What To Do When You Feel Inadequate

There are times in life, usually when I’m struggling with a problem that I’m sure I’ll look back on as trivially easy, when I begin to feel a creeping sense of doubt in my own abilities.

I think to myself, “you are hoping to accomplish Big Dream X, and yet here you sit struggling to write a javascript program that prints out a chessboard”.

Concerns of this sort can be very difficult to brush aside, but when they happen to me, there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind:

1) Everything I’m good at I used to not be good at.

I don’t think it’s unfair or overblown to say that at the peak of my guitar playing abilities I was just a little shy of world class. Around the age of 21 or 22 I could easily handle Andy Mckee’s “Drifting”, and I even had a pretty convincing cover of Eric Johnson’s seminal “Cliffs of Dover” under my belt. But where I really dazzled was in my original compositions which, if you’ll permit me the indulgence of tooting my own horn a little, displayed a sensitivity and nuance that almost everyone who heard them found striking.

That’s not an assumption on my part. Back then it was a regular occurrence to perform at some college event and then be approached by a half-dozen people asking me questions and gushing about how they’d never heard anyone as skilled as me play in person.

Which is why it became easy, even for me, to forget how bad I was when I started and how hard I had to work to achieve what I did. I think I had been “playing” guitar for about two years before I even began to seriously practice. Even then, while my progress was fairly quick, it was far from spectacular.

The same guy who went on to excel musically spent many, many frustrating hours trying to get graceless fingers to coax something vaguely resembling music out of an uncooperative piece of wood. Perhaps the same guy who goes on to found a billion dollar company or helps reshape the foundations of AI theory will look back on those simple coding exercises and wonder why it ever seemed so hard.

This helps me put my struggles into context.

2) Constant failure is the price you pay for greatness.

A great way to avoid failure is to simply never try to do anything very hard. I could just start working at a Barnes and Noble, wait until I’m in middle management, and stay there for the next half century, and I bet I would experience very few embarrassing failures.

Since I’ve deliberately chosen not to take the easy way out, there’s no avoiding the fact that I’m going to bump up against my limits. I’m going to embark on a project that’ll wind up being too ambitious and at some point I’ll simply crash and burn.

But so what? Point me to anyone who has achieved great things, like solving a longstanding problem or remaking an industry, that also managed to avoid failure while they did so.

Can’t think of any? Me either.

The tricky part, of course, is remembering this when you’re actually in the middle of an ongoing crisis and you’re beset by self doubt.

3) Titans rarely feel like Titans

Sometime last year or so I was reading “Almost a Miracle”, a history of the Revolutionary War by John Ferling. It was fascinating overall, but one thing that stuck out was the insight it gave me into the personality of George Washington.

Washington is about the closest thing American history has to a mythical figure. And yet he spent his entire life feeling insecure because of his lack of formal education, and he repeatedly questioned his suitably for the role he was asked to play in the war.

This is the man that went up against one of the greatest empires in world history and won, all while unsure as to whether he had the personal resources, wit, and wherewithal to succeed.

Why should I expect my own accomplishments to come easily?

Conclusion

I’ll level with you: you’re going to fail. You’re going to feel inadequate. That’s what happens when you hold yourself to a high standard and reach for the best within you in an attempt to accomplish big things.

You have to know when to throw in the towel, of course; not every idea is worth pursuing. But the majority of people I’ve encountered err on the side of quitting far too soon. Finding someone with sub-optimally high levels of persistence and grit seems to be pretty rare.

There’s another thing I remind myself of, as a last resort, when I feel like giving up. It’s not something I say often or when I’m feeling depressed, but it’s nevertheless true, and sometimes you have to be the person who’ll say the tough things you need to hear.

After a while spent futilely groping toward a solution to a problem, when I want to just let go and sink into mediocrity, I’ll think to myself:

If this is all it takes to break you, you would never have been worthy of greatness anyway.

No Vast Conspiracies

Hanlon’s Razor is a well-known aphorism that goes something like “never assume bad intentions when assuming stupidity is enough”. In a recent Facebook post Eliezer Yudkowsky, true to form, expanded the definition thusly:

“Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to an enormous complicated System full of conflicting incentives getting stuck in a weird equilibrium. When that weird equilibrium is crushing people in its gears, don’t attribute that harm to a conspiracy of evil powerful people who planned it all and profit from it. There is no master plan behind the US medical system, it’s just an enormous complicated thing that got stuck. Even if there’s a billionaire or politician benefiting from the current setup, they didn’t cunningly plan for the US medical system to be dysfunctional, and they couldn’t make anything be different by choosing otherwise. Conspiracies of evil people plan how to profit from the System’s current stuck state. They don’t decide where it gets stuck”

Another way of grokking Yudkowsky’s modified version is to ask yourself how cohesive a group of people would have to be, and how intelligent it’s members would have to be, in order to be capable of orchestrating the sorts of conspiracies that keep so many otherwise sane individuals up at night.

