Mistakes I’ve made, part 1: greedy altruism

I have made many mistakes. Unfortunately, for some of my older, larger mistakes, it becomes hard to remember or imagine why I would have made them. The alternative position comes to seem literally inconceivable. At the same time, I forget that I ever conceived of it. This is tragic, because for anything realized some way into my life, there are surely many people who don’t (yet?) share my view. Also because any insight into why I might have believed inconceivable things in the past might prevent me from believing such in the future.

So it seems a valuable exercise to recall and dissect some of my errors before they evaporate from my memory. Here’s one:

For almost all of my teenage years, I believed that small amounts of money could be used to save lives in the developing world (an error, but one for another time), but consequently collected small amounts of money where possible, rather than optimizing for long-run ability to earn money (which would also not necessarily be the best thing, but is obviously superior to greedily earning small sums). e.g. I would do chores for money instead of practicing useful skills.


One obvious possibility is that it didn’t occur to me. That would seem surprising, and I don’t think it’s true, but it might be. Also something intermediate seems plausible—like, I was not fully and abstractly aware of a trade-off between greedily accruing small amounts of money and investing in better opportunities, though it did occur to me that I could practice math instead of doing a chore and that this might help.

If we suppose I was at least somewhat aware of this option, I think I probably didn’t see how any alternative activities would genuinely improve my prospects. Especially at the five minute level. If I didn’t do this chore, it didn’t seem like I would really find something else to do, right here and now, that would cause me to earn twenty cents in the long run.

I suspect one mistake was failing to add these five minutes up, and say that if I always didn’t do chores, I would have a fair bit more time, and even if the first twenty increments weren’t that great, given the options in my house, it should be possible to look further afield and find ways to make a difference.

In my past self’s defense, I can’t remember what I actually did with my free time, and I doubt it was that sensible, so I may have been right that the isolated intervention of buying more time for myself was not great. In my past self’s further defense, I think my ‘free’ time was often poorly spent because I had to take care of my younger brothers most of the time, which was pretty distracting. However I don’t think any of this is sufficient defense at all.

Another error might have been failing to have a model of myself as something that could accrue any kind of improvements. I think I saw most of my value as residing in my intelligence, which I supposed was fixed. I was fairly oblivious of the differences between me and e.g. a competent middle-aged person. However it’s hard to see how this could be so, in conjunction with having high hopes for the future, and achieving little at the time. I saw living at home as a huge impediment to anything, which would naturally end at some point. I think I may also have implicitly supposed that becoming an adult would actually bring a host of improvements, such as knowing how to usefully improve the world. I doubt I checked whether these beliefs were quantitatively plausible and consistent.

I suspect I also focussed too much on the comparison of someone’s life and me making effort now—I can save a bit of a life by doing this annoying thing; what could be better than that?!—instead of focusing on the comparison between this way of saving a bit of a life and other ways. This is an issue of psychological focus rather than a wrong belief. It seems like an especially easy mistake to make if other people fail to notice the comparison between your effort and other people’s lives, and you are kind of indignant about it.

I think relatedly, I believed that earning some money would really help, whereas everything else felt nebulous. Could you really let a person die, so you could do something more fun that might help at some point on some messy, half-thought out model? It perhaps felt easy to cheat.

How could I avoid such problems, if I were talking to my teenage self, or hoping to not make analogous errors now? Some ideas, more welcome:

  1. Explicitly state my models of how my actions are reasonable, which would hopefully reveal gaps and incoherencies
  2. Describe my explicit models to other people, who are hopefully more in touch with common sense (e.g. you can often learn things, which will affect your earnings)
  3. Ask what will happen if I follow my current behavior forever, and/or when I intend to actually stop it.
  4. If I’m unreasonable in one way, try to fix that more before giving up and directing resources away from myself.
  5. Note that I am a physical system, not a disembodied spirit of pure intellect.
  6. Try to be clear on counterfactuals, rather than what is being directly traded. e.g. if you give money to charity A, the counterfactual is often giving to charity B, rather than making less effort. So the comparison between your effort and charity A is irrelevant.
  7. Adopt growth mindset

8 responses to “Mistakes I’ve made, part 1: greedy altruism

  1. This is tragic, because for anything realized some way into my life, there are surely many people who don’t (yet?) share my view.

    We tend to think others tend to make our mistakes, where folks’ mistakes are actually extremely various. [This may be both an egocentric bias and a signaling aid permitting us to brag about our ability to overcome our mistakes.] The common error has produced the enormous glut of pop psychology and self-help.

  2. I think there is a valuable skill somewhere in the vicinity of strategic/meta thinking, which encompasses all of the mental operations you’re describing, a way of asking yourself the right questions to break out of standard assumptions. (AFAICT, my coaching career has rested entirely on my ability to temporarily lend my strategic/meta thinking module to another person.) I suspect that this is ultimately a skill that can be taught and learned successfully, and then is a fully general toolkit for dealing with life optimization problems.

  3. Software Mechanic

    Reblogged this on Just another complex system.

  4. I share your sense that in childhood I believed kind of unreasonable things, but neither felt that they were unreasonable nor put a lot of effort into ensuring I had good reasons for all of them (despite that being something I explicitly noted as important to me!).

    Some of it might just be poor memory, but I think it’s also hard to have genuinely revolutionary or original thoughts (relative to what those around you think), especially as a child, because you reasonably question them a great deal and are underconfident in them. So possibly I was just repeating the cognitive mistakes of my family and peers and took their beliefs too seriously as evidence.

  5. Pingback: Mistakes #4: breaking Chesterton’s fence in the presence of bull | Meteuphoric

  6. Pingback: Mistakes #5: Blinded by winning | Meteuphoric

  7. Pingback: Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly | Meteuphoric

  8. Pingback: The humility argument for honesty | Compass Rose


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