Some political debates have proponents on one side who are incredibly passionate and forceful, and advocates on the other side who don’t care as much, or at least aren’t willing to risk as much. When this happens, you can expect the policies surrounding those issues to reach an extreme point of equilibrium, one that is probably not healthy for society.
It occurs to me that this is one of the inexorable weaknesses of democratic and republican forms of government. Like the fireman problem, it’s an irrational process that’s baked into the system.
One easy example of this is criminal punishment. When running for office, it’s an easily defensible position to be tough on crime. It is much harder to take the position that is sympathetic to convicted criminals who face extreme sentences.
In each election cycle, more politicians get elected by claiming to be tough on crime, and put into place more extreme policies.
Eventually, you get to a point where it is not abnormal to have a case such as Ewing v. California, where the Supreme Court, a group of nine Ivy-league educated judges, decided that it is not cruel and unusual punishment to sentence someone to life in prison for writing a forged check for $120. This is now the law of the United States, which has few constitutional or moral limits on the extreme nature of how we punish even minor crimes.
I fear that the same is now becoming true of immigration policy. Those who favor anti-immigration policies are much more passionate than those who support a more moderate immigration policy. The anti-immigration camp is willing to go to war over the issue, and most who support a liberal immigration policy often prefer to pick other battles.
Before 1921, the United States didn’t have much of an immigration policy at all, other than a few haphazard racist and exclusionary policies aimed at the Chinese and other groups in particular disfavor.
But, given the passion of those against immigration and the relatively mild response for those in favor, I think we can expect a trend toward more restrictive and draconian immigration policies. This will happen until eventually our immigration policies resemble the punishment regime in our criminal justice system, where an extreme position has become normalized.
I think human interactions make a lot more sense when you realize that we are not naturally hardwired to be happy.
We were designed to survive. Or perhaps more accurately, we were designed to ensure the survival of our genes.The genes of those who weren’t as well designed for that purposed perished from the earth long ago. The fact that we exist means we were fairly well designed for that purpose.
As E.O. Wilson wrote in The Social Conquest of Earth, “Consciousness, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival.” (emphasis added).
Ensuring the survival of our genes and trying to attain happiness are competing goals. And while most reasonably intelligent people believe in evolution, I don’t think that most people appreciate quite the extent to which our evolutionary purposes get in the way or our modern goals and desires. Our evolutionary purposes don’t want us to be at peace or to be happy, to be satisfied with our lot in life.
Instead of a mechanism that maximizes for happiness that focuses our attention, we have have consciousness, whose primary purpose is to constantly remind us of all the things that could go wrong. To keep us worrying about things that could endanger the survival of our genes, and to continually seek ways to improve the likelihood of our genes’ survival.
Consciousness is designed to keep you worrying about all the things that could go wrong. So that’s what we do.
Consciousness also causes us to obsess more than is healthy for our own lives about our status. Status matters for evolutionary purposes, because high-status humans easily find at least one mate, and perhaps more. Those who mate with the healthiest and highest status mates and/or that mate often have genes that are much more likely to survive.
But there’s plenty of evidence that status comparison leads to unhappiness. (See Arrow and Dasgupta (2009) Courty and Engineer (2016)).
We’re designed to worry about everything that can go wrong in our lives and to obsess over status, even though the empirical data shows that both of those things cause unhappiness. And it’s a problem that’s not designed to go away, no matter how much status or success we have. Our brain is still designed to seek out more problems to avoid and more ways to increase status.
For a fuller discussion of this “happiness problem,” this post is excellent.
So what to do, right?
I think some people find this “happiness paradox” depressing. No matter how much we seek happiness, it will forever elude us. But I don’t see it that way. To me, it helps me understand why it is so hard to remain content, regardless of life’s circumstances.
To me, the most effective technique to achieve happiness isn’t to constantly try to seek happiness, but to rather stop obsessing over the things that make us unhappy—namely, life’s problems and status. The best way to control our conscious attention, so that we’re not obsessing over life’s problems and status, is through meditation.
Regardless, when, as creatures with prehistorical adaptations, trying to make sense of our modern lives, we wonder to ourselves: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not happy?” The answer is simple: that’s just not the way we were designed.
