Not For Its Own Sake

August 22, 2013

“I’m more interested in improving the world around me than self-improving and being ‘rational’. I’m fine the way I am; it’s the things around me that I’m bothered by, and the fact that I don’t know how to fix them.”

Don’t ask me how it’s occurred, but I think people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what we mean by rationality. Being rational is not about being able to win arguments. It’s not about being good at mathematics, or about never being wrong. Rationality is not about giving up your emotions as you turn into a Vulcan.

Okay, maybe that last one is a bad example since my last post talked about how I’m actively trying to dissolve my emotions, but it’s not necessary. My other points still stand.

No, being rational is about winning at life. That’s all we mean by it. Being rational is about systematically doing better than other people in any domain that you are applying it to.

To clarify, truly rational people are successful, but the converse is not true - most successful people are not rational. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes high-success as a combination of two things: above-average skill and exceptional luck.

Rationality is about reducing the weight of luck in this relationship. If you are systematically winning, luck is not necessary. Any luck you might receive along the way just becomes icing on the top.

I plan to write more about this later, but to get back to the quote at the top, given this frame of mind it seems absolutely absurd to prioritize working on a problem over beating the problem.

Just as there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, there’s also a distinction between trying to improve the world and actually improving the world. Trying is easy; succeeding is the hard part. Failing to improve the world can be written off if you only wanted to try - after all, you tried your best, didn’t you?

Failing to succeed when you are not simply trying is much more devastating. If you actually put in literally everything you have into it and still fail regardless, then there is no walking away. There is no giving up; it simply means that you are not strong enough yet. Maybe after another decade of training you will be powerful enough to trounce the problem.

After all, what’s a decade in the way of something you seriously care about? I think that this is the real distinction here - nobody will simply try for ten years; they’ll have given up by then. Actually, it’s likely that most people won’t try any further than the first obstacle they hit which can’t be solved in five minutes.

The point I’m laboriously trying to get to here is that learning how to win isn’t any damn good to anybody if you don’t have something at which to win. Rationality is a means to an end. Self-improvement is not, and cannot be, for its own sake. It must be in pursuit of something; there must be a game to win, something that you’ve done all of this for.

Something you care about more than rationality.

LessWrong calls this concept having something to protect. Without an external measuring stick by which you are able to watch your progress, you are doomed to failure. If what you care about is self-improvement in its own right, then all you need to “succeed” is to be told how great you are.

Unfortunately, this isn’t winning. The world doesn’t work that way. You can’t simply tell the world that you’re going to win and expect it to believe you. Actions speak much louder than words.

If what you really want is to improve the world, then this is something to protect. If you don’t know how to make it happen, then you are simply not rational enough by definition, and ignoring the call to training isn’t going to do you any favors.

If what you really want is to improve the world, then you should be willing to do anything and everything in your power to effect it. If you’re not able to do it, then you are not fine as you are. You’re not good enough.

Yeah, I know, that’s a shitty feeling. Nobody likes hearing that they aren’t strong enough, but the simple, plain fact is that it’s true; ignoring it isn’t going to change a damn thing.

A better strategy is to embrace this feeling, and notice it for what it is: an opportunity to rise to the occasion; it’s your chance to prove yourself profoundly worthy.

Don’t let yourself down.