Having It All Figured Out Is Overrated

I’ve pretty much known my purpose in life since I can remember.

So far as I can tell, I just had a really strange reaction to the concept of death. I first heard about it and I basically thought, wow, this is a problem, this really sucks, someone should do something about it. But as a kid, I just thought the grownups would take care of it, just the same way they would take care of my skinned knee.

As I got a little older, though, being very vocal as I’ve always been about my thoughts on death, I realized the grownups weren’t going to fix it. In fact, they seemed pretty damn complacent about the regularly-occurring permanent destruction of human consciousness. And so, being the egomaniac I am, I decided to personally fix this problem.

As I started high school (and college), my first classes were in lab sciences. After all, mortality is a biological problem and would likely have a primarily biological solution. But as I soon learned, much to my dismay, I suck at lab sciences.

Frustratingly, knowing your purpose doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

I immediately changed my focus from biology to computer science. The basic idea was very vague – I think it went something like, “since I’m no good at the science, I’ll make a ton of money and pay somebody else to do the science”.

But I went after it for four years, taking every computer science class my college offered. By the end of that, my new goal had developed into something slightly more cogent: I would create a series of technology-focused startups and become a billionaire, then use the money to fund a nonprofit research company. As soon as the nonprofit produced something promising, it could spin off into its own for-profit startup and start selling it.

I didn’t worry too much about not having any grand ideas for tech startups. I knew I would first have to become the kind of person who could actually execute successfully against a great startup idea if it fell in her lap. So, I made a list of stuff I would need to know to create and run a successful business, from programming to finance to business law, and set to work on ticking items off the list.

By the end of high school and college (which I completed simultaneously for efficiency), I headed across the country in lieu of completing my four-year degree, content with an Associate’s in Computer Information Systems. Toward the end of my schooling, I’d worked full-time at a sales firm for six months, and now I was headed to work in marketing for another six months.

I can’t elaborate past this point, since I’m still living it.

This all probably makes me sound very cool, but that’s only because I conveniently left out all the bad bits. I left out the part where I sobbed into my sister’s arms over the B in chemistry that I squeaked out with all my effort. I left out the part where I had a three-week-long existential crisis over my decision to not attend a four-year college. And I left out the fact that I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing a lot of the time.

It matters how you spin things.

Knowing your purpose is useful, but it’s hardly the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t magic away your insecurities or your problems. It doesn’t make you a good person. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you actually know your purpose: you might just think you do.

Becoming a sociable, mature, capable, hardworking, understanding, responsible, reasonable, rational, good person has not been any easier just because I’ve known my life’s purpose since I was 3. In fact, being a socially awkward egomaniac with a really weird impossible goal has made some of that stuff harder. And knowing my purpose hasn’t made any of those things less important, either: it’s made a lot of them more important.

There is no amount of awesomeness that makes you immune to insecurity. People I’ve met around here, with more raw talent and chutzpah than I’ve ever mustered for anything, are still insecure. It’s common to every human. And at least in my opinion, there’s solidarity in that.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

Why Rationality?

I’ve identified as a rationalist for about five years now. The dictionary definitions are a bit off from what I mean, so here’s my definition.

Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory.  The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible.  This correspondence is commonly termed “truth” or “accuracy”, and we’re happy to call it that.

Instrumental rationality: achieving your values.  Not necessarily “your values” in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: “your values” means anything you care about.  The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences.  On LW we sometimes refer to this as “winning”.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “What Do We Mean By ‘Rationality’?”, LessWrong

Of course, these two definitions are really subsets of the same general concept, and they intertwine considerably. It’s somewhat difficult to achieve your values without believing true things, and similarly, it’s difficult (for a human, at least) to search for truth in absence of wanting to actually do anything with it. Still, it’s useful to distinguish the two subsets, since it helps to distinguish the clusters in concept-space.

So if that’s what I mean by rationality, then why am I a rationalist? Because I like believing true things and achieving my values. The better question here would be “why is everyone not a rationalist?”, and the answer is that, if it was both easy to do and widely known about, I think everyone would be.

Answering why it isn’t well-known is more complicated than answering why it isn’t easy, so, here are a handful of the reasons for the latter. (Written in the first person, because identifying as a rationalist doesn’t make me magically exempt from any of these things, it just means I know what they are and I do my best to fix them.)

