A Rationalist Origin Story
I started reading about rationality stuff when I was around eleven. I was a very condescending eleven-year-old, and I hadn’t quite realised yet that the reason other children weren’t as smart as me was not because they were lazy but because I was born one of the lucky winners of the IQ lottery. I enjoyed my superiority a little too much – no, far too much – and I took great glee in out-arguing them, running rings around them, showing off how much faster I could finish tests and how many more difficult ideas I could comprehend. That was when I started reading about rationality, though I wouldn’t have called it by that name at that age. I started reading about things because I wanted new and interesting and clever-sounding ways to tell other children they were wrong.
I took a terrible glee in learning each new fallacy, like a cartoon supervillain handed a new weapon. Learning about bits of psychology such as tribe mentality was even more wonderful. It never occurred to me, not at that age, that I should apply these things to myself, that I could notice my own flawed ways of thinking and correct them and become stronger. I was a geeky introvert, I was the outcast of my school year, and that allowed me to feel deeply superior because everyone ELSE suffered from tribe mentality, everyone ELSE felt the drive to conform and be average and comply with authority, but not ME. No, I was special.
Any true rationalist would have been able to correct me of my error. I used to talk about how everyone else was a ‘slave to evolution’, because they wanted to date and obey their biases and have children and party and suchlike, and that meant they were just helplessly following drives instilled in them by a long process of natural selection. It was my duty to overcome my silly monkey-brain and not succumb to any of the biases or drives that evolution had instilled in me. I was the real-life version of the caricatures of crazy people standing on soapboxes screaming “WAKE UP SHEEPLES”, challenging every school rule and every idea or norm that anyone around me told me because it was my duty to be a Rebel. This is a majorly flawed way of thinking, because, well, the things given to me by evolution include my ethics, my intelligence and my humanity. The things given to me by my teachers and society include maths and science, because there’s no way I could’ve rederived it all myself as quickly as my teachers told it to me.
I had all my causes twisted up wrong, too. There was a time when I was aware of the problems with human brains, but I cited Freud’s “research” on the subconscious to talk in a stumbling childish way about belief/alief differences, not Kahneman’s research on biases. (I can remember one conversation with a friend where I was probably trying to get at confirmation bias, but I talked instead about the consciousness being a theatre and the security guards escorting out any ideas you didn’t like, and in a stunning display of lack of charity I characterised my friend’s security guards as burly idiots throwing out any idea they didn’t like the look of whereas mine were kind guardians who just protected the theatre-inhabitants from delinquents. I’ll forgive myself, it was in Year Seven.) I knew not to trust myself because my brain could fabricate memories, but I still trusted my intuitions anyway. I was worried about x-risk, but I didn’t know what nanotechnology or bioengineered plague was and thought if I spent a few weekends learning to program I’d be able to write a FAI myself; I was instead ridiculously worried about Yellowstone and overpopulation. There was a time not-all-that-long-ago when I was a tumblr SJW. They’re easy mistakes to make.
I don’t know if LessWrong actually existed when I was eleven, but when I eventually stumbled upon it – and I don’t know exactly when that was, my childhood memories are generally very hazy and confused, and I do know I cared about rationality a long time before then – it felt like coming home. I devoured the Sequences the way some people read TV Tropes; the whole thing is terrifically interlinked, and every time I got to a link where I didn’t know where it pointed, I would open the link in a new tab and start reading that instead. It inevitably turned into a tab explosion, until I had so many tabs open that I couldn’t read the title of any of them in the bar and I was just desperately accelerating my reading in the hope I’d eventually work through all of the open tabs and get back to somewhere where I knew where I was. My stumbling, confused identifications of the problems with human minds and with our world felt clarified, upgraded, but at that age it gave me very little except a whole new class of ways to tell people they were wrong, especially anyone who dared debate with me in Philosophy class.
During my GCSE years (age 14-16, when I was studying for the exams Brits take at the end of secondary school), I lived in a kind of haze. I had some kind of intolerance to gluten (and a bunch of other things besides, like onions and garlic) and started getting sick, but I didn’t know that yet, and between the stress and feeling sick all the time, things were pretty terrible. Once my sickness ramped up to full swing I probably averaged around two hours’ sleep a night, “making up” for it with involuntary naps in almost every lesson, catching up on the weekend, and occasionally collapsing. I don’t remember ever actually doing any homework, but I do remember being horrifically busy all the time. I remember trying to think through a brain-fog and failing miserably, being unable to complete simple thoughts, unable to summon the will to do anything.
