Wanting to Succeed on Every Metric Presented

There’s a tendency to want to score high on every metric you come across. When I first read Kegan’s 5 stages of adult development, I wanted to be a stage 5 meta-rationalist! Reading the meditation book “The Mind Illuminated” (TMI), I wanted to be stage 10 (and enlightened and stage 8 jhana and…)! I remember seeing this dancer moonwalk sideways and wanting to be that good too!

This tendency is harmful.

But isn’t it good to want to be good at things? Depends on the “things” and your personal goals. What I’m pointing out is a tendency to become emotionally invested in metrics and standards, without careful thought on what you actually value. If you don’t seriously investigate your own personal preferences and taste, you may spend years of your life invested in something you don’t actually care about. By adding this habit of reflection, you could become much happier than you are right now.

[Note: I believe most people are bad at figuring out what they actually value and prefer. For example, I thought skilled pianists are cool and high status, but when I actually became decent enough to wow your average Joe, being cool in those moments wasn’t as cool as I thought it would be. As they say, “Wanting is better than having”.]

There’s a difference between wanting to score 100’s/​all A+’s and scoring well enough to get a job. There’s a difference between reading multiple textbooks cover-to-cover and reading the 40% or so that seem relevant to your tasks. There are tradeoffs; you can’t optimize for everything. When you perceive a metric that makes you really want to score highly on, nail down the tradeoffs in fine-grained details. What about this do you actually care about? What’s the minimum you could score on this metric and still get what you want? What do you actually want? Speaking out loud or writing this out is good for getting an outside view and notice confusion.

Noticing this pattern is half the battle. To make it concrete, here are examples from my life:

Running—I ran cross country and track for 3 years, but then I realized I don’t enjoy running long distance. Later I found out that sprinting is fun! If I was better at knowing my values, I could’ve just played ultimate frisbee with friends instead.

Dancing—I used to imagine dancing at weddings and such and looking really cool! I remember being really self-conscious and slightly miserable when I did dance in front of others. Trying to impress people is disappointing (and trying to be cool is so uncool). Now I value dancing because it’s fun and a good workout; I don’t worry about recording myself and consistently improving or dancing hypotheticals.

Kegan’s 5 stage development—I used to want to be stage 5, and I remember reading lots of David Chapman’s work to figure this out. I believe I benefited from this, but I ironically would’ve understood it better if I considered my values better. Now I value it as a useful framing for how large segments of people interpret the world. [See? I pointed out that it’s just another system with its own set of limits. I’m a cool kid now, right?]

Meditation—Becoming enlightened or TMI stage 10 sounded really cool! I’ve spent 100’s of hours meditating now, but I would’ve been much better off if I crystallized in my head the skills being optimized and how improving those skills improved my life. It wasn’t the “wanting to be enlightened prevented becoming enlightened” trope, but optimizing for a fuzzy “enlightened” metric was worse than more tractable metrics with clear feedback.

What I value now from meditation is being happier, accepting reality, being okay with metaphysical uncertainty (not freaking out when realizing I can’t directly control all my thoughts, or noticing my sense of self being constructed), and maintaining awareness of context, all of which are much clearer metrics that I actually care about.

Grades—I wanted all A’s and to work my hardest on every assignment, wasting a lot of time I could’ve spent elsewhere! Afterwards, I learned to do just enough to graduate and signal with my GPA that I’m a hard worker/​smart. [Once, I missed my final exam where I needed a 60 to keep an A, dropping me to a C. I thought it was hilarious. Thanks Nate!]

Social Appraisals—I used to be emotionally affected by most everybody’s social rewards and punishments (i.e. attention and praise vs ignoring and criticism). I’ve felt awful and disappointed so many times because of this! I’ve come to realize that I actually only care about <10 people’s opinion of my worth, and they all care about me and know me well. [Note: this is separate from taking someone’s thoughts into consideration]

The post that prompted this was Specializing in problems we don’t understand. Great post! I noticed the compulsion to work on this problem immediately without considering my current context and goals, so I wrote this post instead.

Topics people in this community may benefit from re-evaluating are:

  • Existential AI risks and other EA areas. Not just whether or not you actually want to work in these fields, but also “do you actually enjoy pursuing it the way you are currently pursuing it?”

  • Reading text books cover-to-cover and doing all the exercises

  • Writing posts and comments in this forum in general

So… do you feel compelled to succeed according to the metric I’ve presented?