Hacking the test

The most damaging thing you learned in school wasn’t something you learned in any specific class. It was learning to get good grades.

Paul Graham

The thesis of Paul Graham’s most recent essay is that school trains us not to learn or to be smart, but to hack tests. His framing is novel (to my eyes) and powerful. 

What does it mean to hack tests? It means focusing on succeeding at the evaluation mechanism rather than at the thing the mechanism was intended to evaluate. In school, it means cramming before the test, even though you won’t remember anything later. It means reading only the required material, because the rest won’t show up on the test. It’s possible — you may have done it — to get good grades in school while learning very little. 

By the time we get out of school, we’ve had years and years of exposure to this kind of training. This training makes us dumb. Most of our actual goals in life don’t reward test hackers. Graham gives an illustration from his own experience advising startup founders. You might hack parts of the process, like getting investors. But if your company isn’t a good investment, it won’t succeed, and you’ll have wasted your investors’ money and your life

Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote about this in 2007 as “lost purposes”. He gave as a memorable example Soviet factories who were evaluated by the quantity of goods they produced, and who as a result produced useless goods (like tiny shoes) in large quantities. The system had lost track of the purpose of producing the goods. 

Graham’s framing led to insight in a number of areas for me. Some places test hacking shows up for me: 

  • A high school guidance counselor once called me the worst underachiever she’d seen in her career. Test hacking resonates as a description of the thing I disliked and mistrusted about school. It’s not a test of how smart I am. It’s not a test of how much I’ve learned. It’s a test of how much of a chump I am. How far I’m willing to go to win your approval, when you long ago lost sight of what you were supposed to be doing. I was not a rebel without a cause, as I’ve often described myself retrospectively. My cause was noble. I was too much a philosopher to participate in the bullshit. 
  • There’s a kind of illness I have observed in people who work at big tech companies for a few years. It might be explained by the fact that they’re forced to spend a huge part of their energy hacking tests.
  • In product management, people often fetishize some part of the process while having lost sight of the big picture. “Fail fast” is taken literally. A/B tests are performed one after another without an adequate understanding of the statistical inferences that can be drawn or the strategic landscape that’s being explored. 
  • In consciousness. Yudkowsky said that lost purposes only show up in organizations, and that these behaviors seen in an individual would be the mark of insanity. But if we take a multi-agent view of the human mind, it makes perfect sense that the mind-system would be full of test hacking. I think this is fundamental to understanding how our minds operate. 
  • My passion for deep conceptual understanding is the cousin of my deep disgust for test hacking. Insofar as it matters that you actually succeed, then you need to actually understand and not bullshit yourself.