Even things I enjoyed, like judo, became things I plodded along to because going with the flow and sticking to my schedule was better than lying in bed the entire time. I know I spent at least one summer holiday doing very little except lying in bed. I was chronically acutely sleep-deprived, and there were other symptoms of the dietary problems as well – I was taking around five indigestion remedies a day, and constantly nauseous. I still blame my general level of uneducatedness – the shamefully small number of books I’ve read, for instance, or the fact I never sat down at my computer on a weekend and taught myself to code – on the fact that I didn’t get anything done during that time. My judo is still recovering from those years; I have a huge natural talent and I was pretty good when I was younger, but I’m still trying to work myself out of the bad habits and lack-of-kill-instinct I picked up.
(People need to stop giving me sympathy for this. If you read this and feel sorry for me, stop. I know other rationalists who had to escape fundamentalist cults, or who lived halfway in a diabetic coma for a year because they didn’t realise what they were sick with, or who have suffered from depression since Approximately Forever. Go feel sorry for them instead. If you express sympathy with me, I will be encouraged to keep talking about it all the time, and eventually I will become insufferable.)
Somehow, magically, I ended up with ten A*s (“A star”, for the non-Brit readers – kind of like A+++) in my GCSEs – I certainly didn’t revise, so it must have been that magic trick that they call IQ. Those of us who did well in the IQ lottery are fortunate indeed. (I also got one standard A, the kind that doesn’t have a star, in Geography, but I like to pretend that never happened. It was half a percent away from being an A* and it infuriates me to this day.) The success was almost certainly attributable to the fact that, a few months before actually taking the exams, I cut all gluten out of my diet altogether. I still can’t believe how much better I felt. I could concentrate, I could sleep properly and stay awake during the day, I could feel happiness, I could eat without feeling sick. Once again I could think the kind of thoughts that my classmates couldn’t follow.
Everything changed, round about then. I cut off the tangled, heavy, painful mat (I never remembered to brush it) that was my long-enough-to-sit-on hair, and gave the hair to charity. (At the time I figured that giving it to an ineffective hair-donation charity was my best option; I didn’t think of selling the hair commercially and giving the profits to a more effective charity, and I wish I had, so I count this decision as one of my mistakes – don’t interpret it as a signal of virtue.) I then dyed the resulting pixie cut red. I got bought a leather jacket by my parents for doing well in my GCSE exams, and started wearing it near every day as a reminder of my victory (and also because it makes me look badass and I don’t care if you agree, it does). It was a very deliberate signal to myself and my subconscious; you are a different person now, and a better one, and the past has no hold on you.
I had left “secondary school” and entered “college”, and while I actually stayed at the same educational institution and changed from an “Upper Fifth” to a “Lower Sixth”, it meant a lot of things changed. I switched from studying eleven subjects to just Latin, Philosophy, Computer Science, Critical Thinking and English Language (Not literature! I’m not that useless! Language class is a mixture of linguistics and actual writing – nothing to do with literature). My timetable had free periods in it all of a sudden. The school provides a coffee machine to the Sixth Form, and that helped an awful lot with my daily drowsiness (until I became addicted and tolerant to caffeine, that is).
I was allowed to wear my own clothes instead of wearing school uniform, and for me that meant wearing high heels. I cannot understate the difference that high heels made, psychologically. Despite being almost exactly average height for a woman, I’m very short by standards of my school (probably a mixture of the halo effect making tall people do better at school entrance interviews and height being somehow correlated with intelligence or wealth or something – I’d need to look it up) and for me, never being on eye-level with people was… a subtle but pervasive difference that just made me miserable. It was signalling to my subconscious that I was still weaker and smaller than everyone else, still a child, still low-status and worthless in the adults’ eyes. Being artificially tall, so that I was able to see over people’s shoulders and look people in the eye and stride down corridors cloak aflutter feeling worthy of The Imperial March as a theme tune – that made a massive difference. I felt proud and grown-up and in command.
