Things I Should Have Written Months Ago

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 🙂


Doing Hard Things, Just Because – A Blog Post About DofE

Here’s a ramble which could as easily be titled ‘Things I Learned On DofE’, ‘Things I didn’t expect to learn on DofE but did’, ‘The Supergeek’s Guide To Whether Fellow Indoors-People Should Do DofE’, or ‘An Indoors Person’s Guide to Not Dying on DofE’. Enjoy (or not).

Before I begin, for all you people out there who aren’t Brits, DofE is short for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a thing that a lot of secondary school and college (high school – college does not mean university here) students do that requires you to provide evidence that you do at least one hour weekly of volunteering, one hour weekly of sport and one hour weekly of some kind of skill practice for minimum timescales, plus do at least a week of some kind of residential course, plus go on some expeditions in the Great British Countryside. Here I’ll be specifically referring to the expeditions.

Mostly expeditions are done by foot and since one of the rules is that you have to be completely self-sufficient – you carry all your food and equipment with you, and accepting anything from helpful strangers or buying anything in a shop will get you failed – the image that a Brit would associate with DofE is of a small bedraggled group of teenagers struggling, lost, through some farmer’s field in Wales with oversized backpacks and pockets full of “emergency” chocolate, bickering about whether Les Mis makes for annoying walking songs and whose fault being lost is.

I believe in doing difficult things for no better reason than that they are insanely difficult and you might fail.

I’ve done it, and learned a lot. Sometimes it was unconsciously – I thought I could totally achieve these things and was unaware of how overambitious I was being. More recently, I’ve begun actively seeking out opportunities to do scary tricky things. Sometimes it’s as ‘boring’ as doing hard stuff in school – I mainly took Ancient Greek because learning Ancient Greek to GCSE standard in just two years sounded suitably challenging, and one motivation in taking Computer Science was that it would make me do things I found insanely tricky. More recently, I’ve done my Gold-level Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

I should qualify this, because most people don’t consider the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award to fall into any class marked “insanely tricky things”. For me… well. I hate the outdoors with a burning passion. I hate getting up early. I hate teamwork. I hate insects. I hate being wet, and I did this expedition in a canoe. I don’t actively hate the British weather, but I like to observe it from somewhere sheltered ie. indoors. I am afraid of the dark, and there are no plugs to power your nightlight when you’re sleeping in a field. Being separated from my computer for more than five minutes makes me nervous. Other people moving my stuff makes me a tad panicky. Gold DofE was pain and misery incarnate.

But did it achieve the desired effect? Did I learn something from the pain? Yeah, I think I did.

I mean, it was exactly as miserable as I thought it would be, have no doubt about this.

There comes a point at which there is so much dirt under your fingernails that trying to scrape it out from underneath only causes you to push the dirt further into the soft, vulnerable bit of flesh under the nail. I have a rather strong reaction to this and it manifests as an intense urge to gnaw my fingers off so that at least the dirt won’t be so close to me. Needless to say, it is imperative that this urge be resisted and not indulged, but it is still there, gnawing at the back of my mind the way I would gnaw on my fingerbones. There is dirt under my fingernails. There is probably dirt in my bloodstream. I have been infected, and am probably a zombie. Ignore the gnawing. Think of eating brains. (Anything looks appetising so long as it isn’t DofE food.)

There comes a point where lifting your paddle and putting it in the water just one more time will cause your shoulder to literally catch fire, detach from your body and rot at the bottom of the river, and yet you lift your paddle anyway, ignoring the knot that sends fireworks of pain across your back. (At least after Practice, I knew to wear a scarf for the Assessed. If you don’t protect your neck, the buoyancy aid’s strap wears a hole in it.) And still, stroke after stroke, you continue, your arms greedily eating up the river until your soul has no room left in it for anything but the grey, dull, rushing waters of pain. You do this because you are eager to find your destination, where you will finally be able to lie down on something that isn’t the precariously tipping edge of the boat. You do this even though you know the rules say you have to be out of camp for eight hours and going faster will only mean you have to slow down later.

There comes a point where your waterproof trousers, which do keep the splashes of river out but also keep the awfulness of cold sweat-damp in, become the focal point of your sorry little existence and your mind (lost as its faculties are in the existential dread associated with being a mind purely focused on a damp pair of trousers) starts to wonder if there is any method left by which your legs might become warm. Maybe if you took your tin of matches, and lit a match, and threw it back in the tin with all the other lovely flammable matches and slammed the tin lid down, and then stuffed it down your crotch, your legs would not be so cold? Maybe if you took the emergency knife, intended to free a rescue rope which is caught around someone’s neck or pulling the rescuer in, and you violently stabbed your least favourite member of the team, you could pour their blood over your legs as a kind of libation to the gods of fire? Maybe if you stood up right now, never mind that you’re in a canoe, and danced the Gangnam Style? (Cue Gangnam Style being stuck in your head for the next eight hours and your canoe-mates yelling at you for paddling to the irregular beat.)

There comes a point where your hands are sweaty enough that your gloves would, if you pointed towards the ground, simply slide slowly off your hands with a damp slick sound and squelch upon the floor. But if you take the gloves off, the river spray will make them cold and damp and you will get blisters from the paddle. Your solution is to spray your hands with deodorant until they hurt, and then they go red from some kind of reaction to the deodorant and blister anyway. There comes a point where your mind begins to break.

It is at this point that you start wondering whether this is actually a sane thing to be doing, and also the point where you realise that if this is how you feel on a four-day expedition then you really need to drop the dreams of hiking the Sahara to raise thousands for charity.

The wilderness, it turns out, is an uncomfortable place. I mean, even the British wilderness, which mostly consists of fields, sheep and oddly placed lampposts. In a way, that almost makes it worse – at least in the true wilderness there’d be nothing but jungle for miles on end. In the British wilderness, on one side of you is a fisherman who you’re slightly worried is watching you when you try and use a bush for a toilet, and on the other side is a sewage works (which admittedly you could have used for a toilet instead if your mind thought that creatively when running on grainy soup that looked like bird droppings when you squeezed it out of the plastic packet). At one point we became literal trolls and stopped under a bridge. You even have full signal on your phone and a 3G connection.

And yet even in the wilderness of Britain there is no dignity, none at all. You arrive at your first campsite and it’s a farmer’s field with no showers and no toilet except a broken and cobwebby Portaloo. This would be OK, sort of, okay it wouldn’t really be OK but it would be tolerable, except that when you used that bush there was no toilet paper and therefore you still smell, very faintly, of urine. And of river water. And of all that damp cold sweat that was collecting beneath your waterproof trousers. You’d use the toilet paper in the portaloo, but when you try and rip off a sheet, a spider crawls up your arm and you discover its spawn in the centre of the roll.

The toilets are awful, but worse when you wake up in the middle of the night needing it. At home you would merely roll out of bed and cross the hallway to the bathroom. On DofE, first you must psych yourself up enough that you can actually leave your warm, dry, comfy, beloved sleeping bag, which is borderline impossible at the best of times and truly daunting to attempt when you’re squirming with desperation. You wrap yourself back up in the coat and scarf that you were wearing all day, although your fingers are quickly so numb that you just do half the buttons into the wrong holes and then give up. Then you must stuff your poor shivering feet into their torture devices, cough, I mean shoes, and try to escape the various zips of your tent without tripping over the guyropes or getting wet against the damp exterior.

All of this guarantees that by the time you head for the toilet you are stumbling, desperate, bladder bursting, dressed in haphazardly draped half-buttoned garments and undone scarfs, at full speed towards the toilet (you only vaguely remember where it is) in a pitch black night you can’t see through while your socks absorb every drop of dew the entire field contains. There is, in such a situation, a definite risk of tripping up on a shoelace or an unseen grass tuft and then falling flat on your face in cow dung. And your first thought will not even be ‘ewww’, it will be ‘oh god, now I’m wet and cold, MY LIFE IS OVER’ as the dew soaks your coat.

That, my friends, is why we spent thousands of years inventing indoors.

So here is the first thing I learned on DofE; I love indoors. I am immeasurably grateful for indoors. Even the worst hostel in the world is better than an unknown farmer’s field within tripping distance of a river and hearing distance of a cow. And from now on, when I wake up in my nice warm bed in the morning and head for the shower, I will be duly grateful and probably really rather cheerful about it.

The other thing I am grateful for, and truly love and value, is light. I have been scared of the dark ever since I can remember. I don’t know what started it, maybe one over-shoulder glimpse too many of a horror movie or just an overactive imagination and strong visualisation skills, but whenever I’m in a room that’s truly dark – where I really can’t see – imagined terrors start approaching. A bat flies past my face on whisper wings. Demons wrap ethereal tendrils around my ankles, coaxing me from the safety of my bed. The corners grow shadows that lengthen and grow claws, with silent soft laughter echoing in the vertices. None of it is real, but in my mind’s eye it is so very visible, and I shrink back from the dark and slam the light switch on as fast as possible.

Except when there is no light switch. If I leave my torch on all evening every night, not only will it probably annoy others, I’ll run out of battery before the final night. There is no light that I can leave on all night.

There is, in fact, no comfort at all. At least at home in a powercut I can reassure myself that there is a solid brick wall between myself and any potential axe murderer. In my tent? A thin wall of canvas, flapping furiously back and forth in the wind (wind far too loud to hear warning footsteps above it), is all that stands between me and any of the things I imagine might be waiting out there in the dark.

My fear of the dark was only worsened when I had to leave the tent. The outside toilets are bad enough – there’s the intensely creepy rustling of the wind and the squelches you step in that you pray are mud, please say that was mud, it’s not like I can tell in the dark… but no, the indoor toilets were even worse.

Creeeeaaaak, that’s the noise of the door you open to gain access to the building the toilets are in. It is deserted. The bone-white floor is chequered with pale shadows, and the only other light comes from the rowing trophies glinting gently on the walls. A long fading-out pathway of moonlight is illuminated where you opened the door and it spilled onto the floor. Consider how you feel in this moment.

Well, for me? In that moment I am terrified, because the only thought that can fill my head is the image of a horror movie villain with a bloody axe stepping slowly into the last tile illuminated by that moonlit path, and then grinning a mad grin with far too many canines. Okay, it looked kind of like the hallway from Five Nights At Freddy’s. I had to stand before the door to the bathroom, forcing myself to breathe slowly, telling myself that when I opened the door there would not be a manic animatronic with gleaming eyes waiting behind it to crack my head open. As for afterwards, when I left again, I was sprinting the entire way back to my tent whispering ‘don’t look back, don’t look back’ to myself.

But now I am less scared! I had to cope, and thus I had to figure out some way to be less afraid. It was pretty tricky. I’ve decided upon a few things that seem to have some minor benefit.

System 1 and System 2, for my unfamiliar readers, refer to the concept of having one part of your mind with instinctive emotional responses and another part with logical thought-out responses. When you know, intellectually, that you should do your homework but your heart yearns for video games, your system 1 and system 2 are in conflict. You can have system-1 beliefs and system-2 beliefs; a system-1 belief that guns are bad feels like being afraid when you think about guns, whereas a system-2 belief that guns are bad feels like having read four studies with statistics on crime and deciding that overall it’s probably better not to have them.

My fear of the dark is one of the situations where system-1 and system-2 conflict, because my system 2 knows that I have an extremely statistically low chance of being murdered by an axe murderer in the middle of the night on DofE, and my system1 KNOWS FOR DEFINITE THAT THERE IS A HUNGRY WEREWOLF WITH AN AXE IN THAT SHADOW OVER THERE.

Redefining the problem like this helped me solve it, because while I don’t have the ability to leave my torch on all night, I do have a series of tricks that I’ve practised for dealing with sys1/sys2 conflicts. My system 1 and system 2 don’t communicate as well as I’d like them to. System 2 can scream as loud as it likes about how werewolves don’t exist, but system 1 doesn’t ever really listen. So I try to get system 2 to send better messages that system 1 does listen to. This means things like refusing to look over my shoulder or run, even when I’m walking through dark grass and it’s rustling and I feel like I might be jumped on at any moment – because if sys2 is saying “werewolves don’t exist” while my body is saying “I’m afraid of werewolves”, sys1 is getting mixed messages. I have to make my body language say that I am unafraid.

It’s also useful to remember that system 1 is not your enemy. It is a part of you, and evolution does not just construct parts of brains that are completely useless. Its reactions to certain things aren’t quite calibrated properly – you really aren’t in much danger whilst walking from your tent to the campsite Portaloo. But that same instinctive emotional reaction protects you from making stupid decisions like walking down dark alleys in the inner city alone late at night. That heuristic is your friend, and instead of yelling at that part of you about how stupid it is, you can negotiate with it – for instance, you could agree to have your penknife in your pocket every time you walk alone in the pitch black, if that other part of your brain agrees to stop making you want to scream and curl up in a ball in terror.

And while we’re talking about ways to make yourself less afraid, one of the best things to do is exposure therapy. I was afraid of camping, and having to camp with other students, and of having to cook and giving myself food poisoning. I was pretty afraid of attempting to organise my own trips or holidays. I was terrified of the dark. I’ll admit it, I was kind of scared about spending that long away from my computer. And now I am less afraid, because I have faced and conquered all of those fears. That was thanks to DofE.

It hasn’t fixed all of my problems. I think that, having completed Gold DofE, I will go out of my way never to encounter a wet Portaloo floor again. As I am someone who likes being indoors having intellectual conversations far better than festivals, they shouldn’t be too hard to avoid. Other people also seemed to face a few things that I never would have been able to face in a million years, like fitting four people inside a “four man” tent (my strategy is to find what it says on the tent’s label and divide by three or so) and the incident with the sunglasses.

The story of that incident is glorious. We were quite happily paddling out of our rest break beach when a sudden splash sent a stab of panic into my heart. I looked round to see my teammate, distinctly unhappy and minus her sunglasses. It was sudden, unexpected, and I still have no idea how it happened. As I understand it, they were free sunglasses, but nevertheless the teammate wanted them back. Therefore I had to lean precariously over the left side of the boat, wincing at the constant pain in my back and stomach, to counterbalance the boat so we wouldn’t capsize while my teammate leaned over and looked into the river.

The sunglasses were visible, glinting on the rocks at the bottom. At first, we still didn’t know what to do; the teammate tried scooping them up with a paddle, but they merely fell off. We stopped trying, knowing that if they slipped into a crack in the rocks they’d be gone forever. I channeled the Science Officer characters from the geeky TV shows that my teammates would never watch, and suggested using two paddles together to pinch the sunglasses. This very almost worked, but after a few minutes of being a ridiculously ungainly preying-mantis-like oar-creature, the teammate was fed up. Rolling up her sleeve, she plunged her arm into the river up to the shoulder.

