The Fear of Failure

 “What is your true fear?”
I must achieve my full potential. If I don’t I… fail…
“What happens if you fail?”
Something terrible…
“What happens if you fail?”
I don’t know!
“Then it should not be frightening. What happens if you fail?”
There was silence for a moment in the caverns of Harry’s mind.
“You know – you aren’t letting yourself think it, but in some quiet corner of your mind you know just exactly what you aren’t thinking – you know that by far the simplest explanation for this unverbalisable fear of yours is just the fear of losing your fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in you, of turning out to be pretty much ordinary, of flashing and fading like so many other child prodigies…”
No, Harry thought desperately, no, it’s something more, it comes from somewhere else, I know there’s something out there to be afraid of, some disaster I have to stop…
“How could you possibly know about something like that?”

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Fear is an incredibly powerful motivating force. In equal amounts, it’s a lot stronger than ambition or hedonism.  The fear of losing something is a lot more powerful than the pleasure obtained by getting something equally as valuable, even if that’s economically irrational.

In social situations, it’s common to ask someone about what they like and enjoy, in an attempt to understand more about him. But since fear is such a powerful motivating force, more than “enjoyment”, perhaps it might be just as valuable to ask someone about their greatest fear? Our fears are just as powerful in shaping us to becoming who we are today.

My third biggest fear is going blind. As someone who’s identity is shaped by my ability to comprehend and analyze complex ideas, becoming blind would destroy reading for me. Sure, it may still be possible to obtain ideas from non-visual sources, but ultimately, reading is the medium that holds the highest information density for me, since I read at around 1k words per minute.

My second biggest fear is death. As a transhumanist and an Atheist, I believe that death is the ultimate annihilation. There is no salvation. There is no afterlife.

Despair can only exist if hope exists. If we believe that death is inevitable, then death seems far less scary, because nothing is lost by dying. On the other hand, if a 25% chance of living forever exists, then death would be far more intimidating, for to die is to lose an eternity of experiences and fun. It is the slim hope of indefinite life extension that motivates me to do everything in my power to obtain it.

That’s why I write extensively on death, and my life’s plans revolves around maximizing the lifespan’s of myself and those I value. Before I became aware of Transhumanism, I did not fear death, and was willing to risk my life in many ways. Only after becoming aware that this hope exists, did I fear dying.

However, the largest and most interesting fear that I have is Failure. I am far more afraid of failure than death or blindness.

I want to achieve greatness by saving the world. There’s an altruistic aspect that motivates me to do this, but there’s also a selfish desire to win embedded within. I want to contribute to humanity, to make a breakthrough in economics, to be the Marx or Keynes of the modern world. I want my ideas to be highly valuable to humanity, and to surpass Eliezer Yudkowsky in brillance. I want to find a way to solve the Economic calculation problem, and to invent a new economic system that surpasses anything that has been previously tried.

I haven’t achieved any of these, of course. These are mere fantasies, arbitrary goals that allow me to label myself a non-failure.

I’m utterly terrified of not achieving any of these things. What if hard work and intelligence can only get me so far? The chips on the board are years of my life. How would I cope with wagering them and losing? What if I ended up being merely above average, and become forced to work in a mediocre 9-5 job, until old age forces me to retire? What if I end up succumbing to weakness of the flesh, and get married and have children?

Despair can only exist if hope exists also. It’s incredibly terrifying because I have an IQ (143) that rivals many throughout history that have achieved greatness. I have an incredible amount of passion and conscientiousness, especially after hacking my body with nootropics. In my youth, I have displayed many prodigial traits that are associated with those who have achieved greatness. (A vast majority of people who have achieved mastery at a field have displayed a propensity for it at a very young age.) Above all, I have an obsession with economics. Many people don’t hold a passion for any particular field, and remain relatively undecided about a career choice until they are forced to make one. But I’ve desired to be involved with Economics since I was 12, and have never changed my mind since.

It’s scary because I know I have the potential to do it. I can imagine a world where my ideas are incredibly valuable to human society. But there are so many who have these traits and still fail. Collapsing that world and replacing it with one where I achieved nothing would be far more painful, than being inevitably mediocre. One could say that Fate herself is teasing me – I have enough brilliance to potentially win, but not enough brilliance to definitely win. It may be better had I been born with either average competency, so I could be average without worrying, or had I been born an absolute genius, with self-control that could make the Buddha flinch, so I could achieve greatness naturally.

