Trying to Try

“No! Try not! Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Yoda

Years ago, I thought this was yet an­other ex­am­ple of Deep Wis­dom that is ac­tu­ally quite stupid. SUCCEED is not a prim­i­tive ac­tion. You can’t just de­cide to win by choos­ing hard enough. There is never a plan that works with prob­a­bil­ity 1.

But Yoda was wiser than I first re­al­ized.

The first el­e­men­tary tech­nique of episte­mol­ogy—it’s not deep, but it’s cheap—is to dis­t­in­guish the quo­ta­tion from the refer­ent. Talk­ing about snow is not the same as talk­ing about “snow”. When I use the word “snow”, with­out quotes, I mean to talk about snow; and when I use the word “”snow”“, with quotes, I mean to talk about the word “snow”. You have to en­ter a spe­cial mode, the quo­ta­tion mode, to talk about your be­liefs. By de­fault, we just talk about re­al­ity.

If some­one says, “I’m go­ing to flip that switch”, then by de­fault, they mean they’re go­ing to try to flip the switch. They’re go­ing to build a plan that promises to lead, by the con­se­quences of its ac­tions, to the goal-state of a flipped switch; and then ex­e­cute that plan.

No plan suc­ceeds with in­finite cer­tainty. So by de­fault, when you talk about set­ting out to achieve a goal, you do not im­ply that your plan ex­actly and perfectly leads to only that pos­si­bil­ity. But when you say, “I’m go­ing to flip that switch”, you are try­ing only to flip the switch—not try­ing to achieve a 97.2% prob­a­bil­ity of flip­ping the switch.

So what does it mean when some­one says, “I’m go­ing to try to flip that switch?”

Well, col­lo­quially, “I’m go­ing to flip the switch” and “I’m go­ing to try to flip the switch” mean more or less the same thing, ex­cept that the lat­ter ex­presses the pos­si­bil­ity of failure. This is why I origi­nally took offense at Yoda for seem­ing to deny the pos­si­bil­ity. But bear with me here.

Much of life’s challenge con­sists of hold­ing our­selves to a high enough stan­dard. I may speak more on this prin­ci­ple later, be­cause it’s a lens through which you can view many-but-not-all per­sonal dilem­mas—“What stan­dard am I hold­ing my­self to? Is it high enough?”

So if much of life’s failure con­sists in hold­ing your­self to too low a stan­dard, you should be wary of de­mand­ing too lit­tle from your­self—set­ting goals that are too easy to fulfill.

Often where suc­ceed­ing to do a thing, is very hard, try­ing to do it is much eas­ier.

Which is eas­ier—to build a suc­cess­ful startup, or to try to build a suc­cess­ful startup? To make a mil­lion dol­lars, or to try to make a mil­lion dol­lars?

So if “I’m go­ing to flip the switch” means by de­fault that you’re go­ing to try to flip the switch—that is, you’re go­ing to set up a plan that promises to lead to switch-flipped state, maybe not with prob­a­bil­ity 1, but with the high­est prob­a­bil­ity you can man­age—

—then “I’m go­ing to ‘try to flip’ the switch” means that you’re go­ing to try to “try to flip the switch”, that is, you’re go­ing to try to achieve the goal-state of “hav­ing a plan that might flip the switch”.

Now, if this were a self-mod­ify­ing AI we were talk­ing about, the trans­for­ma­tion we just performed ought to end up at a re­flec­tive equil­ibrium—the AI plan­ning its plan­ning op­er­a­tions.

But when we deal with hu­mans, be­ing satis­fied with hav­ing a plan is not at all like be­ing satis­fied with suc­cess. The part where the plan has to max­i­mize your prob­a­bil­ity of suc­ceed­ing, gets lost along the way. It’s far eas­ier to con­vince our­selves that we are “max­i­miz­ing our prob­a­bil­ity of suc­ceed­ing”, than it is to con­vince our­selves that we will suc­ceed.

Al­most any effort will serve to con­vince us that we have “tried our hard­est”, if try­ing our hard­est is all we are try­ing to do.

“You have been ask­ing what you could do in the great events that are now stir­ring, and have found that you could do noth­ing. But that is be­cause your suffer­ing has caused you to phrase the ques­tion in the wrong way… In­stead of ask­ing what you could do, you ought to have been ask­ing what needs to be done.”
—Steven Brust, The Paths of the Dead

When you ask, “What can I do?“, you’re try­ing to do your best. What is your best? It is what­ever you can do with­out the slight­est in­con­ve­nience. It is what­ever you can do with the money in your pocket, minus what­ever you need for your ac­cus­tomed lunch. What you can do with those re­sources, may not give you very good odds of win­ning. But it’s the “best you can do”, and so you’ve acted defen­si­bly, right?

But what needs to be done? Maybe what needs to be done re­quires three times your life sav­ings, and you must pro­duce it or fail.

So try­ing to have “max­i­mized your prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess”—as op­posed to try­ing to suc­ceed—is a far lesser bar­rier. You can have “max­i­mized your prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess” us­ing only the money in your pocket, so long as you don’t de­mand ac­tu­ally win­ning.

Want to try to make a mil­lion dol­lars? Buy a lot­tery ticket. Your odds of win­ning may not be very good, but you did try, and try­ing was what you wanted. In fact, you tried your best, since you only had one dol­lar left af­ter buy­ing lunch. Max­i­miz­ing the odds of goal achieve­ment us­ing available re­sources: is this not in­tel­li­gence?

It’s only when you want, above all else, to ac­tu­ally flip the switch—with­out quo­ta­tion and with­out con­so­la­tion prizes just for try­ing—that you will ac­tu­ally put in the effort to ac­tu­ally max­i­mize the prob­a­bil­ity.

But if all you want is to “max­i­mize the prob­a­bil­ity of suc­cess us­ing available re­sources”, then that’s the eas­iest thing in the world to con­vince your­self you’ve done. The very first plan you hit upon, will serve quite well as “max­i­miz­ing”—if nec­es­sary, you can gen­er­ate an in­fe­rior al­ter­na­tive to prove its op­ti­mal­ity. And any tiny re­source that you care to put in, will be what is “available”. Re­mem­ber to con­grat­u­late your­self on putting in 100% of it!

Don’t try your best. Win, or fail. There is no best.