Question from a reader -
Hi! Interested to hear your thoughts about this: where do you draw the line between impossible and huge-effort-possible goals?
First, I'll be honest. I don't have a perfect neat answer for this that's epiphany generating... I'm going to try to work through it on paper, and I appreciate feedback from everyone in the comments if you have related ideas.
Let's get started. First and foremost, I can't say this enough - study history! If you don't study history, you don't know what's possible. Period. You need to study history if you want to know what's possible.
Here's some good people to brush up on. Now, most people's reaction is, "I couldn't do that! He did so much!" But trace their steps, these men often came from humble origins and suffered much. Don't say "Wow." Ask, "How?" How did they do it?
1. My answer is yes! Yes, you're all added.
2. However, I'm in Vietnam, where Facebook is banned.
3. I had a VPN I was using, but it stopped working. So you're all stuck in limbo in the meantime. Sorry and no disrespect intended!
4. In the meantime, I'm @sebastmarsh on Twitter. If you tried Twitter once but you don't understand it, go ahead and send out this message - "@sebastmarsh Okay, I'm trying Twitter, but I still don't get it!" I'll message you back, click on "@[yourname]" on the right-hand menu and you'll see when a reply when I write back. Basically @messages seem to be most of the value of Twitter when you're getting started, but it's a chicken and egg problem - you're not talking to anyone, so it seems useless. But, we can chat and connect on there a little, reactions to my posts or 140 character philosophical discussions are always welcome.
Finally, if you want to be pals on Facebook, here's Sebastian Marshall's Facebook - that's my page, not a fan page. But maybe I'll add a fan page later. Though! You'll be stuck in limbo for a while until I get a new VPN or leave Vietnam, so please don't feel unloved!
When you come across some era of history you've never heard before that might be fascinating, or an obscure but highly recommended book on conflict management, or you come across some primary source papers that are largely unread any more about an important event - jump on it right away.
You'll never really be motivated to read Baldissare Castiglione by Julia Cartwright. It's an obscure-ish book, cited not particularly often, about the 17th most interesting guy in the Renaissance. He hung out with da Vinci, and Borgia, and met all the Popes of his lifetime, but you'd have to either really love the Renaissance, or come across Il Cortegiano in research to read him.
Baldis-who? If you don't look him up now, it likely won't come up later.
A lot of good strategy and being a successful generalist is about picking up obscure skills. Steve Jobs talked in his famous Stanford address about how the class he took on calligraphy in his late teens became one of the drivers behind the Mac being the first computer with beautiful typeface.
There's plenty of calligraphers in the world, but how many calligrapher-entrepreneur-designers? A good mix and synergy of skills gives you the ability to make a contribution. A good mix and synergy that includes something obscure can help you make an original contribution.
A friend of mine set some goals for last week, and failed. His goals were realistic and possible, but he did not do them. He sent me an introspective email analyzing why. We had a good discussion on it, here's an excerpt of what I wrote him -
I understand. This really sucks. By the way, I still do this, myself. I still catch myself making the occasional fundamental mistake. The good thing is, no single mistake kills you (well, usually). Usually you can recover. Don't flip out when you a mistake, damage-control it and move on. How old are you - 28? You've got 10-15 years of mediocre societal programming, you don't get that out of yourself in seven days. 30 days, 60 days, you can take a huge chunk out of it. A year or two, absolutely you can almost completely re-wire yourself. But remember how you were saying, "Dude, I can do this so much faster than your timeline!" Well, I've been there. Shit like this happens. You're fighting some of your deepest, instinctual defense mechanisms to keep you alive. You've also got your toolbox of good instinctual mechanisms limited by society, so you're needing to create new tools. Basically, you've got all the disadvantages a caveman had (fear, nervousness, pressure), but you lose a lot of the advantages (unbridled, raw power, no rules, etc). You've got to make new tools - calmness, focus, intent. It takes a while. There's no shame in that - let me say this -
THERE'S NO SHAME IN THIS, IT'S NO REFLECTION OF YOU - WE'RE ALL BUILT WEAK, YOU'RE ONE OF THE FEW WHO ACKNOWLEDGES IT AND TRIES TO BECOME STRONG.
We're all built weak, man. Most people hide from it, deny it. That way they don't have to feel it. But you're diving right in, into your weakness, into your errors, into your unrefined patterns, into your fears... so you feel it. But don't mistake these things - these things are the weakness that everyone feels, there is NO SHAME in feeling it. It's part of being human. You need to feel it to conquer it. This is what I was writing in "Give me strife and suffering" -
This had me cracking up laughing. I added the bold for emphasis.
