Losing the root for the tree
You know that being healthy is important. And that there’s a lot of stuff you could do to improve your health: getting enough sleep, eating well, reducing stress, and exercising, to name a few.
There’s various things to hit on when it comes to exercising too. Strength, obviously. But explosiveness is a separate thing that you have to train for. Same with flexibility. And don’t forget cardio!
Strength is most important though, because of course it is. And there’s various things you need to do to gain strength. It all starts with lifting, but rest matters too. And supplements. And protein. Can’t forget about protein.
Protein is a deeper and more complicated subject than it may at first seem. Sure, the amount of protein you consume matters, but that’s not the only consideration. You also have to think about the timing. Consuming large amounts 2x a day is different than consuming smaller amounts 5x a day. And the type of protein matters too. Animal is different than plant, which is different from dairy. And then quality is of course another thing that is important.
But quality isn’t an easy thing to figure out. The big protein supplement companies are Out To Get You. They want to mislead you. Information sources aren’t always trustworthy. You can’t just hop on The Wirecutter and do what they tell you. Research is needed.
So you listen to a few podcasts. Follow a few YouTubers. Start reading some blogs. Throughout all of this you try various products and iterate as you learn more. You’re no Joe Rogan, but you’re starting to become pretty informed.
You’re a product manager over at Danslist, an up-and-coming competitor to Craigslist. You’ve recently been promoted and are now in charge of the most important page of the site: the product listings page.
This page is Danslist’s bread and butter. It’s very important that it is a good web page. And there’s a lot you can do to improve it. These improvements can be grouped into aesthetics, usability, functionality and speed.
Speed is something that the VP of Product has been talking a lot about. And you recently had a few meetings with the tech lead and some senior engineers. They had various ideas about how the speed could be improved. One is to parallelize the data fetching instead of doing it serially. Everyone agrees that this would be a good idea and a pretty obvious next step.
But in order to parallelize the fetching, well, some things need to be reworked. Currently the team is first fetching from Service A, then using the response from Service A to fetch from Service B, and then using the response from Service B to fetch from Service C. So given how things are currently structured, the fetching can’t be done in parallel. Service C needs the response from Service B, and Service B needs the response from Service A.
It’d take some effort, but these services can be rewritten in such a way where they don’t depend on one another and the data fetching can be done in parallel. Seems logical enough.
But unfortunately, things don’t stop there. It isn’t currently possible to restructure those services with the Postgres database the team is currently using. They need to switch to MySQL first, because MySQL has some features that Postgres just doesn’t offer.
Again, this all seems logical enough to you. So you announce the migration to MySQL to the team, and with the help of the tech lead and one of your highly paid superstar backend engineers, you start writing some tickets.
Does anyone notice a problem here? Or at least, does anyone have any questions? Personally I’m thinking to myself: wait, what are we actually trying to do here?
Well, I guess we’re trying to improve the speed of the landing page. And parallelizing the data fetching is one way to do that. But — ok, I think I’m starting to see where this is going — maybe there are other ways of improving the speed that we should consider.
Yeah, on second thought, this makes a lot of sense. We probably fell into a little bit of a rabbit hole there with the parallelization. It seems like a good software engineering practice, but in reality it wouldn’t actually improve performance that much — each data fetching request is pretty fast. And it’d be a good amount of effort to implement the parallelization. Months, at least.
And compared to the parallelization — hm, how much of a performance gain would that even give us? You never really stopped to think about that question. But now that you’re considering it, it’d probably only be 60-80 milliseconds or so. Yeah, that’s not worth it.
We can illustrate this with the thickness of the lines in the tree.
And let’s also give some weights to the other lines.
Hm, so after thinking about this, the lines underneath “Parallelize” certainly are thick. They’re essential for getting the parallelization to work. But the ultimate impact that they have on the root node — “Listings Page” — is pretty small. They’re bottlenecked by the fact that the speed-parallelize line is pretty thin.
And on top of that, you realize that the listings page-speed line is also pretty thin. The bigger thing is the functionality. Usability is a somewhat close second, and aesthetics are a distant fourth.
With this in mind you start to brainstorm ways to truly have an impact on the landing page. After all, results are ultimately what matter when it comes to your promotion and career.
