Sam's 12 rules for life
I haven’t had a cheesy post for a while, so why not this? Fairly obvious where this idea is from, so no need to give credit. Advice is from a 25-year-old with only very modest achievements, so take from that what you will.
1) If you’re succeeding in most things you do, you’re probably not aiming high enough. Attempt things that you think will almost certainly fail.
I’ve applied for jobs or grants randomly that I thought I had a <1% chance of getting and have either got them or got much further in the hiring process than I expected. On the other hand, sometimes I apply to things that I consider nearly a sure thing and get rejected very quickly. It could just be the case that I’m particularly bad at these sorts of predictions, but I suspect this could be true for a lot of people.
Apply for things that seem like they’d be amazing if you got them even if you think the chance is very low. You could be wrong, and even if you’re not wrong and the chance really is 1%, the expected value could still be reasonably high (bonus advice: learn about expected value).
2) There is a lot to be said for making friends from across the political spectrum.
Growing up I didn’t really have any right-wing friends, mostly because there aren’t that many right-wing young people in North London. But in the past few years I’ve made many more friends on the right, which has sharpened my thinking and changed my views on a few different things. Sometimes I go to events full of right-wing or centre-right people, and other times I go to events full of left-wing and centre-left people – these people should be mixing much more, they’re generally all very bright and interesting and could learn a lot from each other.
3) Assume that most interesting things you hear are wrong in one way or another.
Loads of interesting and compelling ideas turn out to be bullshit. I’m hesitant to say that this is true of most interesting ideas, because I have no idea if that’s true. But I suspect there’s a negative correlation between how interesting an idea is and how likely it is to be true (as I’ve written about here) and would encourage you to evidence the papers that someone making a compelling claim is citing. The claim ‘correlation is not causation’ has gone back to being underrated and controlling for confounders is difficult! You can put more faith in experiments and quasi-experiments.
4) Start investing in index funds when you’re young. Compound growth is powerful (but not the most powerful force in the universe).
You will probably make a lot of money if you just buy the market and deposit some reasonable portion of your salary. Don’t sell when the market crashes and you’ll be okay. If you’re in the UK or the US, you should probably use Vanguard. Don’t pick and choose stocks you think will do well.
5) Take fewer risks than you want to in your teens, and more risks than you want to in your 20s.
When you’re a teenager, taking a big risk can lead to you failing exams, getting someone pregnant, getting pregnant yourself, seriously hurting yourself, and so on. When you’re in your twenties, taking a big risk on founding a start-up or pursuing an atypical career probably won’t do you that much harm and could end up being extremely worthwhile.
6) Being honest about fucking up is almost always worth it.
In my experience, generally people are less angry about you making some mistake than you think they’ll be. People will probably be very angry if you make some mistake and try to cover it up or pass the blame on to someone else. Even if you can get away with covering up mistakes most of the time, I’m fairly confident that it is usually a bad decision. Fess up early.
7) Learning new skills is often more valuable than acquiring knowledge when you’re young.
In my undergraduate degree, I learnt a load of stuff about political science that was interesting, but I don’t think I gained that much from the knowledge. In my master’s degree, I learnt to code in R, how to critically evaluate a journal article, and some basic econometrics.
My one-year master’s degree was much more valuable than the undergraduate degree, and if I could go back in time, I’d do political science with data science or political science with German or something. A lot of the value from formal education is that you’re kind of forced to stuff you otherwise wouldn’t do – I would never have gone through an econometrics textbook of my own accord. These days I struggle to practice German (alas I have almost none of the language now) and would be much better off had I done it at university.
8) Do things that feel easy to do.
Writing blog posts isn’t that hard for me to do, it’s usually fun when I get in the zone. Consistently is easy when the thing you’re trying to do consistently feels easy to do. As an example of this, my impression is that a lot of people make the error of trying to develop a perfect exercise routine, which involves doing a load of exercises they basically hate. Doing things you enjoy will pay off in the long run, even if it takes longer to achieve some desired result than it would have if you were doing things more efficiently. There’s no use developing an efficient system if you abandon it!
9) Use Anki to remember things.
See this video from 14 minutes in. Especially useful for exams.
10) Tap into networks of interesting and intelligent people.
For me, this has been Effective Altruists, forecasters, and rationalists. There are a few potential downsides here. One is that you become susceptible to groupthink and begin to assume that the consensus in the network must be true. Another related one is that if you make being a member of some network part of your identity, you become hostile to critics of the network. But in general, there are a lot of opportunities that come from tapping into networks of interesting people. One possible remedy to the problems above is learning from networks of people with generally opposing views, something I’ve so far basically failed to do.
11) Stimulants make hard tasks easier.
Controversial (especially given the whole FTX fiasco), but probably true. Getting a prescription for ADHD medication and taking prescribed doses is safe and beneficial for most people.
12) Asking people for stuff is usually worth it.
Ask a writer you admire for feedback on your writing or even to share an article you wrote. Ask a professor if they can send you a PDF of their book or an article they wrote for free. Ask your Twitter followers to hang out in real life if you want to meet new people. Ask someone who knows a lot about [topic you want to know about] to Zoom with you and give a brief overview and reading recommendations. Ask if you can write for a website you want to write for. Ask the most interesting person you can think of to appear on your podcast. Ask for anything you want, but don’t ask someone over and over again if they say no.