"Why Try Hard" Essay targeted at non rationalists

post by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-24T16:40:52.442Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 20 comments

Hello everyone,

This is a follow-up to my last post about optimizing, which I intended to spread to nonrationalist friends of mine.  Initial feedback let me know that a lot of the language was a put-off, as well as the dry style and lack of opposing counters to arguments against optimization.

I've tried to take some of those ideas and put it into a new essay, one that tries to get across the idea that planning is important to accomplish goals.

I'd appreciate any/all critiques-- the comments last time were very helpful in learning what I could improve on:

Why Try Hard?

Life is pretty hard.  Seriously, it scores an 11/10 on the Mohs Scale.  Scratch that (eyy), it’s more like a 12/10.  Which is probably why many people go through life without too many dreams and ambitions.  I mean, it’s hard to just deal with daily problems of living, not to mention those pesky social interactions no one seems to get the hang of (“So you grasp their hand and apply pressure while vigorously shaking it a few inches up and down?”).

But you’re going to be different.  

You’re going to try and make a difference, and change the world.  Except that everyone around you seems to be talking about the “naivete of youth” and seems pretty jaded (6.5 Mohs) about life.  Obviously their cynicism isn’t sharp enough to scratch all of life (6.5<12), so you listen their warnings and run off to face the final boss anyways.

After all, if you really try hard, things should work out, right? You’ve got the drive, the dream, the baseball cap, and the yellow electrical mouse.  Why wouldn’t things work out for you, the main character?

Deep down though, you probably also already realize the futility of trying to create systemic change.  I mean, those jaded mentors of yours once had your idealism too.  And they also wanted to make the world a better place.  But they ventured out into the world, and came back, battered and wizened-- more attuned to the reality we live in.

Might it be smarter,” that little voice in your head asks, “to bow to the reality of the situation, and lower your sights?

And the reality of the situation is terrible.  We have hundreds of thousands of lives being lost each day.  Terrible diseases that cripple our livelihood and tear families apart.  Climate change that causes loss of biodiversity and threatens to flood communities across the globe.  We could very well be crushed by an asteroid, or suffer terribly at the hands of full-scale nuclear war.  A lonely blue and green speck in an unkind, frozen nightscape.  

Against such unequal odds, people tend to localize:  “Fighting worldwide hunger is impossible,” they say, “what can one person like me do?” This is a normal response.  The perils and problems in this world are enormous!  How can we even hope to solve them?  

But maybe, that voice nags, “if I do my part, if I donate to my community’s food bank, I can make that little bit of difference in my own little world. And I can be satisfied with that.” There is something poetic about this-- doing what you can in your own little world.  “Forget saving the world,” it cries, “if I can inspire change in my community, that will be enough for me.  I will have done my part.”

But will you really?  Will you be truly satisfied that you’ve done all that you can to try and solve the world’s problems?  

Hi, I’m the other voice.  

You know, the stupid one?  The delusional one that refuses to accept reality as-is?  The one that insists, no matter the odds, that we should try to make things better?  The one that looks at the huge problems the world is facing and says, “If so much is wrong, it’s all the more reason to try and set them right!”  

Your mentors may have wanted to improve the world, but did they have a map, a strategy, an action plan?

Of course,” you may respond, “who doesn’t have a plan?  You really are the stupid voice.

But for many of us, in our heads, trying to solve these big world problems looks a little like this:

Step 1: Learn that world hunger is a big issue.

Step 3: Solve world hunger.

First off, you’ll probably notice that Step 2 is missing.  You’ll also probably notice that the above plan looks a little simple.  There’s a lot of heart (caring about the problem), but it’s missing a lot of head (trying to come up with an actual plan to solve the problem).  Sort of like the Headless Horseman.

You may ask: “What good are plans? If you care enough about things, you’ll find a way!

Plans are deliberate maps to your goal-- getting what you want.  We use plans because they are more effective at getting to our goals than just hoping that our goals happen.  It’s just a feature of our universe: If we want to affect reality, we’ll have to do things in reality; we can’t just imagine something and have it happen-- it’s just not how our world works.

In the same way, if we want to achieve our goals, we’ll be looking for the best plan possible.  A better plan is one that has a higher chance of getting us what we want.  So, to solve complex, global problems, we’ll need a great plan.

And therein lies the key.  

Everyone that came before you who wanted to make a difference probably had a fairly good notion of what the problems were, but how many of them actually took the time to really research/create a strategy of what to do about it?

