Goodhart's Law, Optionality and 2021 Goals
January 10, 2021
A new decade has arrived (hey, there was no year zero) and after the batshit crazy end of the last decade, it’s somehow time to try to refocus and think about some objectives and what the next year will bring. I promised myself I would do this without another scree of words before getting to the meat of the actual goals. I managed to be pretty succinct with the 2020 review.
But sorry, dear reader, you’re screwed.
After accomplishing some of my goals for 2020 and not others, I’ve been thinking a lot about numbers and the nature of Goodhart’s Law. If you haven’t heard it:
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
The original version is more complicated, but this is the version you usually hear. I’m going to give another close formulation because it’s easier to follow why this is such a problem.
All metrics of scientific evaluation are bound to be abused. Goodhart’s law states that when a feature of the economy is picked as an indicator of the economy, then it inexorably ceases to function as that indicator because people start to game it.
— Mario Biagioli
This version makes it easier to figure out: when we put a goal out there of some sort and say “this is my indicator of success!”, we proceed to game it and zero in on achieving the indicator instead of the success.
I noticed this last year with my reading habit. I lied when I said I didn’t have a metric to track my reading last year; I did. I wanted to read 50 books. There were times last year when that number held me in thrall. It didn’t matter in the end, but I read a couple shorter books to boost the number. Pretty dumb, since the original goal of reading more is to explore interests and learn new ideas; if you’re focused on just getting through the pages.. well you’re missing it.
When I look back at my goals again though, there’s something striking: those that were easily metricked - running and reading - remained top of mind for a lot of the year. Running has become a big part of my life over the last couple years. Part of that is that I’ve come to enjoy it, but another significant piece of the puzzle is that I’ve had different achievements I’ve wanted to unlock.
I’ve done yearly goals for about five years now, and when I look back over that slightly longer arc, the yearly targets have had a larger overall effect. The years end up being iterative steps towards the person I want to become. There’s no question that’s been a good thing, even when the goals end up being poor measures, or fail to be achieved, or end up a constant reminder of the things you’re NOT doing. Somehow, feeling like a failure on a daily basis can make you successful long term. So long as you’re putting in the effort.
The idea of iteration feels like a practical solution for dealing with metrics. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” is apparently often misattributed to Aristotle, but Will Durant said it in a summary of a section of Nicomachean Ethics. (Aristotle actually said “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”.) Repeatedly taking action, even if it ends up being a flop, forms the habits that we want to achieve. The reason 50 books ended up being a good metric for me wasn’t that the target was a good measure, but that it broke down into a regular habit. 50 books is about one a week, which served as a stark reminder that to achieve it, I needed to read everyday.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.”
— Will Durant
At the same time, I don’t think having a goal to “read every day” would have created the same habit. The measure of significant action over time is valuable because it lets you iterate towards it. Focus on the daily work (and failures), ignore the tedious Sisyphean toil, and the top of the hill will appear quicker than you think. This same truth exists over weeks and years both.
I’ve tried my best to examine the idea of targets and metrics for 2021 goals and think a bit more about how they breakdown into weekly and daily habits. The hope is that it will help iteration and avoid the problem of gaming the system.
The unexamined life might not be worth living, but the overly quantified life soon becomes unliveable.
— Thomas Bevan
Seriously, everyone should read his Tyranny of Numbers - it was a funny and enlightening deep dive into some of this.
Here we go..
Sub 6 Minute Mile
And after all that, I’m starting with a metric that’s a target! I used reading as an example earlier, but fitness targets (excluding weight loss) have been the most powerful numbers for me the last couple of years. Last year I wanted to go under 7 minutes. I thought this was achievable, but difficult. This year I’m setting a goal that I’m not altogether sure is achievable. When I did intervals this year, I generally tried to target 90s for my 400s (quarter mile). Those were always hard. To do this means 4 400s under 90s in a row. Which means a lot of training.
It will likely mean a bunch of other things too. Along the way, I’d like to see what I can do a 400 in and get it under 70. I think I’ll also end up doing a 5k race again this year - assuming it’s not virtual - and would like to get under 24 minutes. And I’ll probably also need to get a bit lighter to do this. But all those are going to be derivative; byproducts. The goal is sub-6.
A few years back, some friends and I at work did the 100 pushup challenge. We’d roll out to the parking lot three days a week and pound sets of pushups at lunch while laughing at the looks from local traffic. After 12 weeks, we tried max reps; how many pushups can you do in a row without getting out of the plank. I hit 102 and, excited to achieve my goal, jumped up and yelled out my number. My friend Chris heard it and calmly added a couple more to his set and beat me with 104. Lesson learned: don’t celebrate too quickly!
I miss powerlifting too. The anticipation of a heavy set is a dopamine rush - completely thrilling. I haven’t lifted at all for a couple years. I’m still naturally strong, but nowhere near where I was. Trying for 100 pushups in a row is a way to gain some of that strength back in a more balanced way, focused on bodyweight exercises. I should get a starting point soon.. I think I can do about 50 straight right now.
In 2020 I set a good pace for reading: about a book a week. This is a case where improvement is not achievement. I won’t be happier if I read 60 instead of 58. I could try something ridiculous like 100 books, but that would create other sacrifices I wouldn’t be happy about and would miss the point. The target would not be a good measure.
Reading should still be a focus though. It’s taken up my leisure again. I browse or doomscroll my phone less and I watch hardly any TV. Instead, I read. I’d like to keep that up.
Thinking About Food
Tyler Cowen has become one of my recent intellectual heroes - he’s insightful, encyclopedic in his knowledge and recall, and an unorthodox (and thus, great) interviewer. But it’s his dietary advice that I’m planning to pilfer this year; here’s his strategy for ice cream:
Well, I don’t like to eat too much dessert. It’s bad for me. But if you think a lot of the value of consumption is either memory or anticipation, just by cutting a portion size in half or to a third, you’ll get more than a half or a third of the value. People don’t do that consistently. I think they’re too shortsighted. They just think, “I want to eat this and finish it.” It’s a social norm that you clean your plate. It’s a very bad norm in my view. It probably once made sense when food was scarce, right? But when food is very plentiful and being overweight is a bigger problem, you really want to learn how just to eat less on your plate.
I love food and if you exempt feasts and other engaging social situations, which don’t happen every day, I agree that the consumption (non-nutritional) value of food is in memory and anticipation. Michael Pollan also has a very simple version of this that’s more focused on lifestyle than it is value:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
I want to keep this in mind all year. Experimenting with diets over the last few years has been net positive - I’m down 50 lbs. - but it is, by definition, unsustainable and unbalanced. It’s time to better learn that balance, and these seem like the most axiomatic guidelines for long term healthy food intake that I’ve seen.
I hope to eat food, and a lot of plants. When I feel like it, I will have my favorite (and some processed) foods. Just not too much. And when it’s time to feast, we will feast. Mulatsag is still one of my favorite words.
Be Present, Offline and Online
I’m slowly extracting the ubiquity of a smartphone from my presence. We all know why this is a good thing; when you’re focused on the screen in front of you you’re not focused on the people in front of you. But there’s more to this than just not-checking-social-media. I don’t remember where I heard this, but someone was describing conversations now and how people will interrupt the flow to show a photo or a video or lookup something they can’t remember. The guy was saying, “I don’t want to see the picture.. I want to hear you tell me about it and describe the photo and your reaction. I haven’t talked to you in awhile and I want to talk with you not look at your phone.” Interestingly, older people are especially notorious at this.
We’ve all become cyborgs to some degree, the machine part is just detachable from our hand rather than embedded in our brain (yet). For this combination to be as successful as it can be, we need to rely better on the human parts of the symbiosis. We focus a lot on technology’s impact on our individual brains and capacities - specifically, our attention and ability to think - but perhaps less on the overall impact that technology has on our social interactions in aggregate. Or rather, we think about it in our overall society but don’t focus much on our own specific social groups and social interactions. Instead, we just climb back into our social media bubbles and scroll to the next dopamine hit.
At the same time, technology is powerful and transformative and it’s important to learn how to use tools to maximize real social interactions and communication. Social media is a dumpster fire; very little real and valuable communication happens there. When it does, it’s in spite of, not because of the platform. I posted to Facebook on New Years that I was no longer checking it and to email me instead. Since then, I’ve had several thoughtful email conversations with old friends which have given me far more value and pleasure than Facebook has for years.
