Against lone wolf self-improvement

post by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T15:31:46.908Z · score: 30 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 73 comments

LW has a problem. Openly or covertly, many posts here promote the idea that a rational person ought to be able to self-improve on their own. Some of it comes from Eliezer's refusal to attend college (and Luke dropping out of his bachelors, etc). Some of it comes from our concept of rationality, that all agents can be approximated as perfect utility maximizers with a bunch of nonessential bugs. Some of it is due to our psychological makeup and introversion. Some of it comes from trying to tackle hard problems that aren't well understood anywhere else. And some of it is just the plain old meme of heroism and forging your own way.

I'm not saying all these things are 100% harmful. But the end result is a mindset of lone wolf self-improvement, which I believe has harmed LWers more than any other part of our belief system.

Any time you force yourself to do X alone in your room, or blame yourself for not doing X, or feel isolated while doing X, or surf the web to feel some human contact instead of doing X, or wonder if X might improve your life but can't bring yourself to start... your problem comes from believing that lone wolf self-improvement is fundamentally the right approach. That belief is comforting in many ways, but noticing it is enough to break the spell. The fault wasn't with the operator all along. Lone wolf self-improvement doesn't work.

Doesn't work compared to what? Joining a class. With a fixed schedule, a group of students, a teacher, and an exam at the end. Compared to any "anti-akrasia technique" ever proposed on LW or adjacent self-help blogs, joining a class works ridiculously well. You don't need constant willpower: just show up on time and you'll be carried along. You don't get lonely: other students are there and you can't help but interact. You don't wonder if you're doing it right: just ask the teacher.

Can't find a class? Find a club, a meetup, a group of people sharing your interest, any environment where social momentum will work in your favor. Even an online community for X that will reward your progress with upvotes is much better than going X completely alone. But any regular meeting you can attend in person, which doesn't depend on your enthusiasm to keep going, is exponentially more powerful.

Avoiding lone wolf self-improvement seems like embarrassingly obvious advice. But somehow I see people trying to learn X alone in their rooms all the time, swimming against the current for years, blaming themselves when their willpower isn't enough. My message to such people: give up. Your brain is right and what you're forcing it to do is wrong. Put down your X, open your laptop, find a class near you, send them a quick email, and spend the rest of the day surfing the web. It will be your most productive day in months.

73 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dagon · 2017-07-07T16:57:17.632Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

It's simply wrong to say that self-directed improvement doesn't work. Many people make lots of progress with self-reflection, reading, intentional practice, etc.

It would be equally correct (and equally misleading) to say "classes don't work". Personally, I dropped out of college after 2 years because I just wasn't getting enough from the structured, semi-useful coursework. There's LOTS of studies that show extremely weak correlation between class time (at reasonable margins, correcting for other factors) and later achievement.

Presumably, the best for any individual is some idiosyncratic mix of the two. In fact, it takes a fair bit of self-reflection and desire for improvement to identify the classes and groups which will help your goals, so there's no escaping that level.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-08T02:53:49.945Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It would be accurate to say that self-directed improvement has a lot of failure modes that are hard to recognize from the inside -- human biases and all. Working with others in a shared environment with scientific ground rules ensures that your biases and their biases form a non intersecting set and you're left with the truth.

I work in open source and it is very often the case that someone new comes to the project with a gigantic, unreviewable pile of changes that they want merged. Almost inevitably, it is 90% bad changes on top of 10% of innovation, and the bad came about because they didn't understand what they were changing or the reason for its existence. The 10% is good but they've got to go back and extract it out which is a long and protracted process. Much better to have been involved in the community from the beginning, where they would have had things they wouldn't have thought of themselves pointed out and learned bits that they wouldn't have thought relevant, but are.

comment by adamisom · 2017-07-11T20:48:57.192Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Working with others in a shared environment with scientific ground rules ensures that your biases and their biases form a non intersecting set

I liked your first point but come on here.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-12T00:48:54.743Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How is that not the point of peer review, whether formal or informal?

