"Follow your dreams" as a case study in incorrect thinking

post by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T13:18:02.863Z · score: 29 (31 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 53 comments

This post doesn't contain any new ideas that LWers don't already know. It's more of an attempt to organize my thoughts and have a writeup for future reference.

Here's a great quote from Sam Hughes, giving some examples of good and bad advice:

"You and your gaggle of girlfriends had a saying at university," he tells her. "'Drink through it'. Breakups, hangovers, finals. I have never encountered a shorter, worse, more densely bad piece of advice." Next he goes into their bedroom for a moment. He returns with four running shoes. "You did the right thing by waiting for me. Probably the first right thing you've done in the last twenty-four hours. I subscribe, as you know, to a different mantra. So we're going to run."

The typical advice given to young people who want to succeed in highly competitive areas, like sports, writing, music, or making video games, is to "follow your dreams". I think that advice is up there with "drink through it" in terms of sheer destructive potential. If it was replaced with "don't bother following your dreams" every time it was uttered, the world might become a happier place.

The amazing thing about "follow your dreams" is that thinking about it uncovers a sort of perfect storm of biases. It's fractally wrong, like PHP, where the big picture is wrong and every small piece is also wrong in its own unique way.

The big culprit is, of course, optimism bias due to perceived control. I will succeed because I'm me, the special person at the center of my experience. That's the same bias that leads us to overestimate our chances of finishing the thesis on time, or having a successful marriage, or any number of other things. Thankfully, we have a really good debiasing technique for this particular bias, known as reference class forecasting, or inside vs outside view. What if your friend Bob was a slightly better guitar player than you? Would you bet a lot of money on Bob making it big like Jimi Hendrix? The question is laughable, but then so is betting the years of your own life, with a smaller chance of success than Bob.

That still leaves many questions unanswered, though. Why do people offer such advice in the first place, why do other people follow it, and what can be done about it?

Survivorship bias is one big reason we constantly hear successful people telling us to "follow our dreams". Successful people doesn't really know why they are successful, so they attribute it to their hard work and not giving up. The media amplifies that message, while millions of failures go unreported because they're not celebrities, even though they try just as hard. So we hear about successes disproportionately, in comparison to how often they actually happen, and that colors our expectations of our own future success. Sadly, I don't know of any good debiasing techniques for this error, other than just reminding yourself that it's an error.

When someone has invested a lot of time and effort into following their dream, it feels harder to give up due to the sunk cost fallacy. That happens even with very stupid dreams, like the dream of winning at the casino, that were obviously installed by someone else for their own profit. So when you feel convinced that you'll eventually make it big in writing or music, you can remind yourself that compulsive gamblers feel the same way, and that feeling something doesn't make it true.

Of course there are good dreams and bad dreams. Some people have dreams that don't tease them for years with empty promises, but actually start paying off in a predictable time frame. The main difference between the two kinds of dream is the difference between positive-sum games, a.k.a. productive occupations, and zero-sum games, a.k.a. popularity contests. Sebastian Marshall's post Positive Sum Games Don't Require Natural Talent makes the same point, and advises you to choose a game where you can be successful without outcompeting 99% of other players.

The really interesting question to me right now is, what sets someone on the path of investing everything in a hopeless dream? Maybe it's a small success at an early age, followed by some random encouragement from others, and then you're locked in. Is there any hope for thinking back to that moment, or set of moments, and making a little twist to put yourself on a happier path? I usually don't advise people to change their desires, but in this case it seems to be the right thing to do.

53 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-08-20T20:35:19.479Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly related:

Do What You Love and Starve?

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T21:35:14.622Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the link! That's a very well written article, and comparing it to what I wrote has allowed me to see some ways to improve my writing. Basically I should aim to be more sparse and conversational, and have an overall emotional arc to the whole piece, rather than just make a series of carefully argued intellectual points that the readers should evaluate one by one. I wonder if other people feel the same way about my writing?

comment by satt · 2014-08-24T07:28:14.286Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder if other people feel the same way about my writing?

