Overreach Summary

Overreach is about considering and managing your rate of making errors compared with your rate of correcting errors. If your error rate exceeds your error correction rate, then you’re doing stuff that’s too hard for you. That is inefficient at best, and it often leads to failure. That’s what I call “overreach”. It’s one of Critical Fallibilism’s original ideas.

When you create more new errors than your error correction capabilities can keep up with, you’ll build up a backlog or queue of unsolved problems, and it will grow indefinitely. As the backlog gets large, you’ll be overwhelmed and criticism will become unpleasant, and you’ll start ignoring most errors without addressing them. Criticisms point out errors, but that is only useful if you’ll actually fix the errors. If you have more errors than you can handle, then finding out about more doesn’t help you and exacerbates your negative feelings about the situation.

Most people’s lives are dominated by chronic overreach starting in childhood. Overreach explains a lot about why people dislike criticism. It also explains a main cause of failure (at learning, a goal, a project, anything).

You can think of your ability to correct errors as a budget which limits what stuff you can do successfully. The budget can be increased by getting better at rationality. Trying to do more than your budget means you’ll get less done and have failures. Going into error correction debt is worse than credit card debt. It’s like having software that’s disorganized and full of bugs (which is called “technical debt”), and then writing more buggy code instead of fixing stuff. The more technical debt there is, the more effort it takes to make changes like adding new features or fixing bugs. Companies go out of business due to technical debt. (Software bugs and poor organization are types of errors, so overreach directly applies.)

Budgeting resources is an important life skill in general. You have to manage budgets like time, money or mental energy. Spending more money than you can afford makes things worse. Overbooking your schedule doesn’t help you get more done, and actually results in getting less done. Working while exhausted leads to having to redo work due to avoidable errors and can even lead to burnout.

My insight, in short, is that error correction ability/capacity/rate is an important resource that should be managed, budgeted, and increased. This builds on Critical Rationalism’s insight that error correction is the key issue in epistemology. It also builds on existing knowledge about budgeting.

Avoiding overreach requires being able to differentiate success and failure. You need to be able to judge what is and isn’t an error as a prerequisite to correcting errors. That requires traditional knowledge or objective reasoning: reasoning that could convince any reasonable person. Objective reasoning involves facts, evidence and logic that you can put into words – not your opinions, feelings, intuition or biases. It involves being able to write or speak a problem, a solution, and reasoning about how you know the solution works. The reasoning should be approximately equally persuasive to yourself and to reasonable strangers, not especially persuasive to you personally. I won’t discuss tradition here, but if you’re aiming for conscious, rational learning, then you aren’t done yet unless you can objectively judge what answers are correct and why. Merely giving a correct answer, but being unable to objectively explain and argue its correctness, is inadequate. If you can’t check your work objectively, and usually in multiple ways, then you don’t understand it yet. Don’t just trust your own beliefs or an answer key.

As Karl Popper taught us, we should be more concerned with how errors can be corrected than with current answers (e.g. how to replace bad rulers matters more than who the current ruler is). Focusing more on learning some specific answers, instead of on learning to objectively judge which answers are right and why, is the same error. It results in overreach because it neglects error correction.

Theory of Constraints helped with some of my more advanced understanding of budgeting, e.g. by its discussion of buffers – instead of trying to spend all of a resource, you should aim to leave some extra resource as a margin of error to deal with variance. In The Goal, Eli Goldratt explains why a balanced manufacturing plant is a mistake and aiming for extra capacity on most machines is better. In Critical Chain, Goldratt explains leaving buffer time in project schedules and why it’s better to have buffers at a higher rather than lower level (e.g. have a buffer for the whole project instead of adding buffers to individual tasks). I’ve also discussed resource budgets as an important consideration for parents helping their children.

Life should be nice. People should succeed a lot. Failures should be limited and manageable, not overwhelming. Failure should be kept under control. That isn’t most people’s experience, and overreach is one of the main problems.

One of my ideas related to overreach is to mostly do activities that you find fairly easy. Easy means that you’re able to do it in a resource-efficient way. Hard activities are generally ones that consume a lot of resources (like mental energy or error correction capacity) because they push the limits of your skills. If you learn more before doing it, a hard activity can become an easy activity, and then, by waiting before doing it, you can get it done more cheaply (less resources consumed). Becoming more effective and powerful, via learning and mostly doing easy (meaning resource-efficient) activities, is the best life strategy in general. In other words, practice things to achieve mastery (mastery means it’s now easy and efficient for you).

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Warning: This material doesn’t explain everything. Don’t try to rearrange your whole life or take a bunch of unconventional actions. I identified a problem but didn’t develop a full solution.

The easiest place to apply ideas about overreach is to a hobby like studying and discussing philosophy. A hobby is an optional part of your life, so you aren’t under pressure to go fast or already know a lot. New people often come to my discussion forum and only want to talk about ideas they regard as sophisticated, clever or advanced. Instead, they ought to aim for incremental progress, use objective reasoning to establish a track record of successes, and only try to do things that are at most 20% harder than a previous success. I’ve found that many people strongly resist this, which is one of my motivations for writing about overreach. Some want shortcuts to unearned greatness. Others don’t know how to achieve and objectively establish any successes to build on, and don’t want to develop their objective reasoning skill. Others are more concerned with getting people to think they’re smart than with actually making intellectual progress. When reading about overreach, you can keep these common problems in mind and think about how the concepts apply to them.