Most of us have heard the stories about how more than 90% of new businesses fail (as a lawyer who works with startups, my anecdotal experience suggests that estimate might be low). But most of us tend to think we’re above average, and failure won’t happen to us. But now there is a new book that provides mathematical support for why innovation is such a poor strategy.
Kevin Leland, author of Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind, created a crowdsourced competition, based on the model of Robert Axelrod’s prisoner’s dilemma competition, to test the success of various evolutionary growth strategies.
The three basic strategies that were tested were “observe,” “exploit,” and “innovate.” To observe in the competition means to follow and copy the strategies of those around you. To exploit means to try to profit from the strategies that seem to be working. To innovate means to try to come up with a new strategy. The winners of the game were surprising:
The most successful strategies did not play learning moves often, but almost always played OBSERVE when they did. This seemingly straightforward relationship between copying and success, however, belied a degree of complexity that emerged only on closer inspection. Among the top-performing strategies that progressed to the melee, by and large, the more the strategy learned through OBSERVE rather than INNOVATE, the better it did. However, among the poorer performing strategies we actually witnessed the reverse relationship—the more they copied the worse they did. That told us something very interesting—copying was not universally beneficial. Copying only paid if it was done efficiently.
By contrast, innovation turned out to be a total loser strategy: The innovate-only strategy came in dead last!
To summarize, the strategy that produced the best results was “observe-exploit.” Learn how to make a living, and then make a living. Don’t oscillate unless forced to do so by your environment. The strategy that produced the worst results was the one that tried to invent the wheel every turn. Try to invent the wheel every turn, and you will almost invent nothing that anyone will value.
It might be hard at first to reconcile this with many of our romantic notions of innovation, but the companies and people we celebrate as great innovators often aren’t really that at all, but rather the best copiers and exploiters of recent innovation. It wasn’t John Englebart who profited from the mouse. It was Steve Jobs. It wasn’t Tim Berners-Lee who became a billionaire off the internet, it was Marc Andreeson.
Microsoft is one of the wealthiest companies in the world. But while their business involves technology, their historical business strategy has had little to do with innovation and is much more akin to the observe-exploit strategy. Almost all of their profits derive from an operating system that was copied from Apple (which was copied from Xerox), and then successfully exploited through licensing deals with all the major PC manufacturers. Bill Gates was undoubted an excellent programmer, but the success of Microsoft comes not from their stellar software, but rather from the shrewd licensing decisions it made at a pivotal point in the development of the personal computer.
Similarly, Apple did not invent the smartphone or the tablet. It just copied the best elements of what other people did, tweaked a few things, made it easier to use, and then has been exploiting the market ever since. To an extent those were innovations (again, not all innovations are a bad strategy—just too-frequent attempts at innovation), but each new iteration of the iPhone is slightly less original than the previous. Apple has made marginal, incremental improvements consistent with other manufacturers to stay up to date with the newest technology, but at a glance, an iPhone 6 is indistinguishable from an iPhone 7.
There are infrequent occasions when innovation is a good strategy. In rapidly changing environments, for example, some innovation may be essential to survival. As a society, we would be stagnant without innovators. But most innovations are simply failed mutations, doomed for the evolutionary dustbin. In most environments, the vast majority of players are better off observing the innovators to see who succeeds, and then copying their strategies, rather than trying to innovate themselves. In short, innovation is good for society but bad for most individuals who choose it as a strategy.
The vast majority of startup founders toil for years making less than market wages working on projects that will never go anywhere. There is a power law with startups where a small fraction makes all the money. The most notable startup founders do very well, but nearly everyone else underperforms.
For those looking to start a new endeavor, strategic copying and exploitation is a far better strategy than pure innovation. If a business or technology has worked once, there’s a good chance that a similar, well-executed strategy can succeed again.
If a business strategy has never worked before, there’s a high probability it hasn’t worked for a reason.
If you want to be recognized as someone who knows a lot about a lot of things, you should become famous for just one thing first. This will give you a better platform to give your opinion, and be respected for your opinion, about more things. This is true, even for people who like to emphasize the importance of a broad range of knowledge in a variety of fields.
