Doubting My Far Mind

A while back I was discussing long term future values, i.e., what we want our descendants to be or achieve, and I realized that pretty much any simple description of such values seems crazy. With a little effort it is easy to find counter-examples, or at least discomfort-examples, to most any description much beyond “I hope future folks get what they want.”

I’ve also noticed that among smart folks, the most successful keep their smarts on a short leash. They use their smarts to make the sale, win the case, pass the test, get published, etc., but they don’t use much smarts to consider whether they really want to make the sale, win the case, etc. Oh sure they might express some angst at a Saturday dinner, but come Monday they are back on the job.

In contrast, on average smart folks gain far less success when they seriously apply their smarts to big pictures, reconsidering what they want, what we really know, how the world is organized, what they can do to make the world a better place, and so on. They go off in a thousand directions, and while some might break new ground, on average such smart folk gain much less personal success, and may well do less to help the world.

I count myself in this smart sincere syndrome. I’m often distracted by what I see as important neglected topics, which offer fewer academic or other rewards. These topics have included future robot econ, foundations of quantum mechanics, prediction markets, and much more. Lately I find myself obsessed by a homo hypocritus account of human nature. I’m not at all clear on the best route to pursue this, but no route seems especially promising for success in ordinary terms, or to rely heavily on skills I’ve previously invested in developing.  Yet on I go.

Applying these observations to myself, I think I have to conclude that I just don’t know much about what I really want, or what I should do to get it, in general far terms, and can’t trust my far mind to tell me much.  Lacking a good basis for challenging ordinary concepts of success, I should accept them. If I’m feeling insecure, where success matters more, I should follow the example of smart successful folks in positions similar to me. You know, write academic papers or books, or do business consulting.

In contrast, if I’m feeling rich and comfortable, and so less in need of success, well then I should enjoy myself by doing whatever seems appealing at the time, as long as that doesn’t threaten my basic stable position in life. I’m capable of doing a lot more abstract thinking about what is good for me or the world, but at the moment I just don’t trust that thinking much.  What I most enjoy may well be to think on big far topics, but I shouldn’t presume I have a coherent integrated account showing their true global importance.

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Unusually transparent. You sound a bit like Hopefully Anonymous. Getting to miss that dude.

    • http://lesswrong.com/ CannibalSmith

      Where did he go?

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

        He was quiet for a long time, but just recently left some comments at my blog. He hasn’t updated his own in quite a while.

  • Andy McKenzie

    Robin, aren’t you merely discussing your far mode *in* far mode? “whatever seems appealing at the time” is so vague and in the future… So if you really doubt your far mind, then you have to have doubt in your doubt.

  • Douglas Knight

    If you think that there is a trade-off between near- and far- success, then perhaps you should not try to do things which individually compromise between the two goals, but instead do several things each well-targeted at one or the other.

  • ravi

    cmon man.. future robot econ, foundations of QM… what bags of hot air .. you are just trying to achieve everlasting fame … you might, but then you have to accept that you are basically playing for a long shot .. all these other folks that you mention .. they are just taking smaller surer bets ..

    what is amazing is that we humans have created a setup whereby achieving moderate levels of success in life .. via money, status, love .. is pretty much a deterministic process. It doesnt take much thinking or originality or creativity .. all it takes is attention span and forming consistent habits. You know the drill.

  • ravi

    i have always had similiar problems in life .. in all areas. I have accepted that it is futile for me to change this tendency. I read recently that IQ correlated well with “success” but only until a point. It then saturated out. The author (at MIT i think) concludes that extremely high IQ folks are prone to taking riskier bets! So at the far end of IQ .. there will be a few very succesful folks that the study might not have caught leading to their wrong conclusion .. very high as people [resume might not be bad for you ..it is just that you are likely to not be the winner that takes all ..

  • dzot

    “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

  • nazgulnarsil

    sure, but their unexamined lives aren’t worth living.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      How would we know? Our lives are examined.

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    A couple of things here: For one thing, you have a very busy life, and it is hard for anyone so productive to focus on those far issues because of all the near issues that constantly demand attention. I feel for those who need to publish quickly under such circumstances.

    Even so we live in the best of times for generalists, or people who want to look at the big picture; if only Buckminster Fuller had been so lucky. The paradox is those who do have time to look at the big picture are not always taken as seriously for obvious reasons…who knows who they are? Those who people look to, need to work a bit more quickly. Even Adam Smith had to settle for just two books and he wanted to write a lot more.

  • Philo

    “[A]mong smart folks, the most successful keep their smarts on a short leash. . . . [T]hey don’t use much smarts to consider whether they really want to make the sale, win the case, etc.” In other words, they don’t worry about whether they *really* want to achieve what is conventionally defined as “success”: they just go after it unreflectively. This has to greatly increase their chances of getting it; hence they are “the most successful.”

    But why think unreflectively pursuing conventionally defined “success” does more (on average) to “help the world” than would following your own bent?

    If your question is, What course in life should I pursue (broadly speaking)?, you have found, and expressed, the answer: “[I]f I’m feeling rich and comfortable[–your actual circumstances], and so less in need of success, well then I should enjoy myself by doing whatever seems appealing at the time . . . . What I most enjoy may well be to think on big far topics . . . .”

    Why, then, do you add: “. . . but I shouldn’t presume I have a coherent integrated account showing their true importance.” Your account is that you enjoy thinking about them; why not “trust” this account?

  • Mark

    This strikes me to the core. Thank you.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, I think that in general, you really need a bigger (and more regular) dose of tried and true proverbs to guide you through life, as you ponder these deep questions. :-)
    Allow me to help. Here’s a short, but good one:
    “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.” Translation: “Man plans, God laughs.”
    I think that has some applicability to your thoughts about near vs far thinking. For more, see: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Yiddish_proverbs

    Best regards.

