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Not good for growth mindset. I sometimes blog about research into IQ and human intelligence. A lot of people find this pretty depressing. This is important and I want to discuss it eventually, but not now. What I want to discuss now is people who feel personally depressed. For example, a comment from last week: Right now I basically feel like pond scum. I hear these kinds of responses every so often, so I should probably learn to expect them. They seem to me precisely backwards. But first, a comparison: These people get into some pretty acrimonious debates.
Overweight people, and especially people who feel unfairly stigmatized for being overweight, tend to cluster on the biologically determined side. And although not all believers in complete voluntary control of weight are mean to fat people, the people who are mean to fat people pretty much all insist that weight is voluntary and easily changeable.
And the same is true of mental illness. She needs to just pick herself up and get on with her life. One more example of this pattern. There are frequent political debates in which conservatives or straw conservatives argue that financial success is the result of hard work, so poor people are just too lazy to get out of poverty.
Then a liberal or straw liberal protests that hard work has nothing to do with it, success is determined by accidents of birth like who your parents are and what your skin color is et cetera, so the poor are blameless in their own predicament.
The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. I can come up with a few explanations for the sudden switch, but none of them are very principled and none of them, to me, seem to break the fundamental symmetry of the situation.
Consider for a moment Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He grew up in poverty in a one-room house in small-town India. He taught himself mathematics by borrowing books from local college students and working through the problems on his own until he reached the end of the solveable ones and had nowhere else to go but inventing ways to solve the unsolveable ones.
There are a lot of poor people in the United States today whose life circumstances prevented their parents from reading books to them as a child, prevented them from getting into the best schools, prevented them from attending college, et cetera.
And pretty much all of those people still got more educational opportunities than Ramanujan did. And from there we can go in one of two directions. First, we can say that a lot of intelligence is innate, that Ramanujan was a genius, and that we mortals cannot be expected to replicate his accomplishments. Or second, we can say those poor people are just not trying hard enough. I hear that pays pretty well. But the very phrase tells us where we should classify that belief.
I got a perfect score in Verbal, and a good-but-not-great score in Math. In Math, I just barely by the skin of my teeth scraped together a pass in Calculus with a C-. Every time I won some kind of prize in English my parents would praise me and say I was good and should feel good. My teachers would hold me up as an example and say other kids should try to be more like me.
Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course — and who still got Cs and Ds. Meanwhile, there were some students who did better than I did in Math with seemingly zero effort.
Especially if I knew they were lazing around on the beach while I was poring over a textbook. I tend to think of social norms as contracts bargained between different groups. In the case of attitudes towards intelligence, those two groups are smart people and dumb people. Since I was both at once, I got to make the bargain with myself, which simplified the bargaining process immensely. It was all genetic luck of the draw either way.
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In the meantime, I would try to press as hard as I could to exploit my strengths and cover up my deficiencies. When I was 6 and my brother was 4, our mom decided that as an Overachieving Jewish Mother she was contractually obligated to make both of us learn to play piano. A little while later, I noticed that my brother was now with me in my Introductory Piano class. A little while later, I noticed that my brother was now by far the best student in my Introductory Piano Class, even though he had just started and was two or three years younger than anyone else there.
Meanwhile, I was always a mediocre student at Yamaha. The cycle seemed to be that every time he practiced, things came fluidly to him and he would produce beautiful music and everyone would be amazed. And this must have felt great, and incentivized him to practice more, and that made him even better, so that the beautiful music came even more fluidly, and the praise became more effusive, until eventually he chose a full-time career in music and became amazing.
Part of that is probably that when I write, I feel really good about having expressed exactly what it was I meant to say. Your brother practiced piano really hard but almost never writes. You write all the time, but wimped out of practicing piano. So what do you expect? You both got what you deserved. But every moment was a struggle. Ramanujan worked very hard at math. Then he got accepted to another college, and dropped out again because they made him study non-mathematical subjects and he failed a physiology class.
Then he nearly starved to death because he had no money and no scholarship. It seems to me that in some sense Ramanujan was incapable of putting hard work into non-math subjects. I really wanted to learn math and failed, but I did graduate with honors from medical school. So which one of us was the hard worker?
People used to ask me for writing advice. But you know what? When asked about one of his discoveries, a method of simplifying a very difficult problem to a continued fraction, Ramanujan described his thought process as: The minute I heard the problem, I knew that the answer was a continued fraction.
When I talk to my brother, I never get a sense that he had to do that with piano. So this too is part of my deal with myself. The rationalist community tends to get a lot of high-scrupulosity people, people who tend to beat themselves up for not doing more than they are. For example, Nick Bostrom writes: Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to.
It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative.
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The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: Yet here I am, not doing anti-aging research. Because I tried doing biology research a few times and it was really hard and made me miserable. I once heard a friend, upon his first use of modafinil, wonder aloud if the way they felt on that stimulant was the way Elon Musk felt all the time. And it gave me a good tool to discuss biological variation with.
Every so often an overly kind commenter here praises my intelligence and says they feel intellectually inadequate compared to me, that they wish they could be at my level. But at my level, I spend my time feeling intellectually inadequate compared to Scott Aaronson.
And God feels intellectually inadequate compared to Johann von Neumann. If my only goal is short-term preservation of my self-esteem, I can imagine that if only things had gone a little differently I could have practiced more and ended up as talented as my brother.
Only one in a billion people reach a Mozart level of achievement; why would it be me? If I loved music for its own sake and wanted to be a talented musician so I could express the melodies dancing within my heart, then none of this matters.
This is also how I feel of when some people on this blog complain they feel dumb for not being as smart as some of the other commenters on this blog.
I happen to have all of your IQ scores in a spreadsheet right here remember that survey you took? Not a single person is below the population average. I am pretty sure we can raise your IQ as much as you want and you will still feel like pond scum.
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Maybe if you were literally the highest-IQ person in the entire world you would feel good about yourself, but any system where only one person in the world is allowed to feel good about themselves at a time is a bad system.
What will help is fundamentally uncoupling perception of intelligence from perception of self-worth. I work with psychiatric patients who tend to have cognitive difficulties. The standard psychiatric evaluation includes an assessment of cognitive ability; the one I use is a quick test with three questions. This is getting pretty close to what I was talking about in my post on burdens. Yes, society has organized itself in a way that excludes and impoverishes a bunch of people who could have been perfectly happy in the state of nature picking berries and hunting aurochs.
Likewise with intellectual ability. And we had better establish that now, before transhumanists succeed in creating superintelligence and we all have to come to terms with our intellectual inferiority. But I think the situation can also be somewhat rosier than that. Ozy once told me that the law of comparative advantage was one of the most inspirational things they had ever read. This was sufficiently strange that I demanded an explanation.