I think there's room in the world for both writing styles. Actually, I'd strengthen that: I'm glad there are people writing in a loosier, chattier style with bite-size paragraphs, and I'm glad there are people writing in a more systematic A-then-B-then-C form. I like a degree of variety.

Edit: I guess I didn't really address your question directly. To be explicit, I was fine with your writing style here, and I liked the care you took to connect what you were saying to specific cognitive biases. I don't recall ever thinking "whoa, this cousin_it article is too dry for me" when reading one of your non-decision-theory posts. (And I don't know how easy it is to add emotional arcs to more technical posts about decision theory!)

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-24T08:43:58.218Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

comment by shminux · 2014-08-20T22:42:19.248Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The article is indeed well-written, if misleadingly titled. The point it is really making, "don't pick a high-status career, unless you are super exceptional" is masked by the stated conclusion, "don't do what you love or you will starve", which does not follow. There are plenty of opportunities to "do what you love" in "mundane" jobs.

And yes, you could use some practice writing in a more engaging way. Is there Writing for non-Vulcans 101?

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-08-20T22:05:19.109Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Paul Graham has a similar essay, called How To Do What You Love which is somewhat less pessimistic, but still agrees that there are a lot of things people can love that they can't make a living doing.

comment by robot-dreams · 2015-01-01T21:47:01.082Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Great article! Thanks for sharing.

A lot of this article feels like "Everyone can be a winner! Everyone can get a trophy for participation! Yay!" As a result, I'm having a hard time restraining my cynicism. For example:

Plenty of “cool careers” sound better than they turn out to be.

How convenient; now you have a great excuse for why you don't have a "cool career".

Status is often the enemy of success.

How convenient; now you have a great excuse for why you're not high status.

Just remember is this one rule: Don't innovate. Replicate. Copy a successful simple business. Innovations are too risky

How convenient; now you have a great excuse for why you're not innovating.

At the end of the day though, everyone has a different definition of success; I think that if you've honestly determined that your own definition of success doesn't require a "cool career" (or high status, or innovation, or whatever), then this article offers exceptional advice.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2014-08-22T20:10:35.192Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

One interesting idea in this space is Compensating Differentials. There is a mismatch between the jobs that people want to do and the jobs that need doing. Wage differences help to reduce the mismatch.

When an ordinary persons tries to optimize their life they face a trade-off. Stick to the line of work they like, which too many other people also like, and be poorly paid, or try something worse for more money. Non-ordinary persons may strike it lucky, finding that they personally like a line of work which is necessary and unpopular and thus well paid. The compensating differential is free money, but only for an eccentric few.

Returning to the plight of the ordinary person, they face a puzzle. They would like to make the right compromise to maximize their happiness, but the labour market is continually offering them six of one and half a dozen of the other. If they stick to the work they love, but for less money, it is a lot less money and not clearly worth it. On the other hand, that sucky job that pays really well turns out to be really hard to put up with and not clearly worth the extra money. If you are a typical persons, with common preferences, then compensating differentials make the peak broad and flat.

That could be fairly upsetting. One might like to have a clearly defined optimum. Then one can say "I'll change my life, do X, then I'll be as happy as I can be." But most changes have matching advantages and disadvantages. One can easily feel lost.

That could be fairly liberating. With a broad plateau, you don't have to be too careful about avoiding sliding down the slopes at the sides. You are free to be yourself, without great consequences.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-08-25T18:18:37.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There is a mismatch between the jobs that people want to do and the jobs that need doing. Wage differences help to reduce the mismatch.

I think this could be an interesting topic to explore: What are the most unwanted and highly paid jobs, that a rational person might still choose to do? -- There could be some biases, so the job is actually not as horrible as it seems. Or it could be something that people don't do only because of irrational fears. Or something that doesn't seem like making a lot of money, which actually does. Or something else that most people get wrong.

