Scenario: You're working hard on an important seeming problem. Maybe you have an idea to cure a specific form of cancer using mRNA. You've been working on the idea for a year or two, and seem to be making slow progress; it is not yet clear whether you will succeed.

Then, you read a blog post or a paper about a similar approach by someone else: "Why I Am Not Working On Cures to Cancer Anymore." They failed in their approach and are giving up. You read their postmortem, and there are a few similarities but most of the details differ from your approach. How much should you update that your path will not succeed?

Maybe a little: After all, they might have tried the thing you're working on too and just didn't mention it. But not that much, since after all they didn't actually appear to try the specific thing you're doing. Even if they had, execution is often more important than ideas anyway, and maybe their failure was execution related.

The same applies for cause prioritization. Someone working on wild animal suffering might read this recent post, and even though they are working on an angle not mentioned, give up. I think in most cases this would be over-updating. Read the post, learn from it, but don't give up just because someone else didn't manage to find an angle.

Last example—climate change. 80000 Hours makes clear that they think it is important but "all else equal, we think it's less pressing than our highest priority areas". (source) This does not mean working on climate change is useless, and if you read the post it becomes clear they just don't see a good angle. If you have an angle on climate change, please work on it!

Indeed, I will go further and make the point: important advances are made by people who have unique angles that others didn't see. To put it another way from the startup world: "the best ideas look initially like bad ideas".

Angles on solving problems are subtle. It's hard to find good ones, and execution matters, so much that even two attempts which superficially have the same thesis could succeed differently.

Don't over-update from others' failures. The best work will be done by people who have unique takes on how to make the world better.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I agree. Although I worry less about giving up (because that can lead to people working on more important causes) and more about working on the same cause with less passion on dedication, half-assing it. It reminds me of a LessWrong post The correct response to uncertainty is *not* half-speed. Ideally, under uncertainty about whether to continue working on something, you should decide what to do, and then do it with the same dedication you were working on it before. Maybe also put into your calendar a monthly reminder to consider if you should continue working on it and try not to think about it at other times. 

Of course, we are human, and that can be difficult. If we think that what we are working on is less important, we might end up prioritizing other aspects of life at the expense of work more. But it's important to remember that even if we are not working on the most important EA cause, it is still very important and can help many many people or animals. There's no need to compare yourself to EAs that might be having even more impact most of the time, in the same way there is no need to keep comparing yourself with billionaires when trying to earn money. Let's just all do what we can. 

This is more adjacent than relevant, but the sentiment reminded me of this bit of wisdom…

Don't scar on the first cut

from Rework by Jason Fried

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. "Someone's wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!" No, you don't. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishments for the misdeeds of an individual.

This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy—one scar—at a time.

So don't scar on the first cut. Don't create a policy because one person did something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over again.

Really liked this one -brief and to the point! Here is my attempt to condense it further presuming I understood the author properly and also understood the ITN framework properly (correct me if I'm wrong about either!) :

Say I subscribed to the ITN (Importance, Tractability, Neglectedness) framework before I started my work on cause area X and wrote down my scores for I, T and N. When I look at an example of someone failing and giving up (like the one OP mentions in the post), my first instinct would be to do 2 things:

  1. Increase the N score I had given earlier for X, since I now see one less person/entity working on X.
  2. Reduce the T score I had given earlier, since there is failure.

If I understood it correctly, this post argues that 2 should be modified: Modified 2. Maintain the T score I had given earlier, since the devil is in the details and the details of my solve are different from the failed solve I am looking at.

So, I still update my neglectedness (a small update) but maintain my tractability score (no update). Overall, not an "over-update".

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities