Language: A Cluster Analysis of Reality

Cluster analysis is the process of quantitatively grouping data in such a way that observations in the same group are more similar to each other than to those in other groups. This image should clear it up.

Whenever you do a cluster analysis, you do it on a specific set of variables: for example, I could cluster a set of customers against the two variables of satisfaction and brand loyalty. In that analysis, I might identify four clusters: (loyalty:high, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:low, satisfaction:low), (loyalty:high, satisfaction:high), and (loyalty:low, satisfaction:high). I might then label these four clusters to identify their characteristics for easy reference: “supporters”, “alienated”, “fans” and “roamers”, respectively.

What does that have to do with language?

Let’s take a word, “human”. If I define “human” as “featherless biped”, I’m effectively doing three things. One, I’m clustering an n-dimensional “reality-space”, which contains all the things in the universe graphed according to their properties, against the two variables ‘feathered’ and ‘bipedal’. Two, I’m pointing to the cluster of things which are (feathered:false, bipedal:true). Three, I’m labeling that cluster “human”.

This, the Aristotelian definition of “human”, isn’t very specific. It’s only clustering reality-space on two variables, so it ends up including some things that shouldn’t actually belong in the cluster, like apes and plucked chickens. Still, it’s good enough for most practical purposes, and assuming there aren’t any apes or plucked chickens around, it’ll help you to identify humans as separate from other things, like houses, vases, sandwiches, cats, colors, and mathematical theorems.

If we wanted to be more specific with our “human” definition, we could add a few more dimensions to our cluster analysis—add a few more attributes to our definition—and remove those outliers. For example, we might define “human” as “featherless bipedal mammals with red blood and 23 pairs of chromosomes, who reproduce sexually and use syntactical combinatorial language”. Now, we’re clustering reality-space against seven dimensions, instead of just two, and we get a more accurate analysis.

Despite this, we really can’t create a complete list of all the things that most real categories have in common. Our generalizations are leaky in some way, around the edges: our analyses aren’t perfect. (This is absolutely the case with every other cluster analysis, too.) There are always observations at the edges that might be in any number of clusters. Take a look at the graph above in this post. Those blue points at the top left edge, should they really be blue, or red or green instead? Are there really three clusters, or would it be more useful to say there are two, or four, or seven?

We make these decisions when we define words, too. Deciding which cluster to place an observation happens all the time with colors: is it red or orange, blue or green? Splitting one cluster into many happens when we need to split a word in order to convey more specific meaning: for example, “person” trisects into “human”, “alien”, and “AI”. Maybe you could split the “person” cluster even further than that. On the other end, you combine two categories into one when sub-cluster distinctions don’t matter for a certain purpose. The base-level category “table” substitutes more specific terms like “dining table” and “kotatsu” when the specifics don’t matter.

You can do a cluster analysis objectively wrong. There is math, and if the math says you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If your WCSS is so high that you have a cluster that you can’t label more distinctly than “everything else”, or if it’s so low you’ve segregated your clusters beyond the point of usefulness, then you’ve done it wrong.

Many people think “you can define a word any way you like”, but this doesn’t make sense. Words are cluster analyses of reality-space, and if cluster analyses can be wrong, words can also be wrong.

This post is a summary of / is based on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essay sequence, “A Human’s Guide to Words“.

The Importance of Support

Being Jewish was always something I felt like I was in the abstract. I had a different culture than most people, I celebrated different holidays, I had a different native country, my family spoke a different language. I was different, sure, but not in any way that mattered.

Otherwise, I’m just like every other American. I celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks. I stay up late on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop on TV. Unlike many Jews, I even celebrate Christmas: my dad grew up Christian, so we decided to maintain the tradition from his side of the family. Being Jewish never got in the way of these things.

When I told people I was Jewish, I was sometimes met with confusion, but rarely with hate. In fact, it happened so infrequently that I can recall each individual instance.

This is why I was so shaken when I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. I didn’t understand how this man could look at a bunch of people who celebrated our holidays like he celebrated Christmas, who had a native culture and history like other Americans might be Irish or Norse, but who were also American citizens just like anyone else, and decide we must be eradicated off the face of the earth.

How do you look at my family on Rosh Hashannah, smiling and laughing and passing around a brisket like many families would pass around a honey ham on Christmas, and decide that “all Jews must die”?