Fast forward three years. After developing a clear picture of what truly matters for the landing page, you start having some real success as a product manager. The listings page is doing great and you receive a handsome bonus.
But you’re feeling a little bit stagnant in your career still. Vicky over in sales just got promoted to that VP position you’ve been eyeing. You feel like you should have reached VP at this point in your life.
One day you decide you’ve had enough. You grit your teeth and start brainstorming: “How do I reach the position of VP?” Well, you understand that results are all they actually care about. Not how many hours you work. Not how nice you are. Not how effectively you communicate, or how well you lead, or how many of the boxes you check for their “core values”. No, they ultimately just care about results.
Ok then, so how do you produce larger…
Hey, maybe you’re losing the root for the tree again!
Yeah. Your role is a product manager and you’ve been placed in charge of the listings page. So, your responsibility is limited to the listings page, and to the sorts of things that product managers do. But as you noted before: fuck all of that noise. What do they ultimately care about? Results. Yes, results. So let’s try to brainstorm how to produce larger results for Danslist.
Well, the listings page is just one component of the company’s overall success. What are the other components? What happens if we start disregarding our responsibilities as product manager and “bubble up”?
Ok, so you realize that what you’re really trying to “solve for” is the user’s experience. The listings page is only one component of that. There are other pages, like the contact page, create listing page, and landing page. It is beyond your assigned responsibilities, but maybe you can have a bigger impact by thinking about the other pages.
Actually no, let’s think bigger. What happens if we bubble up even further?
We realize that the web pages are only one component of the overall user experience that is provided by Danslist. Things like customer support also count. What else matters to the UX?
Actually no, let’s not go down that path. Let’s continue bubbling up and see where it takes us.
What ultimately matters for the company’s success?
UX is certainly one thing, but what else? Huh, it hits you that these are probably the sorts of things that VPs think about. Nice! You want to be a VP! So yeah, you should probably start thinking about this.
Ok, well yeah, UX matters. But other things matter too. Like? Um… the overall macroeconomic landscape? Yeah, that’s one. Let’s write it down.
What else? Um, marketing? That’s another word. We’ll go with that.
What else? Well, thinking about it from first principles, if you were a user, what would you want? No, let’s be more specific. Suppose you are a buyer. What do you want? Well, a good selection of products, really. You’re there to shop. If you can find a hair dryer for $5 cheaper than Craigslist, you’d prefer Danslist, even if Danslist’s website wasn’t quite as fast or aesthetically pleasing. Yes, the more you think about it, this is totally the dominating factor to you.
And what if you were a seller? Same thing. If you can expect to make $5 more selling at Danslist, you’ll go to Danslist. So with that said, the picture starts to look something like this.
Wow, cool! What an insight!
With this insight, things start to really take off for you. After talking with users, you realize that they are very willing to refer a friend in exchange for modest compensation. And the unit economics made sense. The customer acquisition costs were way lower than the estimated lifetime value of a customer.
And those sorts of terms (CAC and LTV) are the sorts of things that VPs like to hear. So you write up a powerpoint and ask your boss if they’d give you a chance to present the idea to upper management. Danslist is one of the few companies cool enough to let you do this, so they oblige.
It turns out the VPs were persuaded. They decided to implement the refer a friend program, and it was a massive success. This led to you being promoted to VP. And ten years later, Ericslist offers you a position as CEO, which you take.
But when thinking about your life overall, things aren’t actually that great. What gives? You always wanted to move up the ladder in your career. VP was a solid goal, but you never really expected to reach CEO. So you’ve outperformed your own expectations.
And your weight lifting has gone really well also. You’ve been sticking to a schedule of going to the gym 4x/week after work. There’s a lot of serious lifters there — it’s one of those gyms — but you’re still one of the stronger people there. Perhaps something like the 75th percentile. Pretty good for a white collar guy in his early forties.
And those other guys who are less strong than you probably work a good amount harder than you. They should really read up on protein quality instead of just being a meathead. Lolz.
Anyway though, you just don’t actually feel satisfied about life. You’re not even sure you want to keep being a CEO. There’s a lot of pressure and stress on you. The expectations suck. It feels like you’re treading water. If Ericslist performs poorly, people are pissed at you, but if the company performs well it just feels like the response is “yeah, that’s your job”. No one is really patting you on the back. And now that you’re at the top of the ladder, there isn’t really anything to aspire to anymore. Yeah, treading water is pretty accurate.
