Advice for young people

What this page is about

In high school it is common to feel the frustration described in the introductory paragraph for Cognito Mentoring:

You love learning. You spend a lot of time reading fiction or learning about science or solving math problems or all of the above. School doesn’t meet your intellectual needs. Classes often emphasize rote memorization of disjointed collections of facts. You only know a few people who you can talk about ideas with. You wish you had more, and you wish you had better perspective on what there is to learn and how best to learn it.

While the Cognito Mentoring info wiki provides excellent general advice, here I hope to give more specialized advice; in particular, this page is tailored toward my past self, and documents advice that I wish I had gotten while I was in high school. Therefore this page is unlikely to suit most people (since the target audience is my past self, and I tend to be unusual by most standards). Another way to describe this page is to say it is a list of all the things that have profoundly influenced and inspired me up to this point. Yet another description of this page: it’s my attempt to counter the farce that is present-day “liberal arts education” (which aims to help people develop “critical thinking”); I want to give my own version of a true liberal arts education. As such, you should expect it to take several years to actually absorb most of the content on this page, if you actually take advantage of the opportunities (by exploring all the sites I link to, reaching out to people, going out and actually doing things that are suggested, and so on).

Feel free to connect with me if you have questions or just want to talk to me.

Dealing with high school

Marcus Geduld:

“[S]chool […] is a pathological environment. It’s pathological, because it sells itself as a “place of learning” while shunning the best learning tool there is [i.e. failure]. In school, the worst thing you can do is fail. If you fail seriously enough, you get “held back” or, at the very least, you get branded with an F. School teaches you to loath failing, which is basically teaching you to loath learning.”

Some other points:

Paul Graham

Entrepreneur Paul Graham writes good essays on various topics, including high school. Even Vipul Naik of Cognito Mentoring highly respects Paul Graham:

I’m a great fan of Paul Graham, essayist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of startup accelerator Y Combinator (along with his wife Jessica Livingston, whom I also admire greatly). Through Y Combinator, Graham has changed the startup and tech company landscape and profoundly affected the world. (Some Y Combinator-funded companies you’ve probably heard of are Reddit, Airbnb, Dropbox, Scribd, Disqus, and Stripe). Graham also started Hacker News, a Reddit-of-sorts for the programmer/startup crowd. In the world of letters, Graham is better known for his long-form essays that include incisive social commentary. If you haven’t yet read his pieces, I encourage you to check them all out (I particularly like this one, that might be somewhat relevant here). He’s done more for the world than most people, including me, could dream of. And he knows a lot more about how the world works than I do.

The primary essay Graham has on frustration with high school is “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” (which tells students to treat high school like a day job so they can do more important things outside of school). His “Why Nerds are Unpopular” may also be of interest.1 Below are the parts from “Why Nerds are Unpopular” that most resonated with me:

At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn’t have taken it.

[…]

I think the important thing about the real world is not that it’s populated by adults, but that it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

[…]

As a thirteen-year-old kid, I didn’t have much more experience of the world than what I saw immediately around me. The warped little world we lived in was, I thought, the world. The world seemed cruel and boring, and I’m not sure which was worse.

Because I didn’t fit into this world, I thought that something must be wrong with me. I didn’t realize that the reason we nerds didn’t fit in was that in some ways we were a step ahead. We were already thinking about the kind of things that matter in the real world, instead of spending all our time playing an exacting but mostly pointless game like the others.

We were a bit like an adult would be if he were thrust back into middle school. He wouldn’t know the right clothes to wear, the right music to like, the right slang to use. He’d seem to the kids a complete alien. The thing is, he’d know enough not to care what they thought. We had no such confidence.

A lot of people seem to think it’s good for smart kids to be thrown together with “normal” kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don’t fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a “pep rally” at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual.

[…]

Nerds still in school should not hold their breath. Maybe one day a heavily armed force of adults will show up in helicopters to rescue you, but they probably won’t be coming this month. Any immediate improvement in nerds’ lives is probably going to have to come from the nerds themselves.

Merely understanding the situation they’re in should make it less painful. Nerds aren’t losers. They’re just playing a different game, and a game much closer to the one played in the real world. Adults know this. It’s hard to find successful adults now who don’t claim to have been nerds in high school.

It’s important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life. School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral. It’s all-encompassing, like life, but it isn’t the real thing. It’s only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you’re still in it.

Peter Thiel

From “Peter Thiel: Education = the Catholic Church circa 1500” (HT Alex):

There is something very odd about a society where the most talented people all get tracked towards the same elite colleges, where they end up studying the same small number of subjects, and going to the same small number of careers. And that strikes me as sort of a lack of diversity in our thinking about the kinds of things people should be doing. That’s very limiting for our society as well as for those students.

