How to Become a 1000 Year Old Vampire

This is based on a con­cept we de­vel­oped at the Van­cou­ver Ra­tion­al­ists meetup.

Differ­ent ex­pe­riences level a per­son up at differ­ent rates. You could work some bor­ing job all your life and be 60 and not be much more awe­some than your av­er­age teenager. On the other hand, some peo­ple have such varied and so much life ex­pe­rience that by 30 they are as awe­some as a 1000 year old vam­pire.

This re­minds me that it’s pos­si­ble to con­duct your life with more or less effi­ciency, some­times by or­ders of mag­ni­tude. Fur­ther, while we don’t have ac­tual life ex­ten­sion, it’s con­tent we care about, not run time. If you can change your habits such that you get 3 times as much done, that’s like tripling your effec­tive lifes­pan.

So how might one get a 100x speedup and be­come like a 1000 year old vam­pire in 10 years? This is ab­surdly am­bi­tious, but we can try:

Do Hard Things

Some ex­pe­riences cat­a­pult you for­ward in per­sonal de­vel­op­ment. You can prob­a­bly sys­tem­at­i­cally col­lect these to build formidabil­ity as fast as pos­si­ble.

Paul Gra­ham says that many of the founders he sees (as head of YC) be­come much more awe­some very quickly as need forces them to. This seems plau­si­ble and it seems back up by other sources as well. Ba­si­cally “learn to swim by jump­ing in the deep end”; peo­ple have a ten­dency to take the easy way that re­sults in less de­vel­op­ment when given the chance, so the chance to slack off be­ing re­moved can be benefi­cial.

That has definitely been my per­sonal ex­pe­rience as well. At work, the head en­g­ineer got brain can­cer and I got de-facto pro­moted to head of two of the pro­jects, which I then lev­eled up to be able to do. It felt pretty scary at first, but now I’m bored and wish­ing some­thing fur­ther would challenge me. (ad­den­dum: not bored right now at all; crazy crunch time for the other team, which which I am helping) It seems re­ally hard to just do bet­ter with­out such forc­ing; as far as I can tell I could work much harder than now, but willpower ba­si­cally doesn’t ex­ist so I don’t.

On that note, a friend of mine got big re­sults from join­ing the Army and get­ting tear gassed in a trench while wet, cold, ex­hausted, sleep de­prived, and hun­gry, which pushed him through stuff he wouldn’t have thought he could deal with. Ap­par­ently it sortof re-cal­ibrated his feel­ings about how well he should be do­ing and how hard things are such that he is now a mil­lion­aire and awe­some.

So the mechanism be­hind a lot of this seems to be re­cal­ibrat­ing what seems hard or scary or be­yond your nor­mal sphere. I used to be afraid of phone calls and do­ing weird stuff like climb­ing trees in front of strangers, but not so much any­more; it feels like I just for­get that they were scary. In the case of the phone there were a few times where I didn’t have time to be scared, I needed to just get things done. In the case of climb­ing trees, I did it on my own enough for it to be­come nor­mal­ized so that it didn’t even come up that peo­ple would see me, be­cause it didn’t seem weird.

So ty­ing that back in, there are ex­pe­riences that you can put your­self into to force that nor­mal­iza­tion and ac­clima­ti­za­tion to hard stuff. For ex­am­ple, some peo­ple do this thing called “Re­jec­tion Ther­apy” or “Com­fort Zone Ex­pan­sion”, ba­si­cally go­ing out and do­ing em­bar­rass­ing or scary things de­liber­ately to re­cal­ibrate your in­tu­itions and teach your brain that they are not so scary.

On the failure end, self-im­prove­ment pro­jects tend to fail when they re­quire con­stant ap­pli­ca­tion of willpower. It’s just a fact that you will fall off the wagon on those things. So you have to make it im­pos­si­ble to fall off the wagon. You have to make it scarier to fall off the wagon than it is to level up and just do it. This is the idea be­hind Bee­minder, which takes your money if you don’t do what your last-week self said you would.

I guess the the­sis be­hind all this is that these level-ups are per­ma­nent, in that they make you more like a 1000 year old vam­pire, and you don’t just go back to be­ing your bor­ing old mor­tal self. If this is true, the im­pli­ca­tion that you should seek out hard stuff seems pretty in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant.

Broad­ness of Experience

Think of a 1000 year old vam­pire; they would have done ev­ery­thing. Fought in bat­tles, led armies, built great works, been in love, been ev­ery­where, ob­served most as­pects of the hu­man ex­pe­rience, and gen­er­ally seen it all.

Things you can do have sharply diminish­ing re­turns; the first few times you watch great movies is most of the benefit thereof, like­wise with video games, 4chan, most jobs, and most ex­pe­riences in gen­eral. Thus it’s re­ally im­por­tant to switch around the things you do a lot so that you stay in that sharp ini­tially grow­ing part of the learn­ing curve. You can get 90% of the vam­pire’s ex­pe­rience with 10% of his time in­vest­ment if you fo­cus on those most en­light­en­ing parts of each ex­pe­rience.

