How to be strategic

I’m not a fan of LessWrong – while I like the idea of being more rational, and strive to acknowledge and feel my emotions but not let them impede my thinking needlessly, there’s a strong whiff of holier-than-thou coming off of many in the rationalist community, including the otherwise very interesting Scott Alexander, whose writings on mental health care I admire. A little humility goes a long way but it is sometimes in short supply.

Nonetheless I was happy to read Anna Salamon’s article Humans are not automatically strategic. Though the article makes heavy use of the trope of calling the less-rational populace “humans,” as if rationalists are somehow better than mere humans, the core of the piece lays out an eight step process to develop and pursue goals that is very much like the method I came to the hard way over many years, and try to coach the people I support into using.

(a) Ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve;
(b) Ask ourselves how we could tell if we achieved it (“what does it look like to be a good comedian?”) and how we can track progress;
(c) Find ourselves strongly, intrinsically curious about information that would help us achieve our goal;
(d) Gather that information (e.g., by asking as how folks commonly achieve our goal, or similar goals, or by tallying which strategies have and haven’t worked for us in the past);
(e) Systematically test many different conjectures for how to achieve the goals, including methods that aren’t habitual for us, while tracking which ones do and don’t work;
(f) Focus most of the energy that *isn’t* going into systematic exploration, on the methods that work best;
(g) Make sure that our “goal” is really our goal, that we coherently want it and are not constrained by fears or by uncertainty as to whether it is worth the effort, and that we have thought through any questions and decisions in advance so they won’t continually sap our energies;
(h) Use environmental cues and social contexts to bolster our motivation, so we can keep working effectively in the face of intermittent frustrations, or temptations based in hyperbolic discounting

Point (a) seems to be where so many people fail. What is it that you want? What should happen? If it were magic, where would we be already? Some of this is using question (b) to back into (a), which can be easier, sometimes. But (b) is really about measurement—making your goal operational.

(C) and (d) are research. People often forget to do this, or find it unexciting. That could be a clue that you’re not as interested in your goal as you thought (see point (g)), but in these times many find our intellectual persistence has been weakened by the many available distractions of social media, especially the FOMO that comes with that. It’s all to easy to envy or look down on anyone you come across on Twitter, Instagram, etc. and it doesn’t help you be you if you are buys inspecting others.

(E), systematically test many different conjectures, is an advanced form of what I wish people. would do, which is just try something and see how it goes. That makes a lightweight form of (f) possible—see if what you are trying is working, and make a change if not, based on (b). (H) is similarly advanced. A lighter form of this, more than adequate to start, is to take notes on your plan and results so you can refer to them later, and do so.

Any creative professional (and I use the term broadly) eventually needs to create a system for themselves (or adopt and then adapt one) to organize their thoughts and plans. One’s head is the least reliable storage. Doing so can help make being strategic possible.