[An overview of why I didn’t write as much in 2018. Aversions snowballed, and the blog format led to having expectations about content I found sometimes hard to satisfy. A look back at some of my favorite posts of last year, as well as what I plan to do in 2019.]
In 2018, not counting the small essays that found their way to my short-form blog, I wrote 16 full-length blog posts.
I am disappointed by this because one of my constant goals with blogging is to write new essays every week. Partially, it feels bad because I did mostly succeed in hitting my original goal of weekly essays in both 2016 and 2017, so I felt like going for another year would be doable. And partially it feels bad because I feel like this means I’ve grown less as a person because I’ve had less bloggable thoughts, or something like that.
This is a blog post to dive into what happened with my blog posts in 2018.
Near the end of 2017 I went off to college, and it was then that I realized my writing schedule had taken a hit. Aside from adjusting to the environment, rationality-esque things felt less important and useful. There weren’t a lot of rationalists at school, I had less free time, social incentives produced different focuses, etc. etc.. Typical stuff. Thus, it seems like the outside view might have predicted a drop in my writing output. Looking at my 2017 review post, though, it seems like I was still enthusiastic and optimistic for 2018; I’d outlined some areas which I had wanted to explore.
Now, a year (and relatively few blog posts) later, it looks like things have gone contra my expectations, if not altogether awry.
Admitting that this has been a problem and addressing it has been difficult for me. For most of 2018, I had a large ball of guilt, wherein I kept reminding myself that I had this blog I was very much not attending to. In the rare moments where I would find the time and excitement to write a blog post, the feeling didn’t last. If I asked my gut what happened, I’d get an answer like:
“Well, it…just kinda snowballed, y’know? Like, I guess maybe I had some good thoughts, but then I wasn’t really interacting that much with the rationality community…then I had other things taking up time…and then I just…didn’t want to write all that much…and then I started to feel less like the sort of person who writes…and all the while I felt bad because I had this large archive of my previous thoughts kind of staring back at me like ‘Okay Owen, what are you gonna do next?’ and it felt hard to top some of my previous essays, or something like that.”
This essay has been a long-time coming. But it hasn’t been until now that I’ve found the time, inclination, and clarity to structure my thoughts on this topic. I’ve broken up my thoughts on writing (or my lack thereof) into three sections: Level Up or Shut Up, Static vs Evolving, and You Can Only Go So Meta.
1] Level Up or Shut Up:
One big chunk of the issue was that, from a personal growth perspective, I found myself hitting the same issues over and over again. It’s not just that I was rediscovering the same principles, but rather, I found myself struggling to do things I’d thought were obvious…like Doing The Obvious Things, or making TAPs when I wanted to make something a habit.
(There’s a larger question here of why I wasn’t progressing, why I kept running into the same roadblocks, and what this all means for rationality skills in general. For now, I’m just taking it as a given.)
I outlined this state of mind in Coming Full Circle, where I felt like I’d already written essays about any sort of problem I might encounter. In a way, it felt like it meant I hadn’t “progressed”, or something like that, with regards to my rationality skills. As a result, I felt like I’d either be repeating myself in new blog posts or I’d have to wait until something else new and interesting came by (which didn’t happen often).
And if I kept writing about the same topics, it felt like I’d be admitting that rationality didn’t work, given that the very person who espoused these techniques (me) was still getting screwed over. Thus, fears of hypocrisy were also there.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think that an issue with gratuitous categorization is that you might be able to recognize an issue—and then leave it at that, feeling lifted by the momentary satisfaction of naming a Thing. It becomes very easy to think “Oh hey! I recognize that I’m currently having an issue with X! This situation fits pattern X!”, whereupon I’d feel good for having made the connection between my current situation and an existing concept, but then I wouldn’t go any farther to solve it.
Problems are interesting when you tackle them for the first time, but I think there’s definitely a fading novelty thing going on here too, where the 17th time you realize “Oh, I guess Murphyjitsu would have come in handy in this situation too”, you begin to tire of it all.
(And once again, it says something about the quality of your solutions if they aren’t continuously effective, or if they become aversive to use. But we’re sidestepping that for now as well.)
Reflecting back on this now, the dichotomy between “write about the same stuff while looking like a hypocrite” and “wait long periods of time for novel ideas” was a false one. In Meditations on the Medium, I expressed frustration with essays being static snapshots. I think that the quality of explanations can always be made better. Even though I might already have had an essay that detailed whatever self-improvement things were on my mind that week, it could still have been useful to revisit the essay, update it, and maybe add some more recent examples.
But that doing so felt weird on a blog, where updates to older posts wouldn’t get immediately pushed back up to the top and shown. And speaking of the blog format…
2] Static vs Evolving:
When I’m writing blog posts, there’s always tension between several goals, which aren’t always complementary. The conflict can be succinctly summarized as a question of, “Am I writing this blog post for my benefit or the benefit of my readers?”, which is explored in Writing as Input vs Writing as Output.
