I just finished the mindlevelup: The Book, a collection of essays focused on instrumental rationality. Now that the project’s reached a pretty good stopping point, I’m looking back to see how my expectations and goals played out.
We’re looking at the Good, the Bad, and the Actionables.
It’s postmortem time!
[What I originally wanted the book to be like. My estimates vs reality]
Originally, I wanted to write something that would tie together all the current research on topics like motivation, planning, and habits. I felt like lots of LessWrong posts touched upon certain areas, like hyperbolic discounting, but there wasn’t a central place where it all came together.
I wanted a new central beacon to point people to when The Sequences didn’t quite fit.
I’d envisioned a sequence of essays which would give an overview of the latest developments in the field followed by concrete techniques, ala CFAR.
Here are some of the topics I’d originally wanted to cover:
- Behavioral Economics
When I began this project, I had Planning 101 under my belt, which had taken me about 20 hours to complete. As far as base rates went, it seemed reasonable to think that the other topics would take a similar amount of time.
Looking back, it feels a little silly to think that Past Owen thought he could take on five more of those 20+ hour chunk projects. That would have easily been 100+ hours, in addition to editing, compiling, and a bunch of additional grunt work which snuck up on me.
(What was I thinking?)
In the end, I only managed to write one more primer—Habits 101—which ended up taking about twice as long, 40 hours, for just the actual writing portion. Reading up on the articles took up additional time, probably another 10 hours or more.
Though I didn’t complete my initial vision, I actually did fairly well on my own estimates:
I’d given myself an internal completion date of the beginning of September, and I actually finished around that time. So hooray me!
I’d also estimated that I’d write about 10,000 words of new content for the book. And I went about 50% more than that, writing about 15,000 words of actual new content. So hooray me!
(Although the counterfactual for the new content prediction isn’t as good as it seems because I probably would have written some of those blog posts regardless of whether or not I also held the intention to make a book.)
The Finished Result:
So I ended up both finishing both on-target and on-time. How did the actual end product compare with my expectations?
Well, I’ve already pointed out how there was a lot of content I wanted to write which didn’t make it into the book. As for the content that did, here are the 9 sections that made it into the book:
- WTF Is Rationality?
- Starting Advice
- Planning 101
- Interlude 1
- Habits 101
- Interlude 2
- Attractor Theory
- Closing Disclaimer
Of the 9 sections, I think that WTF Is Rationality?, Starting Advice, and Attractor Theory come closest to the sort of “crystallization” I’d originally hoped for.
In the time between the original blog posts and the polished book essays, I’d had time to try explaining them to people in person. I think the experience helped me understand which things were important to focus on and what background knowledge I needed to assume. The revision and slow iteration of ideas helped me figure out which components were the important ones to stress.
So I think those three sections turned out the best.
As for the two 101 primers, I think they were too bulky, and I think a better choice would have been to sacrifice depth for breadth. That is to say, cutting the length of Habits 101 in half (or even two-thirds) in order to make way for a short primer on both Attention and Behavioral Economics would have likely been good.
Otherwise, I think it feels a bit jarring to switch from a short heuristic-y essays about ways to approach life to a deep academic dive into psychology.
As the book currently stands, I think it’s unbalanced in terms of the topics it goes over. Partially due to the length of the two 101 primers, I think there’s an overemphasis on planning and habits.
Overall, I think it pushes the “master yourself” mindset over the “become one with yourself” mindset too hard, which I ended up writing about in the Closing Disclaimer.
Perhaps unfortunately, I’m also fairly confident that most people who read it won’t get much benefit out of it. (But more on that in the Evaluating Impact section.)
Starting out, I also had some big hopes for the actual format of the book.
I think that most books don’t do a good job of helping the reader chunk the information. That is to say, the information trying to be conveyed is often much clearer in the author’s mind than in the readers’. I claim this is often because the author has their own way of mentally structuring the information which they neglect to share during the actual writing.
Frustrated with this, I’d originally wanted to include several design features for the book to help with understanding:
- Suggested Exercises at the end of every chapter, focused on developing practical skills.
- Unique formatting, perhaps a different font color, for paragraphs which contained examples (to visually differentiate them from the rest of the text).
- Visual outlines of how points connected in each essay. (You can see some simple prototype attempts in Habits 101.)
In the end, the only one that made it to the final book are the bracketed summaries in italics that precede each section.
