Replace yourself first if you’re moving to the Bay

Alter­nate ti­tle: Always be work­ing to re­place your­self in what­ever ca­pac­ity peo­ple rely on you.

[CN: This post has some com­pet­ing ac­cess needs, and I made a trade­off in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion. I in­tend this as an earnest, im­por­tant sug­ges­tion, not a de­mand. If you have scrupu­los­ity vuln­er­a­bil­ity you may want the op­po­site ad­vice.]

If you’re not build­ing or­ga­ni­za­tional ca­pac­ity, you’re burn­ing it. If your com­mu­nity is not grow­ing, it’s prob­a­bly shrink­ing. If the sys­tem works fine but it de­pends on you not get­ting hit by a bus (or get­ting bored, or burnt out, or at­tracted to a new in­ter­est, or mov­ing across the coun­try), than the sys­tem is not fine.

I wrote a bunch about this in Melt­ing Gold. It’s im­por­tant.

But I’m about to write up a bunch of thoughts that are cen­tered around the Berkeley com­mu­nity. And be­fore I feel com­fortable do­ing that, I wanted to draw at­ten­tion a spe­cial case of this gen­eral rule.

Cau­tion­ary Tales

For years, I lived in NYC. The com­mu­nity there was one of the first strong ra­tio­nal­ist cen­ters. It pre­dates Berkeley as ac­tual-fac­tual-hon­est-to-good­ness com­mu­nity. This writeup about it still draws new peo­ple to it, as does Eliezer’s Epis­tle to the New York Less Wron­gians. Peo­ple ar­rive, ex­cited by the promise of a home.

Right now, NY is do­ing quite well, but it’s been through sev­eral challeng­ing pe­ri­ods. Dur­ing the golden age of yore, sev­eral lead­ers left for the SF Bay area, one af­ter the other. The first in­stance or two were re­cov­er­able. But it hap­pened faster than the meetup could find or build new lead­ers.

Mean­while, I know of other com­mu­ni­ties that are not do­ing as well.

Lo­cally, it of­ten makes sense for a new, ex­cited agenty ra­tio­nal­ist to move to Berkeley. It’s where sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions are and it’s eas­ier to get in­volved with The Mis­sion. There are benefits to hav­ing lots of peo­ple in one place.

But the ag­gre­gate effect of this is that places like NYC are dis­in­cen­tivized from gen­er­at­ing agenty peo­ple, since they of­ten end up leav­ing.

By now, I’ve moved to Berkeley. I’m not go­ing to pull a “do as I say, not as I do.” The things that at­tract peo­ple shaped-like-me to the Bay are real – this is not a set of in­cen­tives and trade­offs you can just co­or­di­nate away, even if you got ev­ery­one on the same page about it.

(I don’t think you can even co­or­di­nate around “mov­ing the ra­tio­nal­ist hub some­where cheaper” – there’s a rea­son it’s de­vel­oped around Sili­con Valley money and in­fras­truc­ture).

But. Two things:

First, I think there’s room for im­prove­ment over the sta­tus quo. The cur­rent level of churn is harm­ful both from the stand­point of lo­cal com­mu­nity health, and from the per­spec­tive of get­ting qual­ity peo­ple to work at im­por­tant or­ga­ni­za­tions. From a “to­tally-self­ish-Bay-wants-all-the-peo­ple” per­spec­tive, you still need lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to thrive well enough to at­tract new blood.

Se­cond… I think there is some­thing like a miss­ing mood, among at least some peo­ple mov­ing, and many peo­ple en­courag­ing oth­ers to move. It’s sad when lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties deal with de­mor­al­iz­ing churn, wari­ness of in­vest­ing in friend­ships that have a good chance of get­ting dis­rupted. Maybe this is nec­es­sary. But it seems like we should at least be cog­nizant of this.

Lo­cal Efforts

A friend re­cently asked “is there some­thing we can co­or­di­nate on, to help lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties who keep los­ing peo­ple?”

And I think the un­for­tu­nate an­swer is “al­most all the work that can in prin­ci­ple be done has to be done by lo­cal peo­ple.” Peo­ple who live in the Bay could be more pa­tient or en­courag­ing of self-re­place­ment, but ul­ti­mately ei­ther an in­di­vi­d­ual com­mu­nity has struc­tured it­self for sus­tain­abil­ity, or it hasn’t.

But, I do think there’s quite a bit that can be done.

