If there’s one lesson that I learned from almost every single smart person I know, it’s:
This is not something I’ve been able to convince anyone of, at least not with a rational argument. I might tell people things like:
Stop ruminating about changing jobs, make accounts at x/y/z today, and fill them in minimally... yes, like, in 20 minutes, yes, it’s fine if they are not perfect. Then apply to 100 jobs, no, no, don’t spend 1 hour ruminating over each one, just write a 5-minute intention letter, you’ll have like a 5% reply rate anyway, just focus on the ones that send interview... I don’t mean like that, don’t ruminate for hours about every interview!
Yeah, it’s a super complex piece of kit you need to build. But like, you’ve given me a use-case, you explained one of its components, just write a test and see where it goes. Yeah, I understand the test will fail, I understand it won’t even compile, whatever, just write it. Or if you don’t want to do that write the component you described to me, it can be broken, doesn’t matter. Or heck, find a similar~ish project and just copy-paste it and start cutting and remaking. Doesn’t matter that you’re starting from a Reddit clone and you want to build genetics testing CRM, it can still serve as a starting-off point.
Yeap, getting into a new field is hard, but whatever, fake it til you make it. Buy the right books, follow the right people on Twitter, read the right blogs, build something that seems like it suits that field. Yes, the books will be wrong, you’ll be following dumb people that every insider actually derides, the blogs will be off-topic, you’ll build something shamefully bad. Doesn’t matter, just do it.
And I can’t for the life of me convince people about doing these things because they seem “rash”... and I keep thinking (therefore I know I exist): “what the fuck are they thinking” (therefore I know they exist as a separate entity), “why is this rash, you’re not trying to spear-hunt a fucking bear, you're writing some code in the privacy of your own home, the place you masturbate in, surely the shame of failing miserably can’t be that bad”.
Anyway, I’m not going to try to convince anyone to do then think. I can’t prove nor even properly conceptualize why you should start doing that. But I want to try and at least think about a few reasons why doing before thinking, or at least doing something that seems like doing before thinking, is so unreasonably ineffective.
Something Something Subconscious Immersion
You all know the drill here.
Brilliant scientist thinks a lot about a problem, gathers all the data that doesn’t make sense and all the data that already makes sense and needs to keep making sense, struggles for a few days and comes up with nothing... then, he wakes up from a dream drooling inspiration, runs to his notebook in a trance and figures out relativity/microscopy/the periodic table/DNA structure.
If we assume that, at any given time, a large part of brain networks are inactive or below the state of conscious control, then it’s only a short inference away that the patterns of thought that’d bring them online are best triggered by actually doing the tasks and letting said networks “figure out” that they need to to help and how.
Examples of this that everyone’s noticed are learning to ride a bike, row, climb, surf, etc. Complex motor skills are learned with minimal conscious input, the conscious mind just decided to get on the bike as best it can, it receives instructions like “push with your leg in a sort of rotation motion”... and 1 hour later the network that can actually handle bike riding has learned how to do it. It’s important to note that riding a bike can’t be first learned at a theoretical level.
Rational Thought Is Best Past a Certain Data Threshold
Anyway, we’re talking about things that are more complex than bike riding here, so I get that the analogy doesn’t fit perfectly, but remember that bit about theory not being useful for beginners? I assume it’s not the same for professionals.
Professional bikers might spend hours a day discussing cycling theory, optimizing things besides bike riding like their doping regiment, training adjacent skills that they think are particularly important but hard to train “while doing the thing”. Professional sportspeople in general presumably do this quite a lot, though I expect it’s much more common at complex sports (think football, skiing) than at simple ones (sprinting, javelin throwing).
This might in part work because rational thought is good at polishing up ideas and behaviors but can’t start from a position of insufficient data, or rather, is really dumb from a position of insufficient data.
Let's think of a complex skill that people are really anxious about practicing, let’s say picking up people or interviewing with an important manager. How’s intuitively going to be better, someone that read a dozen interviewing-and-business/pickup-artistry books and watched videos and prepared bits to say... or someone that’s already done it 4 or 5 times (even if they failed)? Almost certainly the latter.
