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.