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T20:08:44.180Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I agree that schools often have too much coursework. I think it's still worth it because you get a wider view of the field (and I didn't drop out), but YMMV.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2017-07-08T19:52:07.432Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I've put in a bit of effort into running a local self-improvement community (link in Finnish), but one of the problems I've had in making self-improvement be actually a group effort is that a lot of it is actually something that you just need to do yourself.

To be more specific: we can do workshops on dealing with various problems and figuring out your values, we can do coaching meetings where people say what they've done since last time and what they'd like to try/discuss next, we can do coworking spaces... but if your problem is, say, "I need to complete my thesis", there's only as much that we can do to help. At best we can offer a co-working opportunity where there's slightly more social pressure for you to work on your thesis while everyone around you is also working on their own stuff. But you're still the one who needs to do 98% of the work and there's not that much we others can do.

I've personally even had several periods when I've been thinking, "man, I'm really preoccupied with this thing I need to solve... so I think I'll miss out on some of our community stuff because I'm too busy solving my problem". I've heard similar tales from some others - them dropping out of our stuff because they need to actually solve their problems.

I'm not sure how to solve this: if anyone has any ideas, I'm open. The best thing I've come up with is to also have some light social get-togethers, so that people who are busy and stressed with stuff can at least come to events to just relax a bit with friends, without needing to put in the mental energy for some active self-improvement workshop. That, and pairing people up so that they have regular one-on-one peer coaching sessions with each other, which seems to empirically be very useful but also doesn't involve them in the broader community.

comment by Viliam · 2017-07-09T13:00:21.844Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if your problem is, say, "I need to complete my thesis", there's only as much that we can do to help

Recommend someone who writes that stuff for money? That already improves one's economical thinking. :P

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T23:21:19.414Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My post was about classes, not "self-improvement communities". I'm very skeptical about the latter.

For writing a thesis, I guess a class in scientific writing (with lots of practice) would be helpful.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2017-07-08T23:37:23.817Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, okay.

The way you were talking about "self-improvement" and how this has harmed the general atmosphere on LW and such, I thought you were talking specifically about how to improve in "LW rationality kind of thing", for which there aren't any classes (except in some narrow sense like a cognitive bias course as part of a psychology curriculum or something). I assumed it was obvious that if you want to learn a standard skill for which there is already an established teaching method, then just go benefit from the standard teaching method. But upon a re-read I guess this was a misinterpretation.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T23:52:09.984Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm skeptical about learning LW rationality as well. HPMOR does a great job of selling it, but for practical purposes (i.e. becoming more attractive or more employable) it loses out to object-level classes.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2017-07-07T16:35:17.149Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This is a mean vs median or Mediocristan vs Extremistan issue. Most people cannot do lone wolf, but if you can do lone wolf, you will probably be much more successful than the average person.

Think of it like this. Say you wanted to become a great writer. You could go to university and plod through a major in English literature. That will reliably give you a middling good skill at writing. Or you could drop out and spend all your time reading sci-fi novels, watching anime, and writing fan fiction. Now most people who do that will end up terrible writers. But when someone like Eliezer does it, the results are spectacular.

Furthermore, because of the Power Law and the "Average is Over" idea, most of the impact will come from the standout successes.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-08T03:04:33.694Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This is a mean vs median or Mediocristan vs Extremistan issue. Most people cannot do lone wolf, but if you can do lone wolf, you will probably be much more successful than the average person.

I cannot disagree with this more strongly. I am serial entrepreneur, and a somewhat successful one. Still chasing the big exit, but I've built successful companies that are still private. Besides myself I've met many other people in this industry which you'd be excused for thinking are lone wolfs. But the truth is the lone wolf's don't make it as they build things that fail to have product/market fit, fail to listen to feedback if and when it is even made available to them (since they don't seek it), and usually fail to raise or maintain funding from lack of communication and organizational skill.

The successful entrepreneurs, hedge funders, etc. are not afraid of thinking that conventional wisdom is wrong. The success they have is not from trailblazing a new path -- that just goes with doing something new -- but from having the tenacity to ask "but why is that so?" of conventional wisdom. Every now and then you find something that just shouldn't be so -- it has no good justification except historical accident -- and then you execute. And a very important part of execution is building a team that can work together to avoid the heuristics and biases that follow lone wolfs around.