The book Consilience, by famed evolutionary biologist EO Wilson, is about this very idea: the concept of uniting different fields of knowledge. Too many academics and specialists, he says, are stuck in silos where they learn the jargon of their fields and write papers and do research that appeals to others in their fields. But most real-world problems defy such easy classification as we might find in academic departments. The world needs more people who can connect the pieces among different disciplines, because the meat of nearly all real-world problems lies at the intersection of different areas of study. Of course, the reason this opinion comes with such weight, is because Wilson is well respected in his field.
EO Wilson wrote this book nearly twenty years ago. But since its publication, the tendency toward specialization has only increased, rather than decreased.
So why aren’t there more experts in consilience?
It’s easy enough to appreciate why consilience could be valuable. Take the problem of global-warming, for example. It’s an atmospheric chemistry problem (to what extent is there compelling evidence that recent changes in climate patterns can be attributed to anthropomorphic causes?); it’s a policy problem (how can we coordinate different governments to address the problem?); it’s an economics problem (is it possible to incentivize private firms to reduce anthropomorphic climate change without sacrificing job growth?), and it’s a legal problem (how do we draft effective laws that reduce climate change?). One would think that if there were an academic or scholar who were well versed in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, that this person would be an invaluable resource and a leader in addressing issues of climate change.
So to be a true expert on climate change, it would be advisable to have a broad range of knowledge in these different disciplines.
But if such a person exists, I’ve never heard of her. Instead, who are the biggest figures in the debate right now about climate change? Some possible candidates include: Al Gore, Bill Nye, Pope Francis, Michael Bloomberg. Ban-Ki Moon, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Matt Ridley, Donald Trump, and the Koch Brothers. This is a list of people who rose to high status for something other than specialized knowledge of climate change.
There’s an absence of high-status experts in atmospheric science, policy, economics, and law, and so high status people in any particular, unrelated discipline are free to chime in and influence the debate to fill in the vacuum. Without more informed, high-status experts at the intersection of these fields, the public debate is susceptible to uninformed far-flung expert debunkery by non-experts.
I see two patterns driving this phenomenon:
Professional disciplines do not easily welcome influence by outsiders. If you’ve spent ten years studying a specific discipline, it’s understandable that you would not be receptive to feedback from those who haven’t spent as much time studying that discipline. If you’ve studied the arguments and counterarguments of the greatest experts in your field on the most important issues, a person who is unfamiliar with those arguments may seem bumbling by comparison.
It’s nearly impossible for generalists or multi-discipline specialists to obtain clear status indicators in multiple fields. To acquire terminal degrees in atmospheric chemistry, policy, economics, and law, you’d have to spend at least 15 years going to school after graduating from college. And today, given the degree of specialization of most academics and professionals, there would still be additional post-doctorate research and further publication necessary to acquire the hallmarks of genuine expertise in each of those fields. And even if you did somehow manage to do that, you’d be branded as an egghead academic with no professional experience, and it would be unlikely that you’d have the political or professional skill to influence the debate.
The challenge of consilience is the inherent difficulty (near impossibility?) of convincing experts in any specific discipline of the merits of your ideas and arguments, when you have a sub-expert’s degree of sophistication in every specific discipline.
But if you have enough weight in your own discipline, you have a better chance to influence those in other disciplines as well. When the Elon Musks, Jane Goodalls, Albert Einsteins, and Warren Buffetts of the world talk, everyone listens. Reasonable or not, because Warren Buffett has been so good at making money, something nearly everyone wants, many people are interested in knowing what he thinks about everything.
Fair or not, if you want to be famous for knowing lots of things, it’s best to become influential for just one thing first.
Having spent the better part of my life obsessing overwhatmakesagoodlife, I’m afraid that the high-level summary of what I have learned is: I don’t know. Sure, there is some data on the types of choices that are likely to make us more or less happy, but in general, when we think something will make us happy, we are wrong.
What’s more, there’s evidence that the very act of trying to make decisions about what will make us happy makes us even more unhappy. As Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice, “[T]here is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”
(Spoiler alert: when he gets to the taco place, they’re out of tacos)
We know we aren’t usually good at knowing what makes us happy, and we know that the very act of making decisions might make us unhappy.
It would seem, then, that our lives might actually be improved by eliminating many of the decision-making processes from our lives. By liberating ourselves from the responsibility to make decision after decision, we may be able to make ourselves happier. With that in mind, I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself lately.
I call it the “Random Life Experience Generator.” It’s basically just a process for introducing a certain degree of randomness into my life—and eliminating the need for making decisions in areas where my decision-making is unlikely to improve my life.
