Crossposted to LessWrong
Over the course of this past year, I’ve slowly become a magician.
No, not a literal one. But in the sense that I’ve become a version of myself that I previously would’ve called a magician.
I feel less social anxiety and awkwardness when asking people for things. I feel more inclined to find unusual or uncomfortable answers to problems. I have gotten noticeably better at not letting uncertainty and hypotheticals stall action.
Before, I would quickly concede if told it wasn’t possible to get a Thing I wanted. Now, I’m usually able to pry until I get that Thing, or at least come away with a compromise or special arrangement — unless the Thing I want really isn’t possible.
And it feels really good.
As I think about what’s contributed to this mindset shift, one phrase immediately comes to mind — well, the internalization of one phrase comes to mind: there are no rules.
Humans are prediction machines. We expect things to unfold in a certain way because that’s what happened in the past.
This is generally a very useful heuristic, since it saves the mental energy of thinking about what’ll happen next or how we should respond in certain contexts — when you pass by a friend on the street, you don’t need to think very hard about what social niceties to say.
But it’s too easy to fall into these predictable patterns. Invisible social norms develop. Interpersonal dynamics slowly settle. People sleepwalk through daily routines and events.
This can be dangerous if you don’t think about it once in a while, because you can forget that things don’t necessarily happen the way you think they should or would.
Because the world is not static — there are no rules! You can simply do most things, and usually with minimal social costs, if any.1
(It’s at this point I should explicitly state: the idea that “there are no rules” is more of a mindset than a literal phrase. Many people are kind, willing to help, and tolerable. But don’t abuse that trust and goodwill; don’t overtly disregard how your actions affect others. See this post.)
These are all things that I either wouldn’t have done in the past, or have felt extremely uncomfortable doing. But that’s changed! I suspect one fundamental cause: directly witnessing narrative-breaking and agentic behavior.
Growing up, I’d been fed the standard upper-middle class narrative: get good grades at a good college, land a secure job, get married and retire peacefully — all while enjoying hedonistic endeavors along the way.
High school felt super formulaic and cookie cutter as a result; all my peers (including myself) were following the same playbook. But actually going to college shattered that narrative — I quickly realized how many people were doing different things, which was inspiring.2
After a while, it became painfully obvious that I didn’t have to follow the basic narrative. So I started questioning my values and desires, as well as exploring new option spaces. It’s been very freeing, and I generally feel way more excited about embarking on endeavors that deviate from the standard narrative.
I also spent a lot of this past summer around a lot of effective altruists, many of whom were very agentic.3 I’d repeatedly seen stories and advice about agency on Twitter and LessWrong, but it was a whole other thing seeing those lessons and strategies implemented in person.
It’s hard to fully capture the feeling — but I would constantly notice a lot of small actions or tasks getting done right away. I would see my EA friends ask strangers for something they needed without any hesitation, or realize that they wanted something to happen, and then go through extensive means to make that thing happen.
Easily the most inspiring story I’d ever heard was during a 1:1 at EAG SF. I might slightly be misremembering the details, but it went something like this:
My memory trails off here; I don’t fully remember the aftermath and what happened with the documentary, but this by itself is an insane series of events and hearing about it left a long-lasting impression on me.
He also told me a couple more agentic anecdotes: one of the exercises assigned by his startup incubator cohort was to go out and get 10 random things from 10 different strangers. Another one was to go to a doctor’s office and take tissues out of a Kleenex box, one by one, until the box was empty — as excruciating and awkward as it was, no one stopped him.
(To reiterate from earlier: don’t literally do this. It is an asshole thing to do — Daniel even said so himself. But the lesson it illustrates is quite instructive.)
Hearing all of this in-person was really fascinating.4 It helped instill the thought that I could just do things or ask people for things without significant repercussions. Then, actually doing those things and associating them with positive outcomes reinforced this newfound belief.
I’ll leave it at that. If you’re someone who feels like you need permission to do something, then hear this: there are no rules. You are allowed to deviate from the central narrative. You are allowed to ask people for things. You are allowed to do the thing you want to do. So go do it.1. The show Nathan For You beautifully illustrates this idea. Nathan not only gets away with suggesting the most absurd schemes, but actually implements them through ridiculous means. This is probably one of the most uncomfortable shows I’ve seen. I would highly recommend checking it out. ↩