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On Terminal Goals and Virtue Ethics

67 Swimmer963 18 June 2014 04:00AM


A few months ago, my friend said the following thing to me: “After seeing Divergent, I finally understand virtue ethics. The main character is a cross between Aristotle and you.”

That was an impossible-to-resist pitch, and I saw the movie. The thing that resonated most with me–also the thing that my friend thought I had in common with the main character–was the idea that you could make a particular decision, and set yourself down a particular course of action, in order to make yourself become a particular kind of person. Tris didn’t join the Dauntless cast because she thought they were doing the most good in society, or because she thought her comparative advantage to do good lay there–she chose it because they were brave, and she wasn’t, yet, and she wanted to be. Bravery was a virtue that she thought she ought to have. If the graph of her motivations even went any deeper, the only node beyond ‘become brave’ was ‘become good.’ 

(Tris did have a concept of some future world-outcomes being better than others, and wanting to have an effect on the world. But that wasn't the causal reason why she chose Dauntless; as far as I can tell, it was unrelated.)

My twelve-year-old self had a similar attitude. I read a lot of fiction, and stories had heroes, and I wanted to be like them–and that meant acquiring the right skills and the right traits. I knew I was terrible at reacting under pressure–that in the case of an earthquake or other natural disaster, I would freeze up and not be useful at all. Being good at reacting under pressure was an important trait for a hero to have. I could be sad that I didn’t have it, or I could decide to acquire it by doing the things that scared me over and over and over again. So that someday, when the world tried to throw bad things at my friends and family, I’d be ready.

You could call that an awfully passive way to look at things. It reveals a deep-seated belief that I’m not in control, that the world is big and complicated and beyond my ability to understand and predict, much less steer–that I am not the locus of control. But this way of thinking is an algorithm. It will almost always spit out an answer, when otherwise I might get stuck in the complexity and unpredictability of trying to make a particular outcome happen.

Virtue Ethics

I find the different houses of the HPMOR universe to be a very compelling metaphor. It’s not because they suggest actions to take; instead, they suggest virtues to focus on, so that when a particular situation comes up, you can act ‘in character.’ Courage and bravery for Gryffindor, for example. It also suggests the idea that different people can focus on different virtues–diversity is a useful thing to have in the world. (I'm probably mangling the concept of virtue ethics here, not having any background in philosophy, but it's the closest term for the thing I mean.)

I’ve thought a lot about the virtue of loyalty. In the past, loyalty has kept me with jobs and friends that, from an objective perspective, might not seem like the optimal things to spend my time on. But the costs of quitting and finding a new job, or cutting off friendships, wouldn’t just have been about direct consequences in the world, like needing to spend a bunch of time handing out resumes or having an unpleasant conversation. There would also be a shift within myself, a weakening in the drive towards loyalty. It wasn’t that I thought everyone ought to be extremely loyal–it’s a virtue with obvious downsides and failure modes. But it was a virtue that I wanted, partly because it seemed undervalued. 

By calling myself a ‘loyal person’, I can aim myself in a particular direction without having to understand all the subcomponents of the world. More importantly, I can make decisions even when I’m rushed, or tired, or under cognitive strain that makes it hard to calculate through all of the consequences of a particular action.


Terminal Goals

The Less Wrong/CFAR/rationalist community puts a lot of emphasis on a different way of trying to be a hero–where you start from a terminal goal, like “saving the world”, and break it into subgoals, and do whatever it takes to accomplish it. In the past I’ve thought of myself as being mostly consequentialist, in terms of morality, and this is a very consequentialist way to think about being a good person. And it doesn't feel like it would work. 

There are some bad reasons why it might feel wrong–i.e. that it feels arrogant to think you can accomplish something that big–but I think the main reason is that it feels fake. There is strong social pressure in the CFAR/Less Wrong community to claim that you have terminal goals, that you’re working towards something big. My System 2 understands terminal goals and consequentialism, as a thing that other people do–I could talk about my terminal goals, and get the points, and fit in, but I’d be lying about my thoughts. My model of my mind would be incorrect, and that would have consequences on, for example, whether my plans actually worked.


