Back To Square One

It’s been a month since I last posted something on MLU. If I were a reader, I’d be feeling disappointed at the lack of constant content, as that’s sort of a thing I try to prioritize. And I really don’t have much to say in my defense. Somewhere along the way in about October, I found myself writing less, thinking less, and generally having a less self-improvement/rationalist bent in my thoughts.

That’s also about when I started college. So now it’s a little while later, and I’m trying to reorient, and I have a lot of questions. I’ve tried to keep mindlevelup generally focused on having self-contained essays, and I haven’t written a lot about my own thoughts—at least not in the sort of personal way that might be more typical of other blogs.

For this post, I’ll be discarding some of that polish and shine to just write about where I’m sort of at, in a more personal way.  In the interest of getting something new up, I’m sacrificing structure for speed.

I guess college is the big thing. Heading to school, I knew that I would face value drift. I knew that the sorts of things which I valued were going to change, and I was going to watch them change. And I headed in anyway. It’s perhaps unfortunate, but the current me definitely values things like self-improvement and helping others less than some versions of me throughout this year.

And I don’t think the gains from domain knowledge and socializing with others has been very commensurate. Sure, I’ve got courses which go over things, and now I know more about how some things in computers work, for example. And I’ve met some new people, and there are plans for some grand entrepreneurial projects in the works. But it doesn’t really feel like I’ve come a long way.

The overly heroic part of my brain looks at the above paragraph I’ve written about how not everything has gone to “The Best of All Possible Futures” and says something like “Well Owen, clearly you just haven’t been trying hard enough. Break things down into more granular pieces, specify what you want to get done, and then act on it. This isn’t hard. We’ve already solved the whole “how to actually do tasks” skill, right?”

But I really don’t know.

There’s this type of back-and-forth I’ve found myself going through when I notice these sorts of suboptimalities—some part of my brain points out that the solution is already there, and I notice that the solution doesn’t feel right. But I don’t know if that’s because it “shouldn’t” feel right (i.e. that it not feeling right is actually what feeling right feels like), or because it’s actually not the right solution.

To give an example: I often feel sleepy throughout the day. And the charitable interpretation is that feeling sleepy is a signal that I need rest, and the thing to do to best help myself in the long-term is to head to sleep. Except that I’ve also had instances where I felt “fake sleepy”, and the tiredness wore off as soon as I stopped doing the task at hand. In those cases, it seemed like my brain thought the task at hand had been boring or useless, and it was less about needing the sleep and more about getting away from the task.

So back to this general thing about my brain saying, “Well, why don’t you just do more things, Owen?”, I’m not sure. I could do more things, but that feels exhaustive and tiring, and isn’t there something about how doing things you want to do shouldn’t feel like that?

Except I’m not all confident about the whole “you can always get yourself to do what you want to do” paradigm anymore either.

Since showing up at college, one thing I have been proud of is developing a habit of exercising basically every day. One of the things you end up learning while exercising is that there are certain stresses, ways of pushing your body, which are good and desirable and you want to go towards them, otherwise you don’t reap all the benefits.

So seeking out those kinds of pressures seems maybe good.

Which means that finding more ways to push yourself might be desirable, which means that generally being Zen and totally fine with everything and always feeling happy and good about life might not be the best state of mind to always be in.

Speaking of which, I’ve basically found myself to be in a state of mind roughly akin to being super Zen and totally fine with everything these past few weeks. It feels like my emotional scales have been drastically cut from both the upper and lower bounds. The result has been my feeling “generally good, but not great” in response to basically everything.

And I don’t think that’s been good. So I’ve been listening more to the more reactive parts of me and trying to cultivate more of those reactions, bringing in more highs and lows in response to the events happening around me.

There’s stuff about Fading Novelty here too, and about how college as a novel stimulus has changed and other things about establishing habits in response to new environmental cues, etc. etc. But they’re currently not my focus.

In addition to trying to feel a broader range of emotions, I’ve generally noticed less of my habits of mind kicking in. I’m not the stalwart sentinel I could have honestly claimed to be earlier this year.

One thing which I haven’t gotten better at is the sort of deep analysis I see other people in effective altruism doing. By that I mean things like being able to give answers to why they think certain things in the world will turn out to be a certain way which don’t seem like complete bullshit.

Like the people who seem to do really well on forecasting. If you’re not a domain expert (or even if you are), the sort of mental process that you use to try and figure out a question like “What is the price of cotton candy going to be in three months?” still seems largely foreign to me.

And of course now that one active part of my brain is pushing me to be more specific and is loudly insisting that I very well could become a member of that group, should I dedicate time to practicing specific skills.

I don’t mean to knock that part of myself, though. I really, really, really do think that operationalization is one of the key rationality skills. Being able to take fuzzy notions and force them to take specific form is super duper important.

People, as I’ve written before, seem to be lazy evaluators; like the programming paradigm, certain queries don’t get evaluated until totally necessary. They’re happy to pass around the symbolic representation of their life’s plans or whatever around in their head, never actually unwrapping the box to see what’s inside until reality breaks it open. Asking yourself questions, actively evaluating your own queries, etc. forms the bedrock of what I think makes some people so effective.

And the technique itself seems to be a part of a more general paradigm about Being Active. I’ve been mulling on this idea of Being Active for a while, and I had this great massive blog post lined up that would synthesize a whole bunch of related ideas from this year into the concept.

I don’t know when that whole post will materialize in all its edited form, seeing as it hasn’t been written yet. But I’ll try to give the 80/20 of it here:

Being Active:

Being Active is about being deliberate. It’s about the attitude behind what’s happening when you counter your brain’s default to lazy evaluation. It’s about forcing your vague notions to take shape.

