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LessWrong Curated Podcast

Jul 8, 2022

The funny thing about long periods of time is that they do, eventually, come to an end. I'm proud of what I accomplished during my PhD. That said, I'm going to first focus on mistakes I've made over the past four[1] years.


I think I got significantly smarter in 2018–2019, and kept learning some in 2020–2021. I was significantly less of a fool in 2021 than I was in 2017. That is important and worth feeling good about. But all things considered, I still made a lot of profound mistakes over the course of my PhD. 

Social dynamics distracted me from my core mission

I focused on "catching up" to other thinkers

I figured this point out by summer 2021. 

I wanted to be more like Eliezer Yudkowsky and Buck Shlegeris and Paul Christiano. They know lots of facts and laws about lots of areas (e.g. general relativity and thermodynamics and information theory). I focused on building up dependencies (like analysis and geometry and topology) not only because I wanted to know the answers, but because I felt I owed a debt, that I was in the red until I could at least meet other thinkers at their level of knowledge. 

But rationality is not about the bag of facts you know, nor is it about the concepts you have internalized. Rationality is about how your mind holds itself, it is how you weigh evidence, it is how you decide where to look next when puzzling out a new area. 

If I had been more honest with myself, I could have nipped the "catching up with other thinkers" mistake in 2018. I could have removed the bad mental habits using certain introspective techniques; or at least been aware of the badness.

But I did not, in part because the truth was uncomfortable. If I did not have a clear set of prerequisites (e.g. analysis and topology and game theory) to work on, I would not have a clear and immediate direction of improvement. I would have felt adrift.