Life advice to an 18 year old relative

A nephew recently turned 18 and I had an opportunity to say a few words at the reception. What follows below is based on my hastily written notes, composed at the table just prior to speaking. I will leave out the honorifics and introductions and stick to what I advised. I was filling in the gaps left by the other speakers, hence some missing topics.

1. Learn how to think

Learn how to think like scientists and engineers. Your ability to think – clearly, rationally – will have a tremendous effect on your wellbeing and success. Critical thinking, Scientific thinking and the scientific method are extremely powerful tools you can use to understand anything. Make sure you understand the importance of falsifiability, experimentation and failure-as-success.


Supplement your sharp thinking with mental models –  the core ideas that underpin the world. Systems theory, supply and demand, evolution, Physic’s standard model – these example are all maps of the substrate of the world. Learn to determine reliable models with critical thinking and always have a conscious, working model of any important systems and environments.


Learn to question, and question constantly. Asking good questions is often more powerful and useful than knowing answers.  Kipling’s six honest serving men will always serve you well:

“What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

I would add “What if”.  That is a powerful question that has driven enormous change throughout history.

Understand biases and heuristics. They explain our mental blind spots, how are we manipulated, how do we fool ourselves, and why we make bad decisions. Learn the science of persuasion, not to abuse it, but to know how to recognize and defend against coercive persuasion. Oh, and one more thing. You are probably a worse driver than you think. Search for Lake Woebegone effect to see what I mean.

Finally, invest some time understanding core human nature – the Human Givens – the psychological forces that drives that govern human behavior.  Understanding core drives and needs will help you understand what is going on underneath symptomatic behavior. It will also allow you to understand and empathize with out-groups even though their behavior might seem odd or even disgusting.


Some resources

Wikipedia on The Scientific Method

The Thinker’s Guide to Scientific Thinking [Free PDF book]

2. Establish a philosophical foundation

Self-knowledge will help you build a foundation by providing a base of principles on which to rest your your ethical character and personal morality.

Try and get to know yourself. Really know yourself. Understand the operating system of your mind. What do you really believe? Why?

If you have beliefs, then understand them intimately. Be able to argue for them. Understand the best arguments against them. If you base yourself solely on inherited wisdom and just-so reasoning of others,  a robust attack on your beliefs will knock you over.

This is one of the core arguments in favor of free speech. Free speech for everyone exposes us to heterodoxy – opposing beliefs – and that exposure either improves and strengthens our beliefs or supplants them.

Do not make too many pronouncements too soon. Support conditionally – movements, political parties, people, ideas – because they serve your moral and ethical ends. They should not be the end’s in themselves. Confirmation and consistency biases can keep us trapped in defunct mental models. As Charlie Munger said in his now famous speech on The Psychology of Human Misjudgment:

The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device.  When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.  The human mind has a big tendency of the same sort…And of course, if you make a public disclosure of your conclusion, you’re pounding it into your own head.  Many of these students that are screaming at us, you know, they aren’t convincing us, but they’re forming mental cage for themselves, because what they’re shouting out [is] what they’re pounding in.  And I think educational institutions that create a climate where too much of that goes on are…in a fundamental sense, they’re irresponsible institutions.  It’s very important to not put your brain in chains too young by what you shout out.

So figure out what you are for, but base it on stable moral principles and keep it to yourself. Do I have any guidance on what to believe?

It is hard to beat kindness as a moral north star. As a man I would also encourage you to be a gentleman, by that I mean the best sort of man you can be. What that means is culturally transmitted, but  love and respect for women has been at the core of chivalric thinking since it’s birth. In my culture it meant never taking liberties, that is never abusing power, advantage or privilege. It means never cheating, which entails knowing what it means to cheat. It meant a deep respect for yourself and others, especially your elders. It meant being courageous (doing the right thing despite fear or consequences), defending your loved ones and what is now know as inclusivity – concern for the needs of others. Finally, good manners will serve you well anywhere that civilization is thriving.