I don’t think I can hope to know, but I was scared nonetheless.

I personally am relatively safe. I go to a different synagogue which doesn’t happen to be in a Jewish neighborhood, and I only go on high holidays when they have a decent amount of security. Everyone I know personally, even those who go to the Tree of Life, is okay. But though that diminishes the fear for the personal safety of those I know, it doesn’t do anything about the more general fear I have for my people.

If you’re a member of a majority culture, you may not understand the strong bond between members of a minority one. Try to think of it as if all Jews are members of the same extended family. (Technically speaking, with Jews in particular this is actually true; you can only become Jewish by marriage or by being the child of a Jewish family, so all Jews are in some sense related.) So, though nobody I knew personally was killed or injured, many members of my extended family were. And that feels pretty awful.

There is a light in the fog, though. It’s the reason I decided to write this essay, as opposed to many others I could have written around a similar topic. And that light is the fact that a lot of people, all of them goyim, have been asking me questions like these.

“Jen… are you okay? I mean I know you weren’t in it but… anyone you knew?”

“Hey, you okay? Cole mentioned you live near Pittsburgh.”

“Is your family safe?”

I’ve never had so many people asking after me before. It was really nice to know that so many people cared. It helped me to realize that, in the words of my skating coach, “Those who hate are a small percentage of the country. The people who love are so many more in number and power and we will always win in the end.” Just because one man thinks that I shouldn’t exist doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that.

This is the importance of support. And it’s not just about mass shootings that make national news; it’s about every crisis, big and small. If you ask one simple question, “are you okay”, you can lift one straw off someone’s breaking back. You can make their day that much more bearable. If you ever question whether or not to reach out to someone going through hardship, do it. Reach out.

It really does help.

Do People Want To Learn?

I’ve written before about how the public school system doesn’t teach the right things. But there’s a bigger problem underlying the whole rotten mess of concrete and bureaucracy that is the modern public school system. There’s one single assumption that underlies the whole thing, and that one assumption is untrue.

That false assumption? “People don’t naturally want to learn.”

If you believe people don’t naturally want to learn, then what about babies and toddlers? Nobody formally teaches little kids to sit and crawl and walk and talk, but everybody knows that all little children learn these things. It’s really obvious that little children are wired to learn and to learn voraciously. Just look at any two-year-old who annoys the grownups by asking so many questions.

So if the concept of “people don’t want to learn” doesn’t happen until later, when exactly does it happen? If you look at kids, it seems to happen right around school age. Children who a year ago would be annoying with their extreme curiosity mellow out, then proceed to sink further into “I hate learning”.

Still, the same exact children who don’t want to learn in school continue to learn voraciously about things that interest them. It may be things adults don’t approve of, like cartoon characters, or video game stats, or how to bypass the screen time lockouts on their phones. But this is still learning, and it’s still curiosity. It’s learning in absence of being forced to learn, which is why it continues to be fun. So evidently, people can and do learn things that they’re motivated to learn and interested in learning, at all ages.

“But people don’t learn the things they need to learn!” you may exclaim. Let me ask you, what exactly is it that we teach in school that people need to learn? And how do we know that they’re not going to learn those things naturally, outside of school?

What do people need to learn? Reading. Writing. Basic arithmetic. How to exist as an adult. But everyone learns these things of necessity; you can’t function in the world without them. You don’t need school to teach that. And after they have the minimum knowledge they need to function in the world, individuals follow their specific interests to logical conclusions.

Still, what about all those other things that we teach in schools? Spanish, differential equations, mitochondria, whatever? What about how to get into college?

Interestingly, there is a strong and growing subculture of people who raise their kids with no enforced education. And the research shows that these kids can get into college and have successful careers at rates equal to or even greater than that of the publicly or privately schooled population. (Sources: Smithsonian, KQED)

So if just letting kids do what they want is so great, why do we all think instinctively that it shouldn’t work?

John Holt wrote this in his book How Children Learn. “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. […] What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted.”

We don’t think unschooling should work even though it does because the societal wisdom about children, which we all have somewhere in our brains, is wrong. We were taught not to trust how children naturally learn. But we were taught by the very system that profits off not allowing children to learn naturally; we were taught propaganda.