Don't be a lone wolf. Be a social rationalist willing to question everything and go where that takes you. It's not the same thing.

comment by Daniel_Burfoot · 2017-07-08T22:19:56.428Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with you in the context of entrepreneurship, but the OP was talking about self improvement. The best strategy for learning or self-improving may be very different from the best strategy for building a company.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-09T02:41:33.722Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your post said:

Most people cannot do lone wolf, but if you can do lone wolf, you will probably be much more successful than the average person.

Maybe we disagree on what it means to "lone wolf." If I try to steel-man your position, I can come up with a weak and a strong interpretation:

The weak interpretation is that being a autodidact (capable of learning things on your own) will bring you higher chances of success. Being an autodidact myself, I agree from anecdotal experience. Also just being an expert in your field means developing autodidact skills at some point because eventually you surpass the level of all available classes and have to learn from the latest research journals and technical reports. However I would argue that this should still remain a social activity where you continue to interact with collaborators and bounce ideas off of trusted colleagues in order to avoid many of the pitfalls that come from truly working alone. This isn't a lone wolf so much as a free-thinking pack wolf, to carry the metaphor, that enjoys the best of both worlds.

The strong interpretation is that you will or even can be successful by truly embarking on a lone quest all by yourself. It is this interpretation that I disagree with so strongly for the reasons given. In my experience smart people who go the "lone wolf" route inevitably end up in crackpot / crank territory as they accumulate bad ideas in their personal blind spots, assuming they don't fall prey to akrasia in the first place. In this sense I agree with the OP: glorifying the "lone wolf" path has done a lot of harm to a lot of LW'ers.

comment by Unnamed · 2017-07-08T04:30:17.614Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Taking classes is a relatively Mediocristan-style way to work with others, but there are other ways that get you Extremistan-style upside.

One way is to find a close collaborator or two. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman had an extremely close collaboration, doing most of their thinking in conversation as they were developing the field of heuristics and biases research (as described in The Undoing Project). It's standard startup advice to have more than one founder so that you'll have someone "to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong." Etc.

Another way is to have a group of several people who are all heavily into the same thing. If the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys is accurate, many innovations in skateboarding came from a group of teenage skateboarders who hung out together in Southern California in the 1970s. People who are trying to understand the state of the art in an intellectual field often put together a reading group to discuss the latest essays in that field and spin off their own ideas (e.g., John Stuart Mill talks about studying political economy and syllogistic logic in this way, which led to new ideas & publications). Etc.

comment by plethora · 2017-07-11T19:47:15.528Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think this discussion is somewhat confused by the elision of the difference between 'autodidact' and 'lone wolf'. 'Autodidact', in internet circles, is generally used to mean 'anyone who learns things primarily outside a formalized educational environment'; it's possible to be an autodidact while still being heavily engaged with communities and taking learning things as a social endeavor and so on, and in fact Eliezer was active in communities related to LW's subject matter for a long time before he started LW. By the same token, one of the main things I took from reading Ben Franklin's autobiography was that, despite having little formal schooling and being solely credited for many of his innovations, he didn't actually do it alone. I doubt he would've been even a tenth as successful as he was without something like his Junto.

Some people will get more out of formal education than others, although getting things out of formal education is itself a skill that can be learned. (It seems to require an ability to buy into institutions on an emotional level that many of us lack. I saw college as an obnoxious necessity rather than a set of opportunities, and as a result got much less out of it than I could have. This seems to be a common mistake.) But I just don't think it's possible to become a spectacular writer, or even a middling one, as a lone wolf. If nothing else, you need feedback from a community in order to improve. Look at lone-wolf outsider art -- it's frequently unusual, but how much of it is good?

comment by aqsalose · 2017-07-09T09:35:09.186Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Now most people who do that will end up terrible writers. But when someone like Eliezer does it, the results are spectacular.

You could have found a more convincing example.

