Why are things hard?
Why are things hard?
I've recently started a Substack Newsletter called "How to do hard things", based on my unexpectedly popular post of the same name.
There will be a lot of overlap between the newsletter and this notebook. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to use it yet, but I'm expecting there will be a bit of a back and forth, with the newsletter being a place I use to collect and develop themes I've written about here, which will in turn spark more notebook posts here. If you're enjoying the notebook, I'd also recommend subscribing to the substack. For now at least, you don't need to sign up for a paid tier - the content is the same for all subscribers, but with the discussion / community features turned on for paid ones.
Anyway, this has got me thinking about The Fully General System For Learning To Do Hard Things. I still think it's a good framework, but I think it's missing a lot of important features - some of which only require additions to it, some of which might require some modifications.
One of the principle problems with it is, I think, the fact that what it does is extremely under defined. What is a "hard thing"? And how does one learn to do it?
The principle assumption in the post is that things are hard because you lack the skill to do them effortlessly. It's true, some things are like that. But that's a relatively tiny fraction of the ways in which things can be hard, and most things that are hard in one way are hard in multiple, not necessarily easily distinguishable, ways.
The Fully General System as previously described really only admits three possible reasons why things might be hard:
- You might not know how to do them.
- You might know how to do them but not be able to execute.
- You might not know exactly what it is you're trying to do.
But there are quite a few other ways in which things can be hard. Here is a partial list:
- You might lack some simple trick.
- You might be wrong about what it is you're trying to do.
- You might lack resources that you need to do them.
- You might lack motivation to do them.
- You might find the whole subject of doing them aversive.
- There might be some trivial irritation preventing you from doing the thing.
- You might lack a foundational skill that they need but that isn't obvious.
- You might be doing something foundational very badly.
- You might lack awareness of or access to the expertise you need to learn how to do the thing.
- You might need someone to help you do them.
- You might be rusty at the relevant skills.
- Someone else might be trying to stop you doing them.
- The thing you are trying to do might have unacceptable consequences.
- There might be social norms making it hard to do the thing in the easy way.
- It might not be worth doing the thing.
- The thing might be intrinsically hard in ways that require you to just do a lot of wor.
- The thing might be intrinsically uncertain, making reliable success impossible.
- The thing might be risky (and thus unsafe to experiment with while learning).
Additionally there are a whole bunch of general reasons why doing anything might be hard for you:
- You might not have enough time.
- You might have a distracting environment.
- You might not be getting enough sleep.
- You might be depressed.
- You might have ADHD.
- You might have other mental health problems.
- You might have physical health problems.
- You might lack more general skills around learning and habit formation.
- You might lack more general skills around debugging why things are hard.
In general, most hard things are some mix of multiple of these things, and usually not a small number of them, and any truly general system for learning to do hard things must take this into account.