How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Scott Adams’ book is quite densely packed. Some of the best tricks the book can teach are unspoken–what the book does rather than what it says.

First, some of the book’s explicit tips (briefly and from memory):
1. Remove surplus words. Care about removing surplus words with the level of fanaticism you could summon if you had to pay someone $100 for each surplus word you write.
2. Use systems, not goals. There are many good reasons for this.
3. Be optimistic and visualize success. Daydream if necessary.
4. If you have only one metric for evaluating a choice, make it the metric of asking “how will this affect my energy level?”
5. Develop specific skills such as public speaking and accounting.

These are all, I strongly suspect, completely unoriginal. I think Adams probably should be credited with having stated these more briefly than I’ve seen them elsewhere, not with thinking any of them up.*

Second, some things Scott Adams does that are nowhere recommended explicitly, but are really unusual and quite effective, if you want my opinion:

1. Disown authority and disclaim any need for a special trust; urge the reader to form their own opinion. Then wear them down, flatter them, promise them great prizes, etc.–appeal to their less reasoning instincts.
2. Use jokes to shield readers from harsh statements they may not agree with. Here’s an example (similar to the jokes in the book, but I made this one up; it’s not in the book) is using hyperbole to joke about how much attractiveness matters as follows: “You may not like hearing this, but if you’re not a 9 or a 10, you should just rule out about 50% of professions because only 9s and 10s can succeed in those professions. Play to your strengths… like radio.” That is obvious hyperbole. Here’s why it’s devious: when people downgrade from the obvious hyperbole to what they assume the sentence was intended to mean, they are in the position of generalizing from one example; the only information they really have on what you probably meant by the joke is what they would mean if they told the joke. Just like that, if they don’t know this trick, they hear you speaking inside their head with exactly the opinion they already had… talk about a great way to build a rapport with your reader, right?
3. Present yourself as a winner, but a modest one. An example of how Scott Adams does this is by disclaiming his having bragged about owning a tennis court by positing that he’d thought about it, but saw no way to share the anecdote he wanted to share without letting on that he owned a tennis court. Even a cursory willingness to evaluate whether that was really true reveals that it isn’t–if he’d simply said that he spends “a lot of time” on a particular tennis court, that would have set the scene he needed for his anecdote, except that it wouldn’t have signaled what Adams wants his readers to know: he’s rich, and too modest to brag about it.
4. Play to your strengths.
5. Overcome obstacles. TVTropes has a bunch of memes on this, the most obvious being “Save the Cat” and “Obstacles to Overcome” but the point is, Adams highlights how far he’s come and how unlikely his success was in order to put himself in a hero narrative and make a hero narrative available to anyone who follows the advice in his book.

* Aside: I ran across a fun history of the variations on the phrase, “The secret to success in life is to conceal thy sources.” The best version seems to me to be this: “Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins. In no country is personality valued as it is in America, and in no country is it so rare.” It’s by C.E.M. Joad, per this citation-heavy link:

Edited 24 Jan 2017 to add the aside, check for and correct typos etc.

The 12 Virtues of Rationality

This post is based on these five articles: (2006) (published January 2010) (May 2011) (sep 2013) (June 2015)

Virtue 1 is curiosity. I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s character who invents Ice-9 in Cat’s Cradle. Or of Richard Feynman. Or of the way, when I’m walking through a parking garage and there are three different labels painted on the ground of a parking space, and someone comments that they “make no sense”, I halt everything I’m doing to look for an explanation, and quickly notice that there are numbered labels (which I explain by positing the garage used to have no-ticket kiosk-based paid parking) and also two different versions, (on top each other and in different styles so as to be almost indecipherable) of a character string that means compact cars only. The slight changes in position of the labels reflect that when the lot was updated, new paint was put down and old labels not removed, because the contractors did what they were told to do, and didn’t care if it made any sense. I do all of this without a moment’s irritation, because I’m delighted at a mystery… until the mystery is resolved, at which point I move on without making any effort to preserve the mystery now elucidated. If only every opportunity to apply my curiosity was as pure a mystery… too often mysteries also feel like traps or lures. In Cat’s Cradle Ice-9, after all, destroys the planet.

Virtue 2 is relinquishment. This is where the litany of Tarski is important–do not become attached to beliefs. What the truth can destroy, must be destroyed. One good thought that was unfamiliar (from the MadMike blog link) is that the destruction of a cherished belief can be frightening or exhilarating. From the limited amount of self-help and human psychology I’ve put across my brain so far, my sense is that there is a good deal of choice available–one can choose to train oneself to interpret a state of nervous arousal as nervousness, or as performance anxiety, or to train oneself to interpret it as excitement and even exhilaration.

