If You Want a Clean House, Invite People Over

To become good at anything, start at the end.

Sean McClure
16 min readOct 3, 2021

Photo by Christopher Ott

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The only way to become good at anything is to start at the end, acting as though we already know how to perform. By placing ourselves directly into real world environments we are forced to rise to the occasion, and inevitably learn the skill. We are creatures of adaptation, and as such, the only way to become what we want is by adapting.

In fact, I will argue that the only decision worth making when it comes to garnering skill is putting ourselves into the right environment. To look at the result of what we want to become, and immediately place ourselves there. The whole premise behind this article comes down to directionality; many people approach the learning process in the wrong direction.

Most approach challenges as though they require a foundation. They assume they must read the right books, take the right courses, meet the right people and only then will they become the person they want.

But I am arguing that we should be approaching achievement from the other direction. It makes more sense to place yourself at the end right away, when you’re naive and not very good at the thing you want to become. To force yourself to adapt.

That’s how information works. The information needed to become something, which requires making the right kinds of decisions, has to be imprinted directly from the environment. In order to make that happen effectively we cannot be tallying bits of information in the hopes of carving out some explicit path.

As I’ve argued in other articles, the so-called “path” doesn’t exist in real-world situations. What we call a path is really just a post-hoc narrative that we attach to successful outcomes. This is why the only decision to make relates to putting ourselves into the result.

People get this wrong all the time. People approach me asking what books to read, what courses to take. They’re trying to carve out a path towards success. It’s understandable why they’re doing this, but that’s an immediate signal to me they’re doing this wrong. And by “wrong” I mean they’re moving in the exact opposite direction that information works in problem solving; specifically the solving of “hard” problems.

When we try to lay out the bricks of our lives 1-by-1 we’re using a false analogy of how life works, as if life in all its nontrivial complexity can be pared down to a simple, summed process. It’s that industrial revolution mindset, where something gets built in an additive fashion, as though everything is deterministic. Life isn’t like that, it’s complex, it’s nonlinear. And these are not handwavy terms, they are well-defined. We know what complexity is and how it works (as long as we’re not trying to “understand” by reductionism).

It’s a signal when people ask others how to go about doing something. Asking “how” makes the process infinitely harder because such an approach means, by definition, we’re not solving hard problems properly. We’re solving them as if they’re deterministic. They’re not.

I talked about this in my last article, where the only kind of control we really have are the highest-level signals that exist in an environment. We should only work towards high-level targets, with everything else falling where they may. We must take advantage of the ad hoc nature of reality, its approximate quality, its randomness. There’s a reason the human mind uses high-level heuristics, not rules, to solve real-world problems.

This is how humans operate under complexity. This is what we’re good at, which is why the only decision to make when it comes to adaptation is where to place ourselves. This is something we already know. We regularly look at different people doing different things, and say to ourselves “I want to be doing that.” But so many people inevitably fall into what I call the “academic narrative.”

The academic narrative is this idea that we’re supposed to piece together fundamentals to create a foundation for building something down the road. That years and years of foundational work will eventually enable us to create value. I’m saying it’s the opposite.

We need to enter into the environments we know we need to be in, now. Adaptation requires us to enter environments without really knowing what we’re doing. This naiveté is a critical ingredient to having information imprinted from the environment rather than some so-called foundation, as per the academic narrative.

Hence the title of this article. It’s not “if you want a clean house, put yourself on a cleaning schedule so that you’re maintaining a clean home.” Don’t do that. Instead, invite people over. Create the situation that brings the stressors necessary to force you to adapt.

Choosing to invite people over, rather than choosing to clean on a schedule, is going to make you clean quicker, in the moment. This naturally filters the decision making. Under brevity, things fall into place that you would normally ponder and struggle over. Under brevity it’s very difficult to waste time on things that don’t matter. Against real-world stressors the right choices precipitate out.

This is an example of something we see in all areas of complexity, which is the dramatic simplification of decision making. We tend to think the more complex a situation the more there is to reason about; the more pros and cons we must balance, the more intricate our analysis must be. But we know that’s not the case. The lack of causal information that we have access to in complex situations means this kind of thinking doesn’t work under complexity.

Under brevity, things fall into place that you would normally ponder and struggle over. Under brevity it’s very difficult to waste time on things that don’t matter.