  • I’m running on corrupted hardware. Looking at any list of cognitive biases will confirm this. And since I’m not a self-improving agent—I can’t reach into my brain and rearrange my neurons; I can’t rewrite my source code—I can only really make surface-level fixes to these extremely fundamental bugs. This is both difficult and frustrating, and to some extent scary, because it’s incredibly easy to break things irreparably if you go messing around without knowing what you’re doing, and you would be the thing you’re breaking.
  • I’m running on severely limited computing power. “One of the single greatest puzzles about the human brain,” Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, “is how the damn thing works at all when most neurons fire 10-20 times per second, or 200Hz tops. […] Can you imagine having to program using 100Hz CPUs, no matter how many of them you had?  You’d also need a hundred billion processors just to get anything done in realtime. If you did need to write realtime programs for a hundred billion 100Hz processors, one trick you’d use as heavily as possible is caching. That’s when you store the results of previous operations and look them up next time, instead of recomputing them from scratch. […] It’s a good guess that the actual majority of human cognition consists of cache lookups.” Since most of my thoughts are cached, when I get new information, I need to resist my brain’s tendency to rely on those cached thoughts (which can end up in my head by accident and come from anywhere), and actually recompute my beliefs from scratch. Else, I end up with a lot of junk.
  • I can’t see the consequences of the things I believe. Now, on some level being able to do this (with infinite computing power) would be a superpower: in that circumstance all you’d need is a solid grasp of quantum physics and the rest would just follow from there. But humans don’t just lack the computing power; we can believe, or at least feel like we believe, two inherently contradictory things. This concept is, in psychology, called “cognitive dissonance”.
  • As a smart human starting from irrationality, knowing more information can easily hurt me. Smart humans naturally become very good at clever arguing—arguing for a predetermined position with propositions convoluted enough to confuse and confound any human arguer, even one who is right—and can thus use their intelligence to defeat itself with great efficiency. They argue against the truth convincingly, and can still feel like they’re winning while running away from the goal at top speed. Therefore, in any argument, I have to dissect my own position just as carefully, if not more carefully, than I dissect those of my opponents. Otherwise, I come away more secure in my potentially-faulty beliefs, and more able to argue those beliefs against the truth.

This is a short and incomplete list, of some of the problems that are easiest to explain. It’s by no means the entire list, or the list which would lend the most emotional weight to the statement “it’s incredibly difficult to believe true things”. But I do hope that it shed at least a little light on the problem.

If rationality is really so difficult, then, why bother?

In my case, I say “because my goal is important enough to be worth the hassle”. In general, I think that if you have a goal that’s worth spending thirty years on, that goal is also worth trying to be as rational as humanly possible about. However, I’d go a step further. Even if the goal is worth spending a few years or even months on, it’s still worth being rational about, because not being rational about it won’t just waste those years or months; it may waste your whole career.

Why? Because the universe rarely arrives at your doorstep to speak in grave tones, “this is an Important Decision, make it Wisely”. Instead, small decisions build to larger ones, and if those small decisions are made irrationally, you may never get the chance to make a big mistake; the small ones may have already sealed your doom. Here’s a personal example.

From a very young age, I wanted to go to Stanford. I learned that my parents had met there when I was about six, and I decided that I was going to go too. Like most decisions made by six-year-olds, this wasn’t based on any meaningful intelligence, let alone the full cost-benefit analysis that such a major life decision should have required. But I was young, and I let myself believe the very convenient thought that following the standard path would work for me. This was not, itself, the problem. The problem was that I kept on thinking this simplified six-year-old thought well into my young adulthood.

As I grew up, I piled all sorts of convincing arguments around that immature thought, rationalizing reasons I didn’t actually have to do anything difficult and change my beliefs. I would make all sorts of great connections with smart interesting people at Stanford, I thought, as if I couldn’t do the same in the workforce. I would get a prestigious degree that would open up many doors, I thought, as if working for Google isn’t just as prestigious but will pay you for the trouble. It will be worth the investment, the cached thoughts of society thought for me, and I didn’t question them.

I continued to fail at questioning them every year after, until the beginning of my senior year. At that point, I was pretty sick of school, so this wasn’t rationality, but a motivated search. But it was a search nonetheless, and I did reject the cached thoughts which I’d built up in my head for so long, and as I took the first step outside my bubble of predetermined cognition, I instantly saw a good number of arguments against attending Stanford. I realized that it had a huge opportunity cost, in both time and money. Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars should not have been parted with that lightly.

And yet, even after I realized this, I was not done. It would have been incredibly easy to reject the conclusion I’d made because I didn’t want all that work to have been a waste. I was so close: I had a high SAT, I’d gotten good scores on 6 AP tests, including the only two computer science APs (the area I’d been intending to major in), and I’d gotten National Merit Commended Scholar status. All that would have been left was to complete my application, which I’m moderately confident I would have done well on, since I’m a good writer.

