your goals at a steady rate... If you did feel this way, you must have been miserable.

Anyway, I'm glad to hear the Sequences helped you out! Just out of curiosity, what are you planning to study in college?

Comment author: pleeppleep 23 January 2012 07:45:38PM 1 point [-]

i never really had that problem. I usually feel less bored wasting time in my room than working towards something productive. When i do take up a task i always feel relieved when i have an excuse to give up and not worry about it any more. most of my troubles came from the realization that the world would not allow me to live a comfortable life doing nothing.

im only in Junior year and havent actually got accepted anywhere but im planning to study something in the way of computers or science.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 09:53:35PM 2 points [-]

most of my troubles came from the realization that the world would not allow me to live a comfortable life doing nothing.

Good to realize that now, rather than later! I have an acquaintance who is in his mid-twenties years old, failing his way through various college programs, living at his parents' house with his girlfriend (they have a young kid together), and still doesn't seem to grasp that he's not going to be able to live comfortably and do nothing forever. (Actually, I'm being kind of hard on him...he does work part-time at a clothing store in a mall, his first part-time job ever, which he started around when the baby was born. Quite a change of habit for him. And he's an awfully likeable guy, partly because he's so laid back. It just drives me insane sometimes watching the way he drifts through his life.)

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 23 January 2012 02:53:57AM *  30 points [-]

I don't think ambition is a single dial in the brain that some people have turned up higher than others. I think it's made of lots of other things, like low social anxiety, high stress tolerance, high stimulation threshold, greater-than-normal obsessive tendencies, escape velocity levels of talent during formative years, financial stability, peers with which to compete, familial support, role models, and on and on, with innumerable exceptions and contradictions. The point is "ambition" as it is usually discussed feels like a mysterious answer to a mysterious question. Ambition-that-works seems like a positive feedback loop... in that your talents aren't undermined too greatly by your personality or circumstances to the extent that trying to succeed results more often in succeeding that not.

This whole "rationalists should win" thing doesn't sit well with me. I think it's reasonable to expect LW to provide better explanations, but it seems like people want wholly different personalities, too. Just because someone in the world works harder than you, that doesn't mean the only thing separating you from them is akrasia.

Personality diversity ≠ distribution of character failure.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:04:25AM *  3 points [-]

Agreed. People are different. There are tons of different things that could be the "limiting factor" for someone's success in the world; some are overcome-able, like akrasia, and some aren't. However, people don't know themselves perfectly, and a lot of the reasons I articulated to myself for why I wanted to be a certain way were bad reasons, in that they weren't entirely consistent with my actual preferences, interests, and talents.

Things like akrasia, which prevent people from achieving goals they've already formed, have been discussed in detail on LW. However, the factors that decide which goals people choose, and whether those goals are easy or hard relative to their abilities, haven't been discussed as much. Undoubtedly some of those factors are hard to change, but some might not be.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 23 January 2012 04:16:59AM *  11 points [-]

I'll try to provide an example.

I have natural ability for a few things, all artistic. It I taboo "natural ability," I get automatic, plentiful idea generation and high deliberate-practice-to-broadened-vocabulary ratio (I don't have to work much to be able to do a lot).

I'm best at drums and filmmaking. I've played in lots of bands and gone pretty far career-wise, but I've hardly done any filmmaking besides a few music videos. Why?

I can improve at drums mostly by myself, at my own pace -- essential, as it turns out (I've tested this in music classes and on a drumming retreat, both of which I quit because I got too overwhelmed). When I have to work with others, it's usually a small group. Rock band instrumentation usually consists of drums, guitar, bass, and vocals, just enough for my poor social modeling circuitry to handle. Filmmaking requires cooperation with dozens or even hundreds. Giving direction to more than a couple of people at once doesn't really work, because I get impatient... and then rude... or think I've been rude even if I haven't, which starts a silent spiral into apathy. Coping mechanisms probably exist, but I've never been in a position to discover them.

So I think for me it comes down to limited social ability/energy. Being socially incompetent is personally exhausting, as well as harmful to proper networking (being seen as someone who's easy to work with). To avoid burnout, I have to funnel my talents through the pursuit that saps my vigor the least.

Reading LW has only changed my life in that I'm much less likely to wall off entire sections of my mind and experience just because they imply stress. Knowledge is power... but that power isn't necessarily sublime... unless its sublime in the way evolution or a glacier is sublime; that is, not necessarily impressive on a moment-to-moment basis.

Comment author: moridinamael 24 January 2012 03:26:07AM 9 points [-]

For several years I have known that I 'max out' at groups of five. If I'm in a conversation with up to four other people I'm charming and relaxed. Add a sixth and I clam up and turn into a totally different person. My working explanation is that my, as you call it, social modeling circuitry gets saturated and can't handle the combinatorial jump. For me it feels like an exponential increase in difficulty. I can't get the timing right, I don't feel like anything I say is interesting enough to cut in.

Interestingly, I am excellent at public speaking, because there's no need to model the audience on an individual basis.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 January 2012 04:09:38AM 4 points [-]

Can you train yourself to pretend certain people do not even exist?

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 24 January 2012 05:20:23AM *  11 points [-]

I trained myself to pretend that people exist. This is maybe the achievement I'm most proud of, besides this.

My training is pretty useless when someone stops earning the effort. They effectively stop existing.

Comment author: AndyWood 31 January 2012 11:44:57AM 2 points [-]

I'm pretty sure this is the most joke-theoretically perfect joke I've ever encountered. Not only did I laugh, but 3 minutes later I was still laughing again for new reasons.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 January 2012 01:01:10PM 2 points [-]

I'm pretty sure this is the most joke-theoretically perfect joke I've ever encountered.

Joke theory is such that the maximisation thereof is bestiality puns? I mean, it cracked me up too but my theoretical conception calls for a perfection where the lewdness is on the subtle side of the spectrum!

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 31 January 2012 03:20:16PM *  0 points [-]

I'm of the Michael O'Donoghue school. Jokes should be like Teflon-coated "cop killer" bullets. The subtlety part of the compression algorithm is only there to ensure delivery.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 31 January 2012 03:20:52PM *  1 point [-]

Thank you. Six years ago, I was working as a mover and carrying a box labeled "DR" for dining room. There was a Lab running around the customer's front yard. Suddenly!

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 24 January 2012 05:22:32PM 2 points [-]

I trained myself to pretend that people exist.

Could you expand on that?

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 24 January 2012 05:36:13PM 5 points [-]

I'm exaggerating a bit. Of course I didn't ever think I was hallucinating other people (although I did fantasize as a kid about being the only real person on Earth -- everyone else was part of an alien experiment that centered on me). Rather, my subjective other-human-caused mental sensations vacillate between obliteratingly intense and nearly nonexistent. So by "trained myself to pretend that people exist" I really mean that I've improved my ability to modulate my perception of other-people-radiation so it isn't a choice between trickle or firehose in the face. Which has allowed me to communicate better and form lasting relationships.

To observers it probably seems like I'm an occasional solipsist, but that's just a coping mechanism.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 24 January 2012 06:03:02PM 2 points [-]

I'm now being entertained by contemplating the difference between an occasional solipsist who believes that they are occasionally the only real person in the world, and one who occasionally believes they are (and have always been) the only real person in the world.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 24 January 2012 06:20:26PM *  1 point [-]

Sounds like something Oliver Sacks would write about.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 06:30:46PM 0 points [-]

I wonder what the first kind of occasional solipsist would think happened to all the other people when they became the one real person.

Comment author: Solvent 24 January 2012 07:09:54AM 3 points [-]

besides this.

That is the funniest thing I have seen in quite a while.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 January 2012 06:19:29AM 1 point [-]

This is maybe the achievement I'm most proud of, besides this.

Wow. That is a really brutal joke.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 24 January 2012 06:21:11AM 1 point [-]

I'll take that as a compliment...?

Comment author: wedrifid 24 January 2012 06:48:57AM 0 points [-]

Yes. You shocked me.

Comment author: moridinamael 24 January 2012 07:10:31AM 3 points [-]

Fascinating suggestion. Worth a shot.

