Skill and leverage

Link post

Some­times I hear peo­ple say ‘how can make a big differ­ence to the world, when I can’t make a big differ­ence to that pile of dishes in my sock drawer?’ How can I im­prove the sus­tain­abil­ity of world en­ergy us­age when I can’t im­prove the sus­tain­abil­ity of my own Minecraft us­age? The ba­sic thought is that if you can’t do ‘easy’ things that hu­mans are meant to be able to do, on the scale of your own life, you prob­a­bly lack gen­eral stuff-do­ing abil­ity, and are not at the level where you can do some­thing a mil­lion times more im­por­tant.

I think this is a gen­er­ally wrong model, for two rea­sons. One is that the difficulty of ac­tions is not that clearly well or­dered—if you have a hard time keep­ing your room tidy, this just doesn’t say that much about whether you can write well or de­sign rock­ets or play the pi­ano.

The sec­ond rea­son is that the difficulty of ac­tions doesn’t gen­er­ally scale with their con­se­quences. I think this is more un­in­tu­itive.

Some ex­am­ples:

  1. Ap­ply­ing for fund­ing for a promis­ing new anti-can­cer drug is prob­a­bly about as hard as ap­ply­ing for fund­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into me­dieval refer­ences to toi­let pa­per (and suc­cess is prob­a­bly eas­ier), but the former is much more valuable.

  2. Hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with your ex Bob might be about as hard and take about the same skills as hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with your more re­cent ex Trevor, but if you have chil­dren with Trevor, the up­side of that effort may be a lot higher.

  3. If you have a hard time mak­ing a speech at your brother’s birth­day, you will prob­a­bly also have a hard time mak­ing a speech to the UN. But, sup­pos­ing it is fifty thou­sand times more im­por­tant, it isn’t go­ing to be fifty thou­sand times harder. It’s not even clear that it is go­ing to be harder at all—it prob­a­bly de­pends on the topic and your re­la­tion­ship with your fam­ily and the UN.

  4. Writ­ing a good book about x-risk is not ob­vi­ously much harder than writ­ing a good book about the role of lep­rechauns through the ages, but is vastly more con­se­quen­tial in ex­pec­ta­tion.

My ba­sic model is that you can have skills that let you do par­tic­u­lar phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions (an empty file into a book, some in­gre­di­ents into a cake), and there are differ­ent places you can do those tricks, and some of the places are just much higher lev­er­aged than oth­ers. Yet the difficulty is mostly re­lated to the skill or trick. If you are try­ing to start a fire, hold­ing the burn­ing match against the news­pa­pers un­der the logs is so much bet­ter than hold­ing it in the air nearby or on the ground or at the top of the logs, and this doesn’t in­volve the match be­ing bet­ter or worse in any way.

In sum, there isn’t a clear lad­der of ac­tions a per­son can progress through, with easy unim­por­tant ones at the bot­tom, and hard im­por­tant ones at the top. There will be hard-for-you unim­por­tant ac­tions, and easy-for-you im­por­tant ac­tions. The last thing you should do if you come across a hard-for-you unim­por­tant ac­tion is stop look­ing for other things to do. If you are bad at keep­ing your room clean and room clean­li­ness isn’t cru­cial to your wellbe­ing, then maybe look for the min­i­mum ver­sion of clean­li­ness that that lets you live hap­pily, and as quickly as pos­si­ble get to find­ing things that are eas­ier for you, and places to de­ploy them that are worth­while.