There are some problems with this, though. Some unwanted jobs can still be low-status and not paid well, because someone poor enough will be forced to do them anyway. For example, working with garbage. (Maybe the problem is that no one wants to do it, but everyone can, so enough poor people will be forced to.) You could probably save some money by buying a house with number 13, but that's not a regular income. Some kinds of crime could be very profitable on average, but there are also moral problems with this, not merely inconvenience or unpleasantness.

So far, I have only three ideas that seem like they could be good: First, doing a job which seems very dangerous (and is rewarded like one), but actually isn't. Such as being a policeman, but specializing on something that lets you avoid any actual danger. Not sure if this is possible. Second, prostitution done smartly, which means being expensive, acting high-status, and spending enough money on lawyers and bodyguards to keep it legal and safe. Third, starting a low-intensity religious cult, by which I mean something where your followers don't leave their jobs and families, but only pay you for prayers and blessing. I suspect more people don't do this even if they are atheists, because they still have an irrational fear that the real gods would punish them for pretending to have supernatural powers.

Any other ideas?

comment by [deleted] · 2014-08-26T12:29:15.222Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think this could be an interesting topic to explore: What are the most unwanted and highly paid jobs, that a rational person might still choose to do? -- There could be some biases, so the job is actually not as horrible as it seems. Or it could be something that people don't do only because of irrational fears. Or something that doesn't seem like making a lot of money, which actually does. Or something else that most people get wrong.

See also: “Searching For One-Sided Tradeoffs” on Slate Star Codex.

You could probably save some money by buying a house with number 13,

See the last paragraph of the post linked to above.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-08-22T21:15:33.674Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

That could be fairly liberating. With a broad plateau, you don't have to be too careful about avoiding sliding down the slopes at the sides. You are free to be yourself, without great consequences.

Yes. That's a particular case of Harder Choices Matter Less.

comment by AlanCrowe · 2014-08-27T17:17:42.002Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Plus a social mechanism that turns follow-your-dreams versus be-sensible into a hard choice that doesn't much matter.

Also, we can look at the mechanism and see that it affects some people more than others. If you have a common dream, such as being a poet or a novelist, the mechanism is hard at work, flattening the plateau. An example of an uncommon dream is harder to come by.

Once upon a time (1960?) the electric guitar was new. If you formed a band playing electric guitars you would encounter two kinds of opposition. One is "don't be a musician, too many people want to be musicians." The other is "learn violin or trumpet, not something faddy like electric guitar, electric guitar isn't going to last." But some players turned into rock stars and soon every-one wanted to play electric guitar, turning it into a common dream and spoiling it as an example of an uncommon dream.

I think there is a similar tale to tell about computer games. Once upon a time (1980?) computer games were new. If you wanted to be a computer game programmer, it was an uncommon dream and you could succeed. Now it is a common motivation for young people studying computer science and the job niche is over-subscribed.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-22T22:22:51.033Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for that link, it's a sequence post that I somehow missed. I don't think it's completely correct though, just wrote a comment there.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-26T11:08:00.990Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I feel that the idea of a broad plateau is too good to be true. The advantages and disadvantages don't actually balance out, only the perceived ones do. The problem is that our perceptions are affected by biases, some of which were described in the post.

comment by shminux · 2014-08-20T16:00:37.565Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My standard advice is "find your aptitude(s) and put most of your efforts into it". This seems to evade most of the traps you mention. Aptitude/talent is less specific than a dream, and by developing it you get more possibilities open to you. Many people have multiple talents, and would be happier doing something that employs all of them or at least as many as possible.

In my observation, the biggest problem is people never bothering to figure out where there talents lie or never apply any effort into developing them. Many don't even realize that their perfect pitch, eloquence, noticing patterns, exceptional memory, perseverance, being good with numbers, people skills etc. are exceptional rather than average, because they feel so natural to them.

So, I would not advise one to settle into a guaranteed positive-sum game unless they determine that they don't have any talents which would give them a fair chance of beating a suitable zero-sum game.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T16:24:59.031Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW · GW

The last sentence of your comment seems to have an implied value judgment, like beating others at a zero-sum game is virtuous, but playing a positive-sum game is "settling". That's a popular attitude, but a little strange to see on LW!