So be­sides do­ing hard things that level you up, you can get big gains by do­ing many things and switch­ing as soon as you get bored (which is hope­fully cal­ibrated to how challenged you are).

You may re­mem­ber early in the Ara­bian rev­olu­tions in Libya, an Amer­i­can stu­dent took the sum­mer off col­lege to fight in the rev­olu­tion. I bet he learned a lot. If you could do enough things like that, you’d be well on your way to match­ing the vam­pire.

This ac­tu­ally goes hand in hand with do­ing hard things; when you’re not feel­ing challenged (you’re on the flat part of that ex­pe­rience curve), its prob­a­bly best to throw your­self face first into some new pro­ject, both be­cause it’s new, and be­cause it’s hard.

Switch­ing of­ten has the ad­di­tional benefit of nor­mal­iz­ing strate­gic changes and prac­tic­ing “what should I be do­ing”-type thoughts, which can’t hurt if you in­tend to ac­tu­ally do use­ful stuff with your life.

There are prob­a­bly many cases where full on switch­ing is not best. For ex­am­ple, you don’t be­come an ex­pert in X by switch­ing out of X as soon as you know the ba­sics. It might be that you want to switch of­ten on side-things but go deep on X. Alter­na­tively, you prob­a­bly want to do some kind of switch ev­ery now and then in X, maybe look at things from a differ­ent per­spec­tive, tackle a differ­ent prob­lem, or some­thing like that. This is the De­liber­ate Prac­tice the­ory of ex­per­tise.

So don’t for­get the shape of that ex­pe­rience curve. As soon as you start to feel that lev­el­ing off, find a way to make it fresh again.

Do Things Quickly

Another big an­gle on this idea is that ev­ery hour is an op­por­tu­nity, and you want to make the best of them. This seems to­tally ob­vi­ous but I definitely “get it” a lot more hav­ing thought about it in terms of be­com­ing a 1000 year old vam­pire.

A big ex­am­ple is pro­cras­ti­na­tion. I have a lot of things that have been hang­ing around on my todo list for a long time, ba­si­cally op­press­ing me by their pres­ence. I can’t re­lax and look to new things to do while there’s still that one stupid thing on my todo list. The key in­sight is that if you pro­cess the stuff on your todo list now in­stead of slack­ing now and do­ing it later, you get it out of the way and then you can do some­thing else later, and thereby be­come a 1000 year old vam­pire faster.

So a friend and I have in­ter­nal­ized this a bit more and started re­ally notic­ing those op­por­tu­nity costs, and ac­tu­ally started knock­ing things off faster. I’m sure there’s more where that came from; we are nowhere near op­ti­mal in Do­ing It Now, so it’s prob­a­bly good to med­i­tate on this more.

As a con­crete ex­am­ple, I’m writ­ing tonight be­cause I re­al­ized that I need to just get all my writ­ing ideas out of the way to make room for more awe­some­ness.

The flip­side of this idea is that a lot of things are com­plete wastes of time, in the sense that they just burn up lifes­pan and don’t get you any­thing, or even weaken you.

Bad habits like read­ing crap on the In­ter­net, watch­ing TV, watch­ing porn, play­ing video games, sleep­ing in, and so on are ob­vi­ous losses. It’s re­ally hard to in­ter­nal­ize that, but this 1000-year-old-vam­pire con­cept has been helpful for me by mak­ing the mag­ni­tude of the cost more salient. Do you want to wake up when you’re 30 and re­al­ize you wasted your youth on mean­ingless crap, or do you want to get off your ass and write that thing you’ve been mean­ing to right now, and be a fsck­ing vam­pire in 10 years?

It’s not just bad habits, though; a lot of it is your broader po­si­tion in life that wastes time or doesn’t. For ex­am­ple, repet­i­tive wage work that doesn’t challenge you is re­ally just trad­ing a huge chunk of your life for not even much money. Ob­vi­ously some­times you have to, but you have to re­al­ize that trad­ing away half your life is a pretty raw deal that is to be avoided. You don’t even re­ally get any­thing for com­mut­ing and house­work. Maybe I re­ally should quit my job soon...

I have 168 hours a week, of which only 110 are fea­si­ble to use (sleep), and by the time we in­clude all the chores, wage-work, bad habits, and pro­cras­ti­na­tion, I prob­a­bly only live 30 hours a week. That’s bul­lshit; three quar­ters of my life pissed away. I could live four times as much if I could cut out that stuff.

So this is just the con­cept of time op­por­tu­nity costs dressed up to be more salient. Ba­sic eco­nomics con­cepts seem re­ally quite valuable in this way.

Do it now so you can do some­thing else later. Avoid crap work.