To which my reaction was eewwwww. River water. River water! We’d paddled past at least two sewage works that day! The entire river IS the sewage works if you’re a fish or a duck or a swan! Those sunglasses were sitting on the rocks in piles of… whatever that green seaweed stuff is if you’re in fresh water! Ewww…

This is the point, I think, where I’m going to mention that someone found a dead fish floating in the river and picked it up and put it in their boat with them and named it Harry the group mascot, and this kind of mindset is so utterly alien to me that the girl in question may as well be an invader from Mars.

Had that been me? I would have freaked out. Then again, that isn’t news. I spent most of DofE freaking out about things that normal people wouldn’t freak out about.

I am not a typical human. I can write and speak and pass exams in a way that looks and is absolutely effortless. But I am not really at that much of an absolute advantage over other humans, because there are things that are effortless to other people that are difficult for me. Like getting up in the morning and being on time. People say things like “oh, being on time to lessons is easy, just set an alarm five minutes before you have to be there!” and they miss the fact that that is about as helpful as me telling them “oh, getting 100% on exams is easy, you just have to read the textbook all the way through the night before!” Sure that’s how it works for me, but I’m different to them and if they tried to just read the textbook the night before they’d fail – and sure, setting an alarm is how it works for them, but they’re different to me and if I tried to just set an alarm I would still be horribly late.

It struck me on DofE how much I am simultaneously extraordinarily glad I am me and how jealous I am of those neurotypical be-on-time-by-default, remember-by-default skills. All of those magic powers they have – the magic power to be on time, like my magic power to pass exams without studying… I want them. And I wonder if I can learn them. If I can, I really really should acquire them, since they’d be extraordinarily useful.

If I had the power to do things by default, instead of as part of a long protracted struggle, I would not have needed two entire days to pack for DofE. Yes, that’s what it takes for me. I need to make sure I have a pile of everything, and then organise the piles according to what would go into which pocket if I had some kind of perfect Platonic-ideal grid filing system, and then check I have everything by moving the piles across the room and checking things off on a list that I partially got off a website and partially invent as I go along. It takes me two days because I panic that I’ve lost things, have actually lost things (the default assumed state for all items is lost unless I know exactly where they are because they’re on my desk), am forced to choose which boxes of my Platonic ideal grid to combine into one pocket, need to buy food, can never fit everything into a small enough bag, and so on.

Were I to be able to do-by-default like a normal person can, if I had the powers necessary to assume I’ve not lost things until I’ve looked and can’t find them, to be punctual most places and so on, I might be able to pack in a shorter amount of time. And if I didn’t need to schedule such a long time for packing, I probably would have been able to go to an event I very much wanted to go to. It’s the same with getting up in the morning – I currently get up at 6am to leave the house between 7 and 7:20am, because I know I just can’t get my morning routine done faster. On DofE it turned out that morning routine took at least two and a half hours and on the last day this led to me getting up at 4am. I cannot emphasise enough: this made me unhappy.

So! I am learning to try and have some neurotypical powers. One tool that DofE gave me is a tool I’ve been calling aggressive prioritisation. When I was getting up in the morning on DofE, at first, indecisiveness would take over. Was it time to get up yet? Should I expend phone battery turning my phone on to check? Surely it was time to get up now? Should I get out of my sleeping bag first? If I did that I’d be horribly cold, but at least then I’d be dressed and I could put my pyjamas and bedding immediately into my barrel at the bottom where they belong. Or should I put everything else away first? That way I wouldn’t be cold, but I would have to put my sleeping bag at the very top of the barrel, exactly where I don’t want it. Perhaps I should put my clothes inside my sleeping bag so they warm up with me a bit, and go back to sleep while they warm up…?

My concerns were valid concerns. And if I, say, started packing before I got changed, and then realised I’d packed my clothes at the bottom of the barrel, that would be a massive timesink of a mistake – I’d have to unpack everything again. However, almost nothing could be as big a timesink as the hours my brain would happily spend stressing about this outcome.

A Schelling fence is often used to address concerns like these. When playing video games, the temptation is always for “just one more round” or “just five more minutes” because humans are hyperbolic discounters, meaning we value the time in the immediate future more than we value the far future even when it makes no sense to do so. We value the next hour of playing video games more than we value the day of not being tired tomorrow, so we stay up an extra hour to play more video games. The solution is to set a completely arbitrary time – say, midnight – where before midnight “just five more minutes” is a valid argument, but afterwards it is not. At midnight you cease play, no matter how good an idea it seems at the time to keep playing. It is a covenant between your past-self and your future-self that you will both honour the other’s desires; a pre-commitment to taking the sensible route before you get biased the other way.

The problem is that there is no good Schelling fence in a situation like the morning on DofE. The temptation for just five more minutes is ever-present and always valid, since the next five minutes of contemplating your actions might actually save you from a mistake that costs you half an hour. The next five minutes checking and rechecking might be the moment you discovere your jumper is on backwards. And because one of my problem decisions is whether or not to turn on my phone to check the battery, I won’t be able to use a fence based purely on what time it is. The fences that work for me are ones that people publically commit to, or the ones that are time-based (eg. midnight), but neither of those are possibilities.

Enter aggressive prioritisation, for which prioritisation is probably actually the wrong word since you don’t prioritise. At all. A thought flits across your mind – “maybe I should get dressed”, perhaps or “shall I start packing?” – and you immediately do that thing. No prioritisation allowed. No questions asked. Whenever your brain starts asking tricky questions, like ‘why this thing first?” or “what if…?” you smack yourself on the wrist (literally – it’s called classical conditioning) and yell (not literally – the other people on the campsite won’t like you) “NO THINKING! NOW IS TIME FOR DOING! CHAAAARGE!”

Classical conditioning is, essentially, the same thing you train your dog with. Whenever your dog bites someone you spray it with water and shout “NO”, and whenever your dog waits patiently for their food you give it a pat on the head and say “good dog”. Or you feed your dog whenever you call “Dinnertime!” so eventually your dog has positive associations and comes running to your feet any time you call that word (or if you overdo it slightly, barks every time you say it in ordinary conversation). You can do the same thing with your system 1, and that’s partly how breaking an addiction by pinging an elastic band around your wrist every time you feel the need works – your brain is conditioned to associate the need with pain.

This, I think, perfectly illustrates the reason it can be difficult to be a supergeek on DofE. You know about all these useful psychology facts that ordinary teenagers wouldn’t ever think to know, because you read textbooks for fun. The tradeoff? Ordinary teenagers don’t need to know about classical conditioning. They don’t need to forcibly train their system 1s to get up in the morning or be unafraid of socialising. That’s the default setting for their brains, because they are ordinary.

It would help, a lot, if people around me stopped falling victim to the typical mind fallacy – the intuitive but wrong assumption that all human brains work in essentially the same way. Human minds most certainly do not. Some people have ADHD, or dyslexia, or are on the autistic spectrum, and their brains are fundamentally different. Some people have multiple personalities or schizophrenia or bipolar, and their brains are fundamentally different. I count among my friends someone who doesn’t have an internal monologue or a sense of their own mental ‘voice’ at all, someone with strong synaesthesia who sees colours whenever people talk to them, someone who can’t comprehend the concept of musical notes or keys because they are so tone deaf, and someone who always knows the time to the minute without looking at the clock.

And there are other differences that we see so often we’ve just forgotten about, from people who are colourblind and thus have never experienced red to the people who can see infrared light, from introverts and extraverts to girls, boys, transgender and agender people. Human beings are really really different. Knowing this, it should not surprise you that some people find it difficult enough to create habits and routines that they have to leave at least an hour and twenty minutes for a task like rolling out of bed, showering and dressing.

Knowing this, exclaiming “How can it possibly take you that long!?” is about as condescending and about as unfair as me looking at an ordinary person and explaining “How can you possibly not have heard of <obscure political philosopher>!?”
I spent a good part of DofE pondering a kind of Oppositeland, because it brought me great comfort when people said such things, and during many of the other discussions we had. In Oppositeland, you see, I am very normal – popular, in fact. You, dear reader, if you are one of the people who in this world is quite ordinary, then in Oppositeland you take the place that I occupy here. You are an anomaly.

In Oppositeland, I have enough friends that I can make a whole DofE expedition group out of them, mostly because everyone in Oppositeland likes playing Dungeons and Dragons and I’m a great DM. Hardly anyone likes parties, uses Facebook, plays non-combat sports or drinks alcohol – people who do that stuff instead of DnD, like you, are weird and vaguely frowned upon. Everyone struggles intensely with getting to lessons, so at least twenty minutes is allowed between every lesson. The time is taken out of teaching time, leaving lessons as short as half an hour, but because everyone is studious and smart they keep up just fine – you can’t, of course, because it’s ridiculous to be able to keep up with lessons that fast, but the system wasn’t built for people who need a lot of lesson time to grasp concepts, it was built for people who struggle with organisation. Having a job at our age is seen as an incredible and rare achievement – seriously, you can hold to a schedule like that and be on time and put up with people there? – but everyone else organises clubs and runs lunchtime classes and wins competitions and writes a novel on the side and you can’t keep up with that. This makes people look down on you, and wonder why you don’t get off your backside and just organise a charity fundraising event or something already.

There aren’t enough people like you to form a whole friendship group or expedition group, so you’re stuck with a group of the normal people. They allow at least four hours in the morning before leaving so that they have time for breakfast, meaning you don’t leave until almost noon, but it’s okay for them – they’re all night owls, used to staying up until 2 or 3am reading, so they don’t mind getting into camp late. To provide intellectual stimulation during the long hours of paddling, your teammates debate Bentham versus Mill and sing death metal songs. Your preference for gentle pop music is ignored, and your attempts to bring up a conversation subject you actually know anything about – say, funny anecdotes from classes or games like ‘Would You Rather’ – are deftly circumvented. As the conversation moves on to TV shows you’ve never heard of and don’t intend to hear of again, your head drops and your paddling grows somewhat uninspired. Your teammates shout at you for splashing.

Oh, and did I mention you have an allergy to something that is in basically all normal food so you can’t share meals with your group either?

If you are a normal, pondering Oppositeland may help you understand what it is like for a nerd, whose spiritual home is probably on one of those Antarctic research stations, to go on a DofE expedition.

This, I suspect, is why teamwork is so hard for me. Humans have basic expectations and assumptions for interacting with one another; that our personal space will be respected, that our speech will be listened to, and our points will be acknowledged. These norms never need to be spoken of; everyone knows. In teams, I have slowly realised, the expectations are something along the lines of; everyone pitches in, nobody gets left out, everything should be voted on, and the workflow should be focused on getting things done as a group. It took me a very, very long time to be able to work in a team, because my assumptions are different to those of the people around me. I assume that people pitch in or don’t pitch in in direct proportion to the amount of influence they want over the project’s direction, everyone gets left out as far as possible in that the task is divided up and each person gets left alone to do their own section, decisions should be made by whichever group member is best qualified to make them, and the workflow should be focused on making the end result as good as possible. But since these assumptions are never spoken aloud, I never realised why I was clashing so hard with the people I was forced to do groupwork with in class.

But teamwork is incredibly useful. As an individual on DofE – working within an expedition group, but doing all my campcraft alone thanks to needing my own separate gluten-free food and wanting my own tent so I could have lights on until the small hours – I found that I could do several things faster and better than the groups. In some ways I was just more comfortable; I had more space, more freedom to do things in the order I wanted, and nobody touched or moved my stuff when I wasn’t looking. In other ways I just didn’t have to deal with the same hassle – while the other groups were throwing jumpers across the grass yelling ‘whose is this?’ and ‘where did you pack the food?’, I was already sat down with everything I needed. I’m also pretty resourceful, so I can fix my own problems and I’m better off quietly getting on with it rather than having four people shouting in my ear about their solutions and how silly I am to have the problem in the first place, and I’m confident I would have paddled faster were I not held back by the steady rhythm set by the group.

But the teams had massive advantages over me. They could parallel-process tasks, and thus on some evenings they’d have their tent up and be almost finished with dinner before I had so much as started cooking. I don’t think having two people instead of one person putting a tent up is a huge advantage, and two people cooking over one tiny trangia definitely don’t have an advantage over one – it’s a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. But being able to simultaneously put up tents and start cooking food and send one person to the toilets because you have five pairs of hands… that’s a powerful advantage.

I should probably learn to do teamwork better, and doing DofE did help me to recognise that need and to begin work on it – and to recognise there’s nothing shameful in not being alone. On the last day, I discovered one of my tent poles was completely broken. The thing that kept one bit of pole slotted into the next had completely shorn off, leaving a pole that instead of bending in a smooth curve to support the canvas, bent like a triangle with a point where the break was. I got to work, pulling out the tent repair kit, finding the relevant bits and pieces, and taking the pole apart to slot a metal sheath over the break.

My original plan was to pull the end of the pole off so that the sheath would fit over properly. It turned out that, with sufficient manual dexterity, this was unnecessary – and I discovered that because a teammate came over, inquired as to what was wrong, and helped. At first I burned with shame. It wasn’t like I wouldn’t have figured it out eventually, but I hadn’t asked for help and she was denying me my chance to demonstrate my resourcefulness to myself and feel good about it. But this was silly; she helped of her own free will, we got it done faster because she did, and the fact she sped the operation up for me doesn’t mean that I have been demonstrated to be too incompetent to do it myself. In future, I think, I will accept more offers of help such as that one.

What I really, truly want is to have a team that is like me. I want a team of geeks who will sail down a river, paddling with inspired fury to the tune of punk rock singing and screaming, then talk about game theory and sci-fi on our breaks. Such a team would have everyone in their own tent, understanding the introvert geek need for personal space, but nevertheless we’d gather around the campfire together for tales of insane startup founders trying to invent a replacement entryway for a door and discussions of memetics. And though things can be a struggle in this non-Oppositeland world, I know that someday I’ll find such a social group – and then every single moment will have been worth it.

I remain unsure I will ever get over my preference for single-person kayaks – wonderfully manoeuvrable and responsive, easy to paddle at my own speed, and completely lacking in arguments about whose fault it is we’re veering to the left – over the three-person canoes I spent my DofE in. I mean, in a kayak I trust myself and my own skill – I’m pretty confident I won’t ever capsize. In a canoe in a team, well…

To be fair, the only time I actually capsized was during the practice capsize drill, but let me tell you something; practice capsize drills are hell itself. Hell. Itself. Especially when you do them in a reservoir in northern Wales, because, well, reservoirs are invariably cold. My arms and the backs of my legs lit up bright red from the moment I entered the water, burned by the cold. By the time we’d dragged the canoe out of the water and put the equipment away, I was crying and shaking from the cold. People called me a wimp. I comforted myself knowing that this was just the typical mind fallacy in action – if we ever needed to go three days without sleep in a team, we’d see who was the wimp then. Geeks are used to doing that during coding projects and efforts to read the Odyssey.

We were not all so lucky. During one of our breaks, we pulled up to an island in the centre of the river to snack, having taken the sensible calm route around the left of the island – the route around the right looked like white water. Almost as soon as we pulled up, we noticed the other group on our heels… and they, for some reason, headed right.

