Nathan Baschez, on intrinsic value:
My grand theory is that everything in finance and economics ends up being more personal than it seems. Because although we want to abstract “value” into a mathematical unit, value is fundamentally non-fungible. It always connects back to individual humans with individual circumstances, knowledge, desires, and dreams.
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Introspection is key to rationality. A rational person must practice what the neuroscientist Stephen Fleming, in “Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness” (Basic Books), calls “metacognition,” or “the ability to think about our own thinking”—“a fragile, beautiful, and frankly bizarre feature of the human mind.” Metacognition emerges early in life, when we are still struggling to make our movements match our plans. (“Why did I do that?” my toddler asked me recently, after accidentally knocking his cup off the breakfast table.) Later, it allows a golfer to notice small differences between her first swing and her second, and then to fine-tune her third. It can also help us track our mental actions. A successful student uses metacognition to know when he needs to study more and when he’s studied enough: essentially, parts of his brain are monitoring other parts.
In everyday life, the biggest obstacle to metacognition is what psychologists call the “illusion of fluency.” As we perform increasingly familiar tasks, we monitor our performance less rigorously; this happens when we drive, or fold laundry, and also when we think thoughts we’ve thought many times before. Studying for a test by reviewing your notes, Fleming writes, is a bad idea, because it’s the mental equivalent of driving a familiar route. “Experiments have repeatedly shown that testing ourselves—forcing ourselves to practice exam questions, or writing out what we know—is more effective,” he writes. The trick is to break the illusion of fluency, and to encourage an “awareness of ignorance.”
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Dylan Matthews, writing for the Vox:
But my more general advice is to think about all the social issues and problems that most motivate your friends — and then pick something different.
That might sound strange, so let me explain. The world is a big, complex system full of immense problems. The problems that are more obvious, or that already have lots of people working on them, present themselves most readily to young idealists and altruists. But that leaves many severe, much less obvious problems neglected. And neglected issues are often the ones where you can do the most good.
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Salvatore Sanfilippo, on making progress:
A less structural link between programming and writing is in the drive you need when approaching one or the other: to succeed you need to make progresses, and to make progresses you have to be consistent. There is extensive agreement on the fact that programs and novels don’t write themselves, yet. Twenty years of writing code helped me immensely with this aspect; I knew that things happen only if you sit every day and write: one day one hundred words, the other day two thousands, but rare is the day I don’t put words on the page. And if you have written code that is not just a “filler” for a bigger system, but a creation of your own, you know that writer block also happens in programming. The only difference is that for most people you are an engineer, hence, if you don’t work, you are lazy. The same laziness, in the case of an artist, will assume the shape of a fascinating part of the creative process.
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Niko Canner, writing for On Human Enterprise:
To care about anything in the world is to imply the question of how one becomes an instrument for advancing what matters. The question of great achievement need not come from the self’s ambition – it follows from the recognition that one can be an instrument of something larger.
Among the most important choices we each make is this choice of how we regard the possibility of great achievement. This choice is woven through how each of us crafts our individual path and how we find, help shape and enable others.
While there are arguments for and against the impact of the individual – Carlyle vs. Tolstoy – we all benefit from taking an optimistic view of this question and acting as if individuals can make a very big difference. The structure of this is much like Pascal’s wager. There’s little downside from adopting too optimistic a stance, and a great deal of upside if that stance proves right.
There is certainly no recipe for great achievement, but there are patterns. These patterns relate centrally to how we cultivate and overcome influence and to how we relate to time, in the immediate flow from moment to moment and over the longer arc of years.
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Joe Pinsker, on time management:
“I think the reason that we seek distraction is that working on stuff that we care about is often scary. It brings us into contact with all the ways in which we’re limited—our talents might not be up to what we’re trying to do, and we can’t control how things will unfold. If you’re writing a difficult article, you don’t get to know in advance that it’s going to come out well, which can make you feel constrained and imprisoned by reality. Meanwhile, the internet feels limitless, like you’re an all-powerful consciousness surfing the unlimited waves of the web and social media. It’s very relieving.”
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Steven Johnson, writing for NYTimes:
Another reason we have a hard time recognizing this kind of progress is that it tends to be measured not in events but in nonevents: the smallpox infection that didn’t kill you at age 2; the accidental scrape that didn’t give you a lethal bacterial infection; the drinking water that didn’t poison you with cholera. In a sense, human beings have been increasingly protected by an invisible shield, one that has been built, piece by piece, over the last few centuries, keeping us ever safer and further from death. It protects us through countless interventions, big and small: the chlorine in our drinking water, the ring vaccinations that rid the world of smallpox, the data centers mapping new outbreaks all around the planet. A crisis like the global pandemic of 2020-21 gives us a new perspective on all that progress. Pandemics have an interesting tendency to make that invisible shield suddenly, briefly visible. For once, we’re reminded of how dependent everyday life is on medical science, hospitals, public-health authorities, drug supply chains and more. And an event like the Covid-19 crisis does something else as well: It helps us perceive the holes in that shield, the vulnerabilities, the places where we need new scientific breakthroughs, new systems, new ways of protecting ourselves from emergent threats.
How did this great doubling of the human life span happen? When the history textbooks do touch on the subject of improving health, they often nod to three critical breakthroughs, all of them presented as triumphs of the scientific method: vaccines, germ theory and antibiotics. But the real story is far more complicated. Those breakthroughs might have been initiated by scientists, but it took the work of activists and public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to everyday people. From this perspective, the doubling of human life span is an achievement that is closer to something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new kinds of public institutions to take root. And it required lifestyle changes that ran throughout all echelons of society: washing hands, quitting smoking, getting vaccinated, wearing masks during a pandemic.
It is not always easy to perceive the cumulative impact of all that work, all that cultural transformation. The end result is not one of those visible icons of modernity: a skyscraper, a moon landing, a fighter jet, a smartphone. Instead, it manifests in countless achievements, often quickly forgotten, sometimes literally invisible: the drinking water that’s free of microorganisms, or the vaccine received in early childhood and never thought about again. The fact that these achievements are so myriad and subtle — and thus underrepresented in the stories we tell ourselves about modern progress — should not be an excuse to keep our focus on the astronauts and fighter pilots. Instead, it should inspire us to correct our vision.
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Paul Graham, on how to work hard:
“Working hard is not just a dial you turn up to 11. It’s a complicated, dynamic system that has to be tuned just right at each point. You have to understand the shape of real work, see clearly what kind you’re best suited for, aim as close to the true core of it as you can, accurately judge at each moment both what you’re capable of and how you’re doing, and put in as many hours each day as you can without harming the quality of the result. This network is too complicated to trick. But if you’re consistently honest and clear-sighted, it will automatically assume an optimal shape, and you’ll be productive in a way few people are.”
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