On Being Robust

In­spired in part by Be­ing a Ro­bust Agent. Flip­side of Half-ass­ing it with ev­ery­thing you’ve got.

Do you ever feel… fake? Like, at any minute, Scooby Doo and the gang might roll up and un­mask you as a freeload­ing fraud im­pos­tor in front of ev­ery­one?

There are a lot of things to say about the im­pos­tor syn­drome on a psy­cholog­i­cal ba­sis (the fears are of­ten un­re­al­is­tic /​ un­mer­ited, etc). But I’d like to take an­other an­gle. For a few years, I’ve tried to just make a habit of be­ing un-un­mask­able. Although this is a use­ful frame for me, your mileage may vary.

My point isn’t go­ing to just be “do the things you know you should”. I think we’re of­ten bad at judg­ing when cor­ners are okay to cut, so you prob­a­bly do bet­ter just by hav­ing the policy of not cut­ting cor­ners, un­less it’s ex­tremely ob­vi­ously alright to do so. That is, gen­er­ally err against us­ing scis­sors when con­fronted with cor­ners, even if it makes sense in the mo­ment.

Con­crete examples

  • Mak­ing in­sights truly a part of you. This doesn’t mean one should freak out about the Math Gestapo check­ing whether you’ve mem­o­rized what Jor­dan nor­mal form is. Rather… when I was just be­gin­ning to learn for­mal proof-based math, I wor­ried “I’m about to go work with some of the smartest peo­ple in the world, and they’ll in­stantly see I’m a fake who just picked up shal­low knowl­edge”. The in­ter­nal re­sponse was “just get good enough that in no con­ceiv­able world could you be a fake who se­cretly can’t do for­mal math”.

  • Work­ing out reg­u­larly, tak­ing care of the small things, build­ing the key good habits. Hav­ing your shit to­gether.

  • Learn­ing a lot of re­lated ar­eas, just in case they have key in­sights.

  • Reg­u­larly and au­to­mat­i­cally back­ing up your files, in mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions.

  • Us­ing a pass­word man­ager to gen­er­ate and store strong pass­words, au­to­mat­i­cally sync­ing your database over Drop­box, etc.

  • Rather than hav­ing em­bar­rass­ing things on Face­book which you hope peo­ple won’t find, just use a tool to search-and-delete in­crim­i­nat­ing cringey ma­te­rial from your past.

  • Keep your ex­haus­tive re­sume up-to-date, us­ing a slick tem­plate like you know you should.

  • Fol­low­ing best prac­tices (e.g. when writ­ing code, so there isn’t a se­cret layer of gross code un­der­neath the most promi­nent func­tions; when deal­ing with git re­pos, so fu­ture col­lab­o­ra­tion /​ merg­ing works out okay).

  • Re­spond­ing to emails af­ter read­ing them. Not leav­ing peo­ple on read by mis­take (I’m bad at this, ac­tu­ally).

  • Us­ing spel­lcheck on your doc­u­ments.[1]

  • Schedul­ing meet­ings and show­ing up on time by leav­ing a lot ear­lier. Avoid­ing the plan­ning fal­lacy. Set­ting mul­ti­ple alarms be­fore flights.

  • Hav­ing enough slack.

The gen­eral philosophy

This ro­bust­ness is a kind of epistemic hu­mil­ity—it’s the kind of rea­son­ing that ro­bustly avoids the plan­ning fal­lacy, only gen­er­al­ized. It’s the kind of rea­son­ing that dou­ble-checks an­swers be­fore turn­ing in the test. It’s best prac­tices, but for your own life.

I try to live my men­tal life such that, if peo­ple could read my thoughts, they would think I’m do­ing things right. That doesn’t mean I’m always be­ing po­lite to peo­ple in my mind, but it means that I’m not be­ing de­ceit­ful, or un­fair, or se­cretly cut­ting cor­ners on work I’m do­ing for them.[2]

Again, the point isn’t “have good habits and be happy”. The point is that I think we of­ten cut too many cor­ners, and so I recom­mend a policy which leans to­wards not cut­ting cor­ners (even when it lo­cally makes sense). The benefits for me have been twofold: get­ting bet­ter re­sults, and feel­ing more se­cure about my­self while get­ting those re­sults.


  1. Iron­i­cally, the first draft of this spel­led “im­pos­tor” as “im­poster”. ↩︎

  2. Nat­u­rally, I prob­a­bly fail any­ways some­times, be­cause I’m some­what bi­ased /​ un­able to achieve full trans­parency for my thoughts. ↩︎