Beware silver bullets

Table of Contents

Note: This post was co-written with Uri Bram of The Browser, who deserves all credit for the good parts and no blame for the bad parts and inevitable mistakes (which things fall into which category is at your, the reader’s, discretion).

A recurring problem I, and I think people similar to me, face is letting my excitement about something new transform from being based on curiosity and a sense of usefulness into viewing the thing as a Fully General Solution to All Problems. While the latter feeling can provide good motivation for getting over the initial hump over learning difficulty, I’ve come to realize through experience that it consistently backfires. The rest of this post covers some examples of this pattern, which I’ve coined the silver bullet cycle, and its effects in my own life and then describes how I’ve tried to deal with it.

Examples #

Here are three examples of activities around which I experienced the silver bullet cycle.

Meditation #

When I was in college, I got really into meditation. At the peak of my meditation enthusiasm, I was meditating around an hour a day every day.

A lot of my motivation to meditate so consistently was driven by an unvoiced belief that if I just meditated enough, I would be able to coast through life effortlessly handling whatever problems cropped up. It’s embarrassing to admit but I think deep down I genuinely thought that if I meditated enough, I’d be smarter, more savvy in relationships, and effortlessly capable in social situations.

Meditation’s (unsurprising in retrospect) failure to solve all problems had several negative effects on me. In an effort to convince myself that I was progressing towards this goal, I started to dissociate from my moment-to-moment experience and emotions. After a while though, I realized that meditation wasn’t providing such dramatic effects. My initial response was to assume that I needed to meditate more, improve my technique, and be more meditative in my daily life. Eventually, I realized this wasn’t working, became disillusioned by meditation, and stopped meditating altogether.

Startups #

During college, I later developed an obsession with startups. Like many computer science majors, I discovered Paul Graham’s essays – which are great – and then proceeded to binge read them. As evidence of lacking a sufficiently strong memetic immune system, this series of short essays on the internet sufficed to convince me that startups were the solution to all societal ills. In line with this, I became obsessed with the idea of founding a startup for a time and convinced myself that I was mostly wasting my time with schoolwork.

While this obsession had less dramatic effects on my day-to-day life than the meditation one, it did still lead to some (I think) undesirable outcomes. During my obsession with startups, I had a bad attitude towards my classes that led me to learn less than I could’ve even in cases where I would have otherwise been interested in the topic. I also ignored and overrode some of my personal preferences around what areas I’d previously been excited about – what would now be called “deeptech” – as a way to convince myself I wanted to work on an internet tech startup.

This experience highlights how eternalism can be a double-edged sword. I still do genuinely think tech startups are, on net, a positive force in the world, and I benefited tremendously from my time working in the (non-bio) tech scene. On the other hand, the fact that I overrode my interests in other sciences in addition to programming precipitated my subsequent quarter-life crisis. This crisis eventually led me to my current role working at the intersection of ML and bio, but involved a lot of angst.

Longevity #

Like startups, my interest in longevity originally came out of a strong silver bullet impulse, but I’ve retained it even after outgrowing the silver bullet component. When I first got excited about helping people live longer, I remember routinely going through this cycle of thinking, “OK so we can make people live longer biologically, but then what if they get hit by a car or have a building collapse on them? People will still die and that’s not OK, so maybe longevity isn’t the right approach.”

To be clear, people getting hit by cars and having buildings collapse on them are bad and we should also try to stop both those things from happening. But the point I want to emphasize here is that my cure-all motivation for being interested in longevity led to an unproductive cycle. Rather than accept that it’s OK to take incremental steps in the right direction, I was letting the fact that improving healthspan is not a Fully General Solution to the problem of the universe being a harsh place totally deflate my excitement about it. This cycle made it hard for me to focus on working on things that made incremental progress and instead led me to spend some time pursuing unproductive rabbit holes trying to find things that would solve all the problems.

Takeaways #

In line with my goal of not being so prone to finding silver bullets, I don’t expect this post to solve all problems with eternalism for all people. That said, I think it’s useful to be aware of the mundane form of this problem and hopefully my examples have provided some idea of what being stuck in an silver bullet cycle feels like.

There is also a downside to learning to avoid silver bullet cycles that it’s important to watch out for. In my case, so much of my excitement machinery was based around getting excited about how the targets of my excitement could solve all problems that I temporarily lost the ability to get really excited about things. This is something I’m still working on but I’ve found just reminding myself that excitement doesn’t have to be based around solving all problems to be a good start.

Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I said that I’ve entirely shaken the silver bullet impulse. For example, I recently found myself falling into a silver cycle bullet trap around the popular on the internet write-to-think, note-taking, zettelkasten zeitgeist. I started to notice myself having thoughts like, “if I just take notes and write a lot, my thoughts will be perfect and I’ll be able to use my perfect thoughts to solve all my problems.” Thankfully, I caught myself relatively early on in the cycle and reminded myself that while writing things is good, my note taking tool is not going to magically make me a superintelligence.

Acknowledgements #

First off, Uri Bram for actually getting me to stop procrastinating and write something. AppliedDivinityStudies, Basil Halperin, George, and Matt Ritter for extensive review of the post which led to me reworking it substantially. David Chapman, whose coining of the term eternalism helped me identify this pattern. My fiance for helping me get out of some of these past silver bullet cycles I described.