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.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
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  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • Status Games

    Running a race. Angling for a promotion. Thumbing through pictures of possible mates on Tinder. A game of bar trivia with friends. A political election. Two people talking over each other at a dinner party. Posting a blog on the internet. The search for the best pre-school for our children. Learning to play the guitar. Who eats how much and in what order. Cheering on our home nation at the Olympics. Cheering on our alma mater at the NCAA tournament. The clothes we wear. The cars we drive. The places we sit in meetings. The way we try to find the best home for our family.

    What do all these seemingly different activities have in common? They are all different ways in which we seek out and claim status.

    As social beings, status dynamics are the pervasive undercurrent of almost everything we do. Our lives are structured around a series of elaborately-constructed games that determine who has status in any given situation and who does not.

    The rules that determine who gets status are complex and ever-evolving. Some status games matter very much (who has rights and who does not? how much does society value an hour of your labor?) and some status games matter very little (how fast did you do run the 10k this weekend?).

    From an argument at a bar to a violent political rally, when you see a social conflict, think to yourself, who here is trying to claim status and from whom? There’s a good chance that the answers to those questions are easy to find. And there’s a good chance that when you find the answer, it will explain the conflict.

    We rarely think of it in exactly these terms, but how we perform in status games, the strategies over which games we play and how, will be strongly correlated with many life outcomes, including wealth (citation needed), health, and even how long we live.

    I.

    If you Google “status games,” the first few pages that come up are about improv comedy. It’s a well-established principle in improv that when you’re doing a sketch, everything works better if one person plays high status and everyone else plays low status. What this means is that one person leads the conversation and then everyone else goes along with what that person says. If everyone follows the leader and simply goes along with what she says, the trip down to the rabbit hole tends to be fun. But when another performer interrupts or changes the scene or competes for status, the conversation gets awkward. [1] Especially if the initial leader fails to cede high status.

    And so it goes for other conversations. It’s easy to not notice this, but in almost every conversation, there is always someone who takes the lead and others who follow. If not, people talk over each other, and the conversation gets awkward and difficult.

    Taking the lead in a conversation is a claim for status. If multiple people in a conversation are not at least temporarily willing to cede status, then the conversation turns into a battle of egos. In a healthy conversation among friends, peers take turns taking the lead in the conversation, sharing personal stories or experiences, and then listening while their friends do the same. Those that insist on telling their own stories without then ceding and listening to others’ stories tend to be more dominant – or at least think they are. In a conversation among status equals, taking on a dominant role is not socially acceptable behavior.

    To demonstrate this point, researchers observed a series of Larry King’s interviews with famous celebrities. The researchers observed:

    When Larry was interviewing someone perceived to be highly prestigious, Larry shifted his vocal frequencies to match his guest’s patterns. However, when he was interviewing those perceived to be of lower status than Larry himself, it was the guests who automatically and unconsciously shifted to match Larry’s frequency. Larry most strongly accommodated George Bush, a sitting American president, as well as to Liz Taylor, Ross Perot, and Mike Wallace, and a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Dan Quayle, Robert Strauss, and Spike Lee accommodated to Larry. Sometimes neither person shifted to match the other, such as when Larry interviewed a young Al Gore. These conversations were perceived as difficult, perhaps because both individuals saw themselves as being higher status than their partner, so neither would defer.

    Joseph Heinrich, The Secret of Our Success, How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (emphasis mine).

    Like it or not, every human interaction is a status game. Most people defer to their bosses, parents, and prestigious members of their community. The opposite is true for subordinates, children, the elderly, and service professionals. Family dynamics are usually less structured and clear-cut, which is why you are much more likely to get into an intense screaming match with your brother or spouse than with another social peer. If you get into a screaming match with your teenage son, it’s probably because he’s trying to establish his place and you are trying to defend yours. Do the same with your boss and you’ll probably lose your job. Do the same with a cop or a judge and you’ll end up in jail or worse.

    II.

    (If you aren’t interested in philosophy, skip to section III)

    “All Models Are Wrong, But Some Models Are Useful”

    -George Box

    Ludwig Wittgenstein was among the most important philosophers of the 20th century. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he has a heck of a life story.

    But he’s most relevant to this discussion because, in the second half of his career, he mostly stopped trying to solve problems in philosophy. Instead, he adopted an approach that simply observed and commented upon what most people have considered to be philosophical problems.

    The main tool he used to do this was the concept of what he referred to as language games.

    I’ll defer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to summarize how Wittgenstein used this tool:

    Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language…. ‘Regular’ language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.

    Language-games are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (PI 65).

    It is here that Wittgenstein’s rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher’s “craving for generality”, he points to ‘family resemblance’ as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66).

    Rather than attempting to use this language-games model as a means of resolving all philosophical problems, Wittgenstein viewed this approach as creating a “means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.” (PI 133)   By letting go of the illusion that we can resolve certain philosophical problems, because of the inherent vagueness of language and the amorphous structure of language games, according to Wittgenstein, we should simply try to let the problems go.

    III.

    As with Wittgenstein’s model of language games, the first step to thinking through status games is to observe them. Simply gain awareness of when you are playing. Not every low status situation is so bad, and most institutions require more low-status contributors than high status contributors. Maybe you enjoy being an assistant coach, a non-lead member of a social group, or a junior employee at your firm and you don’t want additional responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us play low status much of the time, just to make things go smoothly. That’s what “please” and “thank you” is all about.

    But perhaps there are situations where you have greater expertise than someone who is claiming high status. When do you claim high status? A few weeks ago I was at a dinner party, and a person at the party was saying all sorts of ludicrous and inaccurate things about the people of Barcelona. I lived there for three years, and so my instinct was to want to correct her. But this person was a bit of a know-it-all. Not the kind of person who cedes status in conversations easily. I’m fairly confident I could have made my point to the group and prevailed based on my superior knowledge and experience that I was right and that she was wrong. But given the context and the situation (it was, after all, a dinner party) that almost certainly would have reflected worse on me than on her. And so I said nothing.

