I have been struggling with goal selection lately. I didn’t struggle so much earlier in my life because others clearly defined my goals. We live in a high-dimensional world, as said elsewhere on LessWrong. There are many worthy directions to head towards, and I’m struggling to choose. I find myself doing a little here, a little there, but mostly converging on optimising for career success, mainly because it’s a convenient goal.
I’ve cultivated many of the low hanging fruits (relatively speaking), such as getting a job that pays the bills, saving and investing, sustaining a social life, getting a decent education and maintaining good health. However, going after the less easily accessible fruits requires a focused effort. Imagine the brain is made up of thousands of sub-minds, each with its models and preferences. Achieving big goals requires aligning these sub-minds to work together towards those higher fruits.
What I am getting at is that I have a stag hunt scenario inside my head. If my sub-minds keep going in different directions, their unaligned efforts are not likely to amount to much.
I don’t have a motivation problem. I work almost daily, and it’s just that the work I do is unfocused and thus unlikely to amount to much. I think I’m lacking a dream. I like the saying, “If you can dream it, then you can achieve it.”
Many studies show that setting goals increases performance and productivity. According to Wikipedia:
Difficult specific goals lead to significantly higher performance than easy goals, no goals, or even the setting of an abstract goal such as urging people to do their best.
Holding ability constant, and given that there is goal commitment, the higher the goal the higher the performance.
Variables such as praise, feedback, or the participation of people in decision-making about the goal only influence behaviour to the extent that they lead to the setting of and subsequent commitment to a specific difficult goal.
There are so many worthy
goals directions to go:
Existential risk reduction
Helping people who are alive today
Fixing software bugs
Maximising my net worth
Learning new knowledge
Creating new knowledge
Maximising my social status
Maximising my pleasure
I read “The Precipice” by Toby Ord some time ago, and it was a profoundly impactful book. Theoretically, I’m sold, and existential risk reduction is unambiguously the ultimate and most crucial goal. However, practically, there are so many other dimensions that I care about.
Money maximisation is a convenient goal to have, and it’s also a meta-goal since it helps achieve other goals. This could be why so many people converge on money maximisation as their effective goal. Society is also set up to facilitate money maximisation, and the same cannot be said about existential risk reduction.
Rationality doesn’t say a whole lot about goal selection, desires and preference. It says a whole lot about the accuracy of beliefs and how to achieve goals, but it doesn’t say much about how to select goals in the first place. Evidence suggests that the right goal makes us act more rationally (refer to that Wikipedia page linked above).