Everything You Want

I have decided that things are going to change. Obviously I can’t entirely drop my present habits, but I’m done with fooling around.

Several things have contributed to this:

  • Seeing someone’s particularly fit body (abs especially) at the party this weekend. He is so ripped, and it just looks like life. I want that.
  • Taking a happiness survey on Happify and realizing through answering the questions that I am not nearly as happy as my mean happiness for the past several years.
  • Realizing I have a general frustration with my own present default states of being, largely through conversations with Kenzi about our interactions

So. What does that yield? Watching this body move and wanting my own body to look like that (~again) made me reflect on the nature of wanting. As it turns out, you can’t get everything you want. This is obvious in cases like “I want to be in Canada right now” and “I want to be in San Francisco right now”. However, I had been allowing myself to believe that somehow “I want to be able to eat whatever I feel like (where ‘whatever I feel like’ includes tons of junk food)” is compatible with “I want to lose a bit of weight, put on some muscle, and generally be healthy”. Upon reflection, this appears not to be the case. I think this is a breakthrough of sorts.

Much more generally than diet and physique, I think I’ve been (not quite this explicitly) thinking that “I want to do what feels fun/appealing in the moment, including following various dopamine surges” and “I want to achieve my medium-term and long-term goals” are compatible. Hell, that first one isn’t even compatible with “I want to get to bed at a predetermined time, ever”. Upon reflection, it’s very clear that the want of impulses is not the one I care about, yeah

What am I going to do about it?

[ Brief interruption while I take a pomodoro break
and go for a beeminded 600m barefoot run. ]

One thought that came to mind right now is to have a morning reflection period where I review my long term goals and affirm to myself how my actions today will advance them. This could be a decent time for the alternate-paths part of goal factoring too. Although I think I want to keep it super short, at least to start. My experiences around designing new habits and getting bogged down in wanting to get the details perfect suggests it could be valuable to create a little procedure for myself for designing and implementing new habits.

I wrote most of the above text on Sunday (edited a bit for this post) and since then I’ve indeed done this reflection each morning. It seems to have been an awesome action to choose as it has had substantial ripple effects on my other habits as well. For the past few weeks, I’d been gradually slipping behind at my Bees (Beeminder, mentioned in the run block above, is a service that lets you track your progress on your goals, and stings you (with a credit card charge) if you don’t make sufficient progress). Earlier this week, I had about 6 or 7 goals that were going to derail that evening if I didn’t do them. Not only did I do them, but I’m now ahead on most of my Beeminder goals, with 1-5 days of buffer!

12 charts indicating my beeminder process. The colours show that I've got several days to spare on all but 3 of my goals.

As of writing this post. Click through for live data!

I’m sleeping better, waking up feeling more motivated, and my days have more interesting things in them. I haven’t quite shifted all of my impulses and habits while at my computer, meaning I’ve not actually completed everything I set out to do every morning. I have, however, done substantially better than if I hadn’t noted it (on my phone) or thought explicitly about it at all. I keep my goals numbered so that it’s immediately evident in any review if one has been missed. Now I’m checking twice a day. In reality, with 5 goals, it probably makes sense to give 1 mostly-a-break on any given day. So maybe to do some tiny little action toward it, but nothing huge. With my work-goal, I get weekends off.

Given that I’m biting off more than I can chew at this point, I think this would be an effective way to scale back and focus. I expect it to also slightly renew my vigour when I return to the goal then next day. At any rate, my sense of purpose has already improved so dramatically this week that I think this can be considered a success. The paradox of sorts is that working towards my goals is so much more enriching and rewarding than dopamine hits from skimming Facebook*. So I’m experiencing pleasure while I do things, which is mutually reinforcing with the alignment between my urges and goals. So in a way, I am getting everything I want. But it required being open to the reality that that doesn’t happen automatically.

*or any dopamine hits, for that matter. Dopamine is the lust neurotransmitter, not the pleasure one, and it mostly makes you want stuff.

12 Thoughts on Age, Growing Up and Birthdays

Happy birthday to me. As a Canadian, one of the joys of living in San Francisco during the few months around my 21st birthday has been getting to turn legal twice. Not that I really care. Relevant thoughts:

1. I don’t feel 21.

I don’t really feel any age. Before telling people my age, I usually get them to guess, and the typical answer is about 25. Since many of my peers/friends are 25 or older I don’t mind this, and projecting as older probably helps me gain some respect. I know some people who feel like they’re a certain age, whether older, younger, or equal to their actual age, but age just feels really arbitrary to me.

2. I used to think that age-closeness was important for relating to people.

I no longer think that. Probably since I’ve had some friends who are much older than me (in one case half a century) and I’ve started interacting a lot more with mixed-age groups. Also flirting.

The other half of this is that I’ve realized that I sometimes have difficulty relating to some people who are my age.

