Seven habits towards highly effective minds

Link post

Lately I’ve been think­ing about how my think­ing works, and how it can be im­proved. The sim­plest way to do so is prob­a­bly to nudge my­self to­wards pay­ing more at­ten­tion to var­i­ous use­ful habits of mind. Here are the ones I’ve found most valuable (roughly in or­der):

  1. Ty­ing to­gether the act of say­ing a state­ment, and the act of eval­u­at­ing whether I ac­tu­ally be­lieve it. After mak­ing a novel claim, say­ing out loud to my­self: “is this ac­tu­ally true?” ” and “how could I test this?”

  2. Be­ing com­fortable with paus­ing to re­flect and think­ing out loud. Try­ing to no­tice when my re­sponses are too quick and re­flex­ive, as a sign that I’m not think­ing hard enough about the point I’m ad­dress­ing.

  3. Ask­ing for spe­cific ex­am­ples, and us­ing more of my own. Ta­boo­ing vague ab­strac­tions and mov­ing away from dis­cussing claims that are too gen­eral.

  4. Be­ing char­i­ta­ble and col­lab­o­ra­tive, both to­wards new ideas and to­wards con­ver­sa­tional part­ners. Try­ing to rephrase other peo­ple’s ar­gu­ments and pass Ide­olog­i­cal Tur­ing Tests on them. Helping my con­ver­sa­tional part­ners build up their ideas.

  5. Notic­ing the af­fect heuris­tic, and which claims stir up emo­tions. Notic­ing when I’m talk­ing defen­sively or heat­edly, and when it’d be un­com­fortable to be­lieve some­thing.

  6. Think­ing in terms of prob­a­bil­ities; cash­ing out be­liefs in terms of pre­dic­tions; then bet­ting on them. I haven’t done enough bets to cal­ibrate my­self well, but I find that even just the feel­ing of hav­ing money on the line is of­ten enough to make me re­think. Be­ing asked whether some­thing is a crux gives me a similar feel­ing.

  7. Think­ing about how the con­ver­sa­tions and de­bates I par­ti­ci­pate in ac­tu­ally cre­ate value, and when they should be redi­rected or halted.

Then there are so­cial in­fluences. I think one of the great­est virtues of the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity is in cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment which en­courages the use of the tools above. Another ex­am­ple: my girlfriend fairly reg­u­larly points out times when I’ve con­tra­dicted my­self. I think this has helped me no­tice and limit the ex­tent to which I be­have like an opinion con­fab­u­la­tion ma­chine.

I’d clas­sify most if not all of the tools listed above as tools for eval­u­at­ing ideas, though, rather than tools for gen­er­at­ing ideas. What helps with the lat­ter? I’ve per­son­ally found that one very use­ful strat­egy is to make and then jus­tify bold claims based on vague in­tu­itions. In the pro­cess of defend­ing my po­si­tion, I’m forced to ac­tu­ally flesh it out and make it co­her­ent (al­though I do need to be care­ful not to be­come overly at­tached to the un­true parts). And what’s helped the most is that af­ter hav­ing in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions, I now write posts in­spired by them much more fre­quently. I of­ten feel like Feyn­man in this story: “When his­to­rian Charles Weiner found pages of No­bel Prize-win­ning physi­cist Richard Feyn­man’s notes, he saw it as a “record” of Feyn­man’s work. Feyn­man him­self, how­ever, in­sisted that the notes were not a record but the work it­self.” Ar­gu­ing and writ­ing are not just ways to trans­mit my thoughts, but also the key mechanisms by which I gen­er­ate new thoughts.

(Edited to add: a friend pointed out that the last line is a good in­di­ca­tor that I’m be­ing in­suffi­ciently em­piri­cal. I think I agree; it should also in­clude the mechanism of look­ing at the world and notic­ing some­thing con­fus­ing go­ing on.)