We sprinted over to the other side of the island to watch as they struggled through, spray scattering madly across the river surface as they smashed blades into the water. One of my teammates was giggling madly as the other team ducked under the low-hanging branches and hurriedly span their boat back and forth to avoid various hazards like rocks, branches and disgusting-looking objects that I don’t want to know the true nature of. “Why are you doing this?” someone yelled to them.
“Because AJ is bored and she’s steering!” the other team screamed back, sounding… harried.

Later, there were distant screams behind us. When the third group caught up to us, we discovered that they had not only heard the screams, but various parts of someone’s lunch had paddled past them. But humans have basically no empathy unless someone is standing right before them, so we kept paddling. There seemed to be no urge in anyone’s heart to turn back for them, and as might have been predicted by the Milgram experiments, the social pressure was far too strong for me to speak up and suggest such a thing.

The other group were fine, of course, minus some lost items. Nevertheless, I would have wanted to go back for them. I always want to go back for people, and in fact I think my empathy might be broken a bit too far in the wrong direction. On the practice, two people in our group capsized, and I couldn’t quite do enough to help – I gave one of them my jumper, but my British instincts kicked in and I wanted to make them a cup of tea. Apparently this was unfeasible and they didn’t want a cup of tea and therefore I wasn’t allowed to do that, but nevertheless I hovered around feeling extremely uncomfortable, as though I should be doing more.

Introverts are not horrible people. I wish people on expedition understood this, as well, but I have the feeling in this case that visiting oppositeland would only make things worse. Though my empathy is in fact empathy on hyperdrive, which is probably just as bad as under-empathy, given scope insensitivity, the fact that humans can’t cope with big numbers because their eyes just glaze over all the zeroes, so they tend to make bad decisions because their empathy aims itself at the individual stories rather than stats, facts, figures or big problems.

For all our laments that humans do not update on new information, change their minds when they’re wrong, or learn enough from their experiences, they do tend to do it a little bit. Even when we’re not refusing to change our minds when confronted with evidence because of our pride, though, we can get things pretty wrong by updating on what we see when what we see was the result of a more random process than we imagine.

Halfway through DofE (I’m not exactly tuned-in most of the time, so yes, I heard about it halfway through DofE) someone explained to me why we were carrying helmets in our canoes. On the final day we’d be going through a series of rapids.
There were rapids on the Practice expedition, too. Or it might have been the Training; my brain doesn’t store that kind of information. On those rapids, almost everyone chose to take their boat out of the river and carry it around. My group had been psyching up for ages to do it but then they decided they were too coward, and I paddled down with an instructor. Of the like 3 boats that went down, one capsized and there was a great video on facebook.

And my stuff didn’t fit in the barrel. Oh dear.

Frantically, I secured everything. I buckled my helmet on tight. I packed all my stuff into the barrel, including my lunch, which turned out to be a bad idea because I then couldn’t eat anything when I had crippling stomach pains later. We pulled up to a mooring and got yelled at to get off so I frantically threw a few more things in the barrel and squished the lid on as tight as I could.

Then we went through the rapids and after about five seconds of the water feeling unusually difficult to pull the paddle through and the canoe being a tiny bit bouncier on the waves than normal, it was over. Oh, they looked plenty impressive – I didn’t really process the visual input while we were going through, because my glasses were full of spray, but as we came up to them they looked like all kinds of scary white water – but it was effortless. It was no worse than paddling into a strong breeze.

Maybe we should have prepared a bit less, I thought. At least I would have my lunch.

It was only a few hours later, when we’d pulled up to dry dock and we’d unloaded all our stuff and the group that were behind us finally pulled in, that I decided actually we’d prepared about the right amount. In the aforementioned capsize, that group lost not only their lunch but their shoes and a phone.

This is not my only observation on the correct way to think about DofE. I mean, the others may have capsized, but I managed to eat chicken that was bright pink on the inside. I told myself that it was fine because it came out of the packet and the packet had an authoratitive looking logo on the front and therefore everything was fine. Everything was fine. I updated on the final day when I was struggling to row because of my crippling, agonising stomachache.

Speaking of your brain reassuring you Everything is Fine, we got so far ahead on one day that we got really yelled at… just by drifting and hoping things were fine. You heard me; ahead.

You know the feeling, if you’ve ever woken up at 2am and freaked out thinking that perhaps it’s 6am, perhaps it really is time to wake up, and you’re going to be late for school. Part of you knows that it’s 2am and you need to go back to sleep, because you’re going to be ridiculously tired the next day if you only get a couple hours of sleep. Part of you is equally convinced that unless you get up now, you’re going to miss school. Both parts of you are far too sleepy to think of a sensible solution like consulting a clock, because it’s two in the morning. So you lie there, mired in utter confusion, unable to make a move either way, trapped in an endless circle of worry until the sun comes up. Or maybe that’s just me, but either way, that’s the image that I think of when I want to evoke a state of confusion that I know I should get out of but can’t; the memory I consciously try not to be like, when I know I’m confused and procrastinating on snapping out of it and finding the right answer.

That’s how it felt to be paddling down that river. We were tired, and we didn’t want to be paddling with our shoulders on fire and the sun beating down and reflecting off the water. Unless we paddled harder, we probably weren’t going to make our lunch checkpoint. We must surely be such a long way behind; we can’t see where we are on the map, and we haven’t been working hard at all. Someone with the map announces that we’re two hours ahead, but this news arrives as though we are in a dream and a flower has just told us that we’re in heaven; it moves sluggishly through the layers of our brain and by the time it reaches our conscious self, curled up deep inside hiding from the monotony, the conscious self sleepily answers, “Whaaaa?”

Unable to decide if we were horrifically ahead or horrifically behind and too tired and lazy to pull into the side of the bank for a rest, we let ourselves drift for our breaks, feeling that this was an acceptable solution from inside our confusion-blanketed minds. Figuring out would have been cognitive effort, making the decision to honestly figure out if we were on course or wildly off whilst hot and having slept in a cold tent on hard ground last night, and that was just too much. We were surprised as anything to realise, when we pulled into our lunch stop, that our instructors were furious with us, that we’d missed checkpoints, that apparently people were running up and down the river looking for us, and we were two hours early.

So I learned something valuable on the trip; I learned just how confusion feels when it’s not 2am and you’re not literally half asleep. One of the most important techniques of a rationalist is being able to notice when you’re confused and rationalising away having to actually come up with an answer, and force yourself to make your best effort to put actual numbers on the probability that you’re either late or early or how much. That skill failed me on DofE, and having slept in a tent the night before should not be excuse enough for my art to abandon me. But now I know what that feels like, and I can work to become better.

So those are all the things I learned. It was a good little opportunity to practice some important skills, and in the end I’m glad I did it. Through the pain and the misery of being an indoorsy geeky type having to spend four days in the outdoors, I discovered that there are a bunch of rationalisty psychological tricks I have yet to master, and came a little closer to mastering them.

…But as you may have already noticed, there were some positive sides too. I mean, all those breaks we took while we were way ahead of time? Sunbathing breaks. Breaks where we lay back over our barrels, put our feet up on the sides of the canoes, and rested. We listened to music from someone’s iPod as we drifted slowly and gently down the river, beautiful scenery scrolling on by, and nibbled bars of chocolate without even the slightest hint of guilt because we knew we weren’t sitting at a desk all day like we usually are.

Perhaps one of the most gloriously victorious moments of my young life was when, after getting into camp on the second day, I managed to set up my tent and food all on my own sufficiently quickly that I had time for a shower. And then I got to the showers, and they were not only clean but wonderfully, brilliantly warm, and I had brought soap, and suddenly I was clean again and that somehow just made everything better. I felt like glowing, because suddenly the sweat was gone and I wasn’t sticky or grimy and I didn’t smell and nothing was itching or coldly damp, and I could run my fingers through my hair, and for that evening I was the nicest-smelling person on the whole of the expedition. And I knew it. And it felt good.

We saw fish, and the moon reflected on the water, and the first hint of civilisation rising over the hills as we approached our home for the night. We saw mountains searching the skies above us, peaks that to anyone from a mountainous country would barely have counted as hills but to our eyes, raised in a flat town, seemed like challenges to the heavens. We sailed our way through a morning in which we couldn’t see more than few metres in front of us for the mist on the water, where everything was hazy and the trees were skeletal figures half-seen through the clouds, and I could not help but think that if the boats were only a little more wooden-looking instead of bright red then the scene could have credibly come from Lord of the Rings, and this pleased my geeky heart as well as my sense of aesthetics. At one point we sailed round a corner to find that above us on a “mountain”-that-was-probably-just-a-steep-hill there were two breaks in the foliage, where the grey rock showed, and they looked almost exactly like kindly lions smiling down at us, their faces surrounded by green manes. It wasn’t long before we burst into song, continuing with The Lion King songs until nobody could decide what the lyrics were any more and then someone decided not to believe me that The Lion King II exists and has better songs in.

And then there was the glorious night on Practice when we wild camped. The sunset flared above the treetops on the horizon, distant cars roared their way through the city, but they were all locked inside metal boxes travelling down a path on the way back from work and not noticing, and I was here in a field that was somehow not a field, it was a stopping-point on my quest, and I was an adventurer who breathed in the cold evening air and was meant to be here, learning things, journeying on. It was the second day, and as of midnight that night, I was no longer heading out. That morning I would be heading home, and I wanted to get there more than anything else, but for here and now this place of fulfilment and peace and achievement and loneliness was… perfect.

Doing DofE was worth it for me. So very worth it. And so will doing more things that are hard in the future.

Having said that, of course, now that it’s over, I know that my favourite place is indoors, and I’m never going to leave it again.

Of Initiative And Missing Sparks

Irony, (noun): The act of not getting around to posting on your blog for several weeks whilst stuck on a post about motivation and getting around to things.

Even worse than that; I finished this post, but for a few paragraphs that needed a little polishing, a few weeks ago. But then, while I was finishing off said polishing, I went and camped on film set for a week, attended EA Global, went on my DofE expedition, and had my summer holiday abruptly end and school resume. In the meantime, I’ve changed my mind about several of the things I discussed in this post. And even worse than that! I talk in this post about how disappointed I am with my B grade in Computer Science, and in the time since I first wrote it, that grade has been officially revised to an A.

I was going to just post it anyway because I’d worked hard on it, but then I identified that reasoning as the sunk cost fallacy, so I cut out huge swathes of it. What remains is not the finest thing I’ve ever written, but at least I now consider most of it true. This post could also probably have been massively improved with some references to the ego depletion theory of motivation, too, but I kind of still haven’t decided whether this blog is for a lay audience or a rationalist audience or whether I just talk about whatever I want. Oh well. Here you go, hapless readers, a seven thousand word ramble.

Very sorry for not posting in so long. Things ought to pick up soon, since I want to write all about the things I learned whilst doing all that stuff in the past few weeks!

I got my results on Thursday (at time of first writing) and, while I’d rather this blog not become a diary about myself all the time (though I will use myself as an example throughout this post because a) I know my own case study really well and b) anyone else I wrote these things about would sue me), I’ve also been thinking a lot about an idea that this is a rather nice intro to. I promise this won’t be pointless self-flagellation by my perfectionist side. I’m probably reinventing the wheel here but I’m going to have fun and write it anyway because it’s my blog and I blog what I want. Warning: pure anecdata. Warning: I am going to talk about the fact I’m a lot smarter than average, and it is inevitably going to come off as smug, but I use myself as an example and I think it’s useful. If you read it, you’ve agreed not to leave a comment calling me entitled and smug, k?

I agonised for ages over which A levels to take. I had this cached thought since I was tiny that I’d do Philosophy, Psychology, Latin, Critical Thinking and Law, but when I got nearer to the time and started getting advice, I discovered I couldn’t actually do Law because a) my school does not offer Law and b) universities do not want you to apply to them with Law A level, facts that probably should have occurred to me at some time before then. I had no idea what I was going to do instead. My Physics was good, but my Physics teacher didn’t want me taking Physics unless I took Maths. I was great at Biology but told not to take it further because talking about kidneys and hearts and diseases resulted in me lying under the table, hyperventilating and slowly sipping water. But the English Language teacher was adamant that she wanted me in her class and eventually managed to persuade me, and I was kind of attracted to Computer Science by the knowledge that I was actually quite good at designing websites and all the ingroup cool people knew how to program. That left me with the opposite problem – school would only let me take five AS levels, and now I wanted to take six. In the end, I didn’t take Psychology, even though I adore the psychology I’ve read.

I’m now seeing how those decisions played out. Philosophy and English Language definitely worked out, since I scored 100% on both and I’m thrilled and rather smug. I scored in the 90s for Latin and Critical Thinking, which I’m not sad about, though my inner perfectionist wants more 100%s. Computer Science did not work out so well. I’m one mark off an A, so I’m having it remarked and hopefully it will go up so that I can have straight As, but nevertheless I am devastated. It was only upon quite deep introspection that I realise my reactions are completely backwards.

I’m gonna be honest with you. I didn’t do a jot of actual work for Philosophy or English.

Oh, sure, I turned in essays sometimes. But I walked in on the first day of Philosophy class and read through the syllabus, and my face fell. “I know this,” I muttered, almost disbelievingly. “I know all of this.” I was… a bit horrified. English was similar.

I wasn’t arrogant; I was right. Before long I was being allowed to skip lessons because my teachers recognised there was no point in me being there and I might as well have extra homework time, being cut off in the middle of ethics debates with ‘that’s too advanced for the rest of the class and we don’t need it for this paper’, and explaining homework and textbooks to my confused fellow students because the teacher was a whole email away whereas I was right there. I did struggle throughout the year. In fact, I kept getting awful marks on pieces of homework – because I kept writing about all the wonderful things that I’d read above and beyond the syllabus and forgetting to state the basics. The syllabus, it had to be rammed into me, was made up of the basics.

Why am I celebrating my scores in Philosophy and English? I spent an entire year of my life being forced to dumb myself down and jump through hoops, learnt next to nothing, and walked out of it with a perfect score because I’d known what I needed to know before even taking the course. Big deal. That seems to me like a net loss.

And on reflection, I do not regret taking Computer Science. Even though I have my heart set on doing this and if I don’t make it in, I’m forever going to wonder if I could’ve with just a few better grades. (The application process will start when I resume school, and I’m terrified.)

Oh, sure, I could’ve taken Psychology instead. And it would have been the exact same situation as Philosophy and English. Throughout this year Psychology students have been coming up to me and giving me surveys to experiment on me, and I’ve ended up explaining their own surveys to them and then pointing out flaws in their methodology.