That bitterness could have cost me my life. Not in the sense that I would die for it immediately, but in the sense that everyone is dying for anything they spend significant time on, because everyone is dying. And it was here that rationality was my saving grace. I knew about the sunk cost fallacy. I knew that at this point I should scream “OOPS” and give up. I knew that at this point I should lose.

I bit my tongue, and lost.

I don’t know where I would end up if I hadn’t been able to lose here. The optimistic estimate is that I would have wasted four years, but gotten some form of financial aid or scholarship such that the financial cost was lower, and further, that in the process of attending college, I wouldn’t gain any more bad habits, I wouldn’t go stir-crazy from the practical inapplicability of the material (this was most of what had frustrated me about school before), and I would come out the other end with a degree but not too much debt and a non-zero number of gained skills and connections. That’s a very optimistic estimate, though, as you can probably tell given the way I wrote out the details. (Writing out all the details that make the optimistic scenario implausible is one of my favorite ways of combatting the planning fallacy.) There are a lot more pessimistic estimates, and it’s much more likely that one of those would happen.

Just by looking at the decision itself, you wouldn’t think of it as a particularly major one. Go to college, don’t go to college. How bad could it be, you may be tempted to ask. And my answer is, very bad. The universe is not fair. It’s not necessarily going to create a big cause for a big event: World War I was caused by some dude having a pity sandwich. Just because you feel like you’re making a minor life choice doesn’t mean you are, and just because you feel like you should be allowed to make an irrational choice just this once doesn’t mean the universe isn’t allowed to kill you anyway.

I don’t mean to make this excessively dramatic. It’s possible that being irrational here wouldn’t have messed me up. I don’t know, I didn’t live that outcome. But I highly doubt that this was the only opportunity I’ll get to be stupid. Actually, given my goals, I think it’s likely I’ll get a lot more, and that the next ones will have much higher stakes. In the near future, I can see people—possibly including me—making decisions where being stupid sounds like “oops” followed by the dull thuds of seven billion bodies hitting the floor.

This is genuinely the direction the future is headed. We are becoming more and more able to craft our destines, but we are flawed architects, and we must double and triple check our work, else the whole world collapses around us like a house on a poor foundation. If that scares you, irrationality should scare you. It sure terrifies the fuck out of me.

I Want To Cure Mortality.

Do you want to live forever?

No? Okay, let me phrase it another way. Do you want to live tomorrow?

Most people answer yes to this second question, even if they said no to the first. (If you didn’t say yes to the second, that’s typically called suicidal ideation, and there are hotlines for that.)

This doesn’t quite make sense to me. If I came to you tomorrow, and I asked the same question, “Do you want to live tomorrow?”, you’d probably still say yes; likewise with the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. Under normal circumstances, you’ll probably keep saying yes to that question forever. So why don’t you want to live forever?

Maybe, you think that the question “do you want to live forever” implies “do you want to be completely incapable of dying, and also, do you want to be the only immortal person around”. Not being able to die, ever, could be kind of sucky, especially if you continued to age. (There was a Greek myth about that.) Further, being the only person among those you care about who can’t die would also suck, since you’d witness the inevitable end of every meaningful relationship you had.

But these sorts of arbitrary constraints are the realm of fiction. First, if a scientist invented immortality, there would be no justifiable reason that it wouldn’t be as available to those you care about as it would be to you. Second, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just stop people from aging than it is to altogether make a human completely impervious to anything which might be lethal. When I say “yes” to “do you want to live forever”, it’s induction on the positive integers, not a specific vision whose desire spans infinity.

Even after I’ve made sure we’re on the same page as to what exactly real immortality might look like, some people still aren’t convinced it would be a good idea. A decent amount of the arguments are some variant on “death gives meaning to life”.

To this, I’ll borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s allegory: if everybody got hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, soon enough people would start coming up with all sorts of benefits associated with it, like, it makes your head stronger, or it makes you appreciate the days you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if I took a given person who was not being hit on the head with a truncheon every week, and asked them if they’d like to start, for all these amazing benefits, I think they’d say no. Wouldn’t you?

People make a virtue of necessity. They’d accept getting hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, just as they now accept the gradual process of becoming more and more unable to do things they enjoy, being in pain more often than not, and eventually ceasing to exist entirely. That doesn’t make it a good thing, it just demonstrates peoples’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

These are the reasons I’ve made it my goal to cure mortality. The motivation is extremely similar to anyone’s motivation to cure any deadly disease. Senescence is a terminal illness, which I would like to cure.