    But there are some moments in your life when it is critical to claim high status. When if you do not claim high status, you will become a doormat. While I might defer at a dinner party, there are certain professional situations, as an attorney, where I cannot defer and do my job properly. For example, on occasion, clients will disagree with my recommendations. There are some situations where I might lay out the options, make a recommendation, and leave it to the client to decide what to do. But there are other situations, where, if a client does not agree with my recommendation, I will terminate my relationship with the client. Because the risk of the situation going badly for them (and the firm) is sufficiently great that I am not willing to play low status.

    One of the first concepts you learn in negotiating is the concept of BATNA. Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. What that means is that in all negotiations, you should always keep top of mind a firm point at which if the counterparty is not willing to give you what you want, you will walk away. If the counterparty won’t acknowledge what you perceive to be your true value and status, you will go seek that status elsewhere.

    You have to carefully pick a few scenarios when you insist on playing high status – and accept that as a moment where you must be prepared for a confrontation.

    IV.

    Confrontation is what happens when two claim high status in the same situation. Either one cedes to the other, or the claim must be resolved in some other way.

    I have a bird feeder outside my window. There, status competitions are in evidence every day. A little bird darts up to the feeder, peeks around, quickly grabs what it can, only to be chased away by a bigger bird, who is the then chased away by a flock of bigger birds, who then get chased away by our dogs. The titmice defer to the bluebirds, who defer to the juncos, who defer to the scrub jays, who defer to ravens and hawks. Rinse, repeat.

    Chimpanzees and bonobos are very similar primate species – the two closest genetically to humans. They evolved on opposite sites of the Congo river, starting about a couple of million years ago when the river formed. The chimps’ social structure is governed by an alpha male that bullies rivals and competitors into following his lead, and the rest fall into line. The bonobo social structure is matriarchal, egalitarian, and highly affectionate and even sexual. If a single chimp from one troop wandered into another’s territory, it would almost certainly be gang-attacked and killed. The equivalent bonobo might be in for an orgy.

    And so it is with different human societies.

    We are not apes with a crystal-clear pecking order. Our status games are complex and ever evolving. What determines status is not universal across cultures or time periods or social groups.

    Humans evolved through most of our history to keep high-status people in check. Throughout most if not all hunter-gatherer societies (which is to say, all of human existence until about 10,000 years ago), the hunter-gatherer band was fiercely egalitarian. Standing out as an alpha could lead to social shaming, peer rejection, banishment from the tribe (the result of which was likely death), and actual capital punishment. See, Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.

    So if bragging on social media (whether you are doing it or others are doing it), taking credit for a job well done, or acknowledging your own success makes you feel squeamish, it’s probably because we are hardwired to think that this is dangerous behavior. Because for most of human history, it was.

    But there’s little question that most developed societies today reward active self-promotion. The same personality types that would have been banished from society or killed by the tribe a few millennia ago are the same ones living in mansions today. If you want to be survive and thrive today, you have to do the very things that we are genetically hardwired not to do.

    V.

    So each of us must find the balance of which games to play when, and what status roles to choose. For many of us, to do anything other than playing low status all the time will make us feel awkward and uncomfortable.

    There’s no single rule for how to resolve status conflict. Being aware of life’s conflicts and thinking of them as status games doesn’t solve problems with status. Nor does it make high status easier to achieve. Valuable status symbols, from an Olympic medal to a Tesla Model X, are by definition difficult to obtain.

    But knowing about the pervasiveness of these undercurrents makes us better aware of our motivations for doing what we do. And knowing that our real motivations are more often related to status that we might initially admit. This awareness also helps us to think of life’s decisions strategically, which most people are terrible at doing. And for me, thinking of these life choices as games gives a certain lightheartedness and playful context to them.

    Vi.

    I used to think that I didn’t care about any status games. That I chose jobs, clothes, colleges, cars, and friends not based on prestige or status, but based on substance. That I preferred quality of life over status. But the older I got, the more I realized that status games were happening all around me, whether I like them or not. That I had better participate in status games at least some of the time, or I would be completely ignored or rejected.

    To ignore or reject all status games is to not participate in life.

    There’s no getting around it, unfortunately. Perhaps you could argue that someone such as a Buddhist monk, someone who seeks to be invisible in service for others, has a life without status or hierarchy considerations. But even then, there is usually a monk in charge of the monastery. Someone had to buy or donate the land on which the monastery is located. There is status within the monastery based on experience or having attained satori. Thus, even for those who purportedly abandon status as a way of life, status games still arise.

    The only real exception to status games is solitary confinement. Which has been shown to basically make just about any person go insane. We are designed to view our existence and understand our position in the world as it relates to others. While we often think of ourselves as independent persons who are capable of guiding our own path to self-actualization, so much of our self-conscious thoughts are guided by how we are perceived by and how we interact with others. (See, Others in Mind, Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, Phillipe Rochat). Our relative status with others guides nearly all of our thoughts.

    VII.

    Last year, I wrote a post that asked the question, “why are there so few high status threshold workers?” The post was about why high-status people were obsessed with working so much. You might assume that when someone had obtained lots of money, that they would be inclined to work less. But that’s not usually the way it goes down. There’s plenty of evidence that the people who can most afford to stop working or work less or retire are the ones who work the most. Those who have the most money and can most afford to retire are the least likely to do it.

    Tyler Cowen explains this by saying, “it turns out, people like to work.” I’m not so convinced by that as a complete explanation. My theory is that the people who are obsessed with relative status never stop thinking about their relative status.

    Lawyers are great for stories about relative status-obsession. Because in my experience, no profession is more status obsessed.

    To quote a prior story from that post:

    I remember when I first went to law school, the salaries of first-year lawyers were $125,000 a year at all of the major law firms (it’s now $180,000). To someone who had been accustomed to living well on 1/10th of that as an English teacher in Barcelona, this seemed an impossibly large salary to me. One of my best friends in law school, though, was from New York and had many friends who had already been through law school, and who were already working those jobs. He told me that some of his friends struggled to live on that salary.

    This was incomprehensible to me. How could a person make that much money struggle to live on that income? That’s insanity!