I have this side of me that is enormously, incurably arrogant. There is a voice in the back of my mind that is convinced, by a combination of an early education that couldn’t extend me enough to give me problems I’d fail at and a natural surplus of self-esteem, that if I hammer at a problem with my high IQ for long enough, it will inevitably succumb. It thinks there is nothing I cannot do. It is unbelievably reckless, will sign me up for anything and everything until I collapse under the strain, and then smugly accuse me of just not trying hard enough. I usually have to sit this side of me down gently and explain that, no, I really can’t singlehandedly solve all the problems, and I really do have to sleep, and I should probably go work on my comparative advantage. But in this case, I’m grateful to this side of myself. It make me take a risk and do something new and scary just because it might be useful and tricky, and I don’t care what that piece of paper says – the risk paid off.

I’ve just spent a year studying some of the hardest stuff I’ve ever had to work on. I’ve struggled with binary arithmetic, failed horribly, turned in worksheets covered in mistakes, and after absolutely monumental amounts of effort managed to see ticks start appearing on them. I’ve finally gotten to grips with how exactly the internet works, which has been fascinating and confusing me since forever. I have learnt how to write basic programs in Java and how to google stackoverflow – so I can generalise those skills, and learn other programming languages and google stackoverflow for them too. I’ve fought against my crippling fear of maths and my irrational mental block about division, and had fun doing it because the maths looked like programs and binary strings and those are esoteric and cool and exactly what I would be playing with if I were a supergeek hero in a sci fi movie. I’ve felt the euphoria of finally finding a bug after ages searching, and solving problems that seemed intractable at first. I can read technical books now, and understand when computer geeks talk in their techy-sounding other language, and sometimes even sound like one myself.

I have learnt so much over this year in Computer Science. At the beginning of the year I would have struggled to scrape a single mark in the examinations I just took. I didn’t take ICT GCSE, so probably the only parts I would have known would have been the few marks available for HTML and CSS, which I know because I like web dev. And by the end of the year, I took home a decent score. I made an absolutely monumental effort and I made it, I actually passed, and I ought to be so thrilled with myself.

I’m good at languages and philosophy and essays, I’m bad at juggling numbers, and it’s worth remembering that no amount of monumental effort is ever going to change that. It’s almost certainly genetic. Hard work will scrape me a decent grade in Computer Scientist, but I am never going to be a great programmer… and that’s okay, because I could be good in my own way at something else. I have a comparative advantage at something.

But no, the way a human brain works is that I wasted a year of my life and learned nothing for two 100% scores and I celebrate… whereas I try something new that I’ve never done before, which is very difficult from inside my linguisticy quantitative-does-not-compute brain, and make an absolutely monumental effort and succeed, and I despair because I didn’t succeed hard enough.

Human brains suck.

I have a relative who will remain anonymous, and sometimes I like to watch her scrolling Facebook, because it’s fascinating.

She doesn’t actually read Facebook, note. She isn’t using it to stay in touch with people she knows, or enjoying the funny cat pictures, or messaging people. She sometimes plays farmer games, but when she runs out of lives she goes back to scrolling. The funny part is that she scrolls so fast I’m sure she can’t possibly be doing anything. I don’t think she reads that fast. This woman sits down at her keyboard and just pulls at a scrollbar for hours on end.

I do not understand this, and things I don’t understand interest me, so sometimes I just sit and watch her for a bit and see if I can figure out what’s going on. If I interrupt her scrolling to ask her to do something, she’s always reluctant to stop. Weirdly, if I sit with her while she’s scrolling and say something like “Wait, can I see that?” when she scrolls past something by a mutual friend or something that looks important and news-ish, she’s always reluctant to slow down the scrolling. Sometimes even messages to her on Facebook go ignored and unseen while she’s scrolling. I conclude that it isn’t anything enjoyable whatsoever about Facebook itself that’s causing this. If she’s enjoying it, I’m not sure how she’s managing to – and she certainly doesn’t seem to be particularly happy and smiley at the end of a scrolling session.

She does this even though she would much rather go outside and do things she actually enjoys. She has a number of hobbies which she complains about not having enough time to do. She’s often awake until the small hours trying to finish up tasks and documents that she’s taken home from her job before the next day of work. She would gain so much if she cut out this completely pointless activity that she doesn’t even enjoy, and yet she just doesn’t.

This, my friends, is what addiction looks like.

I’ve been going to various open days at various universities (trying to make sure I have a back-up option so that I do not literally run away to die in a hole if I don’t get into the one I want) and when I visit sociology departments they all seem to have the same saying. They talk about having to “defamiliarise the familiar” to get anywhere in sociology. That is, we need to be able to close our eyes and then open them again and look at the world around us as though we were an alien visitor, to actually notice the things around us that are perfectly ordinary, because then we can question why that is ‘ordinary’ and not some other standard that might make just as much sense.

I have been trying to practise this since I heard about it, because it seems like an extraordinarily good idea. When I close my eyes and look at my life as though I was an alien analysing how I live, I sometimes get really interesting insights. It’s a good way to notice all the things I’m doing suboptimally that I could do better if I just changed how I think about it. I think a natural ability to do this to some extent is what makes me a feminist – I really do notice when things are subtly worse for me than for my male friends, rather than thinking of it as normal. In this case, it was only when I was watching my relative do this as though it was some kind of exotic mystery, verbally prodding her like a test subject to see what kind of responses I’d get, that it occurred to me that I do this, and we all do this, almost all of the time. This is the ordinary that I’ve been missing because it seemed normal all along. And it’s somewhat horrifying.

I mean, as I grow up and read more, it does slowly become terrifyingly clear that the vast majority of the human race – myself included – wanders through their lives stuck in patterns of refreshing their inbox, thinking “life” is what is randomly handed to them while they’re trying to do something else, finding themselves unable to do more than irrationally and blindly flail towards what they think they want in the short-term after not giving it all that much thought anyway. If you doubt this, you should go read some people who write way better blogs than mine who write about this kind of thing with evidence and graphs.

I see it in all the students around me who aren’t sure what they want to study or where they want to go but whose parents want them to go to uni so they just kind of go along with it and that’s the next three years of their life, doing essays because their parents and teachers want them to and getting drunk on the weekends because their friends thought it was a good idea. I feel like I want to pity them, but then I remember the days I spend playing Minecraft in my pyjamas. But even though all of that was already clear, it was still kind of jarring to suddenly start reinterpreting almost everything that everyone does as a mild case of addiction.

We call this akrasia, and when people defeat their akrasia and achieve great things, we call them hardworking and brave and admirable. But I’m not sure that’s actually the case. I think it’s all akrasia, from kid who can’t summon the energy to lift a pencil to the students who bought a gym membership but forgot to use it because they were stressing over essays right up to the most famous professionals who we think work incredibly hard. We defeat akrasia far less often than we think; most of the time, it follows everyone everywhere.

But wait, you answer. Surely we must defeat akrasia sometimes. It is clearly possible. I mean, people do get some things done, we are not all starving to death right now, and people like Olympic athletes do seem to work rather hard.

I’m not going to be an Olympic judoka, but I know some people who might.

There was a time I honestly, genuinely thought I could be. I was delusional, but I really did think it, and I wasn’t totally off in la-la land; I was not sitting on my couch stuffing in chocolate watching World’s Strongest man believing that their strength would magically transfer to me. I went to as much training as my parents were willing to drive me to. I spent a while getting up at 5am to do pressups and situps before school. I have silver and bronze medals from competitions with impressive-sounding names, and was nationally ranked for a bit.

I was still delusional, don’t worry, I’m not that arrogant. I never made it onto the British squad and I didn’t deserve to. I’ve settled for aiming for some saner goals, like getting my black belt and refereeing and coaching qualifications.

But I felt like I was trying incredibly hard, and I did not lack talent. And if you consider the numbers, then compared to most sporting achievements, being a female British judo champion isn’t even that difficult. Compare, say, being the swimming champion of the USA. There are huge numbers of people in the USA, and most of them will try swimming at some point and have the opportunity to discover if they’re good at it and compete if so, which means the swimming champion of the USA has competed with and beaten a huge number of people. There are very few people in the tiny island of Britain, very few of them do judo, and very few of those are female. If you take the average female British teen judoka and get them to try very hard and give them a reasonable amount of talent, they actually have pretty good odds of ending up nationally ranked or something.

(If I’m honest with myself, this is how I managed the aforementioned achievements – I just didn’t have that many competitors so my odds were good to start off with.)

But because I was trying very hard and not doing awfully, I’ve trained with and fought against some really impressive people. I’m never going to be a successful judoka, but I know some people who might be. I would put money on my former training partner making it to the Olympics someday. I’m not really qualified to talk about it, since I’m not a coach (yet) or a sports psychologist or even very good at judo, but it’s my blog and I’m going to anyway, so here goes.

I do not think the main difference between me (or you) and my training partner was that she was more talented, fitter, or more hardworking, or any of the things you might automatically think it is. She was doing a kind of witchcraft that us mere mortals will never emulate.

Watching this person train was almost exactly like watching my relative scroll Facebook.

There was no smile on her face while she did pressups. I have yet to find anyone masochist enough to actually enjoy doing pressups – most of those who voluntarily do them seem to enjoy the sensation of triumph and pride that comes after they’ve done them. There are those who get a feeling of euphoria from exercise, but I don’t believe that was at play either. I have watched her, when we were both much younger, take on person-twice-her-size after person-twice-her-size until she could barely stand and I was wincing and thinking ‘those bruises are going to feel interesting in the morning’. She didn’t look euphoric, but she would never give up, and never even falter.

When I do pressups, it is a fight. It is constant, unmitigated effort. I have to push myself through every one. There is a voice in the back of my mind saying give up, you’ve done enough now, and I have to tell it no, over and over. Sometimes the voice wins and I collapse down on the floor, and then I force myself to remember how much my black belt matters to me, and I pick myself up.

You could tell my training partner to do pressups, and she would keep doing them until someone told her to stop. I’ve not been inside her head, but I don’t think she has that constant little voice inside her head that says give up now while she yells NO. Where my switch is automatically set to “do nothing” and I have to fight to turn the dial up to “struggle with pressups and situps until my timer goes off”, her switch is automatically set to “keep going until someone says stop”. She’s not fighting or defeating akrasia. That’s the natural level of her akrasia, the automatic setting of her dial.

This theory of mine is at least slightly backed up by what I’m hearing from my coaches. “Why aren’t I doing better?” is a question that any athlete should be asking a lot, and then acting on the answer to. When I ask it, I get a funny response. It isn’t that I’m not talented enough, or not hardworking enough; I apparently have no “kill instinct”. When I’m practising moves, I carefully sketch the shape of each first, always looking for ever more precision, and then gently throw my opponent because I’m a nice person at heart (and because I don’t want her to hurt me when it’s her turn, and I don’t want her to be injured cause then I have nobody to play with) and then I repeat, speeding up as I get the hang of it. The successful people get told to practise a move and they throw themselves into doing it, full-speed, full-power, smack after painful-sounding smack, and if they’re doing it slightly wrong they don’t care because the sensei will come round and correct them eventually, they’re just going to cause as much pain as possible before someone tells them to stop.

They don’t do that because they’re forcing their weary bones and nice-at-heart hands to work hard and cause pain, that’s their automatic setting. And it shows in competition. I want to do beautiful judo, and I want shiny medals because I like shiny things and glory, and in pursuit of that goal I try and train myself to fight as hard as I can. Some people have an automatic setting for fighting as hard as they can. Even if I win every single battle with my akrasia, even if I pour forth far more effort than they will ever have to and defeat akrasia time after time after time, I’m still going to be slower than my opponent when I have to say to myself ‘no, back-of-brain-voice, we can’t stop now, pin her down!’ because by the time I have, she’s already escaped. She didn’t have to say to herself ‘quick, keep trying hard, escape!’ because that’s her automatic setting.

Obviously natural talent and genetics also has a great deal to do with it. No champion weightlifter was born with poor strength genes and no champion basketballer is short. No champion judoka is untalented in the sense that they spent their first lesson tripping over their feet.

But do you really think the champions are trying hard? Are they rolling out of bed in the morning, defeating akrasia in a pitched battle, and making themselves go and train? Are they hardworking? Are they putting in more effort than you, you who drag yourself to the gym as a monumental effort of will even though it’s hard and you don’t particularly want to?

Or is it just that they couldn’t stop, even if they wanted to?

I have another post in another tab in the browser, half-finished, about project management and leadership. It was while I was trying to write that one that I came up with this one.

Something I’ve always liked in myself is that I don’t need permission to do great things. I instinctively aim for the stars, I start big ambitious projects all the time, and even after I watch project after project crumble around my ears because I was overambitious and didn’t have the money/time/awesomeness to make it work and finish it, I keep pushing myself to do more. Nobody tells me to and nobody gives me a shiny badge; I just go do stuff.

Something I’ve always hated in myself is that I just go do stuff. I don’t think through whether I have the relevant permissions, or whether it really is too difficult, or whether I might need a shiny badge. I just up and decide I’m going to make a Hollywood blockbuster, and I forget such considerations as needing qualifications and money and actors and equipment and so on and so forth. Which means, inevitably, after a little while pouring my heart and soul and time into this film, the day of the shoot arrives and there are no actors and it’s raining. Then I begin again, always thinking that this time it’ll all work out.

It took me a long time to forgive myself for this, and value all my failures as experience and lessons learned, and stop beating myself up about having lived for seventeen whole years and not managed to save the world yet. I know I stretch myself far too thin, and that’s why a lot of projects don’t work out. I wish I were more responsible and I could manage my time and pull off cool stuff that actually worked. But I have learned, and I have forgiven myself. I’m doing the best I can, and I will learn.

The other important thing I learned is to forgive everyone else around me for not falling in line and helping.

One of my latest projects is a school film. That is, every school has a theatre production, and kids learn how to make theatre in Drama class – but kids don’t watch theatre, kids watch Breaking Bad on their iPads, so why don’t we have school film productions? Because nobody can be bothered, apparently. Well, I can be bothered; film is awesome and fun, and I want to build skills in it that could be useful later. So a year and a half ago I wrote a letter to authority at my school, asking to make a school film. I was quick to reassure them that this would require no effort on their part. It was just that I couldn’t make a film on my own, I’d need to use school noticeboards and recruit fellow students to act in the film, and maybe have a disused classroom for the film set and borrow one of the school camcorders.

They said no, and when I asked why, made a vague hand waving motion and said something about time and effort.

So this year, I went and got myself a shiny badge. We have Prefects in my school, and I was turned down for Head Girl (something something unconventional disorganised focus on your academics) so I kind of just invented a Film Prefect job and then convinced the teachers to give me it. It turns out shiny badges are incredibly useful, and I should try and acquire them more often. People just get in your way so much less. I asked again and this time the answer was yes.

But even then, the worries poured in from every corner. Everyone I spoke to had a concern. Was I sure that I wanted to do this? Shouldn’t I be focusing on my academics? Wasn’t I worried nobody would sign up? Was this bit of the script okay with health and safety? Could I really make something that wasn’t terrible with a school camcorder? Did I really have time to fit the work in between now and the end of term?