Avoiding Standard Error: Being a sloth and unreliable create such an asymmetrical negative payoff for what little upsides they bring you. So does fostering addiction or dependency, letting impulsions go unchecked, or being envious or resentful. So does not studying or taking seriously your susceptibility to the natural cognitive biases we have. If you set out to eliminate standard error, or things that can inherently cloud your judgement, you may realize the low-hanging fruit thats occasionally up for grabs.
Whole post is pretty good and insightful, there's examples of looking at non-mainstream ways people have broken into finance and Hollywood -
"Trailblazing" over at Sami Baqai's site
I see such an obsession with happiness these days. It's sad.
There's different sorts of happiness, but the one people seem after the most is the lowest, saddest form of happiness - a pleasurable mix of biochemicals.
Do you know how cocaine works? It's what's known as a triple-reuptake inhibitor. It makes some of the happiness chemicals - serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine - cycle out of your brain more slowly, giving you wonderful feelings.
And - so what? You've got more happiness chemicals in your brain so you bliss out? How could anyone in their right mind think this is the meaning of life?
I try to do things that I find meaningful, ideally on the largest scale I can. I'm not there yet, but I'm trying. I still need to get stronger in other areas, get more disciplined. But I'm working on it.
I'm a big believer in schedules and priorities, but occasionally I come across something that's really amazing. At this point, I engage in the amazing thing without beating myself up or feeling guilty over it.
Today I found "Learn Writing With Uncle Jim," an amazing forum thread on writing. It's written by James McDonald, and he's got a sharp, clear thinking way about him.
I'm shifting everything else back a little bit, because it's such good stuff. It's about writing fiction, which I don't do, but he's such a clear thinker that it's enjoyable and worth reading anyways. Highly recommended. Also recommended: Embrace it when you find something that's worth massively a lot even if it's not on your to-do list. The to-do list exists to serve you, you don't serve it.
I just posted a new article at Less Wrong - "Steps to Achievement: The Pitfalls, Costs, Requirements, and Timelines." This is a little bit longer and more dry than I write for my blog, but I think there's some very important things in here.
If you're interested in goals and achievement, there's quite a lot of meat here. I'm putting the full version up here and please feel very welcome to comment here on this topic, but also consider heading over to Less Wrong, grab a free account, and start participating there. As I described in "You Should Probably Study Rationality," it's a wonderful community.
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:
On this coming Monday or Tuesday, I'll be asking the Director of Sales and Marketing at one of the most prestigious local businesses for $100,000. I have all manner of charts, research, data, and numbers showing why this is an exceptionally good idea that will have a fantastic ROI - and it is a good deal. But still, it's mildly terrifying to present in that sphere.
Part of what I'm going to do is go in and ask for a considerable sum of money, but I'm trying to build a different sort of relationship than most people would think. If they choose my company, we'll be producing lots of good work for high pay - but I'm trying to build something other an exchange-based relationship.
What's an exchange-based relationship? Over the last 10 years or so, researchers have identified two kinds of ways trade and interact and cooperate. The first way would be through "market norms" - this is where two people clearly agree to make an exchange, and deliver what they agreed to exchange, and the deal is concluded. The second way is through "social norms" - where you're looking out for each other's best interests.
Let's go over quickly what market/exchange norms look like and how they push out social norms - then I'll have some ideas and guidelines for your own life.
If you like digging into primary source papers, this one from 1993 by Clark and Mills is pretty good. If you're more into books, this was covered in Dan Arielly's book "Predictably Irrational."
The largest mental gains I made in the shortest period of time were from studying rationality.
I was amazed to discover a couple years ago that there were people who regularly studied and discussed how to think, how to get correct and accurate beliefs about how the world works, how to understand how your mind works, and to get at the real reasons people make decisions.
The whole rationality thing is as addictive as crack-cocaine for me. I love it. The difference from crack, though, is you grow stronger and smarter the more you dive in.
Our minds are funny. We humans, we're "adaptation exercisers, not fitness maximizers" -
Fifty thousand years ago, the taste buds of Homo sapiens directed their bearers to the scarcest, most critical food resources - sugar and fat. Calories, in a word. Today, the context of a taste bud's function has changed, but the taste buds themselves have not. Calories, far from being scarce (in First World countries), are actively harmful. Micronutrients that were reliably abundant in leaves and nuts are absent from bread, but our taste buds don't complain. A scoop of ice cream is a superstimulus, containing more sugar, fat, and salt than anything in the ancestral environment.