Practicing the art of rationality

Recently, Anna Salamon brought up a question with the other CFAR staff: “What is the thing that’s wrong with your own practice of the art of rationality?” The terminal goals thing was what I thought of immediately–namely, the conversations I've had over the past two years, where other rationalists have asked me "so what are your terminal goals/values?" and I've stammered something and then gone to hide in a corner and try to come up with some. 

In Alicorn’s Luminosity, Bella says about her thoughts that “they were liable to morph into versions of themselves that were more idealized, more consistent - and not what they were originally, and therefore false. Or they'd be forgotten altogether, which was even worse (those thoughts were mine, and I wanted them).”

I want to know true things about myself. I also want to impress my friends by having the traits that they think are cool, but not at the price of faking it–my brain screams that pretending to be something other than what you are isn’t virtuous. When my immediate response to someone asking me about my terminal goals is “but brains don’t work that way!” it may not be a true statement about all brains, but it’s a true statement about my brain. My motivational system is wired in a certain way. I could think it was broken; I could let my friends convince me that I needed to change, and try to shoehorn my brain into a different shape; or I could accept that it works, that I get things done and people find me useful to have around and this is how I am. For now. I'm not going to rule out future attempts to hack my brain, because Growth Mindset, and maybe some other reasons will convince me that it's important enough, but if I do it, it'll be on my terms. Other people are welcome to have their terminal goals and existential struggles. I’m okay the way I am–I have an algorithm to follow.


Why write this post?

It would be an awfully surprising coincidence if mine was the only brain that worked this way. I’m not a special snowflake. And other people who interact with the Less Wrong community might not deal with it the way I do. They might try to twist their brains into the ‘right’ shape, and break their motivational system. Or they might decide that rationality is stupid and walk away.

Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport

27 Swimmer963 23 April 2014 03:27AM

Very brief summary of main themes

1)    “Follow your passion” is terrible advice for most people. Don’t try to find your “true calling” because it’s a false concept.

2)    The craftsman’s mindset: build skills through deliberate practice.

3)    The importance of control: use your career capital to ask for and obtain autonomy, and other things that make jobs pleasant.

4)    Have a mission: once you have skills, use them to explore options and find something that can be your life’s work and driving motivation.


This book came to me highly recommended, and didn’t quite live up to its reputation. It’s not that I disagree with anything, but Newport seems to be trying to claim that his point is more new and exciting than I think it actually is. The style reeks of self-help manual. (This isn’t a thing wrong with the book itself, just a fact about my personal taste). Still. It has some points that would be new to me if not for LW/CFAR, and it frames them all together in a tidy package, which may not have happened before. I would definitely recommend it to the average smart high school student.

Favourable Points

1) Promoting Hufflepuff. The world needs more people making hard work and conscientiousness look shiny.

2) The concept of deliberate practice, associated with a career. Deliberate practice doesn’t seem to be an obvious concept, and I’ll get behind any popular book that explains it. 

3) Pointing out that mastery can create its own enjoyment; that it’s possible to grow to love an arbitrary activity, if it’s challenging and you can take pride in your skill. Example: the author quoted a study1 that asked people whether they considered their work to be a job (just a way to pay the bills), a career (a path towards better work), or a calling (a vital part of your life and identity.) Looking at a single occupation, college administrative assistants, the study found that the employees were roughly evenly split between calling it a job, career, or calling, and that the strongest predictive factor was time spent in the position. Although there’s a possible sample bias here (employees whose needs aren’t satisfied will keep looking for other opportunities and leave if they find them), it’s still an important point.

4) The fungibility of this thing called “career capital.” You don’t have to find the perfect dream job in order to be happy; you can find a job that provides value to society and is bearable, build up enough skill that you’re indispensable, and then bargain for the things that actually make jobs good over the long term.

