Things I learned about being more effective at Effective Altruism Global 2016

Making better arguments, the power of upstream multipliers, outstanding career capital, and more

I went to Effective Altruism Global 2016 this past weekend in Berkeley, CA, and came away with a lot of great thoughts from the sessions and talking with folks. Since it was my first EA Global, I went to a good number of sessions. Here are my key take-aways – you can also read my raw notes from some of the sessions. (If you also went to EA Global, I encourage you to share, even if brief, your key take-aways, and email me if you do!)

I’ve listed and provided a one-sentence gist of each one in this table of contents, so you can click into whichever one seems interesting to you. Or, you can just skip the contents and read the first one.

  1. Invent technologies that invent technologies — Developing better tools (research tools or core technology) can be a multiplier on the possibilities of what you can do with research and technology.
  2. On arguments: you know “what would change my mind?” better than you know “what would change their mind?” — In a disagreement, we’re not good at knowing what would change someone else’s mind, so each person should specialize to the question they’re best at, and then exchange notes.
  3. Making arguments more objective with subjective-to-objective conversions — Using CFAR’s double crux method, we sometimes may be able to convert disagreements about subjective questions to disagreements to slightly more objective questions—which can be answered with data more easily.
  4. The power of multipliers—people who help get other people into impactful areas of work — People who advocate for others to work in a neglected but impactful area of work can have a huge multiplier impact.
  5. The types of outstanding career capital—of which I need more of — Outstanding career capital, like social impact achievements, extensive resources, or cutting-edge expertise stand out much more than credentials, and we should be intentional about earning it.
  6. Generating new models from just the information in your head — That we’re able to sit down and generate new models and ideas without any outside information suggests that we haven’t explored all of the implications of the information we have in our minds at any given time.
  7. Find problems that nerd-snipe you — Speaks for itself. Also, being nerd-sniped by a problem might be a signal that you understand a field to a certain degree that you understand what an interesting problem looks like.
  8. Vicious rock-paper-scissors — Since my top priority at school is doing schoolwork, when I’m burned out of doing schoolwork, I don’t switch to the second-best thing, which is reading or personal projects, but instead to reading Reddit or something. Malcolm Ocean suggests this could be because it seems wrong to your brain to consciously choose the second-best option.
  9. Meeting people with intentionality — Alton Sun uses a set of questions to ask people at the conference. In general, being intentional about meeting people and asking questions that are shortcuts to what people care about makes for illuminating conversations.

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Analogies are like lossy compression for complex ideas

Advantages and pitfalls of using analogies

Scott H. Young wrote an excellent article comparing and contrasting books vs. blogs for learning complex material. One point I found interesting was the idea that certain ideas need to be taught in book format since they’re too complex to be broken down into articles. I thought: I’ve been able to understand complex ideas both in article form and in book form. What allows complex ideas be able to be squeezed down to something as short as an article?

I think of complex ideas as ones that are situated deeply in a knowledge tree. That is, imagining a complex idea as a point on a tree, complex ideas require more branches, or prerequisites, to reach it, than simple ideas. To get to that point, you need to go through all the branches, understand them, and then you can understand the idea in question.

But some ideas follow patterns—patterns that people may have seen before in a different situation. Using an analogy is like compressing that knowledge tree into a more accessible format. By using an analogy, one removes the requirement of needing to understand all of those branches on the knowledge tree before being able to understand that complex idea. Instead, that complex idea can be communicated in a more compact way, using an analogy to fill in the points that would otherwise be time-consuming to understand. Analogies co-opt behaviors of patterns that we already understand to illustrate similar behaviors in the new idea.

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How do you maintain original thinking and avoid traditional patterns of thought when learning about a new field?

Some initial thoughts on paradigm blindness and thinking outside the box

One thing that I've been concerned about lately is how to maintain original thinking when diving into a new field. I think that we are subject to the conscious or unconscious effects of paradigm blindness when we learn about a new field. That is, once we learn how it's done traditionally, it's hard for us to come up with new original ideas. This could mean that we’re less able to come up with great ideas that really change a field, instead of incremental ideas that contribute a relatively smaller amount to it.

The reasoning is that, when we learn something new, we are also learning the frameworks and patterns of thought that accompany that new information. An example is the dual process theory of cognition popularized by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky of System 1 (fast, instinctive thinking) vs. System 2 (slow, deliberative thinking)—when you learn this concept, you’re also learning to think within this framework.

But I think that the more we buy in to a framework of thinking as the ‘right way to think,’ the harder it is to think in novel, original ways. In other words, the more you think in traditional ways, the more you come up with more derivative, less original ideas. Not only that, but I think this happens subconsciously—since these are patterns of thought, we might not even be aware that we are using them, or ignoring that there might be better patterns out there (via confirmation bias).

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Great books I read in 2015

My five favorite books of the year, plus other great reads

What defines a great book? For me, one that changes how I think in a fundamental way, or expands my gamut of understanding. Here are the great books I read this year and the books I’m looking forward to next year.

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Question: What is the use of college?

A well-framed question and a request for resources and opinions

I’ve recently realized why I’m bad at regularly publishing blog posts: it’s because I think I know very little. To publish something, you have to be acutely self-assured in the veracity of what you’re writing, which means either a) it’s something you have deep knowledge and experience in that you can speak with authority on, or b) it’s a personal anecdote, which you’re inherently sure about. Call it rationalism or a crippling need to self-question and avoid overconfidence bias—the result is that I don’t think I have a lot of answers.

What I do have are questions, and from something I read last year from Paul Graham, I think the best approach to work with these questions is to publicly ask well-framed questions. In How You Know, Graham quotes Constance Reid who, in this snippet, talks about mathematician David Hilbert:

Hilbert had no patience with mathematical lectures which filled the students with facts but did not teach them how to frame a problem and solve it. He often used to tell them that “a perfect formulation of a problem is already half its solution.”

Likewise, I think a well-framed question is essential for exploring a problem. So let’s get to it. The question I have—which I’ll add detail to shortly—is:

What's the use of college? What is college good for?

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