What happens if I fail?

It cannot be that bad. Billions of people live mediocre, average lives. It’s also pretty enjoyable. To be extra-ordinary means to shoulder extra-ordinary burdens and extra-ordinary concerns. To want to save the world is to bear the entire weight of the world on your shoulders. To acquire mastery at a field requires more than effort and interest, it requires obsession. The price of that obsession is often to disregard many other pleasures life has to offer.

And yet I cannot even imagine myself disregarding all these responsibilities for a life well-lived. An average life is an abyss of failure, and as I stare into that abyss, the abyss stares back at me.

It’s not anything rational. I can justify my fear of death and blindness by saying that it diminishes utility by a significant amount. Sure, failure diminishes utility too, but not anywhere close to that of dying. Rationally, I know it’s better to fail than die.

And yet I am utterly terrified.
I’m utterly terrified of losing my fantasy of greatness, of disappointing the people who believe in me. I’ve already done it once — it was horrible. Still, I cling on to the faint hope that I can achieve greatness through other means.

I think I’m going to be hit incredibly hard when I’m 35, when I realize I haven’t achieved anything noteworthy, that I’m merely above-average in competence, and that I’ve been a failure.

But I’m terrified of failure. So I’m going to allow this fear to motivate me. I’m going to feed this fear, and let the feedback-loop continue. I will let this fear flow through me, and define me as a person.


Selfish Charity

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. … “

-Matthew 6:1, Bible.

I’m not a Christian any more, but I’ve decided to quote the bible because this post was written with religious people in mind.

If you desire to be selfish, let your selfishness be known. If you desire to be charitable, do so in the most optimal manner. There is a special type of hatred I reserve for those for whom signalling generosity is more important than the charity itself.

It happens far more commonly than most people assume. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that it’s particularly common amongst religious people, especially people of the Baha’i faith. For many of them, it is tradition to go on “service trips”, expensive oversea flights to 3rd world countries in order to help build a house for a few weeks, or volunteer for some menial labour, before going back to their 1st world homes. These flights can cost upwards of a thousand dollars, and the total cost of all expenses can be twice of that.

After they go home, they would feel pleased with themselves, for they have helped people in need. What’s wrong with that?

It’s wrong because that’s not charity. It’s wrong because it’s not optimal. It’s wrong because people who do shit like this are under the impression that they are doing what’s morally just and righteous, despite caring more about being seen as morally just and righteous than actually increasing the world’s utility.

The best way to increase the world’s utility is to apply some basic goddamn economic principles, and take that few thousands dollars worth of time and money, and donate it to an optimal charity, preferably at I also personally recommend the SIAI, and Methuselah Foundation charities, but if you’re not donating to either of these two, get an efficient charity at

Why is this optimal? Because money is power. If you live in a 1st world country, and if you’re reading this you probably do, then working at any job, even a minimum wage one, and donating the money to a 3rd world country, is hundreds of times more efficient and utility maximizing than taking that money to travel to that country yourself, and volunteering at a job you’re probably incredibly inefficient in. It’s called division of labour, and it’s the idea that sparked the industrial revolution. Do the thing you’re the most efficient in, and pay someone else to do the task that you’re bad in. Save the cost of the air ticket, and donate it too.

Consider that the price of a human life is about $2000. Approximately the cost (plus opportunity cost) of going to a 3rd world country.

So you can lay a few bricks, or paint a few rooms — or you could save a human life. If you chose the former, and still pretend to be charitible and generous, then with all the tact I can muster, you can go fuck yourself. If you see anyone that does this, call them out on their bullshit, and give them no mercy.

Understand that I’m not against people going on holidays. I’m not against people spending money on themselves. If your personal idea of fun is to go to third world countries to volunteer, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just don’t think that you’re actually doing charity, or that you’re helping people. What I’m against is people doing charity in the least efficient manner, for the sake of gaining personal hedonistic pleasure, under the illusion that what they’re doing can be said to be “good”. What I’m against is people who care more about being seen doing charity than achieving charity.

Because don’t give me that shit about the intentions being more important than the action. All of your hedonistic fuzzy feel-good feelings is a feather on a scale when a life is at stake. The world does not care what you think. It needs more than people wanting to do good, it needs people who are actually competent at achieving it. To invoke Godwin’s law, consider that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were all people who genuinely wanted to help the world, but then screwed it over by being incredibly incompetent at knowing how to help it.