What do you think of Gwern's argument that we don't need more fiction books?

comment by Jiro · 2014-08-21T16:00:07.705Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I think gwern sells short the argument that older fiction books are produced in different societies and reflect ideas and prejudices from those societies that we might not share. He addresses it in a reply to one of the comments, but the reply is mostly "there are prejudices in older works that don't matter because the conflicts no longer exist" (for instance, the Pharisees in the New Testament).

I don't think that reply is on point. While there are some prejudices that are obsolete, there are others which are not--sexism is endemic in older works, for instance. gwern's reply to that is that the world was sexist back then and it would be worse propaganda to depict the old world with modern values. But that is only relevant insofar as the fiction is about the old world--fiction which is set in modern times can simultaneously depict less sexism than older fiction and be true to the world in which it is set. It also fails to consider that there's a difference between accurately depicting the world as sexist and writing fiction which approves of this state of affairs.

And some ideas in some media are really new. Quick, how many American TV shows with female action heroes can you name that came out prior to Xena? Heck, forget sexism and any other form of -ism; how many American TV shows that are heavily story arc driven can you name that came out prior to about 20 years ago?

He also didn't address differences that are not propaganda-based, such as there not being Shakespeare plays about the Internet. Science fiction is especially prone to this due to advances in scientific knowledge.

comment by shminux · 2014-08-20T17:01:12.222Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The last sentence of your comment seems to have an implied value judgment, like beating others at a zero-sum game is virtuous, but playing a positive-sum game is "settling".

I must have been unclear, this was not a value judgment, but an estimate of how happy one would feel. Plenty of talented people are not ambitious and perfectly happy to not develop their strengths to the max. I implicitly assumed a certain level of ambition, since a low-ambition person would likely not even concern themselves with "following dreams" and just happily go with the flow.

What do you think of Gwern's argument that we don't need more fiction books?

I am happy to discuss this question, but I don't see how it is relevant to the OP.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T17:27:15.946Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Wait, are you saying that ambition can only be fulfilled by playing zero-sum games? Creating a successful software company can yield more money than playing in the NBA. To me the question is more about which games you should choose, not how hard you should try to succeed. Or maybe I'm just completely misunderstanding your comments...

comment by shminux · 2014-08-20T18:09:49.433Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Wait, are you saying that ambition can only be fulfilled by playing zero-sum games?

Yeah, seems like a misunderstanding. Not sure where you inferred the "only" part from. Winning in zero-sum games is harder (but the reward is usually bigger), so no point playing them if you don't care all that much. Anyway, it's best to invent your own games, then they are positive sum for you.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-08-20T20:55:37.883Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Winning in zero-sum games is harder (but the reward is usually bigger)

Really? Business is generally positive sum: you win big by being unique, not by competing head to head. Sports is zero sum. Here are figures I came up with from a quick search.

Total of the 100 highest paid CEOs in the world in 2013: 3.028 billion.

Total of the 100 highest paid athletes in the world in 12 months to June 2014: 2.75 billion

I had actually expected the difference to be larger in that direction, but certainly the athletes are not doing better than the businessmen.

One could think of a lot of other possible measures; that was just one it was easy to find figures for.

comment by iarwain1 · 2014-08-20T16:45:33.472Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In positive psychology research there seems to be a big focus on developing your strengths (= what you called aptitudes), so this is pretty standard advice. I usually suggest Gallup's Strength books, not necessarily because it's the best way of finding your strengths (I haven't researched this enough to know one way or the other), but because it gives a solid strengths-based growth perspective and is at least somewhat helpful in identifying specific strengths.

comment by shminux · 2014-08-20T17:10:51.826Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

this is pretty standard advice

Right. I was simply emphasizing the difference between dreams and strengths. In (a loosely applied) Kahneman's terminology, use your System 2 to build on your System 1, not to fight it.

