How do people become ambitious?

post by Raemon · 2019-04-04T19:12:26.826Z · LW · GW · 38 comments

This is a question post.

I have a pet theory about how people become ambitious and agenty.

I was about to write up some insight porn about it, and then was like "you know, Raemon, you should probably actually think about about this for real, since it seems like Pet Psychology Theories are one of the easier ways to get stuck in dumb cognitive traps."

"How do people get ambitious and agenty" seems to be something people should have actually tried to study before. I'm thinking something as simple as "interviewing lots of people and checking for common patterns."

2 seconds spent on google scholar suggested I could use better keywords.

Curious if anyone has looked into this (either reviewing existing literature, or conducting interviews themselves or otherwise trying to tackle the question in a serious way)

For clarity, the two phenomena I want to understand better are:


answer by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-05T21:18:53.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tongue-in-cheek: "when their pathological need to do something outweighs their pathological need to do nothing."

In more detail: there are several different kinds of deep-rooted psychological needs that ambition might be powered by, and I think the resulting different kinds of ambition are different enough to discuss as distinct entities (in particular, they vary in how prosocial they are). Some possibilities off the top of my head, not mutually exclusive, inspired by Enneagram types:

1. Reinforce a particular identity / self-narrative (e.g. "I'm special" -> strive to become a celebrity or w/e, see Instagram influencers); Enneagram 4

2. Get people to like you (again see Instagram influencers); Enneagram 3

3. Have power over people (some politicians, maybe); Enneagram 8

4. Have fun to avoid feeling bad; Enneagram 7

(One way to probe this in a given ambitious person is to look at what coping mechanisms they turn to when they fail. E.g. if it's about reinforcing a given identity through some ambitious project, when that project fails do they start reinforcing that identity in other ways?)

Then there's genuine compassion, which is the cleanest power source for ambition I've found so far, and arguably the most prosocial (there might be others, e.g. childlike joy and wonder). I am quite concerned that most of the ambition in the rationality / EA space is not being powered by genuine compassion; personally, most of the time I've been here I've been powered by a combination of #1 and #2.

There are also several different kinds of deep-rooted psychological needs that lack of ambition might be powered by. Again, some possibilities off the top of my head, inspired by Enneagram types:

1. Not drawing criticism / pissing people off; Enneagram 2, Enneagram 3, or Enneagram 9

2. Avoiding the feeling of not knowing what to do; Enneagram 5, Enneagram 6

3. Sense that ambition is morally wrong / corrupting; Enneagram 1

4. Sense that ambition is not your place / not the sort of thing people like you are allowed to do; Enneagram 2, Enneagram 3, Enneagram 4

Historically I think a lot of my lack of ambition was powered by a combination of #1, #2, and #4, although it's hard to disentangle. There were also less psychological obstacles, e.g. I was tired all the time because I was eating, sleeping, and exercising poorly, and had an awful social life; real hard to be ambitious or agentic in that state.

To summarize, I mostly relate to ambition as a relatively surface-level psychological phenomenon that's being powered by deeper dynamics, and I think at least as much in terms of obstacles to ambition as in terms of ways to cultivate ambition.

Epistemic status: based on lots of personal development work and looking at other people's psychology and personal development, e.g. via circling; especially, noticing my own level of ambition increase drastically the more work I do on myself, and looking at what seem to be the gears of that.

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-08T00:40:46.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. This is a different lens than my pet theory but seems pretty compatible with it.

My pet theory was specifically "one contributor towards people becoming ambitious is having someone they respect tell them that they believe in them (credibly signaling it by spending at least a few hours talking to them about their projects and goals and how to achieve them)." This is based on what happened to me and a few other people I know who gained certain kinds of ambition.

[This comes with some background beliefs that ambition is generally good, in particular when the ambition is of the form 'create something', rather than 'be the best at something' (which is zero-sum). This may be a different lens than you're currently looking through]

This seems somewhat downstream of the sort of thing you're point at here, which seems to be pointing at two clusters:

  • What sort of personality do you need to have for "become ambitious" to be a live option (including healthy and unhealthy mechanisms)
  • What sort of things could actively harm your capacity for ambition.

