Category Archives: Anxiety

Could the Earth ever become a Dark Forest?

In the trilogy The Three Body Problem, Liu Cixin builds his novels around the idea that the universe is a Dark Forest – i.e., when you’re moving through a dark forest and you hear the rustling of leaves, the optimal reaction is to shoot first.

More fully, the Dark Forest theory of the universe is built upon these first principles:

  1. The primary goal of each civilization is to survive.
  2. There are finite resources and space in the universe.
  3. Civilizations tend to expand.
  4. Civilizations tend to advance technologically.
  5. You have no way of truly knowing whether an alien species is peaceful or hostile.

So, if you detect an alien species – what do you do?

Under the Dark Forest theory, you kill them.

The reason you kill them is that even if they’re not hostile now, at some point they will want to survive, need more sources, and have advanced technology – which means they might just kill you.

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I have no idea if the Dark Forest theory accurately describes the first principles of the universe.

But it made me think about something we might be able to understand with greater precision: could the Earth ever become a Dark Forest?

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Right now, the Earth is not a Dark Forest largely because of nuclear deterrence.

North Korea might very well recognize that the existence of the United States will likely bring down their regime at some point, but they can’t act on this knowledge because we could respond to any nuclear attack with an attack that wipes them out.

Even for more robust nuclear powers, each side must live with the fact that a massive nuclear war could destroy all of humanity.

Culture also acts against the Earth becoming a Dark Forest. The scaling of large societies has been in part been sustained through cultural evolution: we now identify with nation and world instead of just kin, which, presumably, partially mitigates the 5th aforementioned principal (lack of trust).

But these conditions are not immutable: so it’s worth considering, how could one sided deterrence, assured mutual destruction, and trust…. end?

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Unfortunately, it’s not hard to describe a scenario:

  1. There is a shortage of an important resource that is necessary to a nation’s survival, which makes securing that resource more important to a nation’s survival than the benefits of trade.
  2. This shortage, as well as the already significant cultural differences between existing rival nations (such as USA and China), erode trust.
  3. Technology advances in a manner that allows a nation that launches a first strike to kills all other humans, not allow for a return strike, and preserve the attacking nation.

How about this: there’s a water shortage that fuels nationalism, that leads to rising animosity between populous nations, and then one of them develops a synthetic virus that instantly kills all humans that haven’t received the vaccine – a vaccine that the attacking nation released in their own water supply the week before launching the attack.

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I’m not in expert in these issues, so maybe I’ve gotten much wrong.

But if the universe can become a Dark Forest, the Earth probably can too.

If this is true, we’ll need a deterrence system for whatever set of weapons come after nuclear warheads.

But what are the odds that for every new weapon we develop we’ll also near simultaneously have an equally strong deterrence system?

They don’t seem high.

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Please do let me know where my logic is off.

Every Mentor Should Become Your Peer

I. Rigorous Thinking and Effectiveness 

The most effective people that I’ve worked with, or engaged with online, are extremely rigorous thinkers.

This, in some sense, is satisfying.

To the extent that the connection between effectiveness and rigorous thinking is causation rather than correlation, then increasing the rigor of one’s thinking can help lead to greater effectiveness.

II. Implicit and Explicit Instruction 

Of the extremely rigorous thinkers I’ve interacted with, only some of them are good at explaining why they think the way they do.

All of them, on the other hand, have been good at telling me when my thinking has not been rigorous enough.

Given the above, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to take their implicit and explicit instruction in order to improve myself.

One incredibly positive aspect of the internet is that it opens up thousands of avenues to learn how other people think.

III. Mentorship 

Another way to say all this: the value of a mentor (either in person or online) is that she should significantly increase the rigor of your thinking.

When you communicate with her, you should run as many cycles of feedback as you can –  pitching your ideas, getting her critiques, and learning.

But, at some point, this can lead to laziness: you might rely on your mentor to do the thinking for you rather than doing it yourself.

One way to test your potential laziness is to continually take stock of the delta between the rigor of your thinking and the rigor of your mentor’s thinking. If you are not closing the gap between the rigor of your thinking and your mentor’s thinking, then you are, in some sense, exploiting your mentor.

Ultimately, every mentor should become your peer. This should be the goal of all involved.

IV. My Journey in Unrigorous Thinking 

For whatever it’s worth, my biggest obstacles to rigorous thinking have come from the following:

1. Yearning for Silver Bullets: Very few quick fixes exist for hard problems. In part, I think I was drawn to law school because of the idea that passing the right law could fix things quickly. As it happens, this is very rarely true. Hard problems tend to have decade long answers.

2. Yearning to Have My Problems Solved: Related but slightly different: when confronted with thorny day-to-day problems, I’ll sometimes gravitate toward the easiest or first solution rather than taking the time to rigorously analyze the issue. This is nothing more than intellectual laziness but it is difficult to control, especially when you’re moving fast and making a lot of decisions each day.

