Strategies of Personal Growth

Re­cently I was hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend about per­sonal growth (any form of de­liber­ate gain in ca­pa­bil­ity or sub­jec­tive wellbe­ing).

We were talk­ing past each other a lot. Even­tu­ally it be­came clear that most of their re­cent growth had been heal­ing and blocker-fix­ing based, whereas most of mine had been skill based. And this was shap­ing where we were nat­u­rally in­clined to look.

This prompted me to take stock of all the strate­gies I could think of for growth. Here’s what I’ve thought of so far. Th­ese aren’t quite nat­u­ral clusters (some over­lap, or don’t quite fit into the same on­tol­ogy), but seem like they cover most av­enues:

  • Low-Key Practice

  • Se­ri­ous Practice

  • Learning

  • Chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment and incentives

  • Dis­cov­er­ing things you en­joy/​are-good-at (Try things!)

  • Block­ers and Cheat Codes

  • Healing

  • Deep Im­prove­ments to Men­tal Ar­chi­tec­ture (In­ter­nal Align­ment)

This is some­what re­lated to Lifelon­glearner’s Devel­op­ment Frame­work of Ra­tion­al­ity, and Brienne’s 4 quad­rants, but through a some­what differ­ent lens.

Overview of Strategies

Low-Key Practice

Work­ing on a skill or habit you mostly un­der­stand, oc­ca­sion­ally, in the back­ground. Typ­i­cally yields a pretty small re­turn (but one which adds up over the years, es­pe­cially if you do it con­sis­tently).

Se­ri­ous Practice

Work­ing on a skill with your all – spend­ing hour(s) each day on it. This can yield more re­turn but is re­quires more cog­ni­tive fo­cus and en­ergy. This seems qual­i­ta­tively differ­ent from low-key prac­tice.

Some­times this is De­liber­ate Prac­tice in the tech­ni­cal sense (quick feed­back loops, build­ing men­tal mod­els that your brain can cache into chunks), but not always.

Learning

Some­times you’re learn­ing new in­for­ma­tion, that is able to rapidly turn into a skill at a much faster rate than nor­mal. You could try to learn math/​vi­o­lin/​pro­gram­ming from first prin­ci­ples and prac­tice, but a tu­to­rial or a teacher who has care­fully op­ti­mized their ex­pla­na­tions can quickly give you en­tire new skills in a short times­pan.

(Mak­ing the best use of them may re­quire prac­tice as well, but dur­ing the ini­tial learn­ing pe­riod you may be gain­ing huge re­turns)

Chang­ing Your En­vi­ron­ment and/​or Incentives

The fastest route I’ve per­son­ally found to over­all self im­prove­ment is chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment – a new job, a new apart­ment, a new so­cial net­work. Th­ese can rad­i­cally change how you feel about your­self, or what is easy, or what be­hav­iors are re­in­forced.

I know mul­ti­ple peo­ple who had trou­ble fo­cus­ing at work, got a job that they ac­tu­ally cared about, or which re­quired the skills they en­joyed most, or had cowork­ers that pro­vided sub­tle re­in­force­ment in the right di­rec­tions.

I briefly lived in an apart­ment build­ing with a gym, and I found it way eas­ier to ex­er­cise there than I did at other places. (Even homes where I got some ex­er­cise equip­ment)

It’s pos­si­bly to re­shape your en­vi­ron­ment on pur­pose (which I think yields im­prove­ment roughly on par with mod­er­ate skill prac­tice), but the most pow­er­ful re­turns here have been sort of ran­dom and hard to con­trol in my ex­pe­rience.

Dis­cov­er­ing Some­thing You En­joy or are Well Suited For (Try Things)

Peo­ple vary how much cer­tain skills and ac­tivi­ties res­onate with them, and how fast they can im­prove. If you find some­thing you re­ally en­joy, you may be much more able to put in the hours to prac­tice it, or you may gain skill much more rapidly than other other peo­ple.

I have a friend who would never have pre­dicted they’d be good at danc­ing a pri­ori, but who tried it on a whim and it was amaz­ing and changed both their phys­i­cal well be­ing and so­cial life.

Block­ers/​Cheat Codes

Sim­ple things, that if you only knew to do them, would rad­i­cally change your qual­ity of life or ca­pa­bil­ities.