Both of which suggest much earlier interventions than what I was thinking about. I basically want all the interventions going on, but at the earlier stages, it's not obvious that the right thing for a person is to become ambitious. Rather, I want them to have a psychologically outlook that lets them be generally physically and emotionally healthy and reasonably productive (because these are generally good things).

Once they get to that stage, maybe the right thing for them is to tackle ambitious projects, maybe not. But it seems better to think of interventions at that stage to be more oriented towards 'help the person become generally healthy' rather than 'help them become ambitious.'

For people just reaching the stage where they're considering an ambitious project (either one that'll directly accomplish something, or help them grow) I think having a someone give them a few hours of encouragement and guidance is a fairly high-value-for-low-cost.

(This does seem like something that might be most relevant for people motivated by approval of others, although I think might also fit with other motivation clusters. Possible exception that people motivated by power seem least likely to need someone else to believe in them to pursue power?)

Replies from: Qiaochu_Yuan
comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-08T06:43:49.083Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I agree that at the earlier stages it's not clear that ambition is a thing to aim for, and I would also advise people to prioritize health broadly.

I agree that encouragement and guidance is good, and more generally think that mentorship is really, really deeply important. I am not about this "individual rationality" life anymore. It's group rationality or nothing.

answer by PeterMcCluskey · 2019-04-06T02:09:46.393Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The literature on learned helplessness describes how to destroy ambition. That suggests that any good answer should resemble moving away from those situations.

comment by Dr_Manhattan · 2019-04-09T13:14:12.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is good literature on learned helplessness?

answer by romeostevensit · 2019-04-06T21:58:06.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me like what happens is that redirection of sex or survival drives get caught up in some sort of stable configuration where they can never be satisfied yet the person doesn't notice that aspect of the loop and thus keeps Doing the Thing far past the time normal people notice. Essentially they've goodharted themselves in a way that creates positive externalities for others.

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-07T08:22:33.866Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Right, this is the kind of thing I had in mind with the phrase "pathological need to do something." Cf. people who are obsessed with making way more money than they could ever possibly spend.

comment by Raemon · 2019-04-08T00:47:33.695Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
Seems to me like what happens is that redirection of sex or survival drives get caught up in some sort of stable configuration where they can never be satisfied

This seems roughly right... with some kind of tomato/to-mah-to outlook thing.

There's a thing I've found myself saying, recently, which is "Hey, you know how the only two things that matter are the elimination of unnecessary suffering, and runaway sexual selection games?"

Which I don't quite believe (in particular since it was pointed out that regular selection also is one of the sources of value in the world). But, it does seem like most of the things I value most are sexual selection competition run amok. And this certainly is goodharting the original "intended" behavior but I'm not sure that's the frame it makes most sense to me to look through.

Replies from: Qiaochu_Yuan
comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-08T06:54:58.247Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's goodharting from the point of view of natural selection's values but it doesn't have to be goodharting from the point of view of your values. We can enjoy art even if art is in some sense goodharting on e.g. being in beautiful places or whatever.

answer by Kaj_Sotala · 2021-02-25T15:16:28.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was reminded of this anecdote of how the US Marines train agency. The part about encouragement from superiors in areas where the recruits are the weakest, sounds somewhat similar to your theory of mysterious old wizards [LW · GW].

"... some people’s sense of self-determination gets suppressed by how they grow up, or experiences they’ve had, and they forget how much influence they can have on their own lives."

“That’s when training is helpful, because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives—and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

For [Marine commandant Charles] Krulak, studies like this seemed to hold the key to teaching recruits self-motivation. If he could redesign basic training to force trainees to take control of their own choices, that impulse might become more automatic, he hoped. “Today we call it teaching ‘a bias toward action,’” Krulak told me. “The idea is that once recruits have taken control of a few situations, they start to learn how good it feels.

“We never tell anyone they’re a natural-born leader. ‘Natural born’ means it’s outside your control,” Krulak said. “Instead, we teach them that leadership is learned, it’s the product of effort. We push recruits to experience that thrill of taking control, of feeling the rush of being in charge. Once we get them addicted to that, they’re hooked.”

For [fresh recruit] Quintanilla, this tutorial started as soon as he arrived. Initially, there were long days of forced marches, endless sit-ups and push-ups, and tedious rifle drills. Instructors screamed at him constantly. (“We’ve got an image to uphold,” Krulak told me.) But alongside those exercises, Quintanilla also confronted a steady stream of situations that forced him to make decisions and take control.