Comment author: Vaniver 24 January 2012 05:13:05AM *  0 points [-]

This is a decent suggestion, but limited. I'm similar to moridinamael (except I find my cliff isn't as steep; 6 is when I start feeling my ability degrade and ~9 is where it's almost gone), and I find it easy to see most people as irrelevant in technical contexts (lectures, work, etc.) but not in most social contexts. If I'm at a party with 12 people, the only way I've found effective to stay talkative is form a subgroup that's 5 or fewer and just focus on them. Writing off active participants is a recipe for awkwardness / hurt feelings, which shutting down prevents.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 06:00:13PM 1 point [-]

That's really interesting!

I have a similar "transition mode", but it's between one-on-one conversations and groups of three. If I'm talking one-on-one, I usually contribute at least 50% of the conversation, sometimes significantly more. In theory, talking to two other people should result in me contributing about 1/3 of the conversation...but it's more like 5%. I think part of it is because the conversation dynamics with three people are more complicated, making it hard to manage things like taking your turn without interrupting the others. Part of it is because in a group of three, I'm not needed to avoid awkward silences.

The amount I'll actually talk in a group conversation drops even more steeply above three. I wouldn't say specifically that I'm less relaxed, that I'm uncomfortable, or even that my comments become less interesting, but I tend to go to "listening mode" instead of "talking mode", which is less work for me anyway.

I have no problems in public speaking, or elaborating on a question someone asks me specifically during a group discussion.

Comment author: anonym 27 January 2012 07:35:43AM *  1 point [-]

I'm the same. Great one-on-one, and extremely awkward when there are two or more other people, which I find to be very exhausting due to the extra conversation dynamics you note. It's also very difficult too when you're the sort of person who likes to periodically be silent for a period in order to think more deeply about what you're talking about -- with more than one other person there, somebody else will just start a new conversation on a new topic to avoid the "dreaded silence".

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 24 January 2012 03:39:23AM *  0 points [-]

there's no need to model the audience on an individual basis.

Yeah, I've played in front of thousands of people with no problem. It really is the workload of individual modeling.

I'm not sure what the threshold represents. Do you find that you rarely coast on small talk, preferring instead to ask pointed questions for which you expect well-articulated truthful answers, all with the agenda of developing the most accurate model of that person within the time given?

Comment author: moridinamael 24 January 2012 07:19:19AM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't say I'm quite that clinical about it. I try to connect with people, I try to imagine what it's like to be them, and there is a certain amount of calculated questioning in order to determine if I'm seeing them clearly. I try to make people feel liked and respected even when I'm arguing with them, and general would rather be polite than win an argument. When there are too many people, I feel like my interjections will not serve to meaningfully connect with anyone, so I refrain from saying anything.

So I suppose you're exactly right that I generally don't use small talk, except as an "opener.". I'm quite bad at it. Of course, I doubt that anybody but myself notices any of this about me.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 12:38:17PM 5 points [-]

It sounds like at the very least, you are quite aware of what your "limiting factor" is, and which things it limits or doesn't limit. If you're an adult and still have this problem, you might be right that it would be difficult or even impossible to overcome.

However, it seems to me that building social skills for structured situations, i.e. the particular situation of filming and giving a bunch of people directions, are things that improve with time and practice. I used to find most social situations stressful and exhausting, but the ones I've put myself into over and over again have become comparatively comfortable. For example, teaching first aid to a group of rowdy 20 thirteen-year-olds is something I would have found extremely challenging and frustrating when I was younger, and I still would have been scared as little as three years ago–but now I'm confident enough to enjoy it. Whereas large group events, like school cocktail evenings and parties where I don't know a lot of people, are still generally unpleasant–I don't know what I'm supposed to do, what my role in the situation is and how I can execute it gracefully. That's likely because I hardly ever go to those kind of parties.

[Side note: your experience of directing in filmmaking brings me back to a tenth grade experience being the unofficial leader of a group in drama class and trying to direct a mini play. This is probably one of the most frustrating experiences I've ever had at school–I have no ability to tell other people (my equals) what to do in a socially graceful way, without being rude and making them dislike me. Situations with a power differential, i.e. teacher-student, make it a lot clearer to me how I can and can't instruct other people.]

I don't know whether your social skills are an overcome-able barrier to success, or not. If you've reached adulthood without them improving at all, that doesn't sound promising–but if you've improved from the point of not being able to work in small groups, i.e. bands, to being able to...then it might just be a matter of structured practice in situations where you have positive feedback. Though your "deliberate-practice-to-broadened-vocabulary" might be very low compared to areas where you are "talented".

Comment author: Yvain 22 January 2012 04:51:00AM *  46 points [-]

Generic "ambition" is a serious case of putting the cart before the horse. If you have ambition to do something, that's great; if not, deciding you should be "ambitious" and then trying to figure out what to be ambitious about rarely ends well.

I think this is why I get creeped out by ambitious people sometimes. I'd much rather my doctor be passionate about medicine than be someone who decided medicine was more "prestigious" than nursing. As a personal anecdote, I am currently in medicine because I want to specialize in psychiatry. I am passionate about psychiatry and plan to be an awesome psychiatrist. I am not quite as passionate about organic medicine with its heart attacks and kidney infections, and although I work hard at it and am pretty good, some of my classmates who get up every morning super excited because they've dreamed of treating kidney infections their whole lives are better. I don't begrudge them this and if I ever got a kidney infection I'm going straight to them and not to the doctor who went into medicine as a subgoal of something else; if they ever get depression I hope they'll come to me for the same reason.

I understand it's the same in many other fields. Paul Graham writes that successful startup founders start with a problem they want to solve, eg Larry Page and Sergey Brin were frustrated with terrible online search; unsuccessful startup founders decide they would really like to earn fantastic amounts of money and only worry about what business they'll do it in as an afterthought.

The only problem here is charity: I do think it may be morally important to be ambitious in helping others, which might even include taking a lucrative career in order to give money to charity. This is especially true if the Singularity memeplex is right and we're living in a desperate time that calls for a desperate effort. See for example Giving What You Can's powerpoint on ethical careers. At some point you need to balance how much good you want to do, with how likely you are to succeed in a career, with how miserable you want to make yourself - and at the very least rationality can help clarify that decision.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 22 January 2012 06:45:40AM *  11 points [-]

I consider myself lucky, because making money is what I intrinsically want to do due to all the turn-based strategy games I played as an adolescent. Fuzzy life goals like "find what you like and make a career out of it" don't really appeal to me--in practice, what I like has changed too often historically, and besides, there's nothing to optimize and no rules to game!

Alpha Centauri is an almost perfect example of a computer game that teaches optimizer thinking:

http://www.amazon.com/Meiers-Alpha-Centauri-Alien-Crossfire-Expansion/dp/B003NMA3DG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1327214061&sr=8-1

Unlike the civilization series, the designers decided that since the game was based in the future, they would throw in all kinds of crazy stuff. This gives a big advantage to players who read through the entire manual and develop strategies like "I won't have to deal with drones if I build punishment spheres everywhere, but then I won't have any scientific research. So I'll have to probe the hell out of the other factions in order to steal their advances. Hm, the Believers would be perfect for this, since they're terrible at science but that won't matter." My brother and I have spent hours talking about the game and bouncing strategies like this one off each other. Did I mention that it's insanely fun and addictive?

Comment author: Peacewise 22 January 2012 04:42:43PM 5 points [-]

I played Alpha Centauri for a few weeks back when it came out, ended up going back to Civilisation, more out of habit I suppose than anything else. These days I'm playing Civilisation IV Beyond the Sword.

What is interesting about being taught optimizer thinking within a computer game is that if that thinking stays within the game, then it's not real world applicable as optimal. If however one stops playing the game and then takes the learned strategies applicable in the real world, into the real world - then gaming is useful, otherwise gaming is just entertainment. I love gaming, don't get me wrong - it's just that (simplistically) x hours of gaming translates into x hours of missed revenue/earnings in the real world, or x hours of real world knowledge unlearned.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 22 January 2012 08:03:48PM *  3 points [-]

I agree, it's not inevitably going to be useful. In my case, I was spending so much time planning my games out that I was no longer having fun, so I started to wonder why I didn't put forth the same optimization efforts in real life. Explicitly trying to transfer the optimizer mindset might help ("Here's a decision about my life I have to make. Oh yeah, I remember, making decisions is fun!")

