Summary of The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think and It’s Not Too Late

The Formal Education Myth

There is almost no relationship between academic excellence and success in your life and career. Insofar as it was ever true that the roadmap to success was to work hard in school, get a good entry-level job, and work your way up through middle management, it isn’t anymore. You need credentials for a few professions (doctor, lawyer, etc.), but these days you don’t need formal credentials for most things you might want to do.

There are certain practical skills that will lead to success in life—they just aren’t taught in school. This book doesn’t teach them in depth, but it does point the way and teach you how to teach yourself the skills.

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Five Questions that Let You Watch What’s Going on in People’s Heads

A while back, when I was making Anki decks of the life concepts that I found most important, I wrote these two sentences:

“Communication is authentic when what we express externally corresponds to what’s going on internally.”

“Humans crave authentic communication.”

If you’re anything like me, you spend a big chunk of your waking hours talking to people. It’s important the time I spend communicating be fun, not unsatisfying. I don’t like it when I:

  • find myself planning what I’m going to say next instead of listening to the other person (Note: There is a level of listening beyond just being able to remember the words the other person said. That’s the type I’m referring to here.)
  • wonder whether the other person is really listening to me, or just being polite
  • discover that I’m completely off in my head somewhere else entirely, maybe thinking about what I’m going to eat for dinner
  • get the sense that the conversation is kind of dead, even if I couldn’t say why

Everything I listed above is a symptom of people not talking about what’s actually going on in their heads.

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Rationalist Conversation Patterns

A few months ago a conversation I had with someone at one of the NYC Rationality meetups prompted me to write an email on the subject of rationalist conversational norms. I kept telling myself I’d distill my points from the email into a more coherent summary, and I’ve haven’t, so instead I’m posting it pretty much without editing:

My take on some conversational patterns (no particular order):

  • Eliezer has listed “God”, “Hitler”, “absolutely certain”, “can’t prove that”, and “by definition” as red flags of irrational thinking.
  • One big positive signal that the person is thinking rationally is visibly pausing and stopping to think—looking inside and figuring out what we actually think/feel takes time, so too quick responses are suspect, though obviously this one can be faked. It’s not just pausing, but pausing and exhibiting the facial expressions and body language that indicate that you’re trying to figure something out.
  • The rationalist way is to strongly prefer positive statements to normative ones (observations not evaluations).
  • Speaking as though a counterexample refutes a correlation is not considered rational.
  • Saying that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” is also not considered rational—there’s a post on exactly this.
  • Complaining, being bitter, blaming people, and labeling people are all outside of rational discourse as I see it.
  • On a related note, there are three types of “clever” stories from Crucial Conversations that are bad signs: Villain, Victim, and Helpless stories. The theme of Victim Stories is that “I am noble and pure and doing everything right, and I’m getting bad results because of outside circumstances. It’s not my fault”. The theme of Villain Stories is “not only do other people do things to make my life worse, they do it on purpose because they’re evil, and they deserve retribution”. Villain and Victim stories are about justifying past behavior. Helpless stories are about justifying future inaction. “I can’t do anything to change or improve my situation because…” All of those are big red flags in my book.
  • Also, saying “I feel x because he/she/they/it” or “I do x because he/she/they/it” or, “This other person made me do x” or “This other person made me feel x”. I think language that takes ownership of our actions, feelings, and choices, is very important.
  • Similarly, I’d say the words “can’t”, “must”, “ought”, “should”, “have to”, “unacceptable” etc. are all at least yellow flags of irrational thinking, though I can think of exceptions. My friend Molly and I used to talk about how “shoulds” are okay if there’s a corresponding “if” statement, like: “If you want to get a cheap Burning Man ticket, you should do it today, because they might sell out.”
  • Getting offended or defensive is not conducive to rational discourse, and the easiest way to mitigate the effect of those reactions is to admit them and examine them.
  • Actually, that’s a more general point. Emotions aren’t opposed to rationality—they’re data, and so the preferred way of dealing with them in rationalist discourse is to own them, admit them, put them on the table, try to explain them and question them. So “When you said that thing about red-headed people being less intelligent overall I got sad because I was imagining that maybe such a view would lead to them being treated unfairly, and it’s an important part of my value system to treat all human beings fairly”, or something like that. In my experience, this one is hard because people feel more vulnerable doing it that way.
  • Rationalist conversation is more likely to have an explicit goal than normal conversation. Keeping the conversation on track and not letting the goal drift is valued, and changing the subject to avoid things you have unpleasant reactions to or think might make you look bad without explicitly acknowledging that you’re doing so is frowned upon.