You may be wondering about religion, comings you do from an atheistic culture. There is a lot of wisdom coded into the world’s main religions, but there is also an abundance of utter nonsense. Pick and choose what makes sense to you.  I see a lot of wisdom in Buddhism, especially in the ideas of suffering, non-attachment and observing the mind through meditation. New Testament Christianity is a beautiful moral philosophy. Islam is a powerful totalistic belief system, meaning, it regulates every realm of life.  It is a manual for how to behave morally, wage war, conduct your marriage and so on. But all of these main religions have not been updated in thousands of years. Their believers will tell you this does not matter, the truths are eternal, but it does matter.   If I were you, read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and understand what unifies all these systems of belief, then formulate your own belief system, backed by evidence and science, but borrowing from wherever you see fit.

Finally, even if you choose to reject religion entirely. There is no need to reject spirituality. The universe is utterly glorious and fully of majesty and mysteries. My personal belief if that there is indeed something greater than me, greater than us, some intelligent force occluded in nature, but present. Not a bearded old testament God with a prayer-o-phone, but a god of sorts who is uninterested in me, but very interested in us.

3. Treasure your health

One important kindness is your kindness to your future self. The planning fallacy means we tend to push hard work, toil and exercise to our future self already. Try and avoid pushing disease and pain to them too. Take care of your health, which thanks to our amazing default to healthy bodies means mostly taking care of it by feeding it properly, exercising it regularly, resting it properly (including sleep) and doing routine maintenance with experts like dentists.

Protect your teeth. Many do huge damage to their teeth in their 20s. Drunkenly crashing out without brushing. No flossing (yes, I know this is now disputed), and avoiding the dentists for years on end. Don’t do this. Learn to brush and floss properly. Go to the dentists regularly even if you have to pay yourself. Your future self will thank you.

And don’t get fat. It’s hard to get unfat once you are fat. There is no need to lecture you on the role of obesity in just about every medical malaise. Just avoid it. Set tripwires. Promise yourself if you break a threshold to get professional help and actually do it.

As for the rest, well, health its is mostly about nutrition,  avoiding toxins, especially carcinogens and sufficient movement. Given its importance, it is surprising how much disagreement there is about what constitutes a healthy diet, but part of the explanation is the magnificent diversity of  human beings. We have had over 100 years of averagism, but that is slowly being rolled back. You will see the new age of individual medicine and nutrition.

Right now I think that a mostly plant based diet seems to correlate with most healthy outcomes. I do not include many grains though, I am with the anti-wheat crowd. What works for me is low-carb, high protein, moderate fat. But that’s me. You need to experiment to see what work’s best for you from a weight control and health perspective.

4. Always have a go

At the end of their lives, many people rue their lack of boldness. They wish they had been braver. The top wish was that “they had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them”. The number three regret was “They wished they had the courage to express their feelings”.  This is particularly true when it comes to romance. We guard our dignity so violently that we spurn all sort of opportunities to connect. My advice to you is to have a go. Try it on – in a decent way – if you find someone attractive. Don’t be a stalker or a pest. There are techniques for asking for anything in a way that is courteous, respectful and dignified whilst still being clear and to the point. Don’t waste time learning sneaky techniques to try and seduce. Learn instead how to spot genuine interest and seize opportunities those opportunities when they arise. Do not have sex with people who are very drunk or under the influence of drugs. Wait until the next morning. If someone wakes up with you and still wants to make love, that counts as enthusiastic consent. Never beg, pressurize or threaten anyone into sexual intimacy. At best you are humiliating yourself, at worst you could be raping them. Any sign of reluctance is a warning sign to stop. The only way to win is by earing unambiguous, enthusiastic, sober consent.

This is not just about romance. Do not ever hold yourselves back from doing what you believe to be the right thing. Chivalry and kindness often require boldness. Asking a crying stranger if they need help demands at least some courage to act. Find it and use it.

5. Always break bread with friends and family

In this internet age we communicate excessively and connect rarely. Meet your friends and family in real life as often as you can. You draw more energy and love from this than any other source. Not Facebook, not Instagram or Snapchat – in person. One personal regret is that I do not see my friends and family enough.

Also, be present for those you care about. Attention is scare in an economy designed to consume it. Giving someone attention is an act of love and respect. Conversely, being artificially present is deeply insulting. We all know the person who keeps typing and muttering “uh huh” as you talk to them. We have all been that person.