5) Specific examples of people exploring opportunities and using their career capital in creative ways. For example, the book mentions a marketing executive, Joe Duffy, who wanted to work creativity into his working life–but instead of quitting and trying to make a living as an artist, he build skills and a reputation in brand icons and logos, until he was offered a job at a company that gave him the creative freedom he wanted. The anecdotes still aren’t that specific, but they feed the availability heuristic with examples.


The author disparagingly discusses the popular literature on career choice. I think that the “don’t follow your passion” point is less novel than he’s making it out to be. I read a lot of self-help career books as a young teenager, like ‘What Color is your Parachute’, and I wasn’t left with a belief that I ought to follow my passion. If I had been, I’d have gone into music or physics, not nursing. I don’t think that “do what you love, and the money will follow” is by any means the common sense advice peddled by life coaches.

I’m more prepared to believe that pop culture says there’s a tradeoff between doing a poorly paying job that you can love, or a well-paid job that will be boring; that you may have to make a choice about which one you want. There are solid economic reasons for this to be true.

I’m not sure to what degree the author cherry-picked his examples, but it would have been very easy to do, even without realizing. The examples break down into ‘naive, idealistic people who daydreamed about being famous and quit their jobs to pursue fantasies’, and ‘driven hard-working people who pursued ambitious careers and were lucky enough to succeed big.’

If he’s trying to make the point that drive and hard work matter more than idealism, I am the easiest person to make that point to...and I still don’t like the way he makes it. Where are the ambitious people who burned out and quit? The unambitious people who found steady jobs and raised families and had gardens in their backyards and lived happily ever after? The rest of the people in the world who don’t fit clearly into one category or another?

I guess maybe my true rejection is that none of the people profiled were nurses, or anything in that reference class. The book, however it claims not to, seems to implicitly reinforce the idea that there are “good” jobs–shiny high status jobs that anyone would find impressive–and then there are jobs like community centre manager and social worker and librarian and nurse, which aren’t even worth mentioning.  


Thoughts on learning coefficients, economic demand, and how the book applies to my life

This isn’t mentioned in the book explicitly, but it’s a thought that came to me afterwards and feels related.

The “career capital”, or bargaining power, that you have in your job depends on how valuable you are to your employer. This, in turns, depends on several things: one of them is your skill relative to the other people they could be employing, but another factor is the supply/demand balance of people with your qualifications.

I’m pretty good at writing, and I suspect I could get a lot better if I spent the time. But I’m by no means an above-average nurse, even for my reference class of nurses with just under a year of experience.

I still have a ton of bargaining power, probably much more than I’d have in any job that involved my writing skills. Being a writer is cool, and lots of people want to do it, but there’s not that much need in the world for writers...and so it’s hard to make a living, even if you’re a very good writer. Nursing, on the other hand, is unglamorous and hard, and the supply/demand mismatch is in the opposite direction. As a result, less than a year out of university, I have a lot of something like career capital. I’ve managed to bargain for a flexible part-time position that lets me work basically as many or as few hours as I want to (at the cost of a weird schedule), with arbitrary flexibility to take time off and travel. I could move to approximately anywhere in the world and have a job on a few months’ notice. And I happen to like my job a lot, so I win all around. The author doesn’t mention this type of career capital at all.

Still, I guess the thing that I’m doing with my career capital–getting a flex schedule so that I can do shiny exciting things like volunteering for CFAR, without having to give up income and stability–is probably something that Newport would approve of would approve of.


1. Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, et al. “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work,” Journal of Research in Personality 31 (1997): 21?33.

Does Goal Setting Work?