I have an app on my phone called “Pretty Random,” which is just a random number generator. Often, when I’m faced with a trivial decision, I assign each of the options a number, and then I let the app decide.
Et Voila! I’m making a lot fewer life decisions.
Sometimes it’s easy to apply the Random Life Experience Generator (RLEG), and sometimes it’s a bit more work. The RLEG works particularly well at some Mexican restaurants, where each of the plates has a specific number. It takes a bit more effort for something such as selecting the trails where I might run on any given day, as it’s required me to generate a list of all the trails I run and assign them a number. I’ve also done this with clothes, games, and meals.
From where to eat to what to order to how long to meditate to how long to run to where to run, the things I do every day, within certain parameters, are decided by a random number generator. This has had a bigger impact on me than what I would have expected. In a very good way.
Here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ve found:
Relinquishing control and letting go feels fantastic.
[T]o concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection.
Shunryu Suzuki and David Chadwick, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
When you see a menu with 50 items, there’s an inherent anxiety about trying to pick the best thing. But does it really matter if you pick what is objectively the best item on the menu? Not a bit. It’s just food. Your consumption choices don’t define you. As a handsome, wise man once told me…
Life isn’t about finding the world’s greatest taco. Whether you’re talking about your consumer choices or your random personal choices, happiness is much more about our reactions to life’s vicissitudes than constantly trying to control life’s vicissitudes. You can fret over every food choice and try to over-optimize for every second of your life, or you can let life happen, and just appreciate the experience as it occurs. I vote for the latter.
It forces you to be nimble.
Even when you do try to control things, life doesn’t always play along. Going into the day with the mindset that unexpected stuff is going to happen, and that you’re going to be ok with it, is just a good way to approach life. Because that’s how it is even if you do try to maintain the illusion of control.
You have life experiences you would not have had otherwise.
I had tentatively planned to go on a trip this fall to Zions and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But when I really thought about the trip, it didn’t seem that exciting to me. Perhaps because it was very similar to a number of other trips we had done recently (to Moab and the Grand Canyon). The scenery isn’t all that different from where we live now, an area with lots of majestic canyons. I’m sure it’d be a great trip, but the reason we picked it was because it was consistent with all the other things we had used to make all of our other routine life choices.
And this is just the issue. When you formalize your opinions, your preferences converge and start to result in redundancy in decision-making. The very act of randomizing your decision-making forces you into a wider variety of rich life experiences. The RLEG gets you out of your comfort zone and bubble. And I think that’s a good thing.
It gets you out of your ruts.
I spent the better part of my 20s buying, collecting, and learning to play a bunch of musical instruments. Banjo, mandolin, harmonica, bass, even the baglama saz. But over the years, I stopped playing most of them. I just got out of the habit.
But I got all the instruments for a reason. It’s fun to pick up a banjo or ukulele and be able to play. It’s a wonderful mental contrast to working as a lawyer, and I enjoy it. And in the last few weeks, I’ve started playing them all again. I’ve assigned each of my instruments a number, and then each day I have the RLEG decide what I’m going to play, and for how long (within certain pre-selected parameters).
I go into each day not having any clue what it will look like. I can’t know. It hasn’t been decided yet.
It frees you from the obsessive TripAdvisor, Yelp, Peak Taco mindset.
When I was studying abroad in college many years ago, one weekend I took my Eurorail pass and hopped on a train from Barcelona to Genoa, Italy. I had my handy Let’s Go guide, and I used it to pick a restaurant.
They had a list of options they recommended, but the one that stuck out to me was this restaurant that was tucked away in some remote, isolated corner of the city. The guide described the place as a local favorite, a tiny mom-and-pop shop unknown to the outside world.
And of course, when I got there, it was filled with tourists with Let’s Go guides just like me.
The tools and guides we use to shape our choices homogenize our lives and actually change the experiences we seek. It’s like a quantum physics observational effect that actually changes the result of the experiment itself.
The only way to get out of that trap is to stop using the exact same decision-making processes everyone else uses.
It’s just easier.
Setting your parameters, plugging in the numbers, and letting randomness decide what you’re going to do takes precious little effort.
