Category Archives: Uncategorized

Iterated self-improvement - a worked example

The motivational use of causal narratives

One of my core skill gaps is that I don't have a system 1 level understanding of how I cause good outcomes in my life. I tend to forget my successes and remember my failures. I have often said, “nothing bad ever happens to me,” and this is a true account of the world I experience - but not because I have such incredibly good luck (which, to be clear, I do - but other people with good luck still know that they're responsible for some things that happen!). It’s because when I work towards a goal, I think of this as normal and forget about it. Then it seems like every so often the universe randomly gives me some reward, and occasionally people attribute the causality to me - but I wasn’t doing anything extra, I just kept doing normal things and got lucky! This isn’t just true of longer-term stuff my relationships - that the friendships and career I’m building feel like inexplicable repeated bouts of good luck even though I can point to the deliberate work and planning I did over an extended period of time to make them happen - but of things like ordering something i need online. It still feels like I have no control over what stuff I have. I do normal sensible things, and every once in a while a box randomly arrives from Amazon.

But when I fail - well, then I can remember. I can remember the wrong assumptions I made, the times I was too greedy for short term gains, the things I should have been able to do better. I can remember seeing that the house was nowhere near painted a few days before we moved in, and then deciding that the painters knew their business better than I did and besides my personal assistant was responsible for managing them. I remember agonizing over time management and choosing, repeatedly, not to talk as openly as I could with my partner, with my friends, with my manager about it, not to accept myself where I was and build on that.

This is especially bad when a plan has uncertain benefits and some intermediate step breaks. It's hard for me to see when I've failed because the plan wasn't sensible, and when got most of the way through a reasonable plan and then something unexpected happened. It's hard to reward myself for partial success, for getting most of the way to the goal, when it's invisible to me.

One thing I'm doing about this is narrating to myself, when I see a good thing happen in my life as a result in part of things I've done, exactly how I did it, with as much detail as I can stand, all the steps filled in, no "and here a miracle happened" - if it was just chance, but I did a thing to make the miracle more probable, then I give myself credit for that.

(I'm also doing the mirror image of this - if I take an action for future benefits, narrate to myself all the things that are going to happen, in as much detail as I can stand, to get it from here to done, so that I'll notice when intermediate progress points are reached. A simple example is to literally, every day, check the status of the Amazon packages I’ve ordered so I can remember that I caused a thing to arrive when it does.)

In that spirit, I recently made a few life system improvements, and decided to narrate to myself how they happened. It turned out that they were the result of a very long series of life improvements and investments in myself and my life, most of which were pretty abstract, generalized, or otherwise high-level, and I'd on some level thought were mostly pretty futile projects that I'd given up on. It turns out I was wrong - I stopped working on them because I was done!

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Why I ask for feedback

Here's what it feels like.

I've been shipwrecked. As the waves toss me back and forth, I'm clinging to a small piece of floating debris. In the far horizon I see something that might be sure, but maybe my eyes are tricking me. But I know that staying here is pretty bad.

Nearby, there are people on a full lifeboat, so I can't get on safely (I know, I've studied the safety specs), but what I can do is ask them to help me understand which way the shore is, and to give me some pointers on my swimming technique.

And sometimes they say, "Wow, you're so brave! Swimming is pretty hard, and it's impressive that you want to do it! Also, I really admire your willingness to accept feedback!"

Other times, they say: "You seem pretty stressed. Are you sure you're not taking on too much? Maybe you should relax for a few months, and swim once it seems pleasant to you."

Sometimes people in another lifeboat come by and say, "Maybe the people in the first lifeboat don't know how much you want to come aboard. I'm sure they'd make room if they knew how much you needed it!"

I believe that this is well-intentioned, and I know that there are other people in other situations to whom this advice makes sense. Thank you for trying.

On doing more good than war is bad

War is pretty bad. The whole point is to kill people, destroy infrastructure, and break down the state in the target area. Also it uses a lot of money.

That's why I was surprised to learn that - according to Vox (archived here) - one program promoted by George W Bush, 43rd President of the United States, seems to have done as much good as, and perhaps more good than, his two major wars did bad:
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On Nature

I had lots of exposure to The Outdoors, much of it on school trips, much of it involved being an unfit kid having to keep up with a group of fitter kids or grownups, and one or two grownups who'd subtly chide me for not trying hard enough. I was in fact pushing my body through substantial fatigue.