Build­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tional Capacity

I took a year or so to ac­tu­ally move to Berkeley af­ter de­cid­ing to do so. When I first de­cided to, the NYC com­mu­nity was fairly de­pen­dent on me. So I set a goal for the year of mak­ing sure that by the time I left, I’d have (at least) re­placed my­self, and ideally, changed the NYC com­mu­nity such that it wasn’t the sort of place that could be crit­i­cally dam­aged by one per­son leav­ing.

I think I suc­ceeded – a year later NYC not only has reg­u­lar mee­tups but has mul­ti­ple or­ga­niz­ers who take turns keep­ing things mov­ing.

Some things I at­tempted, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess:

  • Work harder to en­courage peo­ple to run in­di­vi­d­ual mee­tups. Try to avoid run­ning a meetup my­self un­less I ab­solutely had to. Gen­er­ally try to change ex­pec­ta­tions such that, if you’re a longterm mem­ber of the com­mu­nity, it is ex­pected that you will run at least one meetup a year (even if it’s some­thing sim­ple like board game night)

  • Meet in­di­vi­d­u­ally with ev­ery­one who ex­pressed an in­ter­est in helping the com­mu­nity im­prove. In some cases this re­sulted in peo­ple tak­ing on more of or­ga­nizer role. In other cases, it re­sulted in peo­ple find­ing things to do be­hind-the-scenes to keep things run­ning smoothly.

  • De­sign events to foster the rele­vant skill growth. Run mee­tups that re­quired ad­di­tional peo­ple to stand up in front of the room and di­rect things. For ex­am­ple, a meetup dis­cussing 5 blog posts, ask­ing peo­ple to com­mit to both pre­sent­ing the idea and run­ning sur­round­ing dis­cus­sion.

  • Write up as much tacit knowl­edge as pos­si­ble. I re­al­ized I’d gained a bunch of skills I hadn’t even thought about. I tried to get as much as pos­si­ble out of my head and into an email, which later be­came a blog­post.

Some­thing I didn’t do, but prob­a­bly should have, was fo­cus on stream­lin­ing and au­tomat­ing. Roger and Maia solved some similar prob­lems by dis­till­ing their mee­tups into an eas­ily re­peat­able for­mat with au­to­mated post­ings. I think this is an­other im­por­tant piece of the puz­zle, al­though I think there’s still value in speci­fi­cally get­ting peo­ple to com­mit time and effort to things, so that they are more in­vested in the com­mu­nity’s longterm suc­cess.

Am­bi­ent Value

There’s a lot of roles that make a com­mu­nity that aren’t about or­ga­ni­za­tional work – they’re about be­ing the kind of per­son that makes the com­mu­nity spe­cial.

In a ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity, this might in­clude:

  • Be­ing some­one who is agenty, ex­cit­ing and al­ive who in­spires oth­ers to grow.

  • Be­ing some­one who knows skills well enough to teach them (not just ex­plain them, but adapt that ex­pla­na­tion to in­di­vi­d­ual peo­ple and needs)

  • Be­ing some­one who con­tributes in­tel­li­gence, rigor and/​or cu­ri­os­ity to con­ver­sa­tions.

  • Be­ing some­one who is fun, or funny.

A lot of times, com­mu­ni­ties lose or change their char­ac­ter when peo­ple who were filling those roles de­part.

This is harder to re­place. This ei­ther re­quires longterm growth on com­mu­nity mem­ber’s part, or ac­tively re­cruit­ing those kinds of peo­ple, or at least ac­tively mak­ing the com­mu­nity a good home for them when they come.

There’s a bit of a crit­i­cal mass prob­lem here, where if the num­ber of high qual­ity con­ver­sa­tion­al­ists drops be­low some thresh­old, it’s hard to get oth­ers to come reg­u­larly. So this is some­thing you need to fo­cus on well in ad­vance.

If you’re one of those peo­ple and you’re leav­ing… well, it’s hard to re­place your­self in this ca­pac­ity on short no­tice. But I think this is worth be­ing con­scious of.

In Sum­mary...

Be aware of the value your lo­cal com­mu­nity is pro­vid­ing to the over­all ra­tio­nal­ist ecosys­tem.

Be aware of the value you’re pro­vid­ing to your lo­cal com­mu­nity.

Be aware of ways (ex­plicit and sub­tle) that peo­ple are de­pend­ing on you. Gen­er­ally try to help the peo­ple and com­mu­nity around you grow such that they can thrive even if some­thing hap­pens to you. Do this not at the last minute, but as part of an on­go­ing effort that’s baked into the or­ga­ni­za­tional pro­cess.

In par­tic­u­lar, if you’re go­ing to move to the Bay, or en­courage oth­ers to do so, please think about all that as part of the cost of mov­ing. The cost might not get paid by you, but it gets paid by some­one.