    My friend gave me an explanation of why this happens, and why it’s so common, that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “You may think that $125,000 is a lot of money now, but everyone at the law firm makes at least that. Second-year lawyers make $135,000; third-year lawyers make $145,000. All the partners, of course, make millions a year. Right now, $125,000 is a lot of money to you. But when you get to the law firm, all it makes you is the poorest person in your new social circle.”

    That same friend told me another story about a Yale law professor, one who provided a good example about how the games never end. Before coming to Yale, this professor had made partner at Cravath, Swain, and Moore, perhaps the most prestigious law firm in the world. There, he worked non-stop, 3000-or-more billable hours a year, got paid an enormous amount of money, and then was rewarded– with more work. Through all of this hard work, he was eventually rewarded by the firm as they made him a partner.

    What happened then? More work and more money.

    He described his experience of going for partner as akin to a 10-year pie-eating contest. And then, when he finally won the contest, the prize for winning the competition was more pie.

    Status games, indeed.

    People who have the highest status in society rarely, if ever, stop obsessing over ever-higher status.

    VIII.

    I first started thinking about writing this post when I was following the online coverage of a long-distance race called the Barkley Marathons. For those unfamiliar, it is probably the hardest footrace in the world. In 25 years, only 14 people have ever finished. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that summarizes the history. It covers 100-plus miles, through dense forest, with over 60,000 feet of elevation gain. But those numbers don’t even begin to describe how hard it is.

    This year had a particularly dramatic finish. A runner was on pace to finish just before the 60-hour cutoff, got lost just before the finish, and then staggered to the finish, in the wrong direction, six seconds after the cut-off. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, all for nothing, simply because of a small mistake, in a state of complete exhaustion, nearly 60 hours into a race.

    To have any hope of finishing this race, you have to train hard. I mean, hard in a way that most people can’t even imagine. 20-30 hours a week of hard mountain running, on the toughest terrain, for weeks and months and years. Up and down mountains, pounding your quads into submission. You have to develop an immunity to exhaustion that combines a medical resident’s ability to overcome sleep deprivation and a war prisoner’s ability to withstand discomfort. And even then, you probably have little to no chance to finish in the allotted time. The whole point of the race is that the race director has created a course that is essentially impossible to complete. And then people try to finish it anyway.

    On the surface, it’s just so much work for so little reward. 99% of the earth’s population doesn’t even know that this race exists. There is no prize money. There’s not even a cheap plastic medal for finishers. The only reward, if you do somehow manage to finish this grueling competition, is that you and a few of your ultra-runner friends know that you did it.

    Stupid perhaps. But its popularity keeps growing every year.

    Status games, when taken to extremes, can be funny things.

    IX.

    Is the pie-eating contest law partner making better life choices than the ultra-runner? Or should we look to the vast majority of people who don’t take their status competitions to such extremes as our models? Does any of this stuff really matter?

    To the extent that I have an answer, it’s that we all need something to motivate us to get up in the morning. Our motivations are the status games we play. For ourselves. For others. It’s just what we decide to do with our days. And what we decide to do with our lives. And so I like to think of these status games in much the same way as I think of board games. Engage, think through the games strategically, but best not to take them too seriously.[2] Sometimes you win; sometime you lose. Sometimes you win or lose because of strategies within your control. Sometimes you win or lose because of things outside of your control.

    Ultimately, all of life’s status games end the same way. But life’s no fun if you don’t get in there and play.

    [1] For those interested in reading more, this theme is the main focus of the excellent Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone.

    [2] I might have some family members who would question how good I am at not taking board games seriously.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017

    Globalization and liberalism primarily benefit educated elites in developed countries and those in developing countries, and they primarily hurt the middle and lower classes in developed countries.

    This is an intractable problem. You can have global free markets, you can have national sovereignty, and you can have a healthy democracy. But when you try to have all three, it puts immense pressure on the internal political dynamics of nation-states. And so it makes national politics in developed countries easily exploitable by populists and nationalists who either want to kill global free markets or democracy or both.

    For a much more in-depth discussion of this problem, read this or this.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power

    Since I first started driving as a teenager, I have always followed the same formula for how fast I drive. If I’m driving on city streets, I drive no more than four miles over the speed limit. If I’m driving on the highway, I drive no more than nine miles over the speed limit.

    But this isn’t just my maximum speed; it’s my habitual speed. If I’m driving more than a minute or two in the same direction, I always set cruise control at this speed and leave it there.

    With this formula, driving in more than 30 states and over 200,000 miles, I’ve never received a speeding ticket. I’ve never even been pulled over. This is true even though I am almost always driving at a speed that is in technical violation of the law. I have probably driven by police officers over 500 times while violating the law, and the police officers that saw me have never sought to enforce the laws.

    I’ve discovered a driving Schelling point where the legal norms differ consistently from the written laws.

    This is a good illustration of the difference between laws and legal norms. The former refers to the literal language of the rules that govern our societies and the latter refers to the unwritten but generally understood rules that determine when those persons who are responsible for enforcing the legal rules actually seek to enforce them against violators.

    Let’s call the legal speed limit n1, but the actual speed where police officers tend to enforce the speed limit n2. Since n2 is the speed where the law is actually enforced, why not set the speed limit at n2? Wouldn’t that be more transparent and fair?

    Some might think that if we raised the speed limit to n2, that this would encourage drivers to go faster, to a newer, more dangerous speed, n3.

    But that’s not true. If police rigorously enforced the new speed limit, n2, drivers would adjust their behavior. There’s no reason speed limits couldn’t be like the playing boundaries in a game of football or basketball. Toe touches the line, and it’s out of bounds. No margin for error.[1]

    The reason for the discrepancy is that law enforcement wants to have wiggle room to enforce the rules. It is a well-established principle that laws that are too vague may be deemed unconstitutional, because they invite arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. But there is nothing unconstitutional about failing to enforce a clear law sometimes and enforcing the law other times.[2] Law enforcement enforces the rules this way because they want a certain amount of wiggle room to enforce what they perceive to be suspicious behavior.[3]

    This is why a lot of questionable, arguably discriminatory law enforcement actions revolve around technical enforcement of laws that are not usually enforced.