No. I didn’t manage to fit the work in between now and the end of term. But I can just finish the film up now, in September. Not being able to finish it before the end of term is the kind of problem you only come up with if you are motivated to find problems – and that’s what I spent so long forgiving everyone for. For a long time I was convinced that they were all just evil and hated me and they were getting in my way because they wanted me to fail.

But eventually I realised that these outside-voices, the voices of other people telling me to give up because I won’t have enough time between now and the end of term, are the exact same voices as the inside-voices telling me to give up and stop doing pressups. I didn’t want to do pressups anyway. My arms hurt. I’ve done enough for today, I can rest now. I’ll just take this one break. Didn’t I read that one article that said pressups are bad for you anyway? There are voices in my brain that tell me to stop because they do not approve of me actually trying, and it’s not my fault; that’s the automatic setting of my dial.

My brain is wired to have akrasia about pressups, and most people’s brains are wired to have akrasia about making films, and some people have akrasia about academics, and some people have akrasia about getting up in the morning. For those who are lucky enough not to have akrasia – those whose automatic setting is ‘keep going until I have to stop’ – to accuse the rest of being lazy, is nothing but arrogance. I can blame everyone around me for not trying hard enough to help me make blockbuster films, but if I do that, everyone around me can blame me for not trying hard enough to make friends or get up before 1pm on the weekends.

I mean, people can be kind of annoying. There are people who have called me up the evening before a shoot to tell me they’re grounded and can’t make it and I’ll need to find someone else to fill their central role, and they have a special place in Hell reserved for them. But people who have akrasia about filmmaking and therefore make ‘mehhh’ noises when I ask them about using school noticeboards for casting calls? I can’t blame them. I’d make those exact same ‘mehhh’ noises if I ran a school and somebody asked me about using school noticeboards to advertise a new sports club.

And things are picking up! I’ve found certain teachers who will help me achieve things, and not try and stop me. One of them helped me put on a charity fundraising evening, and another advises on the two clubs I run. They are awesome people. I’ve also, lately, finally been meeting people who are driven the way I am. I suspect that I’m reaching my tipping point. I’m beginning to know enough other people who are also willing to actually try, that if – armed with all the knowledge of my many, many past failures – I tried a project again, I might succeed this time.

But this is still an interesting dichotomy for me, because the akrasia goes both ways here. Most of my films don’t get made for two reasons. One, yes, is that very few of the other people at my school and in my village are interested in actually trying and actually helping, and therefore I have no actors or crew or equipment or sets. The other one is that I have the opposite form of akrasia. Where you’d expect I’d find it difficult to say “yes, I volunteer” when offered a difficult problem to tackle, I find it almost impossible to say “no, too much hard work”.

I suck at leadership and project management. Almost everything I have tried has failed. I pick bad dates and times for meetings and therefore nobody shows up, I forget to put vital information on posters, I’m seen by authority as “unconventional”, and I forget to align the incentive structures in such a way that people want to do the things I want them to do – I kind of just fall prey to the typical-mind fallacy, assume they’re enjoying and committed to this project as much as I am, and expect stuff to get done. It doesn’t work.

So if I suck so bad, why don’t I just stop and do something I’m good at? Am I sure this isn’t the imposter syndrome talking? If it causes me so much misery to constantly fail, why am I keeping going?

Because I have to. I am an addict after her fix. I love it when I sometimes do organise meetings and people actually turn up and I get to tell them all about my project and arrange things and feel like we’re getting somewhere. I love making presentations and making spreadsheets and emailing people progress updates. I love running events and public speaking and coordinating everything and watching it get pulled off. I love thinking on my feet, and having people come to me with problems, and solving the problems and feeling a rush of triumph and pride. I love the dangerous feeling of responsibility when I’m in charge of something – that this is all to my credit if it goes right, and all my fault if it crashes down around my ears – like gambling, only I’m spending my time and effort and the jackpot is some tiny little community project actually coming off. I can’t stop, I can’t cut down, even though it kills me inside every time there’s an empty meeting room or a project left incomplete because I have no money or time left to give it what it needs. I’m in love, and I need that sensation of things finally coming together.

In the same way that my relative scrolls Facebook, and my old training partner fights until someone tells her to stop, I get ideas and I have to try and make them happen. I am not bravely defeating akrasia because I don’t give up and stop. I can’t stop. Even when I’m collapsed in the corner of the common room, sobbing quietly because I just cannot handle any more demands on my time and I’ve just failed to give in two essays because I was handling queries from the people I’d recruited for a project and nobody turned up to the meetings yesterday or the day before and it feels like my entire life is slowly falling apart. Even then I can’t stop myself from adding more projects, if I get more ideas. If I pull a lot of them off these days, it’s just because I spent a very long time in my youth failing very hard.

Bravely defeating akrasia doesn’t look like me being “hardworking” as I work on my various miniature projects. For me, bravely defeating akrasia looks like forcing myself to be responsible and turn an idea down rather than thinking just one more project. I would have to try far harder to stop and give myself more time to do my homework.

What this means in practice is that my to do list is currently about a gazillion items long, and a good part of it will not get done, because my akrasia is too strong to prevent me from taking on more projects and trying to achieve more things. The akrasia hurts me just as badly, with my dial set to automatic-on, as it hurts my classmates with their dials set to automatic-off.

Human brains really, really suck. I want a new one.

People are often unwilling to make value judgements about factors that are determined by luck, like people’s intelligence. If I claimed that I was a better and more valuable person than my friend who got a B in English Language because I got an A, then there would be a minor explosion in my social circle while everyone ran to yell at me all at once. That’s just not right. My intelligence and exam scores are down to a combination of genetics and upbringing and education. I didn’t earn them; they were provided to me by my parents. I’m just lucky. I agree entirely, and while a younger me delighted in using long words in front of my classmates to confuse them, these days I just try and be humble. Mostly. I’m not great at humility.

But hard work? People are totally willing to make value judgements about that. Your cousin who’s still sleeping on his parents’ couch because he can’t be bothered to move out or get a job? He’s lazy. The teenager who fails their A levels because they’re addicted to World of Warcraft? They need to buck up. People who claim unemployment benefits and don’t try and get a job? They’re freeloaders. And people who work harder than others are better and more valuable.

This, to me, is just wrong. And it’s inconsistent. Either smart people are better than stupid people and people lucky enough to be born rich are intrinsically better than poor people – a deeply problematic belief – or you have to accept that the hardworking are not any intrinsically better than the lazy. In fact, “hardworking” and “lazy” are rather silly labels to apply.

I mean, imagine a bright young kid full of potential taking subjects they have a natural aptitude for, who does very little work all year. They aren’t even trying, and get frustrated at those who try to make them. They’d rather sit around playing video games. They don’t want to put any effort in, but nevertheless they get extremely frustrated when end-of-unit tests come back with poor marks, and end up putting themselves somewhere nobody else can hear them so they can cry and scream – then playing more World of Warcraft. Their exam comes back at the end of the year, and they’ve scored nothing. Of course they scored nothing, they’re an addict who played video games instead of writing any essays!

There will be all sorts of terrible things said to this student. They’re an entitled brat. They want success and everything that comes with it, but they’re not willing to do any work for it. They think they can freeload but they deserve good grades anyway, and they’re letting their parents and school down. There will be value judgements made. This person is clearly just lazy.

And the only difference between that person and me is that, by pure chance and accident of birth, I am not addicted to World of Warcraft. I am addicted to reading advanced philosophy texts, looking up cool etymology stuff and constructing persuasive arguments for use against people who are Wrong on the Internet. I didn’t choose to be addicted to those things, and not addicted to World of Warcraft, because I am a good and virtuous person who chose her addictions wisely. I was just luckily born with a brain that really enjoys reading and writing. And yet people praise me for my exam results, whereas the hypothetical kid who was not as lucky as me is an “entitled brat”.

I would cry with frustration over and over again while my practice papers came back with low marks. I was scoring terribly because I was writing the advanced stuff I’d independently read instead of the stuff that was on the mark scheme – but nevertheless, instead of buckling down and reading the mark scheme, I kept reading my advanced stuff. I was addicted to reading my advanced stuff, preferring to study words rather than eat or sleep or stay in contact with friends. But because my addiction is to textbooks instead of to World of Warcraft, and I stay up into the small hours reading rather than staying up scrolling Facebook, I am told I should be proud of myself and proud of my grades. But of course I scored highly, I’m an addict!

I don’t like this value judgement. I don’t like it, not just because I feel intense sympathy for this other hypothetical student, and intense sympathy for all the students who work far harder than me and still can’t have my grades, but because this implies we should judge someone based on their grades, not on how hard they actually tried. If you compare my Computer Science grade to my other grades, you’ll probably conclude that I just couldn’t have been trying that hard at Computer Science. But this is wrong. It was among the hardest things I’ve ever done. I battled akrasia and won, and every sheet of problems I turned in was a triumph.

I don’t think that successful people are hardworking. I don’t think they valiantly struggle against akrasia and succeed. In fact, I suspect most successful people aren’t even trying, and never do a jot of work. Their success has come to them because it would be far harder for them to stop than it was to start, in a strange reversal of the way most people would find it very hard to start and very easy to be talked by inner voices into stopping.

I think many people have a model of akrasia as something that always weighs you down, a voice always in your ear telling you to give up. They model successful hardworking people as those who can ignore the voice’s whispering. But I am not sure that is correct. I find it far more likely that they were just lucky enough to be born with voices, that instead of whispering ‘startups are tricky and scary, don’t bother starting one’, whisper ‘oh come on, just one more startup…maybe two… okay, we can run eleven, that’s fine too…’

I don’t think many truly successful people are hardworking at all. Olympic athletes aren’t forcing themselves to put in the effort to train; they do it because they love their sport. In every way that counts (except for the way in which you’re born lucky and then go on to be rich and successful), the overweight lady forcing herself to go jogging for half an hour because she really should even though it’s really hard and she really hates jogging and at heart she just wants to sit on her couch and watch TV… she’s far, far more hardworking. She’s battling to turn her dial up from its automatic setting to ‘go jogging’, whereas the Olympians’ dials were at that setting to start with.

I’m very lucky that studying and reading are among my personal addictions. I hope I’ll go to a great university and get a job I love and never have to be hardworking a single day in my life. Oh, I’ll work hard – but I’ll be an addict after her fix, always wanting to know more things and have more success and lead more projects, not an akrasia-battling hardworking hero. And I feel bad about it, because it’s pure luck, and I am just an entitled brat whose addictions happen to fall in line with things that are useful and respected.

I suspect this has far more to do with who scores highly and gets into good universities and succeeds in life than intelligence. Intelligence is really important – it’s far easier to get addicted to reading if you’re smart and find reading easy than if reading is difficult, and that’s probably why intelligence correlates so highly with success. But if you’re super smart, and yet making yourself study or read or solve problems is a battle against akrasia every step of the way? Congrats, you’re the guy who ends up playing World of Warcraft because studying would be too much effort.

And thus the striking horror of the lens through which I suddenly viewed the world, having that realisation as I watched my relative scroll Facebook. The whole ordering of the world, the ranks of the successful and brilliant elites down to the cleaners and milkmen and lollipop ladies, the entire thing is luck. Even the rags-to-riches stories of cleaners’ children who work hard in school and go to university and become accountants, those are luck too. Even the stories of kids who were born with silver spoons in their mouths and yet through laziness and recklessness partied their fortunes away, those are luck too. In a significant way, our life paths were completely determined as we were born and we grew up and our IQ and motivation levels settled down to more-or-less unchangeable facts about ourselves.

I want to end on a slightly more positive note.

My switch for Computer Science is automatic-off. I have to wage war against my inner lazy demons in order to turn in Computer Science homework on time. My switch for writing is automatic-on and I just wrote a seven and a half thousand word blog post, for fun, and would probably have had a much harder time writing a shorter one than the gargantuan monstrosity I just penned. It would be great if both the switches were automatic-on, and I wrote seven and a half thousand words of code for my homework as easily as I just wrote this.

Can you flip the switch to automatic-on? Or even better, can you get control of the switch? I wouldn’t want to switch my project-doing switch to automatic-off – what I really want is to take on projects until I’ve reached the limit of my time and cognitive capacity, and then stop taking on new projects.

I think you can. Maybe.

But what you have to do first is acknowledge it is there. You can’t just tell to someone who isn’t motivated, “Buck up and stop being lazy! Everyone else manages to get up at X time in the morning; why can’t you?” My body has a switch that is set to 1pm, and pushing my switch back five hours to 8am is far harder than what you’re doing, which is getting up at 8am because your body’s switch is set to 8am anyway, and telling me to buck up isn’t going to do a thing about it.

I invite – nay, I beg for – comments with links to good resources for how to start flipping the switches to the settings you want them to be.

The Secret of Happiness

or, My Own Take On The Argument For Altruism

For Sam, Captain Fox – you know who you are. I hope this brings you happiness.
This is aimed at people not yet familiar with movements such as effective altruism and if you are high in scrupulosity you may not want to read it.


When I was young – and not nearly as young as you’d hope, for such a childish thing – I checked the back of my wardrobe every day for Narnia.

I’d been brought up on a diet of high fantasy, dystopian coming-of-age stories and sci-fi novels. My head was full of characters whose teenage years were full of tumultuous events and realisations. Sometimes they discovered that they had magic or superpowers, and were the Chosen One and went on to save the world. In other stories they met a mysterious old wizard and, after begging him to teach them all his secrets, chose their own quest to pursue with their ancient magics. Maybe their name was drawn for some trial or undesirable task, and they had to learn to survive, or something awful happened to them and they began a quest to right the wrong. Perhaps they discover that their world is awful and the authorities are keeping secrets from them and they run away to the rebel camp. One thing was a constant throughout all of the stories. Sometime between being eleven and being eighteen, they turned into heroes.

This left me desperately, deeply unhappy. I wanted, more than anything else, to be a storybook hero. I wanted the sense of purpose that comes from having a quest. I wanted comrades, like the Fellowship of the Ring or the Long Patrol, whose loyalty was bound to me after having stood side-by-side against trolls and dragons and Empires. I wanted to be part of a group with an identity, like being a Ravenclaw or a Candor/Erudite Divergent or a WindClan cat or an Elemental. School was boring; by contrast, hunting magic criminals with Skulduggery Pleasant and swapping one-liners with my fellow mages sounded fun. I loved my horse, but what I really wanted was a capaill uisce. My home village was sleepy and isolated, and I wanted to be rescued from it and taken to Alagaësia. I did not want to be learning Maths, I wanted to be in the royal palace of Tortall learning swordfighting. I wanted a Millennium Falcon, not a car. I wanted to learn the name of the wind and befriend the werewolves and vampires of the Icemark, never mind that I struggled with learning French vocabulary and befriending the other kids in my class.

