Tag Archives: practical advice

Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

Affecting everything

People often argue that X is hugely important because it affects everything else. Sleep is so important because it affects your whole day. You should value your health more than anything because you need it for everything else. And your freedom too. And friends, and food. AI is the most important thing to work on because you could use it to get anything else. Same with anything that makes money, or gains power. Also sociology, because it’s about understanding people, and everything else we care about depends on people’s behaviour. And maths, science, and engineering are more important than anything  because they illuminate the rest of the world, which is the most important thing too. Politics is most important because it determines the policies our country runs under, which affect everything. Law is similar. I assume garbage collectors know they are doing the most important thing because without garbage disposal society would collapse.

It turns out an awful lot of things affect everything, and a lot of them affect a lot of things a lot. That something has a broad influence is certainly a good starting criteria for it being important. It’s just a really low bar. It shouldn’t be the whole reason anyone does science or repairs roads, because it doesn’t distinguish those activities from a huge number of other ones. There is more than one thing that affects everything, because the set of things we might care about are not causally organized like a tree, they are organized like a very loopy web of loops.

A segment of a social network

Even the dots on the right affect everything. Image via Wikipedia

Often this ‘affects everything’ criterion is not even used on any relevant margin. It is used in the sense that if you didn’t have sleep or any understanding of humans at all you would be in a much worse situation than if you had these things in abundance. A better question is whether sleeping another half hour or dedicating your own career to sociology is going to make a huge difference to everything. An even better question is whether it’s going to make an even bigger difference to everything than anything else you could do with that half hour or career. This is pretty well known, and applied in many circumstances, but for some reason it doesn’t stop people arguing from the interconnectedness of everything to the maximal importance of whatever they are doing.

Perhaps it is psychologically useful to have an all purpose excuse for anyone doing anything that contributes at all to our hugely interconnected society to feel like they are doing the most important thing ever. But if you really want to do something unusually useful, you’ll need a stronger criterion than ‘it affects everything’.

Laughing strategy

People who believe that a certain group of other people deserve higher relative status often refuse to laugh at jokes about that group of people. Unfortunately (for them) this tends to make them look like uptight goody-goodies who don’t have a sense of humor; a group whom almost everyone agrees should have low status. Why not instead focus on making up more jokes about the group whose relative status seems too high? It seems like that should have the opposite effect on the campaigners likability, and so also encourage more people to join that side of the fight. What am I missing?

Stop blaming efficiency

Andrew Sullivan, quoting and commenting on Adam Frank:

We’re more efficient than we’ve ever been, but extreme efficiency has drawbacks:

More efficient forestation means running through forests faster. More efficient fishing methods means running through natural fishing stocks faster. … The truth is that we have limits. True connections between family, friends and colleagues can not be compressed down to tightly scheduled “quality time.” The relentless logic of efficiency can unintentionally strip the most valued qualities of human life just as easily as it strips forests.

Under a common meaning, ‘efficiency’ is just getting more of what you want for a given cost. Since people want different things, what is efficient for you may be very inefficient for someone else. If you don’t want deforestation, then my efficient tree harvesting method is not an efficient way to pursue your goals. Often people seem to forget this and think of the fact that other people are efficiently pursuing goals they don’t like as a problem with the concept of efficiency. This can then prompt them to go back and reject the original goal of efficiency in their own endeavours. Which is a very bad idea, if they are hoping to get what they want, without wasting other things they want in the process. Which is very likely what they are hoping for.

For instance if ‘the most valued qualities of human life’ are stripped by spending most of your time say efficiently pursuing career productivity, the problem is not that efficiency is bad, the problem is that you are efficiently pursuing the wrong goals. i.e. goals that are not your own, or at least not all of what you value. Being inefficient about, say, work is a terrible strategy for improving your home life, since only a miniscule proportion of the ways to be inefficient at work involve any home life improvement, and most of those not efficient improvements. Fortunately people using this strategy probably know intuitively that they will have to aim at the set of ways of being inefficient at work that do help their family lives. But once you have got as far as pursuing the values you actually care about, being efficient about them has really got to help, no matter how much your enemies also like efficiency. Similarly, don’t abandon ‘succeeding’, just because bad people also like it.


Added: Another example.

In defence of ignorant thinking

Suppose you want to contribute to the understanding of some subject, but you are presently ignorant about it. Should you do something closer to (a) read everything that’s been written so far, then join in, or (b) think about it yourself a lot before you even look at the basics of what others have come up with?

My guess is closer to (b), though I’m not confident. I’ll tell you why, then you can tell me why I’m wrong if you care to.

Any given topic has many ways to frame it; different assumptions to assume, axioms to emphasise, evidence to notice, questions to ask of it, and aspects to cut out or leave in or smooth out in the abstraction process. Some varieties of each of these things are much more useful than others for making progress, and even the useful ones may help with progress in different directions. When different people approach the same topic, they will do it with a different set of all of these things, because they have different intuitions about it and are familiar with different approaches and other topics. I don’t know of a better, more formal way to try out such things. Once you have understood something complex in the terms set of abstractions etc, it becomes harder to see it in other ways I think, particularly if you have to make up those other ways yourself. So if you start by reading what everyone else has said, you miss out on an opportunity to make a new way to think about it.

Most ways to think about a problem are probably unsuccessful in creating anything new of value. So you might think it’s a tragedy of the commons – it’s better for progress on a subject if each person joining it spends a bit of time at the start trying their own approach before they are familiar with the old work, but it is better for each individual if they just get on with the old work since their own approach probably won’t be any good. But if you do come up with a successful approach, I assume you are duly recompensed with status and glee and that sort of thing.

If eventually we have a perfect general understanding of how to best conceptualise topics, and how to ask the most productive questions and make the best assumptions and so on, then (a). Until then, I’m in favour of a bit of ignorant thinking. What do you think? (assuming your answer is b, or you are an expert on this topic).