The objective metrics of quality of literature are hard to come by, but HPMOR does suffer from quite many, many stereotypical sins of fanfic / bad genre writing and makes a tiresome read. (One that I found especially grating and made me finally drop the story altogether could be described as "my main character is not OP because I set up these plainly arbitrary obstacles as a 'balance' ". Please, no. There's more to writing enjoyable, interesting characters in meaningful stories than such naive "balancing". The preferable end result is a piece of fiction that has something more going in them than surface-level entertainment plot which is amenable to measured in terms such as "is my character OP".)

However, I did not register an account just to lambaste Eliezer's fiction. Here's a couple of points that hopefully tie this comment to the main thread of discussion (so that this contribution provides some signal instead of pure noise):

  1. Taking a year-long course in lit or at least some input from the tradition of literature might have improved Eliezer's writing. A class isn't the only way to attain that input, but it certainly helps in finding out if you have missed something vital in your self-study. (After finding out those pieces of information you are free to judge and dismiss them, too, if you want, but you are now dismissing that information with the knowledge that it exists, which is prone to make your act of dismissal more intelligent and productive.)

  2. I don't have exhaustive collection of biographies at hand, but I believe the general trend in "successful writing" is that the significant portion (probably majority) of successful writers (including, but not limited to, authors included in the Western canon as creators of "good literature"), read a lot, wrote a lot, and had a lot of corrective input to improve their writing during their writing careers. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if prior to starting a writing career, they already had lots of corrective input to improve their general storytelling skills before they even started considering writing. The input came in the form of teachers, friends who reviewed their manuscripts in process (or commented on their stories), how popular their first published drabbles were, and (often most importantly) the input given by the publishing house editors whose job is to improve writing of authors who submit their fiction for publishing.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-09T09:57:38.112Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Eliezer did have a lot of writing practice and feedback since childhood, but with a peculiar audience (transhumanists on the net).

comment by username2 · 2017-07-09T16:46:36.043Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Also the first few dozen chapters of HPMoR are terribly written. It is rather horrid, strained, constipated writing. Particularly if you view the early releases of the text, not the revised text that is currently available. The writing got decently good towards the middle, and was top notch by the end. But that was after thousands of pages written and lots of feedback on every chapter. No surprise, lots of writing practice and (critically, to the point of this thread:) feedback leads to becoming a better writer.

comment by SolveIt · 2017-07-09T21:32:28.774Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I feel uncomfortable criticizing HPMoR for its writing when it clearly succeeded at its job beyond all expectation.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-12T00:49:37.546Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I feel no qualms for calling a spade a spade.

comment by aqsalose · 2017-07-09T10:24:27.503Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for pointing that out; maybe one important part that I left implicit is the feedback coming from domain experts (such as the staff of a major publishing house).

comment by Viliam · 2017-07-07T18:41:19.084Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Why not both? The English literature lessons and sci-fi novels / anime / fan fiction.

I don't know much about writing, but e.g. studying computer science at universities does not seem to prevent people from creating open source software.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T19:55:58.492Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You can also have impact by being okay at several things. For example, I'm okay at both algorithms and UI, so I can get hired easily and then have my pick of projects (because most programmers prefer backend work). If I was also okay at writing or management, I'd probably be rich by now. I think Eliezer's success was also due to being good at several things, not being the best at one thing.

comment by username2 · 2017-07-07T15:49:45.735Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The most important aspect of collective improvement (e.g. attending a class, or working together on a project) is that you have forced exposure to other ideas that you would not have thought up or consider yourself. I'm an introvert by nature, but nevertheless I crave working alongside others simply because it works better. I end up having better ideas and being more productive, even if it is emotionally draining as an introvert.

comment by drethelin · 2017-07-07T21:38:01.855Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I strongly disagree. Most classes are pathetically slow and boring, not to mention expensive and time consuming. For one example, I've learned more history just reading books on my own than I ever did in History class, and it's not like I got bad grades back when I was in school. Showing up and being "carried along" was basically worthless.

It's likely that there are some kinds of classes that are functionally better than learning on your own, but given that the vast majority of classes on most topics are de facto going to be aimed at the lowest common denominator, you're gonna have to put in a lot of work to find good ones.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T08:03:59.494Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you want to do history seriously, I think it makes sense to do it in academia. It's too easy to go off the rails otherwise.

