Actually doing things

October 2013

I’ve written about exploration and exploitation before, but I realized recently that this may be more important than I thought. Talking to a friend about what different people thought about what role effort vs. innate ability played in success, I went down my list of successes and ended up realizing that the only “difficult” part (in the sense of “part I was closest to not doing”) was actually getting up and doing things outside my normal routine.

For example, here’s a list of the things that have led to my biggest wins so far:

I’d say these were about 25% effort, 25% ability, and 50% “luck” from doing lots of things outside my normal experience.

At a guess, the reason doing lots of different things is so important is that it simply exposes you to more potential random “strokes of luck”. When you do a thing, often lots of the exposure to luck comes from the first relatively small bit of effort you put in. For instance, if I turned out not to like contra dancing, I could have stopped going, so it was a pretty small cost for a large potential upside.

This stuff compounds, too. The more you do stuff, the more “luck” you get, which helps you do more stuff, etc. In other words, it seems like the main factor in success is a preferential attachment process, which explains why there’s such a power-law distribution and why similar people often end up with such wildly different outcomes: relatively small differences in initial conditions, caused by noise, can blow up to huge effects later.

Notes on this theory:

  1. Some predictions: people who experience more different things will ceteris paribus succeed more. For example, for college graduates, life outcomes later will be correlated with diversity of the things they did over their summers. Success might be correlated with number of different places you lived growing up (there are lots of confounders here of course). A supporting piece of evidence here is Satvik’s assertion to me that “Statistically, CEOs of large companies tend to have worked in multiple areas during their early career at a rate far higher than baseline.”
  2. I’d guess that the preferential attachment process starts gaining significance almost as soon as the person starts getting agency, which can be as early as, I don’t know, three or four? There’s a famous story about Elon Musk when he was maybe six years old and loved to go visit his cousin who lived across town. One day he was grounded and his parents wouldn’t take him to visit his cousin, so he escaped and wandered around the town himself until he found his cousin’s house. That’s the kind of doing-things-ness that can compound ridiculously.
  3. I think I’m probably better (comparatively) at Actually Doing Things than I am at putting in effort, but that even still, the returns from spending more attention on Actually Doing Things are probably higher than spending that attention on putting in effort. Unfortunately, this is hard to convince myself of in a way that actually compels me to act, for reasons I’ve mentioned previously.
  4. If this theory is true, it has some implications for my behavior: I should be spending less time on classes, taking more variety of classes (this will be easier in the future as I’ve basically finished my major), try to get rid of my most time-consuming commitments (e.g. get someone else to run HHIP next year), and generally say “yes” to more things. The college Harvard’s environment is set up pretty poorly for this, inasmuch as I have to spend 20-30 hours a week thinking about math.

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Keller Scholl

I am not convinced that “the college environment” generalizes. In three weeks so far, I have joined the pistol club; tried two almost foreign social environments; met a large number of new people; gone to a variety of lectures inside and outside my subject, some of which were a review of material and some of which were a world-class philosopher talking about what he thought; started two books outside my (fairly broad) field and read a number of books inside that field; and joined something that is supposedly unique to the local organization that is running it. I don’t think that I am special in this: most people that I talk to report trying a number of new and different things. Moreover, we have to spend a certain amount of time thinking about things in our field, but I suspect that now is the time when we have to do that the least. My rate of new things will probably slow significantly as I continue on in college, but I suspect that my rate of acquisition of new things is higher now than it will be when I have an actual job, and it is certainly higher than it was when I was in High School. The relative lack of fixed-time commitments is the biggest factor, for me, in this. What have you noticed during your summer internships?

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Ben

Keller: true, I was thinking more relative to what it could be, rather than relative to the rest of life for most people. At Harvard, at least, there’s a rather strong emphasis on fixed-time, weekly extracurriculars. However, it’s certainly possible to break out of that and actually do new things, and it’s probably quite a bit easier now than it would be with, say, most full-time jobs.

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Girish Sastry

Ben, what do you define as a win? Is it the subjective feeling of “X is a success/X turned out to be awesome for my life”?

Like, what process did you go through to choose this set of things, and not some other set of things?

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Ben

Girish: basically. I went back through my life, tried to recall as many events as possible, and then picked the ones that (at a quick guess) seemed to have the best returns in terms of optimizing global utility and personal preference.

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