“Follow your dreams” as a case study in incorrect thinking

This post doesn’t con­tain any new ideas that LWers don’t already know. It’s more of an at­tempt to or­ga­nize my thoughts and have a writeup for fu­ture refer­ence.

Here’s a great quote from Sam Hughes, giv­ing some ex­am­ples of good and bad ad­vice:

“You and your gag­gle of girlfriends had a say­ing at uni­ver­sity,” he tells her. “‘Drink through it’. Breakups, hang­overs, fi­nals. I have never en­coun­tered a shorter, worse, more densely bad piece of ad­vice.” Next he goes into their bed­room for a mo­ment. He re­turns with four run­ning shoes. “You did the right thing by wait­ing for me. Prob­a­bly the first right thing you’ve done in the last twenty-four hours. I sub­scribe, as you know, to a differ­ent mantra. So we’re go­ing to run.”

The typ­i­cal ad­vice given to young peo­ple who want to suc­ceed in highly com­pet­i­tive ar­eas, like sports, writ­ing, mu­sic, or mak­ing video games, is to “fol­low your dreams”. I think that ad­vice is up there with “drink through it” in terms of sheer de­struc­tive po­ten­tial. If it was re­placed with “don’t bother fol­low­ing your dreams” ev­ery time it was ut­tered, the world might be­come a hap­pier place.

The amaz­ing thing about “fol­low your dreams” is that think­ing about it un­cov­ers a sort of perfect storm of bi­ases. It’s frac­tally wrong, like PHP, where the big pic­ture is wrong and ev­ery small piece is also wrong in its own unique way.

The big culprit is, of course, op­ti­mism bias due to per­ceived con­trol. I will suc­ceed be­cause I’m me, the spe­cial per­son at the cen­ter of my ex­pe­rience. That’s the same bias that leads us to over­es­ti­mate our chances of finish­ing the the­sis on time, or hav­ing a suc­cess­ful mar­riage, or any num­ber of other things. Thank­fully, we have a re­ally good de­bi­as­ing tech­nique for this par­tic­u­lar bias, known as refer­ence class fore­cast­ing, or in­side vs out­side view. What if your friend Bob was a slightly bet­ter gui­tar player than you? Would you bet a lot of money on Bob mak­ing it big like Jimi Hen­drix? The ques­tion is laugh­able, but then so is bet­ting the years of your own life, with a smaller chance of suc­cess than Bob.

That still leaves many ques­tions unan­swered, though. Why do peo­ple offer such ad­vice in the first place, why do other peo­ple fol­low it, and what can be done about it?

Sur­vivor­ship bias is one big rea­son we con­stantly hear suc­cess­ful peo­ple tel­ling us to “fol­low our dreams”. Suc­cess­ful peo­ple doesn’t re­ally know why they are suc­cess­ful, so they at­tribute it to their hard work and not giv­ing up. The me­dia am­plifies that mes­sage, while mil­lions of failures go un­re­ported be­cause they’re not celebri­ties, even though they try just as hard. So we hear about suc­cesses dis­pro­por­tionately, in com­par­i­son to how of­ten they ac­tu­ally hap­pen, and that col­ors our ex­pec­ta­tions of our own fu­ture suc­cess. Sadly, I don’t know of any good de­bi­as­ing tech­niques for this er­ror, other than just re­mind­ing your­self that it’s an er­ror.

When some­one has in­vested a lot of time and effort into fol­low­ing their dream, it feels harder to give up due to the sunk cost fal­lacy. That hap­pens even with very stupid dreams, like the dream of win­ning at the cas­ino, that were ob­vi­ously in­stalled by some­one else for their own profit. So when you feel con­vinced that you’ll even­tu­ally make it big in writ­ing or mu­sic, you can re­mind your­self that com­pul­sive gam­blers feel the same way, and that feel­ing some­thing doesn’t make it true.

Of course there are good dreams and bad dreams. Some peo­ple have dreams that don’t tease them for years with empty promises, but ac­tu­ally start pay­ing off in a pre­dictable time frame. The main differ­ence be­tween the two kinds of dream is the differ­ence be­tween pos­i­tive-sum games, a.k.a. pro­duc­tive oc­cu­pa­tions, and zero-sum games, a.k.a. pop­u­lar­ity con­tests. Se­bas­tian Mar­shall’s post Pos­i­tive Sum Games Don’t Re­quire Nat­u­ral Ta­lent makes the same point, and ad­vises you to choose a game where you can be suc­cess­ful with­out out­com­pet­ing 99% of other play­ers.

The re­ally in­ter­est­ing ques­tion to me right now is, what sets some­one on the path of in­vest­ing ev­ery­thing in a hope­less dream? Maybe it’s a small suc­cess at an early age, fol­lowed by some ran­dom en­courage­ment from oth­ers, and then you’re locked in. Is there any hope for think­ing back to that mo­ment, or set of mo­ments, and mak­ing a lit­tle twist to put your­self on a hap­pier path? I usu­ally don’t ad­vise peo­ple to change their de­sires, but in this case it seems to be the right thing to do.