4 min read

The Recovering Rationalist 01: A Path Forward

If you know the right equations, you can send a rocket to the moon.

So why can't I figure out this life stuff?

My Path to Rationalism

School taught me to find the right answer. Well formulated, close-ended questions dominated my education.

I majored in Aerospace Engineering. To solve questions, I used logical thinking, equations, and first principles.

I thought everything could be solved this way. After all, it's not rocket science.

man with equations floating around his head

When I exercised it was to the tune of an excel spreadsheet, meticulously planned and based on Soviet weightlifting textbooks. When I studied Japanese, I used spaced repetition software to perfectly match flashcards with my ‘forgetting curve’.

Websites like LessWrong further entrenched me into this type of thinking. I spent hundreds of hours reading and applying ideas from people who called themselves Rationalists--people like me who found belonging in well-formulated questions and logic.

Rationalism gave me excellent tools. With them, I made a ton of progress.

So why hadn’t I made it?

I started to notice problems that wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I logiced them.

I thought my failures were from a lack of rationality. That project I procrastinated on? A flaw in my systems. Those weird emotions? Cognitive biases that needed to be removed.

Everything ‘wrong’ with me had became something in need of correction.

But something was off.

And if my experience is like yours, you might be noticing it too.

Trouble Brewing in Rationality Land

Was rationality not the be-all end-all system I thought it was?

There were areas of my life where deliberate thinking didn’t help so much, or even interfered. My own thinking got in the way of fluid conversation, moving my body, flirting. I felt blocked even though I knew the right answers.

There were activities I valued that I couldn’t measure or optimize for. I used to enjoy photography, but now I felt bad about ‘wasting’ money on expensive equipment. I used to share cool music with friends. Now, music became a tool to make me work harder, or to ‘fix’ negative emotional states.

This felt wrong, incomplete.

The world is complex, and it seemed like hubris to navigate it with just my limited cognition. Brute forcing legibility onto a complex world had failed miserably at a societal level. Was it failing me on an individual level?

I tried to logic my emotional problems away. I stuffed mental models into my head and read papers on the most effective treatments. But my conflict avoidance, my shyness, and my sense of unease all refused to be stuffed-down with reason.

Was there a better approach?

A Path Forward

If rationality wasn’t it, then what? I felt lost and confused.

Society presents two main options for the non-rationalist:

Option 1: reject rationalism. Throw logic out the door. Get a masters degree in postmodernist literature.  Move to the middle of nowhere and join a hippie commune. Quit your tech job, buy 40 acres of farmland, and grow vegetables. Go by instinct.

Fire Dancers

Fire dancers at a hippie commune in Pai, Thailand

Option 2: nihilistic despair. Put in your 50 hours a week, knowing that you’ll make enough money to be fine. Use Stoicism to get through the day. Pick up a hobby to distract yourself from the existential dread. You might not find meaning, but at least you’re not destitute...right?

happy office worker Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

“I love my job!”

I didn’t like either of those options. I suspect you don’t either.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon a better path.

It started not with rejecting rationalism, but accepting its limits. I accepted that rationality is a tool. And like all tools, it works well in some contexts, and poorly in others.

Through much trial and error, I learned that there are non-systemic, non-rational tools available to explore. Amongst the sea of ‘woo’ nonsense there were real, applicable ideas. They weren’t always easy to learn, and they took work to use.

This larger toolset has served me well.

The path forward isn’t always clear, but it's there, and I promise you it’s worth walking.

Foggy Mountain path photo by Alexander Milo on Unsplash

I’m not here to convert you to religion, or to force you into my cult.

I’m not perfect or enlightened or anything like that.

I’m just writing the words I needed 5 years ago, with the hope that it’s useful for you too.

More soon.

Shoutout to @HuanWin, @TurtlingB, and @warmbott for their feedback on this article.

Further Reading