Building Across the Abyss

September 18, 2014


I read Sebastian Marshall’s amazing Ikigai a few months ago, on the suggestion of Malcolm Ocean. I loved it. I loved every word. It inspired me harder than anything else I can remember; it inspired the hell out of me for a week, and then something strange happened: I forgot about it.

When I go back and read LessWrong, I’m awestruck by the apparent dissonance between my memories of it and the material in front of me. All I can remember about reading LW is a consistent and unending stream of insights. Mind-shattering insights. When I read it now however, my experience is also consistent and unending, though instead of insights I now say “obviously – who would think this is worthwhile to write about?”

I take this to imply that I have internalized LessWrong. I’ve learned the majority of what it was trying to impart on me, and it’s become second nature. This has made my life better.

When I go back and read Ikigai, I am still amazed by how brilliant it is. I’ve already read it, but I haven’t really gotten it.

There is this feeling inside of me. It’s been there for a few weeks, and it is slowly building. The feeling is hard to describe; I’m not sure there’s a word for it, but a good metaphor might be the adrenaline rush from standing at the door of the airplane, preparing yourself to go skydiving. It’s the knowledge that if you could just take that one step over the edge, natural forces would do the rest of the work for you. You’re almost there, but something is holding you back.


I’m on the verge of a shift of paradigm. It’s a big change, and I think it must be the next step of my cognitive development because I see the threads of it wherever I look. The universe is trying to teach me something, and I’m not yet quite smart enough to understand. This is something important, and I’ve almost got my teeth into it.


Something I’ve been meaning to write about for while is the notion of an information hazard – an idea to which it is dangerous to be exposed. It should go without saying that I consider the links in this section to be dangerous.

My go-to example for this is Mencius Moldbug. Reading Moldbug is a most curious experience; I disagree with almost everything he says when I first read it, but after I’ve finished the essay, he’s got me more-or-less on-board. What’s scarier is I can physically feel my brain being molded and sculpted by his prose. For a while, I would read Moldbug in an attempt to figure out how he was doing this to me, but stopped when I considered that maybe this man was clever enough to be doing it on purpose.

The only way to win with information hazards is not to play.

Something similar happened when I read Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, the purportedly true story about a man who begins making his decisions by writing down six options, and rolling a die to choose between them. By the end of the book he is intentionally writing down things he considers to be against his self-interest, but he proceeds because the underlying philosophy of living by the die is to irrevocably shatter the ego.

The Dice Man blew my mind. Here it was, advocating this way of life that was entirely orthogonal to everything I had ever conceived before. Because I like empiricism I decided I wanted to try living by the die. It never happened.

The problem was, I couldn’t figure out a way to experiment with this which I could guarantee to be safe. It seemed like the only fair way to test it would be to give myself into the die entirely (in the novel, Rhinehart ends up in a mental institution, some days being entirely sane, but others spent trying to convince his psychologist that he, Rhinehart, is Santa Claus).

If I were to really and truly give myself into the dice experiment, I would necessarily need to use the die to consider escalating my die usage. Once I was playing, there would be no way to enforce any rules I had set up in advance.

The only way to win is to not play.


A few weeks back, an article was going around my social circles: If You Have Never Missed a Flight, You are Spending Too Much Time in Airports. The argument, essentially, is that the best strategy should fail occasionally in order to prevent allocating more resources than necessary. Ideally, you should get to your gate at the airport just before they take off without you. If you can manage to do this 95% of the time, you’ll save more than one weeks of time for every 100 flights. Personally, I’d rather have a week than miss 5% of my flights.

In other words: if you never lose, you’re probably playing too conservatively.

I went on a date a few weeks ago. The exact particulars are not super relevant to today’s discussion, except this part: I tried to kiss her. “Tried” being the operative word: she pulled away, and didn’t kiss me back. At the time, I almost couldn’t believe it. This had never, ever happened to me before.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Historically, I’ve been pretty successful with women. It had gone to my head. Contiguous wins are really nice on a hedonistic level, but they aren’t very good for personal growth. They set the bar low: if you are already winning, there is no need to get better. I had set the bar low, which is not to say that I was getting low-quality women, but that I was missing out on a lot of opportunities that I shouldn’t have been

I’ve kissed some incredible women in my life, though there are a lot more incredible women in my life that I haven’t kissed and would have liked to.

The way to only win is to not play very hard.