Virtue 3 is lightness. In The Name of the Wind, Kvothe learns “falling leaf” which is a way of being light. I know this virtue. Actually, I usually collapse this with curiosity when I say “real curiosity” or something along those lines. I mean the kind of curiosity that completely diverted my attention in number 1: the kind where a mystery lifts one up in pursuit of evidence and answers is one where one is “light” and does not resist being directed where the evidence leads. I am much lighter on some topics than others, and may have problems of feigned lightness where I suspect it will be a virtue-signal, but that do not run to my actual willingness to follow evidence where it leads. I wonder if I connect lightness with virtue 12, which leaves me with an easy ability to accept evidence that challenges many of my views, but a stubborn tendency (Kvothe’s “heart of stone” level stubbornness, even) to resist some kinds of claims. I sound like an idiot talking about this, which is funny, but I don’t know what I can do about it. It’s a very religious sentiment that keeps me light, but I can be very frustrated with people who are dogmatic about object-level tenets of their faith, which some people have taken (incorrectly, I think) as hostility to religion. I really like this quote, also, “If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims.” Lightness is about freeing yourself to accept the constraints of evidence.

Virtue 4 is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” This virtue can challenge me. Another, really good way to express this is to say that arguments should be random walks–if you know your destination, you are already there.

Virtue 5 is argument. One who removes themselves from argument is beyond the help of their friends… one who permits their friends to “help” them with politeness, rather than argument, is trapped, not freed. I’m good at argument, but maybe less good at finding (and remaining politely impolitic with) interlocutors. And I’m often very politic, and spend too much time arguing with people who will not do the work to find anything to challenge me. “The part of yourself that distorts what you say to others also distorts what you say to yourself.” What am I not seeing because I’m arguing (internally and externally) with adjustments to be polite and politically correct?
The last article proposes modifying this with “community” where that means a community of arguers. That seems like a one-step recipe for kicking these benefits all into high gear, in comparison with which “argument” seems quite weak, though the core virtue here is closer to argument, not community. If you find the right community, the value will be extremely high, but  replace “community” with “cult” and you see why the core virtue “argument” needs to remain at the core.

Virtue 6 is empiricism. The root of our knowledge is a willingness to “look and see”–that is, what counts as knowledge is what enables us to be surprised. And actually getting evidence is our only reliable umpire.

Virtue 7 is simplicity. I think I often fail to challenge myself to be simple, because I can eliminate the need via urging myself toward “precision” or “perfectionism” and likewise can avoid the challenges of rooting out errors or thinking precisely in the name of “simplicity.” There is tension here–a loophole through which I drive an oxcart, daily.

Virtue 8 is humility. There is much room for me to grow here. What steps am I taking to ensure that, when I make mistakes, I will notice and correct them? So far, I keep a diary of my plans for each day, and so keep some loose record of how I do at beating akrasia… and not much more. This does not simply mean “admit when wrong” (that’s relinquishment and, to a lesser degree, lightness) it means “take steps to ensure that your inevitable wrongness is brought to your attention sooner rather than later, and that you are ready to adjust to your wrongness.”

Virtue 9 is improvement (aimed at perfection). Any error tolerated is a level beyond which you will not progress. That said, this should feel like self-improvement, an ennobling activity, not like self-flagellation, hence the word “perfect” and its variants are helpful in pointing toward every error as an opportunity for growth, but the starting framework should be one of improvement.

Virtue 10 is precision. Do not move toward the truth, but rather make your next movement precisely, entirely there. There will then be new evidence and a new step, again precisely and entirely to the truth. Otherwise you can be like xeno, spending many or even infinite steps on one journey, only to discover on arrival at that truth that it is a starting point, not a destination. I recognize this virtue, though I have been doing little in its service. I have started tracking certain personal metrics with precise numbers, which seems a good step toward aiming for precision, but I have a long way to go. I often take half-measures toward implementing lessons, which I recognize is a failure to embrace this virtue.

Virtue 11 is scholarship. Multiple disciplines are essential, particularly this list: “Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory.” Never any limit to growth in this direction, but that probably also means this is the easiest virtue to make into a hole into which one may fall. There is a world out there.

Virtue 12 is unnamed. At one point as a younger man, I would call it something like being on your Songline. But I do not expect that to be helpful. This is essential, and I do not know how to talk about it, though it seems I am well above average at talking about this, I do not know what good “above-average” is–this is rather an all-or-nothing, unspeakable thing. Perhaps the simplest conceptualization of it relates to having a total forgiveness of one’s past mistakes, and a total awareness that more mistakes are very likely, and yet a total unwillingness to ask for forgiveness (which is to say, permission to do less than what maximizes for free/beautiful/love/true) in the present moment, or to settle for half-measures. Rather, the present must be seized entirely, and no quarter given.

Edited lightly 24 Jan 2017.

Blogging LessWrong

So, LessWrong is an interesting community.

Here’s a blog post combining two (maybe more, we’ll see as I write it) of their posts, to see if 1. the posts create conceptual categories of types of error that remain useful divorced from the original post, and to look at whether 2. these categories are already broken into useful groups (or not).

The first of the two posts to integrate is this post:

which is about how important it is to make larger, rather than smaller adjustments in the face of evidence that contradicts your beliefs, and to make the adjustment as quickly and efficiently as you can, not in small steps over time.