In his fourth week of training, for instance, Quintanilla’s platoon was told to clean the mess hall. The recruits had no idea how. They didn’t know where the cleaning supplies were located or how the industrial dishwasher worked. Lunch had just ended and they weren’t sure if they were supposed to wrap the leftovers or throw them away. Whenever someone approached a drill instructor for advice, all he received was a scowl. So the platoon began making choices. The potato salad got tossed, the leftover hamburgers went into the fridge, and the dishwasher was loaded with so much detergent that suds soon covered the floor. It took three and a half hours, including the time spent mopping up the bubbles, for the platoon to finish cleaning the mess hall. They mistakenly threw away edible food, accidentally turned off the ice cream freezer, and somehow managed to misplace two dozen forks. When they were done, however, their drill instructor approached the smallest, shyest member of the platoon and said he had noticed how the recruit had asserted himself when a decision was needed on where to put the ketchup. In truth, it was pretty obvious where the ketchup should have gone. There was a huge set of shelves containing nothing but ketchup bottles. But the shy recruit beamed as he was praised.

“I hand out a number of compliments, and all of them are designed to be unexpected,” said Sergeant Dennis Joy, a thoroughly intimidating drill instructor who showed me around the Recruit Depot one day. “You’ll never get rewarded for doing what’s easy for you. If you’re an athlete, I’ll never compliment you on a good run. Only the small guy gets congratulated for running fast. Only the shy guy gets recognized for stepping into a leadership role. We praise people for doing things that are hard. That’s how they learn to believe they can do them.”

-- Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

An article about the same thing references the training program as targeting one's locus of control:

Digging into research by the Marine Corps (and later work done by psychologists and psychiatrists), Krulak discovered that interior locus of control was a huge predictor of self-motivation and success.

Locus of control comes in two flavors: 

• With an interior locus of control, you believe that the events in your life are the result of your actions. 

• With an exterior locus of control, you believe that the events in your life are the result of outside forces.  

Studies indicate that an interior locus is associated with being vulnerable to depressiondoing better in schooldealing better with stress, finding more active solutions to problemsgreater satisfaction with work, and greater goal orientation.

But locus of control is not the sort of thing that you can hear a theory about and decide to have. It arises when people see the connection between their own efforts and results

comment by Raemon · 2021-02-25T18:30:10.127Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! This seems quite relevant!

answer by Matt Goldenberg (mr-hire) · 2019-04-09T12:31:40.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't looked at this in a serious way, but have thought about.

I think basically all of the ways people become more ambitious have to do with increasing either the self-efficacy of the person expecting to be able to do big things, or the reward that the person would get from doing big things. Here are some common examples I've seen in biographies and acquaintances:

1. Success spirals. They have small successes which make them think they can do a little bit more, which makes them think they can do more. This is basically a path to increasing self-efficacy.

2. Change in support structures/expectation. They meet a mentor or become part of a group that has big goals and is very agenty, and believes that they can be to. This is increasing both expectancy and reward.

3. Change in ontology. People often become much more agenty and ambitious as they transition from Kegan 3 to Kegan 4, they begin to realize that the world is a large system and that they can affect it, rather than looking at their immediate emotions.

4. Removing large emotional blocks, Sometimes people have lots of internal conflict that is holding them back. If one of the major blocks to action is removed, from the outside they suddenly become much more ambitious and agenty.

5. Adding emotional scarring. Sometimes, the opposite of the above happens. People are relatively content with the status quo and don't feel the need to prove themselves. Then, something bad happens to them that makes them feel the need to prove themselves, thus raising their ambition.

answer by Raemon · 2019-04-06T00:22:48.055Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Further Braindump:

Goal: I'm interesting specifically in unambitious people who become ambitious. (Mostly because this seems like the most useful/interesting lever to push on. The broader goal is figure out 'what would help people become more ambitious in a healthy/productive way at scale').

Some people seem "born ambitious" but there's not a lot I can change my actions based on that.