More generally, there are two kinds of things we want to learn:

1) Purely intellectual areas, like math or programming. LWers have a comparative advantage here. But the uncomfortable truth is that most people who succeed in those areas had lots of schooling. (For example, Linus has a master's in CS, Google came out of a PhD project, and the idea of AI risk originated from academics like I.J. Good and Nick Bostrom.)

2) Areas with a physical or emotional component, like drawing, swimming, welding or public speaking. LWers have no comparative advantage here, and I strongly recommend everyone to take a "lowest common denominator" class. You'll be surprised how well it matches your ability.

comment by aqsalose · 2017-07-09T10:16:16.485Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The dichotomy is not that simple.

For example, in many areas of math it is of tremendous benefit to be able to internally visualize (with your "mind's eye") complicated structures and how they 'move' in relation to each other. Whether it's a skill or a ability, I've noticed some striking similarities to the internal visualizing skill needed in drawing:

To believably characterize a human figure in movement on a still paper that does not have ability to represent movement, it's helpful to see underneath the skin, to visualize all the muscles and bones and what they do when the figure moves. To draw a face, how the different muscles and bones and tissues are structured and form a face; to draw it with a certain emotion, how those certain muscles contract when you smile, and so on.

Or that was the gist of the my high school art class (I wasn't that good at it, but I have noticed the relationship.) And you do have a point it's useful to take a class (or find a book that adequately describes the contents of class). But the point of this example is that there's surprising amount of granularity [1] in the domain of mental skills, which is finer than "purely intellectual" vs "physical / emotional".

[1] in lieu of a better word

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T07:46:05.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think LWers are above average at learning intellectual topics, but average (or below) at tasks that have a physical or emotional component. If you want to learn drawing, driving, swimming, public speaking or any other skill that isn't purely intellectual, taking a lowest common denominator class is good advice.

comment by James_Miller · 2017-07-07T17:37:24.746Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This relates to why online education hasn't replaced traditional schools. As I wrote for InsideHigherEd:

"But having a real-human teacher watch them causes most students to pay more attention, and this comes without any cost in rigor. Just by sitting next to my son I can increase his level of attention and I suspect the same is true with most learning. So even if online education drastically improves, and is able to present in a fascinating manner everything currently taught in college courses, having an instructor -- plus online material -- would allow courses to teach students even more than most of these students could learn from the online courses alone."

comment by Lumifer · 2017-07-07T18:17:26.784Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

having a real-human teacher

Do you actually need a real-human meatbag teacher? Or would a sufficiently sophisticated virtual avatar be good enough?

What if you could impress your VR waifu by doing math problems? X-D

comment by James_Miller · 2017-07-07T20:52:49.865Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Excellent question that might determine the medium term fate of my profession (college professors).

comment by bogus · 2017-07-09T00:50:08.541Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Compared to any "anti-akrasia technique" ever proposed on LW or adjacent self-help blogs, joining a class works ridiculously well. You don't need constant willpower: just show up on time and you'll be carried along.

Hahahaha, this is so funny. You've never attended a seriously challenging class your entire life, I take it? There are a lot of topics/subjects that there's no feasible way to learn successfully, other than banging your head against them over and over until they finally sink in. This is painful in a quite literal way, and doing it with any real consistency calls for willpower and anti-akrasia techniques.

And yes, joining a class may even be suboptimal compared to just learning some thing like that on your own. A class is one-size-fits-all; they'll fully expect you to 'grok' something on the first try, and then just move on to some other thing. If your willpower is strong enough to keep up with that pace you can do fine, otherwise you'll just get left in the dust. This is hardly a solution to willpower problems!

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-09T06:58:10.914Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hahahaha, this is so funny. You've never attended a seriously challenging class your entire life, I take it?

Got my masters in math with honors somehow...