Railroad Tycoon II might be a better choice for making money in particular–you can fantasize about how if you actually were alive at that time and you had $10K in capital, investor connections, and railroad knowledge you could have made a fortune too. Then after playing the game for a while, you could start looking around for equivalent present-day opportunities. (Did you know that at one time, railroad stocks made up over half the value of the US stock market?)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 January 2012 01:42:29AM 6 points [-]

I was spending so much time planning my games out that I was no longer having fun, so I started to wonder why I didn't put forth the same optimization efforts in real life.

That thought helped break a friend of mine out of a Farmtown addiction. Iirc, she was considering making a spreadsheet for Farmtown when the light dawned.

Comment author: Vaniver 22 January 2012 10:48:27PM *  2 points [-]

Railroad Tycoon II might be a better choice for making money in particular–you can fantasize about how if you actually were alive at that time and you had $10K in capital, investor connections, and railroad knowledge you could have made a fortune too.

The best lesson I got from the Railroad Tycoon games was pausing at the start, carefully inspecting all of the cities, and finding the 3-4 best pairs to set up routes between, then snagging those before the AI could. (The AI would politely wait a minute or so for you to move first, then start building, and if you built a station in a city they wouldn't. So you set up the best one as a route to make money off of, claim the others, and then they only have terrible routes to pick from, and so stagnate while you grow massively.)

That sort of strategy doesn't work well in real life, but the meta-strategy - know your environment and plan carefully - is rather useful.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 23 January 2012 01:29:54AM 7 points [-]

Generic "ambition" is a serious case of putting the horse before the cart.

...cart before the horse?

Comment author: Yvain 23 January 2012 02:11:33AM *  7 points [-]

Every time I have ever used that phrase I have gotten it wrong, even when I specifically think about it beforehand and resolve not to get it wrong this time. I think it's because there are two related sayings, "keep the horse before the cart" and "don't put the cart before the horse", and I always sort of combine them.

Thank you.

Comment author: Nisan 23 January 2012 05:39:48PM 13 points [-]

Harry James Potter-Evans-Verres prefers the phrase

Like starting a meal with dessert, only bad.

Comment author: Alejandro1 24 January 2012 01:41:41AM 8 points [-]

Another possible memory aid: "Sum, ergo cogito" = "putting Descartes before the horse".

Comment author: khafra 23 January 2012 05:52:52PM 4 points [-]

In this instance, it might help to remember that following your true passion wherever it leads is keeping the course before the heart.

Comment author: Vaniver 23 January 2012 07:04:22PM 2 points [-]

Try visualizing it?

Comment author: wedrifid 23 January 2012 05:43:49AM 1 point [-]

Every time I have ever used that phrase I have gotten it wrong, even when I specifically think about it beforehand and resolve not to get it wrong this time. I think it's because there are two related sayings, "keep the horse before the cart" and "don't put the cart before the horse", and I always sort of combine them.

Some (who have a different attitude towards ambition) would perhaps consider the mistaken version appropriate!

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 23 January 2012 02:58:47AM 1 point [-]

You're welcome!

Comment author: Swimmer963 22 January 2012 03:08:59PM 6 points [-]

As far as it goes, you're absolutely right. I think that's one of the good lessons that my dad taught me, with his self-help books...it matters more (in terms of happiness, and of being good at what you do) that you like what you do all day, as opposed to enjoying the reputation of what you are.

The problem is, I think I would enjoy the day-to-day work of a doctor more than that of a nurse-there's more thinking involved, more theory, and that's always been the part I liked. I would almost certainly enjoy the schooling more than nursing school, too–I can't pretend I'm not bored and underchallenged in the academic aspects of nursing. And my mother is almost certainly right that I would like many aspects of academia–the thinking and researching and studying, if not the competitive atmosphere. I used to read physics and biology books for fun, something I can never claim to have done for nursing textbooks.

Side note:

I am passionate about psychiatry and plan to be an awesome psychiatrist. I am not quite as passionate about organic medicine with its heart attacks and kidney infections, and although I work hard at it and am pretty good, some of my classmates who get up every morning super excited because they've dreamed of treating kidney infections their whole lives are better.

I was pretty meh about my psychiatry placement this fall. The theory is pretty fascinating, and I had some surreal conversations with patients, but in general the nurses don't have a lot to do with theory-basically we just gave out meds, wrote notes in the chart, and then had lots of down time. I loved med-surg partly because of the lack of downtime, which didn't give me a chance to get bored.

Comment author: jswan 24 January 2012 01:26:42AM 0 points [-]

I've known at least one person (and possibly more, it's hard to remember...) who went for a MD after years as a nurse, a couple who went on to nurse-practitioner or PA, and one or two who have shuffled between RN and EMT-P positions as pay and adventure dictate. If you spend some years as a nurse and decide later that you want more schooling, you'll be experienced regarding the options available and probably in a more financially stable position. If you continue to yearn for academia, there are a both teaching and research avenues out there in the nursing and nurse-practitioner fields.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 03:12:57AM 4 points [-]

The versatility was a big plus for nursing when I was choosing my major... That being said, if the people cited in our textbooks are any indication of what nursing research is like, I don't want to go there. I don't like qualitative research in general–either it sets off my "social sciences bullshit" detector or I just can't make any sense of it at all–and I like "nursing paradigms and conceptual models" even less. Give me a nice hard science problem to work on and I'll be happy...

Comment author: multifoliaterose 25 January 2012 05:26:10AM 5 points [-]

The only problem here is charity: I do think it may be morally important to be ambitious in helping others, which might even include taking a lucrative career in order to give money to charity. This is especially true if the Singularity memeplex is right and we're living in a desperate time that calls for a desperate effort. See for example Giving What You Can's powerpoint on ethical careers. At some point you need to balance how much good you want to do, with how likely you are to succeed in a career, with how miserable you want to make yourself - and at the very least rationality can help clarify that decision.

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people and successfully stuck to it. Do you?

Comment author: Yvain 25 January 2012 07:18:59PM *  4 points [-]

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people and successfully stuck to it. Do you?

I don't know a single example of somebody who chose a career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people in an efficient utilitarian way, full stop. I know juliawise was considering it, but I don't know what happened.

Do you know of anyone who tried and quit?

Comment author: roystgnr 26 January 2012 06:56:28AM 5 points [-]

If you'll drop the "in an efficient utilitarian way" clause, then I submit that quite a few working parents qualify as an example of both "career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing" and "successfully stuck to it". Choosing between the more-enjoyable (artistic, non-profit, low-stress, whatever your preference is) career and the more-likely-to-put-your-kids-through-college career is practically a stereotype.

If you'll go one step further and allow "themselves" to count as "people", then I'd say that nearly every person in history qualifies as an example of "career substantially less enjoyable than what they would otherwise have been doing in order to help people". Unless you have very extraordinary preferences, skills, and/or luck, odds are that the activities you enjoy most are relatively unproductive activities that other people also enjoy, and that this weak demand-to-supply ratio prevents those activities from being paid a liveable wage. An Office Space quote keeps running through my head: "If everyone listened to her we wouldn't have any janitors, because nobody would clean shit up if they had a million dollars."

Comment author: multifoliaterose 28 January 2012 06:22:03AM 0 points [-]

Do you know of anyone who tried and quit?

No, I don't. This thread touches on important issues which warrant fuller discussion; I'll mull them over and might post more detailed thoughts under the discussion board later on.

Comment author: Macaulay 27 January 2012 02:27:08AM 1 point [-]

I think this is why I get creeped out by ambitious people sometimes. I'd much rather my doctor be passionate about >medicine than be someone who decided medicine was more "prestigious" than nursing.

Like the alt-text here: "I never trust anyone who's more excited about success than about doing the thing they want to be successful at."