And with the combination of long hours + spending two hours at the gym 4x/week, you really don’t have much time for your family. Oh, and the networking. Almost forgot about that. As a big shot CEO there are a lot of fancy dinners and weekend golf outings. So even less time for your family. Which has strained your relationship with your wife, but even moreso with your teenage daughter. At least your 8 year old son still likes you. Speaking of which, man, wouldn’t it be great to get to spend more time playing hockey with him? Yeah. It would. That’s gotta be one of the times when you’re truly the most happy.
Maybe you do need to re-evaluate. Maybe you should think back to the roots of all this success. What did you do back at Danslist? Oh, that’s right: bubbling up. Getting a clear picture of what the complete tree looks like: what are the nodes, what are the dependencies, what is the thickness of each line, how much effort would each node require. Stuff like that.
And with that in mind, everything becomes clear. What you’re ultimately after is happiness. Success in your career is somewhat related to happiness.
Being financially comfortable is nice. And doing something that you enjoy is really helpful given that you have to spend at least 40 hours/week doing it. But there comes a point where it’s not worth it anymore. Even as a product manager you made more than enough money to be financially comfortable.
And you don’t actually enjoy being a CEO. You thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world back when you were a product manager, but you forgot to update your beliefs when you actually experienced being a CEO and hated it.
It also is very time consuming and takes away from other components of happiness, like spending time with your family. Which, when you think about it, yeah, family and close friends matter a lot more.
And all of that money you make, you don’t even have the free time available to enjoy it. Nor to pursue your other interests.
Oh, and health. That’s right. That’s another thing that matters. Almost forgot.
Your doctor isn’t too happy with your health. You do lift 4x a week and are pretty strong. But like the other meatheads at the gym, you ended up just disregarding cardio. And given how much stress you have at work, and at home, your blood pressure isn’t great, nor is the amount of sleep you get. You do eat reasonably healthy though, so that’s good.
But maybe you don’t actually need to lift so intensely? Oh wait, here we are again with the bubbling up stuff! Yes! This is clear now! The original thinking was that lifting is good for your health, but how much does it actually matter? Is it worth spending so much time at the gym? Listening to all of those meathead podcasts? Is focusing on protein quality for the purposes of increasing your strength really that connected to your overall health? And surely there are diminishing returns too once you reach a certain level of strength, right? Hm, somehow none of your podcasts ever talk about that.
Yeah, it becomes clear to you that lifting isn’t actually worth much of your time. You learn that 1x/week is actually more than enough. And since you’ve already built up so much strength and have other things that are important to you, you decide on once every other week.
And it also becomes clear that you should quit your job. Being CEO doesn’t actually make you happy. And you have more than enough money to retire right now.
So that’s it. You quit. You spend time with your family, start focusing on other aspects of your health, and live happily every after.
Until the nuke hits. Then you die and never come back. It’s utter nothingness from that point forward, for you and everyone you care about.
It turns out that being alive is a crucial component of happiness. Was there anything that could have been done if that was identified earlier?
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This post is amazing. Not just good, but amazing. You manage to pack exactly the lesson I needed to hear with just the right amount of memes and cheekiness to also be entertaining.
I would genuinely not be surprised if the frame in this post (and the variations I’m already adding to it) proved one of the key causal factors in me being far more productive and optimizing as an alignment researcher.
One suggestion: let’s call these trees treeory of change, because that’s what they are. ;)
That all makes me very happy to hear. Happier than I remember being in a long time.
To make the underlying math more explicit (if still handwavy), I see the thickness as the derivative of the parent with respect to the child; this is why we can multiply them together along a path (the chain rule). This perspective helps us see a few important things:
The thicknesses change over time and are based on marginal importance rather than absolute importance. Sometimes they change due to random external factors, but often due to your own actions—if Danslist now has a truly excellent network thanks to your efforts, improving it further may not be the most important thing anymore, even if having it is still the most important thing to the company’s success.
The thickness has units of something like [effect]/[work], where the unit of work is something like a person-hour. This means the thicknesses are based not just on importance, but on tractability; if transitioning to MySQL suddenly got 1000 times easier (resp. harder), the corresponding line is now 1000 times thicker (resp. thinner). In this example, even 1000 times thicker may not be enough to make the corresponding leaf relevant, but the general idea is important.