The second is this:

which is about how motivation impairs rationality. Simply put, when one is motivated to (say) avoid the pain of admitting a mistake, that affects not only how one interprets arguments and weighs evidence (which is important) but also how hard one works to generate arguments (which is much more important) and how hard one works to obtain evidence (which is likewise much more important).

One thing this reminds me of is the story of Eustace Scrubb being de-dragoned, from C.S. Lewis’ book “Prince Caspian.” The basic story is of a young boy Eustace who is prone to self-pity, who finds himself on an impossible adventure proving that his childhood adversaries were right about something, and he wrong. Rather than admit his mistake, and enjoy his newfound adventure, he wallows in denial, small adjustments, and pity, and is finally transformed by his greed and selfishness and bitterness (and/or by his having tried to steal dragon gold, because the story is written to work as both a moral tale and an object-level magical tale) into a dragon.  Being a dragon renders Eustace rich–but monstrous and alone, which is a trade so awful he cries genuine tears. In a conversation with a giant talking lion named Aslan (C.S. Lewis’ metaphorical analogue for God/Jesus) Eustace takes to understand that he needs to remove his scales, which he does surprisingly painlessly by scratching himself–but finds another layer of scales underneath, over and over. Eventually Aslan (a lion not initially seeming more formidable than Eustace’s dragon-self, but who Eustace now perceives as terrifyingly imposing and possessed of much, much longer and sharper claws) says that it is useless–Eustace won’t be able to descale himself, but will have to accept help from the lion. This help hurts but is quite effective, and Eustace finds himself restored to human form.

Follow-up: I will reward myself if I succeed in tracking down good resources by any of these authors: Laplace, Jaynes, Tversky, Kahneman. I believe the argument has been well-made that they can improve on what I’ve learned growing up reading Feynman Heinlein and being exposed to a religious tradition that I suppose one would call humble apologetics. I’ve been meaning to read Kahneman, and had already discovered Jaynes, and been substantially affected, so there’s good reason to double-down.

2. I really like this quote, which needs no comment. “Do not indulge in drama and become proud of admitting errors.  It is surely superior to get it right the first time.”

(Edited 24 Jan 2017 to improve clarity, correct typographical mistakes. Also, I note that I have made mistakes–big ones–and should work to build in a ritual of acknowledging them writ clearly in my mind’s eye, while also not trying to get too much credit for having such a ritual. Potentially just making predictions and tracking if they end up right will do the trick going forward.)

Links Heard Round the World

In this links round-up, we look at President Obama’s recent turn toward prolific writer… something tells me he plans an active, highly public post-presidency.  
The Harvard Law Review recently accepted an article he has written about the President’s role in criminal justice reform. It’s here:
The highly regarded journal “Science” accepted an article President Obama has written, titled, “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy.”
President Obama also has 10 different Quora answers here:
Of course there’s his twitter account @BarackObama, where most tweets are by Organizing for America, but ones signed -bo are by President Obama. If you want. Honestly, Twitter’s pretty shallow. I didn’t get much out of reading the last year’s worth of tweets. I guess he feels the same way, given he didn’t write very many of the tweets. 
If you want a hard-hitting look at what President Obama thinks his successor needs to do with respect to economic policy, you can see here:
Or you can read an article he wrote in the November issue of Wired:


Federalist #1 and Donald Trump

With the inauguration of Donald Trump coming up soon, and with the histrionics of many on the left, and the arrogance displayed by many on the right (there was something very arrogant about the House Republicans trying to downgrade their own ethics office in their first week on the job), it can be helpful to seek out one of the most rhetorically masterful calls to sober reason ever written, to persuade us not to lose our heads.  Enter Alexander Hamilton with his first of many in a series: Federalist No. 1.

Whether you take the view that the election of Donald Trump was calamitous, or merely the avoidance of the greater calamity–we can all agree that the stakes were high. “A wrong election of the part we [have acted], may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.” Our President-elect (and soon to be president) won the election, with some help from foreign spy work, while losing the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. Not exactly an auspicious beginning–and that’s on top of what was possibly the most vitriolic and fearful campaign in living memory.

Wouldn’t it be so much less odious and counter-productive, all around, if we could look forward to as gracious an inaugural speech as Hamilton’s Federalist No. 1? Wouldn’t it be delightful if, having been sworn in, President Trump were to take a deep breath, and then say, “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection that we are not always sure that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as those who oppose the right side of a question.”

Would it not be even better if his next remark was to extend his personal gratitude to everyone who is willing to work for the betterment of the country, whatever their view, so long as they are civil and willing to exchange ideas freely and civilly?

For some reason, I do not strongly suspect his remarks will play to the intelligentsia, and vaunt his willingness to win over his opponents–or be won over by them–with reason. “For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

If he were then to say, simply, that he promises his will be a term of patience and openness. Wouldn’t that be nice?

“On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of the government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

I do not harbor suspicions that we have elected Alexander Hamilton. But I did learn a lot from reading Federalist No. 1.