The Pragmatist’s Guide to Life by Malcolm Collins


What should I optimize for in life?

How do I know what is true?

Who should I be?


Why were most cultures in human history wrong, whereas the time and place that you just happen to be born into correct?

Many books that claim to be about some form of “self-improvement” are in reality collections of pleasant platitudes and stories that make you feel powerful while merely affirming beliefs you already kind of had.

Most self-improvement books are written with the goal of selling more books.


What is the purpose of my life?

How do I best fulfill that purpose?

Who do I want to be?

How do I want others to think of me?

Step 1: Determine Your Objective Function

Your objective function should be to maximize whatever group of things you believe has intrinsic value.

Deciding your objective function is perhaps the single most important decision of your life.

We use the term “objective function” and not “purpose,” though the two are closely related.

An objective function should be thought of as a weighted combination of the things you believe hold intrinsic value (eg. happiness, pleasing God, reducing suffering.)

Maximizing positive personal emotions (the pursuit of happiness) is most individuals’ “default” intrinsic value. However, emotions are neurochemical slurries evolved to promote survival and replication.

You might think there is something intrinsically bad about suffering (e.g., a child starving to death), and therefore there is intrinsic value in preventing it. If so, then is it not best to sterilize the populations of countries with high levels of suffering?

People who believe freedom has inherent value hold the ability of a conscious entity to do “what it wants” above all else. If you could press a button that would make the world’s population 15 % less happy but 10 % more free (by whatever metric you define freedom) would you?

Many people conclude that some form of continuing their own existence has intrinsic value. If you believe the “you are your body” version, would you kill yourself today if it allowed you to spread 5 % of your genetic material to everyone born in the next generation.

In the past, one of the most valuable things an individual could strive for is to b remembered in stories. That the truest form of immortality is to have the story others tell about you last forever.

If you fulfill your purpose perfectly, but are neither remembered nor liked upon your death, have you lived a good life?

When someone asks you on your deathbed what your life amounted to, there is an innate pull to want to be able to answer that your life mattered.

If it is your interaction with history that imbues you with intrinsic value, would you sacrifice your life and the lives of all your relatives today — even if no one remembered you existed — so long as doing so guaranteed that you made a positive, lasting, novel impact on world history?

Some people go so far as positing that our inclination towards fairness is more than a lower-order emotional pathway like lust and believe it to be imbued with intrinsic value. Fairness is used more often in virtue signaling due to its low social cost.

There are those who dedicate their life to artistic endeavors. Did you choose to believe this to justify your lifestyle and self-image as an artist? Is it the inspiration of others or the creation of art itself that has intrinsic value?

Some believe that intrinsic value lies in the diversity of one’s experience. Experiences have value based on their novelty. Even a positive experience loses all value as it becomes routine.

Some conclude that the protection and development of human civilization has intrinsic value.

Some conclude that there is inherent value in accumulating and distributing knowledge about the nature of the universe.

For some, the existence and continuation of the universe is a thing of intrinsic value and perhaps logically the thing of ultimate intrinsic value.

The belief that lucidity (or enlightenment) has intrinsic value surfaces in several religious traditions as well as numerous new-age philosophical movements. This is often attempted through regular and prolonged meditation, mindfulness, and / or prayer.

Religious beliefs in this guide are divided into four categories: Hard Belief Systems, Soft Belief Systems (traditional religion made to conform to mainstream social trends,) Personal Belief Systems, and Self-Image-Based Belief Systems.

Self-Image-Based Belief Systems: first decide what “type of person” we are and then “choose” whatever belief system that “type of person” would believe. This is the only belief system category we will openly condemn.

Step 2: Determine Your Ideological Tree

We define an ideology as a hypothesis about how the world works that you utilize to maximize your objective function.

Two people who believe that pleasing God is the only thing of intrinsic value may have two different and contradictory paths to pleasing God because they have different ideological trees.

Ideologies exist within a branching hierarchy — an ideological tree. It is worth expending mental energy on ensuring it is correct. Ideologies closer to the trunk take precedence if there is a conflict.

Almost as important as our objective function is the “standard of evidence” we choose when building our ideological tree.