Comment author: scientism 25 January 2012 03:52:56AM 7 points [-]

There's something very interesting here. You say your goals are less ambitious and akrasia isn't a major problem for you. That sounds right. But what exactly does this entail? Your life sounds quite busy and productive. Although your goals might be less ambitious than what others are trying to achieve, I doubt they're really doing much more work than you, either physically or mentally. This, I think, hints at two possible sources of akrasia: uncertainty and bad goals. Becoming a nurse is something a great number of people have done before, so there's no great uncertainty surrounding its achievability. In that sense it's relatively straightforward. We can also be sure it's a good goal. A nurse is a really existing thing. You're probably not confused about what a nurse is or what you have to do to become one. I wouldn't be so sure about, say, developing the first seed AI. I could, in fact, be entirely confused about what this goal is, the concept could be incoherent, the goal may not break down into sub-goals because it's a mirage and I could end up unable to make progress and unable to explain why. Likewise, the goal is surrounded by uncertainty. Could akrasia be a signal of bad, or at least uncertain, goals?

Comment author: tetsuo55 22 January 2012 12:14:39PM *  7 points [-]

I get the feeling a large portion of this story can be classified as learned helplessness.

Several studies(google for cal newport) have shown that base talent has little effect on how good you can be at something, the real variable is deliberate practice, pushing the limits of what you can handle a tiny bit to slowly keep improving. ( obviously your swimming example does have harder limits imposed by the limits of your body, this does not seem to apply to fields outside of sports though and in sports like boxing there are different classes because of the differences in bodies)

When I learned about grade signalling I started making mistakes on purpose to lower my average (which was around 9.5 at the time). That was a terrible tactic in hindsight and it still causes selfdoubt on exams today.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:30:00AM 1 point [-]

and in sports like boxing there are different classes because of the differences in bodies

That doesn't necessarily make all body types equal, either. I recently started taekwondo, and based on what my instructors have said, I don't have a great body for that either. The weight class structure, and the fact that taller fighters have a major advantage because of leg reach, means that tall, thin girls have a big advance, and I'm neither–my natural body type tends towards chubby/muscular depending on how hard I exercise. Most competitive taekwondo fighters in my weight class would be significantly taller. (In terms of cardio, I'm in better shape than most people at my current level, because I do a lot of exercise outside of class, and I was already quite strong before I started...but I seem to be genetically set to have slow twitch muscles instead of fast twitch muscles, i.e. good endurance and comparatively little explosive power. And I have slow reaction times.)

Then again, other weight-class sports, like boxing, might rely less on the leg length and more just on strength, fitness, and technique. In which case I might be better off.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 January 2012 09:22:50AM 2 points [-]

I had a vague impression that a low center of gravity is an advantage in aikido, but it looks as though body type is neutral for aikido.

Comment author: duckduckMOO 23 January 2012 12:45:55PM 0 points [-]

why tae-kwon-do?

Also be careful not to overstretch if you are stocky. I did. It sucks. More specifically don't strain so hard to stretch you end up stretching the wrong thing.

Also if you want to improve your reaction time i've found that video games as well as just plain old reaction time tests help (as will sparring). My reaction time has improved a lot with practice.

As a response to the grandparent comment, weight class limits just remove "size" from the pool of stuff you can have a natural aptitude for. The pool of stuff is still very large. I also tend to think of natural obsessiveness/liking for something as a type of talent that aids training rather than directly effecting performance.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 12:54:57PM 2 points [-]

why tae-kwon-do?

Funny story... We were having a discussion of our goals at a LW meetup and I said I wanted to start doing martial arts. There was a guy (his username is Cyan, I think) who had done a lot of different martial arts, so he started talking about the particular benefits and downsides of each. I said I wanted to work on balance and flexibility (these are areas where I'm pretty bad, swimming didn't do a lot for either), and he recommended TKD. I signed up within a week. Overall I've liked it.

Also if you want to improve your reaction time i've found that video games as well as just plain old reaction time tests help (as will sparring).

This is literally what my instructor told me to do. Unfortunately, I find video games pretty tedious. I grew up reading books instead... On the bright side, I love sparring, and that along with my good cardio fitness seems to outweigh the disadvantage of reaction times–especially if we do multiple rounds, I've actually beaten black belts in training before because after a while they get too exhausted to resist.

I also tend to think of natural obsessiveness/liking for something as a type of talent that aids training rather than directly effecting performance.

I definitely had that for swimming! Probably the reason I went a lot further than anyone suspected I would.

Comment author: phaboo 20 February 2012 03:57:09PM 6 points [-]

"In fact, don’t compete against other people at all."

When I was a kid I was in a similar place. My parents wanted me to play Little League and I did and I was just terrible. I wasn't a very athletic kid and I always felt like a miserable failure every time I stunk up the field.

Later I found other things to do and one of them is chess. I love chess but I'm not very good at it either. Maybe average if one is feeling generous. I'm terrible at memorization so I have no opening book. I get my butt handed to me on a regular basis. This time, however, being destroyed doesn't have the same effect on me.

What's the difference? My self-image is no longer tied up in winning so losing is no longer ego-crushing. I do still compete, though. I've just adjusted my parameters a bit.

I still compete, however. I compete with myself, or my previous self, to be more specific. This is much more rewarding, allows me to have goals of increasing difficulty and doesn't make me feel like a loser. In fact, I learn more from the post-disaster post-mortem than when I win. I win in either case.

I don't think it's about competing or not competing. I think it's about what you're trying to get out of competing. If you're trying to win because it's necessary to please your parents or coach or some external thing (ie, "I must be the BEST!") then you pay a steep price for losing. Your joy for winning is mostly relief for not disappointing--where's the fun in that? By adjusting your goals within your competing you can compete and has a positive experience win or lose.

"Even better, do things that aren’t that hard in an absolute sense, so that you don’t risk failing."

I'd offer a different perspective on this. There's nothing wrong with failing! Sure, you don't want to pick goals that are ridiculously outside of your current abilities but biting off more than you can chew can teach you amazing things.

I was a super-genius kid. Computers was my thing and I started at 11. This was in 1975 when you didn't have a computer in every bathroom. I started programming for real (ie, for real-life things one can get paid for) at 14, wrote a 4GL at 20 and built a company around it writing enterprise-wide applications. One was featured at a symposium at the Smithsonian. A lot of the things I tried blew up in my face but, like chess, I learned the most from having my butt handed to me. When I tried the next thing I my toolbox was much larger than it had been before. It wasn't "I failed." It was, "Well, that didn't work and here's why . . ."

BUT . . . this only works if you actually WANT the goal. This is important--do you "want" it or do you "think" you want it? If you want it then there's no penalty if you fail. Okay, it does suck but we get over it. Figure out where you went wrong and you've learned from it and you're more likely to succeed the next time. It may take a few shots but you'll get there. If you "think" you want it (ie, you want it because you want approval or other ancillary thing) then the first time you fail you're a loser.

It's not about keeping goals small so that you don't fail. It's about picking goals for which you are passionate about so that failure isn't losing. Failure is now a bump in the road--expect it, mine it and move on.

It sounds like you think you're minimizing failure. I'm not sure this is a good plan. A better one might be to minimize the emotional blow failure can do to you. Sure, avoiding failure is one way to do this. Another is to realize the benefits of bombing horribly (trust me, I've left some amazing craters!) and see it as part of the process.

Oh, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a nurse if it's what you genuinely want to do. Satisfying someone else's estimation of your potential is a recipe for a miserable life. Finding what brings out your own joy and doing it is deceptively simple and works. If it floats your boat then just do it and be happy. Please yourself first, grow into who you want to be and then you'll have joy to share with others. It took me 40 years to figure that out. I wish I'd figured that out decades ago.

Comment author: aelephant 09 December 2012 01:27:24AM 4 points [-]

This reminds me of a video I saw recently, Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta on Goals. It seems to me that if the goal of your goals (metagoal?) is to be happy, then going all appreciation & no goals can work (think of the wandering Taoist monk), but going all achievement & no appreciation will make you miserable. You can also be successfully happy by balancing the two: appreciate & achieve. This post resonates with me quite a bit because I have a high appreciation level that sometimes gets in the way of motivation to achieve.

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 22 January 2012 09:34:16PM *  4 points [-]

I'm surprised that I liked this very personal post so much. You don't seem confused. You explain clearly.

Perhaps you've been able to see yourself more clearly after reading about specific emotional/perceptual obstacles. Perhaps you've always been so introspective. Perhaps you've merely produced a story about yourself that sounds convincing. In any case, if you now feel freer of avoidance/defensiveness, that's a boon.