I think that conveying ideas in general is actually rather quite difficult. Cooperation is required on both the part of the author and the reader, and even an engaging writing style (or cool design tricks) can only do so much.
I ended up having less time to write the entire book than I originally thought.
No surprise there.
(“You don’t plan for disaster. Disaster plans for you.”)
Part of the reason was because I was physically unavailable on account of my being at Google doing CS things for three weeks.
The other part was that I found myself mentally incapable of writing quality content for long bouts of time.
The roughly 100 hours I put into writing this book was scattered over about 4 months. That ends up being less than an hour a day; but the distribution of hours wasn’t uniform. When it came to writing this book, I found that certain times yielded far more productivity than others.
Also, looking back, it feels like the entire duration of time was necessary, even if most of it wasn’t actually spent writing. It feels like I just needed time in between writing sessions to let my mind do its thing under the hood, subconsciously. I’d write for about an hour, wander about the room (or do something else for an hour), and then I’d return to writing.
This seems like a specific instance of the general principle that breaks aren’t just a “fun” activity, but are actually a requisite for good work to happen.
So it was less about getting enough free time in a chunk, but more about getting enough of the right kinds of time, or something like that. For context, I think that one thing people overlook when considering making tradeoffs involving time is the nature of the time they’re gaining or losing.
For example, if you’re able to save ten minutes off your commute, that roughly translates to having ten additional minutes to spend at work, which might not be worth much. In contrast, if you’re able to extend your lunch break by twenty minutes, that could be enough time for a noontime nap, which might be very valuable.
Against The Incentive Gradient:
I made a fairly conscious decision to write a book, rather than short pop science articles with catchy titles. Doing so meant that I was bucking the incentive gradient.
As I’ve made clear in the past, I think that the current clickbait trend (and its generalized problem of the tragedy of the commons) is very, very bad. On Medium, for example, most essays on psychology are about 1000 words or less and typically cover only one psychological principle.
The most viewed articles are not the ones which provide the most value, but the ones which cater to the mental equivalent of the lowest common denominator. It’s the articles which provide just enough insight in a bite-sized package, the ones which hijack our attention and our reward systems.
When I was working on this project, a friend pushed me to consider writing for a larger group like BuzzFeed or ClearerThinking. They argued that even though the type of content engagement I’d get from readers would be less, the net increase in audience size would mean that the aggregate impact would overall be larger.
The argument seemed good, but I ended up sticking to my original plan.
I wanted to write something that wasn’t beholden to the clickbait game. (There’ll be more on my motivations for why in a separate upcoming MLU post.)
I think I partially succeeded at this, but this also meant that I found myself with less engagement, feedback, and, ultimately, drive throughout the project.
For a concrete example, after having actually finished this book, I was actually unsure what the “right” channels to publicize it would be. (I’m still unsure. I’ve dropped it on Facebook, Medium, and Reddit. Is there anywhere else where people would like to read something like this?)
Of course, I easily admit that I’m also partially status-driven. Which means that I also thrive off of things like positive feedback. Which means that I also made some decisions, like releasing the book now (even though there’s still stuff I wanted to add!) in anticipation of tasty social rewards.
And the response has been pretty lukewarm, at best. My mental stereotype best-case scenario was one with lots and lots of people on social media hotlinking and sharing the book, which hasn’t happened (yet!).
Of course, maybe that’s not even what the actual best-case scenario looks like…
Okay, so the book’s finished. What effects do I expect it to have?
That’s a hard question. I think it ends up roughly reducing to the question of “How much value do people get out of reading books, anyway?”
First off, there appear to be two filters here: The amount of people who actually finish reading the book, followed by the amount of people who actually get something out of it.
Realistically, I don’t expect the book to massively change most people’s lives or their outlook on life.
I think the biggest reason for this is because gaining lots of “mindshare” in someone’s brain is hard. There’s already so many competing ideas bouncing around, many of which have had a lot of time to latch on to core beliefs and self-image. Any new idea would have to displace existing thoughts, and most people don’t read with the explicit purpose of trying to change their mind.
“Reading” is a word with an overloaded definition. Not only can it refer to “the act of scanning the book”, but it also refers to “storing the book’s contents in short-term memory”, but it also refers to “having a specific new thought as a result of the book”.
And I think that for most people, answering the question “What did you read?” is easier than answering “What surprising things did you learn?” which in turn is still easier to answer than “What new actions will you take as a result of having read this?”
