Skill and leverage

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?’ or ‘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.


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