Short list of things that are positive signals of rationality:

  • Asking questions that help clarify the other person’s understanding of the situation. Like, “Wait, so are you saying that X is evidence for Y? If you believe that, does that mean you also believe this other thing?” Basically, assuming there’s a consistent model in the other person’s head and trying to figure it out.
  • Asking people for the evidence that led them to arrive at their beliefs is a good sign too. “What experience did you have that led you to this conclusion?”
  • Just generally seeming curious is a very good sign, and can be obvious.
  • Acknowledging when you have a bias that’s interfering with your ability to think clearly about something, or a motive that’s different from “seeking truth”.
  • Giving probability estimates and confidence intervals.
  • Being aware that what we’ve just heard other people say affects what we think, so requesting that each person form an opinion before either person shares it.
  • Showing surprise when presented with information that doesn’t fit your worldview is a very good sign that you’re trying to keep a consistent model.
  • Coming up with thought experiments to narrow down the source of differences in belief.
  • Prohibiting the use of certain words when we’re getting distracted by them.
  • Always asking “why?” and “how do I anticipate the world behaving because I believe this?”.
  • Using the vocabulary of rationality. This could be a much longer point, but naming cognitive biases, talking about heuristics, talking about what you anticipate happening, saying that you “intuit” something when it’s that, instead of saying that you “know” something. Referring to “motivated cognition”, “belief as attire”, asking whether particular feelings are “truth-tracking”, talking about clusters.

This is what I can think of right now, though I’d love to encourage a collaborative effort to refine it. Feel free to share it.

How to read NVC

Nonviolent Communication is one of my favorite books. I recommend it to pretty much everyone I know who hasn’t already read it, and I’ve found myself repeating (and I hope refining) roughly the same disclaimer/explanation about how to approach the book, largely derived from the questions people keep asking me about it. So, to avoid reduplication of effort and further clarify my thoughts, here are my best thoughts on the subject.

There Is a Consistent Underlying Model

“NVC is not simply a language or a set of techniques for using words.”

The way I see it, the whole NVC process can actually be specified quite concisely: “communicate (internally and externally) in way that does not induce fear, guilt, or shame” (I credit Jeremy Zucker for stating it this way). I suspect the rest of it can be derived from that one directive. And I don’t think Marshall Rosenberg came at the process by thinking about individual rules about what is and isn’t a request, or what is and isn’t a need. I think he had an insight, or a set of insights, which allowed him to see to the heart of what human beings are actually trying to get out of communicating with each other: what will make people satisfied and happy, and what will trigger resistance. Achieving this awareness results in a shift in mindset.

The book is a set of procedures for teaching that mindset. I’d say it’s largely the “fake it till you make it” approach. Talk in this way, you’ll understand how it feels to talk in this way, and you’ll learn the mindset. Which isn’t to say that the protocol for transforming your speech patterns aren’t useful on its own—I’ve found it ridiculously useful. I also think the book is best understood from the perspective of applying the protocol in service of grokking the underlying principles.

It Actually Works

The example conversations in NVC are likely to strain credibility. They seem to imply that NVC can, if properly applied, not only resolve conflicts between parents and children and help friends discuss sensitive subjects, but also establish rapport with terrorists, prevent violent crime as it’s happening, and cure headaches. When I first read it, they sounded too good to be true. I had trouble accepting that following a fairly simple set of well-defined as outlined in a popular self-help book could be that useful.

