Goals: A Retrospective and Look Forwards

January 6, 2021
Confidence: highly likely

Today I want to talk about goals — both those of my last year, and looking forward into 2021. I don’t really want to talk about the first part, but I guess I have to. They say that if you can’t remember the last time you failed something, you must not be trying hard enough. And by that metric, 2020 was a resounding success! I failed most of my goals! So let’s quickly recap, think about what went wrong, and then talk about Olympic swimming.

Recap

What were my goals for last year? The big one was to finish my book Algebra-Driven Design, which happened and has been both a financial and critical success. Nice one, Sando!

I was also going to go through all of PortSwigger Web Academy, which is an online sandbox for learning how to break into websites. I made it through all of the free lessons (some you need to buy specialized tools,) and found a genuine exploit in the wild on a Japanese-curry restaurant’s website. Victory!

Also I was going to exercise for 20 minutes a day. I think there were some weeks during lockdown in which I didn’t hit this target, but between swimming in the Andaman sea, skateboarding, riding a too-small bicycle, at-home swing-dancing lessons with Erin, a (very) brief foray into running, rock climbing, and eventually getting a gym membership, I’m counting this as a win. Though lack of explicit tracking my data puts an asterisk beside this one.

I wasn’t going to drink any alcohol in 2020 either. This one didn’t strictly happen, but in total I drank fewer than 15 beers, and had zero wine or spirits (but a little bailey’s on days that I found it hard to write.) I got drunk once, and it was for a good cause — my friend’s bachelor party. But importantly, alcohol is no longer a part of my life, and I’ve got a very healthy relationship these days. Occasionally I’ll feel like I want a beer, but when I get one, I’m never very happy about it and don’t end up finishing it.

So that’s the good stuff. Something I partially succeeded on was performing 2 hours of music. I played a 45 minute “concert” on my balcony in China town to a few vagrants and passersby, who clapped when I was done, so I’m counting in. But it’s less than half of what I’d wanted to do, and also I had a more “formal” setting in mind when I made the goal. C+.

And uh, everything else went wrong. I was going to learn to love vegetables in 2020, and despite going vegetarian for a month, and a traumatizing French-onion soup incident, still do not love vegetables. I was going to compose 5 songs, learn a new programming language, volunteer for something, and only watch quality TV. Bad bad bad bad bad.

Also I was going to journal every week. Which stopped feeling so necessary once I had my life together. It would still come out when I had interpersonal things to work through, but all in all, I just didn’t need it as much as I had expected.

I was going to make a solid friend-group, and I hit the ground running when I returned from Thailand, ready to make that happen. Unfortunately, the GLOBAL PANDEMIC had other plans, and the exceptionally lawful denizens of my new home really weren’t willing to break the rules. I’m blaming my failure here on an act of god, moreso than anything I might have done.

Similarly, I was going to have set myself up in a strong community where I wanted to spend my next decade. While I moved somewhere, it’s been if not physically, at least spiritually, locked down the entire time. I have absolutely no idea if I like it here or not, because I haven’t really experienced it. But I made things happen with the love of my life, with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, so maybe that’s close enough.

So what went so horribly wrong? It’s tempting to blame it all on THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES, but that’s just not true. I mean it is, but it’s a cop out. What really went wrong, I think, is that I made a lot of non-SMART goals, that were output based, but came with no mechanism to ensure I stayed on top of them. And like, what does it even mean to “learn to love vegetables?” Idiotic play.

The Mundanity of Excellence

Let’s change tack and talk about Olympic swimming for a bit.

One of my favorite papers of all time is Chambliss’ The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers. Chambliss spends a few years following competitive swimmers across all skill levels, and analyzes what differentiates competitors of different skill levels. Its key results are that skill levels are discretely stratified — a competitor “may consistently qualify for the Junior Nationals, but not for the Seniors” or “may swim at the Olympics, and never return to Junior Nationals.” The claim is that this is not the effect of quantitative changes, but that swimming at the Senior Nationals is fundamentally different than at the Junior Nationals. Which is to say, that Olympic swimmers aren’t faster than their local swim-meet analogues; they are swimming completely differently. The discrete stratification of a natural result of this; being physically more fluid-dynamic than your peers might be an advantage to help you win at one level, but that’s a micro-optimization that is too small to bump you between strata.

Moving between these layers of skill, Chambliss argues, requires qualitative changes. In the swimming example, kicking harder than other people is a quantitative change that won’t excel you to greatness; but kicking differently will. Experts aren’t just “better amateurs.”

If generalizable, this has important ramifications for becoming excellent at your skill of choice. Playing to your strengths will help in the short term, but resign you to doing more of what you already are doing. Improving areas in which you’re weak will be more fruitful, in that it will unlock other areas for improvement — things that you’re currently unaware of due to mitigating your weaknesses.

To be concrete, I’ve been playing guitar for like six years now. And I’m embarrassingly bad at it for having played that long. For the vast majority of that time I didn’t really know what I was doing; I’d look up chords for a song I liked, ensure that it didn’t have any scary-looking ones, and then memorize that and strum the chords out whenever I had a guitar around. Often I chose ballad-type songs that were heavily singing-focused, so I could rely on being able to sing as a crutch for my bad guitar playing.

It sorta worked. I was “fine” at guitar. I had a few songs I could pull out and impress girls with. But I wasn’t good by any measure.

But then last year, someone played me a song by finger-picking her way through it. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone do that. It sounded really good, and it looked easy. So I spent the next week practicing that, and by god, my guitar playing got 10x better.

Two weeks after that, I called my friend Rory and we chatted about music for a while. I marveled to him about my newfound skills, and he showed me how barre chords are laid out on the fretboard. Not only that they are, but what the pattern is. It was a qualitatively different way of thinking about the fretboard, about learning patterns and landmarks, rather than trying to memorize what letter goes in every single one of the little boxes. So I studied and internalized this too. And again, my guitar playing got 10x better.

Three weeks is about 1% of the time I’ve spent playing guitar. Seeing a 100x skill improvement in such a short time, perfectly correlated with trying new things is good evidence in favor of Chambliss.

I see this a lot in programming too. There’s a stupid meme going around about whether some programmers are 10x better than the average. The masses shout “no,” but they’re wrong. I’m not sure if this is self-delusion or simply a selection bias, but the best programmers I know are easily 1000x better than the average. Maybe not in terms of productivity, but certainly in terms of problem solving. The best programmers aren’t people who have necessarily been doing it longer; they’re people who have been systematically tackling hard problems, and learning new tools, and most importantly, (gasp!) learning the underlying theory.

This is by no means a dig at the average programmers, nor an assessment of their worth. Most of the world’s problems are indeed boring and require more tediousness than anything else. Just because we have Dostoevsky doesn’t mean we don’t also need E. L. James — but it would be a mistake to say that these are two authors of the same caliber.

On this topic, however, Chambliss has some good news. Qualitative stratification is so important that it absolutely dwarfs the effect of “natural talent” or “hard work.”

The top swimming coaches in America fall into the same prejudice, attributing success often to “hard work” or “talent.” Since they habitually, unreflectively, live at the top level (having spent almost their entire coaching career there), they never see what creates the differences between levels. The fact is, quantitative changes do bring success-but only within levels of the sport. 12 Doing more of the same pays off, but only in very limited, locally visible ways. One can achieve a slight advantage over peers by doing more without changing the quality of what is done.

Having seen that “more is better” within local situations, we tend to extrapolate. If I work this hard to get to my level, how hard must Olympic swimmers work? If I sacrifice this much to qualify for the State Championships, how much must they sacrifice? We believe, extrapolating from what we learn about success at our own level, that they must work unbelievably hard, must feel incredible pressure, must sacrifice more and more to become successful. Assuming implicitly that stratification in sports is continuous rather than discrete (that the differences are quantitative) we believe that top athletes do unbelievable things. In short, we believe that they must be superhuman.

Looking Forwards

So what’s the takeaway here? Systematically try new things when practicing. I made a list the other day of potential interventions for all of my hobbies — programming, electronics, math, fitness, music — and also just in how I conduct myself in my relationships and in life more generally. In less than ten minutes, I had at least five things for each activity, things that it was completely self-evident that adopting these things would drastically improve my performance. And it wasn’t even hard to come up with. My brain already knew all the stuff I should have been doing all along. It just felt like hard work, so I didn’t even try.

The trick, I think, is to prioritize the trying of new things over the supposed benefits they’ll bring. It’s much easier to fuck around on guitar than it is to DO EXERCISES THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO BUT KNOW WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER GUITAR PLAYER. Even though these two activities are the same thing. That’s not to say I’m allowed to slack off in my practice of these things, but I’m already good at that. What I’m not good at is introducing new ideas into my practice routine, which systematic diversification will help with.

So that’s my goal for 2021 — to “do things differently.” I’ve put together a spreadsheet that I can pull up with a single keystroke, and solemnly swear to update it every day with one thing that I did differently. There are no other restrictions here, I trust that I’ll move in the right direction if I take a step everyday. What a SMART goal.

Oh, and also, I’m going to stop watching pornography. It lowers my libido and makes me feel bad. So why do it? Great question. To keep myself accountable here, I am pre-committing to publicly post a link to any pornography I consume in 2021. That would be embarrassing as heck. If failure is really expensive, you simply won’t fail. But it’s scary! I’m tracking this on my spreadsheet as well.

So those are my goals! Here’s to a much better year than the last.