Preserving epistemic immodesty

I have encountered and lived in several communities that have the following two properties:

  1. They produce a lot of weird, novel ideas.
  2. A reasonable set of the people in them are extremely overconfident.

I think this is no coincidence, and I think having norms of “epistemic modesty” likely breeds out the production of novel ideas. Here’s why, basically:

  1. Sharing new ideas is costly, because you might be wrong. Perhaps in some ideal world, people could segregate their ideas into “super new ideas that I’m really unsure about” and “really actually good ideas that you should judge me for”, but I think this doesn’t happen in practice and so people are correctly apprehensive about bringing new things up.
  2. One way to combat this costliness is to have the irrational belief that you’re right, even if you’re not.
  3. If you have strong norms towards epistemic modesty, people are more likely to think they’re wrong, and so they share less. Even worse, I think epistemic modesty norms probably push people to stop even generating new ideas, much less sharing them. See Socratic Grilling.

I legitimately think I encounter this effect on a personal level– when I’m feeling really good about myself, I feel like a fountain of original thought. When my self-esteem is lower, I have to talk myself into taking my own ideas seriously with high-level policy arguments about how it’s good to think new things even when they’re wrong.

Let’s be clear here: people who are overconfident are wrong, and they lose money in bets. It is bad to base your decisions on things that are wrong. But I think producing truly novel ideas is the first step to producing really good ideas, and there’s an incredibly important niche of communities and individuals that do this and are overconfident. I don’t think there’s an easy alternative where everyone generates the same number of new ideas and is correctly confident all the time. I have historically been very judgmental of overconfident communities and I now think this was very lame of me.

Thoughts on friendship

Masha Gessen on American friendships:

Russian friendships are much more emotional and intense than American friendships. When I moved back to this country five and a half years ago, it was like this sense of whiplash because I had a lot of friends here, but I had been absent for 20 years. I would get together with my friends, and then two hours later, our get-together would be over. I’m like, “Well, what was the point of that? Was that just to let each other know that we still exist?” Because you don’t really get into deep conversation until about four hours in and a number of bottles of alcohol. […] But if you’re going to really get down, it’s like a 3 a.m., 4 a.m. proposition. You can’t just have dinner and go home. […] It’s like lovers, even in this country, don’t really drift apart usually. You have to break up. You can’t just stop calling, and go from talking every day to talking every few weeks, and then forget about each other’s existence.

Friendships on TV always seem cooler than my friendships. Friends come over to each other’s houses unprompted, they poke fun of each other and make insightful personal commentary, they help each other enact absurd schemes.

Whenever I see this I’m like: am I doing it wrong? Is everyone around me friending it up better than I am? Are most female friendships really like the one on Broad City?

But looking around me, I don’t buy it. It seems like everyone is doing the same friendship song-and-dance as I am: occasional, pre-planned dinner hangouts, where each person gives their life update and then leaves at the end of the night.

Of course people might have different friendship preferences than I do. But if this is really how things are, then things are sad and a little hopeless for the kind of friendships I want, because the community I’m in has some of the most potential for those friendships I could imagine. Everyone works together, lives together, dates the same people, goes to the same parties. I’m pretty sure we have more than enough interconnectedness to make for a good sitcom. If we can’t nail friendship, what hope is there for everyone else?

This is now threatening to be a Medium post on millennial loneliness, but sometimes, it feels to me like the culture around me is both open and closed. Open, in that people will talk about their struggles and their mental health issues, even on semi-public forums like Facebook. But closed, in that for the most part, I feel like my interactions with friends exist behind an unspoken boundary that we’re not really in tune with each other, just getting brief glimpses into lives that are ultimately our own responsibilities.

I think the way to fix this is probably to try and set an example of the kind of friendships I want in order to promote a different friendship standard. In light of this, here are some inspiring friendship acts I’ve done:

  • I have one friend with whom I regularly spend time watching mediocre YouTube videos and napping.
  • I have one friend who I’ve known for a while and lives far away who receives and comments on daily, extremely banal thoughts that I have.
  • I am currently planning to enact an absurd social scheme for one of my friends.
  • This very blog post is actually a part of an epic blogging contest I’m having with a friend who suggested it to me as a healthy life distraction after I shared my woes.

And here are some things I in general endorse:

  • Make fun of your friends.
  • Spend time together with your friends passively being together rather than actively interacting.
  • Ask your friends for favors.
  • Send your friends unprompted updates about your life, and ask them unprompted questions about theirs.
  • Be vulnerable.
  • Ask a lot of personal questions.
  • Drink together? I think this is probably helpful for setting the right emotional tone, but I don’t think it should be necessary.


I’m in Russia. I haven’t been here since I was 16, 8 years ago.

My family wants to know what I’ve been up to. I explained Effective Altruism to my uncle. He nodded approvingly, then told me that in Russia, everyone’s too worried about making enough money for themselves to give it away. I think his sentiment gets at a sense of superiority in the community that I find distasteful– I am not a particularly enlightened moral being, I’m just privileged enough that I can give money away without threatening my lifestyle.

Whenever we come to Russia, we bring clothes and iPhones and other things that we’ve bought in the U.S. We bought these jeans for $37 on Amazon. My uncle says he could buy these same jeans in Russia for $120, or he could pay a special service $60 to buy them on U.S. Amazon and then ship them to him. My uncle told us about a now-unpopular Russian comedian who would make jokes about how stupid Americans were– how they couldn’t operate their own machines, or fix their own cars. The joke was really on the Russians, he said, because the Americans had real professionals that could do these things for them. If your kid gets sick in Russia, you’d better know how to help them, because there’s no way you can trust a doctor to do it. When people in our family in Russia get really sick, we fly them to the U.S. so they can get seen by an American doctor. My uncle wants to come see us in America, but right now it takes a very long time to get an American Visa, even just to visit. Being here makes me feel a little bit like I’m visiting someone in prison.