30 Swimmer963 16 October 2013 08:54PM

tl;dr There's some disagreement over whether setting goals is a good idea. Anecdotally, enjoyment in setting goals and success at accomplishing them varies between people, for various possible reasons. Publicly setting goals may reduce motivation by providing a status gain before the goal is actually accomplished. Creative work may be better accomplished without setting goals about it. 'Process goals', 'systems' or 'habits' are probably better for motivation than 'outcome' goals. Specific goals are probably easier on motivation than unspecified goals. Having explicit set goals can cause problems in organizations, and maybe for individuals. 



I experimented by letting go of goals for a while and just going with the flow, but that produced even worse results. I know some people are fans of that style, but it hasn’t worked well for me. I make much better progress — and I’m generally happier and more fulfilled — when I wield greater conscious control over the direction of my life.

Steve Pavlina 

The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioural change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behaviour and thought patterns.

Ray Williams 

I can’t read these two quotes side by side and not be confused.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion within Less Wrong and CFAR about goals and goal setting. On the whole, CFAR seems to go with it being a good idea. There are some posts that recognize the possible dangers: see patrissimo’s post on the problems with receiving status by publicly committing to goals. Basically, if you can achieve the status boost of actually accomplishing a goal by just talking about it in public, why do the hard work? This discussion came up fairly recently with the Ottawa Less Wrong group; specifically, whether introducing group goal setting was a good idea.

I’ve always set goals–by ‘always’ I mean ‘as far back as I can identify myself as some vaguely continuous version of my current self.’ At age twelve, some of my goals were concrete and immediate–“get a time under 1 minute 12 seconds for a hundred freestyle and make the regional swim meet cut.” Some were ambitious and unlikely–“go to the Olympics for swimming,” and “be the youngest person to swim across Lake Ontario.” Some were vague, like “be beautiful” or “be a famous novelist.” Some were chosen for bad reasons, like “lose 10 pounds.” My 12-year-old self wanted plenty of things that were unrealistic, or unhealthy, or incoherent, but I wanted them, and it seemed to make perfect sense to do something about getting them. I took the bus to swim practice at six am. I skipped breakfast and threw out the lunch my mom packed. Et cetera. I didn't write these goals down in a list format, but I certainly kept track of them, in diary entries among other things. I sympathize with the first quote, and the second quote confuses and kind of irritates me–seriously, Ray Williams, you have that little faith in people's abilities to change?

For me personally, I'm not sure what the alternative to having goals would be. Do things at random? Do whatever you have an immediate urge to do? Actually, I do know people like this. I know people whose stated desires aren’t a good predictor of their actions at all, and I’ve had a friend say to me “wow, you really do plan everything. I just realized I don’t plan anything at all.” Some of these people get a lot of interesting stuff done. So this may just be an individual variation thing; my comfort with goal setting, and discomfort with making life up as I go, might be a result of my slightly-Aspergers need for control. It certainly comes at a cost–the cost of basing self-worth on an external criterion, and the resulting anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. I have an enormous amount of difficulty with the Buddhist virtue of ‘non-striving.’

Why the individual variation?

The concepts of the motivation equation and success spirals give another hint at why goal-driven behaviour might vary between people. Nick Winter talks about this in his book The Motivation Hacker; he shows the difference between his past self, who had very low expectancy of success and set few goals, and his present self, with high expectancy of success and with goal-directed behaviour filling most of his time.

I actually remember a shift like this in my own life, although it was back in seventh grade and I’ve probably editorialized the memories to make a good narrative. My sixth grade self didn’t really have a concept of wanting something and thus doing something about it. At some point, over a period of a year or two, I experienced some minor successes. I was swimming faster, and for the first time ever, a coach made comments about my ‘natural talent.’ My friends wanted to get on the honour roll with an 80% average, and in first semester, both of them did and I didn’t; I was upset and decided to work harder, a concept I’d never applied to school, and saw results the next semester when my average was on par with theirs. It only took a few events like that, inconsequential in themselves, before my self-image was of someone who could reliably accomplish things through hard work. My parents helpfully reinforced this self-stereotype by making proud comments about my willpower and determination.