My response to this unhappiness was to bury myself more deeply in books. I would escape the drudgery of lessons by pulling out my book at every available opportunity, ignoring my teachers’ exhortations to please not read whilst walking down the stairs. I fell in love with mysterious manga characters with implausible hair, the shy charming squires of dashing knights, and fiery elven archers with ancient memories and foreign accents – I certainly never believed I’d ever have friends that awesome in real life. I changed my hairstyle and dress to fit whichever character I was currently most aspiring to be like, from Keladry of Mindelan to Katniss Everdeen to Samantha Carter – bob to long plait to pixie cut – and was disappointed when I didn’t find myself becoming any more tangibly awesome as a result. I never believed that I was that awesome; after all, I am neither a knight nor a mage.

There were times, however, when the books were not so comforting. I remember being in the middle of a book I was really loving – I won’t say which, partly because I want to avoid spoilers and partly because I’d rather you fill the gap in with a book that was meaningful to you – and throwing the book down in an utter rage. The central character was sitting in a cave, after discovering that he had magic and having the bad guys hunt him down because of it. The bad guys didn’t catch him, but they killed his main parent/guardian figure and the protagonist was forced to flee with the story’s Wise Old Wizard character and quest to another city where he could be safe and properly taught the secrets of magic. Your standard protagonist fare, full of pain and woe – the character was in mourning for the parent, in fear for his life, tired, hungry, struggling intensely to so much as lift a stone with his meagre magic, and hadn’t had a bath in weeks.

Understandably he was unhappy. And in a moment of intense pain, unable to comprehend why the universe would inflict such pain on him, he lifted his face to the heavens and asked: Why me?

The only emotional response I could summon was: How dare you.

(If, like me, you have been told that this was a wrong thing to feel and you should be grateful for what you have; do not worry, this is normal and OK and you are not alone.)

How dare you, with your pet dragon and your quest and your goals and your Wise Old Wizard and your magic, be this sad? Do you not realise that I fervently wish, every day of my life, that I could disappear from my bed in the night and wake up in your situation? You, mister, are a protagonist. You matter, to all those people relying on you to save their lives. Songs will be sung about your exploits. You are the only person who can defeat the evil emperor; this makes you special, irreplaceable, worthy of attention, unique. You can do amazing things, like lift rocks or start fires with merely a magic word and an effort of will, and in your life you will see such wondrous things as a dragon flying overhead and the secret enclaves of the forest elves. You will never have to sit through a Maths class. You are going to save the world, and that is a privilege so awesome and lofty that you should be shutting up and being deeply grateful. Now stop moping and go out and do some sparring with that Wise Old Wizard character, because I am fed up of you sulking when all I want for my life is to have your life instead.


The second part of my childhood despair was a deep, existential dread.

I remember being afraid for the first time, and I’m pretty sure it was when my six-month-old kitten was hit by a car. Yeah, I know that’s kinda pathetic, hush you. It’s cause I’ve never really had a human die in my life who was particularly close to me; maybe there’d be a face at a family reunion that I barely half remembered, and some day I’d find out that that person wasn’t around any more, but I’d never really known them. I have been deeply lucky that the only deaths close to me were cats, though I have buried too many cats and it makes me furious at reckless drivers.

It kind of hit me, all of a sudden when I realised that huggable Basil with his four white paws, and feisty claw-monster Rosie, and Storm who curled up on my pillow every night to sleep, and slightly-odd-in-the-head Fluffy, and ginger ball of energy “Rocky” Rocket aren’t coming back. It’s final. You don’t get to hug them ever again. My parents wouldn’t let me give my six-month-old kitten one final hug, because his head had been smashed in and they thought it would scar me to get his blood on my hands. We just buried him in the cardboard box and decided not to get any more cats.

It probably should have hit me multiple other times. It should have hit me when people I knew were in the hospital, being treated for cancer, and I was sobbing on the floor of the school chapel while the chaplain handed me tissues and reminded me that the doctors had said their chances were excellent and the doctors knew more than me – but they recovered and everything was fine. It should have hit me in Philosophy class when we started holding debates about euthanasia. It should have hit me when I watched the news and the cameras drifted over the blankets that had been draped over bodies of people killed by tsunamis or militants. It hit me all over again recently, when someone I knew in a club online died just a short few weeks after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. We held a short, moving memorial ceremony, each of us sitting in front of our computers scattered all across the world, united in grief as we remembered her.

But somehow, no – what really drove it home for the first time was when my kitten was run over, and something that had been there waiting and purring for me every evening when I got home from school was gone. Funny how that happens. (If this section has less-than-excellent prose, it’s because I’m crying.)

That was when I looked at my future and I asked, am I going to die?

I think this is a moment we all have, this moment when we realise that we’re mortal. It is a terrible realisation. Some people become religious and believe that our souls will go on to a better place. Some people give up and are just sad about it their whole lives. For some people it’s just not possible to cope. Some people haven’t had that moment yet, when it finally and terribly sinks in. I kind of envied them, when I was in the midst of this despair.

I was, and still am sometimes, afraid.

I am afraid of death. I am afraid of that future, where I someday have to mourn not just cats but my best friends, or they have to mourn me. I am afraid that I will go into an abyss where there is nothing but darkness and there will be nothing left of me but a moving memorial ceremony.

For a long while, I took that second option. I sat around and felt very sad about it. I had a short phase of deciding that, so that I could get the most out of my life while I was around, I was going to conquer the world and stuff what anyone else thought, I was going to be Empress of the Galaxy. (I wasn’t actually sure how I was going to achieve this, but I was determined nevertheless.) I had another phase of writing as much poetry as I could in an effort to get my heart and mind down on paper, on the logic of ‘as long as the words live so do I’. I was desperately sad and desperately afraid. I did not want to leave my room or love anything, because everything I saw and anyone I loved was something I might someday lose. The world seemed dark, grayscale, melancholy, pointless.

This is a stupid attitude. If all you feel is fear and despair, you will waste what time you do have. If you refuse to think about it whatsoever, and simply avoid the sadness by training yourself not to think about the issue, it’s going to be an awful moment when it finally does hit you and you’re old or dying and you don’t have time to achieve your dreams any more. I don’t want to have any regrets. And, well, we need to talk about it more. All of us will face suffering in our lives. We are all currently mortal. We need to know what our answer is, to this realisation – and I do not think that any of the options I have presented so far are good options.


Okay, so there are some sad things about the world. Namely: dragons are not real; you are not the Chosen One, you are not even a storybook hero and neither am I; there is no magic, and no Magician’s Guild to teach you it if there was; you have to find your own identity, and will not be helpfully Sorted into a Hogwarts house or a Divergent faction; you will never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone, and will have to find friends by boring methods such as liking the same music; no songs will be written of your exploits; and your life will probably mean very little.

Now that I have told you those things, allow me to disprove them. Because after the realisation that I was mortal, there was another realisation – years later – that cured me of my despair. I realised that those things are not true.

The dragons of our world do not breathe fire and rend maidens limb from limb with claws and fangs. They are terrifying in their sheer variety, the subtlety and stealth with which they can kill, the drawn-out horrors they can inflict and the pervasive cowardice they inspire. A hundred and fifty thousand people are killed every day, and nobody has yet managed to slay them. Let me name them for you. You will recognise them.

Heart disease. War. HIV/AIDS. Poverty. Cancer. Human trafficking. Stroke. Earthquakes. Bronchitis. Dictators. Diarrhoea. Child abuse. Malaria. Tsunamis. Emphysema. Terrorism. Malnutrition. Global warming. Cholera. Hurricanes. Tuberculosis. Ageing. Gang violence. Polio. Existential risk.

A quick Google gives me some approximate statistics. Cardiovascular diseases kill around 17 million people a year. The Rwandan genocide and Great African War killed around 6 million. 39 million people have died in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. About 1.7 million deaths a year worldwide are attributed to unsafe water. Existential risks are things that scientists are worried could potentially kill us all. I could go on but I don’t think you want me to. This post is depressing enough already, and I promised you the secret of happiness.

For a long while, to me, it seemed too depressing to cope with, this knowledge of mortality. It seemed like a hundred and fifty thousand deaths a day was too much to even process and not collapse under the weight. The nightmare is too severe, I must ignore it and pray I’ll wake up. For some people, this is how they answer the realisation that they’re mortal. They conclude that there is no helping it, it is inherent in the universe, and we should come to terms with it. Some even refuse to donate to charity on the basis that their money will inevitably end up in the pockets of corrupt warlords. And I suppose this is not unreasonable, since this is what is being taught in popular philosophy. Popular philosophy is slow to change, and not long ago, we did have to come to terms with it. For centuries of our history there was no hope.

But we live in the age of prototype holograms and immersive virtual realities and jetpacks! We have power! We have technology that, if we took it back a hundred years in time, our descendants would declare was clearly magic – and we can go to university and learn how to reproduce that technology for ourselves. And I refuse to come to terms with a hundred and thousand deaths a day. I will not content myself to live in such an evil universe. We can do better, and if the vast majority of people are ignoring that and continuing to go about their daily lives without even trying, then I simply will not be like them. I will be a hero!

Sure, we may not have literal scaly firebreathers, but we sure do have things that need slaying. Forget dragonslaying, what about curing cancer? What about distributing mosquito nets in malaria-afflicted regions? What about being an actual real hero and saving actual real people from actual real disasters? Forget lifting small rocks with your mind, what about literally walking on the Moon? You know humans actually really did that, right?

So you cannot jump into the world of a book. So what? That doesn’t mean you can’t be a hero. The world needs heroes. The world needs medical researchers, diplomats, safe AI researchers, charity workers, tech startup founders who give all their money to charity, educators, journalists and scientists.

We all have the realisation, at some point, that we are mortal and that the world is full of awful things. At some point, we stop checking our wardrobes for Narnia. At some point, we hire a lawyer to write a will. Slowly but surely, we are defeated and we simply give up. Some people believe that they’ll go to a better place when they die. Some people don’t think too much about dying. Some people don’t have a purpose in life and escape to sci fi and fantasy novels where they can pretend to be on a quest. Some people think that the suffering of people in poor countries is not their problem since they don’t even know the people suffering. Some people just want to fit in as much revelry as they can before the inevitable happens. Some people lose themselves in despair at the futility of it all, since they’re going to die and can do nothing so what’s the point. I do not think these people have the right response to the realisation.

Here is my answer, to both the terrible longing to be a hero and live a greater life than you do, and the terrible fear that you will someday cease to even be you and have any life at all.

My question was: am I going to die?

And my answer is: Nah. Not today. Not ever. I refuse, I decline, I will not take this lying down. My life is not yours to take. It is mine and it is precious and I am going to fight for it. Thanks, but no thanks.

I look up at the night sky and I think I want to visit every single one of those stars. I want to explore, go see the nebulas and learn their secrets, journey to the centre of the universe and see the place where the world began, and discover new planets and build civilisations there. I want to read every book in the library and muse upon their meanings, learn every discipline of science, write down all the stories that live in my head, meet every person on Earth and discover every secret of the past. I want to still be here when the science fiction comes true. I want to still be here when holographic communication replaces Skype and video games are completely immersive and I can replace my eyes with bionic X-ray implants and every kid owns a jetpack. Though that’s not actually much of a statement, since I read scientific journals, and I’m pretty sure we’ll have those things within my natural lifespan. We already have prototypes.

At a very minimum, I want to be here for a time when nobody has to die. “Well that won’t be in the next eighty years”, you might answer. Tough. I’ll make it be in the next eighty years. I’ll save the world, and save myself in the process.


You might fairly wonder how, exactly, I am going to achieve this. I am just one girl. I did well in GCSE Biology but my teacher told me never to take it to A level because I’m thoroughly freaked out by discussions of anatomy and diseases. My maths in general is not good enough to be a scientist. I will not program the supercomputers that solve the world’s problems. I will not do the pioneering research that saves lives. I have seen the test for doing those things, seen what it takes to be a superhero, and I do not measure up to it. It involves being really good in Maths classes. Besides which, those problems are genuinely incredibly hard; there are all sorts of pesky things that want to kill us, and preventing all of them is going to be tricky. Aging is hardwired into our genes, into the telomeres which get shorter as we age and the parts that occasionally mutate and give us cancer. We are fragile creatures of blood and bone and deoxyribonucleic acid.

My purpose in life is to defeat death. I have no idea how I plan to do it, because I am not a superhero with science powers who does research and programs computers and creates medicine and engineers artificial intelligence and builds better communication technology and founds tech startups and does awesome things. Personally, I waver between thinking of myself as a helpful sidekick to those people who funnels money into their charities, and a leader who could write and speak and inspire others to take up the cause. I care about raising awareness and education. I think I could do a lot of good as a person who turns average people into heroes, as opposed to a hero myself – a Wise Old Wizard, in other words. I am passionate about film and about the social sciences. I can see myself making big-budget sci-fi movies and donating my income to charity, and I can see myself going into politics or being a social science researcher. I can definitely see myself combining the two and making documentaries. To be honest, I’m seventeen, and I don’t think there is any requirement for me to know exactly where I want to end up. Right now I want to learn, and become as awesome as possible as fast as possible, so I might be a good hero someday. I am currently waiting on my AS level results with abject terror in my heart, knowing they determine a good portion of my future and uncertain about what they might be.

My point is, if you don’t know exactly how to be a hero either, that’s okay. We can be young heroes together. We’ll figure it out. All I know is that if I have to try. There are people who need saving, quests that need completing.

But I do have the answer. I have the secret of happiness. I am not afraid any more; I am angry. It is an anger that burns and rages at the gates of heaven that this is not the way things ought to be. It drives you to fight, to tear at reality’s seams and make it different.

In a strange way, I understand how the why-me protagonist I maligned earlier feels now. Why did it have to be me, who had these terrible realisations? Why could I not have simply gone on scrolling Facebook and been happy with my life? Paying attention in Maths class so that I can be an effective scientist someday is difficult, probably much more difficult than getting bruises in dragonslaying class. Revising for A level exams probably takes more willpower than magic ever could. Being a hero is a hard, lonely life. I’ve given up hobbies that were taking up too much of my time so that I could study harder.

And then the anger returns – how dare I? There are people who would die to be where I am, safe and well-educated in the United Kingdom. I am in no position to whine. (Though I have found my fellow altruists to be more than sympathetic to the whining when I feel I need to do it. We’re only human.) I didn’t find Narnia at the back of my wardrobe, but I did realise that I don’t have to go. I have a quest. I have dragons to slay. If I work hard, my life will mean quite a lot. If I devote my life to charity I could save hundreds of lives. This is the purpose that drives me, that gets me up in the morning, that makes me care deeply about life.

I am a hero, on a quest, with dragons to slay. I need to maximise the good that I can do in the world, because even if I can’t singlehandedly save everyone, every additional hero who joins the cause saves many more people who might otherwise not have been saved. Thankfully, I have found comrades who wish to help in this. Standing shoulder to shoulder is a good feeling.