That said, I believe that moderate effort leads to fastest learning, and nothing is inherently hard to learn but lots of things are poorly taught. In fields with a strong genius myth, like math or physics, that turns into a macho attitude which stops people from even trying to teach well. Other fields got over it, for example a Betty Edwards style drawing class leads to almost guaranteed improvement for amateurs at any age and doesn't take much effort at all. Similar with language classes, sports, etc. One thing these areas have in common is that they took the time to develop mental cues that work for most people, instead of saying "here's the material, now bang your head on it". Willpower is basically a poor substitute for pedagogy.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-07-07T16:03:30.799Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Lone wolf self-improvement doesn't work.

Bullshit. Or, more politely, an overly broad generalization.

In my experience, some people learn very well by themselves and some do need a class/group/teacher. It's just a personal characteristic and I know smart people of both kinds.

For example, here is a very old description of hackers:

...people who routinely upload the contents of thick reference manuals into their brains. [During the production of the first book version of this document, for example, I learned most of the rather complex typesetting language TeX over about four working days, mainly by inhaling Knuth's 477-page manual. My editor's flabbergasted reaction to this genuinely surprised me, because years of associating with hackers have conditioned me to consider such performances routine and to be expected. —ESR]

Note: consider such performances routine. This is, of course, all lone-wolf.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T16:15:16.215Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think only a small minority of people are "naturals" at their chosen activity, and even they often get support from other "naturals" somehow. For me, encouragement always played a huge role. All my attempts to learn stuff in a supportive setting worked very well, and all my attempts to learn stuff in isolation failed.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-07-07T16:21:21.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"naturals" at their chosen activity

It's not a function of activity, it's a learning style (to use an overused expression) which applies to all kinds of activities.

All my attempts to learn stuff in a supportive setting worked very well, and all my attempts to learn stuff in isolation failed.

Right, but the typical mind fallacy is a thing. I'm your opposite -- I learn best by myself and a class/group just gets in the way for me -- but I know that people unlike me exist :-)

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T19:41:24.202Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough. I guess my post is mostly addressed to the folks who keep trying to do stuff alone, fail, and blame "akrasia". It seems like a typical story on LW, see Elo's recent post for example.

comment by SolveIt · 2017-07-10T09:36:25.892Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There's also a strong selection effect. Guess what kind of people you'll meet in classes!

comment by Lumifer · 2017-07-10T15:11:55.078Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Guess what kind of people you'll meet in classes!

I dunno. What kind? My first reaction was "normies" :-/

comment by turchin · 2017-07-07T18:42:37.966Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

At first I read the title and thought that the idea is that lone wolf self-improvement will result in creating dangerous self improving AI, if it has any chance of success.

comment by MaryCh · 2017-07-07T16:40:26.285Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But... if lone wolf self-improvement doesn't work... how come it worked so well before I married, had a kid and got a regular job?..

comment by Viliam · 2017-07-07T18:43:24.599Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly, lone wolf self-improvement works better when your life is not full of distracting things. But with distractions, classes work better, because they keep returning your focus to the thing you wanted to learn. They provide you a distraction-free window of time.

If classes work better for most of the population, including students (which seems to be the case), I suspect that an average person is quite distracted even without marriage / kids / job. Probably normies cannot stop thinking about social drama and stuff.

comment by MaryCh · 2017-07-08T05:14:28.968Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hey, I am a normie. And college was full of drama and stuff - more so, I think, than the job I now have.

OTOH, I would say drama and stuff easily improve people as well as classes do - many (most?) of us had been sheltered kids before that. My own specialty (botany of vascular plants) just happened to include classes, drama (angry landlords, poachers, etc.), and stuff (expeditions) - a very natural combination...

comment by MaryCh · 2017-07-08T05:25:27.655Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OTOH, I agree I am simply confused by what 'self-improvement' actually means. Do we define it 'by motive', 'by result' or in any other way (similarly to the recent SSC post on racism)?

Maybe I have just never really tried the lone-wolf style; I like brushing up some things like simple bits of math on my own, but I wouldn't call it improvement - just upholding the baseline.

comment by ZeitPolizei · 2017-07-07T16:29:13.015Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Relevant recent post.

comment by gilch · 2017-07-09T02:24:52.351Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'll second that it's relevant. Links should say what they point to though. In this case, it was: Idea for LessWrong: Video Tutoring

comment by Error · 2017-07-07T16:20:04.128Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A qualifier: If you're going to do this, make sure it's a class where the other people in the class actually want to be there. Otherwise the social reinforcement will be misdirected. This is an obvious failure mode of grade school and a less-obvious failure mode for the sort of extracurriculars where the students are there mostly by parental insistence.

