Life, Overreaching and Correcting Error

The goal in life is progress: to make things better now and in the future.

The constraint for human progress – the limiting factor – is ability to correct errors. This applies equally for individuals or groups.

People believe the world is complex, so there must be many limiting factors to get overwhelmed by. But most of the world is simple: for most issues, there’s one main constraint (like a chain only has one weakest link).

Humans are fallible. We often make mistakes, and there’s never any way to guarantee something has no mistakes. Error is something we always have to deal with. Error is an inherent part of life. Happily, we can identify and correct errors. We can solve our problems. Whatever goes wrong, we can fix it.

How good we are at error correction (also known as problem solving or as finding and fixing mistakes), and how we use that ability, is the primary determinant of our quality of life and our long-term fate. (Note that allowing preventable errors to keep reoccurring is itself a kind of error to correct. So we aren’t just talking about reactive problem solving; preemptive action is good too.)

Facing a succession of errors (problems, mistakes) is the human condition. That’s life. We have the opportunity to use our minds to improve things, and we have the pressure to use our minds so things don’t fall apart. Life takes effort, especially the effort to think rationally, but life also allows for effort to be fun, interesting and effective. Anything bad or unpleasant is an error, a solvable problem.

It’s up to us to choose what to do about life. We can increase our ability to correct errors, or not. We can take on ambitious, difficult projects where we’ll make tons of mistakes and become overwhelmed – or we can do projects that we can succeed at while having to deal with a manageable error rate. We can hate criticism, resent problems, and want everything to go smoothly with no thought or action on our part – or we can embrace an active, thoughtful life where we create the capacity to make needed improvements. We can shoot messengers, or we can be happy to find out about problems and therefore have the opportunity to do something about them. (The most damaging errors are usually the ones we don’t even realize exist.)

With projects we can succeed at, we’ll build up progress via incremental success. The alternative is never making progress due to failing at the outset. To make progress, you need to do things that are only a little harder than your current capabilities, and do lots of them successfully. Aiming for harder stuff too soon, and failing (or making a huge, costly effort to avoid failing), just slows down progress. The choice of doing really ambitious things or not growing is a false dichotomy; the only effective way to grow as a person is to do manageable things a little ahead of where you are now. Don’t jump into the deep end; don’t sit in the shallow end forever; go step by step. (To do this, you need to figure out what you can do successfully, with a manageable error rate. That’s best accomplished by doing something really easy and succeeding, then moving forward from there with big steps, until the first failure. To find your skill level, don’t start from the deep end and work backwards with a succession of failures until one success; instead start from the shallow end and work forward with a succession of successes.)

I call a lifestyle overreaching if it’s too ambitious for one’s ability to correct errors. Don’t take on more than you can handle, so you fail. Instead, stay within your limits, succeed, build on that success, and keep expanding your limits.

It’s OK if some things go wrong, sometimes. It’s a disaster if everything seems to go wrong. What determines this? Our ability to correct errors combined with the difficulty of our lifestyle (lifestyle difficulty is the rate at which it results in errors which must be solved, and the severity of those errors).

In numbers: if you can handle 100 points of error per day (you have a 100 point budget), but your lifestyle requires difficult activities creating 150 points worth of error per day, then errors will build up. You’ll have an increasing amount of unsolved problems. You’ll quickly fall behind – a whole month behind after two months. Alternatively if your lifestyle involves 50 points of difficulty per day, you’ll keep up just fine (even on bad days that are harder than average), and you’ll have spare capacity. Spare capacity is great: it can be used to do extra stuff you want to do, or to learn new things. The most important type of learning is to increase your skill at correcting errors. Increasing your point budget per day leads to exponential progress (because the more you increase it, the more budget you can put towards increasing it even further).

Note that error correction skill is partly general purpose and partly topical. You may be good at math but bad at grammar, or vice versa. So the difficulty of your life, and your capacity to deal with error, aren’t really single numbers.

The key to life is not to let error overwhelm your ability to deal with error. If that happens, you will lower your standards, compromise, and try to ignore error. That is hell. Never get far enough behind on dealing with errors that you are tempted to give up.

We can’t fully control how many errors we have to deal with. No matter what we do, we’ll have to deal with some errors. Problems are inevitable. However, we can estimate the difficulty (error rate, severity of errors, and variance) for activities, projects or commitments. Some activities are harder than others to succeed at (or more risky because of high variance of outcomes), and we know it, even if we can’t predict the future perfectly. We can estimate how good we are at dealing with error and which projects we can successfully handle.

If you have many failures or start getting overwhelmed, back off dramatically. Make choices so your life is a lot easier until you get things under control and succeed several times in a row. And be very careful with long-term commitments because if they’re too hard you’ll have trouble changing your life to be easier. Try to test things out and make sure you’re succeeding with a comfortable margin for error before organizing your life around them in a lasting way.