There are many essays like this on the internet, exhorting you to save the world. I write this for a few reasons. One is that you might not have read them, and if you’re one of my friends reading my blog, you might read this. The other is that all of those essays offer a reason to become an altruist. Because it’s the only right thing to do. Because you couldn’t look someone in the eye as they were drowning and refuse to stick your hand out.

I have a more selfish and perhaps more appealing reason. Before I saved anyone else, altruism saved me. I found the secret of happiness.

If you think you are nothing, if you don’t know what to do with your life, if you never even dared to try and dream, if you are scared, if you wish every day that the books you read were real and that somewhere there were dragons to slay and adventures to be had and heroes to become… I am speaking to you, and I am telling you there are dreams worth dreaming.

True. Dragons aren’t real and there is no magic and you will not find Narnia at the back of your wardrobe, and that is a tragedy. It is. Nobody can take that from you. But there are other things out there. There are people who need you to save them. There are places that still need a hero.

In 2001, on average 29,000 children died of preventable causes each day. Do you want to jump into this book and take up the hero mantle? It’s there for the taking. If you want to save them, just join us and do it. Yes, it’s hard. And maybe you’re scared and maybe you’re tired. And maybe it’s difficult. But somebody has to be a hero, somebody. And… I promise, it makes you happy. I’m too young to have done much more than organise charity fundraisers, but doing that makes me feel hopeful and purposeful and heroic. It fills you with a purpose and a light and a fury, and a sense that your life is worthwhile, and a confidence that you are good and doing the right thing. It makes you feel like a storybook hero when you’re specifically questing to maximise the amount of good you can do in the world.

Just living your life won’t make you happy. Scrolling Facebook will not make you happy. Working an office job, coming home to a nice family in the evening, and owning a nice home might make you happy – but observing most people I know who have those things, they don’t seem content. The people I know who are full of a deep sense of their own worth and purpose and awesomeness – they are invariably the ones who are determined to go out and make the world a better place, every day of their lives.

Go and find a quest. No, not just something that feels vaguely nice like saving kittens from trees. Find a quest that you have no choice but to do, because the alternative is awful. If you do not dedicate yourself to this charitable cause, someone will die and you could have prevented it. Then be a hero.

I apologise to anyone who was hit just now by the awfulness of being mortal. I intend this as a message of hope. I also intend it as a call to arms. Whatever you dedicate your life to, make it research and medicine and charity and helping people, or make it something that pays well enough that you can afford to support the superheroes doing the work.


What I do not want is for you to read this and feel full of determination and inspiration and still do nothing. So here is what you need. Here is careers advice for maximising the positive impact of your life. Here is an analysis of the charities which save the most lives with your money. Here is a page to find out about risks to humanity’s future so you can donate to the charities which might save us all. Here is the charity that I think I want to give everything I earn to. Here is a charity that fights ageing. Here is a way to not die. Go save the world. If you succeed, I promise I’ll write a song about your exploits.

If you long for more than just a life of eat, sleep, grow up, work, die – if you want to do something – if you want to be a hero – then I believe you can do it if you try. Don’t be scared. Dream. Don’t ever give up hope.

I think this is the secret of happiness; that you can stop checking the back of your wardrobe now, because there is a quest right here in the real world, and it needs each and every one of you to step up to it.

Your Field Is Not The Best Field, And My Field Is Pretty Cool

When you were in secondary school, did you ever notice that all your teachers were convinced that their subject was the best subject?

I mean, admittedly there are other explanations for a teacher proclaiming their subject to be superior. They want people to choose to take their subject because otherwise they’d be out of a job. They also probably genuinely love their subject and that’s why they chose to study it and teach it in the first place. But the problem stretches far beyond teachers; I’ve read or listened to numerous experts and academics who seemed to think that their field was unarguably and definitely the Best Field Ever. And while “I really love this field and want other people to share in the enjoyment of it” is perfectly reasonable, I’ve seen arguments start over this that devolved into throwing around accusations that everyone else’s field is less useful, less rigorous, or less cool.

Anecdote time! My online social circle is increasingly composed of smart techy types – programmers and scientists. Quite a lot of the time, when I introduce myself to new people and they ask what my field is and I answer that I want to study social science, half the people present faint. The other half start making desperate suggestions. Can I repeat the year I’ve just done and take Maths instead so I’d be eligible for a Computer Science degree? Could I just go to code bootcamp? Could I study maths in my spare time and then do maths tests and get a hard science degree? Either way, I should definitely not study social science because social science doesn’t involve big lasers or flashy machinery or scrawling indecipherable symbols on a whiteboard and therefore it is not as cool.

A lot of techy types assume that social science is not as worthwhile as ‘hard’ science. They disparage its rigour, attack its usefulness and condescend to the intelligence of its students. They claim it is not ‘real’ science or that because many theories compete with no clear winner there can be no right or wrong in it. I am here to argue the opposite.

Your field is not the best field.

Sure, you love your field more than any other field. I get that. I adore the things I study. I get bored very quickly when someone attempts to explain mechanics to me, and hyperventilate a little when I try and learn about pathology. On the other hand, sometimes I talk about anthropology and linguistics and I get so hyper that I bounce up and down until I realise I can’t breathe and should lower the pitch of my voice a tad. I know the feeling of knowing deep in your heart that your field is the best and most interesting thing in the world ever.

And it’s easy to notice when advances are made in your field. If you study, say, engineering, you probably know the names of many famous engineers, know how they toiled to construct everything from the wheel to the Golden Gate Bridge, know the complex calculations needed to make everything fit together. On the other hand, you talk every day and never studied any linguistics and usually catch everyone’s gist. The same works in reverse; linguists (linguisticians?) know the difficulty of figuring out exactly how children acquire language and how our language-learning instincts differ from those of chimpanzees, but they drive over bridges every day and sometimes build Lego houses and it seems easy enough. The Golden Gate Bridge is just there, and whilst you know that someone built it, that isn’t at the forefront of your mind and you certainly don’t speculate about how they did it. If you’re unfamiliar enough with a field, you don’t even know what the hard problems are, so you think all the solutions are trivial.

This is a good example of the availability heuristic, where people make judgements based on the facts that they can recall. This is all very well as a way of making judgements (we can’t make judgements on things we don’t recall) in many day-to-day things, but the facts that easily come to mind are a) the recent ones, b) the startling/extreme examples, and c) the ones familiar to you. If you have a favourite field that your recent reading material, favourite Little Known Facts and knowledge are all taken from, then of course it seems like your field has all the prominent achievements.

It’s also an illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where unskilled people overestimate their own competence in any field. Essentially, if you’re not skilled enough to get right answers, you’re probably also not skilled enough to even know what a right answer looks like, and thus your collection of wrong answers look just fine to you. This could easily be more true of social sciences than other sciences, because while we intuitively know that quarks are weird and alien and we should not attempt to draw conclusions about them and expect to have any success unless we have fifteen degrees in advanced scienceness, we live in societies and have minds and thus it seems as if we ought to understand societies and minds without needing any degrees at all. (And here I have to reference one of my favourite things to ever be written. If all the social scientists’ conclusions seem obvious to you, then, well… that’s hindsight for ya.)

Fields other than your own are rich with knowledge. Even fields so far from your own that they’re under a different heading in your university prospectus – formal science, natural science, social science, humanities, arts and music – have immense value that will not be known to you unless you go look. And I mean ‘look deeply and at length’, not ‘give a condescending once-over’.

So now that we have realised that bias towards one’s own field is just that – bias – perhaps I ought still to give to the disparaging geeks a thorough defence of the social sciences – since what this blog post is really about is ‘hey computer scientists, please quit telling me to give up on studying social science and become a progammer’. Sorry.

After all, not all fields are worth studying, even if your field isn’t the best field. I am not sure, say, oenology or ancient Roman theology would be a good use of my time, considering that I want to grow up and make a difference in the world. I am however convinced that social sciences deserve at least three years of my life, perhaps even all of my life.

And, well, this is the reason that this blog post is a long way overdue (sorry about that). After discussing the issue with a friend, it was suggested that perhaps I should research the different methods by which social science gets done, do an analysis of each, compare those methods to natural science’s methods, link to some prominent social-science studies, analyse their positive impact on the world and try and compare the positive impact of social scientists versus natural scientists.

I tried to do that, and it became quite the feature-creep. I will try and do the rigorous analysis in some future post. For now, though, the core of my argument can be written as follows;

Quarks – the domain of physicists – are quite difficult to study. They are weird and alien and it is hard to do experiments on them, so you make up lots of theory. This means that being a theoretical physicist requires a lot of intelligence, and there are some different competing theories. From quantum mechanics to dark matter to string theory, really high level physics has a bunch of theories that are very uncertain, but everyone agrees you need to be really smart to do that. There aren’t very many applications yet, because the answer to basically all the questions is maaaaaayyybe, but I’m pretty sure that if we actually understood the fundamental mechanics of the universe in certain terms, it would be applied in a whole bunch of really positive ways very quickly.

Let’s go a few levels higher – we’ll skip through the proton/neutron/election level and the atom level and go up to molecules, the domain of chemists. They are slightly bigger and less utterly counterintuitive, so it’s easier to do research on them. Because of this, the field of chemistry has gone quite far and discovered lots of certain things and then applied those facts in useful ways. Molecules, though, as things go, are pretty small and basic. There’s not too much debate about definitions – an oxygen atom is one with eight protons, there’s nothing subjective there. That makes doing research on them and understanding them a lot easier than understanding something bigger and more complex – you can do experiments on “does this element react with this other element?” and be pretty certain of your answers, and as a result we know lots about which element reacts with which other elements, and this has produced applications like efficient production of useful substances.

Okay, let’s go a few levels higher. We’ll skip through a few more levels, ignoring the ways that molecules are combined into different substances, and go up to the level of a single cell, which is a big and complicated thing made of lots and lots of molecules. This is the domain of the biologists. Biologists know less about a cell than chemists know about a molecule, because cells are bigger and more complex and more varied so we don’t necessarily know exactly what everything inside one does. There are constraints; you can’t ethically cut open a living human to see how they work, or deliberately infect people with diseases so you can try out cures. But still, XKCD puts it succinctly. Biologists have done an awful lot of good in the world, even with their more uncertain harder-won knowledge. They get rid of diseases and things, and that’s kinda important.

Another few levels. The brain is made of lots and lots of cells, and is the domain of neuroscientists. Neuroscientists find it quite difficult to do experiments and be certain of their knowledge. There are some annoying constraints; it’s unethical to cut open living humans’ heads and mostly impossible to do that and have them continue being alive. But they work around the constraints, by using brain scans and cutting open the heads of people who are already dead. Their knowledge is a bit more limited than chemists and biologists – we understand less about the brain than we do about a single cell and less about a cell than we understand about a molecule, there’s a bunch of areas of the brain where we’re not quite sure what it does, and we certainly can’t grow a complete functioning brain in a Petri dish the way we can grow cell populations in a Petri dish or make steel in a big metal jar. But neuroscience is really quite useful. Neuroscience helps us understand issues like autism or ADHD, and we hope someday we’ll be able to understand the brain enough to cure, say, Alzheimer’s. Neuroscience also keeps getting used in education apparently – research has prompted reforms like schools starting later, having fewer breaks or changing teaching styles.

Applied brain-studying – looking at what minds actually do and decide, in the real world – is psychology. Psychology is hard to do right, because a mind is a very big and complicated thing and there are many possible confounders and there are lots of ethical barriers to doing research. It’s far harder to find the right answer and demonstrate it conclusively, and there a lot of things about the mind that we don’t understand. It can be subjective – a study can be challenged on its interpretations as well as its methodology – and at such a high level it’s really hard to control for all the confounders. This would suggest that in order to do it right, we need to do it really rigorously and carefully. Nevertheless, if we can do psychology right and be certain about our answers, the applications are amazing. Learning about biases and heuristics helps us think more logically, understanding depression or anxiety helps us to give therapy to sufferers, understanding motivation and happiness studies could help us optimise our workplaces and our lives, and understanding criminal psychology could help us prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders.

Another few levels up. A society is made of lots and lots of minds. At this level, it’s really really really difficult to be certain of your results. Everything is so complicated, and there are so many confounders, and there are many ethical barriers to doing research. You just don’t have the certainty, or the easiness of experimentation, that you get at lower levels. You can do tests on a material and see exactly when it breaks, weigh it to within a few milligrams, measure it to within a few millimetres and set it on fire. You cannot test governments to see exactly when they break, for ethical reasons. You cannot weigh tribal bonds to within a few milligrams. You cannot measure the kyriarchy to within a few millimetres. You definitely can’t set people on fire. Someone would complain and your funding would get cut.

(I very deliberately put these things in the order that I did in the hope of exposing the trends – as we move up to bigger, more complex things, the difficulty of being certain and the possibility of confounders goes up, and the level and usefulness of application goes up, and the prestige goes down. The level of perfection needed also goes down – physics needs to be done with every number right and every squiggly maths symbol in the correct place, but we don’t need the *optimal* medicine when curing diseases, just one that works well – but the level of difficulty stays about the same because it’s hard to be certain what will work and what won’t, so you need randomised controlled trials.)

Because it’s so difficult, progress is slow, and there are a lot of competing theories and results that people challenge. You have to be really rigorous if you want any hope of getting it right. It is so difficult that we don’t usually talk about “social scientists”; we have to split society up into different aspects and study them separately, so we get economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and so on.

So it is really difficult, requires a lot of rigour and skepticism and controlling for confounders, and there are many competing theories. But if you get it right? If you understood the causes of crime, you could choose policies that reduced or eliminated crime and design interventions that prevented it. If you understood the causes of sexism and racism, you could efficiently and effectively combat them. If you knew what political systems made people happiest and most productive, you could implement them. If you understood what kind of educational interventions most improve disadvantaged children’s lives, you could do all of those repeatedly until complete equality of opportunity was achieved. If you completely understood poverty, you could come up with the optimal policies to reduce it and the optimal interventions to combat it. If you understood cultural attitudes and their origins, you could try creating altruistic cultural attitudes that led to people helping one another and giving more to charity.

So – reducing crime, increasing educational attainment, reducing prejudice, creating equality of opportunity, optimising politics, reducing poverty, and getting people to cooperate and help one another. If you don’t support those goals, then I guess social science isn’t particularly worthwhile. On the other hand, if you do, we should be trying to funnel very bright youngsters with an aptitude for social sciences into social sciences. We should be rewarding social science that is done rigorously with high prestige. We should be treating anthropologists as equally smart and important as theoretical physicists – after all, neither of them are really sure of their conclusions, but it takes great difficulty to be either and do it well.

Yet somehow we have created a culture that thinks theoretical physicists are smart and interesting and cool, and should be rewarded with high prestige and pay, but biologists are kinda meh and politics students are just controversial young idealists who like reading books and shouting a lot. This is a self-reinforcing spiral; if we keep acting like the smartest people in the world are theoretical physicists, then extremely smart kids who want to be recognised as such are going to keep wanting to become theoretical physicists.

