Instrumental Rationality 1: Starting Advice

Start­ing Advice

[This is the first post in the In­stru­men­tal Ra­tion­al­ity Se­quence. It’s a col­lec­tion of four con­cepts that I think are cen­tral to in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity—car­ing about the ob­vi­ous, look­ing for prac­ti­cal things, prac­tic­ing in pieces, and re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions.

Note that these es­says are deriva­tive of things I’ve writ­ten here be­fore, so there may not be much new con­tent in this post. (But I wanted to get some­thing out as it’d been about a month since my last up­date.)

My main goal with this col­lec­tion was to pol­ish /​ crys­tal­lize past points I’ve made. If things here are worded poorly, un­clear, or don’t seem use­ful, I’d re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate feed­back to try and im­prove.]


In Defense of the Ob­vi­ous:

[As ad­ver­tised.]

A lot of the things I’m go­ing to go over in this se­quence are some­times go­ing to sound ob­vi­ous, bor­ing, re­dun­dant, or down­right tau­tolog­i­cal. This es­say is here to con­vince you that you should try to listen to the ad­vice any­way, even if it sounds stupidly ob­vi­ous.

First off, our brains don’t always see all the con­nec­tions at once. Thus, even if some given ad­vice is ap­par­ently­ob­vi­ous, you still might be learn­ing things.

For ex­am­ple, say some­one tells you, “If you want to ex­er­cise more, then you should prob­a­bly ex­er­cise more. Once you do that, you’ll be­come the type of per­son who ex­er­cises more, and then you’ll likely ex­er­cise more.”

The above ad­vice might sound pretty silly, but it may still be use­ful. Often, our men­tal cat­e­gories for “ex­er­cise” and “per­sonal iden­tity” are in differ­ent places. Sure, it’s tau­tolog­i­cally true that some­one who ex­er­cises be­comes a per­son who ex­er­cises more. But if you’re not ex­plic­itly think­ing about how your ac­tions change who you are, then there’s likely still some­thing new to think about.

Hu­mans are of­ten weirdly in­con­sis­tent with our men­tal buck­ets—things that log­i­cally seem like they “should” be lumped to­gether of­ten aren’t. By pay­ing at­ten­tion to even tau­tolog­i­cal ad­vice like this, you’re able to form new con­nec­tions in your brain and link new men­tal cat­e­gories to­gether, per­haps dis­cov­er­ing new in­sights that you “already knew”.

Se­condly, ob­vi­ous ad­vice tends to be low-hang­ing fruit. If your brain is pat­tern-match­ing some­thing as “bor­ing ad­vice” or “ob­vi­ous”, you’ve likely heard it be­fore many times be­fore.

For ex­am­ple, you can prob­a­bly guess the top 5 things on any “How to be Pro­duc­tive” list—make a sched­ule, re­move dis­trac­tions, take pe­ri­odic breaks, etc. etc. You can al­most feel your brain roll its metaphor­i­cal eyes at such dreary, well-worn ad­vice.

But if you’ve heard these things re­peated many times be­fore, this is also good rea­son to sus­pect that, at least for a lot of peo­ple, it works. Mean­ing that if you aren’t tak­ing such ad­vice already, you can prob­a­bly get a boost by do­ing so.

If you just did those top 5 things, you’d prob­a­bly already be quite the pro­duc­tive per­son.

The trick, then, is to ac­tu­ally do them. That means do­ing the ob­vi­ous thing.

Lastly, it can be easy to dis­count ob­vi­ous ad­vice when you’ve seen too much of it. When you’re bom­barded with bor­ing-seem­ing ad­vice from all an­gles, it’s easy to be­come de­sen­si­tized.

What I mean is that it’s pos­si­ble to dis­miss ob­vi­ous ad­vice out­right be­cause it sounds way too sim­ple. “This can’t pos­si­bly work,” your brain might say, “The se­cret to get­ting things done must be more com­plex!”

There’s some­thing akin to the he­do­nic tread­mill hap­pen­ing here where, af­ter hav­ing been ex­posed to all the “nor­mal” ad­vice, you start to seek out deeper and deeper ideas in search of some sort of men­tal high. What hap­pens is that you be­come a kind of self-help junkie.

You can end up crav­ing the bleed­ing edge of crazy ideas be­cause liter­ally noth­ing else seems worth­while. You might end up dis­miss­ing nor­mal helpful ideas sim­ply be­cause they’re not paradigm-crush­ing, mind-blow­ing, or men­tally stim­u­lat­ing enough.