If you don’t need to force people to learn, then, is there no place for teachers, classes, students?

No. There is still a place for that. Just look at all the non-mandatory classes that people take over their lives. People take classes in music and art and tech and science and history and every other thing. Classes can be a very effective way to learn… if the people in them want to learn.

When I was getting started as an artist, I experimented with a number of media through taking classes. When I signed up for them, they were explicitly “for adults”. Not because they had any risqué content, just because they didn’t have anybody to be the schoolteacher, the authority figure. They were meant for adults because they trusted adults. They didn’t trust children.

With some combination of my mom’s persuasive skills and my dashing charm (just kidding, I was like twelve; it was 100% my mom’s persuasive skills) I got into these classes “for adults”. One of them was a wildlife drawing class.

It was a ton of fun and a great experience. I’d been out of school for a while at that point, so I didn’t think it was strange that the teacher just walked around giving advice and making critiques, telling us to help ourselves to complimentary cookies and soda while we drew. I made a few friends in that class, most of whom were many times my age.

A few years later, I took a ceramics class. This one was explicitly “for teenagers”; I think the age range was 15-18 or 13-18 or something like that. The kind of thing that’s meant as an extracurricular for high schoolers.

It was a weird experience. Besides the complete lack of age diversity, there were a ton of really weird rules and expectations. No more than one person was allowed to leave the studio at one time to use the bathroom. I wasn’t particularly annoyed since it didn’t inconvenience me, I was just baffled. It was so unnecessary.

Not only was the class setup weird, but the teacher was also weird. They (I don’t remember their gender) were really distant and not friendly at all, and they seemed to expect this kind of deference. You know those pompous customers you get working retail, where they just expect you to hand them the universe on a silver platter? This teacher acted a bit like that.

I talked to my mom about it on the ride home, and she informed me that it wasn’t that the class or the teacher was weird. It was because it was a class for teenagers.

With classes for adults, you can be sure that 100% of the people there are there because they want to be. Nobody forces an adult to take an art class. If the student has learned what they wanted to learn, the objective of the class has been achieved. But with classes for teenagers, it’s a completely different story. The teacher can’t be sure that the student wants to be there, or wants to learn. Further, they don’t have to answer to the student; the real master for a teacher of teens is those teens’ parents.  The teacher tries their best to make the class interesting and fun, but they have to control what the kids do so that the parents are pleased, and generally act like a schoolteacher, which severely limits their ability to do that.

There is still a place for classes and teachers. These are valuable things. But the public school environment, where the students don’t want to learn and the teachers don’t want to teach and literally nobody wants to be there at all, that is not useful.

So where do we go from here? How does the establishment change?

I propose using the funds that are currently being funneled into the public school system and use it to fund optional classes, held at public libraries. After the “school subjects” are made optional, we can decide to make things mandatory which are important for everyone to know regardless of their interests; things which are necessary for functioning in modern society. Teaching basic technology, psychology, and economics would be a good start: after all, there’s an awful lot of people, tech, and money in the world right now. It also makes significant sense to teach people stuff like basic self-care and first aid, what laws there are, how to pay taxes, how to get insurance, etc etc. These mandatory things, then, can fill the psychological void left by the public school system (appeasing all the grownups who love telling kids what to do), as well as filling the physical void of the empty school buildings.

What do you think? If you’ve got ideas for how the system could be changed, or reasons why it shouldn’t be, stick them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Public School: Rethink the Concept

Let me ask you a question. If you could magically instill every youth in America with specific knowledge, what would you teach them?

Presumably, you’d want to teach them something that would be useful to every one of them, so, what kinds of things are important for every American? How about you teach them how the American government works. The world economy. The Fortune-500 companies. You could tell them which things are legal and illegal, because though everyone knows murder is illegal, there are other things that are more complicated and less obvious. You could teach them their human rights.

Perhaps you could also teach people how to take care of themselves. You could explain what medicines to take for what problems, symptoms for common ailments, and under what circumstances to go to the doctor. You could tell them about things that are harmful to their health: smoking, vaping, unprotected sex, etc. You could talk about symptoms of mental illnesses and healthy ways to cope. You could teach them first aid.