On the one hand, I want to be able to use blog posts as a way to capture my current state of mind. There’s immediate short-term value in tracking what problems I’m currently facing and which thoughts are currently on my mind. Explication is useful for disambiguating concepts and fitting them into a larger structure. Focusing on the present, however, is necessarily going to date my posts. As I keep growing and changing, many of the posts get rendered obsolete, as they are no longer accurate portrayals of who I am, or become superseded by future essays.
On the other hand, I also want my blog posts to be as timeless as they can; the best case is that they stay useful even long after I’ve written them. In practice, this means I’d like for them to be crystallized explanations of concepts, so even if time passes, they can still serve as essays for future reference or pedagogy for future readers. However, optimizing for clarity of explanation is a longer process, requiring me to spend more time and attention on my essays.
It’s much easier to throw care to the winds and write what’s on my mind, than to try to craft something explanatorily useful. It seems like what I personally needed this year was more therapeutic stream-of-consciousness stuff, but I kept wanting to output more long-lived, crystallized content. The disconnect led to more aversion. One way I could have made more of a compromise was to keep privately writing periodic blog posts, and then do a later pass to cull the best stuff into public posts.
But of course that didn’t occur to me at the time. For 2019, one large project I want to undertake is to apply a stronger filter / polish on my existing posts. But more on that later.
3] You Can Only Go So Meta:
Also alluded to in Coming Full Circle, when you go ever meta on the writing process and rationality, you start to hit some conceptual limits; it feels like you’ve categorized everything that there is. In the beginning of Chapter 6 of Inadequate Equilibria (ctrl-f for “In other words”), Yudkowsky goes over some general guidelines for thinking, where he writes:
“Try to spend most of your time thinking about the object level. If you’re spending more of your time thinking about your own reasoning ability and competence than you spend thinking about Japan’s interest rates and NGDP, or competing omega-6 vs. omega-3 metabolic pathways, you’re taking your eye off the ball.”
And, well, mindlevelup is a pretty meta blog…
Speaking generally, I think it is good to be focused on object-level things. There’s a pattern of dive into something object-level → muck around for a bit → discover new things → generalize to a larger concept. The important part of this process is that, in order to be discovering new connections in the direction of “specific to general”, you need to be constantly interacting with the world. Along the same lines as fact posts, I think there’s more object-level stuff I haven’t explored.
For example, I think that I carved out a set of useful thoughts about relationships when I started a romantic relationship. Similarly, much of my time in university is spent doing computer science; presumably there are more fact-based posts I could make, where I write about something technical. A lot of the good Paul Graham stuff, too, seems to be drawing a lot of his insights from his time spent “in the field”. Meta-level stuff has a self-referential flavor which I think makes it so appealing to the nerd-types (of whom I’d count myself a member). It also makes it easy to get tangled up in the structure of concepts and trick yourself into thinking you’re gaining insight.
Sticking to something more concrete and “real” gives you better feedback and potentially more useful thoughts. Still, though, I can’t shake my feeling of disappointment at the state of self-help. There is a book on self-help that I wish existed, and it currently doesn’t exist. I’d like to write this book, if only in bits and pieces at a time, fractured into snippets of blog posts. This is definitely an excuse-of-sorts to keep writing meta-stuff, but, sigh, I wish that the state of meta-level self-help was just better.
(Of course there are reasons why self-help doesn’t look like the structured edifice of mental models that I wish it did, but that’s also a topic for another time.)
That all being said, it’s not like I wrote nothing at all in 2018. Just less. And the posts that did get written were, I feel, at least of similar, if not greater quality, than my best stuff in years past. Some essays have already been alluded to above, but, at the risk of some redundancy, here’s a quick overview of my favorite posts of this year:
- Replace Stereotypes with Experiences points out a common categorization error I’d found myself making. Even now, I seem to mix up initial aesthetic / affect with the actual sensory feeling I’d get while engaging in a topic. This feels ingrained, in the same way that things like the halo effect prey on our surface-level impressions.
- A Developmental Framework for Rationality did a good job of outlining how I progressed throughout rationality. I was inspired by Kegan’s levels of adult development. Of course, now, it seems I’ve regressed or something, but I think the core ideas of shifting priorities about what rationality is “really” about still hits the nail on the head.
- Meditations on the Medium represents a good collection of innovative thoughts and frustrations I have with text as a medium. I think especially now, having reflective essays on the nature of knowledge representation is high-value. Computers and digital mediums are allowing for several new degrees of freedom, and I think this stuff is underexplored.