    By setting up a system where most norm-abiding citizens are in frequent violation of existing laws, law enforcement has greater discretion to enforce laws as they see fit. If a police officer pulls you over because you were driving two miles over the speed limit and later discovers you were driving while drunk, you can’t argue that it was illegal for her to pull you over for that reason. It was just unusual.

    This Zone of Law Enforcement Wiggle Room – the zone between n1 and n2 – is where so much of the controversial and disputed tensions in our society can be found. Beyond speed limits, examples include drug enforcement, political dishonesty, international dispute resolution, and immigration policies.

    By creating a Zone of Law Enforcement Wiggle Room, those responsible for enforcing laws have more power. Strict enforcement of laws would eliminate law enforcement discretion and make it more obvious when law enforcement was acting inconsistently. The very act of inconsistency would be a violation of the law. As such, a consistent regime of loose enforcement is the best mechanism for ensuring that law enforcement maintains its discretion.

    Further reading: David Friedman, A Positive Account of Property Rights. Social Philosophy & Policy, volume 11, number 2 (Summer 1994).

    [1] A couple of years ago I was driving around Spain, and I followed the driving rules that have served me so well driving in the United States. But when I got home to Colorado, I got three tickets in the mail for driving slightly over the speed limit. I’m not sure if it was because I was a foreigner, or because I was driving a rental car, or because that’s the way the law is enforced there, but because in Spain there was no gap between the written law and the enforced norm, I’m about 500 euro poorer than I would have been otherwise.

    [2] Unless it can be proven that law enforcement consistently enforced the law with discriminatory intent or that enforcement had a discriminatory impact. But this is very hard to prove (and the reason why segregation lasted for as long as it did).

    [3] I don’t think that law enforcement does this for cynical or malevolent reasons. I think it’s a system that has evolved over time because it works for them.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat

    [Note: I suspect this will not be my most popular post.]

    Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a billionaire decided to play a cruel trick on you. He knew that you were partial to one particular candidate for president and he knew that you would get very upset if the other candidate for president had won. Even though the polls seemed to indicate that your preferred candidate was going to win, this billionaire decided to test what would happen if he could trick you into thinking that the other candidate had won.

    So he made a bet with his best friend Mortimer that if he could create a stream of media and social media stories that made it look like the bad guy had won, that he could send you into a tizzy. He’d pay your friends and family to go along with the story – and with their help he knew you would fall for it. That you would fret day and night about the consequences of the horrible things this bad guy was going to do the world. That you’d let this ruse impact your daily mood.

    But here’s the thing: he wouldn’t have to change anything in the daily substance of your world to convince you the bad guy had won. Other than the stories you were told, nothing in your quotidian world would change. The food you ate, the prices you paid for stuff, where you could go, what you could say; it would all be the exact same. Your life would be identical. The alternate universe wouldn’t be much of an alternate universe at all. It would just be an alternate universe of news, information, and stories.

    But that would be enough to change how you viewed the world every day.

    The experiment wouldn’t even be all that expensive. After all, there are so many underpaid journalists, that he could easily pay a few to write inflammatory articles on the side that would get your goat up. The tricky part would be hacking all of your electronic devices to secretly redirect to this fictional media and social-media universe. But with the help of a few adroit hackers and the access provided by your well-compensated family, it would be easy enough.

    How long would it take you to figure out that you were wrong? That you were living in an alternate universe of news and social media? Before the difference between one president’s actual policies and the other president’s policies affected your daily life in a way that forced you to stand up and notice? For a very small minority of people, such as Iranian immigrants traveling abroad trying to re-enter the country, the different policies would be immediately apparent. But for the vast majority of us, the answer is that other than the stories we hear in the news and on social media, we’d probably never notice a difference. That presidential policy only affects our daily lives at the margins, if at all. That the billionaire could play a trick on us – or could have already played a trick on us to convince us during any president’s tenure that someone else had won – and we’d never be the wiser.

    None of this is meant to justify a president’s bad policies. It’s just to call into question how much we let news and social media chatter impact our daily moods.

    Perhaps you think we have an obligation to always fight injustice – to stand at attention to injustice at all times. Maybe.

    There are an average of 400,000 murders on this planet every year. That’s a lot of injustice. And – as unfortunate and tragic as all of these crimes are – they are probably all outside of your control. Just as presidential politics are largely out of your control. And as bad as this president’s policies might be (assuming this experiment hasn’t already been played on me), certainly they are not as bad as those of Isaias Afewerki, Kim Jong-Un, or Robert Mugabe – all horrible leaders who have been in power for years. But it’s unlikely you let Kim Jong-Un’s cruel treatment of his people affect your mood much.

    So why let this president’s shenanigans affect you?

    There’s a lot of injustice on this planet. Define your moral code and stick to it. Live according to your carefully considered principles – even if they are counter to public policy. Be active in fighting injustice to the extent that you believe yourself able to effect change.

    But an overwrought sense of righteous indignation at a constant stream of news stories is unlikely to do anything other than ruin your own mood. And if that’s where you choose to focus your attention at all times, so be it. But we do have a choice whether to let someone else affect our moods. I take comfort and put great emphasis on that power – as it may be the only form of power I have over more powerful people – whether they are presidents or billionaires (or both).

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity

    A few days ago, an old acquaintance made national headlines for the wrong reasons. She tweeted a joke about the new president’s youngest son, and she got suspended from her job as a writer for Saturday Night Live.

    I don’t know her well anymore. We haven’t interacted in 15 years. But in college she was in a four-person improv comedy troupe with two of my best friends and my best friend’s girlfriend.

    She was very talented, as were the other members of the comedy troupe. But unlike the others, she had a deep resolve to make a name for herself. She was the most ambitious. And now, all those years later, she was the one who “made it.”

    For those of us, myself included, who never “made it,” the natural instinct is to feel some sort of envy or at least wonder about those who do. To think that fame or external recognition would enrich our lives. About how great it would be to tell a joke and know that it made millions of people laugh. To be mucking it up with many of the most recognized comedians on the planet. To be important and famous; I’m sure that would be a very exciting thing.

    But to see her get blistered in the national news the last few days, the pitfalls of importance and fame now seem obvious, too.

