How To Get Started With Anything

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

—Gall’s law

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The point of the post is this:

  1. Try the dumbest thing that could work.

  2. Start experimenting as soon as possible.

That’s it. Now I’m just going to go through examples to hammer the point home.

Get start with anything: Concrete examples

How do you train a dolphin to perform a backflip? You reward it for the right behaviors, which reinforces those, until you can chain it all together and get a backflip.

Thanks to Darwin, we know that humans are animals, too, and we know that a lot of the infrastructure our minds run on is shared with other animals. This means that a significant part of what makes you you is also what makes a chimpanzee a chimpanzee.

The takeaway, then, is that humans can be trained in a similar way to every other animal, with rewards for behavior. That’s positive reinforcement.

Okay, so here’s the scenario. You want to learn more math and intend to do this through solving math problems. You enjoy this once you get started, but you’re lazy. Your brain protests when you pull out the textbook. It just wants to watch television. So, you decide to use positive reinforcement to help reinforce studying behavior.

How do you do it? What reinforcer are you going to use? What are you going to reinforce? What if you reinforce the wrong behavior? Who’s going to dole out the rewards? Start thinking like this and you will become overwhelmed and implement nothing.

Try the dumbest thing that could work. Buy a bag of M&Ms and eat one whenever you solve a problem. If that doesn’t work, iterate and try something different.

Waking up in the morning

Getting out of bed in the morning is the bane of humans everywhere. What’s a guy to do? Informed by this post, you know the answer. What’s the dumbest thing that could work?

Download one of the dozens of Android alarm clock apps and try that. If that doesn’t work, iterate. Reduce caffeine in the evening or increase it in the morning (via caffeine pills). Install bright lights. Fast after dinner. Try melatonin.

Building a chess bot

Want to write a program that plays chess? It’s only overwhelming when you’re thinking: how can I write a program that wins at chess? Wrong goal! First write a program that loses at chess every time. It could pick a move at random, or always move a pawn. Then, iterate from there.

Learning math

Maybe you want to learn more math, but you don’t know where to start. Doesn’t matter. Go find a book about math and start reading, or start working through Khan Academy, or watch some video lectures. Don’t like it? Find another book or something else. Keep experimenting.

Memorizing stuff

Or it seems like a lot of people have trouble getting started with Anki. They wonder: what should I memorize? What should I use this for? It’s a hard question so they get stuck. Waste of time. Just add anything that you want to remember or learn. Keep adding, keep experimenting. You’ll figure out what works as you go along.

By the way, don’t miss the writeup of my experience memorizing more than 10,000 flashcards with Anki.


In general, a little bit of data is going to be more enlightening than just thinking about it. Maybe you want to start exercising more, but you’re not sure whether or not you want to run or lift weights. Go out and start running. Don’t like it? Okay, try something else.

The alternative is that you spend a bunch of time googling and trying to figure out which is better for you or which you think you’ll enjoy more. Don’t worry about it. Just go try something. See what sticks.

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