(I’m not particularly doing those things any more. I think I’m into flat shoes and warm jumpers these days. I don’t think I need to signal you-are-grown-up to myself any more, because I just believe it. I can run faster in flats, and I feel so much generally better about myself that I don’t need the happiness-booster-shot that is being tall. But at the time it was a big thing.)
I consider that time, the time when I stopped eating gluten and stopped having to study maths and added a few inches to my height, the time when I woke up. I don’t have a lot of memories from the years I was sick from the gluten, and before I got sick I was mostly too young to form a lot of good lasting memories. I became healthier and happier and freer and I think of it as becoming Level One – being ready to begin learning. Because finally, I began to do stuff. I mean, stuff apart from standard judo training and developing silly characters on Star Trek RPG forums (which, to be fair, did teach me a lot of writing and interaction skills). I started going for runs, public speaking, taking music exams, doing Young Enterprise and Gold DofE and Arts Award, getting onto film courses in London, entering poetry and essay and film competitions, organising events and clubs, running my 20-player-party Dungeons and Dragons group, and in general… caring about my life.
And I went back to reading and thinking about rationality and self-improvement, the way I had been before I got sick, and I found it made me melancholy. Reading the blogs and other writings of rationalists online felt like coming home, but it also felt like… a secret language I kept all to myself. I spoke it to myself, and it was the official language of the negotiations between various voices in my head, but I couldn’t speak it aloud. It was too conspicuous a signal that I was not part of the ordinary people tribe. Bringing up artificial intelligence in ordinary-people conversation just got me strange looks. By this point in my life I had already repented of my condescension towards everyone else a couple of years ago, and I was rapidly building social capital at school, but I still couldn’t have a conversation about the things I cared about and was interested by, because those things were weird. I wanted to know that everything I had read had not been some kind of insane wonderful dream. I wanted to not be alone any more.
Almost exactly a year after my first level-up, I joined the #lesswrong IRC channel. I’d tried to get conversations with other rationalists before, but I’d been confused about how to access IRC, I was too coward to comment on LessWrong and couldn’t find an active mailing list and I had eventually given up – but since then I’d been spending time in the IRC chatroom for my Star Trek RPG chatroom, and I came armed with knowledge (funny how path dependence works). I’d told myself I wouldn’t do it until I finished my exams, but it was the afternoon before my final exam and it was Critical Thinking and nobody really needs to revise for Critical Thinking. At the time, I still had pretty intense social anxiety, so it took quite a bit of courage to hit join. I hit it.
That has to have been one of the best decisions I ever made. I regret – intensely – that I did not make it years earlier. And when I think of the versions of me in other parts of the multiverse, where my social anxiety overcame me and I never ended up interacting with other rationalists, I feel pretty bad for those versions of me. This is my mental image now, that I use to motivate myself whenever I find myself declaring “this is too confusing, I give up”; remember that time when you thought it was confusing and you gave up and then you ended up spending several years not being in IRC when you could’ve been there…?
Because interacting with other rationalists is incredible. You get to test out your ideas and have other people viciously rip apart the bad ones until you’re left with only a steely core of things you’re certain of and a good sense of your own fallibility (and possibly some improved argument skills, here defined not as ‘persuasiveness’ but as ‘how to have a good rationalist argument, use google to gather evidence, be properly charitable and steelman, and express your meaning with clarity, precision and honesty’) and new better ideas to toy with. You get to talk to people who are just as smart as you or smarter, and they teach you things and because they’re smart and charitable and understand the typical mind fallacy, they won’t do what your school teachers did and attempt to ram things into your head in a manner ill suited for your psychology, and that means you learn things. You get to befriend people who are sane, and I cannot emphasise this part enough, that is awesome.
