What the Optimization Bros Have Wrong and How to Fix It
Willpower and Capability Gaps
Consider “screen time”. Every Sunday, Apple Users get our screen time report. And every Sunday we say, “You know, next week I’d love for that to be below 1 hour per day.”
And - it’s seldom below 1 hour per day.
This is one, quantified gap. I am bringing it up because many people are familiar to it and can relate to it.
But there are many “gaps”. Gaps that marketers quantify, study and optimize - but that we have no idea about.
Take New Years Resolutions.
At a fund I worked at - we used to buy nationwide credit card data. We could see all the different categories people spend on. You could tell each year - statistically that people give up on their New Year’s resolution at the exact same time because the ratio of gym and health food store spend to candy shop and gas station convenience store spend.
Fast Food companies tend to ramp their budgets into this time each year
This is what I’d term a “willpower gap”. People overestimate their ability to resist short term gratification consistently.
Take another “gap”. The vast majority of retail investors think they’re going to beat the market and - due to taxes, fees and poor risk management - most do not. Everyone thinks they’re a genius, but the geniuses are working at funds paying top dollar to retail brokerages explicitly because they’re willing to bet you are not a genius.
This is what I’d refer to as a “capability gap”. People overestimate their ability to actually accomplish what they set out to do.
Much of the self-help industry is geared at closing “Willpower” and “Capability gaps”. How do I build better habits and act more consistently? How do I set goals and work in a way that I’m likely to complete them?
So many selves being helped, so little aggregate difference
But - the Self-Help industry itself is - in my view - illustrates the largest “gap” of all.
The number of diet and workout books that has been published has gone parabolic. So has the obesity rate. Therefore - better knowledge about dieting and workouts - empirically, does not result in improved dieting and workouts.
The number of personal productivity and mindfulness books has skyrocketed. But when you combine the total hours spent on devices across phones, TV streaming services, video games and traditional cable - people are spending more time than ever dulling their minds. In other words - better knowledge about productivity and mindfulness does not improve productivity or mindfulness.
It’s not that any of these diet, exercise, productivity or mindfulness are bad individually. The exercises might work. The meditations might bring enlightenment. The time management strategies could really drive focus. It doesn’t matter.
In aggregate, they don’t do anything.
You could blame the marketers and say, “Well, you know. People simply don’t have a fighting chance against the algorithms. So they start on their self improvement plans and then fail”
But that’s a non-answer. People should be able to resist marketing messages. Virtually everybody knows, at this point - that endless scroll, and hyper corporate America doesn’t have our best interests at heart.
Then - why don’t people have a fighting chance against the algorithms?
The answer is obvious - just hard to confront.
People don’t like their lives very much. Their baseline engagement with day to day reality and choices is so low, that random messages pumped in by advertisers actually seem pretty good in comparison.
Why Monk Mode and Unplugging Doesn’t Work
This also explains why the growing trend of “monk mode” does not work. If you unplug from all your apps, group chats, and “mute notifications from everyone”. That also doesn’t do anything.
Because if you do that - the core problem is still there. You don’t like your life very much. And at some level, you’re going to want to get back on the platforms because the marketer’s ideas of how you should live your life will be better than the alternative.
Especially because “monk mode” sucks even more. You’re just making you hate your life that much more so advertisers will have an even greater advantage pitching you on a different one.
This of course - begs the question, “How do people get into situations to begin with where they dislike their lives a lot?”
People are not stupid, or irrational. If you ask why someone is unhappy, the answer is invariably that they “have to” do something. Why do they “have to” do something? Typically - it’s because they are a victim of a Cause.
The Tyranny of Causes
Causes are internally consistent, well architected idea structures attached to formal or informal organizational structures.
Here’s a list of Causes:
- The Government. War. Patriotism.
- Raging Against the Machine (anti government, anti war, anti patriotism)
- Corporate Culture (Goldman man)
- Anti Corporate Culture (hipsterism, r/antiwork)
- Being a Family Man / Trad Wife
- Anti Family/ Trad (opining about genders etc)
- Anti Anti Family (banning woke things - as you can see, there can be n-order complexity on any cause)
- Christianity / Religion
- All meat diets
- Racial Justice
Causes generally don’t care about their members well being - and glorify members who sacrifice themselves in the name of the cause. And as you can see - causes love getting in conflict with other causes because it’s a way to martial resources. They usually get passed between generations or inside of communities. Blood wars in Ireland or the Middle East are good examples of causes that span human lifetimes.
Causes aren’t pointless. Indeed -they’re economically rational.
Entrepreneurs are encouraged to create “causes” or missions, explicitly because doing so makes hiring employees cheaper. An employee who fights for a “mission” will work longer hours and accept less pay. This benefits shareholders and hurts employees.