For most people, (as with most books), my guess is that a common takeaway is the general “feel” or theme of the writing (EX: “Lord of the Flies was about how human nature is easily corrupted”), or a catchy trivia fact or phrase (EX: “It takes about 21 days to form a habit!”).
(The habit thing is false, by the way. It’s actually closer to two months.)
However, my target audience for mindlevelup isn’t “most people”.
If it was, I probably would have just gone along with the incentive gradient to maximize exposure.
Instead, my claim is that there do seem to be a subset of people who can get a lot from reading things. Given the stuff that I just pointed as how to not get a lot out of books, it’s not hard to imagine that you could extract quite a bit more value just by doing the opposite.
And I do know people who genuinely seem to think that reading certain books have had major, lasting impacts on their life. Were I to give them more reading material, I’d be confident that it’d change them.
But I also didn’t end up writing a book for those hyper-scholars.
If I really had “writing a maximally insight-dense book” as my top-level goal, I would have done away with much of the pleasantries and handholds. I’d have written something more esoteric, that just right at the heart of the Rationality Thing.
Rather, the end result seemed to be some sort of weird, suboptimal mixture, where I had a mix of readability and esotericism. It does seem very reasonable to think that going farther towards one direction or the other would have yielded better results than a half-assed combination of both.
Part of this question, of course, hinges on the question of what the heck the Rationality Thing even is. And whether it’s easily conveyed through writing.
What Even Is Rationality?
The most straightforward explanation for rationality, I think, lies in cognitive psychology. Like what I did with the two 101 primers, you can point to some well-established research in human behavior. You can demonstrably show that we make suboptimal decisions, and you can show interventions to reduce error.
But that doesn’t exactly seem to strike at the heart of it. When I think of rationality, I think of all the cognitive psychological stuff as merely pointing in the direction of a more generalized attitude towards life.
This is likely to spiral off into its own discussion, so I won’t say too much about it here, but my best answer right now is that rationality is an ontological lens.
The short answer is that you can think of rationality as a new way of looking at the world. You see new properties of objects, new boundaries, and additional actions in your world. And this effect of changing what is perceptually possible lies at the key of how rationality has such overbearing effects on thought and behavior.
(It’s also sort of a cop-out. There will probably be more about this in a later post.)
There were several things I learned as a result of undertaking this project:
- My internal estimates for my task completion time and writing rate are fairly well-calibrated.
- I can make graphics of a quality I’m happy with at a rate of about 1 graphic an hour.
- Experience and understanding of how research might pan out. (EX: Filtering through papers to find promising things, writing summaries, simplifying at the right level, etc.)
- Getting constant feedback is both important for my ability to continue projects, as well as improve the quality. I didn’t get enough of it this time around.
- I had, overall, still underestimated the difficulty involved in writing and editing a book-style project.
The biggest one, though, was the burning question I had when setting out on this project: “Why the hell hasn’t anyone tried to make this type of freely available rationality handbook before?”
The answer, I think, looks something like this:
If you’re writing self-help content, the question of who the audience is inevitable. After all, at some point, someone’s supposed to be reading the content. And in my current understanding of people, it seems like there’s roughly two categories of readers (gross oversimplification alert!):
One, if you’re already smart and self-sufficient, then you’re already combing all the coolest blogs and books for insight. You’re a hyper-scholar who has either read and gotten value out of what I have to offer, or you’ve already got even more sophisticated models.
Two, if you’re the sort of insight junkie who’s looking for the next 5 minute article on how to restructure your workflow, then you may miss out on the actual good stuff. If you’re always only looking at the small insights, then the ontological lens of rationality (which is what I really want to illustrate), is largely lost.
So I guess one strong reason for why the sort of rationality handbook I was envisioning hasn’t happened is because it doesn’t really help out either of the groups.
The target audience is someone who’s a little mixed up in their stages of intellectual development.
I’m reminded of how I felt after talking about the book Gödel, Escher, Bach with some friends studying computer science. It’s a book which I very much enjoyed. However, none of them had been impressed with it, and they found it largely pedantic, taking too long to get to some basic insights.
Most people who read GEB, I suspect, either get lost in the dizzying array of cultural references and come out with a messy interpretation, or are already with maths and computer science such that the key points fall flat.
When I read it, I was in this weird spot where I didn’t know any CS, but I also looked past the references, and I found something exciting.
With the mindlevelup book, I’d wanted to write something for other people to benefit from.
In a funny sort of way, though, I guess I really did just end up writing a book for myself.