In the big picture, a good life is pretty simple:

  1. Evaluate your error correction (problem solving) abilities.
  2. Choose easy enough activities that you won’t overwhelm your error correction abilities.
  3. Always spend part of your time on self-improvement: improve your error correction abilities so you can take on more ambitious activities in the future.

The optimal lifestyle is one of constant success and constant progress. It does hard activities as if they were easy, because it focuses on building up skill instead of trying to do activities early when they’re error-prone.

Your ability to correct errors is your most important resource. It is your budget in life. Each activity you do uses some of that budget. The more you spend your budget on increasing your budget, the more you’ll be able to do in your life. You can also spend your budget on cheap things. But be very wary of expensive things (expensive in terms of error correction effort required) because going over budget is a disaster, and because expensive things are costly (which takes away budget from making progress). Expensive things distract you from the ideal life pattern: keep making progress, and whatever is expensive today will be cheap in the future.

We can divide life broadly into two categories: self-improvement and everything else. There are things which increase your error correction ability budget, and things which don’t. Both use your budget. One is an investment in your future, and the other is consumption. Some consumption is OK, but don’t do too much of it, especially when you’re young.

I know you want to do awesome things. Me too. But if you do them early, before you have a giant error correction budget, then you risk failing. And even if you don’t fail, you’ll spend so much of your budget that it sets your progress way back (progress being educational activities so you learn to correct errors better and therefore increase your budget for all future days).

What happens to most people is they make some expensive decisions. Then their progress is slow, so they get impatient and don’t want to wait for progress to make things easy. So they end up trying to do lots of things early, when they’re hard, and they never have much budget for making progress.

A good life does things the other way around: focus most of your budget on making progress, and only a minority of your budget on doing activities. Early on you won’t be able to afford some activities, but as you improve then you’ll be able to do so much more. It’s better to increase your budget to a million and spend 10% (100,000) on activities instead of spending 90% on activities when your budget is only 100, and never increasing your budget much because you’re too busy.

Why don’t people live this way? First, they don’t know this is how life works. Second, they doubt their ability to make big improvements (to increase their budget by a factor of 10 or more). And based on those doubts, they feel time pressure because they think the progress-based approach will take too long compared to their lifespan. (“I don’t have very long to live” should be taken as a reason to use the most efficient approach, not a reason to use shoddy approaches!) Why the doubts?

  1. Their education (from school and parents) was supposed to be focused on self-improvement, but it wasn’t effective and left them confused about many topics they “learned”. So people either think they’re done with their primary self-improvement/education (low standards) or think self-improvement/education doesn’t work well (high standards, so they recognize failure).

  2. In addition to having doubts about most educators and educational material, people also don’t really know how to self-educate (what to do, how to organize it, how to want to pursue it vigorously and persistently).

  3. People have doubts about human potential in general, and about themselves personally (e.g. they don’t think they’re “smart” enough).

  4. Society pushes people to overreach (do hard activities which result in an overwhelming amount of errors), and says that’s normal. People get used to it and also take on commitments (marriage, career, social life, etc.) which are overreaching.

How Much Progress is Realistic?

Lots of people are over 100x better at error correction than a 4 year old. Why? Because they know lots of stuff the child doesn’t, both about some specialities (programming, plumbing, basketball, poker, whatever) and also about how to deal with life in general.

If a 100x improvement is typical, why not far more? Our schools suck, our parenting sucks, our TV shows are bad at education, and most books are pretty bad. It’s kind of a wonder people become (somewhat) competent adults at all. There’s so much room for improvement.

Components of Error Correction

What lets you find and correct errors well? The biggest issue is the right thinking methods. The best thinking methods to understand include Critical Rationalism, Yes or No Philosophy, Objectivism and Fallible Ideas (these are largely compatible and complementary).

It’s not just about thinking methods. Problem solving routinely uses resources like attention, focus, mental energy, creativity, helpful friends, employees, time and wealth.

Problem solving also uses more specific skills and knowledge: being able to read, knowing how to do arithmetic, knowing how to play chess or tennis, knowing how to tie your shoe, knowing about the existence of some useful products and services you could buy, knowing how to check and understand tomorrow’s weather, etc.

Part of the broad life plan of powering up and doing what’s cheap/easy/efficient involves getting resources to enable you to do things. To be effective at correcting errors you need to know how (mental methods) and also have resources (both parochial and general purpose) to deal with the world.

What is an Error?

An error is something that you want to be better, a place for improvement. Specifically, it means something is inadequate to solve a problem you want to solve. And what’s a problem? Any kind of goal you want to achieve but which isn’t yet achieved.

An error means a goal is not being reached.