So­cial En­vi­ron­ment and Stimulation

I no­tice that I’m most al­ive and do my best in­tel­lec­tual work when talk­ing to other peo­ple who are smart and in­ter­ested in hav­ing deep tech­ni­cal con­ver­sa­tions. Other things like cer­tain pat­terns of time pres­sure cre­ate this effect where I work many times harder and more effec­tively than oth­er­wise. A great ex­am­ple is tech­ni­cal ex­ams; I can blast out an­swers to hun­dreds of tech­ni­cal ques­tions at quite a rate.

It seems like a good idea to in­duce this state where you are more al­ive (is it the “flow” state?) if you want to live more life. It also seems to­tally pos­si­ble to do so more of­ten by hang­ing out with the right peo­ple and ex­pos­ing your­self to the right work­ing con­di­tions and what­not.

One thing that will come up is that it’s quite drain­ing, in that I some­times feel ex­hausted and can’t get much done af­ter a day of more in­tense work. Is this a real thing? Prob­a­bly. Still, I’m nowhere near the limit even given the need to rest, in gen­eral.

I ought to do some re­search to learn more about this. If it’s con­nected to “flow”, there’s been a lot of re­search, AFAIK.

I also ought to just hurry up and move to Cal­ifor­nia where there is a proper in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity that will stim­u­late me much bet­ter than the mea­ger group of brains I could scrape to­gether in Van­cou­ver.

The other benefit of a good in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity is that they can in­cen­tivize do­ing cooler things. When all your friends are start­ing com­pa­nies or oth­er­wise do­ing great work, sit­ting around on the couch feels like a re­ally bad idea.

So if we want to live more life, find­ing more ways to en­ter that stim­u­lated flow state seems like a pru­dent thing to do, whether that means just mak­ing way for it in your work habits, putting your­self in more challeng­ing so­cial and in­tel­lec­tual en­vi­ron­ments, or what­ever.

Ad­ding It Up

So how fast can we go over­all if we do all of this?

By seek­ing many new ex­pe­riences to keep learn­ing, I think we can plau­si­bly get 10x speedup over what you might do by de­fault. Ob­vi­ously this can be more or less, based on cir­cum­stances and things I’m not think­ing of.

On top of that, it seems like I could do 4x as much by main­tain­ing a habit of do­ing it now and avoid­ing crap work. How to do this, I don’t know, but it’s pos­si­ble.

I don’t know how to es­ti­mate the ac­tual gains from a stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ment. It seems like it could be re­ally re­ally high, or just an­other in­cre­men­tal gain in effi­ciency, de­pend­ing how it goes down. Let’s say that on top of the other things, we can re­al­is­ti­cally push our­selves 2x or 3x harder by so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal effects.

Do­ing hard things seems huge, but also quite re­lated to the do­ing new things an­gle that we already ac­counted for. So ex­plic­itly re­mem­ber­ing to do hard things on top of that? Maybe 5x? This again will vary a lot based on what op­por­tu­ni­ties you are able to find, and un­known fac­tors, but 5x seems safe enough given mor­tal lev­els of in­ge­nu­ity and willpower.

So all to­gether, some­one who:

  • Often thinks about where they are on the ex­pe­rience curve for ev­ery­thing they do, and takes ac­tion on that when ap­pro­pri­ate,

  • Main­tains a habit of do­ing stuff now and vi­su­al­iz­ing those op­por­tu­nity costs,

  • Puts them­selves in a stim­u­lat­ing en­vi­ron­ment like the bay area in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­nity and sur­rounds them­selves with stim­u­lat­ing peo­ple and events,

  • Seeks out the hard­est char­ac­ter-build­ing ex­pe­riences like get­ting tear gassed in a trench or build­ing a com­pany from scratch,

Can plau­si­bly get 500x speedup and live 1000 nor­mal years in 2. That seems pretty wild, but none of these things are par­tic­u­larly out there, and peo­ple like Elon Musk or Eliezer Yud­kowsky do seem to do around that mag­ni­tude more than the av­er­age joe.

Per­haps they don’t mul­ti­ply quite that con­ve­niently, or there’s some other gotcha, but the tar­get seems reach­able, and these things will help. On the other hand, they al­most cer­tainly self-re­in­force; a 1000 year old vam­pire would have mas­tered the art of liv­ing life life at ever higher effi­cien­cies.

This does seem to be con­gru­ent with all this stuff be­ing power-law dis­tributed, which of course makes it difficult to sum­ma­rize by a sin­gle num­ber like 500.

The fi­nal ques­tion of course is what real speedup we can ex­pect you or I to gain from writ­ing or read­ing this. Get­ting more than 2 or 3 times by hav­ing a low-level in­sight or read­ing a blog post seems stretch­ing of the imag­i­na­tion, never mind 500 times. But still, power laws hap­pen. There’s prob­a­bly mas­sive pay­off to tak­ing this idea se­ri­ously.