Theory and rationality seem to only help from a position where data is plentiful to think with, where there are real-world examples to think about, where you’ve already “felt” a system from the inside. Sure enough, people seem to have come up with a promising theory about mechanics much sooner than about waves, and for seemingly no fault of experimental devices, it’s just that we “do mechanics” in our day-to-day lives.
Thinking Is Meant For Dangerous Scenarios
Let’s say thinking involves several disadvantages, it wastes time, it stresses you out, it makes you less likely to do anything in the long term (because doing anything is stressful and time-consuming), and so on.
This would still make thinking advantageous if you have to go spear that bear since you want that kind of scenario to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so the extra stress and time is not only worthwhile for a slightly lower chance of death, it’s the appropriate signal to send: “This is really hard and dangerous, don’t do this ever again”.
Alas, we are usually in lack of life and death scenarios, and furthermore, we are trained to think too much in easy situations that should require no thought (e.g. solving math problems at school) in order to get a slight edge over someone else (e.g. during an exam).
So it might be that doing than thinking is unreasonably effective because we trade-off on wasting time and producing anxiety that might make us never take useful action, to begin with.
An important bit there is to remember that the network/self/you which thought the action is good is often not the network doing it. Maybe you did ponder the idea of getting a new job for a lot, decided on yes, and now the pesky you actually doing the job searching is thinking through every single job as though I’d be a life-and-death decision whether or not to apply. This leads me to...
We Often Think About Stuff That’s Already Decided
Sure, it’s good to question the fundamentals of math every now and then, but maybe it’s not best to do it as part of solving a mildly annoying but certainly-doable calculation. It’s also worth thinking if you’ve gone a bit too extreme with your dieting, but doing so in the middle of a diet is bound to always result in you rationalizing “yes” to be the answer in order to splurge on sweets.
Thinking often leads us to quickly rethink at the “meta” level where a decision was already made, potentially a very thoughtful and thorough decision we made a while ago.
An important note here is that this should bias us against both thinking too much while doing something that’s been decided upon and towards planning fewer things at the “meta” level, leaving the doing for some other-self.
We Can’t Control Thought Through Anything But Action
Even though we have a lot of “mental power” available at any given moment, most of what we do with it feels “unelected”, we lack understanding about why conscious thoughts flow the way they do.
But a pretty reliable way to control thought is to put yourself into a situation where thought must take a certain pattern.
If you jump through a small hole in the roof of a bear’s den, wooden spear in hand, barely not awaking the fiend from hibernation, you’ll probably have more optimal thoughts about bear-killing than if you tried to “imagine” the scene. But the trade-off is risk. Similarly, with social situations, risks of saying the wrong thing or grooming the wrong monkey could have been rather high. So we grew to love “imagining” and be afraid of action.
What we think of when not acting will be a function of what seems “most important”, thus many people end up ruminating about things such as politics, socializing and phobias. What we think of when acting will be the process itself, thus shortcutting the prioritization process.
None of this is a conclusive answer to the question, much less so a proof, but these are some of the intuitions I have about it.
As an aside, I conceptualize all of these intuitions while writing, maybe there were already formed in my subconscious, maybe they were created as a result of the imagined constraint of having to write this article, maybe they are all bad because I didn’t spend more than 30 minutes consciously ruminating on the subject, or maybe they are as good as the answers of someone that meditated upon the question his entire life... If only I could know for sure.
Adding this here least I forget, mark of apxhard.com had an amazing tldr take on this:
The right priors:
Your model is wrong and will be wrong until you've banged it into reality enough time to kill off the memes that can't pay rent. If you never encounter reality with the model, then rent is zero. The more painful your encounters with reality, the higher the rent cost. Most failures don't matter much and only make you stronger if you can extract the lessons from them. Almost nobody else cares about you one way or the other, and a crowd of people mocking you or dismissing your efforts is actually quite an accomplishment since it means you actually registered in their minds as relevant.
The wrong priors, learned in school:
- The authorities know the answer already, you just need to give it back to them
- Your success or failure is a function of how well your beliefs confirm to those of the authorities
- The cost of failure is bad grades which are visible to other people who will judge you based upon those bad grades the rest of your life
I love this!