“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.