Why not also talk about practical life skills? How to get a job, vote, pay taxes, get a mortgage, get and maintain insurance, or budget finances. Most people are going to become parents, how about we teach them how to raise children?

These are not theoretical questions. We have a method of instilling knowledge into American youth. It’s called public school.

If you think about it, the basic concept is ingenious. We have a program with mandatory attendance, for which purpose we have the resources to transport children to and from a truly gargantuan number of individual buildings. At each building, we have a standardized curriculum, which has specific yearly checkpoints for completion. For twelve whole years, from age six to eighteen, we have the undivided attention of the nation! The undivided attention of the future!

Yet alas, we squander our opportunity. We teach pointless trivia that, in the age of the internet, can be found out instantly. We force people to learn things that aren’t useful to the majority of them.

Why do we do this?

Governments move slowly. The things which we teach in school today would have been much more useful to have memorized when you actually didn’t have a calculator on you, sixty or so years ago. Part of the problem is that the bureaucracy just hasn’t caught up yet.

But there’s another problem. Though people are pushing to change schools, they’re all pushing in different directions. Many of them aren’t asking the fundamental question: “what is the point of this period of mandatory education, anyway?” And of those that are asking, most reply that the goal is college. As if that does anything other than pass the buck.

It seems to me that the buck should stop immediately. The purpose of educating youth is to prepare them to be adults. One part of being an adult is making a living. Another part of being an adult is being a good citizen (knowing what laws exist and how the government works, perhaps also learning history and civics). Adults need to be financially self-sufficient. Adults need to know how to avoid scams. Adults need to know how to raise children – even if they themselves don’t have children, they will inevitably be around kids at some point. Adults need to know how to care for themselves and others.

We teach none of that in high school or college.

A lot of people have it stuck in their head that it has to work this way. That public school is supposed to be useless; as if it’s a necessary evil. That teaching everybody calculus and teaching nobody first aid is a reasonable state of affairs. It’s not.

There needs to be a complete rethinking of the purpose of the school curriculum. Not just “how do we do a better job of preparing more people for college“. Not just “how do we tweak the existing formula to make it a little better in some areas”. We need to completely rethink the concept.

My Experiences In Sales

I took this sales job at the beginning of 2018. I worked for an independent sales firm which specialized in doing door-to-door sales for huge companies that didn’t have the time to bother with such a thing themselves.

I decided to take a sales position for a few reasons. Most important of those was that I always knew that I had a major weakness in the area of social skills, and I wanted to improve at it. I figured that the best and most effective way of doing this would be to go somewhere that I was in way over my head. If you’re drowning, you only have two options: die or learn to swim. Knowing that, I walked in the door on my first day.

I’d made it through the interview process, which was as much a test of charisma as it was anything else. My father, for all he had failed dismally to pass it on to me, has always been able to exude massive charisma when necessary. And I knew from the interviews that from a charisma standpoint, I was in an office full of copies of my dad. Every single person could do backflips over the social stage, when I could hardly find the confidence to walk without tripping.

But despite all of this, I was ruthlessly determined. I was going to learn from these people, I was going to absorb this charisma that saturated the air, and I was going to come out of this experience stronger. That was the goal, I thought as I was shown into the main meeting room.

I learned that a conversation with a prospect was broken out into five main sections: the intro or elevator pitch, the questioning, the presentation, the rehash, and the close. On the first day, we learned the intro pitch, which I will probably still be able to recite many years from now. “Hi, how’s it going? So nothing crazy, my name’s Jenya, and I’m dropping by really quickly on behalf of Verizon. [Did I mention our main client was Verizon? It was.] We’ve done a ton of updates around here, helped out a bunch of your neighbors, and I’m just here to see how I can help you too.”

We dissected it based on what they called the “four factors of impulse”, which were as follows: Jones Effect, or the impulse to want what others have; Fear of Loss, or the fear of missing out on an opportunity; Sense of Urgency, or the importance of both the salesperson’s time and the prospect’s; and Indifference, or the necessity for a salesperson to not act like a salesperson, since prospects don’t trust salespeople.

I recited that pitch to myself in the car on the way home. I recited it as I was washing my face and getting ready for bed. I recited intermittently through the entire next day, which I had off. And by the day after, I had it solidly memorized.

