Author Archives: postrationality

Did this make me smarter?

I finally read John Brockman‘s “This Will Make You Smarter“. It is a collection of short essays by many well-known thinkers and researchers on concepts that would improve how we think about the world, and by doing so, would make us smarter.

It was a fun read, and I found myself in strong agreement with many of the essays. It is hard to say if I learned anything new from this, though – the essays (unsurprisingly, given their lengths and target audience) only manage to bring up some important points to be aware of and think about, but do not provide deep analysis. Most of these points would not be news to scientists or to people with a scientific mindset.

Nevertheless, I don’t feel that reading this book was a waste of time. Similar to many self-help classics, the ideas may all seem familiar and sometimes even trivial, but the repeated exposure through reading this book is still valuable in reinforcing these important concepts in the reader’s mind, and in the way they are presented by intelligent people who thought about them a lot.

So, did it make me smarter? Perhaps not. But it made my blog one post richer. And I enjoyed both reading the book and writing about it, so I’d say that was a good read.

A summary of “A Guide to the Good Life”

I recently read William B. Irvine’s book “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy“, and summarized it. Although there is very much in common between being post-rational and being Stoic, I emphasize that the ideas are not my own. This is just a summary. My own thoughts are similar in several dimensions but different in others. This summary will be quite brief.

Beginning of summary
The book is concerned with philosophy of life: how to live a good life? The author found Stoicism to be a good answer, and in the book he presents Stoicism to modern-day readers and corrects common misconceptions.
Early philosophy was concerned with both theory and practice (affecting the way people live). The practical side withered away, but people still need guidance in living a good life. Religion does not provide a philosophy of life, but ancient philosophy does.
Multiple schools of philosophy offered different philosophies. Whichever one a person adopts, it’s better than having none.
Cynics were ascetics – sort of minimalists. Unlike them, Stoics allowed comforts. They were also concerned with logic and rationality, and ethics, as pertaining to living a good life through virtue: living as we were designed to live. A wise man, a sage, lives in accordance with nature and is “godlike”.
Later, Roman stoicism added the goal of tranquility, lack of negative emotions, to the earlier goal of virtue, which leads to tranquility. Tranquility is more commonly desired than virtue, so the book focuses on the Roman school and on tranquility.
According to Seneca, Stoics must feel deep inner joy. According to Musonius, everyone should study philosophy. According to Epictetus, philosophy is primarily concerned with the art of living.
Epictetus claimed that we were created by Zeus, and to achieve tranquility we need to live in accordance with the purpose of Zeus, which is to pursue virtue. However, Stoicism does not generally require one to believe in Zeus.
Hedonic adaptation makes us take for granted the good things in our lives. The Stoics countered this adaptation with negative visualization: contemplation on possible losses, including our own death. This increases our appreciation and enjoyment of life.
Epictetus said we should change our desires to desire only what we could fulfill. By choosing not to desire things we are unlikely to get, we become invincible. Desiring things that are not up to us will disrupt our tranquility. We have complete control over our goals, values and character. With things over which we have some – but not complete – control, we should internalize our goals, e.g.: play our best, rather than win the match. By internalizing goals, it is possible to be socially involved without sacrificing tranquility.
The Stoics advocated fatalism, but did not practice it: they actively tried to influence the future. This puzzle is solved by separating fatalism about the past and about the future. Stoics advocate fatalism about the past and present. Accepting the past and present does not lead to complacency: Stoics seek to become more virtuous. They gained worldly success without seeking it.
Stoics advocated not just contemplating bad things that might happen but also acting as if they truly happened, and at times even making them happen. Is this masochism? These were mostly minor discomforts meant to increase the overall enjoyment of life. Similarly, we should periodically avoid pleasures. We should resist becoming slaves to pleasures and pains. Exercising self control makes our willpower stronger and can even be rewarding on its own.
Stoics advocate meditating on our thoughts and actions and evaluate them in light of Stoic principles. We can also evaluate our progress as Stoics.
Stoic advice on daily life:
Our social duty is to feel concern for and do good on our fellow humans. Despite disliking many people, Marcus Aurelius did not turn his back on them. The reward of doing our social duties is that of a good life.
Our social duty may conflict with avoiding certain people who disturb our tranquility, such as people who do vices or whine or gossip. To deal with such people we should remember that it’s inevitable and their character is not their fault. This is just a technique for dealing with such people, since Stoics believe that character can and should be changed. Instead of disliking annoying people, we should focus on not being like them.