If your closest friends and family were secretly given a trillion dollars and told to plan and execute a Vast Conspiracy of your choosing, how high would you judge the odds of success to be? How long do you think it’d be before your group began to fight internally, or before someone slipped up and let the secret out, or you ran into unforeseen and unforeseeable complications?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure plenty of people try to be evil masterminds, and maybe they even succeed in a limited way.

But the idea that a black-robed cabal (or a boardroom equivalent) is maneuvering the world into this exact configuration with surgical precision for some sinister end is just ridiculous.

Just to be safe, though, I want any Illuminati who happen to be reading this to know that they can pull off their masks and reveal their true identities, because I will vote for them so hard.

If someone is that much smarter than me, that much more organized than me, and that much more competent than me, then perhaps they should be in charge.

What this implies, for both actual policymakers and those pondering the best ways of changing the world, is that whatever broken System you want to fix likely doesn’t have a brain you can discover and destroy. More than likely the solution will involve something like changing Schelling points, large-scale cultural shifts, technological breakthroughs, etc.

Which…isn’t exactly great news, I know. But at least you won’t be wasting your energy aiming at the wrong targets.

Profundis: The Nexus Trilogy

Feeling a little like a set of thrillers coauthored by Tom Clancy and Greg Egan, Ramez Naam’s “Nexus” trilogy follows a scattered group of hackers, ex-soldiers, government officials, and artificial intelligences as they struggle to cope with the implications of a world changed by a powerful new technology.

Nexus is a drug comprised of nano-scale robots that bind with the nervous system, allowing individual people to interact with their brains via a command line interface and groups of humans to share thoughts and emotions.

Naam does a good job of painting a realistic portrait of the secondary and tertiary ripples of having such a drug in play: Near the beginning of the trilogy we observe genetically enhanced supersoldiers becoming vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors. In between, autistic children are healed by being able to feel the minds of other people, mothers connect with the budding consciousness of their unborn children, and sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

I found this seriousness refreshing, because too often science fiction is confined to riffing on one or two implications of a new technology while leaving almost everything else unchanged.

The 2014 film “Her”, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a writer who falls in love with an advanced AI operating system, is a good example. While it may seem far fetched that a human could form a romantic connection with a disembodied intelligence, if such a being were advanced enough to be capable of passing the Turing test, would being in love with one be that different from being in love with a person living on the other side of an ocean?

The problem, though, is that other than this we don’t see much change as a result of extremely advanced AIs being turned loose. A few people become attached to them and complications arise which serve to move the plot forward. But where is the vastly accelerated research in mathematics and computer science, where are the internecine struggles between AIs competing for resources, where are the panicked reactionary  governments trying desperately to cling to power?

I realize the film wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive meditation on the changes human-level AIs will usher in, but I still found it’s extremely limited scope unsatisfying.

The “Nexus” trilogy explores these questions and much more besides. It doesn’t convey the vast, smoldering existential horror of Peter Watts’s “Blindsight”, nor does it quite live up to the narrative majesty of a Vernor Vinge book, to whose “Rainbow’s End” it is comparable, but it is an ably-crafted, fast-paced international spy story filled to the brim with plausible near-future technology centered around advances in neuroscience and nanotechnology.

There is a decent chance I’ll reread the whole trilogy at some point in the future, which is a high recommendation indeed.

A Menagerie of Hateful Beasts

After sharing an article recently on Facebook which recounted one person’s experience with mental illness, the response I received was enthusiastic enough that I felt compelled to write an essay that I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time.

Like many others, I have struggled with bouts of depression and mild anxiety throughout my life, going all the way back to childhood. For the most part this hasn’t been any worse than merely “having the blues” or “being in a funk”.

But once, in the summer of (I think) 2010, I was hit with something more powerful, and vastly more sinister.

To this day it is the closest I have ever come to losing the struggle, and simply giving up.

Anyone who has gone through a similar experience and confided in another has probably received well-intentioned but completely useless advice. The parent, teacher, sibling, or significant other says “your life is fine, you want for nothing, and your future is bright; what on Earth could you have to be sad about?”

It becomes starkly obvious in those moments that these people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. The depression that seized me in those gentle summer months was so far beyond “being sad” that I simply don’t have the words to describe it.

I will try, nonetheless.

Sometimes, when the tectonic plates of a mind shift in the wrong way, cracks appear and a menagerie of hateful beasts emerges to wreak havoc. Few will ever know what it’s like to have their brains descend into a state of absolute civil war, and few will ever feel like children lost on a battlefield in their own souls, trying to navigate by the lurid glow of a bonfire of misery scorching the earth beneath them.

Each day when I awoke a ghoulish specter was there to greet me, and it followed me into my dreams each night.

This was, to put it mildly, unpleasant.