    It makes sense and it is not controversial from an evolutionary perspective that we should seek high status. Still, the data do not seem to show that fame makes people happier. For one thing, famous people are four times likelier to commit suicide. That’s not a great sign. And there’s plenty of evidence that goals tied to extrinsic approval of others are not great for our well being. Just one more example of why what we think we want for happiness is not what makes it so.

    It occurred to me that I rarely stop and appreciate the ways in which anonymity and irrelevance can be a blessing. That our instinct to think things would be better or easier if we were famous might not be correct. It might be fun to have coffee with Tina Fey, but it’s also nice to be able to say something stupid without the world questioning your character. It’s probably more exciting to be famous, but it’s probably more peaceful and calm to be irrelevant.

    I’ve never been famous, so I can’t say for sure. But my best guess is that famous people are much like non-famous people. Being famous probably doesn’t change of satisfy the cravings of our billion-year-old brain. Each day they wake up and deal with a series of problems, worries, and concerns. And they deal with them the best they can.

    That isn’t to say that being somebody few people know is better than being somebody lots of people know. It’s just to say that it’s different. No better and no worse. When you go from being anonymous to famous, you trade one set of problems for another. Seeking fame is just another way of looking for a new set of problems.

    My instinct is to trust that I already have enough problems. No need to go searching for more.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs

    When I was younger, I used to believe that the world was forever inching toward rationality. And to the extent that smart, rational people got involved in mainstream political systems, those systems would improve and become more rational.

    That’s no longer something I believe.

    In my old age, I now understand that irrationality is built into the system. I no longer am surprised by events that seem irrational or inexplicable in politics. Instead, when I see such an event, I try to look at those who may benefit from the irrationality and then observe what political alliances have caused that phenomenon to emerge. When you see a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to make sense, you know you’ve hit on something important.

    Usually, seemingly irrational political phenomena emerge when a subgroup of the population sees its survival threatened by the development of a seemingly rational social order. And that subgroup creates a new political movement to subvert what many see as that rational political order. This isn’t about an isolated event or some sort of rare political phenomenon that is isolated to our times: rather, it lies at the very essence of politics.

    Cronyism vs. Rationality

    The ever-brilliant Kevin Simler recently wrote a blog post about crony beliefs – beliefs that aren’t about what’s true but rather what stands to benefit us personally. It’s brilliant (and long), but I recommend reading it in its entirety.

    The part that struck me most was the following:

    I worry that the social influences on our beliefs are sorely underappreciated. I, for one, typically explain my own misbeliefs (as well as those I see in others) as rationality errors, breakdowns of the meritocracy. But what I’m arguing here is that most of these misbeliefs are features, not bugs. What looks like a market failure is actually crony capitalism. What looks like irrationality is actually streamlined epistemic corruption.

    In fact, I’ll go further. I contend that social incentives are the root of all our biggest thinking errors.

    My summary of his piece goes like this: Cronyism and irrationality aren’t errors of the system that we might eliminate someday. They are features that are built into the fabric of the system itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are the system.

    To give just one example, the United States recently elected a president who lost the popular vote in the general election, but won the office because of a construct that was created long ago called the Electoral College. This construct flipped the result of the election.

    That’s not very rational. Why would we have such a system? The reason is that it’s an artifact of the cronyism of the founding fathers. The reason we have the Electoral College isn’t because it’s in the most rational way to choose a government official – it’s because it was the only way the founders of the country could convince the less populous states to join the union. Stated another way, it was a bribe made 230 years ago from larger population states to smaller population states to convince them to be a part of the union – and it still has massive political reverberations to this day.

    Whenever I read an article about the stupidity of the Electoral College, it makes me chuckle.

    Of course the Electoral College is irrational! Of course it makes no sense! But that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to go away. The states that benefit from this quarter-millennium-old bribe understand its importance. And there’s no way they’re going to give it up.

    The system is cronyism. Cronyism is the system.

    The Fireman Problem

    Here’s a fun game to play at a dinner party: Tell all of your friends that one of the biggest problems your local government faces is how much firefighters get paid. You might as well rip off a giant fart at the dinner table. Watch people squirm!

    But here’s the thing: It’s true.

    Fire rates and fire death rates in North America and around the developed world have plummeted over the last century. In the last 20 years alone, annual fires have decreased by 50% while the number of career firefighters has increased by 50%. If you talk to any firefighter about what they do on a daily basis, it has very little do with fire. Most firefighters spend the majority of their time as highly paid EMTs or coroners, attending to business that has nothing to do with fires. Almost all of their work has little or nothing to do with their preparation or training.

    It would seem that our political treatment of firefighters is, on its face, irrational. We should reduce budgets toward firefighters and reallocate those budgets to different emergency personnel.

    But, after 9/11, where 343 firefighters died in the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, what American politician is going to a run on a platform of reducing money to firefighters?

    The answer is no one.

    To do so would be political suicide. And so the negotiating leverage of a small subgroup of the population trumps the rational needs of society as a whole. No matter how noble any one firefighter or any group of firefighters are, it’s irrational to keep pouring money into fire departments. But it wouldn’t matter if we invented a fire-proof building material that forever prevented the possibility of fire – we’d still keep increasing budgets to firefighters year after year, because that’s what politicians need to do to get elected.

    The fireman problem is one of many ways in which rational systems are subverted to urgent political realities. This happens in small ways that have marginal consequences (such as the firefighter example) and big ways that have the potential to destroy the system as a whole (the Weimar republic could be cited as an example). I could have cited prison reform, the national debt or pension deferral, but the reality is that irrational cronyism in politics isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.

    (Remember this the next time you watch the Daily Show or John Oliver.)

    The Below-Average American Problem

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the following is true:

    Living conditions for near-average and below average-IQ North Americans and Europeans have been getting worse over the last 30 years. Also, living conditions for above-average non-North Americans and Non-Europeans have been improving for the past 30 years.

    Imagine you’re an American living in Amarillo, Texas with an IQ of 80. Imagine you’re from the Philippines and you have an IQ of 120. If both were born in 1945, the person from Amarillo would have almost certainly had a much better quality of life than the person from the Philippines, despite falling at opposite ends of the talent-distribution curve. The sheer good fortune of geographic birth of the American would have been enough to overcome any talent differential. Now, if the same two people were born in 1990, with the internet, globalization, outsourcing, and overall improved technology, the person from the Philippines might have an advantage over the person from Amarillo.