We don’t get to reason and nitpick and “penny-pinch” as I’ve called it. So much of that is false narrative, and quite frankly a waste of time. Such nitpicking behavior is demonstrably going down the wrong path, since it is, by definition, not solving complex problems correctly.

You can look into computer science, complexity science, computational complexity or any approach to understanding the tractability of simple versus hard problems. We know how complex problems get solved, and it isn’t using rules and explicit reasoning. Such rigid narratives are brittle in the face of real-world challenges. Period.

The dramatic simplification of decision making under complexity happens because we don’t have access to the kind of information that would make problem solving “complicated.” Recall, things that are “complicated” are not complex. Think about the courses you took in school. Mathematics is the most fundamental, followed by physics, chemistry, biology and finally sociology. Something you see as you move from math to sociology is the reduced amount of math used in the course. Why?

If you walk into a math classroom you’ll obviously see math all over the chalkboards. If you go into a physics class it’s still going to be quite mathematical, but not as mathematical as math itself, because it’s not pure math. Chemistry class is decently mathematical, but you have more drawings on the board. You have arrows and dots to describe higher-level concepts. In Biology there is less math still, and so on. What you’re seeing as you go from math to physics to chemistry to biology is the increasing level of complexity of the phenomena being studied.

Math can still be used in biology, and even in sociology, but it’s not going to be as explicit. The chalkboards in the softer sciences are not going to look as complicated as the chalkboards in physics. This isn’t because certain people like math and others don’t, it’s because of the complexity of the phenomena being studied. The more complex the phenomena the less nature condescends to give you its operations. It doesn’t let you know how everything adds up. It doesn’t let you know its underlying mechanisms at any great level of detail.

It’s important people understand that as the complexity increases, nature gives you almost no low-level information about how outcomes are produced. So the “chalkboards of complexity” are going to be more picturesque. More conceptual. You’re going to have more “dots and arrows” as opposed to explicit formulae. This is a fundamental aspect of reality, and that’s never going to change. This is why decision making in nontrivial, complex situations look simplistic. The chalkboard of life cannot be loaded with details.

The more complex the phenomena the less nature condescends to give you its operations.

You don’t need studies to show any of this to be true. What you need is to understand the properties of real-world situations. Understanding these properties doesn’t guarantee success, but it does allow us to understand the kinds of actions that lead to good outcomes. One of those actions is obviously going to be perseverance, because perseverance, mechanistically speaking, is simply the constant sampling of possibilities.

Of course perseverance has to be defined correctly. If I’m never changing the angle of my approach then that’s not real perseverance. You have to keep mixing and matching. Nobody golfs well from day one. It takes a lot of practice. This smacks of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, or one of its derivatives, but regardless of your preferred mode of framing perseverance, ultimately it’s an obvious, intuitive pattern. If you want to become good at golf, then put yourself into the game and start swinging.

Keep switching the angle, switching your stance, changing direction, and eventually perseverance is going to improve your golfing, without question. This is because there is a high-level target, a stressor, that you are always trying to move towards, while critically, not investing in the details (since most of them are changing).

The goals are hitting the ball smoothly, getting the ball closer to the flag. These targets never change, but how you arrive at those targets is in constant flux. I’ve talked before about multiple realizability and how the details need to die. This is another example of this pattern.

What about investing? It seems like a responsible thing to know. Many people have mutual funds or ETFs but how many people really get into investing? Most never get around to it. They may have bought a book on investing or watched some YouTube videos, maybe signed up for an online trading platform, but ultimately the whole effort fell to the wayside.

To learn investing is no different than someone wanting to learn the game of golf. You have to just start trading. “But I don’t know what I’m doing.” Of course you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to put yourself into the environment, regardless. You must have the information imprinted directly from the environment.

You can’t adapt by reading books and taking courses. That’s not adaptation. That’s pretending there’s a path in order to become something, when there is no path. People who achieve things often look back and say there’s a path because this is what humans do. We come up with post-hoc narratives to explain how things happen. Listen to my episode on how we can’t create the way we consume. The consumption of information has to sound like a narrative. I’m giving you a narrative right now, because that’s the only way humans can consume information, but that’s not the way you create things.

Take software. Many want to learn to create software, given its role in the economy. Such an activity opens up many opportunities. You can read books and take courses, but the only real way to learn to create software is to just start making it. This sounds like a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. If one doesn’t know how to make software how can they just start?