So, finally, what does this mean concretely? Well..
- Continue to lessen the ever-presence of my phone in front of my face. We’ve already covered that.
- Invite people in and have a lot of gatherings and parties. 2021 is the year of getting past the ‘rona and we will all need it. I hope we can open up our house for both planned and informal gatherings of different groups of friends. I want to do this a lot. I also want to invite and host more people at the beach during the summer.
- I’ve used a small notebook intermittently over the last year for ideation, notes, and tracking daily tasks. I’d like to continue to use this as the first line of transcription more than online tools.
- Being present can happen online too. The email conversations I’ve had recently have been great. I have a bad habit of getting emails or messages, saying “oh I’ll reply later”, and then letting them sit for days. I want to be more responsive and reply quickly. When someone reaches out, respond.
I plan to take a class and practice drawing this year. I’ve always had some sort of latent talent (at least I’ve been told so). I’d like to develop it, not for any particular reason, but because it’s a pleasant thing to do. Vonnegut said:
I’ve been drawing all my life, just as a hobby, without really having shows or anything. It’s just an agreeable thing to do, and I recommend it to everybody. I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly you do it, because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow. That includes singing, dancing, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument. One thing I hate about school committees today is that they cut arts programs out of the curriculum because they say the arts aren’t a way to make a living. Well, there are lots of things worth doing that are no way to make a living. They are agreeable ways to make a more agreeable life.
I love this. That’s the reason to do art: to make a more agreeable life. That said, I am also hoping that drawing helps me with my woodworking. I’ve enjoyed trying to design furniture as much as I have building it. A lot of people gravitate to CAD programs like SketchUp for this, but I use a computer enough through the day thank-you-very-much, so the antique skill of being able to draft a beautiful design with paper and pencil is appealing. It’s slower, requires more skill, and is more agreeable.
These last three goals go together, so let’s see if I can get this to make any sense.
A lot of life is about building optionality. We focus on creating investments so that we can use them in different ways in the future. We don’t always know what those ways are. But we know we’ll want to have options in the future.
A lot of this is about money. Money gives you options. You can buy this or that or nothing. Money can also buy you time, the most precious commodity we have. We invest in our 401k’s so that we can have the option of future time in the form of a retirement. But time spent at 80 is not the same thing as time spent at 40 or even 60, so it always feels like there’s something fishy about this tradeoff.
It’s not just about money though. We have all sorts of other types of optionality too. Having a computer means I have access to most of humanity’s knowledge. Any time I want. But I get frozen into doomscrolling Twitter or swiping at funny bodybuilding memes on Instagram.
Hoarding is a physical version of the same thing with stuff. Hoarders often think they might need something in the future, so they get caught saving it and needing all the things all the time and end up in a mess. Being able to jump into any new activity or hobby in the future means dreaming about them all, and squandering the potential energy stored up.
There’s a constant paradox of choice; by having the option to do anything, I end up doing nothing.
I’ve been building optionality pretty consistently. I’ve reached a point in my financial life that’s comfortable, my kids are getting older and more interesting (both too slowly and far too quickly), and I’ve been carving back more and more time from bad habits.
It’s time to cash some of that in. This comic really struck a cord - we have plenty of chances to go after something and become an expert. So this year I want to start reducing some of that optionality. I want to stop saying I can do anything and replace it with doing something. I don’t honestly know what this means yet. I’ve been feeling like a “next phase” has been building for a couple years. It’s time to start reducing the choices available, focusing, and designing what that actually is.
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
Make One Internet Dollar
I’ve never made any money on the internet. My amazing wife has shown the way already and gone from zero to hero in the last couple of years. I plan to follow her example. I don’t have a clue what this will be - it could be an ebook, a new service, consulting, or whatever. I need to put myself out there, which is something - aside from this personal writing universe - I’ve always been reluctant to do. Goddammit, it’s time to break the dam.
Multiple Revenue Streams
This sounds similar but isn’t quite the same thing. I want to get another stream of revenue coming in from somewhere. We’ve talked about doing an AirBNB or some other kind of short-term rental along with a whole bunch of other things. It’s time to reduce the optionality and narrow in on what’s next.
Alright, 2021. New year, plenty of fresh air, plenty of vaccine to go around. Let’s do this!
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.