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Do Primarily Easy Things – Increasing The Productivity Of Your Intellectual Labor Vs. Consumption

When you do productive labor (like at a job), you are able to use what you produce (or some negotiated amount of payment related to what you produce). How you use your income can be broadly viewed in two ways: investment and consumption.

Investment fundamentally means capital accumulation – putting your income towards the accumulation of capital goods which raise the productivity of labor and thereby create a progressing economy which offers exponentially (like compound interest) more and more production each year. The alternative is to consume your income – spend it on consumer's goods like food, video games, lipstick, cars, etc.

People do a mix of savings/investment and consumption. the proportion of the mix determines how good the future is. A high rate of capital accumulation quickly leads to a much richer world which is able to support far more consumption than before while still maintaining a high rate of investment (the pie gets larger. Instead of consuming 80% of the original pie, one could soon be consuming 20% of a much larger pie which is also growing much faster, and that 20% of the larger pie will be more than 80% of the smaller pie.)

For more info on the economics of this, see the diagrams on pages 624 and 625 of George Reisman's book Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics and read some of the surrounding text.

The situation with your intellectual labor parallels the situation with laboring at a job for an income. Your intellectual labor is productive and this production can be directed in different ways – towards consumption, towards increasing the productivity of intellectual labor, or a mix. The more the mix favors increasing the productivity of your intellectual labor, the brighter your future.

Consumption in this case refers to things where you aren't investing in yourself and your education – where you aren't learning more and otherwise becoming more able to produce more in the future. For example, you might put a great deal of effort into writing a book which you hope will impress people, which you are just barely capable of writing. It takes a ton of intellectual labor while being only a little bit educational for you. Most of your intellectual labor is consumed and the result is the book. If you had foregone the book in the short term and invested more in increasing your productivity of intellectual labor, you could have written it at a later date while consuming a much smaller proportion of your intellectual output. This is because you'd be outputting more and even more so because your output would be more efficient – you'd be able to get more done per hour of intellectual labor (one of the biggest factors here would be making fewer mistakes, so you'd spend less labor redoing things). A good question to ask is whether you produced an intellectual work in order to practice or if instead you put a lot of work into polishing it so other people would like it more (that polishing is an inefficient way to learn). It's sad when people who don't know much put tons of effort into polishing what little they do know instead of learning more – and this is my description of pretty much everyone. (If you think you already know so much that you're largely done with further educating yourself, or at least ready to make education secondary, please contact me. I expect to be able to point out that you're mistaken, especially if you're under 50 years old.)

Consumption (rather than investment), in the realm of intellectual labor, primarily relates to going out of your way to try to accomplish things, to do things – like persuading people or creating finished works. It is possible to learn by doing, but it's also possible not to learn much by doing. If you're doing for the sake of learning, great. If you're doing for the sake of an accomplishment, that is expensive, especially if you're young, and you may be dramatically underestimating the expense while also fooling yourself about how educational it is (because you do learn something, but much less than you could have learned if you instead studied e.g. George Reisman's Program of Self-Education in the Economic Theory and Political Philosophy of Capitalism or my Fallible Ideas recommended reading list.)

Broadly, I see many people try to produce important intellectual works when they don't know much. They spend a lot of intellectual labor and produce material which is bad. They would have been far better served by learning more now, and producing more output (like essays) later on when they are able to make valuable intellectual products with a considerably lesser effort. This explains the theme I've stated elsewhere and put in the title of this piece: you should intellectually do (consume) when it's relatively easy and cheap, but be very wary of expensive intellectual projects which take tons of resources away from making intellectual progress.

Some people doubt the possibility of an accumulation of intellectual capital or its equivalent. They don't think they can increase the productivity of their intellectual labor substantially. These same people, by and large, haven't learned speed reading (or speed watching or speed listening). Nor have they fully learned the ideas of great intellectuals like Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. Equipped with these great ideas, they'd avoid going down intellectual dead ends, and otherwise create high quality outputs from their intellectual labor. Even if the process of increasing the productivity of one's intellectual labor runs into limits which result in diminishing returns at some point, that is no excuse for stopping such educational self-investment long before reaching any such limits.

In the long run, the ongoing increase in the productivity of one's intellectual labor requires the ongoing creation of new and improved intellectual tools and methods, and supporting technologies. It requires ongoing philosophical progress. I believe philosophical progress can be unbounded if we work at it (without diminishing returns), but regardless of the far future there is massive scope for productive educational self-investment today. Unless you've exhausted what's already known about philosophy – that is, you are at the forefront of the field – and also spent some time unsuccessfully attempting to pioneer new philosophy ... then you have no excuse to stop investing in increasing the productivity of your intellectual labor (primarily with better and better methods of thinking – philosophy – but also with other things like learning to read faster). Further, until you know what is already known about philosophy, you are in no position to judge the far future of philosophical progress and its potential or lack of potential.