Causes also are powerful marketing tools - because they can spread from person to person. This lowers marketing costs for well thought out causes. Shareholders in causes are more loyal and don’t sell even when times are bad. This lowers the cost of capital for companies that can be called “meme stocks”, like Tesla - giving them a huge advantage over their competitors
This is why VCs are always looking for founders who resemble Jesus Christ, and why Adam Neumann was able to raise so much money walking around barefoot in New York City.
Military troops who are fighting for what they think is a genuine cause will do irrational things and perform much better than mercenaries. War time propaganda often determines the fate of wars.
But for every credit there is a debit.
Every brand we create, every meme-stock, every hero-like entrepreneur, every war, every God - feeds on the psyche, attention, money or even blood of its adherents.
And society has never been better at manufacturing causes. In large part because now - we have real time data to allow rapid iteration and improvement. The cost to hone and refine a message has gone down immensely, as has the cost to share it across a disparate geography. Thus - we are mass manufacturing Causes.
Why do you think stocks are at all time highs while mental health is at all time lows?
Causes are like vampires sucking the energy out of their adherents. And because there are so many of them, and they’re so well capitalized - the average person finds himself working for a number of alien causes with absolutely no concern for his/her well-being.
Causes do not want you to know this. They glorify sacrifice and hard work. As President Xi of China tells the youth, “Eat bitterness” for the glory of communism. And because social media takes a lot of work to be good at - “troopers” become the faces of various causes and invariably tell you to work harder.
The Optimization Bros are simply telling you how to more effectively fight for Causes. But Causes will simply drain your energy, your attention and your blood. So all the meditation work you do. All the “power of habit” you implement. The pomodoro techniques you master. They just make your blood more succulent for the Cause Vampires to drain.
In aggregate - the proliferation of Causes, and their tendency to make their adherents lives worse, is why it’s so tempting to spend so much time escaping from it all. When you’re drowning your mind in Twitter, or Netflix, or drugs - you’re at least not contributing energy to whatever cause you serve. And running from problems is a better solution - because most people are afraid to acknowledge that they’re serving a hostile, alien set of concepts that don’t care about them.
This is why marketers win. It’s why advertising works. People would rather distract themselves for 3 hours a day for a year than spend 3 months unplugging themselves from all the causes they’re mindlessly serving.
Whenever you read a self-help book that doesn’t address this, you don’t address the root cause. Imagine the extreme image of a wife being abused, who has been gaslit into reading a book about how to understand her drunk husband’s love language to fix her marriage. That’s the self-help industry. Fixing willpower and capability gaps of adherents to psychotic, unthinking machines.
I don’t want to get too violent here, myself.
Going to war with Causes is a bad idea. They thrive on that, and will target you - attempting to make an example of you. The solution is to make a plan, and get out.
Here’s the problem. There are so many Causes, even if you leave your current masters there are another set of them who will be happy to co-opt your life.
I’m sure you know somebody who used to be a radical entrepreneur who is now super into veganism, Bitcoin, Christianity, all meat-diets etc. Causes love high capacity champions and will shower their new adherents with rewards and clout.
The reason why these people are lost - is because they’ve not taken the time to genuinely figure out what they want, so are relying on an alien consciousness do it for them.
Have you ever studied yourself? Be honest - have you searched for patterns in your gmail data? Your text messages? Your journals? Most people haven’t.
Try searching for the word “fuck” in your gmail. Then “awesome”. Then “good”. Then “terrible”. Then “disappointing”. You might be surprised.
Most people have a gigantic yawning irrational gap between the obvious things they like, and want and the life they’re living. I call this the “Utility Gap”.
I’ll give you some real life examples of Utility gaps.
Location. There’s a guy who went to Ireland to see castles. He’s always showing people pictures of the castles. Loved the country. Loved Irish food. Listens to Irish music on his Spotify. But the last time he was in Ireland was years ago. Hasn’t been back. Did some random vacations to an island because his family wanted to go there.
Love. There’s another guy who loves Asian women. You open his old Tinder account, all Asian girls. 8/10 of the last girls he dated are Asian. Did banking in HK said it was the best time of his life. Whenever he goes to strip clubs, it’s Asian strip clubs if possible. He’s married to a white blonde woman. You can tell that his marriage isn’t particularly passionate. They have cold body language. But a vow is a vow.
Work. There’s a guy who loves reading and writing. Studied it in undergrad. After he’s done with work, he’s always writing or reading. Reads over 100 books each year and reviews them all. He works as a fund manager - and investors love reading his quarterly reports. He refuses to start an investing newsletter because he’s too proud to do so. He has an idealized picture of how a fund manager should act, and writing newsletters isn’t part of that picture. His fund doesn’t generate huge fees and he’s always talking about how much money newsletter writers make though, a bit wistfully.