3. I sometimes still get surprised that I’m a responsible adult.

I periodically feel impressed with myself when I’m able to do things like navigate airports between countries, or have a job, or maintain a schedule that involves meeting people for coffee. I’m not sure why these things make me feel like this, since they aren’t actually that complicated compared to e.g. multivariable calculus. Or empathy.

4. I don’t learn as much as I think I’m going to learn.

I find myself often thinking “Wow, this will change my life!” or thinking that an idea has profoundly affected the way I think. This causes me to look back at musings of past-me and be astonished with how much I knew so long ago… since I assume that I’ve learned so many important things this past year, clearly I was an ignorant fool a year ago. Except apparently not.

5. I learn more than I feel I’m learning.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just going through motions and chasing ideas and emptying my email inbox, but then I’ll be talking to someone who hasn’t had the same experiences I’ve had and they’ll practically start taking notes. At this point, I realize that I’ve actually synthesized a lot of interesting stuff during this time.

6. It’s often not obvious which new things are really going to stick.

This point is essentially the net point of the previous two. This realization emerged from my spreadsheet of all the books I’ve read since summer ’11. I looked back at my notes on some of Seth Godin’s books and the notes suggested my life had been profoundly changed by reading them. Months later, I barely remember what Poke the Box is about. These books inspired me, but didn’t actually change my behaviour or even my thought patterns.

7. How I feel about myself is independent of what I’ve learned.

Sort of. It’s related, but they’re not the same. I seem to feel mostly the same about myself regardless of the facts in my head. Even when I learn new models or frameworks, or ways of approaching things, they rarely have a substantial effect on my self-conception. The main things that do are ones that actually relate to relating. Any time I feel like I’ve learned to connect with people better I expand my comfort zone in certain situations and this is a really good feeling.

8. Awkwardness isn’t necessary.

I’ve recently been realizing that awkwardness often arises from the feeling that something is supposed to be awkward. If you give up the assumption that an experience or interaction will be awkward, often it simply isn’t. Often it’s just fun, or pleasant, or profound instead.

9. Time is arbitrary.

There are a lot of factors that affect the sensation of the passage of time. The main one for me is tiredness. Time passes much faster late at night. I’d like to figure out ways to hack this so that I can experience more.

Something similar happens on a days-months scale too: the experience of yesterday feeling like last week but months ago feeling like yesterday. My current theory is that doing lots of interesting (and varied) things makes time feel like it’s passing quickly because there’s always something going on, but when you look back things are stretched out forever because there are so many details.

10. Age is arbitrary.

People all age at a rate of 60 seconds per minute, but the variance in amount and type of experiences is so broad that age makes a very poor proxy for what someone is like. I mean, guess it’s the best one we have, but like, some people could be safely drinking at age 16 (not too much, of course) whereas others can’t even in adulthood. But anyway…

11. Alcohol is overrated.

Now, when I’m drinking, I tend to think alcohol is underrated, but I trust sober!me’s opinion more. People make a really big deal about it but for me these months of being 20 in the USA have been more annoying for lack-of-ability-to-go-dancing than lack-of-ethanol-in-my-bloodstream. In fact, I’d consider going off alcohol entirely if that wouldn’t seriously restrict my drink options. I like to try new things, and most drinks appear to be booze.

12. Promises to yourself are complicated.

One night, when I was 15, I made a vow to myself that I would never do “drugs”. I clarified at the time that this didn’t include alcohol or caffeine, but implicitly included pretty much everything else except prescription drugs or the odd painkiller. My main reasoning was that I, at the time, felt infinitely happy. That is, I didn’t feel like I could possibly feel happier, and therefore there was no need to pursue artificial highs.

For years, this has given me an easy way to refuse an offered smoke of any kind, but I’ve lately come to realize that the original argument doesn’t apply to some places where I’m applying the rule. Nootropics are the main thing in this category. I have other reasons to be wary of them, but nonetheless, I’m realizing that my cached response (“no drugs!”) is not quite sufficient. That’s a much bigger topic… I just wanted to note how it’s both hard and easy to justify breaking a promise to yourself.


I had originally intended to write 21 thoughts, but this prompt only produced 12. Oh well, it’s the same digits. I won’t be able to cheat next year 😉

Oh, bonus thought:

This is the first time in a few years that I’ve set my birthday to public on Facebook. I might decide to have another one in a few months, just for fun.

The Meta-Application of Rationality

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of being able to attend an Applied Rationality workshop held in Berkeley, CA. I can say without a doubt that it has had a serious effect on the trajectory of my life. I want to talk briefly about this more specifically. I do have much more to say about the workshop when I get a chance, and I’d love to talk about it either privately or in the comments.