Evidently, this was impressive and unusual. We practiced our pitches in the office the next day, and the more experienced salespeople were impressed. In the afternoon I got the opportunity to practice it “in the field”. I’d knock on the prospect’s door, introduce myself and also the person who was mentoring me, and after I finished the pitch, I would pass the proverbial baton to my mentor so they could keep talking with the prospect. That first day, we collectively made a sale, and I got to keep half the proceeds.

I was tentatively optimistic, but I refused to let my determination slip. Hearing “no” over and over wasn’t hard when I wasn’t doing much, but I imagined that when I was controlling the conversation, it would be harder. Still, the fact that a seasoned professional still got a ton of “no”s gave me some very useful perspective.

The next day, I learned the questions: a complicated decision tree based on what the prospect’s answers were. After “how many TVs do you have” was “do you use DVR”; if they said “no”, you moved on, but if they said “yes”, there were a number of so-called “deeper questions” that you had to ask about it. There was no such thing as a learning curve here: we still had only one day to learn this, but it was fifty times as complex as the pitch.

I took exceedingly prolific notes and stuck the notebook I’d taken them on into a bag. Every piece of paper, every chart and graph and magazine article that I was given, I stuck into that bag. It was my sales bag, and every time I needed anything, I could get it from there. When I got home every day, around 10pm (our shifts were 10am-8pm, and I had over an hour commute each way), I would review everything in my bag in detail. For this reason, I never had to be told anything twice.

I deep-dove into this so much partially just because that’s what I do, but also because I knew I had to make up for my lack of natural sociability. Growing up, I had been reprimanded a number of times for using the wrong tone, saying the wrong thing, or otherwise not intuitively knowing what to do in a social situation. I had absolutely no social sense, and so during this job, I asked a number of what they probably thought of as incredibly strange questions. How far away from the door should I stand? Where should I put my hands? How often should I make eye contact? What tone should I use during what segment of the conversation? All these sorts of ridiculously specific questions that they had probably never thought about, since they don’t think about what tone they use, they just use it.

But I asked these stupid questions, and I got better. I may not be able to intuit what to do in a social situation, but I can sure as heck analyze it to death and memorize every minute difference. So, just like my pitch, I analyzed the conversations. I analyzed my tone, eye contact, gestures, body language. I analyzed those things for the prospect, too. When I didn’t know something, I didn’t think about how dumb it was to not know it, I just asked. And I took liberal notes. Then in the mornings and evenings and during any other time when I wasn’t doing schoolwork (because remember I was in college too), I reviewed my notes. Use a low tone when stating facts. Avoid crossing your arms. Put one foot one step above the other when on a staircase. Take two steps away from the door after you knock. Use eye contact for emphasis when you’re talking, and during the whole time the prospect is talking.

After a few months, though, I noticed that I was stagnating. My peers were making sales on their own, but I wasn’t. I had learned everything I could, and I didn’t know what else I could do. I got frustrated. Not the kind of momentary frustration, the kind that spikes up when you spill a drink; this was a long, drawn-out frustration that seeped into my mind over the course of these stagnant weeks, when I was walking six miles up and down peoples’ doorsteps, knocking on a hundred and fifty doors, working a twelve-hour day, and coming home long after it had gotten dark with nothing to show for it all.

To make it worse, around this point, my greatest mentor quit. He had been the greatest help to me overall: he gave detailed explanations of what to do in each specific situation, he knew like a good coach exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it, and he communicated clearly. Not only that, he was a delight to have around, and he was consistently one of the people in the office who made the best numbers.

Even after all of this it was hard for me to get up the nerve to quit. I had known from the get-go that I wasn’t suited for a long-term career in sales, but I didn’t want to be one of those people who just quit when the going got rough. It took a long conversation with my mother about priorities for me to see past this. I went into this with the goal of improving my social skills, and I had succeeded. Yes, it would have been nice to make more sales, but at the end of the day, this wasn’t what I wanted to do professionally. I didn’t need to be frustrated with my lack of success in something I’d only gone into in the first place because I knew I would be awful at it. So soon after, I handed in my resignation.

The lessons I learned from this tough period follow me to this day. Through this process I learned what it’s like to be literally the worst person in a group at something. Growing up, I’d never had that opportunity, since I was always in the top 1% of everything (I’m one of those weirdos that thrived naturally in the school system). It was hard to be the worst, but it was also useful: I could learn from literally everyone.