From “Is Peter Thiel the Martin Luther of Education?” (HT Alex again):

People thought they could only get saved by going to the Catholic church, just like people today believe that salvation involves getting a college diploma. And if you don’t get a college diploma that you’re going to go to hell.

[…]

The reform will come from outside the system and the question people always have is, ‘What does the next education system look like? What will it be?’ And I think, like what happened to the Catholic church post 1500, I think there isn’t going to be a single new institution that will replace it. And this, of course, was the disturbing message of the 16th century was, the institution wasn’t going to save you. You have to figure out how to save yourself. And in a similar way there’s no education institution that will save you. Young people have to figure it out on your own. And that is the last thing anybody wants to hear.

And HT Alex again, from “Peter Thiel – Conversations with Tyler”:

We need to ask, what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they are even fully formed?

Rationality community and resources

Since about 2007, there has been a growing community—both online and offline—based around the idea of “rationality”, i.e. the idea that one should (1) have beliefs that correspond to reality, and (2) execute actions in the real world so as to achieve one’s goals. Learning about rationality is valuable in itself, but there is also an aspect of being in a “rationalist community” that appeals to many.

I think the best places to look are: LessWrong, gwern’s site, and Slate Star Codex (a blog by Scott Alexander). In fact, both gwern and Scott Alexander are active users of LW who chose to branch off to their own websites.

In particular, for high school students,

LessWrong

It is however important to emphasize that having a good fit with the community of LW may be important. For instance, I know several intelligent people who cannot stand LW.

Main page: LessWrong.

gwern

gwern is probably one of the most well-known users on LessWrong. He also has a website that has numerous essays on everything from nootropics to Wikipedia editing. His notion of Long Content is also especially inspiring: “if one holds onto every glimmer of genius for years, then even the dullest person may look a bit like a genius himself”. For high school students especially, the essays “On Stress” and “On Disrespect” may be of interest. His stories also tend to have “lessons” (like Kafka’s parables) and are entertaining to read.

I think part of the appeal of gwern is that he inspires many people because his website doesn’t look like “magic”; one can agree that, given enough time, anyone can attempt what he did.

One thing that gwern does particularly well is emphasizing the importance of planning for the long term. For instance he uses free software, URL archival tools, plain text for his site, etc.

Slate Star Codex

Slate Star Codex is an interesting blog ranging in topics from romance to social justice to reactionary politics. See the top posts for more. He is particularly good at steelmanning opponents’ arguments. He is also good at picking out useful content on the internet, especially from Reddit (displayed on his recurring links posts).

The “graduation speech” Scott gives may be of interest. I think it’s entertaining to read, and makes some good points, but ultimately doesn’t do anything new. (In other words, I think Paul Graham’s essays already provide a lot of the heuristics of the argument; Scott does do a better job of linking to sources and using numbers though.) I get the feeling that my views didn’t change after reading this, though perhaps for some, reading the article will give more coherence to their ideas. The conclusion is specifically disappointing, since it abruptly ends with “kindness is what’s important”. The essay also doesn’t provide much that is actionable; one is left wondering “Okay, so what do I do?” (In this sense I think Cognito Mentoring does a much better job.)

Scott Alexander also has an older website called Raikoth, which has the The Consequentialism FAQ.

Depression

High school can be a source of depression, since it is essentially child abuse. Depression can in turn cause other problems. I’m not really an expert on the topic, but you can read my page on Depression.

I also do more academic research into depression as an effective altruism cause on the Depression page on the Cause Prioritization Wiki.

See also pages like “Existential depression in gifted individuals, which has passages like:

A particular way of breaking through the sense of isolation is through touch. In the same way that infants need to be held and touched, so do persons who are experiencing existential aloneness. Touch seems to be a fundamental and instinctual aspect of existence, as evidenced by mother-infant bonding or “failure to thrive” syndrome. Often, I have “prescribed” daily hugs for a youngster suffering existential depression and have advised parents of reluctant teenagers to say, “I know that you may not want a hug, but I need a hug.” A hug, a touch on the arm, playful jostling, or even a “high five” can be very important to such a youngster, because it establishes at least some physical connection.

[…]

It is such existential issues that lead many of our gifted individuals to bury themselves so intensively in “causes” (whether these causes are academics, political or social causes, or cults). Unfortunately, these existential issues can also prompt periods of depression, often mixed with desperate, thrashing attempts to “belong.” Helping these individuals to recognize the basic existential issues may help, but only if done in a kind and accepting way. In addition, these youngsters will need to understand that existential issues are not ones that can be dealt with only once, but rather ones that will need frequent revisiting and reconsideration.