So, my life’s trajectory: those familiar with calculus will understand the following in terms of derivatives, but I’m going to use the analogy of a moving vehicle. If you want to describe the vehicle, you can talk about several things. The most obvious (and most immediately useful) is “where is it?” which often called displacement. The next most obvious/useful is “how fast is it going and in which direction?” also known as the car’s velocity. But, unless a wall or gas shortage stops the car before the relevant moment, the most useful thing to know about a car is how far down the gas pedal or brake is. This is the acceleration and ultimately it will tell you a lot more about how far the car will have gone by tomorrow than the velocity or displacement. You need to know roughly where the car was and how fast it started, but smaller changes in acceleration are much more important.

At the rationality workshop, I learned some things that definitely took me beyond where I’d been before (displacement / location). While at the workshop, I was definitely growing faster than usual, but right now I might be slower than usual as I focus on consolidating everything. Here’s why I’m not worried: what I definitely increased was my ability and propensity to assess how fast I’m going and to go faster still. Have a look at the chart to the right:

A chart demonstrating how much faster an exponential function increases than either a linear or polynomial function

Ideally, you want to be the yellow line on top.

Accelerating returns

It should be clear that the yellow line on the top is increasing much faster than the others. It begins just as slow, but because it’s not only getting faster but getting faster faster, it quickly takes the lead. This is the model I’m adopting. Short-term, it’s fine if my displacement and velocity are taking a hit. In the long run, by getting better at getting better (by applying my rationality skills to becoming even more rational) I can easily overtake my hypothetical other-self and never look back.

However, I’d like to think that I haven’t just increased my acceleration but that I’m increasing the rate at which I’m increasing my acceleration, and increasing that rate as well, and so on indefinitely. This resembles an exponential function, which is shown by the yellow line above. If I were just accelerating at a constant rate, I’d be the red line in the middle, and if I were just holding steady at a certain speed I’d be the shallow blue line. One fascinating principal is that no matter how many layers you do this acceleration like xbigNumber, the exponential curve always has more. That means that if I were to ask “who will win the race?” between x1234567890 and ex, then ex will always win as time goes on. I plan to do the same.


How am I going to do this? I have some general thoughts on this which involve developing personal scaffolds that will make it easier to install what I learned at the workshop as habits, but I’ve modified my environment as well. Or rather, I’ve decided to put myself into a different environment. I’m working at a software startup in San Francisco right now, but rather than live in SF I’ve decided to spend the next 3 months living in Berkeley. This will make me much more likely to attend various free training events held by CFAR (the Center for Applied Rationality, who ran this workshop) and will also make it easier for me to hang out with some of the people I met at the workshop, encouraging me to focus on these various aspects of my life. By investing the time and effort now to make my next 3 months more fruitful, I hope to ultimately set up self-reflection habits that are exponentially powerful. I’m not sure how I’d tell success from a close approximation, but honestly I think that if I get the first 5 or so layers than there really isn’t much to be gained at that stage.

I was surprised by the variety of rational techniques that were relevant to my decision to live in Berkeley rather than SF. They included not only a substantial consideration of my preferences and goals, but also a recognition of how I’m not as rational as I’d hypothetically like to be, and therefore I can predict that if I’m living in SF I won’t go to as much CFAR stuff. Similarly, while I might generally enjoy not having a 1h-each-way bus commute, I expect to be able to devote a lot of that time to this work, where previously I felt like there was a bit of imbalance such that most of my waking hours were directed towards working on things for the company I’m at. Then, when deciding if I wanted to accept a certain sublet option, I also weighed factors like, “how much more valuable of a place do I expect to get by waiting / more effort, and is it worth it?” I decided it wasn’t, so I accepted. Personal happiness is hard to judge, but we do our best.

One could also consider a function of personal utility. Again, I expect to slow down briefly but ultimately go so much faster/further. This is fairly easy to measure but very hard to judge cross-domain.

What’s a moment that not just changed your life, but changed how you approach it?

Dear Amazon

This arrived in my inbox this morning:

A screenshot of an email from Amazon.ca suggesting for some strange reason that I should buy power tools for my father.

Seriously? Fatherhood is more meaningful than power tools...

Dear Amazon,

In general, I don’t mind getting deals and recommendations emails from you, because you know my shopping history and my wish list and so you can easily present me with more interesting books than I have time to read. Having too many books is a problem, but it’s my problem and it’s a good problem to have.

However, can you stop sending me arbitrary gender-normative ones for father’s day and mother’s day? You really know nothing about my parents, so unlike the emails targeted at me, these ones are just annoying, boring, and irrelevant.

Thanks for listening and have a fantastic day!


(I sent them such an email, but got a reply saying “This is an automated response, but it contains information that should help answer your questions.” Obviously, it did not address my concerns. More about this in a later post.)

Hello world!

Hey everybody!

I have a new blog. If you were hoping this blog would actually have content on it, because you really enjoy my rants and ideas and so on, you can check out my old blog, Obfuscatism. To be quite honest, this blog may well end up being full of similar rants, but I recently purchased this domain name and wanted to start over.

Here goes.


PS: to anyone who is here to follow my Uberman journey, the next post will be about that.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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