- Normative vs Descriptive Confusions gave me more clarity towards an internal conflict, brought on by the increased fluidity I had started to view myself with. Though I don’t I’ve got a full answer yet, I like this framing. It also started out as a more of “okay, let’s try to just get this mess of thoughts I have onto paper into something more structured”, and I think it does a passable job of straddling the line between “represent my state of mind at that time” and “walk new readers towards my conclusions”.
- Fading Novelty finally outlined my stab at the Big Experiential Phenomenon that I think about a lot. As a phenomenon, it appears to be largely entwined with how we live life, i.e. in how humans continuously seeking out new experiences, which makes it difficult to look at in isolation. But I’m glad I now have a semi-well-structured essay to serve as a central point, after making several implicit references.
- Letting Others Be Vulnerable got shared a lot on Facebook, and it presented a crystallization of a model about accepting others I’d been mulling on for a while. It’s also probably the most coherent and organized out of my posts on things related to the social sphere.
So those are some of my favorite posts from this year.
Here are the other stats for 2018, compared to 2016 and 2017:
In 2016: 30,000 words.
In 2017: 75,000 words.
In 2018: 23,000 words.
So I ended up writing even less than I did in 2016.
Given that I wrote less, it makes sense that I received less views.
In 2016: 4,912 views.
In 2017: 17,914 views.
In 2018: 11,869 views.
In 2017, I tracked my time with Toggl and found that around 200 hours were spent writing MLU posts. I have since stopped using Toggl, and I don’t know how much time I spent writing blog posts this year. A rough estimate is 2 hours per 1000 words, so I probably spent around 50 hours this year.
And, that’s what it is.
I think 3 years is a long time to be blogging. If you add up all the stuff that I’ve written, it’s around 120,000 words, which is enough to fill a book. Like in previous years, I’ve taken the time to compile all of 2018’s posts into a PDF for offline reading. It’s on the Post Compilations page now.
One question I’ve been wondering on and off is, “How do blogs die?”
I often stumble across interesting blogs on the internet with a large archive of posts…and no formal farewell at the end? I guess it’s maybe a more gradual thing, as the authors move on to other pursuits. And maybe I’m a stickler for closure, but I can’t help wanting some sort of acknowledgment of things left unfinished—but of course I’ve felt the same slow disengagement myself, so I can sympathize.
Several times this year, as I struggled to churn out blog posts, I wondered if it wasn’t easier to just make an official hiatus post and let myself just live without the burden of writing at the back of my mind. Yet, in the same way that uncertainty can be comforting, it felt like not writing such a post would enable me to keep telling myself that I was making progress.
“It’s not an official end yet!” I wanted to cry out. Not as if that helped, really. The blog posts still sputtered.
My prediction in the beginning of the year for 2018 was 3 primers and 50,000 words. I hit a little under half of that, and there were no real primers that got written.
For 2019, I’m more aware of the pitfalls and changes that I’ll go through. I don’t know if the right move is to just stop making goals. There are still things I want to write about. I just don’t feel like pushing myself as much to get them done, outside of maintaining a consistent schedule.
I sort of wish I could go back to a weekly schedule, where I’d feel excited to explore different concepts, but there’s mental stuff in the way, i.e. the things I outlined above.
But, more concretely…
When writing for this year, I want to keep doing the introspective stuff that helps me with explicating my own thoughts, goals, priorities, and worries. I also want to devote more time to a showcase of the best of my writing, creating a new blog where I can put The Good Stuff in a way to maximize readability / pedagogy. In other words, I’d like to separate my thoughts into the messy stuff (which might be private) versus the readable stuff, and then I’d want to post them to different places.
What would the new public showcase look like?
What I want is a nice looking statically generated blog that gives me more control to try experimental UI features. WordPress is very nice for analytics and easily deploying posts, but I don’t really care for either of those features right now.
I think Read The Sequences is a really good example of the sort of aesthetic I want to shoot for, of a well-polished series of essays written in a clear fashion. Meaningness, to a lesser extent, has also influenced my aesthetic views.
I already have the seed of some code with Volta, a small Python script which turns my markdown files into HTML. So there’s not too much work that’s needed to put together this new site. The final part would be, of course, culling the content / re-editing things to make a more coherent collection.
There’s a lot about this idea that I’m excited about. However, I also know that writing has dropped as a priority for me, whether I want to admit it or not. Realistically, I don’t expect to have a lot of time in the short-term where I’ll feel excited to make large amounts of progress on this project.
That’s why I’ve decided to give myself a complete break, guilt-free, from writing anything major and public for the next three months.
It feels like the biggest ball of bad-feels I have inside of me is worrying about fully losing my rationality faculties if I stop writing, but, looking back, my writing has already been rather sparse. I’d rather spend some time just doing more stuff in the world and come back with a fresher take on things.
I might write some more things between now and April, but I won’t hold myself to it.