Stoics used rational analysis to discount the importance of sex as “friction of the members and ejaculatory discharge”. Despite their sexual reserve, they advocated marriage and having children.
When dealing with insults, first ask yourself if they are true. If so, there is no reason to get upset for being told the truth. If the insulter is contemptible, it is good to be disapproved by them. Insulters are often overgrown children worthy of our pity, not our anger. A Stoic takes insults as the barking of a dog. What makes us upset is not the thing itself but our reaction to it. A good response to an insult is humorous, or no response at all. Sometimes, though, we should correct the insulter’s behavior.
Stoics do not eliminate grief, but minimize it. Retrospective negative visualization helps replace grief for loss with gratitude for having had it at all. When a loved one dies, remind yourself that they would not like you to grieve excessively. We can sympathize with other’s pain without feeling it ourselves.
Seneca called anger “brief insanity”. We can pretend to be angry without actually getting angry. Just because things did not turn out the way we wanted does not mean someone committed injustice. We get angry from being overly soft, so hardening ourselves protects us from anger as well. Other techniques include humor and remembering that the subject of anger is often a mere annoyance and anger itself is more harmful than that annoyance. Also, remember that we often make others angry, too. If we lash at someone in anger, we should apologize.
Fame is a false pursuit that costs more than its value. Seeking fame makes us dependent on social status and hurts our freedom. We should be equally dismissive of others’ approval and disapproval. Ignoring other people’s opinions of us is part of ignoring things outside of our control. Realize that to win other people’s approval, we need to adopt their values. We should ignore fashion and trigger other people’s disdain simply for practicing it. Many of those around us want us to fail, and we would do well to ignore them. Sometimes, ignoring others is the very thing that makes them admire us.
Wealth is also not worth pursuing. Wealth has the power to make us miserable. We often seek wealth to gain the admiration of others. People who eat extravagantly do not experience more pleasure than those whose diets are simple. Stoics value our ability to enjoy ordinary life and find sources of delight even in primitive conditions. We should eat to live rather than live to eat. The pleasure of food is especially hard to combat since we eat daily. Similar principles apply to clothes, houses and furnishings. Luxury only whets our appetite for more luxury. The mind becomes a slave to the body’s whims and pleasures. Our needs are easily met when we forgo luxurious living. Our financial goal should be just above poverty.
Epictetus advocates a spartan lifestyle, which, combined with negative visualization, leads to greater satisfaction than luxury. Despite not seeking wealth, Stoics often attain it due to their personality traits. Even then they do not cling to their wealth, avoid luxury and practice occasional poverty. The same applies to fame.
Stoics do not fear exile or old age for the same principles already discussed. In fact, adopting Stoicism is a good way to prepare for old age. Similarly for death itself.
Becoming Stoic takes effort, but not becoming Stoic takes even more effort, because a philosophy of life simplifies daily life. The rewards for becoming Stoic include being more virtuous and experiencing less negative and more positive emotions. The best time to start is now. Claims that Stoicism is not suitable for modern life are simply wrong.
Chapter 20 consists of responses to objections to Stoicism. I do not summarize it since I did not find any of the arguments to add much beyond the principles already discussed.
Chapter 21 contains a good summary of Stoic principles. A modern justification of Stoicism would replace Zeus with evolutionary psychology, which explains our nature. Understanding this evolutionary source of our negative emotions helps us overcome them through reason and Stoic principles. Stoic techniques provide a cure for the disease of negative emotions.
The author concludes with his own personal advice on pursuing Stoicism. First, pursue stealth Stoicism to avoid judgment and mockery. Next, proceed gradually and adopt one technique at a time. Negative visualization is easy and quick but extremely valuable. Just find some time in which you can make it a habit. Practice internalizing your goals and become a psychological fatalist about the past and the present. Practice responding to insults with self-deprecating humor and fight anger with humor too. Practice experiencing “stomach butterflies” – fear of public failure. Practicing occasional discomfort wins points from one’s “other self” which runs on evolutionary autopilot. This builds self-discipline, character, and is fun. Simplify your lifestyle.
There is no proof that Stoicism is optimal, but it seems likely (says the author). There is little to lose by trying, and much to gain.
End of summary

The Stoic Jew: approaches to negative visualization

The negative^4 (worry about failure): worry about the lack of tranquility that failing to do negative visualization will prevent you from achieving.