    [This isn’t to say that all supporters of the current president are below-average intelligence. There are some exceedingly intelligent fans of the current president. But it’s safe to say most his supporters are anti-free trade and anti-open borders — policies that most rational economists support.]

    This example is a caricature of those that might be helped and those that might be hurt by globalism. It may or may not be true that life is better for the above-average Filipino compared to the below-average Texan. But what is certainly true is that a significant percentage of Americans do not perceive globalization or increasing world assimilation and cooperation as in their best interests. Whether or not globalization, open borders, and free trade are better for the country and the world as a whole, it is entirely rational for those that perceive it not to be in their interests to form a political alliance or political alliances to put an end to it.

    This specific brand of cronyism may therefore be totally rational for some, even if it is not rational for our country as a whole.

    Rational Systems Are Only Helpful If They Are Both Actionable and Beneficial to One’s Own Personal Survival

    Now, imagine that someone were to invent a technology that 1) benefits society as a whole but 2) forever eliminated your chosen profession and permanently impacted your ability to earn a living going forward.

    Under that scenario, it would be perfectly rational for you to join whatever political constituency made that technology illegal. Even if that political alliance had dubious connections to things you had previously found objectionable.

    What’s more, our brains are trained to construct systematic belief systems that will help us survive, because survival is more important to our genes than the truth. We will incorporate into our thinking and promote whatever information and news will help keep us alive, whether that information is true or not. The distinction between real news and fake news, between opinion and advocacy, between rational and irrational, matters little when it comes to our lives and our status in society.

    This isn’t a “left vs. right” phenomenon. It’s an “us vs. them” phenomenon. As long as there are advantages to be gained from acquiring power and influence, subgroups will ally with each other to promote ideas that are in their own interest, but not in the national interest. And in the process they will acquire whatever irrational beliefs they need to form an alliance that will help them obtain that power.

    That’s how it has always been; that’s how it always will be.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • Goals vs. Streaks

    There’s a popular story about some advice Seinfeld once gave to a young comedian who asked him tips on how to become a better comedian.

    According to Seinfeld, the way to become a better comic is to write a lot of jokes. And the way to do that is to write every day. So Seinfeld told him to buy a calendar.

    He said for each day that I do my task of writing I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

    Great advice.

    Most people around the New Year like to make resolutions, which are another way of writing down goals. But in my experience goals rarely translate into change. Change comes from consistent action in the same direction: habits.

    A few days ago I compared habits to holes. Digging a hole isn’t about planning or writing down a schematic for how to dig a hole. It isn’t about goal setting. It’s about digging consistently in the same direction. And the best way to take action in the same direction is to create a streak.

    Streaks are better than resolutions or goals, because they turn into habits, which unlike goals actually have the power to transform our lives.

    Streaks are better than goals for a host of reasons. To give one example, streaks are entirely within our control, whereas achieving a goal is often not within our control. You can’t predict the future and you can’t control the world around you. If you set a goal of running a 2:45 marathon and you do months of preparation to commit to the task, you still might not get there. It might be windy that day. Or maybe you get injured in training. Or maybe you’re just not physically able to run a 2:45 marathon (that is pretty damned fast). Goals are a combination of a plan for personal resolution and wishful thinking. Get the wishful thinking wrong and you’re liable to question your personal resolve, often unfairly.

    Which brings me to my second point: Goals imply that we’re not yet good enough. I’ll only be worthy of self-respect when I run a 2:45 marathon or make $10 million dollars or own a vacation home in Costa Rica. That’s bullshit. A vacation home in Costa Rica doesn’t make you a good person. Being kind and considerate to people around you makes you a good person. Have you ever heard someone say, “he’s a really great person, he owns a second home in Costa Rica”? No. You can be a terrible person and have a second home in Costa Rica and you can be a terrible person and run a 2:45 marathon. In fact, many people are – exactly because they give arbitrary or materialistic goals priority to how they treat people.

    Further, and perhaps most critically, achieving a goal may only be incidental to being the person you want to be. Achievement is overrated. Goals give us arbitrary targets for where we’d like our lives to go. Whereas streaks are a daily manifestation of our values put into action. If you consciously think about what’s most important to you and do it every day, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s windy or whether everything happens according to your plan. You can’t control whether your son or daughter gets in to Princeton, but you can commit to eating dinner with your family every day without interruption or distraction. The former is out of your control and may be incidental to your qualities as a parent; the latter is entirely within your control and a reflection of your commitment and attention to them.

    A few warnings about streaks: I think it’s important to take them seriously but not too seriously. I like to think of them like those Tibetan sand mandalas. It takes work, concentration, and discipline to create one. It feels good to make something go for a while. But streaks like all things must come to an end. When the time comes it’s ok to let it go and start over again. Maybe you write every day but then you go on vacation. Maybe you eat dinner with your family every day but you have the occasional business trip.

    Also, streaks can turn into a negative force if you resolve to have too many of them. If you have 15 streaks, you’ll end up chasing streaks your whole life. Don’t let habit-obsessiveness gets in the way of appreciating life’s quiet moments.

    Finally, for me, streaks aren’t about absolutism; they’re about creating patterns for healthy habits, however that makes sense for you. For example, I have a long streak of having no more than one alcoholic drink in a day. The streak isn’t about having no alcohol – it’s about not consuming to excess. It might be reasonable to pick a diet plan with a cheat day. A streak can be to do something four times a week, if that’s what’s best for you. Cultivate momentum and healthy habits, not obsessiveness.

    Ultimately, streaks are about creating momentum for habits – unbullshitable, real habits where the values we claim to have shine forth in the actions we take every day. That’s far more important to me than any arbitrary milestone for achievement ever could be.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • The Hardest Questions

    I recently finished When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, one of the most popular and highly reviewed books of last year. It’s a first-person account of the author – a 37-year-old Stanford neurosurgical resident – and his premature death. It’s a book about death and dying, but with a twist.