6. Be kind to yourself. We have brutal inner critics.

Many of us turn on ourselves and corrode our mental well-being from the inside. Physical autoimmune disease are recognized for their danger and severity, yet we have equivalent psychological diseases that are equally as ruinous yet unnamed. Inoculate yourself from crippling diseases of no self-belief AND delusions of superiority by subjecting your own thoughts to the same scrutiny and skepticism you would apply to someone else.

Use meditation to learn how to observe what the voice in your head is actually saying.  You will be astounded by the babbling ravings and stream of nonsense. You may also find yourself horrified by the violence and sadism of your inner critic. Do not listen to this demon uncritically. It is not really you, just a subroutine of your mind that cleans up the filth. Ignore it. Treat your own declarations like any other assertion. Does it match the evidence? If not, reject it. If yes, accept it. Is it a matter of subjective judgment (“You are stupid, ugly”), the definitely ignore it.

7. There is no average , just you

As I mentioned earlier, the age of average is ending. Humans are simply too jagged to be classified as averages. Averages are valid for groups, but never individuals:

During the 1950s, the United States Air Force began thinking a lot about averages. At the time, pilots were having trouble controlling their planes. As Rose explains, at first the problem was pinned on pilot error and poor training. But the real problem turned out to be the cockpit or, more specifically, the fact that the cockpit had just one design: one for the average pilot of an earlier era, the 1920s.

The Air Force…measured more than 4,000 pilots on 10 dimensions of size that seemed important for fitting into a cockpit — torso length and chest circumference, for example. The thinking was that once they redesigned the cockpit for the average pilot of the 1950s, controlling the plane would no longer be so troublesome. Most pilots, they assumed, would be within the average range on the majority of dimensions and that a good number would even be average on all 10 dimensions.

“Do you know how many really were?” Rose says. “Zero.”

Even when just three dimensions of size were picked, fewer than 3.5 percent of the pilots fell within the range defined by Daniels as average. Instead, what Daniels found is that every single pilot had what Rose calls a jagged profile. One pilot with long arms may also have long legs while another may not. Not everyone who was average height (5 feet 9 inches) had the same chest circumference or head size.

Finally, the Air Force had its “aha” moment: If every pilot had a jagged profile and the cockpit was designed for the average pilot, it was actually designed for no one. Its response was bold — it banned the average and forced reluctant manufacturers to instead design “to the edges, ” meaning a cockpit that would be adjustable for even the extremes — the tallest or the shortest, for those with wide or narrow chests. Manufacturers balked, but once they realized the Air Force wasn’t budging, they figured it out, creating options like adjustable seats.

You hear the platitude “You are unique” very often, but what does it mean? It means that you should never compare yourself to others – good or bad. Many of our comparisons and our normative values are based on flawed concept of the average. Reject it as old fashioned bunk that it is. Design your life around your uniqueness. This is no more selfish than adjusting the seat of a car or a belt.

8. Choose to be great

It is a choice. Unconscious, but very real. Try to remember to choose yourself and choose to be great. This is not an invitation empty self-congratulation and egotism decoupled from reality. Rather is a way to structure the narrative of your life. No matter where you are, whatever the setback, however badly you messed up, you have chosen to be great so this is a waypoint to that greatness. Just choose to be great and let your mind do the rest for you.

9. Bad people

Most of the bad things in the world are the result of error, stupidity, and self-righteousness. There are, however, genuinely evil people. You will do a great service to yourself if you train yourself to recognize the signs of two psychological conditions at the root of much human malevolence.

The first is psychopathy (psychopaths). Psychopaths are sane, but they are extremely dangerous emotionally and physically. They are often charming and very attractive. They are characterized by three clusters of traits: boldness, disinhibition and meanness. There is no taming, reforming or rescuing these people. Adult psychopaths are neurologically programmed to be the way they are. It is hard to overstate how dangerous and destructive these people are.

The second type of person, closely related to psychopaths are pathological narcissists.  These people are often delusional but have an odd ability to trap well meaning people in relationships by oscillating between neediness and abuse. Don’t be the person that people ask of each other “How does he put up with that!?”

10. Self-righteousness is the root of most evil

Evil may be banal, but it runs on self-righteousness. Watch out for big moralists. Almost every historical evil you can think of came about from people thinking they were doing the right thing, fighting the good fight and defeating some evil. I am not saying it is bad to have ideals and principles, but always remember that you may be wrong, in fact you probably are. You may actually be one of the the bad guys.


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