Another standard point is "use it or lose it". If you don't develop your strengths/talents early, they fade with age. It's most obvious in sports and music, but applies to almost anything.

comment by Alexandros · 2014-08-21T11:13:10.944Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder to what degree 'follow your dreams' is a counterbalance to Dunning-Kruger. I.e. the people that should follow their dreams are likely to underestimate themselves, so a general 'go for it against the odds' climate might be just enough to push them to actually follow through. This would still leave the less skilled to suffer in following dreams they can't succeed at, but there should be some thought as to whether the end result is positive for humanity-in-general or not.

There is also something to be said that some times the people that should follow their dreams are not apparent, and you only figure out they "had it in them" if indeed they go through the process of actually pushing through and improving themselves for it. This is why investment (and hiring) is so hard. All of a person's history isn't enough to tell you whether they will succeed in a new environment. You can select for an unbroken string of success, but that still leaves a huge amount of false negatives. Again, this lends credence as to whether it is better for humanity-in-general to contain the 'follow your dreams' meme.

And of course there is the related thought that the success cases of following your dreams might be wider than actually succeeding at them. In that case, following your dreams pushes you to strive for excellence, and that will push you to develop conscientiousness, a positive attitude towards learning, potentially improve your degree of agency. These characteristics are extremely valuable in many roles. Following something more conventional might not have motivated you enough to actually mould yourself into a more fierce agent. If this last thought is true, following your dreams, even in zero-sum games, might me a positive-sum game when looked at with a wide enough lens.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-21T13:17:17.687Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The advice to "follow your dreams" seems to have two different interpretations, "use your gut feeling to choose your career" and "strive for excellence in your chosen career". I'm mostly objecting to the first interpretation.

As to what motivates people, I've come to believe that our interests and motivations are changeable, though I believed otherwise for many years. You can consciously choose to abandon a hopeless dream, and get a different dream that will motivate you just as much.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-21T15:32:09.071Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think making decisions based on gut feelings is the core issue. How does someone come to want to be a sports star?

1) They usually look towards people who they perceive to be high status and want to copy them.

2) They look at which activity they did in the past that they enjoy or where they got approval from others and then try to think up a career that matches them.

The first one could be good if the person has good role models but a lot of people simply have poor role models that don't make the world a better place.

The second is problematic because a student who just finishes school has no experience at all in the majority of tasks that need doing in the world and thus won't have any reference experience that they enjoy them.

Motivation is a gut feeling and without motivation you won't strive for excellence.

comment by Princess_Stargirl · 2014-09-01T19:56:59.792Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Cal Newpport's work seems relevant. His most important book is "So good they can't ignore you."

Here is a very good at google talk that basically covers the gist of the book in 40 minutes:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwOdU02SE0w

And here is a Less Wrong Thread reviewing the book:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/k40/book_review_so_good_they_cant_ignore_you_by_cal/

comment by HopefullyCreative · 2014-08-26T04:52:05.286Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is what is "correct thinking"? Is "correct" telling people to never try? Is "correct" sticking to safe, sure bets always? Is correct giving up on something because the challenge will be great and the odds long? What kind of world would we live in if everyone took that mentality? I would argue that ambition is powerful, it shapes this world and builds monumental things. Its irrational to expect people to be completely rational, that can only result in depression, stagnation and death. This all does remind me of a story with an important message.

Long ago in the Arizona desert, there once was a scout for the garrison at Fort Huachuca. During this man's spare time he ranged off into the desert searching for veins of silver or gold. The land was wild back then and very dangerous. When this young man's friend learned what he was doing this friend told him "The only rock you will find out there is your own tombstone." Undeterred he continued searching and eventually found a vein of silver all the while with only thirty cents in his pockets. He eventually staked the claim, got the ore appraised and founded the settlement "Tombstone" in honor of what everyone told him he would find. Edward Lawrence Schieffelin would became a millionaire due to his discovery in the late 1870's.

Were the odds actually in favor of Ed only finding his grave in that desert? Yes. Did most people setting out west fail in whatever ambitions they had? Yes. Does that mean it was not worth trying? No, it does not. The fact is that the vast majority of those setting out west to settle the land would fail utterly in some respect. That doesn't mean they should have stayed home and never dreamed at all. Where would we be if everyone had said "You know what? I think I'll just play it safe. ?