Of course I recommend you do something you're well suited for, provided that your competitiveness isn't abnormally low. Alternatively, if you like doing it (e.g. nursing) and it pays well enough, that's better than doing something significantly less fun/lucrative that you merely have a greater competitive rank in.

In case you haven't thought about it, it makes sense to consider the expected future (10+ years out) demand/pay for professions whenever you're not near the top of the competitive heap, so you don't suffer the slow erosion of something that's merely satisfactory now.

It sounds like your parents were mostly good to you and for you. Perhaps it would have been better if you'd rejected some of their influence sooner than this. The adolescent tendency to distance yourself from parts of your parents can sometimes have fantastic effects (if it's not only the result of toxic peer-approval-seeking). I remember changing from "I want to be exactly like my dad" to "I want to be exactly like my dad EXCEPT ..." by 7 years old. (usual "reversed stupidity is not intelligence" caveat)

Odd use of "hindsight bias".

"one of the problems with thinking ... and think you’re wiser" -> thinking

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:12:05AM 2 points [-]

Perhaps you've been able to see yourself more clearly after reading about specific emotional/perceptual obstacles. Perhaps you've always been so introspective. Perhaps you've merely produced a story about yourself that sounds convincing.

I've always thought about stuff a lot on a deliberate, analytical level. From a pretty young age, I remember being able to distance myself from my immediate circumstances and imagine "which part of the story" I was in now. (The tendency to fit my life into story format is one that's been with me all along, and is probably helpful in some ways and unhelpful in others.) I've always been able to put words to my emotions and describe the way they interact in detail–I think I've found that just the act of analyzing the way I feel allows me to step back far enough that negative emotions aren't painful anymore, just interesting. One of the most common topics of discussion between me and my sister is trying to analyze other people's actions, mostly people in her high school crowd, where social dynamics are exaggerated in terms drama and scope–I apply my knowledge of cognitive science and ev-psych, and it's one of my favourite conversation games.

That being said, my ability to tell a coherent, convincing story for my own actions doesn't mean that's what's really going on, underneath all my opaque brain circuitry. Introspection is imperfect. Just because it feels true to me doesn't mean it is.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 January 2012 11:43:45AM 2 points [-]

From a pretty young age, I remember being able to distance myself from my immediate circumstances and imagine "which part of the story" I was in now.

If I'm a character in a story, I'm a minor side character in someone else's.

Comment author: hamnox 23 January 2012 08:46:21PM *  7 points [-]

I chose that role deliberately when I was about 13. Come to think of it, that was probably a direct reaction to figuring out that I'd wasted 4 years before that believing I was secretly a powerful princess fighting against some vaguely defined, evil adult conspiracy.

Like Swimmer, I like to romanticize the simple and selfless life. I resolved to be the friendly lady down in apartment 2B whose kind words echo dramatically upon recollection and bring the main character to some significant insight that helps them save the day and get the girl. But somewhere along the line I realized that I could still live in an apartment and give sage-like advice and cookies to passerby if I was mind-numbingly rich, I'd just do it well dressed and with a very wide budget margin. Which I could then spend on just about -anything-. And possibility space is infinite! Forget helping Peter Parker down the hall, I could be messing with the heads of the entire next generation of characters! Why just be a Mrs. Figg when I could be a Mr. Hat and Cloak too?

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 12:39:17PM 1 point [-]

Whose story? Is their story interesting? Do you have a crucial role to play at some point, or are you mainly an observer?

Comment author: Jonathan_Graehl 23 January 2012 10:52:01PM 0 points [-]

One of the most common topics of discussion between me and my sister is trying to analyze other people's actions

Sounds fun. Also fun: concoct fanciful stories behind strangers' behavior (optimizing for story value/cleverness, not likelihood).

Comment author: jswan 24 January 2012 12:39:06AM 9 points [-]

Before I get bogged down in reading all the comments, I just want to say: nursing is one of the most admirable and versatile professions in existence. There are very few people I'd rather have available in any generic critical situation than an experienced and competent nurse. Good on you.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 03:03:00AM *  5 points [-]

Thank you!

The reactions I get from people when I tell them I'm in nursing tend to be either very negative or very positive. The negative ones, most often from my parents' friends who knew me growing up, are "you're a smart girl, why would you want to do that?", at which point my usual defensive retort is, "So? Do you really want a dumb nurse looking after you?"

But an awful lot of people, probably more than 50%, start gushing about how much they respect me for it. As far as I can tell, being in a fancy hard degree like biomed will get you respect for brains, but studying nursing gets you points for character. People know that it's a hard job, not hard in the sense of "only a a few really bright or talented people can do it", but tough physically and emotionally. At work, I tell old ladies who come to aquafit classes that I'm in nursing, and they automatically think I'm a good person...

Comment author: buybuydandavis 24 January 2012 05:01:59AM 6 points [-]

I'll give you credit for brains. Or at least for making a very good call.

You picked a profession where the knowledge you gain is directly useful to you and the people around you. My impression is that the work is steady, positions are available everywhere, the profession shown no signs of obsolescence, and as a nurse, you're not going to be replaced by someone younger who just came out of school learning the hot new thing that makes you obsolete.

If you say the job is really hard physically and emotionally, maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all. You'd know better than I do. Does everyone really know it's so demanding?

"you're a smart girl, why would you want to do that?"

Maybe because you're a smart girl. Lots of people are busy chasing money and status - often the status of bossing other people around. A lot of people think that's what smart folks do. The smarts to make good choices for your life are the smarts worth having. I've been an ass about a lot of the choices I've made, or failed to make, and all the akrasia talk around here gives me the impression I'm not alone in this.

Comment author: jswan 24 January 2012 04:33:24AM *  2 points [-]

I had no idea when I wrote that that the talk I was going to tonight would be closely related to this topic. It was a talk about the 20th century polymath Michael Polyani (physician, physicist, economist, philosopher), given by a former surgeon and teacher of surgery who's made a late-in-life career change into teaching writing. One of the things he touched on, and which deserves a lot more thought on my part, is the relationship between reductionism and heuristics in critical decision making.

A good chunk of medicine (and I think many, but not all, aspects of nursing in particular) is about decision-making under conditions of limited information. The speaker observed that doctors coming into surgery from a hard science background tended to be less good at it, because their versions of reductionism led them into continuous loops of information gathering, trying to find more and more grains of detail. Doctors who were able to reductively eliminate information in order to converge on decisions were more talented. I asked him how this related to the current developments in medicine with respect to machine learning, robotic surgery, "AI"-driven imaging, etc. He said he didn't have any good answers, but if he were starting his medical career again, that's where he'd want to be.

So first, I think that the kind of intelligence required to make good decisions in an information-restricted environment is maybe not as immediately glamorous as the kind that makes the cover of Nature, but it's just as important. Second, the ways in which different areas of knowledge are converging in medicine makes it a pretty exciting place to be for someone with your interests, and you've got a lot of time to explore them.

Edited to add: I suppose I should note that almost all the nurses I know are or were ER, flight, or ICU nurses, which colors my views.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 12:14:58PM 1 point [-]

Agreed.

Also, I looked this up on Wikipedia to confirm, and Michael Polanyi is the father of John Polanyi, who my father worked with in graduate school! (And who apparently got the Nobel Prize in chemistry!)

Comment author: Michelle 24 January 2012 04:14:21PM 5 points [-]

I am a PhD chemist (currently post-doc); my partner is a Physics professor. He has often said that the most selfless thing we could do would be to teach high school science. It is a super important job capable of changing lives, where talented people can really shine, but at the same time can be exhausting, soul-sucking, and tedious.

I think nursing is similar in a way.

My mom is a nurse, and my two younger sisters are nurses (the youngest still finishing school). When my youngest sister decided to start nursing school (she was undecided for a long time), I thought that really, it was an extremely practical choice. Unlike many jobs, nursing is unlikely to become obsolete. Also, there are jobs everywhere, the pay is good, the work brings new challenges every day, etc, etc. It makes sense.

I guess one of the big reasons I wanted to comment (I haven't commented on Less Wrong in two years or so), in addition to wanting to make the comparison with teaching at the high school level, is to offer a word of caution.

