On Meta-Questions

The Limits of Introspective Knowledge

For the past half year I’ve been stuck on these two questions:

  1. What new skill or subject should I learn, outside of the university curriculum?
  2. What should I write about on my blog?

When trying to think about these questions, more questions pop up. For example, when trying to settle on trying to learn a new skill, the meta-question arises:

This cost-benefit analysis pays off when making decisions, especially because there is the opportunity cost associated with making that decision. But then the meta-meta question pops up:

In thinking about all of these meta-questions, I became immobilized by all of the information and all of the uncertainty. A year on, I had made zero progress on the goals I had set for myself.

These meta-questions are important in their own right. Having the answer to “What’s important in learning a skill? The potential career payoffs? How interesting it is?” can give important insight to what you value. But the resolving of these meta-questions only create internal value — they create introspective knowledge, but nothing else. What’s important is that they pave your way to continue on to solving actual problems.

We have to be constantly mindful not to be stuck in the loop of the meta-questions. Introspection, as useful as it is, comes with the trap of the coastline paradox, where there is no end to to the questions you can ask. While thinking about deeper meta-questions can be enlightening, we have eventually settle for good enough, keep the Russian nested doll, and carry on with solving the actual problem we started with.

Making Arbitrary Declarations

In light of this, sometimes making arbitrary declarations can be a nice way to solve the meta-question. For the question of “what should I learn in my free time?”, I’m settling on the following arbitrary declaration:

“Follow your curiosity” 9 Jun 21 @blakeir

And on a similar note:

“If you’re trying to figure out what to do next, it’s better to follow your own genuine intellectual curiosity over whatever is “hot” right now.” 15 Jan 20 @naval

And for the question of what I should write about this blog, I’m making the following arbitrary declaration:

It doesn’t matter. Just write what’s interesting for yourself.

This was inspired by the essay Get Numb Before You Get Good, which argues that in writing, the difficulty with starting can be mostly attributed to the fear of starting, and not the challenge of thinking of good topics. There will never be something ‘good enough’ if I don’t get numb to the action of publishing first.

Ultimately, arbitrary declarations don’t have to be strictly justified. They just have to be good enough. After all, you need to have a break in your while True loop.