It’s not really a tree. Mental health is important for happiness directly. But it’s also important via many subgoals, since poor mental health can make working on other things more difficult. You have to sum all paths from the root to some node when considering its importance—a lot of the time, the tree is a good approximation (the gym is a separate realm from the office), but there are some things that are so important to everything that they demand this amendment.
Your comment greatly adds to the value of the post for me, thanks!
I think this understanding of line thickness maps onto taut/slack constraints from linear optimization (also discussed by John Wentworth here).
I.e. presumably benefit/cost (work being a cost, whether financial or not), = the benefit-cost ratio (BCR) used in cost-benefit analysis in economics.
Curated. I think the core idea of this post is straightforward yet crucial and powerful. I appreciate the clear explanation and examples. Feels like a more approachable version of a post I wrote a few years ago: Plans are Recursive & Why This is Important.
This feels like the sort of post that could be edited down into a Solstice speech.
I think it could have been written better, I found it a little stretched, especially in the beginning and middle (the ending looks very powerful), it could also be better with more references to already known concepts like “lost goals”. But at the same time, it looks like a very important post for instrumental rationality, epistemological rationality is well solved by sequences, but instrumental seems to be what most people lack for a good achievement of goals, this is a more significant node in the tree (at least considering how bad everything is with its implementation). And this, among other things, looks like one of the significant nodes for my instrumental rationality, that, the understanding of which I lacked, both to the upper nodes and to the lower ones. Although I suspect that there are still not enough other nodes of the same importance. (I’m confused no one has written a comment like mine and that there are so few comments at all)
Very well written article , almost reads like a short story despite the weight of its contents :)
This is just awesome!
This post is identical to how I started thinking about life a few years ago. Every goal can be broken into subgoals.
I actually made a very simple web app a few years ago to do this: https://dynamic-goal-tree-soareverix—soareverix.repl.co/
It’s not super aesthetic, but it has the same concept of infinitely expanding goals.
Amazing post, by the way. The end gave me chills and really puts it all into perspective.
The extra little existential dread at the end got me. Excellent mood shift to really push “realign/recall goals now” without making any arbitrary time based axioms. Thanks for the article, and also to the team for getting it curated.
The first three parts of this post can be summarized as follows: “Use state-of-the-art systems engineering methodology, even if you are a “product”! Always look at the supra system of “your system” and the function “your system” plays in its supra system.”
What is happiness? A mental event? What is the relation of that mental event to others?
For the purpose of this post, it’s something like “desirable feelings that you value”.
“macroscopic” → “macroeconomic”?
Is the moral of this really that all decisions should be made so as to maximize the ultimate goal of happiness x longevity (of you or everyone), in utilitarian fashion; whereas maximizing for subgoals is sometimes/often a poor proxy?
Or is it impractical to do utilitarian calculus all the time, but calculations/heuristics with the thin and thick lines can clarify the role of the subgoals so they can be used as adequate proxies?
(It’s partly unclear in my head as I didn’t grok the exact meaning of the lines & their thicknesses. And it’s too late at night for me to think about this!)
Ultimately you want to optimize for the supergoal. For some the supergoal is utilitarian
happiness x longevity, but not for others. The post is agnostic on this question.
The best way to optimize for whatever the supergoal might be to lean towards calculations, or it might be to lean towards heuristics. The post is agnostic on that question as well.
I think the big point in this post is that when you lose sight of what the supergoal actually is, you often fall into some bad failure modes and do a bad job of optimizing for it. (And also that simply being alive is, err, a pretty important thing.)
What does the thickness of the lines represent precisely? Something like “the thicker the line, the more important the thing underneath is to the thing on top”?
The context behind why I’m asking these questions is because I feel like without a clear sense of what the thickness of the lines represents and how to compare two interventions (represented by two different multi-line paths along the tree) using the thickness of the lines to inform the decisions, it’s not clear to me how this framework is more helpful than a reminder to think big picture and not get lost in the details. (And I’d like it to be a useful framework for me.)
Just saw that Dindane’s comment above is a helpful answer to my question.
Thank you for writing this, I found it really valuable!
You’re welcome! That’s great to hear.