Beware of Other-Optimising

December 2011

in Self-awareness

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I’m writing a series that highlights key material from This post is based on Beware of Other-Optimizing by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Ever had an anti-procrastination trick that worked perfectly for you? Ever had that same trick fail miserably for a friend?

Different optimizations really might work for different people.

Not in a pluralistic different things are true for different people sort of way. Rather, we are complex creatures and what works for you might not work for me.

If your friend stumbles on ‘Productivity Trick #20’, and it works amazingly for them, it may have no affect on your productivity. It could even make it worse. They tried to other-optimize, with good intention, but it didn’t work!

Why does this happen? What’s wrong with you, since it obviously worked for them?

It’s easy to blame yourself for doing something wrong. And as Eliezer says:

“It’s even worse when their discovery that works for them requires a little willpower.”

Because then, if it doesn’t work for you, you’re “just being lazy” (which, of course, is a possibility).

Is this the real problem? Could it be more complicated than that? Quite likely, yes. We forget just how different—how far apart—we can be from each other. Eliezer uses the idea of there being a distance between us:

“We underestimate the distance between ourselves and others. Not just inferential distance, but distances of temperament and ability, distances of situation and resources, distances of unspoken knowledge and unnoticed skills and luck, distances of interior landscape.”

It is hard to know “when and why and for who a technique works or doesn’t work.” People are complex!

Trying to other-optimize isn’t a hopeless waste of time. If a specific trick doesn’t work, maybe you can figure out the general reason why it worked for them, and extract from that something that might work for you. If we keep looking, maybe we will find the “deeper generalizations that will hold everywhere, the deeper laws governing both the rule and the exception.”

Key Ideas

  1. When giving advice, it may not work for other people, and not because they are lazy.
  2. When receiving advice, it may not work for you, and not because you are lazy or because the advice-giver is somehow mistaken.
  3. Do not underestimate the distance between ourselves and others.
  4. If the advice doesn’t work, look for the deeper generalizations that can explain why.

Read the original article here: Beware of Other-Optimizing by Eliezer Yudkowsky

For all such summaries of Less Wrong posts see the Less Wrong tag.