Note: the biggest determinants of the productivity of your intellectual labor are your rate of errors and your ability to find and correct errors. Doing activities where your error rate is below your error correction capacity is much more efficient and successful. You can increase your error correction effectiveness by devoting an unusually large amount of resources to it, but there are diminishing returns on that, so it's typically an inefficient (resource expensive) shortcut to doing a slightly more difficulty project slightly sooner.


The article is itself an example of what I can write in a few minutes without editing or difficulty. It's the fruits of my previous investment in better writing ability in order to increase the productivity of my intellectual labor. I aim primarily to get better at writing this way (cheaply and efficiently), rather than wishing to put massive polishing effort into a few works.


Update (2018-05-18):

What I say in this post is, to some extent, well known common sense. People get an education first and do stuff like a career second. Maybe they aren't life-long learners, but they have the general idea right (learn how to think/do/problem-solve/etc first, do stuff second after you're able to do it well and efficiently).

What goes wrong then? Parenting and schooling offer a bad, ineffective education. This discourages further education (the painfulness and uselessness of their education is the biggest thing preventing life-long learners). And it routinely puts people in a bad situation: trying to do things which they have been educated to be able to do well, but in fact cannot do well. The solution is not to give up on education, but to figure out how to pursue education effectively. A reasonable place to start would be the books of humanity's best thinkers since the start of western civilization. Some people have been intellectually successful and effective (as you can see from the existence of iPhones); you could look into what they did, how they thought, etc.

FI involves ideas that are actually good and effective, as against rivals offering similar overall stuff (rational ideas) but which are incorrect. FI faces the following major challenges: 1) people are so badly educated they screw up when trying to learn FI ideas 2) people are so badly educated they don't know how to evaluate if FI is working, how it compares to rivals, the state of debate between FI ideas and alternative ideas, etc.


Elliot Temple on May 17, 2018

Comments (12)

Unclear sentence

> Equipped with these great ideas, they'd go down intellectual dead ends, and otherwise create high quality outputs from their intellectual labor.

I can't make sense of this sentence in context. My best guess is you mean something like:

Equipped with these great ideas, they'd *avoid going* down intellectual dead ends, and otherwise create high quality outputs from their intellectual labor.


PAS at 7:15 AM on May 18, 2018 | #9759 | reply | quote

yeah you figured it out. fixed.


curi at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2018 | #9760 | reply | quote

>a high rate of capital accumulation quickly needs to a much richer world

is "needs to" right here? i never heard that being used in such a way and it seems to me that "leads to" would give the sentence the right meaning.


guilherme at 1:54 PM on May 18, 2018 | #9761 | reply | quote

> is "needs to" right here?

that typo was fixed a while ago.


curi at 1:56 PM on May 18, 2018 | #9762 | reply | quote

Further Thoughts

added more thoughts at the bottom of the post


curi at 2:58 PM on May 18, 2018 | #9763 | reply | quote

FI's major challenges

what solutions do you currently think might help make progress towards solving the two major problems faced by FI?


jones at 6:33 AM on May 28, 2018 | #9780 | reply | quote

reading

> The solution is not to give up on education, but to figure out how to pursue education effectively. A reasonable place to start would be the books of humanity's best thinkers since the start of western civilization. Some people have been intellectually successful and effective (as you can see from the existence of iPhones); you could look into what they did, how they thought, etc.

This sounds good. I'd like to restart my education from the beginning. But before I can read all this useful stuff you recommend I need to know how to read better. Got any ideas on how to start learning to read more effectively?


anonymous at 4:01 AM on June 6, 2018 | #9785 | reply | quote

There is educational material about reading. Try some and see what problems you run into.


Anonymous at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2018 | #9787 | reply | quote

> FI involves ideas that are actually good and effective, as against rivals offering similar overall stuff (rational ideas) but which are incorrect. FI faces the following major challenges: 1) people are so badly educated they screw up when trying to learn FI ideas 2) people are so badly educated they don't know how to evaluate if FI is working, how it compares to rivals, the state of debate between FI ideas and alternative ideas, etc.

I want something like "FI for Dummies: How to Get Started in 10 Easy Steps and Then Continue Progressing Step By Step". Not really possible?


beginner at 2:25 PM on September 16, 2018 | #11192 | reply | quote

#11192 People have different problems. I could make something like that if people were rational, but they get stuck on their personal irrationalities. There already are generic things like that, such as the FI website essays or reading recommendations. There are also even easier things like http://curi.us/think/ But the ways people have trouble with these existing materials vary by person. It varies why people don't read it, don't like reading, don't understand what they read, fail to correct errors in their understanding of what they read (alone or by discussion), and so on.

