Discover more from Abundant Game
Algorithms, Generalist, and Thinking Backwards
Welcome to the first edition of the Abundant Game newsletter.
Would you like a small piece of coffee cake while waiting?
Every time I was offered something when I’m hungry, I couldn’t resist. Indulging in dessert brings temporary happiness, but I know it’s bad for my health.
Recommendation algorithms are like those servers. If you haven’t planned what you want to watch on YouTube, you’re likely to find yourself watching cat videos. (There is nothing wrong if you’ve made the conscious choice to enjoy it — you get my idea.)
Other algorithms come in a more subtle way. When Siri’s app suggestion came out (when you swipe down on the home screen, it suggests a few apps), I thought it was great. It showed the apps I intended to use. But over time, I found myself swiping down just because I’m bored. I turned that feature off once I realized what I was doing.
The good news is that we always have control. On Youtube, turn off Autoplay. On Twitter, choose to show “latest Tweets” from the people we follow, instead of “top Tweets” from random accounts.
Follow people, not algorithms. This is why I love newsletters.
Should I be a generalist?
I finished reading Range by David Epstein this week. I bought the book a while ago after seeing Bill Gates’ recommendation, but it wasn’t until recently did I feel curious enough to read it.
When is it best to focus on setting goals and planning, and when should we spend time exploring opportunities?
Many transformative events seem to happen by chance. Should we spend more time exploring?
How can we transfer our broad experience into something tangible, rather than just having a collection of interesting but useless facts in our heads?
Here are the answers I found:
For the first question, if you’re not sure what you love, it’s best to sample a variety of activities. Test-and-learn, not plan-and-implement. “We discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.”
Once you know that, double down on it. “The people we study who are fulfilled do pursue a long-term goal, but they only formulate it after a period of discovery.”
For the second one, yeah, when you’re unsure of the best match for your skills and passion, it’s better to explore. But once you know and you’re actively pursuing it, it’s still useful to set aside time for exploration. Nobel Prize laureate Oliver Smithies, for example, would tinker with random things in his “Saturday morning experiments”. He said, “On Saturday, you don’t have to be completely rational.”
For the third, generalists don’t just read and think in abstract ways — they take action. There is a quote from the book, “I was unaware that I was being prepared, I did not intend to become a leader, I just learned by doing what was needed at the time.”
As with any good book, it’s impossible to summarize the book in a few sentences. I highly recommend reading it if you’re interested. You can get a taste from my notes here.
You’ve got there
While direct experience from taking action is crucial, thought experiments can be powerful tools. They are inexpensive and can be used as filters to avoid trying things that are unlikely to work (for example, if you know something goes against the laws of physics, like trying to lose weight without eating less, you should know you don’t have much chance of succeeding). Thought experiments can also change our perspectives, like lenses.
One thought experiment is to imagine you’ve got what you wanted. I find it helpful in three ways.
Backcasting: How did you get there?
Ask this question: If you achieve what you want in one year, what would have caused it?
In business, this technique is known as the “PR/FAQ” or “Working Backwards” method used at Amazon, where a press release is written before anything is done, For example, “Seattle — On July 10th, 2045, X team launched……” along with FAQs to explain what, why, and how.
Shane Parrish says in his decision-making course (which I highly recommend), “Working backwards allows us to reverse engineer the amount of effort something takes and overcome overconfidence bias. It also allows us to turn a murky goal into specificity, and transform our insights into action. Finally, it helps us identify what might derail our efforts. And therefore backcasting gives us the opportunity to anticipate and address roadblocks before they arise.“
Second-order thinking: And then what?
I used to dream about how happy I would be after I achieved financial independence and no longer had to work for money. But then I asked myself, what would I be doing then? Without work filling my time, what would I enjoy doing?
This question shocked me because I didn’t have an answer. Once I came up with a few, like writing, I realized that I didn’t need to be in that condition to start. Why not start now?
It’s easy to get carried away by desires. Imagine how happy you’d be after buying the big thing you’ve been wanting, or finally getting a promotion. But then suppose you got them yesterday thanks to a magical force — How long will the happiness last? What would you do now given “the fact”? Ask yourself if you’re still enjoying what you bought last time. Did the last promotion have a lasting effect on your happiness? Why would this time be different?
This idea is related to the concept of “changing your identity” in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. The goal is not to achieve certain outcomes; the goal is to become someone — not to read a book, but become a reader; not to run a marathon, but become a runner; not to learn an instrument, but become a musician.
This helped me in writing this newsletter too. How should my voice sounds like? If one of my goals is to make friends, I should write it as if they were reading it.
Mindfulness: What we want is already here
Sometimes we don’t need to imagine that we’ve got there. In the context of mindfulness, it’s less about imagining that we’ll become a better person one day, but letting go of thoughts and recognizing that we’re already good enough as we are.
It takes practice to experience it (and I’m still learning), but check out this video about the blue sky metaphor.
What I’m reading
🌊 Walden by Henry David Thoreau
On luxuries: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
What it takes to be a philosopher: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
🤖 I was amazed by ChatGPT this week. I attached a poem written by it at the end. And I’m not gonna hide it — I used some help from it writing this post.
I don’t think we should be afraid of AI taking over our jobs. We should instead focus on getting better at what makes us distinctly human. Nat Eliason writes in his article What AI Can't Write, “We often read to learn. But we also read for reassurance that we’re not alone. That we’re not broken, not bad people, not hopeless. We want to know other people have felt those dark, terrifying feelings we hesitate to name because it might stop anyone from ever loving us again. We want to feel what others have felt. Can a computer reassure you you’re not alone? You’ll need to experience a life worth reading. Either through the wildness of your adventures or the depths of your introspection.”
👨⚕️ When it comes to medical advice, is less always more? An article by Peter Attia discussing how physicians and all of us should approach uncertainty and progress in science. It reminds me of many Popperian ideas from the book The Beginning of Infinity, which I’m slowly getting through.
I try to make it one of the best emails you get each week, and I hope you’re enjoying it.
If you’d like to connect, reply to this email or DM me on Twitter.
Have a great week,
Thanks for reading Abundant Game! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
P.S. A poem by ChatGPT dedicated to this newsletter:
Life is an abundant game
With endless possibilities
A playground for the brave
Where we can all be free
Each day brings new opportunities
New challenges and adventures
New paths to discover
And new horizons to pursue.
Life is a game that never ends
A game that we can play and win
A game that we can lose or draw
But a game that we can always learn from
So let us play the game of life
With courage and with passion
With wisdom and with grace
And make the most of every moment.