But that’s not fair to them,” you may cry out, “they didn’t have access to resources like we do today!  The Internet has exploded in the past few decades, and my phone has more computing power than what used to require an entire room!  You can’t expect them to have been able to create detailed plans or research things out fully!  It was good enough that they even cared, at least a little!


They might not have had access to the wonderful resources we have today-- which would have seriously hampered their researching ability/ability to make plans.

Right,” you may say, “then how can you expect anyone to do anything about these issues?  They’re too large-- you just admitted that it’s impossible to make plans that solve anything this big!

But you can totally research to your heart’s content.  You are living in a world where information is literally at your fingertips.  As a human being, you’re already hard-wired to make plans and achieve your goals!

<Cue motivational music>

So don’t give up on your plans of solving worldwide problems just yet!  You have at least two advantages over all the idealistic youth that came before you in generations past:  

  1. With the Internet, you have access to a vast majority of all of humanity’s acquired knowledge-- over 5,000 years of accumulated lore.

  1. Armed with the idea that plans get things done, you can create strategies that actually lead to your goals.

To end, I’ll be giving you a basic framework that you can apply to create plans that allow you to achieve your goals: The General Action Plan (GAP):

The main idea is broken into 4 steps:

  1. Identify your goal:

This is what you want to get done.  It’s going to be the focus of all your actions.

EX: “Convince all my friends that procrastination is terrible; get them to change their


  1. What do you need to do to get it done?

If the goal is large, break it up into subsections of things you can do.  Identify categories.  If

you end up with a few general sections, identify subgoals for each section.  Repeat as


EX: “I will need to focus on Outreach, Persuasion, Creating a Movement, and Publicity if I

want to get my friends to change their habits.”

  1. What is stopping you from getting it done?

Identify things that make it hard for you to start.  List smaller things you need to do for

each subsection.

EX: “I will have difficulty convincing people.  I need to motivate myself to get this done.  I

will have trouble getting the social media attention I’ll need.”

  1. Break it down again.

Take all the vague-sounding things you wrote down earlier, and break it down again into

smaller actions.  The trick behind the G.A.P. is to take conceptual things that are hard to do into actual actionable items.

EX: “Outreach becomes:

  1. Create a poster

  2. Talk to friends

  3. Make a Facebook post.

Breaking it down again:

Create a poster:

  1. Outline poster

  2. Ask friend to supply visuals

  3. Post around school

Talk to friends:

  1. Make a list of friends who would be interested

  2. Find out what your main idea should be

  3. Find opportunities to talk with them

and so on for each action.”

Concluding Thoughts:

When faced with impossible odds, don’t try to shoot lower-- make a better plan.  We’re living in a really great plan where we can network with people across the globe and learn about almost anything.

No matter what things you want to accomplish, having a basic understanding of breaking it down should make it much easier to understand how to get big, complex, and fuzzy ideas like “teach the value of persistence” done.  

Instead of focusing on the abstract “idea-ness” of the goal, focus on what the goal would look like if you were successful, and focus on cultivating those symptoms.  And remember to take all the general concepts and clarify them.

A lot of paralysis when it comes to getting anything done is uncertainty .  If you don’t know what you can do to solve a problem, it’s much scarier.  But if you can hone in on what exactly you need to get done, even if it’s an impossible task, you at least know what you can do.

So back to the original question, “Why try hard?”  

I suppose the answer is, “If you aren’t trying hard, you aren’t really trying at all.”





Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by username2 · 2016-01-26T16:12:34.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's awful. Sorry. There are probably Jehovah's Witnesses that would have had my attention for longer. In fact it's so awful that it's inviting the reader to take delight into finding ways of feeling smugly superior to the author. It's just the kind of thing to make your non-rationalist friends want to un-friend you pretty quickly.

You don't even know which were the challenges you were supposed to rise up to in this article, otherwise you'd have at least paid lip service to them. You seem to come from a place of utterly failing to understand the cause of the usual blase attitude towards super-altruism - the part of typical human psychology which makes us generally not want to take the burden of the world upon our shoulders. You have to understand that in order to argue persuasively against it. Instead you just assume the contrary as a default. You also don't understand why hard things are hard, that is, hard as in, you don't just read an essay on the internet and decide that your aversion to doing a superhuman effort towards an unlikely goal is suddenly a thing of the past. And the writing itself flows as well as nails on a chalkboard. You can almost physically feel the pat on the head.