The FI essays are somewhat abstract instead of telling you exactly what to do in your life, but they have to be in order to be generic. I don't know what your life goals are, your values and preferences are, etc. I can't apply philosophy to your specific life in a generic for-everyone way. This can be done to some extent with narrower topics than FI in general, e.g. diet, and in many cases this has been done and the material is available.

Why don't you say, briefly, what one problem is that you're running into early on with the existing FI materials that already, to some approximation, do the thing you're asking for. What is a way that the approximation (the differences between what they are and what you asked for) breaks down for you?


curi at 2:39 PM on September 16, 2018 | #11193 | reply | quote

Two problems I'm running into are things you mentioned: I don't understand what I read very well. And I'm not very good at correcting errors in my understanding of what I read.

How do I get better at these two things? Are there step-by-step instructions for doing this that work for most people?

Or do I just read the FI stuff and get what I can out of it, knowing that I'll make lots of mistakes and not be able to correct many of them?


beginner at 1:14 PM on September 18, 2018 | #11211 | reply | quote

> How do I get better at these two things? Are there step-by-step instructions for doing this that work for most people?

No. Knowledge that good – to not only highly effectively help an individual with such a problem, but actually to help anyone from a large group of people – doesn't yet exist.

It is in development, but it's a hard problem. Helping single individuals who participate interactively is one of the ways it's being developed (e.g. answering questions that people post), but unfortunately there aren't many people who want to try to do that extensively.

I think a really good example is here:

http://curi.us/2145-open-discussion-economics#c11029

In this discussion, I first got Andy to read around 20 pages of published material about minimum wages. It's some of the best material for helping a general audience understand the matter, but it didn't work. It didn't even come close to working. Andy understood almost none of it and had almost no questions or comments. To make progress, I had to walk him through the things he'd just read (while he kept trying to bring up tangents instead of focusing on what I suggested). Then after going over things and him seeming to agree, I had to quiz him on it, and he got most of the quiz questions wrong, and I had to correct him on some of them and get him to then redo some other ones, and then finally he got them right. That's commonly the kind of thing it takes to accomplish much. The books – some of the best books – aren't effective enough.

With minimum wage, some people read about it and get the point. The success rate with books and lecture videos might be 10% (wild guess) for people who put in some effort (like Andy), and even higher for people who read multiple full books and watch/listen to dozens of hours of lectures. However, FI has a lot of ideas which are more counterintuitive and much harder to teach to members of our current culture, compared to minimum wage, so success rates are lower (despite the existence of e.g. Popper's great books).

Some of my best non-interactive educational material, in my opinion, is https://yesornophilosophy.com and http://fallibleideas.com/life

I'm trying to make things easier for people by writing new things which are more organized and better written than older things, and by making videos which help show my reading/thinking/writing/research *processes* more. E.g. I just released videos in which I read through Reisman's new book on Marxism/Socialism and comment and explain as I go along, and I have many videos in which I write FI emails. Similarly I made some videos about how to read: https://elliottemple.com/store (*Reading Hard Passages*, *Videos: Reading The Dream of Reason*, and also my notes on Peikoff's lectures on grammar are available.)

I think the original FI essays have stood the test of time. I've stabilized enough as an intellectual that I'm still happy with a major project that I wrote 8.5 years ago (that I put extra effort into polishing, it was my best work from then). I haven't changed my mind about the content and I still think the writing style and quality is good. Now I can make better material with less effort, so I'm making more canonical material (as against material which has value but is meant for shorter term uses – answering people's questions, practicing writing, brainstorming and thinking through or trying out ideas, etc, as is commonly seen in discussions). My rate of doing more polished work is increasing, so there's more to come and hopefully it will help you. That's the situation. Basically no one else is working on this or helping me much, so it's sadly not going as fast as it could in a better world. There are people doing other things who mean well, but none of them understand both Critical Rationalism *and* Objectivism – it's just one or the other, at most, which is a big weakness. And they don't have Paths Forward which basically ruins the possibility of collaboration. And they they think I'm mistaken about some important things but they don't resolve the disagreements by critical discussion.

> Or do I just read the FI stuff and get what I can out of it, knowing that I'll make lots of mistakes and not be able to correct many of them?

That method works OK in some ways. Some people *enjoy* doing that and find it *benefits them* compared to other activities (and are wise enough to only *act on* the ideas they think they understand well enough to use their own judgment about acting on the idea in their own life). However, the success rate of getting from there to being a great philosopher is poor. It's not a good method for having an FI life, it's a method for having your existing life with some extra tips and tricks.


curi at 1:37 PM on September 18, 2018 | #11212 | reply | quote

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)