In hindsight I'm not sure whether this was a defining year; whether it actually made the difference, in the long run, or whether it was inevitable that some cluster of minor successes would have set off the same cascade later. It may be that some innate personality trait distinguishes the people who take those types of experiences and interpret them as success spirals from those who remained disengaged.


The More Important Question

Apart from the question of personal individual variation, though, there’s a more relevant question. Given that you’re already at a particular place on the continuum from planning-everything to doing-everything-as-you-feel-like-it, how much should you want to set goals, versus following urges? More importantly, what actions are helped versus harmed by explicit goal-setting.

Creative Goals

As Paul Graham points out, a lot of the cool things that have been accomplished in the past weren’t done through self-discipline:

One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it's the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They're all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they're not interested in. One still hasn't sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I'm not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I'm often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don't run for several days, I feel ill. It's the same with people who do great things. They know they'll feel bad if they don't work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That's why he's so good.

This seems to imply that creative goals aren’t a good place to apply goal setting. But I’m not sure how much this is a fundamental truth. I recently made a Beeminder goal for writing fiction, and I’ve written fifty pages since then. I actually don’t have the writer’s virtue of just sitting down and writing; in the past, I’ve written most of my fiction by staying up late in a flow state. I can’t turn this on and off, though, and more importantly, I have a life to schedule my writing around, and if the only way I can get a novel done is to stay up all night before a 12-hour shift at the hospital, I probably won’t write that novel. I rarely want to do the hard work of writing; it’s a lot easier to lie in bed thinking about that one awesome scene five chapters down the road and lamenting that I don’t have time to write tonight because work in the morning.

Even if Shakespeare didn’t write using discipline, I bet that he used habits. That he sat down every day with a pen and parchment and fully expected himself to write. That he had some kind of sacred writing time, not to be interrupted by urgent-but-unimportant demands. That he’d built up some kind of success spiral around his ability to write plays that people would enjoy. 

Outcome versus process goals

Goal setting sets up an either-or polarity of success. The only true measure can either be 100% attainment or perfection, or 99% and less, which is failure. We can then excessively focus on the missing or incomplete part of our efforts, ignoring the successful parts. Fourthly, goal setting doesn't take into account random forces of chance. You can't control all the environmental variables to guarantee 100% success.

Ray Williams

This quote talks about a type of goal that I don't actually set very often. Most of the ‘bad’ goals that I had as a 12-year-old were unrealistic outcome goals, and I failed to accomplish plenty of them; I didn’t go to the Olympics, I didn’t swim across Lake Ontario, and I never got down to 110 pounds. But I still have the self-concept of someone who’s good at accomplishing goals, and this is because I accomplished almost all of my more implicit ‘process’ goals. I made it to swim practice seven times a week, waking up at four-thirty am year after year. This didn’t automatically lead to Olympic success, obviously, but it was hard, and it impressed people. And yeah, I missed a few mornings, but in my mind 99% success or even 90% success at a goal is still pretty awesome.

In fact, I can’t think of any examples of outcome goals that I’ve set recently. Even “become a really awesome nurse” feels like more of a process goal, because it's something I'll keep doing on a day-to-day basis, requiring a constant input of effort. 

Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, refers to this dichotomy as ‘systems’ versus ‘goals’:

Just after college, I took my first airplane trip, destination California, in search of a job. I was seated next to a businessman who was probably in his early 60s. I suppose I looked like an odd duck with my serious demeanor, bad haircut and cheap suit, clearly out of my element. I asked what he did for a living, and he told me he was the CEO of a company that made screws. He offered me some career advice. He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was a continuing process... This was my first exposure to the idea that one should have a system instead of a goal. The system was to continually look for better options.

Throughout my career I've had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.