If you hypothesize that socialism is the best political system for relieving suffering, what standard of information is required for you to change your mind?

Unlike objective functions, which are ultimately judgment calls, ideologies can be proven categorically wrong.

You must first establish what information you will consider as evidence.

What would it take, for example, to make you believe — or not believe — in ghosts?

There are seven types of evidence: Logical Consistency, Personal Experience, Personal Emotional Experience, Cultural Consensus, Expert Consensus, Scientific Method, Doctrine.

One of the strongest innate drives in the human mind is an addiction to not thinking and a tendency to choose the path of least resistance. Think through your ideological tree carefully.

Step 3: Determine Your Personal Identity

You get to choose who you are.

Most of our lives are lived in a sort of autopilot.

This autopilot is driven by the type of person we have allowed ourselves to become in response to the serendipitous events we have experienced in life.

Who you are now is a Franken-identity pieced together by experiences you have been randomly subjected to throughout your life.

To build your personal identity, you must take stock of your personal beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses to determine how they can best be leveraged in pursuit of your objective function.

Most choices humans make about how to interact with the world are made unconsciously on “autopilot.”

By changing your internal sense of self, which determines how you react to things, you can change your emotions.

It becomes easier to silence those parts of our brain that are on auto-pilot if we have moments of lucidity built into our weekly schedule.

Schedule a morning walk and talk with your significant other during which you discuss your goals for that day and that week.

Flux periods are times in our lives during which we can rewrite and adjust our core mental models.

Periods of flux (moments in which your internal model can be edited) can occur during: major life transitions, major social transitions, moments experiencing abnormally high levels of oxytocin release (falling in love), hitting rock bottom, getting high (meditation or drugs), artificial flux periods (sabbatical and the localized reboot.)

The localized reboot involves moving to a new neighborhood and building completely new routines, surroundings, and social networks.

If you do not choose to change yourself, the world will change you.

Five outside forces build our internal models when we do not take personal responsibility for their development: social conformity, cognitive dissonance, personal ego, reinforcement, and instruction.

Suppressing emotions is cognitively taxing and will prevent you from inhibiting other impulses.

We can control our emotional reaction by changing the story we are telling ourselves about what we are experiencing.Recontextualization is something humans naturally do when dealing with tragedy.

Focus on just how easy it would be for you to let go of whatever it is you are angry about. It is your choice to stay angry.

Positive overlay states can be created through simple “life hygiene.” This includes eating healthy food, exercising, meditating, maintaining good sleep hygiene, giving to charity, having meaningful work, maintaining regular social interaction with people you like, having a sense of purpose, knowing what you want from life.

Actions which do not feel good in the moment, such as caloric restriction, exercise, charitable giving, hard work, or social interaction, can ultimately have a very positive effect on your overlay state.

One of the best ways to maximize your overlay state is to feel there is purpose to your life.

Studies have backed the idea of happiness set point theory. The only thing that can affect the level of positive emotion you experience in your life as much as your self-image is your “default” overlay state.

Actions such as prolonged charitable activities and exercise will nudge your happiness threshold down (making it permanently easier to experience happiness).

We are horrendous at actively pursuing experiences that make us genuinely happy.

Instead of focusing on how happy an activity makes us on average, we focus more on specific memories in which we had a uniquely high level of positive emotion.

When you are on autopilot, you will naturally gravitate towards activities that reinforce your self-image.

For example, a person who sees themselves as an intellectual bohemian may go to a museum not because they enjoy the content of the museum, but because they enjoy doing an activity that reinforces the way they see themselves.

Content you post to social media will alter your memory of an event and cause you to believe you were happy doing something that actually was not much fun at all.

Experiences do not have to be something you are actually doing in the moment but can be completely in your imagination. We are also capable of experiencing things that are 100% imaginary.

It is almost comically easy to experience happiness whenever you want, even though only one third of Americans describe themselves as happy.

It is always going to be easier to create a sustained happy state by simply altering the self-image.

The simplest of these heuristics is to pursue as many novel experiences as possible.

If an important aspect of your objective function is maximizing the amount of “memory” generated, you would benefit from constantly moving to new cities, creating new homes, and reinventing who you are.