It disrupts the natural order, but so does curing any other disease. Cholera was the natural order for thousands of years, but we’ve since decided it’s bad, and nowadays nobody is considering the idea of mixing sewage with drinking water to bring it back. There were tons of diseases that were part of the natural order right up until we eradicated them. We don’t seem to have any trouble, as a society, deciding that cancer is bad. But death itself—the very thing we’re trying to prevent by curing all these diseases—is somehow not okay to attack directly.

Here’s the bottom line. I know for a fact I’m not the only one with this goal. Some of the people at MIRI come to mind, as well as João Pedro de Magalhães. I’d personally love to contribute to any of these causes. If you know someone, or are someone, who’s working towards this goal, I’d love to join you.

How To Make A Resolution

I have never once made a New Year’s resolution. I have never decided to change something significant about my life, starting on January 1st.

That isn’t to say that I’ve never decided to change something significant about my life. I decided I was sick of being overweight and out of shape, and I started hitting the gym. But I did that in April. I decided that I wanted to learn how to speak Japanese. But I did that in September. I’ve resolved to do a lot of things, but I never hung around twiddling my thumbs until January to start actually doing them.

This seems, at least to me, to be the reasonable course of action. If something about your life needs changing, it makes sense to start changing it as soon as possible. If you decide you want to quit smoking, program in Python, speak Mandarin Chinese, lose thirty pounds… start right now, not at year’s end.

Now, perhaps people make resolutions on New Year’s because the start of a new year prompts people to look over their life and actually make the decision that they want to change their lives. This seems like a reasonable argument at first, but then you have to consider that the culture of making resolutions on New Year’s is really more a method of putting people under the gun and demanding that they find a Grand Way To Change™, rather than a way of sparking consideration or discussion on the possible ways one’s life could change direction.

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t even keep their New Year’s resolutions. Actually, a frankly huge number of people don’t keep them, to the extent that I frequently wonder whey people even bother setting them. (I read a statistic that around 8% of people keep their resolutions, which seems likely, but I can’t find the original research, so I won’t tout that as fact.)

What’s wrong with people? Why do we have a societal expectation where, once a year, people will set goals, then fail to follow through with them? Why do we harbor a culture of annual disappointment?

Part of the reason people don’t keep resolutions is that there is no actual change happening between December 31st and January 1st. They’re two days which are right next to each other, just like March 18th and March 19th. The only significance to that particular collection of days is the cultural expectation we’ve attached to them: that is, a new year should be a quantum shift of progress.

The cultural expectation of some kind of quantum shift, coupled with the fact that no such quantum shift actually happens, leads otherwise reasonable people to set incredibly unrealistic goals for no good reason. People who, if they made this kind of goal in mid-March, would say “I’m going to try and start hitting the gym once a week on Sunday afternoons”, suddenly go off on ridiculous moonshots like “I’m going to start hitting the gym every single day as soon as I get home from work, and I’m also going to cut my carbs in half and become a vegan” as soon as December 31st rolls around.

As such, my best recommendation for how to set resolutions and then follow through on them is to not set them on New Year’s. Any other time of year will have much less pressure attached to it.

Actually, I amend that statement. It’s probably better not to set resolutions at all. Just decide that you want to improve in an area, and get started with the baby steps right away.

A big goal like “I want to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese”, even if you have a pretty good idea what ‘conversationally fluent’ means, can be incredibly daunting. That kind of thing will absolutely take you years, maybe decades, and looking at the whole thing at once can just make you want to quit outright. On the other hand, googling “beginner Chinese lessons” and watching a handful of funny animated Youtube videos on the subject is easy.

This works with every big goal. “I want to lose thirty pounds”. Okay, how about we start with keeping track of what you’re eating? “I want to find a life partner.” Okay, how about we start with making a list of qualities you find attractive in another human? Break it down until you’ve found a thing you can do right now. Then do it. Right now.

These kinds of “resolutions”—goals with no particular time limit that you’re setting purely for self-improvement—should theoretically be the easiest kinds of goals you set. Whereas in the work world, you have specific deadlines and deliverables, you don’t have any of those in your personal life. You don’t need to learn Chinese in five years. Maybe you want to, but that’s not actually the same thing. Personally, I’d like to learn Japanese in less than a decade. But I’m not going to be fired from my job if I don’t achieve that goal on schedule.

A resolution should be a matter of fun, personal self-improvement, not of disappointing annual self-loathing. So, even and especially if you’re not reading this on New Year’s – what’s your new resolution?