“Balance to Win”: Sometimes You Need Friends, Sometimes You Need Haters

(Crossposted to Lesser Wrong)

Sarah Constantin’s “Cheat to Win” outlines an effective general strategy for life. Recognizing that many people have overbalanced in the direction of engaging with their personal and ideological opponents, she recommends the value of restricting to people who actually like who you are or what you’re doing.

But wait! Me go too far!

No, I mean… I’m really attracted to the idea. I think educated modern americans in general and rationalists in particular are way too willing to subject their most critical positions to attack, in the former case because of how engaged they are with the wider world, and in the latter case as a matter of principle.

But I have concerns. If you live in Berkeley, and are in the group that defend the rationalists-as-good-living-in-berkeley position, you’ve probably already overbalanced in this direction. Berkeley is the poster child for excessive bubbling. I don’t need to repeat the concerns the rationalist community has already expressed to itself.

Let’s say we’re talking about two social poles. Let’s call them open and closed. American gated communities are fully closed, and missionaries in North Korea are fully open. Got it? Cool.

For me, navigating the open/closed spectrum probably has much the same pattern as navigating the chaos/order spectrum, or the explore/exploit or child mind/adult mind dichotomies. Too much of either one is the end of all good things, and the best strategy is to move back and forth between the two poles depending on context. I accept that there’s a high cost to repeatedly re-calculating my trajectory, and I cheerfully pay that cost.

When I worked at Google News Search, I read about ten newspapers a day, and I was miserable. For a year or two, I have practiced a daily news blackout, catching up maybe once a month, sometimes reading sites like the Weekly Sift that exist to digest the news at a longer time scale than the day to day. I am much happier, and without much loss of engagement.

I think this is because the news (and by extension the open/closed spectrum) also fits a growth/maturity pattern. Engaging with the wider world is supremely useful as a formative experience and should happen a lot during some periods of your life. But once you’ve gained from the formative version of the experience, the returns diminish, and as Sarah herself says in comments, you can thrive with much less frequent updates.

But I also try pretty hard to maintain deep friendships across four natural barriers: country borders, political disagreement, differing subculture pursuits, and socioeconomic class. These friendships are expensive and I will keep them even at much greater than the current cost.

I think that if I had restricted myself to just my supporters in the last few years, I would have, for instance, felt like Hillary Clinton was bulletproof, and been floored and depressed by what happened, instead of prepared for it, and comfortable and productive. I would have missed out on all the ways my opinions have been refined by my most critical friends, and by strangers. I think bubbled people can easily find themselves enticed into toxic incentive gradients. I think having only supporters leaves you unable to reverse advice when necessary.

How do you know when to run towards the open pole, and when to run towards the closed pole? I’m not sure. But I can offer an easy first pass purely based on emotions.

Are you deeply miserable? Then run to the closed pole. Are you deeply comfortable, even smug? Then run to the open pole.

Of course, since this is my first post on lesserwrong, it constitutes an act of opening for me. So I’m hoping for all kinds of uncomfortable, growth inducing disagreement.