People blame mistakes on ignorance. They think their failings are due to lack of skill, lack of capability, lack of merit, lack of knowledge.

Many mistakes are actually due to overreaching. People take on projects that are too hard for their current abilities. They set goals they don't actually know enough to accomplish. They try to juggle a dozen things in their life when they could only do three well.

People's current knowledge and skill would work way better if they stopped trying to do too much with it.

When people are too ambitious, they make more mistakes. If they are way too ambitious, they make a lot more mistakes. This overwhelms their ability to handle mistakes and solve problems. They get flooded with so many mistakes they can't deal with it. Then everything goes poorly and they get into a chronic state of unsolved problems. Which cause pain and suffering which make life even harder.

It's important to aim high in life, but you've gotta approach this effectively. Limit your currently active projects until you don't make many mistakes and don't have many unsolved problems. Keep mistakes and problems happening at a rate which you can manage well. When mistakes are under control, you can get things done right.

Doing fewer things well is better than failing at many things.

Then, add more. Once life is under control and going smoothly, you can be more ambitious. Add a little at a time and stop adding things if life gets too stressful. Life shouldn't be this big struggle. That indicates you're overreaching your current capabilities. You'll accomplish things better, and learn more, when it's not such a struggle.

You don't want to never have any problems. That's boring and means you aren't doing enough. Test and push your limits sometimes. Struggle and difficulty are great when you're having fun and it's an intentional choice. But do it in an organized way, and back off if you start getting overwhelmed with difficulties. Keep the situation under your control.

You only know how to get a certain amount of problem solving done per day. You can't just make unlimited progress immediately. You can't solve every problem at once. If you already have plenty to work on, then having extra problems to deal with wouldn't make you learn faster, it'd just cause you trouble.

Life should be self-paced, rather than seeming to get out of control. Relax and work on some goals you'll succeed at. Then build on your success. It's great to have big aspirations in the long run. But start with steps you can manage now. A sequence of smaller successes is a good life. As long as you only make a few mistakes you can solve well, the smaller successes will ramp up to big ones faster than you expect.

The primary reason people get stuck in life, and don't accomplish much, is mistakes and unsolved problems. They're perpetually trying to cope with disasters and can't keep up with life, so they don't make forward progress. If you stop overreaching and start making actual forward progress, that'll be a huge improvement. You'll be surprised how fast progress starts getting you to a better situation.

Why Do People Overreach?

People have disrespect for small successes.

People don't differentiate much between mostly sorta right and actually right. Don't clearly separate success and failure.

People's place in society pushes them into stuff – dating, marriage, career, college, social life. Their friends want to hang out regularly and do stuff, and if they skip half of it they'd have a harder time having friends. Their parents push them to have some extracurricular activities. Etc.

People want to aim big. They try to rush. People lack confidence in their ability to have a nice organized life that keeps gradually improving over a long time frame.

People get so used to disasters, they expect disasters and don't think it makes much difference. They think disasters are just part of life, not something that could be changed.

Overreach Examples

People commonly overbook their schedules. They don't factor in the time needed to prepare for each activity in order to do it well. They don't factor in time to review activities afterwards to learn from them. They don't factor in time to think about their life and how it's going and what they might like to change. They don't factor in time to consider if they should change their approach to scheduling. They just sorta fill up their schedule and rush from one thing to the next without enough time to think.

And people plan their schedules as if everything will go smoothly. But problems always come up. They need to schedule in a bunch of extra time in advance just in case something goes wrong – because pretty often it will. As a rule of thumb, leave half your time unscheduled. Start with even more open time if you can, so you're definitely not overbooked, and then gradually increase what you do so that you never get into an overwhelmed situation.

People also overreach by overestimating their writing or communication abilities. They think they can write a complex essay or book, but they don't really know how. They should write simpler, then they could succeed. Instead, they end up making a mess. Instead of getting some good work done, they create nothing of value.

People are frequently arrogant about their self-knowledge. They aren't very introspective, but assume they understand themselves.

People are overconfident in debates when they'd be better served by curiosity.

People try to have lots of friends, and a spouse and kids, when they don't even know how to interact with one person without any fights.

People plan a lot of stuff. Each thing sounds nice, so they want it all. "I'm going to learn programming. And math. And physics. And drawing and painting. And I'm going to listen to all these self-help podcasts. And I'll read all the best philosophy books. And I'll learn to speak Mandarin and play guitar. While having a great social life, and making lots of money, and exercising, and cooking nice meals, and traveling. And I'll document it all on Facebook with plenty of photos, and read all the comments, and IM with my friends." This doesn't happen.

They'd be better off prioritizing more instead of pretending they'll do all that stuff. They should make conscious choices about which things they can realistically do instead of letting it sorta just happen. It's important to be selective. Valuing a million things is actually a lot like not having values.


Overreaching is overestimating your abilities/skills/limits. Trying to do more than you can.

Like: overbooking your schedule, overestimating your introspection abilities, being overconfident about your knowledge of anything.

People constantly try to do overly ambitious stuff in life. Too many projects that are too hard.

The result is mistakes happen at a high rate. Which overwhelms their ability to learn and solve problems.

They need to back off and limit their activities until mistakes are happening at a manageable rate. So they can solve problems as they come up, rather than having an ever-increasing list of unsolved problems.

They should control their situation and limit their activities to stuff they can manage well. Then they can make forward progress instead of being stuck in a chronic disaster situation.

I think little kids start ok at this. They generally have preferences and goals not exceeding abilities. But people get so fucked up and it gets all broken by adulthood. They go through childhood having their preferences thwarted a ton, not having control over their lives, and being taught irrationality.

Then people try to do things like have a normal adult life (now) – what they think that means – even though it's beyond them.

It'd be better to underreach.

People get used to constant unsolved problems. And they want all this stuff in life, so it's hard to give up reaching for it (now). And given all this failure, they lose confidence in their ability to plan long range. So it's hard for them to do a plan like underreach for two years, build up skills, reach for more later after they are unstuck.

Read my newer essay about overreaching.

By Elliot Temple, Dec 2015 | Blog |

Read More