Melting Gold, and Organizational Capacity

Epistemic Status: Confident about the problem, solution and exact mechanism is more of an untested hypothesis.

There’s a saying for communities: if you’re not gaining members, you’re losing members. Sometimes you hit just the right size and you’d prefer things stay exactly as they are. But in practice, some people will eventually drift away—moving to a new town, getting a new job that consumes more time, or just losing interest in whatever-your-thing is.

So you need to have some source of new members, that supplies the life blood a community needs to keep going.

I think there’s a similar truism:

If you are not building organizational capacity, you are burning organizational capacity.

(If the above sounds totally thoroughly reasonable and prompts an obvious course of action you can stop reading here, or skip towards the final section. Most of the rest of the post is for making this more salient)

Young organizations, communities and other groups tend to run on hero power—a couple people who care a lot who put in most of the work to keep it going. This is both because only a few people do care enough to put in that work, and because trying to distribute tasks is often harder than doing the tasks yourself.

As long those organizers are sticking around, everything seems fine. But the system is fragile.

I think people loosely understand the fragility. But I think it’s better to think of it as a resource being slowly burned down rather than “a system is working fine until something changes.”

Nothing Gold Can Stay—and Gold Melts Suddenly.

At the end of the Lord of the Rings movies, a golden ring is dropped into Mount Doom. When I first watched the film, I expected the gold to slowly melt as it slipped into the magma. Instead, it stayed solidly ring shaped… until it abruptly melted in seconds.

(This was the Ring of Power, approximately 3 seconds before it wasn’t anymore)

I thought that looked unrealistic… but someone told me this is how actual gold melts: temperature rising until suddenly it reaches a critical state change. (No comment on magical gold you have to take to a magic volcano)

Any time you have a mission critical job that depends on a person being invested for it to get done, I think you have something similar going on. (i.e. a job where a person isn’t getting paid enough for it to be something they sustainably do as part of their general survival, especially if it requires them to exert a lot of agency or continuous attention).

From the outside, it looks like things are fine up until the organizer suddenly burns out. This may even be how it feels to the organizer (“the first stage of burnout is zeal, and the second stage of burnout is burnout”). But under the hood, some combination of thing are often happening:

  1. They’re slowly changing as a person, which will eventually make them no-longer-the-sort-of-person-who-wants-to-do-the-thing. They get bored of the thing, or they get interested in new things, or they just need a break.

  2. A slow frustration/​resentment eventually builds up that they doing the job without enough help.

  3. They get physically worn out by stresses caused by the thing.

If you notice this far enough in advance, you can train new people to replace you. But this means you need either new heroes willing to do more work than they’re paid for, or you need a whole lot of smaller-helpers who are somehow organized enough to do what had previously been a cohesive, unified job.

You may not find those people in time to replace you. Or, they may end up in the same dynamic you were in, and eventually abruptly burn out, and then may not be able to find people to replace them.

Or there may be a multi-step breakdown—you find someone who can do most of the things, but don’t quite understand all the pieces, and then when they find a new person to replace them, they find a person who is able to mostly-do the pieces they understand well, but the pieces they understand less well get lost in second step of translation.

Homemade Things Cost More

It costs more to build something yourself than to buy it factory made.

Things you make yourself are often able to be more unique and special than things mass-produced by capitalism. They can cater to special, niche interests without enough demand to develop mass production.

But there was a weird followup step, where Capitalism noticed that people had noticed that homemade things took more time and were worth more. And enterprising entrepreneurs saw free money and learned to market “homemade” things for more money.

As a result, I came to associate “homemade” with “overpriced.” Many homemade things aren’t that special and unique. An artisinal hand-crafted coffee mug isn’t really worth more than a mass produced version on Amazon.

(Maybe this is where Premium Mediocre things come from?)

But… when the homemade thing is unique, when you literally can’t get it anywhere else, and you are getting important social or cultural value from it… then… well, if you want that thing, the only way to get it is to pay homemade prices for it.

The problem is you may not be able to pay for them with money. They are usually labors of love. If there was enough demand for them for someone to do them full-time, you’d probably be able to mass produce them more cheaply anyway.

It’s unlikely the people making them could actually more easily produce them if they were paid more. Or, the amount of money would be dramatically more than what seems obvious. It’s not enough to cover costs. It has to be enough to quit your day job, and then not worry about quitting your day job turning out to be a horrible idea.

This means if you want to pay for a rare, precious thing that you want to keep existing, it is quite likely that the only ways to guarantee it’s continued existence is to put in sweat and sacrifice. If things are well organized it shouldn’t need to be a major sacrifice, but it may mean serious time and attention that you were spending on other things you cared about too.

I don’t mean to say any of this in a moralizing way. This is not an essay about what you “should” do. This is just a description of what is in fact necessary for certain things to happen, if they are things that matter to you.

Solution Hypotheses

My advice on what to do about this isn’t really tested, but seem like the obvious things to consider:

For Organizers—Your job is not to Do The Thing. Your job is to make sure The Thing Keeps Getting Done Whether Or Not You Do It.

At first, it may seem nice and high-status to get all the credit for doing the thing. That credit will not sustain you forever—eventually you will probably need help, and it may happen more suddenly than you imagine.

My more speculative conjecture is: as early as possible, no matter what your job is, you should make a part of your job to find new people to start sharing the load.

As early as possible, you should also start investing in systems that make the job easier. Identify wasted motion. And ultimately streamline the onboarding process so new people have an easier time contributing.

This runs against my intuitions because doing the stuff myself is way easier than training a new person to do it. But I think it’s important to consider this an essential skill, no matter what your task is. (Even if the primary task isn’t very people-centric, you will need to develop the people-skills to identify suitable replacements and train them)

For the People Enjoying The Thing—If you are participating in a thing that is dependent on a few people putting in a herculean amount of effort...

Again, saying this without any intended moralizing, simply as a statement of fact: people can’t run on respect and credit forever. And the situation often can’t be solved simply by throwing money at it. (Or the amount of money is something like $40,000, to provide enough safety net for a person to quit their day job. Maybe higher if the opportunity cost of their day-job is higher)

If a thing is really important to you, you should consider the amount of effort that’s going in, and be aware that this effort is a cost getting paid somewhere in the universe.

Maybe it’s worth it to you to put in some portion of the herculean effort.

Maybe it’s not—maybe the unfortunate equilibrium really is: “there was one person who was willing to put in 100 hours and a bunch of people who were willing to put in 1 or 2, but not enough to learn the skills necessary for those 100 hours to really work.” It may be sad-but-true that it isn’t actually worth it to any of the individuals involved to ensure the thing can continue running in it’s original form.

But a thing to at least consider is whether, long in advance of the next organizers burning out, you should invest 20 or so hours gaining at least one of the skills that the organizers had developed. So that you can not just chip in with an hour or two of labor, but contribute one of the foundational building-blocks a given event, community or project needed to function.