At which point, you’ve adopted quite the con­trar­ian stance—you re­ject the typ­i­cal idea of ad­vice on grounds of its ob­vi­ous­ness alone.

If this de­scribes, might I tempt you with the meta-con­trar­ian point of view?

Here’s the sell: One of the se­crets to win­ning at life is look­ing at ob­vi­ous ad­vice, ac­knowl­edg­ing that it’s ob­vi­ous, and then do­ing it any­way.

(That’s right, you can join the elite group of peo­ple who scoff at those who scoff at the ob­vi­ous!)

You can both say, “Hey, this is pretty sim­ple stuff I’ve heard a thou­sand times be­fore,” as well as say, “Hey, this is pretty use­ful stuff I should shut up and do any­way even if it sounds sim­ple be­cause I’m smart and I rec­og­nize the value here.”

At some point, be­ing more so­phis­ti­cated than the so­phis­ti­cates means be­ing able the grasp the idea that not all things have to be hy­per com­plex. Of­ten­times, the trick to get­ting some­thing done is sim­ply to get started and start do­ing it.

Be­cause some things in life re­ally are ob­vi­ous.

Hunt­ing for Prac­ti­cal­ity:

[This is about look­ing for ways to have any ad­vice you read be ac­tu­ally use­ful, by hav­ing it ap­ply to the real world. ]

Imag­ine some­one try­ing to ex­plain ex­actly what the mi­to­chon­dria does in the cell, and con­trast that to some­one try­ing to score a point in a game of bas­ket­ball.

There’s some­thing clearly differ­ent about what each per­son is try­ing to do, even if we lumped both un­der the la­bel of “learn­ing” (one is learn­ing about cells and the other is learn­ing about bas­ket­ball).

In learn­ing, it turns out this di­vide is of­ten sep­a­rated into declar­a­tive and pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge.

Declar­a­tive knowl­edge is like the stu­dent try­ing to puz­zle out the ATP ques­tion; it’s about what you know.

In con­trast, pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge, like the fledgling bas­ket­ball player, is about what you do.

I bring up this di­vide be­cause many of the tech­niques in in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity will feel like declar­a­tive knowl­edge, but they’ll re­ally be pro­ce­du­ral in na­ture.

For ex­am­ple, say you’re read­ing some­thing on mo­ti­va­tion, and you learn that “Mo­ti­va­tion = En­ergy to do the thing + a Re­minder to do the thing + Time to do the thing = E+R+T”.

What’ll likely hap­pen is that your brain will form a new set of men­tal nodes that con­nects “mo­ti­va­tion” to “E+R+T”. This would be great if I ended up quizzing you “What does mo­ti­va­tion equal?” where­upon you’d cor­rectly an­swer “E+R+T”.

But that’s not the point here! The point is to have the equa­tion ac­tu­ally cash out into the real world and pos­i­tively af­fect your ac­tions. If in­for­ma­tion isn’t chang­ing you view or act, then you’re prob­a­bly not ex­tract­ing all the value you can.

What that means is figur­ing out the an­swer to this ques­tion: “How do I see my­self act­ing differ­ently in the fu­ture as a re­sult of this ques­tion?”

With that in mind, say you gen­er­ate some ex­am­ples and make a list.

Your list of real-world ac­tions might end up look­ing like:

1) Re­mem­ber­ing to stay hy­drated more of­ten (En­ergy)

2) Us­ing more Post-It notes as memos (Re­minder)

3) Start us­ing Google Cal­en­dar to block out chunks of time (Time).

The point is to be always on the look­out for ways to see how you can use what you’re learn­ing to in­form your ac­tions. Learn­ing about all these things is only use­ful if you can find ways to ap­ply them. You want to do more than have empty boxes that link con­cepts to­gether. It’s im­por­tant to have those boxes linked up to ways you can do bet­ter in the real world.

You want to ac­tu­ally put in some effort try­ing to an­swer ques­tion of prac­ti­cal­ity.


Ac­tu­ally Prac­tic­ing:

[This is about know­ing the nu­ances of lit­tle steps be­hind any sort of self-im­prove­ment skill you learn, and how those lit­tle steps are im­por­tant when learn­ing the whole.]