Life is hard enough. Some choices matter very much and some don’t. By letting a randomizer handle some of the less significant life choices, I now have less mental load in my days. I just don’t waste any energy planning things most of the small things in my life any more. And I think that’s usually a good thing.
Humans weren’t meant to have perfectly designed lives.
Hunter-gatherers did not evolve in a world of 200 types of gelato, 25-row grocery stores, and 70-aisle superstores. Throughout most of human history, we ate what we could find. We did what we could do to survive on a daily basis. Which means most days we didn’t know what our lives were going to look like at the beginning of the day. We didn’t have an alarm clock and calendar guiding us on rigorous, inflexible routines.
Over-optimizing our lives is an inherently unnatural process. We’re meant to experience randomness, variation, excess, and scarcity. The RLEG replicates a tiny bit of that natural, inherent uncertainty.
It’s not about “peak” experience. It’s about diverse and richer experiences.
Some might say that this is just another way to make banal bougie consumption choices. But it doesn’t have to be about consumption at all. It can be about going to a different park with your kid. Or driving (or walking or biking) a different way home from work. Or about socializing with people you never would interact with otherwise. Going places that aren’t on your bucket list.
In general, it’s about living a life that isn’t already on what seems to be your currently pre-ordained path.
Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to try to introduce randomness into all aspects of life. There are some circumstances where it would be a very bad idea (hemlock for breakfast?!?). As an attorney, for example, I wouldn’t last long trying to practice law that way (random number generator gave me a 7, looks like we’re going to have to litigate!). And even when we do introduce randomness, best to do so within reasonable parameters (today I’m going to eat 13,000 calories). But I think that our culture is so biased toward personal choice and consumption and its deep connection to personal identity, that introducing some degree of randomness, however trivial, is healthy.
I’ve heard about some people who take this practice to extremes. The exact degree it might be helpful to you probably depends on the specifics of your personality and circumstances. But I’d encourage anyone who has made it thus far to give it a shot, even if it’s just in a few small things. I think most of us could use a little more randomness in our lives.
The Society for Uncertainty and Intellectual Modesty
I try to avoid dogma. But if there’s one thing I believe dogmatically, it’s that the amount of stuff we don’t know is much greater than the amount of stuff we do know.
The origins of the universe. The nature of consciousness. How to combine quantum theory and relativity. These are big and important questions that are fundamental to the basic nature of our existence. And even the smartest among us struggle to provide anything resembling a coherent theory. I’ve been studying philosophy since I was 15, but I’m not sure I’m much better at understanding these fundamental questions now than I was when I started. I have added some facts and vocabulary around these ideas, but it’s mostly just me reciting what others have told me.
It’s Sunday today, and so when I drove through Salida this morning, as would have been the case in just about any other small town in this country, I came across lots of people going to church. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.
I’m a non-believer, and so I don’t go to church. But ever since leaving the church as a young teenager, I have lamented the fact that non-religious groups rarely provide the community and camaraderie that religious groups provide. While I don’t miss going to church, at all, I certainly envy the fact that the religious have the communities that they do.
It’s hard to organize and motivate people to create a community around the concept of non-belief.
And so while I definitely don’t believe in any of the creation myths and anthropomorphic religious stories that have been explained to me, I would love to be able to create a community around the absence of stories. I’d love to be surrounded by a community of people who are comfortable accepting the fact that there is so much we don’t know, and that have the intellectual modesty to accept that there aren’t any easy answers. I’ve attended groups organized by non-believers before, but even those groups tend to be a bit certain and overconfident to me.
So maybe someday I will try to create a community centered around those who are willing to accept uncertainty. We can call it the Society for Uncertainty and Intellectual Modesty.
Something tells me that attendance might also be fairly modest.
If you read the DHH article, he details the work habits of eminently successful people, from Darwin to Dickens, who maintained a modest work schedule. People whose accomplishments were among the best in their fields, but who still had lives outside of work. Rabois basically said it is false that you can work smarter than other smart people. To beat the best of the best, you have to outhustle them.
I would argue that it’s facile to say that working more or working less is always a recipe for success. The right answer is more nuanced than that. It depends on the endeavor. It depends on the person. Neurodiversity is a thing and talent differences are real.
I’m a runner, and so I’m inclined to make runner analogies.
Runners often debate, “how many miles should I run a week?”