Another page, “Vulnerabilities of highly gifted children”, which has:

It is important to remember that a child with an IQ of 164 is as different intellectually from a child with an IQ of 132 as that child is different from the 100 IQ child. Forcing a child with an IQ of 164 to learn at the pace of the average child, or even the pace of the moderately gifted, is akin to placing an average child in a special education classroom and asking that his/her learning rate be slowed down to keep pace with the rest of the class. The frustration of highly gifted children forced to stifle their love of learning in inhospitable environments can result in withdrawal, behavior problems, or psychosomatic symptoms.

See also “Dealing with intellectual isolation” on the Cognito Mentoring info wiki.

Effective altruism

From “Existential depression in gifted individuals”:

Because gifted children are able to consider the possibilities of how things might be, they tend to be idealists. However, they are simultaneously able to see that the world is falling short of how it might be. Because they are intense, gifted children feel keenly the disappointment and frustration which occurs when ideals are not reached. Similarly, these youngsters quickly spot the inconsistencies, arbitrariness and absurdities in society and in the behaviors of those around them. Traditions are questioned or challenged. For example, why do we put such tight sex-role or age-role restrictions on people? Why do people engage in hypocritical behaviors in which they say one thing and then do another? Why do people say things they really do not mean at all? Why are so many people so unthinking and uncaring in their dealings with others? How much difference in the world can one person’s life make?

[…]

In such depression, gifted children typically try to find some sense of meaning, some anchor point which they can grasp to pull themselves out of the mire of “unfairness.” Often, though, the more they try to pull themselves out, the more they become acutely aware that their life is finite and brief, that they are alone and are only one very small organism in a quite large world, and that there is a frightening freedom regarding how one chooses to live one’s life. It is at this point that they question life’s meaning and ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there not ultimate meaning? Does life only have meaning if I give it meaning? I am a small, insignificant organism who is alone in an absurd, arbitrary and capricious world where my life can have little impact, and then I die. Is this all there is?”

In some sense, effective altruism is an answer to the questions “What should I do with my life?”, “Can I do anything meaningful with my life?”, etc. It says, roughly: do The Most Good You Can Do.

Although effective altruists claim that effective altruism is a question, not an ideology, if you pay enough attention, each subset of effective altruists clearly has its own agenda. So you can’t necessarily trust EAs. Read posts like “A critique of effective altruism”. I’ve been keeping a longer list at “Criticism of effective altruism”.

I liked this article by Larissa MacFarquhar: “Extreme altruism: should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?

[for more general resources, see Effective altruism]

Online presence and content creation

My main page on this is Content creation: the organization and dissemination of knowledge.

See also “Maintaining your online presence” on the Cognito Mentoring wiki.

I think now that content creation may be one of the best ways to produce lasting value. It’s always best to think in the long term; practicing a sport, for instance, may provide short-term satisfaction, but in the long term (say, after ten years) it is difficult to say what overall effect the sport had. (There are obviously creative ways to provide value even with a sport, e.g. by recording it and therefore providing entertainment even after one has stopped playing.)

Another point: if you’re extremely unusual compared to the mainstream/masses, then chances are, you’ll have trouble finding appropriate peers in real life. This is why it’s important to expand your search online, and one of the ways to get people’s attention online is by producing great content.

Thinking about careers

Just some links for now:

Finding content online

One useful skill to have is identifying useful content online (something that is not taught in schools). Here are some places to check out:

Books

Books are declining in relative importance because of the internet and its plethora of blogs. Books also tend to be old, and, more detrimentally, have a slow feedback loop (i.e. on a website, errors can be corrected quickly, whereas with books it may take years—and the corrections only appear on the new editions). Nevertheless, some books are very much worth reading.

Start with Cognito Mentoring’s recommendations.

Some other books to look into (I haven’t read some of these):

Extracurriculars

It’s very difficult to completely ignore the mainstream approach, to extracurriculars, especially if one lacks imaginative or creative approaches (I think this leads many people to think that doing sports, practicing an instrument, becoming a club leader, etc., are the best use of one’s extracurricular time, or even necessary to ensure success in college applications, etc.)

If one wants to attend an elite college (and there are quite a few good reasons for doing so), then following this path may be a good idea (though still, it’s always important to distinguish oneself).

That said, basically most of the extracurriculars people do in high school are essentially useless in terms of building long-term skills and value.

It might sound nice to be “the best at something”, but really, is all the work really worth it? A top contest math student might well spend 1000 to 2000 hours preparing for contests, but is all the work really worth it in the end? It’s always instructive to ask yourself: is there something I can do that is both fulfilling and important for the world (actually produces value)? Examples might include: doing research (especially online content creation, e.g. adding to Wikipedia) and programming (especially writing free software).

See also “Chinese loses math face-off to U.S.”:

But to some, losing the Olympiad offers hope that painful, nightmarish years spent studying for the contest could finally be over.

“This is just wonderful that China finally lost the contest,” one Chinese Internet user exclaimed on social network Weibo. “Hopefully the Math Olympiad won’t scourge our children anymore! It has shattered so many kids’ dreams!”