From my experience living in a family of nurses, I would say: "beware the administration trap." If you are really good at your job, you will likely be offered a promotion to administration. Administration is nothing like actual nursing. You don't deal with patients anymore -- now you deal with the nurses, and generally the more incompetent ones. I think this is true of many professions -- where "doing" the job and being an administrator are completely different, but it's definitely an issue you'll likely come up against here. Nursing, like teaching K-12, is a tough job because -- even if you're extremely bright and good at what you do -- you are surrounded by co-workers who may be less bright and less good at what they do. Nursing, at least based on my impressions, is like being in high school again with a bunch of gossipy school girls or being at the neighborhood barbecue with gossipy women. It just doesn't offer the same bubble of intellect that say, academia, would... or the same sort of environment that being in a tech company or being an entrepreneur or whatever would. So, I hope that aspect doesn't crush your soul, and that you can take the positive parts of the profession and run with them. The thing about the medical field is that there are infinite avenues for self-improvement, and you can continue to challenge yourself and become better at your work -- especially if you make sure to choose your promotions wisely and not go the administration route (assuming you don't want that) but rather go the route of various sorts of specialization. My sister has only been nursing for 4 years or so and was kicking butt and so was quickly promoted to some sort of administrative role. She quit that within a matter of months, and has now started taking a bunch of courses to increase her skill set. My mom has been director of a nursing home, making really good money, for 8 or so years now, and it has just slowly crushed her. She finally decided she had to quit, even though her and my dad are not completely financially stable, and put in her resignation a few months ago. She has already found a position in an independent specialist/consultant type role. Even after nursing for years and being a VERY GOOD administrator - she still prefers working directly with patients.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 January 2012 04:30:51PM *  7 points [-]

He has often said that the most selfless thing we could do would be to teach high school science.

An economics professor may beg to differ.

Comment author: freyley 24 January 2012 04:59:34AM 1 point [-]

I came here to say this, and also to say that nursing closes some doors, but it opens up others. Doctors I know often regret not becoming Nurse Practitioners, who can do almost everything doctors can do, but also get to switch fields when they want to, and get paid pretty well too.

Still, that's about the details, and your post is about the generalizations from them. I think they're pretty interesting generalizations, but mostly I just want to point people reading this to Study Hacks for a lot more conversation about how to achieve excellence in whatever field you end up in.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 January 2012 11:00:19PM 3 points [-]

What's your facial width-to-height ratio?

Facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR) has been associated with aggression, unethical behavior, company profit, and dominance; however, it is currently unclear whether this facial trait relates to politically relevant character traits. Here we examine fWHR in an elite sample of political leaders, former US presidents (n = 29), who were rated for forcefulness, pacifism, inflexibility, and achievement drive; traits potentially linked to fWHR. The first three of these traits were unrelated to fWHR, but we found a positive association between fWHR and achievement drive (r = .58, p < .01), and a negative association to the trait “poise and polish” (r = −.38, p < .05). These results extend associations of behavior with facial structure to individuals in the highest echelons of power, suggest connections from biology to politically relevant character traits, and indicate that fWHR may also be associated with achievement-striving alongside associations with dominance and aggression.

This also raises the possibility that someone can be turned off to ambition because of its guilt by association with aggression. (Or even that ambition may necessarily have a hostile component.)

Comment author: khafra 29 February 2012 08:54:05PM 0 points [-]

Whoah. I thought I was reasonably science-literate and up-to-date, but this is the first time I've heard that phrenology is real.

Comment author: rysade 24 January 2012 07:20:21AM 3 points [-]

I hate breaking my routine. It makes me anxious, and I have to spend more energy motivating myself, and in general it’s hard. I tend to only depart from that routine when forced.

One of the most important things I consider myself to have ever done is break out of my routine. It is scarring in a serious and personal way, but it's necessary if you want to excel at anything you put your mind to.

Besides, what can guarantee that some catastrophe might break your routine against your will? Pre-empting the break is a way of ensuring that you've got a thick skin in case catastrophe strikes.

Comment author: Swimmer963 24 January 2012 02:58:24PM *  3 points [-]

This is one reason why I've focussed on improving the things I'm bad at, like my ability to react in stressful situations, or do teamwork under time pressure. Obviously I haven't covered every possible variation of "something horrible could happen and you'd be screwed over if you didn't have this particular skill", but bringing as many scenarios as possible from the realm of the Scary Unknown to the zone of "things my brain has a script for" has done a lot for my peace of mind. I'm maybe 50% confident that, for example, if I was right there at the scene of a car crash, I could force my brain into "Lifeguard: First Aid" script instead of "panic and run away screaming." Which is something, I guess.

Comment author: ZoneSeek 24 January 2012 02:53:24AM *  5 points [-]

I watched Grave of the Fireflies for the first time last night. Cried a bit. And even now, Millions and millions dead. But it doesn't have to be this way. More is possible. Maybe someday, no more kids dying, no more human beings dying. If I need a crusade, that can work.

Traditional rationality tells us that just contributing to society helps move us forward. Transhumanism and LessWrong's about groping, fumbling, toward optimizing how we contribute. Hacks and shortcuts, fixing inefficiencies, so maybe eventually our species will move up the Khardashev scale.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 January 2012 02:38:03AM 2 points [-]

If I need a crusade, that can work.

Given how many many people were killed during the Crusades, perhaps that's not an encouraging phrasing from someone whose life goal is to immanentize their eschaton. ;p

Comment author: gwern 24 January 2012 02:59:31AM 2 points [-]

I watched Grave of the Fireflies for the first time last night. Cried a bit. And even now, Millions and millions dead.

Now follow it up with a watch of Pom Poko!

Comment author: Baughn 24 January 2012 01:56:29PM 3 points [-]

Or perhaps Saikano.

Then proceed to watch My Neighbour Totoro before you jump off a ledge. This is important.

Comment author: Earin 24 January 2012 08:56:40PM 1 point [-]

For an alternative thread, follow that up with "When the Wind Blows".

Comment author: Alex_Altair 31 January 2012 03:17:58AM *  1 point [-]

And even now, Millions and millions dead.

That article is perfect. Did they intend to capture death so truly?

Comment author: shminux 23 January 2012 04:42:47AM 5 points [-]

Thank you for this post! You have an unusually high level of introspection, and I haven't noticed any of the standard fallacious justifications anywhere in your story. Maybe you are naturally rational, that's why LW has not changed your life much. Or maybe it enabled you to write this excellent analysis of your feelings and motivations.

Comment author: alfredmacdonald 15 December 2012 08:57:21AM 0 points [-]

Some personality traits may be conducive to "natural" rationality. High scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory for example may indicate ego-preserving tendencies that make greater levels of rationality more difficult to obtain. I'd imagine that natural levels of introversion would also help, and I say that as someone who usually maxes out the extroversion scale on these kinds of tests.

Comment author: rysade 24 January 2012 07:15:53AM 0 points [-]

Would you consider yourself naturally rational, shminux? I am curious where you stand on the nature vs. nurture divide, particularly regarding rationality.

Comment author: shminux 24 January 2012 03:49:36PM 2 points [-]

No, I'm pretty average with regard to rationality. And there is no "divide", it's a continuum, like shades of grey.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 23 January 2012 10:29:42PM 13 points [-]

I've changed the post title to "How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious" and promoted.

Reasons for change: More specific description of actual content; worry about titles that countersignal at the expense of such specificity (original was "Why Less Wrong hasn't changed my life (yet)".)

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 10:36:40PM 25 points [-]

I was just about to comment and ask why the title changed...after I figured out it wasn't some other "copycat" post that someone else had made on the same theme. Thanks, though... I spent quite a while switching titles and trying to find a good one, and yours is better.

Comment author: orthonormal 24 January 2012 12:15:29AM 42 points [-]

I know this was from good motives (and I agree that the new title is better), but I think that changing somebody else's post as you promote it sends off bad signaling, compared to saying "Really want to promote this, but the title looks wrong for the post. How about...?"

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 24 January 2012 03:36:28AM 30 points [-]

You know, you're right. I felt bad for not having promoted the post already and felt the title needed to be changed before it was promoted, and worried that Swimmer wouldn't have seen the request for a while; but in retrospect I should've posted the proposed change first and then waited 4 hours to see if there was a reply.