The correct answer is almost certainly, “the most miles you can run in a week without getting injured or sick, while maintaining high-quality workouts.”
Probably 95% of elite distance athletes run between 80-140 miles a week. To get really great at running, you basically have to run the better part of a marathon, every day, 48 weeks a year. If you don’t run this amount, there is no chance that you will be competitive with those who do. The odds of a Division I cross-country team showing up on the scene running 40 miles a week and then competing with all the other teams that run 80-140 a week are zero. It’s just not going to happen.
There are lots of talented, hard-working people. It’s false to think you can beat the most talented, hard-working people by working less than them.
I think this is Rabois’ point.
This isn’t the problem for most people, though. Most runners’ failure in developing their potential isn’t a debate over whether to run 80 or 140 or 200 miles a week.
Still, pushing the other end of the range is not a recipe for success, either.
For most human beings, running more than a marathon every day will lead to immediate physical breakdown, either in the short term, for most (citation needed), or in the long term, for others. For the few that it doesn’t have this effect on, most cannot adapt and recover from their hard workouts. This means that running this much volume, for nearly everyone, starts to become counterproductive. Running this much makes you slower, not faster. I have a number of friends who have run across the United States, basically running 50-mile days for 60 days in a row. But for all of this extra running, universally, they were slower after the effort, even after they had fully recovered.
The runners winning Olympic gold are running 80-140 miles a week, not 200 or 300 miles a week.
I think this is essentially DHH’s point.
Within the range of what elite athletes do is where all the science and nuance can be found. It’s not enough to say that more is better. Volume is correlated with performance, but there is a point at which that correlation breaks down. It’s not enough to say that less is more. The best athletes do workouts that would destroy most mortal athletes. And the best coaches are constantly tweaking to maximize performance of their best athletes. And if you want to know more, go read every book and paper about performance of elite distance athletes. And then you still can’t be certain. That’s the hard thing about trying to be the best in the world at something.
And, in that same vein, I suspect that the optimal amount of work for any given person is, “the most work you can do without burning out or losing interest in what you’re doing, while maintaining high productivity and efficiency.” But, of course, that’s also a totally unhelpful as a maxim for guiding anyone’s behavior.
The idea that you could prescribe the same work schedule for a person with ADHD as a person with OCD and Jeff Bezos and DHH is silly.
But, as with running, maximizing total potential isn’t the problem for most of us. As with runners and training, most of us never come anywhere close to reaching our potential with work. Most of us are running the professional equivalent of 25 miles a week. Checking Facebook at work, taking long breaks—just doing the minimum to get by or slightly above it. And, just as a weekend duffer running 25 miles a week will never outperform the best athletes in the world running 120 miles a week, in the same way, the odds of most people reaching the pinnacle of their profession is zero.
There is so much slack in most people’s schedules, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work isn’t really the relevant question. The average person over the age of 50 watches in the range of 50 hours a week of television. That’s pretty close to half of their waking hours. Younger people tend to gravitate more toward YouTube and internet-based entertainment, but total screen time numbers aren’t all that different from the old folks.
So yeah, so perhaps I am overstating it when I say that most people are doing the professional equivalent of 25-mile weeks. Most people are probably doing a fraction of a fraction of that.
A lot of younger, very accomplished knowledge professionals emphasize that extraordinary achievement is possible while working reasonable hours, as long you are militant in purging the distractions. Silicon Valley culture is heavy on instant messaging, co-working, and distraction-based work ambiance. I worked at one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, where people worked very long hours. I wouldn’t have said that the culture there was biased toward efficiency. But people certainly thought that they were working hard.
So on the one hand, you have DHH, Cal Newport, and Adam Grant that think extraordinary accomplishments can happen with a reasonable schedule. But these people are all notorious about their ruthlessness in eliminating distractions. And then on the other you have Jeff Bezos, Tyler Cowen, and Keith Rabois that have different expectations—that only by working the longest hours you can reach the pinnacle.
Who has the right answer?
I’m a genuine believer that most knowledge workers can earn enough money to live well simply by engaging in deep work and focus for three to four hours a day, consistently, over the course of their careers. There is evidence that after about four hours of deliberate practice a day, most people cannot maintain the focus necessary to perform at the highest level. But most knowledge workers fail to come even close to that number consistently.