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-26T07:48:35.803Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's a fair point that many important changes in our world were caused by people who took big risks. But I have a hard time believing that it was the best way to achieve these changes. If a million people stayed home instead of taking a one-in-a-million chance each, who knows how much good they could do at home? Probably more than one lucky person could achieve. And if some risky actions genuinely lead to collective benefit, then in a saner world some people would still take these risks, because others would invest in them appropriately.

That's all speculative, though, because we don't live in such a world. Here and now, the purpose of my post is to benefit the person reading it, not set them up for almost certain failure because it might benefit others. I think that's the right attitude when giving advice.

comment by HopefullyCreative · 2014-08-26T16:29:56.723Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The problem is that you cannot be quite absolutely certain that someone will in fact fail. You can express any likelihood of them amounting to anything other than "normal" or "average" is frighteningly small, but that's not quite the same as an absolute fact that they will not succeed ever, nor does any of this mean that the effort to reach their goal on some level wouldn't make them happy even if they never succeed. The effort to reach that goal also can be also very socially and economically productive.

I think the better advice is "Dream of victory, but prepare for defeat." The idea is that if they are truly passionate about something they should push towards it but prepare themselves to fail again and again. That means that they shouldn't just abandon all family and stable work for said goals, but instead maintain those in preparation for the likely event that they fail in each attempt. This is important because no one goes through life without taking a blow so to speak. Everyone spends some of their time taking their own share of lumps and preparing for this instead of living in a fantasy world in which nothing can go wrong is important.

I suppose its a fundamental disagreement of basic philosophy here. You are arguing the Buddhist and Epicurean thought "Unhappiness is caused by unnecessary desire." Whereas my observation and platform is based upon the idea that "True depression is stillness born from a lack of worthwhile purpose and objectives in life." Its the recognition that for some people at least (such as myself) they need fantastic goals and overriding purpose in life to be happy, even if the chance of success is quite low.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-26T18:56:41.279Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think we have a misunderstanding. My post didn't argue against all big ambitions, see the part about positive-sum games.

Also, even if it's good to try risky things, that doesn't mean it's good to be biased about your chances. The post pointed out specific biases, like survivorship bias or sunk cost fallacy, that lead people to take more risks than they would choose to take if they saw things clearly.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-08-20T13:53:08.064Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think you're conflating categories of success that are not directly comparable. While "get a position in an NBA team" is zero-sum, that is, someone must get out for you to get in, other dreams, like "become a platinum-disc soprano", are not zero-sum and do not depend on other people abandoning their other possible choices (apart from the money spent in buying your CD).

comment by 9eB1 · 2014-08-20T17:21:18.854Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Becoming a platinum-disc soprano itself definitely seems zero-sum to me. It derives from popularity, and only so many musicians can be popular enough to sell platinum records because of limited interest from the public and social tipping points. Are you saying that it's not a zero-sum dream because even if you fail you are left with something economically or socially valuable, unlike basketball?

comment by polymathwannabe · 2014-08-20T18:34:16.675Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What I meant was that there is not a limited number of slots for platinum-selling singers to occupy. Madame A's sales shouldn't have much of an effect on Madame B's if both are similarly great.

comment by Nornagest · 2014-08-20T18:54:36.361Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

It's a bit fuzzier, sure, but listener attention is not an unbounded resource. Neither are radio play, space on movie and TV soundtracks, slots on Pandora playlists, and so forth. If you become a popular musician, your work's going to be funging against something, and most of that something is probably going to be other musicians' work.

(The rest probably comes out of people's attention budgets more generally, which isn't as narrowly competitive but is no less finite.)

comment by AspiringRationalist · 2014-08-21T00:40:50.169Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The market for professional basketball viewership (and therefore for players) isn't fixed either, but someone making it to the NBA is much more likely crowding someone else out than expanding the pie.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T14:07:18.340Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'd say the post applies about equally to aspiring platinum-disc sopranos and aspiring NBA players. Both have very low chances of success. Sure, the chances of success are low for different reasons, but that doesn't seem very relevant.

comment by romka · 2015-08-15T13:22:02.250Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for posting. That's great food for thought.