But if you had a gun to your head and someone was telling you to make it, how would you do it? You would go to Google and start looking stuff up. You’d come across blogs and videos on how to create software, and use those to attempt your own project. So it’s not that courses, blogs and videos are necessarily bad, but the decision is not what course, what book, what video; it’s what project. You have to just start creating the software. You’re not supposed to know how to build the thing, you’re supposed to just start building the thing.

We have to be creatures of adaptation. We are creatures of adaptation, so we need to approach life this way. We need to attempt to solve problems in this fashion. People need to stop asking questions about how to get started and who to talk to and what course to take. Yes, there are the “right” people you will meet, and the right material you’ll read, but it’s not a “strategy.” It’s not something you’re piecing together bit-by-bit, carving out a trail as though there’s a path towards success. It’s just putting yourself into the environment. It’s just doing the thing.

How about playing an instrument? Some people have never picked up a musical instrument but have always wanted to. Many of us can relate to having that guitar or electric keyboard we bought years ago sitting in the corner collecting dust.

You bought the book on how to read music, then viewed YouTube videos. You learned scales and chords that quite frankly have little to do with producing actual music; at least not in the sense they come together to produce music. Rather those fundamentals end up emerging as you create.

When you’re learning fundamentals what you’re seeing are facts and figures people have noticed about things other people have created. The people who built or discovered the actual thing didn’t use fundamentals. Nassim Taleb talks about this; how “tinkering” and “hobby science” are what led to most of what we see around us.

The fundamentals we learned in school didn’t come from people who depended on some understanding of fundamentals, rather they failed and iterated and made a mess of things until something popped out. Once it pops out the universities are quick to solidify that knowledge into textbooks, but the textbooks almost never precede the discovery.

The problem with the academic narrative is that students come to university thinking what they read is the path towards achieving the goal. It’s not. In order to achieve you have to make a mess. You have to initially not know what you’re doing. You have to enter environments naively. A curriculum is not a foundation.

Fitness. People want to be fit, Most people are not fit. Most of us would like to look good in a t-shirt. We definitely want to be healthy. We all know the story of getting the gym membership, then inevitably falling off the wagon. Life gets in the way and so on.

So what’s the problem? Well again, people are taking that academic, linear, path-carving approach to something. “I’ve got to pick a gym and then maybe sign-up for courses, choose a trainer or maybe check out some YouTube videos. I’ll get that app that uses my lifestyle information to create a regimen.”

Inevitably they don’t get fit because that’s not how problems get solved in real life. We can’t take a recipe-style approach to solve hard problems. That nice-sounding linear causal path towards the outcome doesn’t exist. We can’t create the way we consume.

Getting fit requires just starting, maybe at the gym, maybe at home, but definitely exercising. “But how do I lift?” Just start lifting. “But what’s the proper form?” Just start lifting. Don’t be an idiot and lift something super heavy. Everybody knows that’s going to pull your back out. You don’t need to be an expert to know that. Your form doesn’t need to be something perfect, you’re a human being. You lift things all the time. You just need to start doing it. And as you do it, you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and getting real-time feedback about what looks right. Then maybe somebody walks up to you and gives you pointers.

The point is, the information to go about doing the thing must come from the environment, in the moment. There’s no deviating from some plan because there is no plan. You’re just there and you’re doing it and you’re choosing to exercise. You’re doing what feels good, then naturally attempting harder exercises, maybe eventually joining a group that starts to encourage its members, and so on.

Investing, creating software, playing a musical instrument, fitness, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. You have to be in the environment. It’s a dramatic simplification of decision making that you should expect from nontrivial, complex situations.

Of course we’ve all been told the “just do it” trope before. Take writing. How many times have we heard the secret to writing is to “just write”? Just start laying down streams of consciousness and polish later. This is indeed good advice. It’s inline with how things work under complexity. But there’s still something missing.

There’s always some version of the dusty piano or guitar sitting in the corner, because even though we did “just start” we didn’t maintain it. That’s why perseverance is obviously needed to solve these kinds of challenges. So what guarantees perseverance? What actually keeps us in the environment?

To understand this, we go back to the reversal of the academic narrative that I discussed earlier. The direction many people take is a forward, linear path, where they carve out a trail towards what they think is an outcome. I’m saying we need to operate in the opposite direction. The only real decision to make is to start at the end. It’s not the fundamentals leading to the outcome. Start at the outcome, and let things fall where they may. That’s true adaptation.