And so, again, I think that 99% of the population is so far from working at peak levels, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work for top performance is easy: Most of us would perform much better if we did more deep, uninterrupted, efficient work.
And for those that are truly close to the pinnacle of their profession, I think the answer is more nuanced. The best running coaches don’t just make a schedule at the beginning of the season and stick to it unwaveringly for every athlete. They adjust to the person and to the circumstances. And so too the best and the brightest must leverage their unique talents and work habits in a way suited to their strengths.
There’s no simple formula for maximizing the potential of outliers among outliersacross all disciplines.
Of course, winning a gold medal in distance running at the Olympics is different from writing a best seller, which is different from starting a successful tech company, and which is different from being a happy and well-adjusted human being.
I would guess that the amount of total work volume required to start a billion-dollar business > to become a physics professor > to become a modestly successful entrepreneur > write a decent novel. But there are probably counter-examples for these and other fields.
What I think DHH is emphasizing is that sustainability of work ethic matters far more than short-term volume. A founder that kills himself for three years with a startup will not outperform someone who has the energy and focus to continue the momentum for a lifetime. And that you only live once.
Rabois’ point is that all things being equal, if two people with equal talent are competing in the same industry, the one who works harder will win.
I think that the debate over whether deep, concentrated work for less time can outperform long, hard work for more time can only be answered in a field and industry specific way. Deep work for modest total hour-figures might work for writing a novel but not for an aspiring billion-dollar startup. Reasonable amounts of deep work may enough to get you tenure, but will it get you a Nobel Prize or to IPO?
I suspect that it’s the total, efficient work hours over a lifetime that matter most. Life is an ultramarathon, not a sprint. And consistency over time matters. How you allocate those hours matters less than getting in the hours.
My emphasis, in terms of work ethic, is to try to eliminate waste. Also, to never retire. Get rid of the garbage time staring at your phone and surfing online. Get rid of the garbage time watching Game of Thrones reruns. Get rid of the garbage time being drunk or high for hours on end. If you get rid of the garbage, your life will be better off. Exactly how you allocate that extra time between working and resting I think matters less than getting rid of the pure, unadulterated waste.
 Keith Rabois, who initially rose to fame for yelling, “Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside a lecturer’s home as a first-year law student at Stanford, is a well-known venture capitalist for Khosla Ventures.
 DHH has invented a computer language; has built a hugely successful company; has written a New York Times bestseller, and has finished top ten at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all before the age of 37. He’s also married with two kids. Alas, may I be so fortunate to be among such a Complacent Class.
 Also, 99.9% of athletes do not have the talent to compete with elite athletes, even if they do put in consistent 80-140 mile weeks. For a few good examples of this, read The Sports Gene, by David Epstein.
 To the extent that one’s body ever recovers from such an endeavor.
In Defense of Human Experience over Digital Information
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
-“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones
Reading about the latest presidential drama; checking the score from the game last night (or refreshing the score of the game right now); checking up on our fantasy sports team (or refreshing the score of our current fantasy sports competition); scrolling through our Facebook feeds, our Twitter feeds, and our Instragram feeds; visiting our favorite blog for the fourth time in the same day.
We crave information, in all its forms. Humans have always craved information. But what’s unique about our lives today is that there’s so goddamned much of it. So many ways to scroll, check, and refresh—all in search of different forms of digital information. Some of the information is from friends and family and loved ones. But most of it is from by people we either have never known, will never meet, or barely know.
The sheer volume of information we have today is so great that it is crowding out our actual experience of life. We spend so much time and attention on this information, that we experience life less. This post explains why it is so important for people today to constantly work to choose life over an endless stream of digital information.
As social creatures, we are wholly dependent on culturally inherited information to survive. This is as true for us today as it was for our ancestors. From the moment we are born, we are told what to eat, what to do, and how to live. Some of this information is literally a matter of life and death. This fruit is delicious and this fruit can kill you. This plant smells wonderful and this plant stings and will make you suffer for a long time. This snake is innocuous and this snake can kill you. And so on.
Information isn’t good and it isn’t bad. Information is just distilled human experience, shared and disseminated from one person to another.
If you have more and better information about where to find food and resources, you may live a longer and healthier life. There is no question that the right kind of information can lead you to prosper. And so it is logical that we should be programmed to seek out more and better information.