The problem with calling physics and biology and chemistry “natural sciences” or “STEM” (and promoting them), and calling psychology and sociology “social sciences” (and disparaging them), has another side to it. It misses the fact that societies are natural. Civilisations are natural. You can make a hypothesis about a society – “crime will decrease if we implement policy X”, “urban youths who take part in program Y will have better educational attainment and life outcomes”, or even just moving to the Med won’t actually make you happier – and then you can demonstrate whether that hypothesis is correct or incorrect by observing the statistics change, though you might have to control for confounders better than if you were doing an experiment on something simple like molecules.

There is no sharp divide between physics and chemistry, between chemistry and biochemistry and biology, between neuroscience and psychology, or between psychology and sociology. And just as you wouldn’t build a bridge without consulting engineers, we probably shouldn’t be building societies without consulting economists and sociologists and political scientists and anthropologists and maybe historians. It is vital to public services that they are designed based on the findings of research and on evidence as to whether or not they will work, and the low prestige and disparaging remarks given to social scientists can only hinder this goal. Social science needs to be listened to. Evidence and research has to be promoted above ideological debate.

We don’t need a sharp divide of “natural” or “physical” sciences versus social science – and any idea of “versus” probably hurts anyone, as we really ought to be working together. Societies are both natural and physical phenomena. You can make a hypothesis, demonstrate it correct or incorrect – with some difficulty if you want to be certain of it – and from that method you can gain knowledge. Using that knowledge you can improve people’s lives.

Social science is much more difficult than natural science to do rigorously and correctly. The people you are studying can confound your research by lying on your survey or by not entirely fitting the demographic you are trying to control for or just by doing weird things that you didn’t expect them to do. While these problems are encountered in the physical sciences – your instruments can be miscalibrated and speak you false, or the material you are testing might have properties you didn’t expect – they aren’t as common or severe. For this reason, when challenged while drafting this post on what social science has ever achieved, I originally found it hard to name something big. (Though after turning to Google I found pages and pages full of positive impacts, like this, this, this and this.) Social science is really hard and that means in many ways it’s a younger, less developed field. And our minds have been trained that “science” refers to STEM subjects, and thus if you need to cite some achievements of a field, they should be STEMlike things like having built the Pyramids or invented mobile phones.

It can also be difficult to find examples of social science impacts because, well, social science could have an awful lot more impact if people actually listened to social scientists. Without listening to social scientists, natural scientists run into all sorts of problems. They can work on an AIDS cure, but unless they also have social scientists running Sex Ed education programs to teach people about using condoms, they aren’t going to do any good. They can invent driverless cars, but unless politicians and moral philosophers figure out who’s responsible when one crashes, they’ll never be allowed on the roads. They can invent GM crops, but without social scientists to understand the cultural memes of “natural” things and fear reactions, they aren’t going to be able to feed the world with them because people will keep burning the fields down. (Besides, we have enough food in the world to feed everyone and we’re using it to make ourselves obese rather than giving it to starving people, so the problem isn’t “how can we engineer more food?” – really it’s “how can we get people and societies to cooperate and coordinate better so that everyone has enough food?”)

But for a positive impact of political science that has happened and worked; how about democracy?

Modern liberal democracy, as an innovation, is one of the greatest achievements of our era. It has reduced war, reduced crime, and promoted an intellectual flourishing the likes of which was never possible under the warring monarchic states of the past. Democracy has granted us personal safety, rights, freedom and equality. The simple idea has existed since the time of the Greeks and Romans, but it took literally two millenia to refine and perfect the idea until it could be implemented as successfully as it commonly is now.

Sure, the people who invented democracy weren’t social scientists in the sense that they probably didn’t go to university and get Political Science degrees. They just wanted a better world. But it is a social science innovation, just as surely as the wheel is an engineering invention. The people who invented the wheel weren’t engineers – they were just smart cookies looking to improve their lives. Since that very early stage, the field has grown and improved and people have gone to engineering school and improved on the wheel until we got such awesome things as trains and cars and those kids’ toys that can run up walls and flip over.

Social science, I think, is so much harder than engineering that we are only just past the wheel-inventing stage. It’s such an applied field, the real world is messy and your elegant theories may fall apart when presented with it, and we’re studying things at such a high level that there are confounders and it’s complicated and tricky and you sometimes can’t be as certain as you’d like to be.

But if engineering went on from the wheel to things like trains and cars and rockets and put people on the Moon, and the social science equivalent of the wheel was a democratic state, I am awfully excited to find out where social science might go on from its wheel.

Why Yes, It Really Is Art

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Bear with me here. I know this is a stupid question, and the fact that it’s a stupid question is related to what I intend to talk about. Nobody actually disagrees over it. If a tree falls in a forest, sound waves are produced. If sound waves don’t impact anyone’s eardrums, no inner subjective experience of sound-ness is produced. Everyone agrees on that; all they are actually disagreeing about is the definition of ‘sound’.

That doesn’t seem like an interesting discussion to me. Sound is just a word. Like all our words, it arose by chance in a language, English, which is what you get if you take some Latin, French, Ancient Greek, German, various North European languages and Celtic, smash all your ingredients together and leave the resulting mess on a small rainy island for a few thousand years to ferment. We could call sound ‘ksthefuawa’, and it would not actually change anything meaningful (okay, arguably plenty of things, but that’s a linguistics/psychology post for another day). Similarly, we could divide that-which-we-mean-by-sound up into its two constituent parts – sound waves and auditory experiences – and call one of them sound and the other ksthefuawa. It wouldn’t change anything, just make us a bit more precise in our speech and resolve the entire ‘does it make a sound?’ dispute.

Now, there is a similar question that I hear quite a lot, both around the dinner table and in angry comments left on articles on the Internet. A piece of art is presented, and someone asks, “Ah, but is it art?” with the same insufferable air of believing-that-they’re-deep-and-not-really-being as anyone who seriously asks whether a falling tree makes a sound.
‘Art’, like ‘sound’, is just a word. Honest. Even though the concept of art is meaningful and important. It’s just the letters a, r and t, put together, and given some meaning by the fact that all English speakers agree that it denotes that-thing-artists-do. And like sound, it can be split up into composite parts. Sound is composed of sound waves and auditory experiences. It is pointless to ask “but is it sound?” when one is present but not the other; the answer is “yeah, there’s sound waves, but no auditory experience”. Art, I think, is composed of both Message and Spectacle.

There are pieces of art that make your breath catch in your throat in wonder. There is the sense of amazement and joy at observing elegant lines in intricate designs and exquisite colours perfectly complementing one another – that is the thrill of, for instance, most abstract painting. It is about things which are pleasing to your eye because they appeal to your innate sense of symmetry and balance, luxurious depth and range of tone, originality and delightful surprise, and atmosphere. There is also representative art, where we marvel at the artist’s ability to take a landscape of earth and people of flesh and replicate them in paint or charcoal. We wonder how someone could possibly create something so beautiful.

There are things which simply visually appeal. Even those who claim not to appreciate art have a sense of aesthetics. Whether it is softly glowing lights that make you feel safe, plain clean white walls that give everything a neat and orderly feel, fun and sparkles and glitter, or accurately rendered historical tableaus that inspire awe… something appeals to you, and one can probably figure out what it is from looking at where you live. Even if you are not the type to hang up art, your sense of aesthetics will be in your choice of furniture and the colour you paint your walls and the arrangement of stationery on your desk.

This is not particularly controversial. There are those who would deny that abstract art is art, but most people agree that if something is pretty then it can be art. This is what I would call Spectacle. When we wonder at something – its beauty, the skill of the creator, the feeling it inspires in us – we recognise Spectacle.

I might have a harder time defining and arguing for Message, because this is the other category that isn’t concerned with skilled creators or being pretty. Found objects, unmade beds, nails hammered in walls and photos of sick-covered bins behind nightclubs – these are certainly not aesthetically appealing and thus not Spectacle. They are therefore controversial. But they are Message.

Humans like communicating, as a general rule. With a few exceptions, people enjoy expressing themselves, and will feel repressed if they do not express their feelings and opinions. We thrive on conversation. When many of us listen to music, we can feel the emotion it expresses, and that mutual understanding of emotion between ourselves and the songwriter or fellow-listeners is comforting. Literature can provide the same feeling that the writer understands us and knows how we feel. But not all of us are any good at communication, and none of us are good at every single form of it.

Personally, I love writing. I enjoy doing it, and people often find my writing comprehensible and give me vaguely positive feedback. I know that if I set pen to paper and give myself sufficient time to think something over and structure it well, I can express myself clearly. But this is not something that everybody shares. If you don’t feel comfortable expressing yourself in writing, and your grammar and spelling is not confident and your vocabulary limited, then writing is (pending further education, at least) not the optimal way for you to express yourself. What I would say with writing (or film), another might say with music or visual arts or even perfumes and cookery.

I hate doing art. I can see a portrait in my mind’s eye, but when I set pencil to paper, I end up drawing one eye massively bigger and giving the other a squiggly pupil. I draw people with hair like tangled nets, old and tired from the sea, and noses like a five-year-old’s attempts to make a sparrow’s beak from yellowing old Play-Doh. I shade and smudge like the Apocalypse has come and everyone’s faces are covered in coal and ash and the rough smears that represent belonginging to one of the survivor tribes. I can express myself through writing and feel confident that I am getting across, accurately and enjoyably, what I intend to convey. Art? I could try to convey the face of my brother and end up actually conveying ‘Minecraft zombie pigman’ or ‘random meaningless ugly person’.

But some people hate writing and love communicating through art! They attempt to explain the nuances of their view that, say, a blind focus on partying long hours into the nights leads to the shallowest kind of hedonism, and they end up Tweeting ‘maybe we shuld all liek try and learn deep stuff moar sober’. This does not help anyone. They go out and take some photos and paint some scenes which are not aesthetically appealing in any way – they’re pictures of some drunk kids lying in puddles of sick – and finally, they feel as though they have expressed themselves in a way they could not in writing. They have conveyed what they intended to convey, and the artist and audience understand one another and can share a moment of mutual understanding.

Conveying messages is difficult, and sometimes it takes more than might be obvious at first sight. Harper Lee did not, technically, need to write the entire of To Kill A Mockingbird to say ‘racism is bad and we should educate people so it goes away’. But the communication is so much more enjoyable, has so much more depth and nuance, and carries far more impact because she chose to write the entire book. (Plus she was saying a huge multiplicity of things which cannot be reduced to just ‘racism is bad’, though that is a central message.) It is hard to sum up your meaning instantly with maximum clarity. It can be better to allude to it, to quest in search of ways of expressing it, to code it in metaphor and symbolism in the hopes that your audience will understand not just your words but that odd tricky-to-express thing you are trying to get at.

If someone is attempting to communicate something through their art, and they successfully convey something to their audience – a feeling, a thought, a memory, a zeitgeist, a piece of philosophy – then even if their art is not Spectacle, it is Message. Since we split these up, the argument is resolved. You can debate whether something is art, I suppose, but the question of whether someone has had a profound insight and feeling of communication as a result of another person’s artistic endeavour – this is an empirical question. We simply go around and ask people, and if anyone says yes, the piece is Message. Just as a sound has been heard even if only one person heard it and no other, communication has occurred even if as few as two people engage in it. Simply because you cannot hear the sound doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; maybe you’re in the wrong forest.

I like this. As philosophers – and aesthetics is, I think, an important branch of philosophy – our goal ought to be to reduce our deep-sounding questions to empirical ones. We can debate our deep questions endlessly and never get an answer, but the moment we reduce the debate to an empirical question the problem is solvable. I will doubtless write more on this later. It satisfies me that by splitting art into two separate domains, we can both be more precise in our language and solve the debates. We can say that such a piece is Message but not Spectacle, Spectacle but not Message, or both Spectacle and Message, rather than debating if it is ‘art’.

Let us continue to do science to solve these empirical questions. What makes for Spectacle has been the topic of a lot of research. There is some suggestion that we enjoy peaceful landscape paintings because we evolved to seek out peaceful scenes to be safe in. There is other evidence that we find symmetric faces more beautiful. We find the Golden Ratio pleasing and complementary colours striking. I would totally link to a bunch of studies here, as I want to build up that kind of habit on this blog, but I am writing this without internet and will turn my 3G on in a brief burst to post this, so not this time. What makes for Message… that’s just a matter of asking people.

Doubtless there is at least one person out there now questioning, ‘but surely this means that art can be literally anything, and doesn’t that make it meaningless?’

To some extent I agree. When people say ‘art can be anything’, that does strike me as a little silly. If a word just means ‘anything’, we can eliminate it from our vocabularies and just use ‘anything’ instead. It seems like we would lose something if we eliminated ‘art’. There’s a sense in the word ‘art’ of something worthwhile and meaningful, perhaps something pretty or that a skilled artist created. There needs to be some definition of art for it to be meaningful, and since people disagree on whether ‘art’ is pretty things or communication method, I’ve split it into the two things. And Spectacle most certainly is not anything – it has to appeal to someone. Message is certainly not anything either – someone has to feel like an idea has passed from artist to audience.

And yes, this is a rather relaxed standard. It permits almost anything to be art. The chewing gum on the pavement is Message, if it speaks to you of social issues. A leaf fallen just so on a river bank is Spectacle, if it pleases you with its elegance. But it is not meaningless; it does not force you to claim that everything is art and can never be otherwise. It can be art for me, and not art for you. And that’s okay. Nothing appeals to everyone, and no communication is universally successful.

So yes – in the sense that it is Spectacle to somebody, or Message to somebody, it is art. That is my answer, always, to the question, “Ah, but is it art?”

Yes. To at least somebody, yes it is – and that’s the only reasonable standard.


I did warn you all that the first few posts of this blog would mostly consist of posting stuff I’ve already done or said elsewhere, so that it’s all in one place under my name. I’ll start with this.

A short while ago, I saw a poster up in my school advertising a competition where students spoke for ten minutes on any piece of artwork. This intrigued me, so I picked a piece of artwork and ended up going to Clare College, Cambridge to win the national finals, which was particularly awesome since I have absolutely fallen in love with Cambridge.

My views about art cannot be fully or even adequately explained in ten minutes. This means I will probably blog more about art. It also means that I had some quite severe trouble fitting everything I wanted to say inside the ten-minute limit. When speaking in the video, you’ll notice me absolutely panic towards the end. This is the sign that I have noticed that I do not have the time left that I think I have. Nevertheless, I have been told that it makes a decent ten minutes’ watching, so please do have a watch and tell me what you think!

For those who don’t like videos, are on 3G and don’t want to use data on video, or just don’t appreciate my accent, I’ve pasted the full text that I wrote and tried to memorise below. This may not perfectly correspond to what I say in the video, because a) my memory is imperfect and b) I was cutting out bits while I spoke to save time.

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