3. Ignoring Politics: I’ve also succumbed to spending a lot of time on ideas or programs that never had a chance of being political viable.

4. Ignoring Executing at Scale: Even ideas that might be politically viable may not be possible to scale operationally. Especially earlier in my career, I deeply underestimated execution as a limiting variable.

5. Wanting to be Agreeable: The desire to please or get along with others sometimes trumps my effort to push to get to the right answer.

Those are the big ones: I could have avoided many of the biggest mistakes of my career had I been more rigorous at avoiding these pitfalls.

I suspect I’m not the only person in my line of work to make these types of mistakes.

V. Thinking More Rigorously Hurts Until It Becomes a Habit 

For all of the above issues, there has either been a professional failure or extremely direct piece of feedback that has provided a wakeup call that I need to be thinking more rigorously.

Even after knowing I have a problem with the way I think, many times the only way I’ve been able to make progress  has been by being exposed to leaders who are adept at avoiding these pitfalls.

This often all rather painful.

For me, it literally hurts to think more rigorously in an area where I have not previously been a rigorous thinker.

In some instances it feels like being a child who knows his parents are right but doesn’t want to admit it even though it is in his best interest to (1) admit it and (2) incorporate his parent’s way of thinking into his world view.

Eventually, it gets less painful – and then it becomes a habit.

And then it’s on to the next one.

VI. Accountability is an Accelerant 

One last point: putting yourself into situations with high accountability for outcomes is one of the best ways to increase the rigor of your thinking.

If you are not accountable for outcomes, then you will be tempted to avoid the pain that comes with thinking more rigorously.

If you are accountable for outcomes, then the pain of potential failure helps offset the pain of thinking more rigorously.

Post Vacation Reflections

1-Gothic Mountain_sized

I just got back from vacation. Despite some bouts of unfortunate weather, I climbed Gothic Mountain – or, more accurately, 98% of Gothic Mountain – the last 2% was a little too risky for my tastes.

Some reflections below:

1. Less Twitter: I’m going to try and cut back from Twitter. While it is an extremely valuable source of information, it also encourages shallow thinking, tribal affiliations, and consumption of information that will be meaningless in a day or two. Out on the trail, I could feel my mind slowing down – there was less speed, more curiosity, and deeper thinking. I was also shocked to see how not much had changed in the week I was offline – Clinton did that, Trump did this – and life goes on…

2. Less Caffeine: Caffeine, like Twitter, speeds up the mind and, in my case, makes me a bit anxious. Before going on vacation, I was “on” caffeine for most of the day, which I think led to less rigorous thinking and more snap judgments. I’m going to try and move one cup of coffee in the morning and 1 cup of green tea in the afternoon.

3. Deeper Reading: I read a lot. And at my worst all I am doing is scanning headlines and abstracts for information that confirms my beliefs or hunches. I need to spend more time deeply thinking through less sources of information.

4. Getting My Head Around the Corner: I feel like I have spent the last 3-4 months trying to peak around the corner of where the next 20 years of education are heading – and how this aligns to my current work. It is unclear to me that I’m operating with the right long-term strategy; or, rather, perhaps what I’m working in is an important part of the puzzle but I can’t yet see the full puzzle, which is frustrating.

Getting Back to Anxiety, Paranoia, and Self Doubt

I’m going to try and take a break from New Orleans ten year education battles.

I think the aggressive push back led by John White, Pete Cook, Chris Stewart and others was necessary – and I tried to play my part.

But it’s not that fun.

It sacrifices a lot of nuance. It requires pretty aggressive attacks against well meaning people. And it surely is not about learning or getting better.

I felt myself getting dumber by the day.

So it’s time to get back to things that I think are fun, that lead to learning, and that involve our tribe getting better.

It’s time to tap back into the wonderful virtues of anxiety, paranoia, and self doubt.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the chance to pepper some great educators and policy wonks (a few of them quite skeptical of relinquishment type reforms). Here are the two most commonly names critiques / threats / etc.

1. Human capital limits for dominant CMO models: The best charters run off type A people in their twenties working 60-70 hour weeks. This will not scale. Moreover, it’s not just a matter of the top charters being more systematized, as their current systems are predicated on working people long hours – and these systems will crack under a different human capital model. Big picture: existing high-performing CMO models will never be able to scale.

2. Not serving the middle class: No national reform effort will ever get to scale unless it benefits the middle class. The politics will prove impossible. And scale can’t be achieved by only focusing on low-income families in cities. Currently, there are very few highly effective charters serving the middle class, and the political fights in the suburbs are a war that can’t really be won. Moderately well performing monopolies with generally satisfied parents will persist in perpetuity.

Both of these issues have been discussed on this blog before.

But I don’t think we have enough good solutions to consider these issues even moderately solved.

Our tribe needs to work hard on these issues. Myself included!