If you genuinely want to maximize good, the best way to do that may involve never being thanked for your work. It may involve never seeing the person you’re helping. And that’s okay, because you genuinely want to help that person, and you’ve helped him the best way you could.

Similarly, if you’re trying to choose a career that will maximize good, don’t be a doctor. Be a wall street banker or a CEO, or any other job that maximizes your income, and donate 90% of your income to charity. Doctors don’t increase societal utility by much, because economically, you’re providing your services where marginal demand meets marginal costs. In other words, you’re trading your services for something equally valuable, which is money. That’s not maximizing good, and that’s not charity. Instead, you should try to earn as much income as possible, and donate all that you can spare to efficient charities.

The world needs more than good intentions. It needs efficiency. Don’t assume that having the first means achieving the second.

No universally optimal political system.

There is no such thing as a universally optimal political system. Name any one political system, even your favorite, and I can give you an example of a possible society that the political system would be horrible under. For example, the answer to “Democracy” would be a large open country, the size of the United States, where literacy is low, and people travel by horse. There is no electricity, and no systematized education, and the majority of inhabitants are farmers. The answer for why is immediately obvious: one of the prerequisites of democracy is that the populace is educated and well-informed about politics. A society where this is impossible would also be unable to function with democracy. This is the reason why historically speaking, democratic societies did not exist. Even the Greeks did not really have democracy, only a small population of the wealthy slave-owning males could vote.

Utilitarianism does not count, because it is a meta-political system, rather than a true political system. It is essentially by definition “A political system that is the best political system.”

The fact that there is no universally optimal political system seems like a really obvious fact, but when it comes to debating politics, it is incredibly easy to forget about it. People can debate about which political system is better for hours and hours, but within their minds, imagine two different societies, and as a result, never come to agreement. This happens more often than you think, because most of us live in completely different societies. Even within the same country, there are different subcultures and clusters and philosophies and ways of living. When you factor in completely different countries and cultures, and perhaps even start to contemplate societies far into the future, disagreements arise quickly.

You can say that both debaters are talking about this particular society, the one we live in, but even that does not solve the problem. Due to the affect heuristic, it is impossible not to imagine that the inhabitants of this hypothetical society are more similar to us than they really are. After all, if you could perfectly simulate every single human being on earth in your mind, you would be powerful enough to take over the world and impose the ideal political system at that point of time, rather than argue with people on the internet about how Libertarianism is stupid and Socialism is smart (Or how Socialism is stupid and Libertarianism is optimal).

Perhaps the person arguing for socialism is picturing the inhabitants of this hypothetical society as being similar to himself, and the person arguing for libertarianism is picturing the inhabitants of this society to be similar to himself. Therefore, both may be completely correct when saying that “Libertarianism/Socialism is optimal. (for a society comprised of inhabitants similar to myself)”

This simple concept is one of the primary factors that influences my political views. It is a lot easier to understand political ideology when we understand that when people assert that one political ideology is “best”, they are referring to that political ideology being “best” for a society comprised of people most similar to them.

It’s why I can talk freely about Anarchism, Anarcho-Capitalism, Communism, Socialism, Marxism, Libertarianism, Liberalism, Moderatism, Futarchism, Theocracy, Fascism, Democracy, Direct democracy, Social Democracy, Progressives, Reactionaries, ad infinitum, without being as mindkilled as most people do (that is not to claim I am completely rational. I still get mindkilled to a certain extent, and I have slight problems understanding right-wing christian neoconservatism). I acknowledge that each of these political ideologies have societies where they are optimal in, and that each of these ideologies have societies where they would fail terribly at. I also acknowledge that I cannot model society with perfect accuracy, and I could see each of these ideologies having the possibility of working, in our current society. (Because probability is a part of the map, from having imperfect knowledge of the territory.)

The inability to conceive that society, as well as its political requirements, change over time, is also one of the common reasons why most people are incapable of understanding Marxism/Socialism/Communism/Extropianism. In order to understand Marxism, it is important to understand dialectical Materialism, which essentially is a prediction of how society will change over time as our ability to harness technology increases. I’m not necessarily saying that Communism is right. I’m saying that you cannot even begin to argue if Communism is right or wrong if you don’t understand dialectical materialism, or the fact that not a single Communist since the invention of Communism until today actually believes that full Communism is feasible with our current society.