Here’s one data point: now I believe the examples, not only because I don’t think Marshall Rosenberg would lie, but also because what he describes fits with my model of what’s possible. Humans seem to crave authentic communication: communication where what’s going on inside us matches up closely with what we’re expressing. We really want to be heard, and to get visceral, real-time feedback that we’re being heard, and so giving people that is really quite powerful. The convincer for me was using NVC to stop a fight on Caltrain. I’ll blog about that soon (edit: done!).

Of course, it still may not be worth your time to master NVC.  Everyone has different low-hanging fruit. My goal writing this was to clarify my view of its potential.


To get the most out of NVC, I recommend that when you read it you: 

  • Assume that there is an underlying model which, when understood, produces a distinct shift in mindset.
  • Keep in mind that Marshall Rosenberg is teaching something potentially quite powerful.

If you’re interested in Nonviolent Communication, you may want to check out this excellent summary instead of diving into the book itself.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about NVC that I’ve answered at length over email, so, to further flesh out my views on NVC, I’ll be posting a series of the questions I’ve gotten along with my answers.

Sticky claims and surprise meters

I’ve been rereading the early posts of Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions, and will now, as an exercise for myself, try summarize my best understanding of the relevant concepts and how I relate to them using my own jargon:

I will describe two natural clusters of mental representations “sticky claims” and “surprise meters” and their respective underlying meanings.

Sticky Claims

“Sticky claims” aren’t by default truth-tracking: they don’t get updated whenever new data comes in. Rather, they exercise their (limited) agency to preserve their existence by directing my focus away from counter-evidence. The standard function of a “sticky claim” in my mind is to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can refer to my “sticky claims” verbally, and they have attached sensory representations. “Sticky claims” I’ve uncovered in my brain have ranged from “It’s dangerous to have money because someone will take it away from me” to “I can’t find the cheese anywhere in the refrigerator” to “I love my brother”. When these are active in my brain I will de disinclined to acquire money, cast my eyes on every shelf in the fridge, and dwell on the positive qualities of a world where my brother doesn’t exist.

I’m sure you can think of “sticky claims” of your own. Think of one now.

Surprise Meters

Together, my “surprise meters” imply my best working model of reality. The rough function of surprise is to alert me when I encounter input that causes an update: data that render an aspect of my model of reality improbable. I do not shy away from disproving them.

I can refer to my “surprise meters” in words, and they have attached models underlying them. Typical examples of “surprise meters” are: “I have very little money in my savings account,” “I recently opened the refrigerator and stared inside without moving my eyes much for about 30 seconds, thinking of cheese,” and “I have a strong intuition that loving my brother is virtuous“, none of which seeks to prevent me from invalidating it by constraining my actions.

Steps for Turning Sticky Claims into Surprise Meters

“Sticky claims” and “surprise meters” behave differently, and I find distinguishing the two is instrumental. More specifically, the ability to reliably access my surprise meters enables me to update my map on demand towards consistently picture of the world I exist in.

When I notice myself shying away from reality, cultivating my curiosity allows me to seek truth. Some go-to questions for when I feel stuck are:

  1. What is the probability the claim is true? What bets would I make about it? (20% chance the cheese has been eaten or moved.  80% chance I haven’t checked the shelf or drawer where it is.)
  2. What is my evidence for the claim? (It’s not on the shelf I’m looking at right now.  I’ve been looking in the fridge for 30 seconds and I haven’t seen it.)
  3. What is my evidence against the claim? (I remember putting the cheese in the fridge when I bought it.  I cannot recall my roommates ever having finished or moved my cheese without informing me.  I haven’t checked every shelf and drawer.)
  4. Imagine, in as much sensory detail as possible, that I will open an envelope with the truth about the claim inside. How do my emotions respond to the prospect of finding out the real answer?  (Imagining opening the envelope containing a note informing me whether the cheese is in there I start to doubt my claim that it isn’t. I feel myself not wanting to look–I’m afraid to be wrong.)