Then after college I decided that I was a grownup and no one could make me go see nature if I didn't want to. I was a city boy and that was it. No trees or hills or dirt or bugs or lakes or anything. Just cities and bookstores and coffee shops and offices and apartments and museums and restaurants and subways. (One note of discord I might could have noticed earlier - I was always pretty happy when visiting California, to see the hills and trees and stuff, or whenever I was somewhere I could see mountains.)

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How I travel

I'm a planner. I don't cope well with travel where I have to make major decisions every day. I like to look up in advance what the major points of interest are, which ones are close to each other, and plan out efficient days based on this. I also care about actually enjoying the local food when traveling, so I use Chowhound and Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide (as well as the recs in guidebooks like lonely planet, recommendations from locals, and even Yelp if need be.)

I think this is related to my mood regulation - I can get excited about planning a vacation, and then about going and following the plan - but if I wake up in the morning and ask myself, "What do I want to do today?", I'm going to sit in my room bored and hungry and annoyed at myself for wasting time until something like 1PM.

While this is my native mode of travel, two alterations have made vacations much better for me:

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How to find a job like a privileged person with lots of options

Here are the things I've seen work well from both sides of the hiring process, and from talking with a bunch of people about career choice.

If you are thinking of going to school for a couple of years to qualify you for a job, apply for that job today to find out whether you actually have a skill gap. If you don't know exactly what job it is you want, figure out what the fastest way to find this out is - it probably isn't going to school for years.

If you don't get job interviews (or even if you do), ask people for informational interviews. Ask your friends or acquaintances for introductions to the most relevant people you can find. Ask those people for a 30 minute phone call or coffee meeting. Ask them all the questions you're actually curious about.  "Based on my experience, does it look like I'd be qualified? If not, what would I have to do to be a good candidate?" Ask for feedback on your resumé. If you're not sure you want to work in this field, make a list of all the things that would persuade you one way or the other if you found out about them, and ask those questions. At the end of the interview, ask, "whom else should I talk to?" If they're doing X and you want to do related thing Y, ask whom they know who does or knows about Y. Finally, if you think you want a job in their field, ask, "Who do you know who's hiring?"

If you're trying to decide whether a company/job is a good fit for you, that's what the job application process is for. Make it clear what you're looking for in your cover letter. If not having X is a dealbreaker for you, mention that you're looking for X. This way you waste less of your and their time, and if it is the perfect job for you, they have some evidence that you're an unusually good fit. Go into the interview with a list of all your actual, genuine reservations about the job; that's what you should ask in the "any questions for me?" part.

To illustrate, here's the cover letter I sent to GiveWell:

Hi there!

I want to do the best thing to help the world, but need to be able to judge competing claims to even know which interventions do the most good, and which skills I need to contribute to them. GiveWell and GiveWell Labs are doing that kind of work - I want to get practice with this.

I don't know if the best thing is for me to work for GiveWell, volunteer, or something else, but I'd like to start the conversation.

Personally Working With GiveWell

I currently manage an analytics team at Fannie Mae, I've built predictive models, and done empirical research to identify credit and collateral value risk. I've presented work to senior management a few times, so I have experience communicating quantitative results in clear plain language too.

I haven't done much work on closely related problems to the ones GiveWell works on, but here's my first public attempt to get a handle on comparing the magnitude of existential risk with other problems one might want to solve.

My resume is attached.

DC EA Involvement

On a related note, Matt Dahlhausen, a member of the DC Effective Altruists group and an organizer of the Effective Altruism group at the University of Maryland, has expressed interest in a group project doing research for GiveWell.

I don't know if GiveWell has gone in for this sort of thing before, but it seems like it has two possible advantages. Free labor (disadvantage: possibly poor coordination and QC), but maybe more importantly, building connections with effective altruists in DC. I think a strong active group of DC effective altruists might be able to do a tremendous amount of good, and having a real project to work on would help with group cohesion. Please let me know if you're interested in pursuing this.

I'm in the San Francisco area over the next few days (leaving on the 16th)--I'd love to meet if this is convenient for you.

Ben Hoffman

The Art is Like a Well-Ordered Ship

The Art is like having a well-ordered ship. You need sailors who can row or adjust the sails, you need strong oars or sails, you need a captain who can direct the ship, a navigator who can orient yourself by the stars, a plan to get to your destination, and a sound hull.

If you lack any of these things, it will make it hard to get to your destination. So if trying to get somewhere can often look like trying to have an awesome ship.

If you just care about having an awesome ship, you might not get anywhere interesting. You might decide that it's cold night and your sails can be better used as extra bedsheets, and cut them up - or build a second story with the oars. You might decide that it's more fun to party than to row. You might even light the mast on fire so you can see better at night, for a bit. But in the end, you'll still be adrift at sea.

And yet, if you just focus on the destination, you may not do much either. If there's a leak in the hull, or the captain is too cruel or too lazy to command the sailors well, or the sailors don't do their work, or the sails are loose, or the navigator is ignored, or your maps are wrong, then just doing the same things harder to get to the destination faster won't work very well either. If you have a leak and you're miles from shore, don't just row faster or keep staring at the stars to figure out which way to go - repair the leak immediately!

The Art is to have a well-ordered ship because that's how you get to your destination. To understand how the order of your ship promotes this goal. To teach your navigator about the stars and correct your maps, to keep discipline among the crew, to tend to the body of the ship - and yet, to know that these things, and not others, are what makes a well-ordered ship, makes much more sense if you know what the ship is for.

This is partly stolen from Plato's Republic (archived here), partly inspired by a conversation with Brienne.

Say it wrong first

I used to believe that it was good to be smart, and the smart people were the ones who had great ideas. So I came up with some ideas, and then decided to believe in them very strongly, so that they would be great.

Later, I learned that believing strongly in big, bold ideas isn't so great when they're wrong. I noticed that the smartest people often considered and rejected many appealing ideas, and could explain why they were wrong. So I learned how to be very, very skeptical of ideas. I didn't have any big ones of my own, but I was sure that when I did, if it survived my own skepticism, it would be great.

Then I realized that in order to have great ideas, I needed to have any ideas - and that I could only make an idea better, if I knew what it was. My skepticism had taught me to throw away my ideas before they entered consciousness. So I learned how to entertain an idea before believing it, play with it, ask what about it wasn't quite right - and then try to mend its flaws instead of throwing it away.

The top six reasons why I am procrastinating

It’s helpful to know why I’m procrastinating. Sometimes the reason for procrastinating can be easily corrected. Probably the most well known version of this is not knowing what the next action is.

Here are some other things that I’ve noticed cause me to put off tasks I intended to do.

1) An inessential aspect of the task is aversive.

The Tale of the Egg Sandwich

One morning at work I had a craving for an egg sandwich from the fast food restaurant around the corner. I didn’t want to go get the sandwich because it would predictably cost me half an hour - maybe a lot more more if I started reading something there and didn’t feel like going back into the office which seemed likely based on the outside view. So I tried to diagnose what was wrong by dialoguing with the part of myself that wanted the sandwich.

Am I hungry? If I ate some peanuts, would it feel good to go back to work?
No, I still want to go get the egg sandwich.
Imagine that I snap my fingers, and magically, the egg sandwich appears in my hands. Would it feel good to go back to work after I ate it?
No, I want to GO GET the egg sandwich.
Huh, is that because it feels bad to stay here and work?
Would it feel good to do something else in the office, like look at Facebook, or write a blog post?
Would it feel good to read a book?
Huh, that’s surprising. I usually want to read a book. Would it feel good to go elsewhere and read a book?
Oh… So it feels bad to be in the office?
Because there are people around who might interrupt me and distract me.
Huh. Maybe getting out of the office is sufficient. If I walked over to the Ferry Building, bought a coffee, and sat at the table near Peet’s, would it feel good to work there?
OK, let’s go.

And I did, and got a three-hour work block done.

The Tale of the Shoes and the Headband

I used to procrastinate a lot in the mornings, before getting out of my apartment. I did a few mindful walkthrough of my morning routine, paying attention to the urge to do something other than get ready, and being curious about why. I realized that there were some concrete and avoidable things that I was flinching from. First, I didn’t want to shower. Part of that is unavoidable - I have to take off my glasses and hearing aids. But another thing I dislike is that after the shower, I get the floor wet, and water’s dripping down my face from my hair, which is a sensation I hate. So I resolved to towel myself off before walking onto the tile floor, and to get an athletic headband to catch water before it reached my face.

The other thing I hated was putting on my shoes, because it would remind me that a bunch of my shoes needed to be properly put away, and maybe even needed polishing. I organized the floor of my closet, and then it wasn’t painful to go get my shoes anymore.

2) My reward gradient is wrong

Even after I’d taken the little problems out of my morning, I found that it was sometimes unmotivating to get out of the apartment, just to get into the office and start doing some solitary work - or join a meeting that wasn’t going to be very fun. But what did sound like it might be good was meeting a friend for breakfast. So I asked a few friends whether they’d like to meet for breakfast before work. Some said yes, and I found that on the mornings when I had a breakfast scheduled, I’d not only be faster in getting out of the apartment, but go to sleep faster the night before so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss the appointment.

3) I do not know exactly what I am trying to do

Sometimes, when procrastinating on a writing task, I ask myself, “What does this have to communicate?”, and list out the things I need to say. Then once I have that list, I can just write sentences that do the bare minimum of saying what I want to say. Then it’s mostly written.

4) I am applying an inappropriate standard

I was procrastinating on writing an important email. I looked at the flinch and noticed that I was flinching from the possibility of sending an email that said the wrong thing, and damaging my relationship with the recipient in some way. So I decided that the task was not to write and send an email, but just to write it. I’d worry about whether it was OK to send after I’d written something. Framed this way, the action of writing the email no longer seemed likely to cause damage if I made a mistake, since I could just not sent it.
Then I wrote the email.
Then I looked at it.
It looked pretty good.
So I sent it.

I’ve also noticed myself reluctant to start writing fiction.

“Why don’t I want to write this?”
“Because it won’t be good.”
“I’m not asking you to write a good short story. I’m just asking you to write a short story at all.”
“Oh, I can do that!”

Then I put together the bare minimum that tells the story I want to tell, not worrying about how good it is - and get practice, and become better.

5) I am trying to do too many mutually exclusive things

When I was in DC trying to build up the Effective Altruism meetup group there, I had a bunch of plans for things to try - and noticed my motivation flagging after an initial burst of enthusiasm. When I turned my focus inwards and asked why, I got a clear unambiguous answer, straight from the gut:

“Because I can’t actually do all this.”
“How will these plans fail?"
“There’s not enough room in the day.”

So I prioritized, and instead of doing three projects with the DC EA group, I decided to prioritize one project and meetups - and actually executed my plans.

6) I believe that my plan will fail

I noticed that I was putting off completing this section because it overlapped strongly with another thing I'm writing, so I decided to publish this post without it.


Shortly after my grandmother's death, Leonard Nimoy offered to be the honorary grandfather of anyone who wanted. I took him up on the offer. It helped to have a grandparent again.

Sometimes the most amazing kindnesses are not the ones bought at great sacrifice, but the ones that cost little more than the work it took to become the sort of person who knows what will help.

The first Vulcan we met was a half-Vulcan. Spock was remarkable, not by mere privilege of who he was born as, but what he aspired to be. I remember him as someone who never accepted raw emotions as the answers, but held them in great awe as questions. Who could be relied on to master himself even in the most extreme and difficult circumstances, because of his powerful commitment to the good of the many. This one was called “unfeeling” and “cold,” and he embraced these words, but I saw someone who felt too deeply to function unless he learned to move against that powerful current.

I remember Spock as someone who stood by his friends, with the ferocity and dedication of someone who has decided with reason and emotion alike that a true friend is one of the few fully good things in this world, if you can find one - and who knew that, in their own way, Kirk and McCoy felt the same about him.

I remember Spock as someone who learned from his friends. As Ambassador Spock in The Next Generation, he took daring risks in the cause of reconciliation between Vulcans and Romulans. Risks that more resemble something his old friend Captain Kirk would have taken, that the Spock from The Original Series would have dismissed as illogically risky. Spock grew greater, wiser, more truly Vulcan and Human.

Leonard Nimoy both was and was not Spock. If we ever wake up from this terrible dream, where lives can blink out after a mere 83 years, we will have a Spock of sorts still with us, but Leonard Nimoy is yet one more person we will not have with us anymore. And Leonard Nimoy created Spock, shaped him to be the Spock we loved. Without a Leonard Nimoy to animate him, Spock will have nothing new to say, will not do anything surprising but yet essentially Spock-ish. So the living Spock is also lost to us forever.

Leonard Nimoy both was and was not Spock. I miss them both.