Thus, it just happens that many people think that Communists are stupid or irrational, because nobody ever told them that Communism is about a hypothetical political system being ideal for a certain hypothetical society, not about Communism being ideal for our current society. Some Communists I know are the most ardent supporters of Capitalism, including Marx himself, who claimed that Capitalism is absolutely essential for the its raw production power in advancing society forward.

So before talking about what political ideology is optimal, it is important to model the society that the political ideology is optimal in. Make sure your opponent has a similar type of society in mind. If you wish to find the truth, doing so is necessary.

Your obvious lack of imagination

People tend to be incredibly unimaginative when it comes to ideas they don’t like.

Take for example, indefinite life extension. When told that people can and should live forever, some accept that doing so is possible, but then give some ridiculous argument like “If everyone was immortal, wouldn’t the world be overpopulated? (Therefore we should let people die.)

This is a testament to your lack of imagination. There are thousands of possible solutions that are easy to imagine, and many times better than proposing we let people die,  but instead of trying to do so, you immediately refuse to think of any, and instead say something like “But overpopulation!”.

Let’s try to name some.

We could colonize outer space.
We could impose legal policies that forbid too much reproduction.
We could require licenses to give birth, and make babies only when necessary.
We could mandate that all immortal beings are not allowed to reproduce.
We could drill holes deep into the earth, and build extra living space there.
We could randomly sterilize a portion of the population from young.
We could upload billions of our minds into quantum computers and be simulated rather than stay in the physical world.
We could mandate a birth tax, in order to discourage people from giving birth.
We could all maybe spontaneously agree not to reproduce too much.
We could use nanotechnology to engineer massive generation ships, and have a significant portion of humanity live in space.
We could use genetic engineering to create humans that can only reproduce at age 500.
We could use genetic engineering or other forms of technology to lower the necessary resources a human has to consume.
We could cryogenically preserve and store a large portion of the human race until we are capable of sustaining them.
We could create more efficient technology to increase the number of resources humans can obtain.
We could collectively attempt to reduce the amount of resources we consume.

Do some of these policies sound worrying, like imposing government regulation over reproduction? Kind of.
But are all of them better than killing 150 000 people a day? Definitely, and many times over.

Are some of them possibly hard to achieve? Might be.
But the probability of all of them being impossible is impossible.

The above solutions are not anything well-researched, I merely spent a minute or two thinking about how overpopulation from indefinite life extension can be solved. Even if you’re not a particularly imaginative person, you should be able to think of at least one or two ideas about how to solve this.

It’s a testament to your lack of imagination that you couldn’t think of any of these.
It’s a testament to your bias that you selectively have a bad imagination when faced with ideas you don’t like, and selectively have good imagination when faced with ideas you like. You place a higher burden of proof on things that disagree with your worldview than things that do.

This happens with a range of political ideologies; nearly every one of them.

Such as Anarchism’s “If there is no Government, what’s going to prevent people from killing each other?”
Such as Anarcho-Capitalism’s “If there is no Government, who will build the roads?”
Such as Transhumanism’s “If intelligence can be augmented, won’t there be greater wealth inequality as money can buy intelligence?”
Such as Social Democracy’s “If people were given welfare, wouldn’t they not be motivated to work?”
Such as Right-Wing Libertarian’s “If corporations were not regulated, what incentive would they have to protect the environment?”
Such as Statism’s “If the Government is in charge of X, wouldn’t they be corrupt and abuse it? Who watches the Watchmen?”
Such as Leninism’s “If there is a Vanguard party, what’s going to stop them from forming a dictatorship?”
Such as State-Proxy Socialism’s “If there was no free market enterprise, how would the Government know how to govern an economy?”
Such as uncentralized Socialism’s “If there are no bosses, how would the workers know how to run a company?”
Such as Communism’s “If commodities are distributed according to need and ability, who would judge need and ability?”

I will leave these questions to you as an exercise. I can think of a number of answers to every single one of these problems in seconds. Any sufficiently intelligent person should be able to come up with a number of possible solutions to each of these problems. It doesn’t even have to be a brilliant one, just one that should be possible according to the laws of nature. It’s a testament to your lack of imagination if you’re unable to think of even one possible way of alleviating the problem.

I’m not saying that none of these political ideologies have problems. I’m just saying that I know for a fact that none of these abovementioned “problems” are the strongest argument against these political ideologies, or even arguments at all.

The problem with selective imagination happens to all humans, but we should reduce it where we can. Before immediately criticizing an idea, spend a minute or two being creative.