If you wanted to learn anything, how would you do it? Read, consume. But that’s not true learning. Anyone with any kind of success in life would agree that genuine learning comes from creating. From forcing yourself through the act of bringing something into reality. This means there’s a kind of performance when it comes to adapting.

Going back to the golf example. Performance is the game, it’s the competition. How would you know you’re a good golfer? Well, if you were able to compete with other people. There’s something about being in the real environment playing with others that changes the nature of how information gets used. Playing by yourself wouldn’t cut it. Yes, you could keep score and compare that score to known handicaps, but it’s not the same.

This is about skill growing authentically, something I’ve talked about before. The best preparation is no preparation. What you want to accumulate is something that’s been informed by the environment, by real world situations, not ticking marks off paper.

You want your experience to be organic, to be rough, to be approximate. To be growing with all kinds of variation and changes in communication within a real, competitive environment. It’s giving yourself a reason to be good at the activity.

Maybe you grab a group of friends to play, or enter an actual competition, something local to the community. This is going to force you to adapt. Just starting isn’t enough, because there’s all kinds of versions of what that might look like, most of which will fail to keep you in the game.

This is why we need to understand the difference between action and performance.

The action is just swinging the golf club. The performance is actually competing with people. To start at the end you need to perform regardless of your current skill level.

We need to get away from just doing the action, and instead learn to reframe an area of interest in terms of its performance. We need someone on the other end expecting us to deliver.

When it comes to building software the action is to create software, but the performance would have some kind of expectation attached to it, from other people. So instead of just giving yourself a project, build something for someone. Create something others can use to accomplish a task. This provides genuine environmental stressors.

We need to understand the difference between action and performance.

You can just go buy the keyboard or guitar and start playing for enjoyment, or try to learn through courses and videos, but this is unlikely to work in the long run. You have to put yourself in a situation where you actually perform. Maybe this is an online video of the pieces you compose. Or maybe there’s a small coffee shop and you’re going to play a set.

For fitness, maybe you post your results online. You’re accountable to delivering something because there are viewers. There’s also the added pressure of trying to look better online.

Swinging the golf club, making trades, pressing keys, writing code, or lifting weights; those are all just actions. These actions have to exist in flux against some high-level target, driven by the need to perform. Your skill has to emerge. It has to precipitate out. This is why you must put yourself at the end, first.

But there’s still an outstanding question regarding this adaptive approach. How can we just enter the environment if we don’t know how to do the thing? How can we start competing in golf if we can barely hit the ball? Why would I begin investing before knowing how not to lose all my money? How can I tell someone I’m going to build them a tool if I can’t currently create anything? Am I really going to post my piano playing online if I cannot make music?

But in investing, you’re not going to blow all your money. You’re going to put yourself into an environment such that you invest a certain percentage each month. It’s not difficult to put safeguards on investing. The risk has to be real, but there’s no reason to lose everything in the pursuit of an education.

If you’re building software, why not create a tool for a friend? Or if you’re just starting a new business offer to do some software work pro bono. There is much less stress when the work is free. There is still reputational risk, but it’s not something that will sink you. You can even make tools for yourself. As long as it’s a tool you will use on real projects, then the stressors are genuine and you will be forced to adapt.

For music, I’m not saying go do some big performance. Maybe it’s a friend’s coffee shop, or maybe you’re doing it when almost nobody is there, like midday. Again, there’s a way to do this with guardrails, where the risk is real but not life-ending. You’re still going to be nervous, maybe even a little embarrassed, but that embarrassment is worth its weight in gold.

For the online example, why would anyone post their music if they don’t know how to play? Well, maybe there’s a way to do that under a different premise. Maybe you can just showcase your musical journey online. It’s less about some grand showcasing of talent and more about others being able to see how someone struggles and succeeds through their learning process. Critically, it’s still a performance. There are real expectations.

With fitness, maybe you’re in a group of friends, but every week one of you is the person in charge for that session. You come up with a workout plan, and others expect to follow your program on that day.

So, start at the end. Act as though you already know how to perform. Place yourself into real environments and force yourself to rise to the occasion. You’ll be amazed at what you’re already capable of, not because you know how, but because you were compelled to survive. When the most important decision you make is what environment to place yourself into, competency is inevitable.

We are creatures of adaptation. The only way to become what we want is by adapting.

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Sean McClure

Ph.D. Computational Chem, studies complexity, NonTrivial podcast.