(also, make sure you actually want to be there too. Otherwise you'll be the one screwing it up.)

comment by Elo · 2017-07-08T06:15:12.346Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It would appear that people disagree with you. I would caveat that lone wolf can be useful for some problems but useless for others. Don't go reinventing the wheel instead learn from other people's experiences.

Will write a post on it.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T06:41:07.085Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you try lone wolf and succeed, more power to you. My post is aimed at those who repeatedly try and fail. There are many such people. LW has been mostly telling them to try harder, hack themselves, etc. That advice is harmful. I think it's important to make a clean break from advice that's harmful to many people.

In contrast, advising people to take classes is much less harmful. It doesn't push them into a cycle of guilt and self-abuse for the rest of their lives, as lone wolf advice does. They just take the class, learn the stuff (most people who take classes do end up learning stuff), and move on.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2017-07-07T18:39:17.287Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The post seems to implicitly assume that groups are better for Reasons. I just want to explicate on why that might be the case:

  • Additional ideas / new perspectives: typical mind fallacy is prevalent and gaining more opportunities to see how others operate can be helpful. Also, you might find novel solutions to your own problems.

  • General benefits from socializing. Pretty sure that problems from social isolation are fairly well-documented.

  • Precommit to doing things: positive peer pressure + social bonds mean you might feel more compelled to make progress.

  • Additional help / support: it can be good to have others you can rely / lean on when you are in a tough spot. Gather allies and make new friends!

comment by CronoDAS · 2017-07-07T15:46:59.110Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Classes do fail a lot, too... they tend to be boring and stressful, among other things. As a practical matter, I often ended up learning everything in my room on my own anyway; the difference was that I actually did the work instead of slacking off because I feared the punishment that would come from not doing it. :(

My formal education left me with a ridiculously strong aversion to taking classes. :/

comment by roland · 2017-07-20T18:38:13.742Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My experience attending classes in universities was extremely negative. They didn't work for me.

comment by wizard · 2017-07-09T13:24:36.697Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Title is misleading, I thought you were going to talk about self-improvement in general for which this was an interesting statement but it's about academic learning so why not "against lone-wolf learning"? What you said is both, (1) already consensus pretty much everywhere, everyone thinks taking classes is best, it's improbable that even someone from LW isn't aware of this viewpoint (2) clearly wrong, but not something I feel discussing and I'm only replying to complain that I was click-baited into reading this.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-09T19:16:51.602Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure I believe in self-improvement without learning. If you aren't learning, you'll just slide back.

comment by wizard · 2017-07-09T22:43:15.848Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

SolveIt: In the very thread there is someone who confuses this and you say, "My post was about classes, not "self-improvement communities". I'm very skeptical about the latter."

I'm not contesting that learning is improving but there is a class of things that people call self-improvement like "how do I not procrastinate". There is a common term for lone-wolf learning which is "self-learning". Not every improvement is learning either, what if you do a workout? If there are already two common terms why switch them? But then, when I was introduced to LW I saw a post mentioning "literal wireheads". Hmm.

But if you are simply talking about learning things by reading a book from home (vs a class setting where the professor barely explains the subject matter, rants about unrelated stuff for an hour then asks you to learn by reading a book from home and this is "motivating"), you can do it just fine. If you want to socialize, there are other ways to do so.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-10T06:33:53.099Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not just talking about reading books. Gym classes, art classes, job training, toastmasters, etc. Moreover I'm not sure any activity aimed at "stopping procrastination" is worthwhile. It's just inherently unreliable woo. Go down a level and find a class or collaboration group on the object level thing you want to do. You'll end up doing it so much that it becomes effortless.

comment by wizard · 2017-07-10T14:48:50.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That was an example but it could be woo.