Doing something important

Richard Hamming’s famous talk, “You and Your Research” is very inspirational. There is a video of the talk, though I think reading it is better, since I don’t particularly like the way he gives the talk.

Some good quotes (emphasis mine):

In order to get at you individually, I must talk in the first person. I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do first-class work.” Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that’s a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn’t you set out to do something significant. You don’t have to tell other people, but shouldn’t you say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do something significant.”

Another:

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.

And:

I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?”

Jeff Meyerson’s answer to “How can I overcome the depression from being rejected by all the top tech companies I have applied to?” is particularly good:

You need to build something.

Build a complicated, hulking four-month deliverable that nobody else commissioned and that nobody else will care about. Make a game, or model an elevator system, or an economic phenomenon. Put it on GitHub, but don’t expect anyone to look at it.

You will learn so much, but that’s not where the most value comes from.

Building something big insulates your ego.

If you have built and shipped something cool and unique on your own, nobody can deny your identity as an engineer, even if you sometimes forget how to find all the subsets of an int array that sum to k.

Academia

Beware of the “tunnel vision” of mathematics and physics (and other STEM fields too), in which people consider these fields to be their “calling” and won’t look into anything else. In particular, while knowing about the possibilities of academia is important, going to graduate school should not be one’s default path. As Holden Karnofsky of GiveWell says, regarding academia, “[p]eople usually either completely ignore that possibility or they completely ignore every other possibility”. Also you always have to remember quotes like “I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs”. Remember that there also exist blogs like 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School.

For Cognito Mentoring pages, see “Academia”, especially “Leaving academia after graduate school” and “Alternatives to academia”.

A good thing to remember is that there are already too many people in academia. Academia is insanely crowded, and institutionally you’re very replaceable. My personal opinion: just stay away from academia unless you have a very good reason. In particular, if you’re neurotic or mentally unstable at all, just stay away. See also Bryan Caplan’s forthcoming book on education. See also one of my absolute favorite answers on Quora: Vipul Naik’s answer to “Why did you leave academia?”

See also the question “Why do undergraduate admissions in the U.S take into account nonacademic criteria?” (about undergrad admissions, not grad school).

Raman Shah says that avoiding a PhD is the best way to prevent your twenties from being as bad as his:

If I had to choose one thing, I’d say avoid a Ph.D. Mine is done, and I’m proud of my work and flaunt my credentials whenever I need to, but it really took a lot out of me.

Six years of financial belt-tightening, weekends, nights, and the brutal bumps of a cut-throat business took their toll. Your twenties are typically a time when a lot of tough personal things happen, as you learn to identify bad people by tangling with them and learn how to nurture a relationship by losing some very serious ones. I can attest that the stresses of these difficulties are worse when you’re in a weak financial situation, face the drama and life-on-hold suspended animation of grad school, and work too much to have a chance to really stop and think.

See also “Self-Help: The Obvious Remedy for Academic Malemployment”:

Loudly identify the risks that many grad students fail to take seriously. Point out the malcontent of earlier cohorts that took the road the next generation is contemplating. Remind them that the economics Ph.D. is an atypically sweet deal, even at lower-ranked schools. Then leave them alone.

Other ideas—expanding your imagination

Alex K. Chen often talks about the important of expanding your imagination of what’s possible. Here I’ll provide some of my thoughts on how best to do that, in particular by giving examples of things that have expanded my imagination. In general, the best way to do this is to just read a lot of things from a very diverse set of places, and to interact with a lot of people as well. It really helps if you have a lot of friends who are into the newest things, because you can learn a lot about the most exciting things that are happening.


  1. Related are Bryan Caplan’s “Redistribution: Blocking the Revenge of the Nerds?” and Geoffrey Widdison’s answer to Why are people with higher IQ generally not very physically attractive?.

  2. I personally don’t like this book very much, but it is highly regarded among scientists and mathematicians. Eliezer Yudkowsky, for one, seems to like the book a lot: “ ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’ by Douglas R. Hofstadter is the most awesome book that I have ever read. If there is one book that emphasizes the tragedy of Death, it is this book, because it’s terrible that so many people have died without reading it.” (Emphasis removed, since it was over the whole quote.)

  3. I like this quote from the comment:

    Cash transfers significantly relieve poverty of humans who are alive today, and are fairly efficient at doing that. They are far less efficient at helping or harming non-human animals or increasing or reducing existential risk. Even if they have some negative effect here or there (more meat-eating, or habitat destruction, or carbon emissions) the cost of producing a comparable benefit to offset it in that dimension will be small compared to the cash transfer. E.g. an allocation of 90% GiveDirectly, and 10% to offset charities (carbon reduction, meat reduction, nuclear arms control, whatever) will wind up positive on multiple metrics.