“Cheat to Win”: Engineering Positive Social Feedback

This post out­lines a very sim­ple strat­egy that’s been work­ing for me lately. It may be ob­vi­ous to some, but it only clicked for me re­cently.

Pos­i­tive so­cial stim­u­la­tion is fun for hu­mans, right? We like to be liked. It makes us cheer­ful. We’re mo­ti­vated to do things that make peo­ple smile at us and praise us.

But purely op­ti­miz­ing for be­ing liked is a bad idea for lots of rea­sons: it leads away from your real goals and val­ues, it mo­ti­vates you to be de­cep­tive, it’s kind of shal­low and un­satis­fy­ing in the long run.

So here’s what you do in­stead: first, de­cide what you ac­tu­ally want to do. Then, seek out peo­ple who will so­cially re­ward you for do­ing that, and set your­self up to get so­cial re­wards.

Mar­ket­ing ex­perts will tell you that you have to “find your tribe”, find the fans of your product, and fo­cus on delight­ing them. It’s fine if you have haters. Haters are al­most ir­rele­vant. You suc­ceed if you have enough fans who value your stuff highly enough.

This ap­plies across ar­eas of life. You only need (about) one job. You only need one spouse. You only need a small num­ber of close friends. Hav­ing great sup­port­ers is more im­por­tant than avoid­ing hav­ing any haters.

I used to have the in­tu­ition that “fair­ness” meant I wasn’t al­lowed to bias my so­cial en­vi­ron­ment in my fa­vor; that I should ex­pose my­self equally to peo­ple who liked and dis­liked me, peo­ple who did and didn’t share my val­ues, in or­der to get a “bal­anced” im­pres­sion of the world.

This is pretty stupid, ac­tu­ally.

You, as a very small crea­ture mov­ing through in­finite space, don’t learn about the uni­verse by draw­ing uniform sam­ples from it. You learn through pur­su­ing goals, which means you’ll spend more at­ten­tion on ar­eas of the uni­verse that are use­ful to you, which means things that are easy for you or helpful for your life, things that give you en­ergy and re­sources to ex­plore more.

An amoeba, as it crawls around, is go­ing to learn more about the parts of the petri dish with food than the parts with­out. This is be­cause the amoeba is al­ive. So are you.

As a mo­ti­va­tional hack to­wards any kind of pro­ject, it re­ally helps to set your­self up to have re­cur­rent so­cial in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple who sup­port you in that pro­ject.

Meetup groups are good for this. Mix­ers. Mailing lists. Ac­tu­ally se­lect for peo­ple who like the thing you’re into, and it’s as­ton­ish­ing how much it’ll feel like the “world” sup­ports you!

Use mo­ments when you’re in an en­er­getic, up­beat mood to set up plans for things that’ll give you pos­i­tive so­cial feed­back in the fu­ture—make plans to meet peo­ple or go to events, or ap­ply to things or sub­mit your work to things. That way you get a re­cur­ring stream of “good news” in your in­box, which will trig­ger more up­beat moods in fu­ture. Eng­ineer your so­cial en­vi­ron­ment to re­in­force you for pur­su­ing your goal and you’ll be more likely to keep go­ing.

A mas­ter­mind group is maybe the most ex­plicit ex­am­ple of this kind of en­g­ineer­ing. Get 3-7 peo­ple to­gether who have similar goals (start­ing busi­nesses is a com­mon ex­am­ple) and meet reg­u­larly to offer sup­port and cheer on each other’s progress. The vibe of the mas­ter­mind should be “we’re all awe­some and we’re go­ing to suc­ceed to­gether.” It’s de­signed to help you keep up mo­men­tum.

Do­ing this isn’t about wire­head­ing or fool­ing your­self, it’s about fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing your so­cial at­ten­tion, in the ar­eas that can offer re­wards in­stead of the bar­ren spaces.

So much defen­sive­ness is un­nec­es­sary. Un­pro­duc­tive. It’s silly to feel like you have to steel your­self against an un­friendly world if you haven’t even checked to look for friends. If you take the at­ti­tude of “X is cool and awe­some—who’s with me on this?” there’s a good chance you’ll find a com­mu­nity of X-fans. I have seen (and made) so many strate­gic so­cial er­rors based on the premise that you have to defend your­self against haters rather than seek out fans. It’s much bet­ter to aim to win than to not-lose.