Comment author: handoflixue 28 February 2012 08:33:39PM 1 point [-]

If you're making changes before receiving permission, regardless of waiting period, I'd suggest that a quick editor's note at the TOP of the article would be appropriate. In the case of minor grammar fixes and other touch-ups, a footnote or a comment letting the author know about the changes seems sufficient, but an actual content change (such as rewriting the title) seems like it needs a clearer disclaimer.

Looking at the current post, there is no such indicator of editing, which is my primary discomfort with the activity.

I'm also curious how you decided on "4 hours", since it seems like an unusual value. I would normally expect "24 hours" / 1 day, and I'm curious what lead to this instead. I think that clear signalling is the more important aspect of this, though (but I do appreciate your willingness to compromise and wait in the future!)

Comment author: wedrifid 24 January 2012 04:33:05AM *  5 points [-]

Oh, having not read the post under either title I had assumed Swimmer had written two. The titles seem so completely unrelated!

The new title does make me more inclined to read it. My thought when reading the original title was "Pffft. Why would it be expected to? Humans changing their lives based on supplied information is relative rarity!"

Comment author: lavalamp 22 January 2012 03:28:37PM 2 points [-]

I suspect I could have lots of ambition if I knew what I wanted to focus on, and weren't excessively risk-averse IRL.

Comment author: XiXiDu 22 January 2012 11:06:09AM *  5 points [-]

Attitudes and actions that can change your life:

  • You are curious and want to learn.
  • You want to become less wrong.
  • You actively try to learn to become less wrong.

People who come across lesswrong and stick around long enough to actually read some posts often already have those attitudes and actively try to become less wrong.

In a sense, people on lesswrong could be compared to people who voluntarily visit a psychiatrist because they recognized that they suffer mental problems and whose attitude allows them to accept and admit their own weaknesses.

If you actively searched for content that can be found on lesswrong, or came across it and liked what you read, then all that lesswrong can do is to provide the details.

My life hasn’t changed all that much since I started reading Less Wrong. Hindsight bias makes it hard to tell, I guess, but I feel like pretty much the same person, or at least the person I would have evolved towards anyway...

That's because the most important characteristic is wanting to change your mind while lesswrong can only tell you how to change your mind. It is because the most difficult action is trying to become less wrong while lesswrong can only tell you how to become less wrong.

If you decided to voluntarily seek help then you already helped yourself more than anyone else is capable of doing.

lesswrong.com can't make you want to help yourself. lesswrong.com can't make you want to read it. lesswrong.com is only an instructions manual.

People who don't care are most likely not reading lesswrong.

Comment author: taw 22 January 2012 12:09:31PM 3 points [-]

Less Wrong is entertainment, if it surprises you that it didn't change your life, your expectations were very irrational.

Like all entertainment, sometimes it has some positive (or negative) side effects, but they're not the real reason people are here.

Comment author: Swimmer963 23 January 2012 03:33:22AM 12 points [-]

Reading LW is fun. In that sense, it's entertainment, just like some people read physics textbooks for fun. People also watch reality TV for fun. Does that mean reading LW, or physics textbooks, is equivalent to watching reality TV? I would say that physics textbooks have a lot of fringe benefits aside from their entertainment value–you end up understanding physics really well. LW maybe isn't as good as a physics textbook, because it's based less on tried-and-true science and more on a bunch of concepts, hypotheses, and ideology thrown together into the idea of "rationality." But I'd bet most people get more fringe benefits out of LW than out of reality shows.

Comment author: taw 23 January 2012 09:07:17AM 3 points [-]

Let me recommend "Everything Bad is Good for You" - a highly entertaining book on how modern entertainment - including reality TV - is actually far more intellectually stimulating than entertainment of past times, and that this might very well be the very cause of Flynn effect.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 January 2012 09:15:28AM 3 points [-]

I'd been assuming that more complex popular art was a result of the Flynn effect, not a cause of it. Is there any way to tell?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 23 January 2012 09:32:30AM *  13 points [-]

I'd been assuming that more complex popular art was a result of the Flynn effect, not a cause of it. Is there any way to tell?

Of course.

  1. Kidnap people from locations that don't have television.
  2. Sort the people into two groups using random selection.
  3. Give both groups an IQ test.
  4. Force the first group to watch reality television.
  5. Prevent the second group from watching reality television.
  6. Give both groups another IQ test.
  7. Compare the test scores between the groups.
Comment author: taw 23 January 2012 10:07:12AM 0 points [-]

What would be causing Flynn effect then? They make some arguments from timing etc., I recommend reading the book and taking your own conclusions as to how convincing they seem to you.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 23 January 2012 04:36:51PM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure I'm going to get around to the book-- I just took a look at what was conveniently online.

This interview has a moment at about 19:20 where Johnson implies that he doesn't know the cause. He does seem to think that simulation games are much important (whether as cause or indicator) than movies or tv.

The beginning of the book about his playing complex chart and dice baseball simulation as a kid, and then much later realizing that he wasn't all that unusual, suggests that something else sparked an increase in the number of young people interested in complex simulation.

Other possibilities for the Flynn Effect: better nutrition and less lead, but I don't have a strong opinion there. Just for the hell of it, I'll allow for the possibility that there's a food additive which is making a difference.

Comment author: taw 23 January 2012 05:24:35PM 2 points [-]

There's plenty of possible causes for Flynn Effect, but since we have very crappy data about worldwide historical IQs it's pretty much impossible to pick one for sure.

Many obvious candidates are rejected by the fact that Flynn Effect is global and affects both rich and poor countries. That's about how far we can go reliably.

Comment author: lessdazed 22 January 2012 11:12:27PM 8 points [-]

your expectations were very irrational.

It is a bad sign that you labeled her expectations with that symbol alone.

Less Wrong is entertainment

This looks like the beginning of an argument about whether or not LW is "really entertainment." If it is really entertainment, then that doesn't prevent it from being useful in any other way, unless its being entertainment precludes it from being those things by definition, which would of course be irrelevant.

Saying that LW is entertainment is somewhat relevant as an evolutionary debunking argument, to explain its popularity as being from something other than usefulness, which all else equal makes it less likely LW is useful. But I don't like how the comment was phrased, nor is that argument terribly strong.

the real reason

Almost all causes have multiple effects, almost all effects have multiple causes.

Your comment is far below the standard for you. Standing alone, it implies a broken ideology and worldview, and looks like many useless internet comments. Only from your other comments is it clear that this one is an aberration. A bad one, one that looks as if it were written by someone else.

Everyone has to have a worst comment, my worst is probably worse. But please rethink this issue, or express your thoughts better.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 22 January 2012 10:41:05PM 3 points [-]

Reading lesswrong is the least entertaining thing I intentionally do.

Comment author: wedrifid 23 January 2012 05:45:24AM 2 points [-]

Reading lesswrong is the least entertaining thing I intentionally do.

I'm a tad curious about your motives for reading lesswrong? Just habit perhaps? Or some evaluation suggesting it is useful?

Comment author: Armok_GoB 23 January 2012 01:20:44PM 2 points [-]

Because I actually use the stuff I learn here to survive, and it is the most important thing I can do right now to increase the probability of a friendly singularity, which I have conditioned myself to have as my only goal.

Comment author: quentin 24 January 2012 08:29:16PM *  4 points [-]

I'm honestly curious, how did you condition yourself to feel this way?

I mean, I think about the singularity, try to discount for my given bias (introverted young male in STEM field who read a lot of scifi) and I still conclude it is a worthwhile problem; but more importantly a problem that could use my skillset.

But I don't emotionally ... grok it, which makes me wonder if I really do believe it, or if it is belief-in-belief. I'm having my own struggle with ambition, and I'm at a point where I don't know if I actually care about anything. It seems that at my core, all my motivation stems from a desire for social status, which scares me.

Comment author: lessdazed 24 January 2012 08:39:57PM 8 points [-]

It seems that at my core, all my motivation stems from a desire for social status, which scares me.

