How Harry Potter fanfic made me change myself

There are two things you need to know when reading this post. Firstly, I’ve been nervous about posting it for weeks. And secondly,  sometimes it’s good to stretch your brain beyond its limits.

But let us begin at the beginning. In 2011, I discovered a fanfiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a behemoth of a story written by a scientist who wanted to tie up the plot of the entire Harry Potter series in Harry’s first year, and teach some people how to think about things rationally in the process. HPMOR, in which Harry is raised lovingly by Petunia and her husband Michael, a scientist, was finished earlier this year, and is now the most popular Harry Potter fanfiction on HPMOR is over 500, 000 words, and it is full of twists, turns, characterisation, drama, angst, comedy, worldbuilding, and mysteries that can be solved by the readers. Whoever said science was boring? Certainly not Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Anyway. All through the fic there have been minor (and not so minor) plot arcs, which are solvable by using rational thinking. Indeed, many readers have tried to guess at solutions to the cliffhanger of the month, rewarded with being right or almost right when the new chapter comes out. I never have. I’ve just kept reading, knowing that the story will continue to come out as it comes out, knowing that there are other people out there smarter than I who are trying to keep up with the author.

I mention all this because when the biggest cliffhanger of the story came, I was confronted with these words at the end of Chapter 113:

This is your final exam.

You have 60 hours.

Your solution must at least allow Harry to evade immediate death,
despite being naked, holding only his wand, facing [spoilers].

If a viable solution is posted before
*12:01AM Pacific Time* (8:01AM UTC) on Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015,
the story will continue to Ch. 121.

Otherwise you will get a shorter and sadder ending.

Keep in mind the following:

1. Harry must succeed via his own efforts. The cavalry is not coming.

2. Harry may only use capabilities the story has already shown him to have.

[3. to 6. contain spoilers]

Within these constraints,
Harry is allowed to attain his full potential as a rationalist,
now in this moment or never,
regardless of his previous flaws.

Of course ‘the rational solution’,
if you are using the word ‘rational’ correctly,
is just a needlessly fancy way of saying ‘the best solution’
or ‘the solution I like’ or ‘the solution I think we should use’,
and you should usually say one of the latter instead.
(We only need the word ‘rational’ to talk about ways of thinking,
considered apart from any particular solutions.)

And by Vinge’s Principle,
if you know exactly what a smart mind would do,
you must be at least that smart yourself.
Asking someone “What would an optimal player think is the best move?”
should produce answers no better than “What do you think is best?”

So what I mean in practice,
when I say Harry is allowed to attain his full potential as a rationalist,
is that Harry is allowed to solve this problem
the way YOU would solve it.
If you can tell me exactly how to do something,
Harry is allowed to think of it.

These words knocked me for a loop. I suddenly saw what could have been. I saw how I had wasted all my previous chances to grow my mind. I could have been engaging with the story all along. I could have been trying to come up with solutions to the cliffhangers in a story that was well-written, engaging, and made to test the brain. These chances had been wasted. This was the only one left.

It might sound a bit silly, considering the regard fanfiction is often held in, but it clicked with me. If I was ever going to grow in my ability to use my head, and to believe that I could, I had to do it now. No matter that my chances at trying to solve the big problem first without using the training wheel problems were extremely low. I was going to temporarily override that knowledge with the deliberate belief that I was smart enough to figure it out.

So despite the fact that it was early August and the story had been finished already (evidently somebody somewhere had come up with a viable solution), I decided to wait the sixty hours, to see if I could come up with one too. And here’s the kicker: I was actually going to try. Not think about trying, then discarding the idea immediately (as I normally do) but to actually sit down and try.

I immediately sat down and made a list of all possible aspects of the problem and things that could influence the solution (I came up with about 60 items). When I looked up it was 11pm.

It had been 8pm when I’d finished the chapter. I’d been thinking for three straight hours. I didn’t have much free time to keep solidly thinking for the next sixty hours but I decided to devote what time I could to it. And believe me, I thought. It was on my mind constantly. On public transport, eating lunch at uni, walking to classes–it was like an angel on my shoulder, drawing attention to itself all the time.

I utterly failed to find a solution.

It’s been several weeks since I failed the challenge, and I haven’t read further on yet. I don’t know what happens. I wanted to post about it before I started reading the rest of the story, and until now I just didn’t know how to admit that I wasn’t perfect to the internet.

So once this is posted, I’m going to go and read the ending. I’ve no doubt I’m going to feel incredibly silly, like the solution was obvious, as soon as I read it. Even worse, I might feel dumb, wondering how anyone could have seen that, yet knowing that at least one person did. If only I had taken notes on what I thought and what I read as I read HPMOR, if only I had actually tried to think, if only I had racked up some smaller victories along the way, maybe I’d be ready for this. As it is, I can’t avoid it.

Right now I have to content myself with the knowledge that feeling stupid is a gateway. It means I’ve actually begun to try. Those solutions I tried to make work were dumb, but it required actual thought to get to a place where I could even imagine them. It was a crazy stupid idea to think I could solve it, and I didn’t, but that wasn’t the point, and I knew that going in. When I started, I told myself, “this is where I begin to make an effort.”

The sheer act of thinking hard about something I knew I had a very low chance of solving, for at least a tenth of those sixty hours I was given, instead of just giving up or deciding not to, actually changed a whole lot about me. For starters I’m already a lot more willing to give hard tasks a go. My belief in myself is greater. My ability to concentrate has slightly improved. My confidence in myself and my abilities has gotten greater. It’s as though by doing this, by just telling myself I’m good enough to make an attempt, I’m opening the doorway to greater things.

I sincerely encourage anyone who hasn’t read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality to do so–and to take notes as you do. Savour the 500, 000 word process. And learn from what I did. Believe in yourself earlier.