But just as our craving for sweet and salty foods are adaptive for hunter gatherers, but have been manipulated by modern food-makers to make us fat, so too has our adaptive desire for better information been manipulated by attention merchants to make us intellectual zombies. It’s just another form of hyperstimulus that we all poorly suited to resist.
And so for many of us, the sheer volume of information we consume is replacing our actual experience of life. Scroll, check, refresh, repeat.
But all of this digital information, it’s all just distilled and alienated human experience. All of this information is the copy of life. Your actual experience is the original.
Information is not life. Eating, drinking, swimming, playing, running, jumping, fucking, singing, smiling, breathing, laughing—that’s the stuff of life. Scrolling, posting, tweeting, browsing, watching, refreshing—that’s just a copy.
I say choose the original, not the copy.
Information is crucial to survival. But it is critical to remember that always and should everywhere, information should be subservient to the primary object of life—the cultivation, development, and appreciation of real-life human experience.
Last week I wrote about confabulations. This phenomenon is understood well and has been well documented in individual behavior. But perhaps it’s not emphasized enough in our collective behavior.
Every society has its own creation myth, for example. This phenomenon, on its surface, would seem to be a collective confabulation. This is a collective decision to explain something that happened in the past that didn’t actually happen. And such myths are a cultural universal.
This happens all the time. And It’s not just about religion. It happens in secular institutions as well. Some of you may be familiar with Robin Hanson’s essay about how, “Politics isn’t about policy.” Hanson’s writing is heavily focused on explaining “why we believe what we do, and why we pretend otherwise.”
Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy
School is about learning social order, learning how to play by the rules, and it is the most common form of childcare. But it is also the place where most children do most of their actual learning. Much of charity is about the donor looking good and signaling virtue to their neighbors and community. But it is also the way that we tend to the needs of many of the least fortunate among us.
All of our collective myths include an element of reality from our actual experience to make them more credible. That’s what makes them all the more powerful.
Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
If you asked someone why she bought a particular car, or went to particular college, or worked in a specific job, without hesitation, she’d give you a reason why:
“I’m a lawyer, because I like to read and write. I believe in the legal system and I know I can make a difference helping people defend their rights.”
But that explanation is probably wrong. Or, at a minimum, at least partially wrong. Not because the person who gave the explanation is a liar. But because we have no idea why we do what we do.
(Likely better explanation: it’s the most prestigious, high-paying job that I could get with good test scores, a philosophy degree, and no science background.)
As humans, we are at the same time terrible at understanding why it is that we do what we do and very confident in the quality of our explanations for why we do what we do. In short, people are very good at confabulations, but not so good at explanations. Fiery Cushman, psychology professor at Harvard, wrote an excellent synopsis for Edge about the ubiquity of confabulations. He wrote:
We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. The explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete. Yet, that is not how it feels. Instead it feels like we know exactly what we’re doing and why. This is confabulation: Guessing at plausible explanations for our behavior, and then regarding those guesses as introspective certainties. Every year psychologists use dramatic examples to entertain their undergraduate audiences. Confabulation is funny, but there is a serious side, too. Understanding it can help us act better and think better in everyday life.
Some of the most famous examples of confabulation come “split-brain” patients, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected for medical treatment. Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body’s behavior (“I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!”).
Cushman goes on to explain that most of our confabulations aren’t quite so extreme as the ones we see in split-brain patients. If it were so obvious that all of us were going around telling each other lies that were on their face absurd, no one would believe anything anyone told them and our communication wouldn’t be very effective. We’d know we were living in a complete world of fiction.
Instead, rather than viewing all of our explanations as bald-faced lies, it’s better to look at all of our explanations for why we do what we do as partial fictions. There’s an element of truth to our conscious understanding of why we live our lives the way we do, and there’s an element that we either understand poorly or don’t understand at all. Consciousness touches on some of our real motivations, but swimming beneath the surface there is always more going on.
Our brains have evolved over 3.5 billion years. The most rudimentary forms of consciousness have only been around for less than 10% of that time. Conscious self-reflection – the type of awareness that makes us think of ourselves as humans – has only really been around for less than .1% of that time. Most of what makes our brain what it is comes from the older bits. The newer bits were layered on top at the end. So it’s natural that the conscious parts of our brain only really explain part of the broader story.