I was very, very rough around the edges as a rationalist. I still wasn’t really applying my knowledge of fallacies and biases to myself – I was far more willing to notice and criticise them in others. I had a bunch of ideas that I’d never really thought through and then cached as knowns, which I would ferociously argue for even though on reflection I don’t know if I really believed them. I hated maths in all its forms and was vaguely unwilling to endorse any part of STEM as something that could ever be enjoyable or useful for me; STEM was for other people, crazy masochist people who could actually like something as horrid as maths. I was socially anxious, and had a bunch of bad ways of dealing with other people, ranging from being horribly mindkilled by some politics discussions to still retaining some of my youthful condescending air to being so uncertain of myself that I’d turn every discussion topic to how much I sucked. I somehow managed to simultaneously be arrogant enough to think I was going to conquer the world and have intense imposter syndrome and be convinced I was stupid. My instrumental rationality was nonexistent; I would procrastinate for at least half of my life on a Star Trek RPG website, and I was generally too disorganised to do any schoolwork at all ever or keep my desk clear enough to sit at it. I was still more of a kid who learned about fallacies so she could tell people they were wrong than a rationalist, and still just a kid with empathy rather than an EA.
But suddenly I was interacting with other rationalists, exposing myself to correction and my arguments to attack and my flaws to observation and pressure-to-change, and that meant I was improving. Rapidly. I learned that one of my greatest strengths is introspection and my metacognitive techniques. I learned that my aversion to maths is a fact about myself, not a fact about whether maths is worthwhile as a field of study, and also that I can correct that aversion. (I now enjoy maths.) I learned that social anxiety was fixable, and with hints from helpful people, fixed it. I learned that imposter syndrome was fixable, and with hints from helpful people, fixed it. I learned that I should be modelling my akrasia completely differently to how I was doing it before, and that I can try and fix it not by yelling at myself to focus harder but on trying to get my natural hyperfocus to occur based around work rather than around video games. Maybe most importantly of all, it was like someone handed me a shiny badge and said, “Here, you have permission to try and be more rational. Everyone around you sure is. Go self improve.”
At some point in all the self-improving, I realised that I was compartmentalising. I felt deeply passionate about all this rationality and effective altruism and x-risk and community and recursive self-improvement stuff, but I had never actually done anything, just talked about it enthusiastically. I’d personally organised and run only one proper charity event ever, for a badly chosen charity. The last time I tried to do any scientific research was when I did my CREST Bronze Award and got so horribly confused by my results that one of my teachers eventually had to take me aside and explain my own conclusions to me (to be fair, I was testing whether increasing sugar concentrations allowed yeast to reproduce and respire more, and nobody had told me about osmosis yet, so ‘maybe the yeast gets obese’ was not that bad a thought). I had taken a computer science AS level course, thinking vaguely that I might discover whether I was any good at programming and machine learning, and the results were pretty conclusive; I should not become a programmer. The only community I ever brought together was my Dungeons and Dragons group.
It knew I had to do something before I turned back into the idiot kid who just wanted to insult people. I came up with a first miniature project, something to get me started; I was going to run a lunchtime class at my school, and teach people epistemic rationality concepts and instrumental rationality skills and all about effective altruism, and I was going to film all my sessions and record all my data and publish it on the internet for the use of anyone else who might want to try and teach kids rationality skills or convince them to become effective altruists. I needed to become a better rationalist, and you learn best by teaching others. Moreover, I wanted to be useful, and even if someone far more qualified than me did it again later and did a much better job of it, if I went forth and did this and made a bunch of a mistakes, I could potentially save those future experts some grief by telling them about what I did.
Not having properly internalised the whole “nobody needs to give you permission and nobody is going to run your life for you, just go start doing stuff” thing quite yet, I did feel the need to go on IRC and ask people if this was a good idea. I probably wasn’t even going to do it; it was one of those half-joking great ideas that I have every week, the newest shiniest one always stealing all and any attention that might have been paid to the last one, but the people on IRC talked me into it. Some people said it was definitely not a good idea, and others told me I would definitely fail, but people I respect said I should try, and some of them suggested I should try getting in touch with actual cool rationality people to ask for advice and resources. And I wasn’t going to do that either, because I have social anxiety, but then they talked me into that too. I sent some emails and spoke to some people, and long story short, I ended up going to Effective Altruism Global.