I am living proof that survival is possible, and one of my motivations in writing this essay is the fact that reading about the experiences of other people is one of the things that saw me through. Knowing that I was not insane and was not a bad person was just barely enough to hold me together.

Though I can’t call this experience a blessing, it did teach me a few things.

For one, I’m capable of an empathy towards the psychotic, schizophrenic, and deranged that I doubt many other people can feel because I’ve seen a glimmer of what their minds must be like. I am also better prepared to counsel the bereaved and depressed because I know how hollow the words “cheer up” can be.

Further, as I didn’t have access to a therapist or analogous support structures, I was forced to invent a number of techniques for controlling my mood and my attention. It was during this time that I first kept what is sometimes called a “gratitude journal”.

Simply trying to notice that your life isn’t so bad doesn’t help much, but making a repeated effort at feeling grateful for specific people or experiences, if sustained long enough, can begin to lift one from the darkness.

The most intractable problem during this episode was these short little nightmare scenarios that kept repeating themselves in my head. After a while I realized that just trying to shut them down with brute force didn’t work very well, so instead I began to redirect them in funny or harmless directions.

To provide an example: let’s say my day is punctuated by brief panic attacks which are accompanied by a detailed, graphic scenario in which my entire family dies in a horrific car crash.

When this first happened it was just unusual and a little unsettling. Now weeks have gone by, I’m losing sleep, and I’m beginning to question my sanity because I feel like I can’t control my own thoughts.

Then I do something like this: I see my family in the car, they lose control, the crash happens, and it’s awful. But slowly my viewpoint begins to pan back, and I notice cameras and mics set up along the periphery. After a moment or two my family begin to open their eyes, and some stage techs approach the car to fiddle with various props.

The car crash was a scene in a movie; not only has no one died, but they’re all eating snacks between takes, with the bloody makeup still on.

This might sound kind of silly, but that’s the point. The key to halting these looping nightmares is not to try and tackle them head on, but instead to continuously re-contextualize them until they are robbed of their power. Ghoulish specters are fearsome in the dark, but they’re much less scary if they’re in bright pink robes, tripping on oversized clown shoes.

So that covers gratitude and redirecting attention. After I started seeing good results I also resumed meditating, usually in the mornings or whenever my emotional state was getting really bad. I caution against starting out with this, unless you’re an experienced meditator, because in rare cases meditation can actually worsen your symptoms.

In conjunction meditation, gratitude, and attentional control were enough to eventually allow my to repair myself. I have little doubt that if you have access to drugs and qualified psychiatric help you’ll do even better.

***

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, on a bigger scale, this experience also taught me a lot about the value of a life, and the importance of happiness.

My interest in religion has a lot of anthropological and psychological overtones, but part of it also stems from a once-desperate need to change the texture of my subjective experience. Religions, and in particular their respective mystical strains, have gone a long way in developing techniques for cultivating positive emotional states.

It’s possible to have a purely theoretical interest in these things, of course, but having felt the pendulum swing toward hell, one tends to be motivated to understand how other humans deliberately bring it back the other way.

Like your body, your mind is an ongoing project, and if you’re unhappy with part of it you don’t have to accept it as a given. Changing your mind is, in almost every way, harder than changing your body. But it’s worth making the attempt, through meditation, through journaling, through spending time with those less fortunate than you are, or whatever.

I had to almost die in order to understand that. I don’t recommend you wait that long.

 

 

Profundis: “Deep Work”

I just finished “Deep Work“, Cal Newport’s ode to sustained, high-octane focus. The short version of my review is that you should give him your money and do what he tells you to do.

The longer version begins by noting that there are at least two kinds of scholars:

Some scholars traffic in insights which change your mental landscape with all the ferocity and permanence of an asteroid impact. Perhaps Mencius Moldbug has convinced you that democracy isn’t that great, Roissy has you looking out for the subtle game-theoretic dynamics beneath human sexual interaction, or Thomas Metzinger has demonstrated that the subjective experience you call “I” doesn’t really exist.

Newport is not this kind of scholar. He belongs to a different, in some ways even rarer class of thinkers that tells you things you already kind of, sort of, halfway knew, but in a way that makes it all completely obvious and with clear, concise instructions in place for how to better act on this knowledge.

A brief summary of “Deep Work” might go like this: “Some work, like responding to emails and attending planning meetings, is shallow and easily automated. Other work, like proving new results in a field of math, is deep, and very difficult to automate. You should do more deep work because it’s more valuable, but it’s kind of hard, so here are some rules to help you quell distraction and build concentration, all of which you could probably implement before you finish this chapter”.

This is not a towering intellectual edifice that inspires fear and awe, it’s a carefully built retaining wall that keeps the rain from eroding a hillside; not a white-hot beacon of truth, but a flash light showing you a staircase that you overlooked in your haste.

The chances are good that you’re not getting as much out of your brain as you could be.

This book can help fix that.