  • Eric Auld

    I much agree that we have a very dim view of future preferences and so must take our investigations with a a grain of salt at some level. However, in my case I believe that it is a core need of mine to be involved in these pursuits. And in fact, the knowledge of their deep fallibility makes them integrate better into my life. It’s an example of the old truth that you need to play the game even as you deeply understand its flaws and poverty of meaning.

    On a personal note, I’m just starting the professional part of my life where I will have more opportunity to strive for success, and potentially more pressure to focus on the near-term questions. I am closing a part of my life where I have questioned far-term issues at length, and developing a skeptical view of these questions was I think one of the greatest skills I gained in this time.

  • Jess Riedel

    A while back I was discussing long term future values, i.e., what we want our descendants to be or achieve, and I realized that pretty much any simple description of such values seems crazy. With a little effort it is easy to find counter-examples, or at least discomfort-examples, to most any description much beyond “I hope future folks get what they want.”

    Isn’t this a strong argument for concentrating on existential risk in addition to the inherent badness of future folks not existing? (Existing is a prerequisite for almost everything future folks could want, so the expected value of working against existential risk is not decreased much by our ignorance.)

  • Allen

    Intelligence has nothing to do with it. To the extent that success isn’t predetermined, it’s random.

    The problems that you are presented with and the solutions you arrive at are both purely a function of the universe’s initial conditions and causal laws, and not due to any intrinsic property that you possess as an individual.

    The inferred properties of electric charge, color charge, spin, mass, etc. seem to be sufficient for explaining what we observe, including human ability and behavior. There is no need to introduce an additional property of “intelligence”…doing so adds nothing.

    • http://kazart.blogspot.com mwengler

      The inferred properties of electric charge, color charge, spin, mass, etc. seem to be sufficient for explaining what we observe, including human ability and behavior. There is no need to introduce an additional property of “intelligence”…doing so adds nothing.

      Deriving the particulars of argumentative and informative posting behavior from the basic physical properties of the type you mention is not something I ever saw in my Physics PhD education. Maybe I was absent that day?

      If such a derivation existed, I would imagine there would be a step something like “And then a miracle happened” before they derive the answer. Perhaps that miracle step includes “intelligence.”

  • David J

    “I hope future folks get what they want” is a reasonable statement and, despite its limits, leaves us with plenty of valuable work to do.

    For example, if the human race is mostly extincted by a preventable event in the next 50 years, then future folks will not exist and/or be less likely to get what they want, which is bad. So we should work hard to prevent the event from happening.

  • Mike

    I have always marveled at those that achieve conventional success. I want to know how they managed to keep from being distracted by more interesting topics.

    Says the guy reading the blog at the office.

  • snarles

    In my perspective, the choice between iconoclastic and conventional success is less a matter of status-seeking and more a matter of whether you have the willpower to chug through the less-fun route of conventional success. Don’t expect any sympathy from the successful because chances are, all things being equal they would also prefer to work on non-mainstream topics yet they still force themselves through the drudgery of mainstream success for the sake of economic security. The iconoclasts are unique in possessing the freedom to pursue their primary interests and chances are that this is a boon that their non-iconoclastic peers deeply envy.

  • michael vassar

    Sounds to me like we have very different standards for both who counts as smart and who counts as successful. Most smart people don’t try to be successful, (instead they play out an identity they are handed like everyone else) so the don’t succeed. Big surprise. I’m very surprised when I see someone who seems to be trying to be successful, as I understand trying, and I expect such people to succeed with high confidence.

  • Gaurten

    ‘Doubting my far mind”
    .

    ….sounds like a bit of normal existential angst.

    “I don’t think we’re here for anything, we’re just products of evolution. You can say ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose’, but I’m anticipating a good lunch.”

    -Dr. James Watson
    (Nobel laureate & co-discoverer of DNA)

  • leonard

    there’s a selection bias. we see the smart, unreflective people who “succeed” and become CEO. we don’t see the smart, unreflective people who lead lives of quiet desperation as low-ranking vice presidents at fortune 500 companies. nor will we ever see again the smart, unreflective people who blew up trading MBS. (cf. taleb)

    • Josh

      How many CEO’s do you know personally to determine whether or not they are reflective? On another note would you say that you are more reflective about world issues than Bill Gates?

  • tom

    It would take you 4 months to write a book that would be better and more useful than a Geoffrey Miller book, and his books are good and useful, and successful.

    Something titled like “Lying to Ourselves”. You could spend half of your chapters on normal daily examples of how we really make decisions about dating, marriage, kids, since people love that, then you could build up to how this way of thinking affects how we think about and accept and change our systems of social control like governments. You’d have to make sure to navigate away from the exact subject that ‘freak undercover naked’ economists cover. Then you could go wacky for a couple of chapters.

    So you could do something useful and probably successful on a national level, by February, that would synthesize some of your thinking about us. How many people are in that position?

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  • Chetan

    Brilliant post, reminded me of Keat’s notion of negative capability – very few successful people stray outside their competence because they don’t have that negative capability (except enough to get skilled at their core work) and are comfortable enough where they are, intellectual curiosity & high IQ are not necessarily concomitant traits.

    “Muddle headedness is a condition precedent to independent thought.”- Alfred North Whitehead

  • fiona

    Something titled like “Lying to Ourselves”. You could spend half of your chapters on normal daily examples of how we really make decisions about dating, marriage, kids, since people love that, then you could build up to how this way of thinking affects how we think about and accept and change our systems of social control like governments.

    SOLD!