I feel like there’s a stereotype of Russia as sad and desolate. I want to say this isn’t the case, but honestly sometimes Russia feels like a caricature of itself. The buildings are concrete bricks and malfunctioning neon signs, the skies are gray, strangers walk by looking anxious and preoccupied. I wrote down a few vignettes from my first day here:

  • We’re waiting at a railway intersection. The train has long passed, but the gates still haven’t raised. A disgruntled looking man goes slowly back and forth from the railroad tracks, shoveling dirt into the gap between the tracks and the road.
  • At the cemetery, a woman sits in a room filled with garishly-colored flowers under harsh fluorescent lighting. She shuffles aggressively through a bundle of paperwork as a sad dog sits in the corner.
  • Dogs pace back and forth along the main road to the cemetery. One of them seems to have a broken leg and isn’t walking properly. My mom calls them ‘cemetery dogs’, and says there are some at every cemetery.
  • My mom goes to the bathroom in a small, very dark room with a large hole in the center. After closing the door, she waits for her eyes to adjust so she can find the walls without falling in.

It’s very cold outside. But it’s not so bad in my apartment, with its aggressively malfunctioning radiator. It smells of tea and whisky and old books. My niece smiles as she runs with my pill bottles, rattling them. My family laughs freely and keeps putting food on my plate.

What is ‘burnout’?

People I know describe experiencing ‘burnout’, but I can’t relate to them. It seems like ‘burnout’ is when you run out of some finite quantity of long-term effort juice. It happens after weeks or months of working on something that takes a lot of effort. (Maybe replace ‘effort’ with ‘stress’ in that last sentence.)

Sometimes when I work hard on something for a few hours, I feel like I can’t focus anymore, and I have to take a break. I’m always reset to a chipper state the next day, though– I’ve never had an effect that seemed like it built across days. Theories for what’s going on:

  • I’ve never worked hard enough to experience burnout. This would be cool, because it means I have a lot of potential.
  • Related to above, maybe I’ve never been stressed enough to experience burnout, because of some combination of:
    • I find work inherently less stressful than other people.
    • I lucked out and have been in low-stress working situations.
      • Pretty sure this is not true?
  • I experience burnout but don’t notice it happening somehow.
  • I am a special and unique snowflake who doesn’t experience burnout.
  • No one really experiences burnout, it’s just a lie people tell themselves so they have an excuse to take vacations.

A better person than I would go check out if there’s any psychology literature on burnout, but that’s not what this blog is about.

What to do when you later realize you said something dumb

This happened to me recently, but also happens to me all the time. Recently it went down like this:

Person A: “Person B did this thing.”

Me: “That seems bad, shame on person B”.

Me, later: Oh no, actually this thing was fine. Person B is great.

And then I messaged all people privy to the above conversation to say I was wrong, and person B was in fact great.

In that case it seems clear I should have clarified, because person B’s reputation was at stake. But I constantly say milder dumb things, or think maybe something I say was misinterpreted, or came off too strong, or whatever.

If I constantly brought these cases up to people I know, it would probably be annoying and make me seem insecure. But on the other hand, people are probably incorrectly(?) judging me based on things I don’t even endorse now. I know this because I constantly judge people on things they say, and who knows if they still endorse them?

Not really sure what to do about this sitch in general, but here are some possibilities:

  • Bring it up more often when I say something which I later think is dumb / misinterpreted.
  • When I hear someone say something, be slow to judge them until I talk to them about it directly.
  • [joke] Constantly say stupid things so that no one takes anything I say seriously.

Unconventional behaviors which I endorse

  • Compliment people. It’s a free action and makes people pretty happy. I think lots of people feel awkward about it but should try hard to get over that awkwardness.
  • When someone is in a rough spot, instead of saying ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do’, list a bunch of concrete actions you could take to help them and let them choose.
  • If you’re about to start a relationship, talk about big picture stuff, e.g. kids early on.
  • Be strongly biased towards sharing thoughts / opinions, even if they’re likely bad. It’s usually easy to filter out bad thoughts / opinions, but having lots of potentially good thoughts exist in the space is super useful. (It might be a good thought, or generate other good thoughts.) Are you mostly not sharing because you think you might look bad? I give you moral permission to share and over-qualify whatever you say.
  • Try hard to help your friends / solve your friends problems. I mean really try, like be willing to spend money and time and effort. If you’re me, it feels really good to help people. Also if you’re me, it feels way easier to work on other people’s problems than your own, so if everyone did this it would probably produce value.
  • Be a pushy friend. Think your friend is doing something dumb? Have advice that seems unsolicited? Maybe ask your friend if they want unsolicited advice, and then tell them, in a nice way. Chances are they have like 10 friends who will be generally supportive and you can fill the niche of actually saying something useful. Plus it might make you closer.
  • If you’re in a conversation and the current topic is boring, interject with a question or something that changes the topic. Pretty sure people will by default just use some kind of ‘go with conversation flow’ rule that produces conversations that no one enjoys. You can fix it!
  • Express preferences over shallow things. If you’re like me, it feels way less stressful to e.g. go get food with someone who has expressed preferences, because you don’t have to feel responsible for their experience.
  • If someone’s trying to explain something to you, stop the explanation and give your model of things and have them critique it. This is probably not unconventional, but like, seriously helpful.