    For me the most interesting part of the book – and what I would argue was the real underlying theme of the book – was the tension between Kalanithi’s intense, gratification-delaying work ethic and his desire to live as well as he could in the last remaining moments of his life.

    There were a few passages that stood out to me.

    In the fourth year of medical school, I watched as, one by one, many of my classmates elected to specialize in less demanding areas (radiology or dermatology, for example) and applied for their residencies. Puzzled by this, I gathered data from several elite medical schools and saw that the trends were the same: by the end of medical school, most students tended to focus of “lifestyle” specialties – those with more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures – the idealism of their medical school application essays tempered or lost. As graduation neared and we sat down, in a Yale tradition, to rewrite our commencement oath – a melding of words of Hippocrates, Maimonides, Osler, along with a few other great medical forefathers – several students argued the removal of language insisting that we place our patients’ interests above our own. (The rest of us didn’t allow this discussion to continue for long. The words stayed. This kind of egotism struck me as antithetical to medicine and, it should be noted, entirely reasonable. Indeed, this is how 99 percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.)

    (emphasis mine)

    Not exactly your typical “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” book on death and dying.

    Here’s another:

    Now the time of the day means nothing, the day of the weeks scarcely more. Medical training is relentlessly future-oriented, all about delayed gratification; you’re always thinking about what you’ll be doing five years down the line. But now I don’t know what I’ll be doing five years down the line. I may be dead. I may not be. [KRM note: He died less than a year later]

    One more:

    Kalanithi’s Doctor: I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s important to you.

    Kalanithi: If I had a sense of how much time I had left, it’d be easier. If I had two years, I’d write. If I had ten, I’d get back to surgery and science.

    Kalanithi’s Doctor: You know I can’t give you a number.

    The book – and that last discussion in particular – is an intense microcosm of one of the hardest questions many of us face when deciding how to allocate our time. To what extent should we plan, save, and prepare for the future and to what extent should we emphasize living well today?

    My preference is to do as much of what matters now – not to plan too far ahead. Kalanitihi chose the opposite and his choices were reflected in the quality of his career, while it lasted. Still, the tone of the book has him embracing life as well as he could for as long as he could. He and his wife chose to have a child in the year he died. And so the forward-thinking mentality still seems to have won out in him – even as he was dying with terminal cancer.

    I must say that I feel a tinge of envy when I read Kalanithi’s words. I don’t regret having chosen lifestyle over career. But I also know that my career arc is probably not what it would have been had I chosen to prioritize career over lifestyle. As I meditate on what makes a life worth living, I understand that the trade-offs are real. That every time I play in the mountains I’m not working on an academic paper. That every time I walk with my dogs or meditate or write for this blog with almost no audience I am not advancing my career. That there are those who are working harder than I am and will likely be rewarded with more interesting and stimulating intellectual challenges as a result.

    I have come to accept these facts.

    These truths were most obvious for me when I worked at the hardest and most competitive job I ever had. There, I quickly discovered that there was an inverse relationship between the quality of my work and the quality of my life. If I showed the most prestigious partners at the firm that I was willing to sacrifice weekends, vacations, and hobbies, I could outcompete other junior attorneys and be rewarded with the most prestigious projects. But I was rarely willing to do that: I consistently chose quality of life over quality of work. And I was often outcompeted and outperformed by more eager peers.

    This tension is real. Life is competitive.

    It’s easy to gloss over this when writing “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” but the battle for subsistence is never-ending, and the race to achieve true excellence at the top end of what our species can do has never been more competitive. You can search for hacks and workarounds, but as a general rule, those who work the hardest earn the greatest rewards. But still, no matter what rewards you earn, the end result is always the same.

    I don’t have a glib way to summarize or resolve this dilemma, except to say that finding a balance I suspect is a life-long process, and it varies from person to person.

    So yes, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Just know that it doesn’t pay. (But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway.)

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)
  • Me and My Pony

    Most of us think that there is some thing out there – a new job, a second or third home, a new car, a million dollars, early retirement – some kind of “pony” that will bring us happiness. We’ll fixate on that thing and convince ourselves that it is the absence of that thing that is causing us to be unhappy. 

    But, at the risk of ruining your Christmas early this year, let me tell you a secret: There is no pony.

    When I say there is no pony, what I mean by that is that there is no thing or goal or accomplishment that can make us happy. There is no thing that will make our problems go away. There is no thing that will make all other things fall into line.

    In other words, there is no pony. There is just life.

    The pony is a red herring we use to distract ourselves and push off living to another day.

    Don’t get me wrong. There are better and worse jobs. It’s great to have freedom to work or to not work. It’s nice to have good stuff. I’d love a billion dollars. But hedonic adaptation is a thing. If you ever get your pony, your level of happiness will soon return to where it was before you got your pony.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this “pony” theme lately. To the extent that I have had a “pony” in my life, I just got it. I just got the thing that I had always wanted. And when I got it initially the sensation was terribly unsettling.

    For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to live in the mountains. I’ve wanted to be closer to nature, living in a house with windows that look out to nature, with trees and peaks and views that stretch out in every direction.

    And now that’s my life. Earlier this month I moved to Salida, Colorado. I’m typing this blog post in front of a dozen windows that give me views in every direction. It’s great.

    But when I first got here, I wasn’t able to enjoy it. At first, I was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of dread.

    What if this doesn’t work out? What if I screw it up and have to move back to a cramped apartment? What if I go broke because I can’t get clients here? What if? What if?

    I had told myself I needed this pony to be happy and then when I got the pony I was nervous about losing the pony and that’s all I could think about.

    And then this morning I finally got back to my daily routine. I woke up early. I meditated for 30 minutes. I ate breakfast. And then I started writing.

    And for the first time since I moved to Salida I had a sense of peace.

    It occurred to me that as much as I like living here, living in Salida is not what gives me peace. I don’t need my pony to make me happy. It’s not what we have that matters. It’s what we choose to do with each day that matters.

    Meditation, writing, working, cooking, cleaning, running, getting outside, spending time with the people I love. All of those things are free. None of those things depend on where I live. I can do all those things whether I live in Salida or somewhere else. I can be happy with or without my pony.