Go down a level and find a class or collaboration group on the object level thing you want to do.

That's not realistic advice. You can't simply take a single class because you're interested in it, if you do so you have to take the whole time-consuming package of other classes that you may or may not be interested in, the class could be another year. Usually you do it because of pressure or you have to take the chance that the credentials are useful for something.

There are specific exceptions, one that I know is foreign language. I know people who've been 4 years on foreign language courses and haven't learned it. I suggest reading an actual book written in that language then looking up what you don't know. I know this works because I tried it, not that taking one semester of class first isn't good. But nope, maybe another class is better. Hmmm.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-10T15:44:12.048Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In my experience, foreign language classes taught by native speakers of that language tend to work for everyone. The other kind, not so much. Reading books and watching movies in class is also indispensable, all good classes do it.

comment by wizard · 2017-07-10T19:04:47.562Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm talking about classes where teachers cover the topics and occasionally there are movies. Even in a class like this, the success rate of it is low, unless one has real experience on their own (self-learning by books, traveling abroad to where they speak that language). Reading a book in class and outside cannot be compared. The teacher has to specifically assign a "book-reading" class then read out loud for a class (that will cover... a single chapter per lecture?) and the material they choose is usually something artificial they made for the course... it's not comparable. You say these classes are effective. I don't believe you.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-07-10T19:15:10.872Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Foreign language study doesn't quite fit into the lone wolf vs classes paradigm because my understanding is that the most successful method is full immersion and that is neither lone wolf, nor classes.

comment by Elo · 2017-07-10T06:52:26.357Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

not sure any activity aimed at "stopping procrastination" is worthwhile

Strong disagreement.

comment by SolveIt · 2017-07-09T21:27:56.460Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see how this is limited to academic learning.

comment by erratio · 2017-07-08T09:55:31.298Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A related phenomenon: going to therapy versus going through a workbook on say, CBT, that teaches you all the theory and techniques. If you can self-hack from the workbook, all power to you, but a large portion of people need the accountability and the feedback from sitting in a room with another person going through workbook-type things together.

comment by Elo · 2017-07-08T10:25:54.615Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would suggest doing the obvious thing of doing some reading. As a lone wolf. Then doing the obvious thing and make an appointment.

Some of these obvious things are more obvious than others.

comment by entirelyuseless · 2017-07-08T05:48:46.825Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It doesn't work in the way people hope, since they do not succeed in accomplishing what they planned to accomplish. But it does succeed in the sense that people's lives get better over time. This happens even when they are bad at it. It is kind of like natural selection; if something is making your life much worse, you stop doing it, and sooner or later you will happen on something which makes your life better.

comment by siIver · 2017-07-07T20:41:09.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't quite know how to make this response more sophisticated than "I don't think this is true". It seems to me that whether classes ore lone-wolf improvement is better is a pretty complex question and the answer is fairly balanced, though overall I'd give the edge to lone-wolf.

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T20:46:08.459Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, that seems to be the biggest flaw in the post. I shouldn't have addressed it to everyone, it's intended mostly for people suffering from "akrasia". I.e. if lone wolf is working for you, ignore the post. If it isn't, notice that and change course.

comment by siIver · 2017-07-07T20:52:27.008Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Well, if you put it like that I fully agree. Generally, I believe that "if it doesn't work, try something else" isn't followed as often as it should. There's probably a fair number of people who'd benefit from following this article's advice.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2017-07-07T20:33:56.621Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And now you can take all the classes you want without leaving your room! (I got freakishly much value from this I think. I also occasionally pay $50 to get a certificate and it's well worth the money in motivation)

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-07T20:37:16.780Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That probably wouldn't work well for me, because I want to interact with people while learning. But still, which courses would you recommend?

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2017-07-07T20:46:49.714Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Discussion forums have gotten pretty good, so you can have some interaction. What do you want to learn?

comment by cousin_it · 2017-07-08T05:10:16.766Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Fiction writing or drawing would be nice. I can practice those alone, but haven't found a supportive environment, so my progress is stop and start. (In contrast with music, where I somehow always find fellow musicians anywhere and most of my practice is playing with others, so I never stopped.)