Your friends are not going to become optimizers or effective altruists. Especially not as a result of this essay. Get over it. It's a sign that their excessive-earnestness antibodies are working well, and that they have a well-calibrated sense of perspective with respect to their likely impact on the world. Sure, it wouldn't be good morals to try to talk you out of your itch to improve the world, as it might seem like I'm doing, but at the very least you could go about it in a less socially and psychologically oblivious way, because proselytizing for weird causes is textbook How To Lose Friends and Alienate People.

Replies from: AmagicalFishy, lifelonglearner
comment by AmagicalFishy · 2016-02-17T05:42:47.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh. Actually, I enjoyed reading it.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-26T23:44:56.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


I can definitely see where you're coming from. No doubt I've got a lot to go through/learn before continuing on. I think that's been the main theme from most responses here-- I'm not properly modeling normal people well enough to create material that's very persuasive.

Instead, it seems that I'm assuming some frames of mind that are not typical.

Also, I can see my writing style doesn't work for people, though I'm not sure how indicative of an average response the feedback here is (perhaps less so?).

So obviously I'm lacking at least two things to make an effective case here. It's always helpful to get feedback like this, as telling me it's good when it isn't won't help me improve.

I believe I can say that I've very likely underestimated the amount of effort needed to get typical people into a new mindframe. Hopefully I can improve the way I write about these things to argue more persuasively.

Replies from: Zubon
comment by Zubon · 2016-01-30T01:45:36.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The writing style is ... potentially appealing to a certain sort of nerd. But I'm the sort of person who reads here and I stopped after the first paragraph, which has a geology joke, followed by a too-self-aware pun, then ends on the explicit statement that no one really understands handshakes. The typical mind does not know what the Mohs scale is and intuitively grasps social interactions, or at least it thinks it does.

"those pesky social interactions no one seems to get the hang of" comes across (to me) as signaling a lack of social competence and fluency then typical-minding it onto your readers, which signals low status and low awareness of self and others. Or, dropping our local jargon: "I am autistic and I have not noticed that most people aren't." You cannot hold yourself out as an expert to be listened to after undercutting yourself that much.

That feels a bit harsh but I'm going with it. As you say, you are assuming some frames of mind that are not typical. It is not just that you are not properly modeling normal people well -- it sounds as though you believe you have a great model of normal people while the presentation demonstrates the opposite.

What you're saying here in this reply suggests you think the problem is one of communicating with typical people, not understanding them. The problem is not (misunderstanding people) -> (communicating badly). Okay, it may also be that, but more so (misunderstanding people) -> (what you're telling them is wrong) because you are trying to "fix" a mind that you don't appear to understand.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-30T14:58:36.432Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, so the ideas and messages that I was trying to get across (which I believed aren't getting through due to poor communication skills) may be further hampered because the ideas and messages themselves are flawed, as they aren't designed to persuade a typical mindset anyway?

If that's what you mean, I can see that as a deeper problem I'd have to address before moving on, because no matter what improvements I'd make to my communication style, the root ideas would still not be effective.

comment by Bryan-san · 2016-01-25T15:32:52.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This article looks like a good Part 1 of Many. I would normally expect this article to be followed by several more that go into detail about what good, rational planning actually looks like and how to do effective and useful research on topics like these.

Breaking things down into smaller parts and doing research sound like good ideas #1 and #2 of 20 or 30 needed to do really awesome planning.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-25T18:33:33.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's really true.

This started as an effort to catalog my own planning processes, but I have tons more to learn.

I'll definitely be thinking more about the points you've raised (what good rational planning looks like/good research), but I know that I, too, haven't got the whole picture in my head yet.

I would like to add more to this idea of good planning as I learn more. Do you have any suggestions for further reading I might benefit from (and eventually write about)?

Replies from: Bryan-san
comment by Bryan-san · 2016-01-28T19:02:22.364Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Immediate ideas that come to mind: lots of CFAR goal-oriented techniques like goal factoring, pre-hindsight, murphyjitsu, seeking strategic updates, and urge propagation. You can learn those at CFAR itself or Anna might be writing up something on them at some point during this year.