    I like my view. I love the mountains. I think living in Salida is going to be great. I’m glad I got my pony.

    But I don’t need it. I don’t need a pony.

    As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”

    As someone who recently acquired his pony, that sounds right to me. The only way to enjoy your pony is to always be willing to let it go.

  • Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
  • Status Games
  • One Sentence to Explain Politics in 2017
  • Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
  • Brain in a Social-Media Vat
  • The Joy of Irrelevance and Anonymity
  • The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs
  • Goals vs. Streaks
  • The Hardest Questions
  • Me and My Pony
  • Habits and Holes
  • Right Here Problems
  • Life at Zero Speed
  • Ambivalence to Achievement
  • Metarules for Games
  • Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea
  • Refuse To Even Say His Name
  • Do Great Things . . . Or Do Nothing
  • Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality
  • What We Really Mean When We Talk About Minimalism
  • What 40-Degree Water Taught Me About Philosophy
  • You Are the Star of Your Own Movie (But Nobody Else’s)
  • What I Learned from My Mini-Retirement at Age 34 (Mostly, that Retirement is Overrated)
  • The Strategic Value of Not Planning
  • Republicanism, Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Instability
  • The Hyperevolution of Hyperstimulus
  • Whatever I Want, Whenever I Want
  • Monday Funday – Radiohead
  • Friday Shortcuts – Robots Reading Romance Novels
  • Why Are There So Few High-Status Threshold Workers?
  • What I’m Reading – 5/4 – Team of Rivals
  • Epistemic Status
  • Monday Funday – Running Through Barcelona
  • Friday Shortcuts – 1:11 Half-Marathon with a Stroller
  • Light Reading for Our Robot Overlords
  • What I’m Reading – 4/27 – The Graveyard Book; The Longest Winter
  • Every Day I Wake Up Unemployed
  • Monday Funday – Killer Drone
  • Shortcuts 4/22/16
  • The Easiest Path To Professional Success
  • What I’m Reading – 4/20 – What I Think About When I Think About Running
  • Why It’s Good To Be a Square Peg
  • Monday Funday – Super Mario Bros. Speed Record
  • Friday Shortcuts 4/14 – I Think This Is a Joke
  • The Real Reason We Like To Travel
  • What I’m Reading – 4/13 – Seveneves; Asylum; SuperBetter
  • How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue
  • Monday Funday, 4/11/2016
  • Friday Shortcuts and The Process
  • How to Learn To Love Any New Habit
  • What I’m Reading – 4/6 – The Iraq War; Impro; Zen in the Art of Writing; The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • 100/100/100
  • The Best Thing I Read Last Week
  • Friday Shortcuts
  • Analyzing Life from an Archeologist’s Perspective
  • Quantity vs. Quality
  • What’s the Evolutionary Basis for Why We Like TV?
  • Tip of the AI Iceberg
  • The Theory of 5,000 Einsteins
  • All of Our Instincts Are Fighting Against Us
  • McCarthy’s Maxim in Visual Form
  • Why Irrationality May Be Our Best Form of Job Security
  • How to Defeat a Demagogue – A Strategic Inquiry
  • Intuition Pumps and Other Rules for Thinking, Daniel Dennett; Does it Matter? Alan Watts
  • Benchley’s Law of Distinction, Forager-Farmer Edition
  • The DO Rule
  • Proof of Evolution You Can See
  • Is Ultrarunning on the Decline?
  • Let My People Go (and Drink Responsibly)!
  • The Least Interesting Years of My Life
  • The Mismeasure of Man; A Universe of Consciousness
  • On Donald Trump, Superforecasting, and Granularity
  • Stalingrad, The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943
  • The Smart People Need to get Smarter
  • Go, AlphaGo, and the Game of Games
  • The Amateur Astronomer
  • Why Working at the Same Time as Everyone Else Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be
  • The Red Queen and the New Political Order
  • Programming vs. Strategy
  • The End of the End of History?
  • Evolution: The Ultimate Game
  • On Weirdness
  • This is the New Political Order
  • Why It’s Ok to Dance Alone on a Hill in Tight Pants
  • How to Lead, How to Follow
  • Snapchat: The New Game
  • Games and Problems (How to Solve Any Problem)
  • The Battle for Non-Distraction
  • Zen Koans, Virality, and Self Promotion
  • Steve Jobs; Creativity: Flow and the Psychology and Discovery of Invention; Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder
  • The Opposites Theory of Presidents (A Story of Recency Bias)
  • Insider Games vs. Outsider Games, Paul Krugman Edition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke, Part II
  • Winners and Losers & the Multicultural Ideal
  • Arguing with People Online is a Waste of Time
  • Is Blogging Now Irrelevant?
  • Creativity, Domains, Consensus, and Recognition
  • Do What You Want; Never Retire; Die Broke
  • Disassortative Mating, Heart-Warming Edition
  • Humanity Trumps Ideology
  • The Golden Age of Games
  • Finite and Infinite Games
  • Benjamin Franklin, an American Life; Einstein, His Life and Universe; The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story
  • The Observable Universe, Log-Scale Image
  • Randomness, Beauty, and the Oboe
  • The American Civil War; Musicophilia; A Perfect Mess
  • Why the Nobel Prize is Overrated
  • The Sum of our Experiences
  • Underrated: Being a Threshold Earner
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Humane Idealist
  • Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art
  • 1493; The Revenge of Geography; The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck
  • Why I’m an Optimist Who Believes the End of the World is Nigh
  • Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake
  • Kind Moments Caught on Russian Dashcams
  • Boy and Puppy
  • Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated
  • The Art of Learning; Collapse; Promoter Mind, Hustler Heart; The Last of the President’s Men
  • Embracing Imperfection
  • Find Your Voice, Do Your Special Work
  • Joyous and Swift
  • What is the Meaning of Life? (On the Importance of Asking Better Questions)
  • Poorly Worded Questions
  • Pascal’s Wager (A Different Calculus)
  • The Final Countdown
  • Ten Keys to a Meaningful Life
  • Wittgenstein’s Ruler (McCarthy’s Maxim)