...To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That's literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

I guess I agree with him–if you feel miserable when you've lost 9 pounds because you haven't accomplished your goal yet, and empty after you've lost 10 pounds because you no longer have a goal, then whatever you're calling 'goal setting' is a terrible idea. But that's not what 'goal setting' feels like to me. I feel increasingly awesome as I get closer towards a goal, and once it's done, I keep feeling awesome when I think about how I did it. Not awesome enough to never set another goal again, but awesome enough that I want to set lots more goals to get that feeling again.  

SMART goals

When I work with people as their coach and mentor, they often tell me they've set goals such as "I want to be wealthy," or "I want to be more beautiful/popular," "I want a better relationship/ideal partner." They don't realize they've just described the symptoms or outcomes of the problems in their life. The cause of the problem, that many resist facing, is themselves. They don't realize that for a change to occur, if one is desirable, they must change themselves. Once they make the personal changes, everything around them can alter, which may make the goal irrelevant.

Ray Williams

And? Someone has to change themselves to fix the underlying problem? Are they going to do that more successfully by going with the flow? 

I think the more important dichotomy here is between vague goals and specific goals. I was exposed to the concept of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound), at an early age, and though the concept has a lot of problems, the ability to Be Specific seems quite important. You can break down “I want to be beautiful” into subgoals like “I’ll learn to apply makeup properly”, “I’ll eat healthy and exercise”, “I’ll go clothing shopping with a friend who knows about fashion,” etc. All of these feel more attainable than the original goal, and it’s clear when they’re accomplished.

That being said, I have a hard time setting any goal that isn’t specific, attainable, and small. I’ve become more ambitious since meeting lots of LW and CFAR people, but I still don’t like large, long-term goals unless I can easily break them down into intermediate parts. This makes the idea of working on an unsolved problem, or in a startup where the events of the next year aren’t clear, deeply frightening. And these are obviously important problems that someone needs to motivate themselves to work on.

Problematic Goal-Driven Behaviour

We argue that the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behaviour, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation. Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.

Goals Gone Wild 

This is a fairly compelling argument against goal-setting; that by setting an explicit goal and then optimizing towards that goal, you may be losing out on elements that were being accomplished better before, and maybe even rewarding actual negative behaviour. Members of an organization presumably already have assigned tasks and responsibilities, and aren’t just doing whatever they feel like doing, but they might have done better with more freedom to prioritize their own work–the best environment is one with some structure and goals, but not too many. The phenomenon of “teaching to the test” for standardized testing is another example.

Given that humans aren’t best described as unitary selves, this metaphor extends to individuals. If one aspect of myself sets a personal goal to write two pages per day, another aspect of myself might respond by writing two pages on the easiest project I can think of, like a journal entry that no one will ever see. This violates the spirit of the goal it technically accomplishes.

A more problematic consideration is the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Studies show that rewarding or punishing children for tasks results in less intrinsic motivation, as measured by stated interest or by freely choosing to engage in the task. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself; faced with a nursing instructor who was constantly quizzing me on the pathophysiology of my patients’ conditions, I responded by refusing to be curious about any of it or look up the answers to questions in any more detail than what she demanded, even though my previous self loved to spend hours on Google making sense of confusing diseases. If this is a problem that affects individuals setting goals for themselves–i.e. if setting a daily writing goal makes writing less fun–then I can easily see how goal-setting could be damaging.

I also notice that I’m confused about the relationship between Beeminder’s extrinsic motivation, in the form of punishment for derailing, and its effects on intrinsic motivation. Maybe the power of success spirals to increase intrinsic motivation offsets the negative effect of outside reward/punishment; or maybe the fact that users deliberately choose to use Beeminder means that it doesn’t count as “extrinsic.” I’m not sure.



There seems to be variation between individuals, in terms of both generally purposeful behaviour, and comfort level with calling it ‘setting goals’. This might be related to success spirals in the past, or it might be a factor of personality and general comfort with order versus chaos. I’m not sure if it’s been studied.