Try those questions out on the claims you picked before and see how your perspective shifts.

If following the steps described above does not bring about my desired level of clarity (as evidenced by my contentment), I can tease out the models underlying my “surprise meters” by employing longer-form techniques.

I strive not only to recognize that “sticky claims” and “surprise meters” exist as categories and are distinguishable, but also to develop the habit of tagging my verbal statements (spoken either out loud or in my head) as one or the other in real-time.

Draco’s Rules

At their best, human relationships are mutual self-actualization optimization processes. One major obstacle I’ve found to thinking of interactions this way is that people are concerned about manipulation. This post [link broken, and I don’t remember what the post said :-(] addresses the issue well enough that I’ll link to it instead of trying to reproduce it.

Despite the fact that I find concerns about manipulation largely incoherent, I’ve found it useful to explicitly clarify to other people that I am open to all methods of influence being used on me.

I might be aware of what you’re doing and I might not. I very much want to be aware of the forces that are influencing my decisions and behavior. I like it when people tell me how they’re manipulating me: I’m a big fan of open communication and meta-discussion both during and after actual discussions, and I’ve found increased self-knowledge to be very broadly useful.

I can also learn a lot about how other people are influencing my behavior just by paying attention, particularly if they’re actively experimenting [another broken link]—explicitly telling me is just a bonus.
And the primary reason I care about knowing myself is that it’s instrumentally useful. I agree with Francis Bacon’s perspective, “Your true self can be known only by systematic experimentation, and controlled only by being known.” So when I’m someone influences me to achieve my goals without my knowledge, that’s a positive outcome too.

So, to help clear up issues of consent and ethics, I’m defining Draco’s Rules, by analogy with Crocker’s Rules.

Declaring yourself to be operating by “Draco’s Rules” means that other people are allowed to optimize their messages for influencing you, not for transmitting information, or being nice to you. Draco’s Rules means that you have accepted full responsibility for the security holes of your own mind – you will never complain that you are being “manipulated”. Anyone is allowed to lie to you to push you in the direction of achieving your CEV and claim to be doing you a favor. (Which, in point of fact, they would be. One of the big problems with this culture is that everyone’s afraid to take full responsibility for their potential to shape the behavior of those around them, or think they have to dance around it.) Two people using Draco’s Rules should be able to expose all exploitable vulnerabilities in the minimum amount of time, without unnecessary explanation or negotiation of permission. Obviously don’t declare yourself to be operating by Draco’s Rules unless you have that kind of mental discipline.
“Draco’s Rules” are named after Draco from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.
To clarify, I am operating by Draco’s Rules.
I reserve the right to object when people don’t manipulate me skillfully enough, or I find out that they’re trying to get me to act against my own best interest.

PC laws of life

One of my favorite heuristics for life is: act more like a PC, less like an NPC. I was brainstorming with a friend of mine about things to remember to act more like a PC, and there’s what we came up with: 

-don’t do the same thing over and over again
-when you see something you don’t understand, ask “what’s going on here”
-acquire skills
-coordinate with other PCs
-set quests
-optimize your inventory
-find walkthroughs for the boring stuff
-everything could be significant, so be observant
-you have everything you need
-there are very useful NPCs
-friendly NPCs wil give you stuff helpful for your quests
-there has to be a solution
-you might have to click every pixel on the screen
-the thing that you’re looking for will be highlighted, but you need to learn to look carefully
-have a high default level of entitlement
-be aware that NPCs will try to make PCs follow rules, always
-grinding is never the most expedient solution
-practice the most useful skills
-keep your HP high
-keep your MP high
-people have alignments
-NPCs are usually transparent about their alignment
-it is worthwhile to figure out the alignment of other PCs
-some NPCs are NPCs by choice
-bosses always have an exploitable flaw, so you can beat them whether you’re qualified or not

If you can think of more fun ones, add them in the comments!