The article makes an assumption that when you engage in a competitive activity with an objective measure of success the subjective level of satisfaction is fully defined by your standing on the virtual ladder. If you spend ten years of your life trying to climb the ladder and don't even get to the median, you "fail". You've chosen poorly.

In practice, your level of satisfaction, your happiness, is a more complex function. Whichever activity you engage in, you may get a certain amount of happiness or suffering simply from doing it: some people like playing guitar and doing muscle ups, others hate every second of it. You also get happiness points from the absolute level of your progress: all else being equal, knowing that you can do 5 muscle ups makes you happier than knowing you can do only 3. Then there is happiness from making progress. And finally, you can get kicks from comparing yourself to others.

How all these different values are combined to produce a single value of happiness is different for each individual. The article makes perfect sense for a person for whom the last component, comparison to others, is not only dominant, but also skewed. If winning in a zero-sum game gives you +1 happiness while losing gives you -10, you should avoid any activity that has a well-known objective metric of success.

comment by Slider · 2014-08-20T18:51:31.900Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I recorn part of the reason such advice is given is that while people get concerned in actually making it they lose sight on how optimal the goal was. That might very well be correct "first things first", but when given opportunity to equip other people they might assume they will go througth the "ordinary steps" and give ingredients, "extraordinary steps" that they would take if they were to start the process again. However they don't think how much their advice reduces or replaces doing common sense things while it could be reasonable if done in addition. However the "correct" advice: "make it" is no advice at all.

It might also be common to make the mistake of hoping based on possibilities rather than discovering values and then working a way to realise them. You might end up with a respectable role that you in particular don't like. As you build a life it would be good to check that you bother to live it. This need not be a culmination of dreams but rather recognising that life may cater to more cost-efficiently to you if you remember to fit your solution to your subject rather than relying overtly on intersubjective criteria. Intership at a compatible industry vs a job at a generic job might result in the "dream choice" advice to shoot down your expectations.

It can also be contrued to mean "the average job fits no-one, the sooner you get customising the better you will blend in and less time spent pursuing no direction".

Seem the article is directed towards a quite spesific intetion / understanding of the advice.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T19:01:23.377Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seems the article is directed towards a quite specific intention / understanding of the advice.

Yeah, I agree that there are situations where "follow your dreams" is good advice. The post just tries to argue that it's often bad advice when it refers to highly competitive areas, where average performance doesn't pay.

comment by DanielLC · 2014-08-20T16:52:40.151Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think this SMBC comic is relevant: https://medium.com/the-nib/follow-your-dreams-921a8190fd4c

comment by brazil84 · 2015-01-01T22:49:37.950Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The really interesting question to me right now is, what sets someone on the path of investing everything in a hopeless dream?

I've been thinking about this, and I think part of the problem is the "narrative fallacy," i.e. the subconscious urge to fit your life into a narrative. Combine this with the "hero myth" which is so well-entrenched in popular culture, and it's very easy to subconsciously believe that you are destined to do important things (or at least to achieve a lot) just like the protagonist in a large percentage of books and movies.

Is there any hope for thinking back to that moment, or set of moments, and making a little twist to put yourself on a happier path?

Perhaps, but I think the better approach is to find some way to follow your dreams but with a fallback plan. So for example to spend 30-60 minutes a day on your screenplay or novel while the rest of the time you are an accountant, advertising executive, etc.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-01-01T23:54:36.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps, but I think the better approach is to find some way to follow your dreams but with a fallback plan. So for example to spend 30-60 minutes a day on your screenplay or novel while the rest of the time you are an accountant, advertising executive, etc.

30-60 minutes a day isn't following your dreams with a fallback, it's living the fallback while playing at following the dream.

comment by brazil84 · 2015-01-01T23:57:03.701Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

30-60 minutes a day isn't following your dreams with a fallback, it's living the fallback while playing at following the dream.