I learned grit and determination. The experience created for me a crazy high benchmark that I can always compare future stressful events against. No matter what I go through, I can think, “this is easier than taking multiple extremely difficult classes, none of which I find fun or satisfying, on top of having a full-time job that I suck abysmally at; as such, I can get through this.”

I learned how to be cheerful no matter what. Growing up a performer, I thought I knew how to be cheerful in the extremes of misery: after all, I went out in -10º weather, in the snow and freezing rain, in a skimpy leotard, skated around a sheet of ice at 30+ mph for five or six minutes at a stretch, and had to make it all look easy.

Sales made that look like a walk in the park. I walked around neighborhoods in the snow and freezing rain, not for six minutes, but for six hours. I walked up and down many flights of stairs in the grueling heat, too; something I never had to do as a figure skater. And when I got to peoples’ doors, I couldn’t grimace in the slightest. Unlike in skating, where the audience sees you from fifty feet away and won’t notice a tiny crease in your brow, your prospect will see you from two feet away. They will notice.

I also learned how to take “no” for an answer, and in fact to take it in stride. Just because of how the numbers play out, even the best salesperson in the world won’t be able to get a “yes” from every single prospect. There will be people who, say, work for Comcast and get their internet for free. There will be people who slam the door in your face. And you just have to deal with that, don’t let it shake you, and move right along. Next to their name on your list, write “110” and put a diagonal line between the 1s.

But most importantly, I learned how to sell. I learned the details of how the sales funnel works. I learned how to direct a conversation. I learned the difference between a legitimate “no” and a “no” that comes only from a fear of change. I learned how to make smalltalk (a surprisingly huge part of sales!). I learned to speak and persuade off-the-cuff.

Sales would have been an awful career choice for me, but taking a sales job anyway was one of the most useful experiences of my life.

Dating: A Rational Approach

About four years ago, I decided I wanted to find a life partner. Primarily because I was socially oblivious and didn’t know any different, I took an analytical approach to do this—as we all do with other important areas of our lives. The entire process took me a matter of weeks and I have since been in a committed relationship for four years.

For a long time, primarily because of the fact that my method was so unorthodox and unheard-of, I largely imagined that the normal way of doing things was the best method, and I was a lucky fluke. But a number of recent conversations and some reading has led me to consider that maybe I’m one of the only people who does this right.

Before I dive into this, let’s establish a key point: if you’re going to get married, it is absolutely the most important decision of your life. While your choice of career dictates how you spend a good portion of your life, who you marry dictates how you spend all of your life, because it dictates who you spend your life with. The best recipe for misery is a bad marriage, and the best recipe for greatness is either no marriage or a great one.

John T. Reed, author of Succeeding, wrote about both the great importance of marrying the right person, and the haphazard way that many people take to get there. He writes, “The divorce rate is about 50% in the U.S. The median duration of marriages is seven years—just enough time to have some kids and acquire property so that the divorce really screws things up. […] Why are so many people screwing up the most important decision of their lives? Look at how they go about it. I read a book once that said most Americans feel the correct way to meet your spouse is ‘chance proximity’. […]  ‘Some enchanted evening, you will meet a stranger across a crowded room.’ Ask an old maid or old bachelor why they never married and they often tell you that the right person never ‘came along’. ‘Came along’! You gotta be kidding me! People make more effort to buy the right used car!”

And he’s right! Why, of all our important life decisions, do we fudge this one?

My best guess at a reason is this: habit is a powerful force, and societal habit is even more so. This way of coming at meeting spouses began when communities were small enough that putting forth much of a deliberate effort was unnecessary, and it’s perpetuated itself into modern society on our collective force of habit.

Nowadays, though, there are so many more people, and so many more ways to meet those people, that a systematic approach to dating is in order. Read Succeeding for John Reed’s method; below I’ll detail my own.

First, create a list, as comprehensive as you want to make it, of every important trait you want in a partner. This is physical traits (i.e., a beard), personality traits (i.e., wanderlust), or anything else you can think of. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it, from most to least important.

Now, make a similar list of everything you don’t want in a partner. Be specific, but feel free to be obvious – while “emotionally manipulative” is an obvious anti-want, it might still be useful to put it on the list. Once you’ve made this list, rank-order it.