See here and the OP (emphasis added):

But contra Robin, the implication is not "humans only care about status, and so we pretend hypocritically to care about our own survival while really basically just caring about status", the implication is "humans are pretty inept at acquiring urges to do the steps that will fulfill our later urges. We are also pretty inept at doing any steps we do not have a direct urge for. Thus, urges to e.g. survive, or live in a clean and pleasant house, or do anything else that requires many substeps… are often pretty powerless, unless accompanied by some kind of structure that can create immediate rewards for individual steps.

(People rarely exhibit long-term planning to acquire social status any more than we/they exhibit long-term planning to acquire health. E.g., most unhappily single folk do not systematically practice their social skills unless this is encouraged by their local social environment.)

Comment author: Armok_GoB 24 January 2012 10:30:55PM 0 points [-]

Dunno. I seem to have had very powerful innate self modification capabilities in the past. Either I've lost them, or they are inaccessible to introspection in some very weird way.

The style of it is "brute, clichéd brainwashing", I literally can't imagine caring about anything else and it's not very good for my mental helth.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 January 2012 07:05:07PM -1 points [-]

Your cynicism is not helping. If you have some advice to improve the effectiveness of LW, please post.

Lesswrong is not for entertainment, it's not even that entertaining. 4chan blows lesswrong out of the water on that front. I for one am not here for entertainment, I suck at rationality and want to become stronger. Cynicism doesn't help.

If all you're here for entertainment, you suck at entertaining yourself.

Comment author: XiXiDu 22 January 2012 08:15:24PM *  16 points [-]

Lesswrong is not for entertainment, it's not even that entertaining. [...] If all you're here for entertainment, you suck at entertaining yourself.

Just before writing this comment I was reading a calculus book just for fun. I am currently working part-time as gardener and don't need calculus and don't expect that I will need it any time soon for anything other than understanding ideas that are even more fun. I get an incredible kick from understanding new concepts.

People are psychologically very different. I had some of the greatest fun in my life reading lesswrong.

ETA I also like to take photos, read science fiction and play games...and A LOT more :-)

Comment author: fubarobfusco 22 January 2012 07:10:39PM 11 points [-]

Lesswrong is not for entertainment, it's not even that entertaining. 4chan blows lesswrong out of the water on that front.

Some people program computers for fun, and some people watch Jackass. It isn't clear to me that the people who don't watch Jackass suck at entertaining themselves ....

Comment author: [deleted] 22 January 2012 07:26:13PM 2 points [-]

It's true that people have different ideas of fun. I find it hard to believe that a specific blog not at all devoted to being entertaining happens to be the best way to be entertained for anyone.

Comment author: XiXiDu 22 January 2012 08:23:47PM 15 points [-]

I find it hard to believe that a specific blog not at all devoted to being entertaining happens to be the best way to be entertained for anyone.

I have been a baker and I always cringe from the thought that some people do it for fun.

My dad has been a construction engineer for the German Railways. He told me about people who came to his workplace and took photos of the bridges and tracks he was inspecting. Those people literally knew every screw being used in the construction. They did that stuff for fun. There are whole clubs.

I even heard of people who collect stamps and travel to international meetings. Crazy huh?

Comment author: David_Gerard 23 January 2012 05:26:03PM 6 points [-]

Tourist railways. People volunteer to get up at 3am and do jobs that 150 years ago were incitements to socialist revolution.

Comment author: gwern 23 January 2012 10:25:33PM 6 points [-]

'Work is anything you have to do', as the saying goes. However, I suspect if we looked, we would find that the working conditions 150 years ago would be vastly different from those volunteers' jobs. (Possible differences: 16-hour working days, emitted pollution, ergonomics like 'chairs'...)

Comment author: taw 23 January 2012 12:25:15AM 9 points [-]

I am not cynical here, I find lesswrong very entertaining to read for similar reasons to I regularly read research papers on things I'll never need in my life for fun.

I cannot possibly be alone - just ask anyone what happens when they want to quickly check a random article on Wikipedia or even worse TvTropes and end up spending an entire day on the site, learning minutae of things they have no use for whatsoever.

XiXiDu's and David_Gerard's responses suggest there's plenty of people who see lesswrong the same way.

I go back to chans every now and then, but it tends to get boring after a few days.

If you want helpful advice (wrt "sucking at rationality"):

  • For everyone's most popular problem of akrasia, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen is way better than reading lesswrong ten times over again. Most of other books on the subject are crap, but this one is definitely pure gold.
  • For accurate judgments there are books like "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases". This is even easier, since you don't seen to sift your way through tons of garbage book.

One super-simple and very practical exercise I recommend is - every time you go shopping try to estimate cost of your shopping basket before you checkout. You'd be surprised how far off and how one-sided your estimates will be the first few times. Since everybody shops a lot it won't take you any extra time, and that's actually a pretty useful instance of more general skill of quick estimation.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 January 2012 03:52:31AM 1 point [-]

Thanks.

Comment author: David_Gerard 22 January 2012 07:14:03PM *  7 points [-]

YMMV. I take LessWrong strictly [1] out of my internet-as-television budget, and find it more consistently interesting than 4chan.

[1] though I'll often Google to link a remembered post in random Internet philosophical arguments.

Comment author: anon2280 26 May 2013 09:45:46PM 1 point [-]

I really enjoyed reading your post. I actually felt that you implied that you indeed had ambition. I wonder then, what made you decide on the title of the post?

I came upon your article because I was trying to figure out why I was lazy. I wanted to understand if it was because I had no or little ambition. When I read the part where you were explaining what you meant by ambition, I realized I never really defined what it meant to be "lazy". After coming up with a concrete definition of laziness, I was finally able to reason about why I was lazy. I have saved it as a draft in LW. All thanks to you.

Comment author: Swimmer963 02 July 2013 09:08:32PM 0 points [-]

It wasn't the original title of the post. Eliezer changed it from something like "Why Less Wrong hasn't changed my life yet." This is a better title than that was, at least.

Comment author: epigeios 31 January 2012 06:47:34AM *  1 point [-]

If you're having trouble changing, one easy thing I have found to work for me is: Take it upon myself to do the things I would normally do out of habit, and do them on purpose. Take it upon myself to do the things I would normally do as a reaction, and do them independently.

This, for me, sets my mind on the path of being conscious of and in control of what I was previously unable to change. So, I think you should do the opposite of the lesson you've learned from this. I think you should, for a short period of time, purposefully act the way you are currently acting.

and while doing so, keep in mind: It's none of my business what other people think of me. It's none of my business what other people want from me. It's none of my business how other people react to me. The only thing that's my business is my business.

Comment author: irrationalist 26 January 2012 05:56:03AM 1 point [-]

I'm quite ambitious in the status/career sense. Rather averse to unnecessary effort (necessary effort I can handle, but I won't work for the sake of working) and extremely averse to having goals that aren't mine thrust upon me. I'm protective of my mental state and I don't do things that cause me undue stress. That kind of goes against the rationalist ethic of "always push yourself, psychological pain is unimportant, tsuyoku naritai." But meh. It's what I want to do. So far, it seems that I can have fun in a way that advances my professional goals, and so I don't have to be a martyr. Desperate efforts are for later, if ever.

Comment author: jpulgarin 30 January 2012 01:01:35PM 0 points [-]

I haven't encountered the rationalist ethic of "psychological pain is unimportant". Can you link to it?

Comment author: Swimmer963 18 February 2012 07:40:50PM 1 point [-]

It reminds me of the article on Ugh Fields. Though that doesn't exactly say that 'psychological pain is unimportant', but more that 'psychological pain is based on unreliable emotions, intuitions, and heuristics, and isn't by itself a good reason not to do something'.

Comment author: teageegeepea 23 January 2012 08:38:54PM 1 point [-]

I'm somewhat similar. I'm pretty easily satisfied and right now don't feel any discomfort pushing me toward change. LW is interesting entertainment. I continued reading it when it split from OB, but I never had interest in self-improvement or saving the world. I lack "something to protect" as Eliezer put it.

A while back somebody I had done a favor gave me a deal on a used bass guitar. I figured since it had four strings it should be easy to learn, but I didn't put that much effort into it. Almost two years later and I never even learned to get a consistent sound out of one note and I'm about to sell it (for a profit of course).