More than that, I think Being Active is the key tool behind combatting deceptive similarities.

By deceptive similarities, I’m referring to this other weird quirk where our brains will often tend to substitute an easier-to-solve thing in place of a harder one, often with the misguided belief that solving the easy task will also imply solving the hard one.

You’re mistaking conceptual connections for causal ones.

Consider, for example, the student who disregards obvious advice on grounds of it “sounding obvious”. Instead of asking the question “Can I actually use this advice / will it provide value to me?”, she’s asking herself the question “Have I heard this advice a million times before?”

It’s a subtle shift, but a dangerous one because the answers to the two questions are often quite decoupled.

Or, for example, the student who decides to spend one hour walking through examples in her math textbook. Instead of trying to do the task of “Practice my ability to generate the next step in math” he’s doing the task of “Practice my ability to verify that the steps are correct”.

Once again, even though the two things are similar at first glance, the first one is far more effective at actually getting the results we care about. It also happens to be (surprise!) more effortful!

So at least preliminarily, there seems to be something here about how our brains are trying to believe in some view of the world where they can scrape by by doing the easy thing and then reap the rewards of the hard thing.

(Note the Recognize vs Generate distinction also comes up here. In many cases of the deceptive similarity, we’ve swapped a difficult generation problem for a far easier verification one.)

By Being Active, the, I’m espousing the view that “If you’re not doing something deliberately and with intent, then it’s probably useless”. In other words, if you want to do something, do it right. Do the hard version that requires you to put in more effort, and be on the lookout when your brain tries to sneak in the easier version.

I’m not hating on our brains, though. One charitable way of looking at it is that some part of you really does think that you can get the same results—it’s literally just trying to help you by pointing you to the easier route. Except of course, that it’s misguided.

Being Active, of course, requires energy. And, realistically speaking, you’re going to have lapses in energy, concentration, and whatever else it is that drives your ability to be Active and deliberate in your tasks. Which means you’ll probably need to recalibrate your expectations for how much actual, good Active work you can get done every day.

But I think that’s okay. Being Active means doing the quality work that gets you to where you want to be. Everything else is just sort of half-assing it.

So that’s the quick overview of Being Active.

One other thing I’ve been thinking about is rederiving things from first principles…over and over and over again.

There’s this problem that seems related to how we fail to note that conceptually related =/= causally related, and that’s about how rationality skills don’t transfer from domain to domain.

That is, if you’ve solved a problem of temporal discounting when it comes to dieting, you could very likely still face discounting problems when it comes to playing video games.

I think that this is because, despite the commonality of a generalized principle (in this case, time-inconsistent preferences) lying beneath both, what actually ends up being largely responsible for determining success in each scenario of dieting / video games is the actual steps you take, e.g. removing snacks from your house or turning off the WiFi.

But the conceptual similarity tricks us into thinking we’ve learned the generalized principle when really what we need to do is buckle down and do some more operationalizing.

What this also means is that I don’t want to be discouraged when I find myself facing largely the same self-improvement problems across different domains because I don’t actually have too many good reasons to suspect skills can transfer.

There’s something similar to the deceptive similarity going on here, where I assume that I can solve a problem in domain X because it relies on principle Z, and I’ve already solved another problem in domain Y that also relied on principle Z. Except this doesn’t seem to actually hold much of the time.

So that means that I’ve found myself often apparently running in circles, thinking things like “Haven’t I solved this problem already?” when I really haven’t.

The other related idea is that of rationality as mostly maintenance. I don’t think that large GTD systems work well because most systems tend towards disarray. In my own experience, every single attempt to try hardcore scheduling / to-do list management has failed.

I currently use one to-do list for short-term items, Google Calendar for time-based reminders, and email myself important to-dos. That’s currently it.

I’ve pivoted towards trying to focus on answering the question, “What is the smallest unit of a system I can have that captures all the things I need from it?” And starting a tool with the expectation that it’ll stop working at some point seems perhaps more realistic.

It’s sad, looking back to see that the sorts of mental architecture, this entire edifice of conceptual castles that I’ve built on this blog, has somehow become a little more dead. I don’t currently practice everything that I write about on mindlevelup, and I feel bad about that.

There’s more to look into, and maybe this type of exploring (aka more freeform) could be useful. Even now, though, typing this up, I feel bad for potential readers because this is super definitely not optimized for reader consumption. It’s not what I’d like to read, but it’s what feels easiest to write right now.

And I’m trying to work my way back.

I’d like to live in my castle again, thank you very much.


  1. I was introduced to rationality after college, so it will be interesting to see how much it transfers as I head to grad school. Fortunately my program will be psych and decision science, so it should transfer since that’s been my focus in the community to begin with.

    Honestly, you sound like everyone once they start college. You need time to settle in, and get used to the rhythm of it all. Be selfish for a bit and improve yourself and don’t worry too much about the world at large. That would be my advice.

    My to-do app of choice is Habitica. Keeps track of habits, dailies, and longer term tasks. All while providing a gaming element.


    • Hello! Thanks for providing some good info that “this is generally how most college people feel”.

      Doing more studies in decision science sounds very exciting. Are you focused on anything specific right now?

      I used Habitica for a while, and then I ended up getting a little too hooked on the gamified aspect, heh, and I ended up swapping.


      • Depends on which program I get into. I am interested in systems that are not optimized due to poor incentives, or have perverse outcomes. The justice system and recividism, science and the replication crises, welfare and the perverse incentives there. But it really depends on the program.

        Liked by 1 person

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