After you’ve done both of these, now it’s time to do some market research. What kind of dating pools exist? While answering this question, be sure to keep in mind which of these you’ll be willing to utilize. If you live in the U.S. and lack the budget or inclination to travel, it might be out of the question to try to find a date at a convention in London. If you’re considering internet-based dating pools, make sure you think about whether you’re willing to be long-distance for an extended period. Make a list of some potential dating pools and rank-order the list by feasibility.

Now it’s time to merge all these lists. Figure out what kind of person you’re mostly going to find at each of these dating pools and compare that to your lists of wants and anti-wants. Re-rank your list of dating pools against these criteria, then compare your list of dating pools ranked by plausibility of candidates against your list ranked by feasibility. Whatever dating pool is ranked highest in both (feel free to bias your ranking toward whichever you think is more important for you), make plans to go there.

Let’s go through my own story as an example. My list of wants included someone who is sensitive, who is okay with going against the grain, and who could adapt to my hectic lifestyle. My list of anti-wants included someone who is overly pompous or self-centered. I was young and very broke, so my options for dating pools were financially limited, but I also didn’t mind distance (I’d never really been taught that it was supposed to be hard, so I didn’t think it would be; and now, after having “suffered” two years of distance, I maintain that view). Based on my specific desires, dislikes, and difficulties, I was able to put at the top of my dating pool priority list a convention in Baltimore that ran three days in August.

This process is not over once you arrive at your dating pool: aimless drifting is still not a good plan (though it’s a better plan here than it would be elsewhere). No, now were going to systematically look for possible candidates.

To start with, walk around and scan crowds, finding people you find physically attractive. This is easy to judge from a distance just by a look, so do that first. Second, walk up to some attractive people and have conversations.

Think of this like going to a used car dealership. First, you look around the lot to see which cars are aesthetically pleasing. Then, you go around to some of the ones you think look nice enough, and you sit in the driver’s seat. You can find out a lot about a car just by sitting behind the wheel – just like you can find out a lot about a person just by having a conversation. And just like you don’t need to take every car in the lot on a test drive, you also don’t need to take every candidate on a date.

This variety of speed-dating has the benefit that you don’t mess with anyone’s heart—theirs or yours. You simply have a list of traits to compare this person against, and all you’re doing is comparing.

An important thing to do as you continue conversing with people is to take notes from your conversations and update your lists accordingly. If you started with a list item saying you want to meet people who do X, but when you actually met several people who did X they didn’t seem appealing to you, modify the list! If initially you thought that people who did Y were unbearable, but you met some people who did Y and they actually were fine, modify the list! Make sure to also modify the priority order of things if necessary.

These lists are not set in stone. In fact, it would be silly to have your actual experience with real people take second place to what you dreamed up about what real people might be like.

Once you’ve gone up and talked to a bunch of attractive people (my benchmark was 25, but you can do more or less, depending on what you think will work for you), you’ll likely have a small set (2-3) of people who you like the best. Ask them on formal dates. Once you’ve spent a few hours alone with each person, you’ll almost certainly have a winner.

Pretty good, eh? The only thing we still need is to account for feelings. It’s all well and good to meet a person you think would be perfect, but you both need to fall for each other. How do you account for that? Very simply, actually. If you start to feel something good for them as you’re talking, keep talking. And, as you usually do when you date the conventional way, look for signs that they like you back. If you’d like to improve your chances, you can try to ask some or all of the questions on this list. Humans are hardwired to fall in love: it doesn’t take too much of a push.

Now, if by the end of your first venture into a dating pool, you don’t have a life partner yet, don’t worry! Just go on back to your lists and find your second choice for a dating pool, then rinse and repeat. It may also be possible that your criteria are too broad, or too narrow, or you were wrong about what kinds of people frequent what places. If so, don’t sweat, just go back and revise your lists with your new knowledge. Then go on back into the world and keep at it! Having a systematic approach will work so much better than just waiting for someone to “come along”, and it will feel better, too. You’re being way more productive!