This was another massive upgrade to my life. One of the best upgrades yet. It was more important than stopping poisoning myself with foods I’m intolerant to, more useful than starting Sixth Form, and had a bigger effect on me than anything except perhaps when I first joined IRC. It’s hard to put into words exactly what the difference it made to me was. It’s like, before, I still half-suspected subconsciously that this entire thing, this wonderful thing where other people were rational and kind and would teach me how to be better, was just a mad dream; some trick the internet had played on me perhaps. And then I stood in a room full of amazing people and heard them say words like “steelman” and “utility” and “availability heuristic” out loud and something inside me melted a bit. That part of me felt like it had been trekking through a desert all its life and had just crossed a ridge and seen the sea glinting all the way to the horizon.
I know people “in real life”, now, who want to help me and support me. I have real-life friends who are way smarter than I am. I’ve stood in a room full of sane wonderful smart people and known that this was the kind of place I wanted to be for the rest of my life, somewhere I can learn from incredibly smart and sane people. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I’m not a high-level rationalist yet. I’m not a real effective altruist yet, because I haven’t got any money to give away. This is an in-progress rationalist origin story, which is OK, because I’m 17. But I have projects now, and I’m actively trying to get better and more rational and more effective.
I’m still ridiculously rough around the edges. I’m a Bayesian who’s scared of maths. But I think that just a few months ago, I was a bloody idiot, and I don’t even understand how I was so stupid back then, and that can only be a good sign. I think I might well think the same thing in three months. And it’s ridiculously exciting, because I’ve suddenly realised that I genuinely don’t know where I’m going to end up. I used to have all sorts of cached thoughts about my life – I would go to Cambridge, and then become a filmmaker, and then go into documentary and activism… Now? Eh, I’m applying to Cambridge. I don’t know what will happen, but I’m really excited, because whatever it is, I know that if I can keep up this sense of growing excitement, I’ll get to do things that will make me unbelievably happy. And if in a few months I think now-me is as stupid as I think year-ago-me was, that’ll be something that makes me incredibly happy. It’ll mean that not only am I improving, but I’m accelerating.
The Future Of Life On This Blog
So that’s why I haven’t blogged in a little bit. My last post was just a short time before I went to EAG. After EAG I wanted to write a post explaining all of the amazing things I learned and all of the ways I’d levelled up, but then every time I got halfway through that post I’d learn something even better, or get distracted from writing it by an awesome new project or something. But I do need to start writing again.
The first reason I need to write more on this blog is that I did promise several people some things; I’ve told multiple people that I’ll have a writeup for them of the things I learned whilst teaching my rationality class in school, and quite a lot of people have been asking for me to explain a few metacognitive techniques I use and it’ll be far easier to write one explanation and put it on my blog than teach all of them, and there are some other texts that I need to make sure I write which I may as well stick on my blog as well. The second reason is that I’m never ever going to be a scientist because I suck at science, and that means if I’m going to be useful to anyone it’ll need to be in politics and marketing and filmmaking and organising things, and that means I need to practise my writing skills as much as humanly possible so that I become half-decent at communicating with other humans. The third is that I really like writing and it makes me feel all expressive and relaxed and accomplished and thus doing it is good for my mental health.
I was totally going to write up all of the fun things I learned when I went to EA Global, but it was such a long time ago now that I’m going to let it suffice to say: If you ever get the chance to go to anything even remotely similar, take it. It was awesome.
I need to do a writeup of the stuff I learned when teaching my class. Depending on how long those posts end up getting, I’ll either take a post for each class I taught, or lump the classes together into a half-term’s worth per post. I also did a survey to test a hypothesis I came up with while teaching the class, and I want to write the results of that up too. People have also been asking me about how I cured myself of imposter syndrome and social anxiety, and for an explanation of my happiness techniques. I want to do that, too. I’ve been working on learning mindfulness from inside a hyperactive brain that is incapable of sitting still, and I mostly want to write up my efforts in the hope someone will come along and read it and know how to fix all my problems. I think I also want to do a general writeup of all the minor things I’ve learned, and I have some short-story fiction ideas floating around that I should probably have a stab at because at some point I may want to support myself by writing things and I need to practise.
So, expect those; 5 classes’ worth of observations, imposter syndrome and social anxiety, happiness techniques, mindfulness stuff, a post of miscellaneous minor tricks, and a short story. I’m telling you this because if I don’t, it may well be another two months before I post anything, whereas if I do, I’ll feel obliged to follow through 🙂