In the past, a lot of creative behaviour wasn’t the result of deliberate goals. This may be a fundamental fact about creativity, or it may be a result of people’s beliefs about creativity (à la ego depletion only happens if you belief in ego depletion) or it may be a historical coincidence that isn’t fundamental at all. In any case, if you aren’t currently getting creative work done, and want to do more, I’m not sure what the alternative is to purposefully trying to do more. Manipulating the environment to make flow easier to attain, maybe. (For example, if I quit my day job and moved to a writers' commune, I might write more without needing to try on a day-to-day basis). 

Process goals, or systems, are probably better than outcome goals. Specific and realistic goals are probably better than vague and ambitious ones. A lot of this may be because it’s easier to form habits and/or success spirals around well-specified behaviours that you can just do every day.

Setting goals within an organization has a lot of potential problems, because workers can game the system and accomplish the letter of the goal in the easiest possible way. This likely happens within individuals too. Research shows that extrinsic motivation reduces intrinsic motivation, which is important to consider, but I'm not sure how it relates to individuals setting goals, as opposed to organizations.

How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

114 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.

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Steps to Achievement: The Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines

16 lionhearted 11 September 2010 10:58PM

Reply to: Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic

In "Humans Are Not Automatically Strategic," Anna Salamon outlined some ways that people could take action to be more successful and achieve goals, but do not:

But there are clearly also heuristics that would be useful to goal-achievement (or that would be part of what it means to “have goals” at all) that we do not automatically carry out.  We do not automatically:

  • (a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve; 
  • (b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress; 
  • (c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal; 
  • (d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past); 
  • (e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work; 
  • (f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
  • (g) Make sure that our "goal" is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won't continually sap our energies;
  • (h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting;

.... or carry out any number of other useful techniques.  Instead, we mostly just do things. 

I believe that's a fantastic list of achievement/victory heuristics. Some of these are difficult to do, though. Let's look to make this into a practical, actionable sort of document. I believe the steps outlined above can be broadly grouped. I've done it with some minor rephrasing to make it in first person plural -

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Humans are not automatically strategic

154 AnnaSalamon 08 September 2010 07:02AM

Reply to: A "Failure to Evaluate Return-on-Time" Fallacy

Lionhearted writes:

[A] large majority of otherwise smart people spend time doing semi-productive things, when there are massively productive opportunities untapped.

A somewhat silly example: Let's say someone aspires to be a comedian, the best comedian ever, and to make a living doing comedy. He wants nothing else, it is his purpose. And he decides that in order to become a better comedian, he will watch re-runs of the old television cartoon 'Garfield and Friends' that was on TV from 1988 to 1995....

I’m curious as to why.

Why will a randomly chosen eight-year-old fail a calculus test?  Because most possible answers are wrong, and there is no force to guide him to the correct answers.  (There is no need to postulate a “fear of success”; most ways writing or not writing on a calculus test constitute failure, and so people, and rocks, fail calculus tests by default.)

Why do most of us, most of the time, choose to "pursue our goals" through routes that are far less effective than the routes we could find if we tried?[1]  My guess is that here, as with the calculus test, the main problem is that most courses of action are extremely ineffective, and that there has been no strong evolutionary or cultural force sufficient to focus us on the very narrow behavior patterns that would actually be effective. 

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Human values differ as much as values can differ

13 PhilGoetz 03 May 2010 07:35PM

George Hamilton's autobiography Don't Mind if I Do, and the very similar book by Bob Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, give a lot of insight into human nature and values.  For instance: What do people really want?  When people have the money and fame to travel around the world and do anything that they want, what do they do?  And what is it that they value most about the experience afterward?

You may argue that the extremely wealthy and famous don't represent the desires of ordinary humans.  I say the opposite: Non-wealthy, non-famous people, being more constrained by need and by social convention, and having no hope of ever attaining their desires, don't represent, or even allow themselves to acknowledge, the actual desires of humans.

I noticed a pattern in these books:  The men in them value social status primarily as an ends to a means; while the women value social status as an end in itself.

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