Culture. Every time a guy goes on dates, he’s taking women to museums and art exhibits. It’s just very natural for him to plan that sort of thing - and he thinks it’ll be impressive. He’s trying to get married to someone smart because he wants smart kids, and figures museums are a good screen for that type of thing. And he thinks it’s impressive. He studied art history in college and has a good grasp of the topics as well. But when he’s single - he never goes to museums. Going by himself would defeat the point of getting a smart wife, after all.
Food. There’s a guy who considers himself a “Foodie”. He’s constantly researching Michelin star restaurants to visit on his annual trip where he goes to 10 or so restaurants. When he’s at home he eats protein bars, ramen - because “nothing lives up to his standards as a foodie so he might as well just give up”. There’s an application he could install that delivers fresh produce to his apartment every day. Many local chefs who would cook delicious food for a fraction of the cost. But he’d rather be miserable for months on end and fantasize about his restaurants.
Utility Gaps are a very vast concept but essentially have two essential conditions:
- If you took the time to really study your preferences and behavior - you’d identify things you really like
- For whatever reason there is a huge disconnect between what you are actually doing and what you like
It’s important to note that having utility gaps isn’t something you need to feel bad about. If anything - you should feel good about identifying them, because you can fix them.
This has been a long and winding piece but I’d like to conclude with an actionable solution
First - identify all the utility gaps in your life. Anything where you really like something and aren’t doing it very much.
Start coming up with plans about how to close the various utility gaps. How would you live where you actually like it? How can you be part of the culture you want to be a part of? How can you eat food you really like regularly without harming your health? What type of job do you actually enjoy doing and excel at, and how can you change to do more of that job?
If you’re anything like me - this will likely involve some hard and painful decisions. It’s important to note exactly why they are hard because this will give you the tool for the second exercise.
Second - identify all the Causes that for whatever reason are preventing you from closing your utility gaps.
For example - you might love amazing Indian food and live in Puerto Rico. That’s a problem. But you can’t easily fix it because you’re bought into your image of a disciplined trader who never leaves his desk. That got drilled into your head at 20 years of age.
You might love redheads and live in India. That’s a problem. You can’t easily fix it because your family tells you how important it is for you to be close by. To marry a nice Indian Girl. Because Family Comes First.
Third - make a plan. Insofar as it’s possible - come up with a plan to leave the Causes that are most responsible for your largest Utility Gaps. Do so without making a fuss. Think of it like doing an Irish exit at a really messy party.
Proactively close utility gaps. Fly from Puerto Rico to Iselin New Jersey once a month and eat the really good stuff. Relocate to Dublin. Whatever it takes to make your predictable utility curve align with your life.
The optimization culture. The take an ice bath and get a good night’s sleep, that will fix you. The “unplug your notifications and go to a ten day silent meditation retreat bro just trust me”. The books on Habit Formation. Pomodoro techniques.
It’s all B.S
You will gray scale your phone for a while, and then 1 month later, your screen time will be back to where it was. If not higher.
Optimization doesn’t address the root cause. That you don’t know what you want to optimize for.
Why don’t you know what you want to optimize for?
Because our society has been designed to create Causes that are really, really good at telling you what you want.
And by the time you’re done serving those causes, you’re out of time, money and energy to actually do the stuff you want.
So you waste your time on your iPhone instead. And in your weakened state, scrolling around, marketers convince you to buy a bunch of pointless stuff you don’t need.
This system is great for shareholders and terrible for you.
You don’t need to overclock yourself and be 10x as effective living a life you don’t even like, making money for a boss you hate.
That’s why self-help literature is a waste of time. It’s vampires telling you 10 easy tricks to improve your blood quality. Willpower and Capability Gaps are only worth addressing once you know what you want to exert your will towards, and what capabilities will aid you specifically in pursuit of your goals.
To get out is easy. Identify causes. Study yourself - carefully, and figure out what you really enjoy that you’re not getting. Study how causes are stopping you from getting those things.
And if you genuinely want to make changes - slowly and gracefully exit the most toxic causes you’re involved with, and create and implement a plan to actually do more of the stuff you actually want.
You might find - after you do this - that your screen time might start drifting down naturally. Without yelling at yourself. Without jumping in a 250 degree sauna and whipping yourself with a wet towel. Without much trouble at all. Solve the utility gap and chances are you won’t even need to solve capability or willpower gaps.
It’s easy to stay motivated if your life doesn’t suck. It’s easy to resist people telling you what to desire and how to live if you are getting what you actually want.