Lately, I’ve been making a conscious effort to do something with my life, and for the most part, it’s been going pretty well. I’ve been trying harder than the majority of people I know, and this is good. I’ve come a long way in a year, comparatively.

Trying harder than others is a good way to get ahead, and a lot of the time I feel like I’m trying my best.

But you know what? Everyone feels like they’re trying their best.

And for the most part, everyone is wrong.

In Ikigai, Marshall talks about hitting this same roadblock – that he would compare himself against his peers, come out ahead, and become complacent as a result. He comes up with a fantastic solution to this problem, and, like most psychological things, it’s a matter of framing.

In his words:

I think it’s easy for people who are doing great to get complacent. You look at the general sloth and laziness and complacency of most people, you see that you’re achieving greatly, and you feel like you’re so far above that. You give yourself a pat on the back. “Ah, yes, I’m doing great!”

“I’m not going to compare myself against people my age any more. I’m going to start comparing myself to the greatest men of all time.”

Suddenly I was not doing excellent; in fact, I was behind schedule. In fact, I realized entirely that the path I was on did not lead to where I was capable of going… Most young people these days have no real dreams, no strong ethics, no strength. They stand for nothing, they want nothing, they do nothing. Just by trying, even a little bit, you wind up better than most of them.

I think this here is the metaphorical airplane out of which I’m trying to jump. There is a shift here between trying and impacting – trying just means you’re working towards something. Impacting is actually getting there.

Except, there’s a problem. When you jump out of an airplane, the absolute last thing you want is impact.


It’s hard to determine which step is more difficult: moving from not trying to actually trying, or from trying to impacting. The first step requires a brutal amount of honesty with yourself – that you’re not accomplishing what you want because you’re ignorant or scared.

To take that second step, however, these excuses are not enough. No longer can you plead ignorance; you’re already trying. You’ve already admitted that, though you might not know the destination, you have a heading. No, the bullet to be bitten here is that you are not good enough. The universe doesn’t care how hard you try; it’s not going to wait for you.

It’s not enough to be satisfied with where you are (a position I held last year), if you’re not already where you want to be.

My hesitance, I think, is that I’m already misunderstood. I already get weird looks from people when I tell them I don’t necessarily want to be happy; that there are more important things in life. I’m afraid that if I step over this next (last?) edge, there is no coming back.

Setting yourself up to ensure impact is an information hazard. The most effective way to do it is to mess with your brain until it is fully optimized for impact. This is likely to incur some side-effects [citation needed].

And so here I stand at the edge of the abyss. Taking this last step is grave; like becoming the Dice Man, there is no way to proceed safely. As Scott Alexander puts it:

The thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feeling mildly embarrassed. If you do almost everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up being eaten by the legendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichorous stomach acid erodes your very soul into gibbering fragments.

I like my soul, thank-you-very-much, but the promise of the grail is too strong to ignore. Still though, you can understand my hesitance.


Ikigai, again:

I see these wonderful, nice, kind people living their lives, and who all really harmoniously truly understand each other. And I got it. It clicked. I don’t get to have this. I don’t get to have this. I get something else. Something pretty amazing. But I don’t get to have normal life. And it looks really, really nice. A lot less neurosis and conflict and striving and fighting forwards.

I’ve done a lot and I’m really just getting started. But the more you do, the further away you get from being understood, from the joys of normal life, from being understood by your neighbors and backing each other up and living together harmoniously.

I don’t get to have a normal life. I don’t get to be fully understood by everyone around me. Okay. Stop crying. Start smiling. Keep building. The train arrives. I get on.

Stop crying. Start smiling. Keep building. Yeah, I can do that.

But it’s scary. I’m not doing everything I can, and my brain is indignant of this fact. “Look at where you are! Look at what you’ve become! It’s enough, already! It’s already too hard. I’m tired.”

Stop crying.

Excuses are the last defense of the weak. My brain might be indignant and scared, but I am not my brain. I’m something more. I’m my own person. I have my own agency. There is nothing to do except to suck it up and move towards the goal.

Start smiling.

This is what I want. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it. Everything I do is a subgoal of optimize the world, given some definition of “optimize”. I can do it, because I can do anything I set my mind towards. But I can’t do it yet.

Keep building.

I’m not yet strong enough. But I will be, and, as I’ve decided, it’s going to be sooner than later.