So on one level, us­ing knowl­edge from in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity is about how you take declar­a­tive-seem­ing in­for­ma­tion and find ways to ac­tu­ally get real-world ac­tions out of it. That’s im­por­tant.

But it’s also im­por­tant to note that the very skill of “Gen­er­at­ing Ex­am­ples”—the thing you did in the above es­say to even figure out which ac­tions can fit in the above equa­tion to fill in the blanks of E, R, and T—is it­self a men­tal habit that re­quires pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge.

What I mean is that there’s a sub­tler thing that’s hap­pen­ing in­side your head when you try to come up with ex­am­ples—your brain is do­ing some­thing—and this “some­thing” is im­por­tant.

It’s im­por­tant, I claim, be­cause if we peer a lit­tle more deeply at what it means for your brain to gen­er­ate ex­am­ples, we’ll come away with a list of steps that will feel a lot like some­thing a brain can do, a prime ex­am­ple of pro­ce­du­ral knowl­edge.

For ex­am­ple, we can imag­ine a ma­gi­cian try­ing to learn a card trick. They go through the steps. First they need to spread the cards. Then comes the se­cret move. Fi­nally comes the fi­nal re­veal of the se­lected card in the ma­gi­cian’s pocket.

What the au­di­ence mem­ber sees is the full finished product. And in­deed, the ma­gi­cian who’s prac­ticed enough will also see the same thing. But it’s not un­til the ma­gi­cian goes through all the steps and un­der­stands how all the steps flow to­gether to form the whole card trick that they’re ready to perform.

The idea here is to de­scribe any men­tal skill with enough gran­u­lar­ity and de­tail, at the 5 sec­ond level, such that you’d both be able to go through the same steps a sec­ond time and teach some­one else. So be­ing able to take skills and chunk them into smaller pieces is also forms an­other core part of learn­ing.


Real­is­tic Ex­pec­ta­tions:

[An es­say about hav­ing re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions and look­ing past po­ten­tially harm­ful fram­ing effects.]

There’s this ten­dency to get frus­trated with learn­ing men­tal tech­niques af­ter just a few days. I think this is be­cause peo­ple miss the declar­a­tive vs pro­ce­du­ral dis­tinc­tion. (But you hope­fully won’t fall prey to it be­cause we’ve cov­ered the dis­tinc­tion now!)

Once we liken the anal­ogy to be more like that play­ing a sport, it be­comes much eas­ier to see that any ex­pec­ta­tion of im­me­di­ately learn­ing a men­tal habit is rather silly—no one ex­pects to mas­ter ten­nis in just a week.

So, when it comes to try­ing to con­figure your ex­pec­ta­tions, I sug­gest that you try to renor­mal­ize your ex­pec­ta­tions by treat­ing learn­ing men­tal habits more like learn­ing a sport.

Keep that as an anal­ogy, and you’ll likely get fairly well-cal­ibrated ex­pec­ta­tions for learn­ing all this stuff.

Still, what, then, might be a re­al­is­tic time frame for learn­ing?

We’ll go over habits in far more de­tail in a later sec­tion, but a rough num­ber for now is ap­prox­i­mately two months. You can ex­pect that, on av­er­age, it’ll take you about 66 days to in­grain a new habit.

Similarly, in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity (prob­a­bly) won’t make you a god. In my ex­pe­rience, study­ing these ar­eas has been su­per use­ful, which is why I’m writ­ing at all. But I would guess that, op­ti­misti­cally, I only about dou­bled my work out­put.

Of course your own mileage may vary de­pend­ing where you are right now, but this serves as the gen­eral dis­claimer to keep your ex­pec­ta­tions within the bound of re­al­ity.

Here, the main point is that, even though men­tal habits don’t seem like they should be more similar to play­ing a sport, they re­ally are. There’s some­thing here about how first im­pres­sions can be rather de­ceiv­ing.

For ex­am­ple, a typ­i­cal trap I might fall into is miss­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween “the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble” and “re­al­is­tic”. I end up look­ing at the sup­posed 24 hours available to me ev­ery­day and then beat­ing my­self up for not be­ing able to har­ness all 24 hours to do pro­duc­tive work.

But such a fram­ing of the situ­a­tion is in­ac­cu­rate; things like sleep and eat­ing are of­ten very es­sen­tial to max­i­miz­ing pro­duc­tivity for the rest of the hours! So when div­ing in and prac­tic­ing, try to look a lit­tle deeper when set­ting your ex­pec­ta­tions.