The negative positive (worry about success): worry that worrying too much about the future will be self-fulfilling.

The negative realization: worry that using the above to prove that you are always justified in being worried about something makes you a smartass.

On productivity

Productivity is almost a modern-day version of virtue. It is quite common to look up to productive individuals and feel bad for not being productive enough. I certainly value productivity myself, but I think it is easy to get confused about what it actually means, which is another property it shares with virtue.

I spent 2011-2012 working at Google Research. At Google, it is obvious what productivity means: the company has clear goals, employees have clear tasks on projects which are well-defined. That is true even in Research. Being productive means advancing the company's goals and your projects at a high rate. Usually, working long hours leads to getting much useful work done and therefore directly to productivity.

Since this relationship between time spent working and productivity is often true in industry, the two have become almost synonymous. In this post I'd like to explore how they are not always synonymous, and possible implications.

I am not talking about the value of taking breaks and not working all the time. That taking breaks can increase the total amount of work done is obvious and frequently discussed. I am talking about something else altogether.

I am now back at Stanford, working on finishing my PhD. At Stanford, and indeed in academia at large, the same identity between hours of work and productivity is usually assumed. And the strong correlation between time spent working and work generated generally still holds. But in academia, another factor becomes important, a factor which separates work generated from real productivity. I refer to this factor as the energy conversion efficiency of labor, or EEL in short.

What EEL means is that not all the work you generate is actually valuable. In other words, you can produce a lot without being productive at all. And this is much more pertinent to academia than it is to industry.

Let us define EEL intuitively as the fraction of work produced which is actually valuable and useful. Then I formulate the following 80/20 "rule", because it is fun to make up 80/20 rules and it saves you the trouble of estimating precise quantities:

In academia, over 80% of the work done accounts for less than 20% of the value generated. In industry, 80% of the work done accounts for 80% of the value generated, and the remaining 20% is probably employee 20% time, which is often valuable in less obvious ways.

So why is so much real work done in academia wasted? There is no single answer, but many factors contribute to this low EEL. I will only touch on one factor in this post, and leave the rest for further discussion.

The publication system so ubiquitously wastes practically everyone's time that it has to be the one I use as an example here. Let us assume that research itself is completely productive, and examine the process of publishing it. Writing the paper is productive if that paper gets published and people read it. But papers are often rejected, usually after many months in review, during which the authors usually forget all the small technical details of their work (what each line of code does, etc.). Addressing reviewer comments is often more time-consuming and arbitrary than its actual value in making the paper better. Resubmitting to a different journal involves much restructuring, rewriting, changing file formats, writing new cover letters, and similar elements of real work which are nevertheless not generating new value. In the worst cases the work never gets published at all, in which case if it had any value at all it is bound to be repeated in the future, which makes it wasted work. I will not say more about this since I believe that everyone agrees that the amount of work done on getting research published is much greater than it should be.

The final point I'd like to make here is about what this implies. I spent much effort, as many others, trying to sustain long hours of work and get more done. I even built a web application (Quantified Mind) to help people find out how to improve their cognitive performance, which is usually with the goal of getting more work done. Sustaining 15-hour workdays and so on. And this makes sense when EEL is high and most of the work you do produces real value.

However, when EEL is low, the whole game needs to be reconsidered. If you work 15 hours a day at 20% EEL, you are less productive than working four hours at 80% EEL (remember, I am talking about actual time spent working, not just time "at work"). This is probably why so many successful people don't actually work that much, but still produce much value. I believe the right strategy is to take time away from execution to planning: before doing 15-hour days, spend much more time carefully choosing what is the work you are going to spend time doing. Perhaps do a bit less, but make more of it matter.

What do you think, dear reader? Am I right or am I missing something important? What other factors reduce EEL in your field? What is the EEL of this post?