An example goal is “I want to be a chess master within 3 years.” Sometimes the error is in the goal itself (if you want to be a chess master in 3 days, that’s not reasonable or realistic). Note the timeless goal “I want to be a chess master” is vague – it doesn’t have clear success or failure criteria. If you mean you want to be one right now, instantly, then it’s unreasonable like the 3 days goal. If you mean you want to be one as soon as reasonably possible while not taking too much time and attention away from other activities, then it isn’t an error or failure that you aren’t there yet. Being clear about the problem or goal is often the first step towards success.

There are other types of goals, e.g. “I want to be comfortable in my life.” This is an ongoing goal which can include specifics like not being too hot or too cold, having enough food that you enjoy eating, and having a computer and internet access that satisfy you. Goals can be ongoing like this, rather than having a specific completion date. A goal can be basically anything where you can specify clear success and failure (error) criteria.

Small Errors

How many errors per day do people deal with? There are huge numbers of small errors. Guesses and criticism is a process involving brainstorming millions of errors and rejecting most of them. If an error correction takes a trillion basic computing operations from our brain, then we can do over 3 billion error corrections per day. (This is a very rough estimate. Source: arithmetic and Quora: Roughly what “processing power” does the human brain equate to?) How well we translate all that raw brain power into solving problems we’re consciously aware of is a different matter which is a skill we can improve it.

Learning Tangents and Background Knowledge

The cost of large learning projects is mostly in background knowledge and tangents. E.g. suppose I want to know about video encoding software. Most of the learning involved would be learning stuff like programming and math in general. Some learning would be some specific types of programming and math that are used for video encoding. And a minority of the learning would be about specific encoding algorithms.

If I only want to know one thing about video encoding software, and then go back to being an artist, it’d be a huge project. It’d take a ton of work. But if I would keep using that programming and math knowledge in other projects (so the cost of learning it is divided over 1000 projects during my life), then the project is reasonably cheap and efficient.

When you look at what you need to learn for a project, consider which knowledge could be reused on other projects, and whether those are other projects you actually want to do. Lots of programming knowledge is reusable in the future – but only if you do more projects related to programming.

The overall result is people generally get good at some fields they like, but are careful about learning things in other fields. This makes sense. For topics where you do tons of projects, you can learn lots of background knowledge and use it repeatedly. That makes all the related projects easier to do.

But what if you want to do a project in a field you rarely deal with? Then learning all the background knowledge would be expensive because you won’t reuse it much. In that case, it makes sense to get help from an expert (who already knows the background knowledge because he does many projects in that field) instead of figuring it all out yourself.

So: in areas that you like and do lots of projects in, it works well to learn tons of stuff, much of which you can reuse later. But in areas you deal with less, you should be careful what you learn. Lots of ideas aren’t worth the effort of learning, even if they’re reasonably general purpose, if you won’t use them again later.

So, when outside your field, be wary of big projects and look for quick, targeted solutions.

There are always ways to make progress, but sometimes you need more background knowledge and more general info. If you follow enough tangents, you can find a way to make progress. That can be expensive, but sometimes can be reused on many future projects. You should develop some areas where you know lots, so projects are easier to do, but choose them carefully because you can’t be really familiar with every topic, just a few.

Besides a few areas you like and do lots of projects in, you should also have broad knowledge of some really general purpose that can be used in many fields. Examples of really generic stuff: philosophy/reason, problem solving, writing, reading, communication, discussion, arithmetic, algebra, logic, computer use, basic science, basic economics, basic political philosophy. These things are building blocks used in many other fields, so learning them doesn’t invest in future projects of a specific type.

Previous Overreaching Essay

I wrote an older essay on overreaching which has a different approach to some of the same big ideas. It will help you understand these ideas from another perspective.


The organization of the beginning of the essay is inspired by Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. He explains the importance of constraints, said a chain has one weakest link, suggested starting by verbalizing a goal (and talked about improvement both now and in the future), and said the world is simple not complex. His ideas are available in many wonderful books. If you want to know about constraints, start with The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. If you’re more interested in his broader philosophy, start with The Choice.

David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity talks about how problems are both inevitable and soluble. It also argues that the only limits on our problem solving are the laws of physics and our current knowledge. Deutsch emphasizes both error correction and progress. He also understands that wealth is our accumulated capacity to transform the world, which is a key component of problem solving. And my personal thanks to Deutsch for thousands of discussions from which I learned a ton.

Karl Popper developed the fallibilist epistemology, Critical Rationalism, used and refined by David Deutsch and myself. (Epistemology is the field of philosophy which deals with learning and knowledge.) As an indication of Popper’s relevance, he titled a book All Life is Problem Solving. Popper wrote lots, so I made a guide to the best Popper selections to read.