Bullet dodging is relatively safe—you're unlikely to seriously harm yourself physically, mentally or financially. But if you're going to be a bullet swallower and make it work, you have to (1) keep it to yourself, unless you're OK with being an asshole, and (2) constantly question your axioms, your reasoning and your evidence, and be willing to do an about-face at a moment's notice. This requires, among other things, keeping your identity small
For many years I insisted that I had no need for a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle and that synchronizing my schedule to the Sun was antiquated and inefficient given the existence of lightbulbs, the Internet and 24-hour stores. But defeating my circadian rhythm and external cues was way harder than I'd anticipated, so I had to give up. In fact I now have several hacks
to keep my cycle in sync.
That said, the potential rewards of bullet swallowing are huge. My questioning the conventional wisdom on caffeine
has led to gigantic productivity gains in the last few years. There are many other personal behaviors that I've put into practice with even more of a reward potential, but I won't go into them here.
Back to the inimitable Aaronson: in another post
he describes us as people who
follow their chains of logic straight past the acceptably-quirky into the “childish,” “weird,” and “naïve” without even noticing the “WHAT WILL PEOPLE THINK?” danger-signs
That's a great way of putting it. "Not noticing the what-will-people-think danger signs" is a trait with much explanatory power: it is correlated with poor social skills, for example. My strategy has been to learn to let logic roam unchecked inside my own head, while filtering what comes out of my mouth. I believe I've improved my abilities on both these fronts, although there is certainly much more room for improvement on the latter! This online journal is a happy middle-ground: I find that I have a lot more freedom since I don't have to fear instant social alienation, but I do practice a significant degree of self-censorship.
There's a word I really like that describes the combination of bullet swallowing and ignoring what other people might think: "unhinged." The "hinges" in question are mental barriers that anchor us to the bounds of social norms. Hinges can be powerful—they help us play it safe, as I mentioned earlier, and keep us from running away with flawed logic that might lead to catastrophic mistakes. I see an analogy to the freeze reflex that evolved as a way to let our emotions take over from logic in dangerous situations.
But hinges can be harmful in the modern world. We are well-adapted to function in the Savannah that we evolved in; our brains are pathetically underprepared for the challenges of technological civilization. Just as the freeze reflex often achieves the opposite of what it's supposed to—such as by preventing us from stepping away from an oncoming car—so do hinges. Cultural norms are smarter than evolution, but only slightly so.
I learnt to unhinge myself better, at least inside my own head, a few years ago. It was a beautiful experience. Following the trail of cold logic on a wide range of moral issues—pain, punishment and retributive justice, just to name a small sample—and deriving an internally consistent ethical worldview was quite rewarding as a thought experiment, although practically useless. But the insights that led to improving my personal productivity and what I think is a much-improved ability to predict the path of technological and societal change, and prepare accordingly, have been priceless.