From other stuff I've been exposed to: Generating 3rd option alternatives Noticing and rejecting Fool's Choices (presented with A but not B and B but not A, which you reject and then find a way to obtain both A and B) being sure to write down actual models for decision trees and assign probabilities to them finding people who failed in the past and avoid their failures thinking about what someone cleverer or craftier than you would do asking someone who is cleverer and craftier than you what they would do etc.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-29T18:16:29.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I hope to connect with CFAR later this year, so ideally I'd be able to learn more about good planning. The bit about avoiding past failures is something I haven't appreciated until recently; I used to think that I had to learn everything the hard way (first-hand).

comment by WhyAsk · 2016-01-26T18:27:01.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the person you're persuading makes a swatting motion, it means you're not getting through and your persuadee is annoyed.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-26T23:46:29.570Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey WhyAsk, I can see the truth value in your statement, but I'm not quite sure the exact connection to the above posts (?).

Replies from: WhyAsk
comment by WhyAsk · 2016-01-27T00:48:45.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some people hold on more strongly to their original beliefs if someone tries to convince them otherwise. This might have been in the book "On Being Certain."

I think this kind of persuasion is a lost cause but I am still sometimes drawn into trying, against my better judgement.

Even if you don't convince the non-rationalists you may learn some new mindgames, based on what they throw at you, their wacky justifications for their illogical ideas and their non-sequiturs.

On the other hand, I might just be off on a tangent. :(

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-27T02:44:32.702Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Got it. Thanks for your insights. Hopefully I can wisen up and learn abut more, too.

comment by [deleted] · 2016-01-26T10:43:24.136Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

haha holy shit! This article is brilliant! I literally laughed out loud at some of the jokes. Even as an existing aspiring rstionalist this really motivated me and renewed my passion. Thanks so much. I hope to see more like this from you, you marvel!

comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-25T13:28:23.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Full marks for the pep talk, but the prescription of "planning" is surely only part of what is needed. How would you handle the planning fallacy? I don't think "better planning" is the answer.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-25T14:01:35.004Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's definitely true. The planning fallacy is a huge issue, and I don't address it here when I talk about plans to reach your goals.

I think finding the motivation to get things done is also a central part of the "achieving goals" target.

I'd like to try and address both of those in some form or another. Do you feel the essay would be strengthened if I added it in passing, or devoted smaller, separate pieces to cover those two?

Replies from: RichardKennaway
comment by RichardKennaway · 2016-01-25T16:30:41.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there's an overemphasis on planning in more and more detail. Some things are opaque at the point of making the plan. For example, some parts of a plan may require you do to things you don't know how to do. That breaks down into (1) find out how, and (2) do it. But you don't know what you're going to find, and what acting on you find will look like. (2) is opaque at the planning stage, and may not even exist if the answer to (1) suggests a different way of going about the parent goal.

Also, things can go wrong during execution. No complicated car repair ever goes exactly as the Haynes manual says, and for all the convenience of satnavs, you sometimes have to notice that it's sending you along a stupid route.

I recently had the goal of taking a piece of software I wrote in 100,000 lines of C++ and getting it to be callable from a web page, returning results to be embedded into the same web page, and running on a web server that it had never been compiled for before, starting from a position of knowing nothing about how to do dynamic web pages. It got done, but a plan would have looked like "1. Find a suitable technology for doing dynamic web pages. 2. Use it."

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-25T18:30:56.080Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You raise some good points about other things that can happen in planning, and your point about opacity in plans along with learning new skills is also something I hadn't considered.

The general idea of "getting things done" doesn't seem to vary, but there's definitely much more room for variation than I've implied.

I think a large part of that is caused by my: 1) Inexperience with applying planning skills 2) Using them only on a very narrow range 3) Extrapolating from my personal experience.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-01-25T12:21:45.604Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the same way, if we want to achieve our goals, we’ll be looking for the best plan possible. A better plan is one that has a higher chance of getting us what we want. So, to solve complex, global problems, we’ll need a great plan.

How do you know those things that you claim in that paragraph?

Everyone that came before you who wanted to make a difference probably had a fairly good notion of what the problems were, but how many of them actually took the time to really research/create a strategy of what to do about it?

Marx did research and he had a plan of how to make things better. It turned out that trying to put that plan into reality didn't really turn the world into a better place. Hitler also had his masterplan.

In the later part of the 20st century there was the sentiment that this isn't a good way to do things.

Replies from: lifelonglearner
comment by lifelonglearner · 2016-01-25T13:59:12.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for addressing more underlying assumptions. I'll think more about them (especially the plans in history have not been successful bit) and try to find something that better reflects a strategy that takes this into account.