Obviously, this is a very different approach than the conventional one. But if you step back and think logically about how people should go about making this choice, it’s a much more reasonable approach. I’m sure there will be people saying it’s “not romantic”, but approaches like these have resulted in lasting relationships: my father took a similarly systematic approach to dating and my parents have been together for thirty years; John Reed followed a similar approach and was married for much longer. You don’t need to take my four-year relationship as your only data point.

Furthermore, “romantic” should mean “spontaneous”, not “stumbled into”. Too often, people confuse the two. Romance doesn’t have to be about random chance.

How to Be the Best in the World

There’s a common thing repeated by people trying to tell people to diversify their skillsets: that being the best at one specific thing is functionally impossible. Take this bit from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

  1. Become the best at one specific thing.
  2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

Adams’s point about the second strategy is golden. It’s excellent advice with a personal example, and many people would do well to apply it. However, I would contest with him on the first point.

There are two types of examples people cite when they try to make the point that being the best in the world at one thing is impossible: fields that have very specific, unchangeable rulesets, and fields that are very broad. Adams references playing in the NBA and making a platinum album: these are examples of the first type.

Now, I’m not trying to say that Adams isn’t absolutely correct about both of these examples; he is. The problem is that neither of them actually apply to the majority of the people in the work world.

For a field that has specific, unchangeable rulesets, such as just about any sport, there is only one way to succeed in these fields: be in the top fraction of a fraction of a percent. As such, not only does success require the kind of absolute, relentless focus that means pursuit of it takes over your entire life, it also requires a non-negligible amount of birth lottery: no matter how hard you try, you can’t play in the NBA if you’re 5’3″. And yet, I have never seen or heard of a job that has such steadfast rules as a sport: the work world is much more malleable.

Now let’s look at the other type of example: exceedingly broad fields. Adams doesn’t give such an example, but it’s easy to find one: being the best writer in the world, being the best programmer, etc. Now, at first glance, these seem like they apply to the work world, and they also seem like they confirm the “you can’t be the best at one thing” wisdom. Except they don’t. Because these examples are all far too broad.

Setting out to be the best writer in the world would, yes, be inconceivably difficult, and likely impossible. But this isn’t because you particularly need to combine your writing skill with some other skill in order to succeed: it’s because you need to niche down. You may not be able to be the best writer in the world, but I’m sure you can become the go-to guy for famous people who want books ghostwritten for them. You may not be able to be the best programmer, but you can become something like a guy my mother knows.

My mother works in Navision (abbreviated Nav), a type of ERP software owned by Microsoft. Essentially, Nav is a UI that makes SQL easy for accountants to use. However, as with any UI with a complicated back-end, sometimes the back-end does something funky. And as with any time a program does something funky, there is a niche for a programmer who can fix it.

In this case, the man who occupies that niche is Ahmed Amini. Everybody who does Nav programming knows who he is, and if you have a strange SQL problem, he’s always your go-to. Over fifteen years while my mother has worked with Nav, he has been recommended or mentioned countless times. He didn’t diversify his skillset. He just became the Nav SQL guy.

I’ll give another example. I know a cardiac surgeon by the name of Dave Garber, and he specializes in a very specific procedure (I don’t recall the name) by which an artery in the thigh is transplanted and used to fix something with the heart. This is now nearly everything he does, because he is the best at it. He didn’t diversify his skillset either. He just became the surgeon for this procedure.

How did this happen? The first step is to find something you seem good at within your field, that most people aren’t. Next, specialize in it. Seek it out. Try to do more of the thing that you’re good at. Over time, other people in your field will realize that you are very good at the thing, and they’ll start recommending you as the go-to.

Once you’re here, you’re golden, because it creates a virtuous cycle: you’re good at the thing, so you do good work, so people see the good work and recommend you, so you do more of the thing, and you get the opportunity to get even better, so you do even better work, and so on.

This is how you become the best at a field. Pick a niche you’re good at, specialize in it, and then let the word-of-mouth about your excellent work take it from there. No skill diversification needed.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s true. I’m a big believer in truth. I like it when people have accurate beliefs about what’s possible and what’s not. If “become the best at a thing” has been moved from your mental “not possible” bucket to your “possible” bucket, this post has done its job.

Skillset-diversifying is still an excellent option. It may be the best option for you. But if that’s the case, it’s still the best option if it’s not the only one out there. And if it’s not the best option, know that you do have others.