Unproductive Self-images: Failure or Helplessness as Part of Who You Are, External Locus of Control, Vice-Oriented, Lower Status Than That You Occupy, Perfectionist, Good Person, Protector of the Weak, Unsustainable, Rely Heavily on How others See You, Normalizing Negative Behavior, Lower-Ranking Ideological, False Alarms, Group Association, Combined Identities

This is one of the most important takeaways from this guide. Most people live their lives almost completely on autopilot. If you do not make a concerted effort to think critically, your default self-image-powered autopilot will dictate. Deliberately choose your self-image.

Self-image framework: Am I the type of person who would say yes when asked by a friend to climb Kilimanjaro?”

Objective function framework: Does climbing this mountain contribute to my objective function?

By changing the way you dress, you reinforce a change in your public and private persona. Getting dressed as your “new and improved” self helps to keep you in character.

An easy way to ensure change in our behavior is to create extremely simple rules that we do not allow ourselves to break, ever.

One of the best ways to persuade yourself to maintain a change you have made in your life is to persuade someone else to make the same change.

A token is a physical reminder you carry with you to remind you of some pledge you have made to yourself. Keep in your pocket every day can help remind you to focus on your goals.

One way to sustainably remove an unwanted habit is to associate it with something your core character despises (small mindedness, weakness, naltrexone.)

One of the most effective, but difficult to achieve, mechanisms is sustained social pressure and group accountability: conditioning, conformity, group identity, accountability.

There are factors that influence our behavior that are outside our control: genetic influencers, traumatic life events, addictions, priming influencers, and logical fallacies and biases.

Step 4: Determine Your Public Identity

You, dear reader, are a supporting character in the eyes of every human being you will meet.

Paint yourself as a compelling supporting character.

Your public and internal characters are not the same thing. Your public character is what other people use to categorize you within their heads

Most people lack the time to understand your true inner character.

Internal self-images come across as forgettable and bland in public.

As with box art advertising word processing software, you need to focus on what is different about you.

If you are just trying to maximize positive emotional states or believe the best way to impact the world is through operating invisibly, then the rest of this chapter will not apply much to you.

If you want to impact the world in a manner that leaves you personally remembered / recognized for your work, or should you wish to influence a large number of people through the avatar of your own person

Create the best supporting character you can. Our brains prefer that side characters be easy to categorize archetypes.

Choose a trope. Tropes fit snugly into our brains as bold, simple, and easy to understand.

Identify what, specifically, you want to achieve in life to maximize your objective function. Make a list of individuals who have achieved these roles in the past.

Look for similarities in the way they dress, speak, move, and ascend to their current roles.

Your new outfit and public personality act as a constant signal to yourself that you have made a conscious decision to change and improve.

Strong public personas must also contain flaws. By creating an “intentionally flawed persona,” you can choose what people determine is wrong with you.

Strong and obvious flaws combined with a powerful character grant a politician and his or her supporters a remarkable ability to shrug off attacks.

Maybe a flaw that you can’t seem to shake no matter what you do.

Maybe a flaw that seems terrible but that don’t disqualify you from achieving your goals. Eg. Bill Clinton’s serial philandering.

Craft these elements to match your public persona: clothing, haircut, hobbies, diet, drink, speech pattern, public mannerisms, goals, achievements (degrees, club memberships).

Does this depict a character that is simple, memorable, and easy to digest?

Is this character significantly different from the general population?

Is this character in line with my internal personality model?

Is this character in line with my ideologies?

Is this character the best possible tool to execute on my ideologies in a way that will maximize my objective function?

We all know of people with friends who do nothing but hold them back, enable their bad habits, or emotionally tear them down.

Managing friendships intentionally will always be superior to allowing friendships to form and fade.


Culture can influence your autopilot behavior.

A family’s religious culture can be fine-tuned over generations, helping members of each generation optimize as people.

Culture is best transmitted through traditions and media. We modified existing holidays and created a few of our own.


Everyone knows Socrates’ adage “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but almost no one is ever seriously encouraged to examine their life.

You have the power to choose to be anyone you want to be.

The authors’ personal objective functions are to increase the efficacy of humanity’s collective mental substrate: open to new ideas, letting the best idea win.

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