Some­times there’s a con­crete thing block­ing you:

  • You’re not get­ting the right nu­tri­tion (or con­sum­ing food you’re aller­gic to with­out re­al­iz­ing it).

  • You turned out to be an ex­tro­vert (while think­ing you were an in­tro­vert be­cause you fit some stereo­types), and sim­ply both­er­ing to get more so­cial­iza­tion has a huge im­pact on your mood.

  • You were sick, or de­pressed, and tak­ing some pills each day rad­i­cally changes your ca­pa­bil­ities.

Some­times you’re able to find a cheat code – in­stead of painstak­ingly diet­ing for months with lit­tle benefit, it turns out keto works well for your bio­chem­istry. You’re ad­dicted to the in­ter­net, and you find out about SelfCon­trol or Free­dom.

Healing

This is sort of the in­ter­sec­tion of “re­al­iz­ing you have a blocker”, but where re­mov­ing the blocker re­quires effort, skill or just time, rather than an im­me­di­ate “oh, I just need to do X differ­ently.”

  • Maybe you have trauma.

  • Maybe you have some deep seated sense of “I’m not al­lowed to want X”, and un­rav­el­ling that sense of not-al­lowed re­quires skill at in­tro­spec­tion, mind­ful­ness, or find­ing peo­ple who can sim­ply say in a con­fi­dent voice that your sys­tem-1 be­lieves “you’re al­lowed to want X.”

  • Maybe you are just phys­i­cally sick and need to re­cover.

In­ter­nal Align­ment – Deep Im­prove­ments to Men­tal Architecture

Sort of like heal­ing, maybe?

I haven’t done this my­self, but I’ve heard some peo­ple de­scribe a pro­cess of ac­tu­ally get­ting all the pieces of them­selves into al­ign­ment, where in­stead of fight­ing them­selves (“I want cake!” “no I want to diet!“) they reach a point where all their drives have a shared un­der­stand­ing of the world and are op­er­at­ing as a sin­gle agent.

There’s minor ver­sions of this that re­solve al­ign­ment on one par­tic­u­lar is­sue, and I’m told a deeper ver­sion ex­ists where your en­tire self trusts it­self to do the right thing, and then you no longer have to think in terms of willpower or en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture (and other things that the sort of paradigm that cares about willpower or en­ergy ex­pen­di­ture isn’t even able to see)

What to do with this?

Th­ese are all things I’d thought about be­fore, but I hadn’t thought about them all at once. And I’m find­ing it shapes how I think peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties ori­ented around self-im­prove­ment should di­rect their at­ten­tion.

It mat­ters what strate­gies you’re even con­sid­er­ing.

I don’t think I’m cur­rently have any spe­cific block­ers that need re­mov­ing, and I can clearly see skills that I need to gain. But, peo­ple with block­ers or in need of heal­ing of­ten don’t see that they have them. And fix­ing them can rad­i­cally change your land­scape.

I’m cur­rently see­ing all the above strate­gies through a fi­nance lens. There are things you can do that re­li­ably out­put 1-3% re­turn, year af­ter year if you just stick with them. There are high risk /​ high re­turn ex­plo­ra­tion moves you can make – dis­cov­er­ing ways in which you need heal­ing or are blocked or are miss­ing cheat codes. When they pay off it feels like they have 50-300% re­turns in the space of a week, but ac­tu­ally find­ing the right ones takes time and amor­tized over the years it takes search­ing (and build­ing pre­req­ui­site skills of self-aware­ness), it’s prob­a­bly more like a 5-10% rate.

I’m not a per­son who cur­rently un­der­stands heal­ing, and I’ve up­dated a bit that that’s an im­por­tant part of the over­all paradigm that the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity doesn’t tend to be that good at (al­though to be fair, I don’t think most peo­ple are).

I think the origi­nal mythol­ogy of the ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity is based around cheat codes – if we can munchkin our way through the low­est hang­ing fruit, we can win at life. But this doesn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pen that of­ten, and mean­while it can be de­mor­al­iz­ing to be ex­pect­ing bursts of 300% re­turns when in fact 2-3% should be your de­fault as­sump­tion.