I think the point you are making is that 30-60 minutes a day gives you basically zero chances of success in terms of achieving your dream. Did I understand you correctly?

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-01-02T08:32:00.528Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, exactly.

comment by brazil84 · 2015-01-02T10:54:20.863Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, exactly.

Ok, well I would have to disagree with you. I do agree that for some kinds of dream-pursuit, a bigger time commitment is necessary. For example an internet startup in a highly competitive area would be at a huge disadvantage compared to people working full time.

But for other things, a part-time commitment will still give you a decent shot. If you are not in a race with other people and it takes you 6 months instead of 1 month to get your project off the ground, it's not going to hurt you all that much.

comment by HopefullyCreative · 2014-08-21T18:02:00.361Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Statement Retratcted: I should sit and think on this a bit more just to be sure I am posing the correct response.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-20T19:49:36.004Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The typical advice given to young people who want to succeed in highly competitive areas, like sports, writing, music, or making video games

If someone's dream is to become a sport star you might ask them whether they think the world is improved by having another sport star that performs slightly better than the existing ones. That dream is often shallow and selfish. Having a selfish dream basically means that nobody really cares about helping to make your dream come true.

If your dream on the other hand is to win a Nobel prize for curing AIDS, go and do a PHD in biology or a related subject and work hard on your dream. You likely won't win a nobel prize either, but at you get payed a living wage because society likes that people work on curing AIDS.

comment by kalium · 2014-08-23T02:44:56.005Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think you understand how screwed up the academic job market is. PhDs students are funded because they provide cheap(ish) labor for a professor's lab, and it's in professors' interest to take on a lot more students than can have a long-term career in science. Science is a popular enough career to have its own "following your dreams" problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-23T09:21:27.485Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think you understand how screwed up the academic job market is.

Science PHDs usually get useful skills that make them employable outside academia that someone who fails at being a sport star or musician doesn't get.

Furthermore I think that our society benefits from investing more resources into solving biology while it doesn't benefit from more people wanting to become sport stars.

comment by cousin_it · 2014-08-20T19:55:50.101Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The folks who go into music or art won't agree that their dreams are selfish. Though they probably are, in a way.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-08-20T20:05:40.131Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Those folks usually have never asked themselves the question on a deeper level. A musician who is really out to make the world a better place through his music and can articulate his vision is going to succeed against a musician who plays an instrument slightly better.

A lot of people spend to little time into actually exploring their dream. That means that they can't draw as much motivation from it and they can't convince other people to support them in their dream.

You can go into the music business trying to play a zero sum game where you work hard to be slightly better than the competition. You could also go to communicate certain cultural values that you find lacking in todays music. Then you aren't playing a zero sum game and you also aren't in direct competition with a lot of people who just try to work hard to be a little bit better.

comment by zzrafz · 2014-08-20T22:45:32.527Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I've read a great comment on fark.com, back when the whole Occupy movement was still going strong, that, while does not add much to the topic in terms of content, does help us see how people feel and act when it comes to "success"

"It's difficult for me to figure out my position on this whole Occupy thing. I was really worried about employment out of school (CS degree) and I'm very thankful to be where I am with zero student loans or debt of any kind. Also, I agree with some of the above posters that a few of the people I've seen at the 99% thing holding signs could work plenty of livable jobs (comfortable livable, I think) at least out here, and I think the angle that some of this is taking reeks of entitlement from those who haven't really put forth an effort and are trying to benefit from this in a class action sort of way. However, I'll just say that I find it really hard not to empathize with the 99% movement when I get on Fark or turn on the TV and hear all the dismissive, hateful people disregard the whole thing based on their preconceptions because they got theirs already. I'm lucky to have my lot in life, but I know how easily I could've ended up in a worse predicament. So even if all the kids on TV come across as whiny spoiled brats, you know the rich dudes/smug people would be acting the same if they were the have-nots instead of the haves and the fact that there's so many people acting like their shiat doesn't stink makes me sick". - Electromax