Related questions:

  • What's a list of people who "are ambitious"? Potentially including:
    • people I know who seem ambitious
    • think for 5 minutes listing famous people
      • how do I get non-famous people? are famous people representative?
    • Rich people (Forbes 500 list)
    • Startup Founders
    • People who launch movements (see wikipedia list of movements. Who founded them, and/or took over them?)
    • People who have biographies written about them
      • Might conflate people who "have an ambition" vs "people who are generically ambitious" but that might be fine for now
      • Is there a procedure you can easily do to check biographies for "what was their main causal factors towards ambition" at moderate scale?
  • Who has thought about ambition through this lens?
    • Paul Graham and other YCombinator folk probably have.
      • What has Paul Graham has written about this topic?
        • Cities and Ambition
        • Anatomy of Determination (in which he claims ambition is an important element of determination)
        • How easy it is to ask him about different angles on questions he's previously explored? Does he respond on Twitter or email or whatev?
  • What is the existing literature on ambition?
    • Scan through google scholar or whatever
  • Who in the rationality community has already thought about this a bunch?
  • How many startups have gotten a million users?
  • How many songs or youtube videos have gotten a million unique views?
comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-04-08T17:30:01.130Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As Tracey Davis would say, that's not true! And what's it mean?

Seems like there's power over others and power over things to happen. To become ambitious about the first kind, most people only need a chance to taste and realize what it is they're tasting. The setting might be for the greater good, the reflection might discourage the pupil, but the option will be on the table.

As to the power over things to happen, it requires serious autonomy (an ability to pick the real dependencies between things and to keep a roof over one's head meanwhile) and/or serious despair (as in people who might survive cancer).

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-04-08T18:46:26.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm having trouble parsing this comment (in part because I can't tell which part of my comment this is replying to). Could you restate it?

Replies from: mary-chernyshenko
comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-04-08T20:20:17.138Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, I often have this problem.

I mean that 'ambitious' people might be 'just generally ambitious' - I see some of them when they come to buy books on self-help or startups or esoteric things. They might be 'ambitious, as in wanting to have power over other people', & then they buy books on, say, romantic relationships or English for two-year-olds, or planners; but largely it's also a hobby. Some of them do get to wield this power and are content with it. Some do collect thousands of likes on Facebook or Youtube, and are visible, and therefore counted ambitious by others.

And then there are people who want power over things, over events in the world. The least 'personal' example is a scientist, but the volunteer who sends winter clothes to families living on occupied land and the sniper who crouches on the roof above a demonstration, they also belong to this species. And I have yet to peg them down when they enter my bookstore. They are... invisible.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-04-08T21:25:47.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the category I'm most interested in is something like "ambitious creators", and I'd expect them to buy books related to whatever thing they're trying to create. (They would probably buy some books on self help and entrepreneurship, and they'd also buy books about music or math or programming or whatever)

Replies from: mary-chernyshenko
comment by Mary Chernyshenko (mary-chernyshenko) · 2019-04-09T09:30:00.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm, they must be rare. Most likely, shopping online and in English... one side of ambitiousness would be then 'willingness to pay', maybe even 'willingness to pay to become known as such a person'.

comment by moses · 2019-04-06T09:33:43.949Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I remain confused about your definitions. From the Paul Graham article:

If willfulness and discipline are what get you to your destination, ambition is how you choose it.

This would suggest a definition of "ambition" as it is commonly used: the tendency to choose big goals. On the other hand, you say:

Some people seem "born ambitious" but there's not a lot I can change my actions based on that.

Okay, now I have a little insight into your motivations for thinking about this: you want to become more "ambitious" yourself. But this suggest "ambitious" to mean rather something like "capable of achieving big goals"—you don't need to attain the "tendency to choose big goals", because that's trivially easy, and anyway, if you care about this topic, that means you already have big goals.

So, does your question in the OP mean something along the lines of "how do people become capable of achieving big goals"?

Replies from: Qiaochu_Yuan
comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2019-04-06T10:11:56.689Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're equivocating between two possible meanings of "choose" here. There's "choose" as in you start telling people "I want to write a book" and then there's "choose" as in you actually decide to actually write the book, which is quite different. I think Ray is asking about something like how to cultivate the capacity to do the latter. It is not at all trivially easy. Most goals are fake; making them real is a genuine skill.

Replies from: moses
comment by moses · 2019-04-06T11:03:21.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ah, yes, when I say "choose", I mean system-2-choose (i.e. the former meaning in your comment). Learning how to

actually decide to actually write the book

(i.e. how to work with setting intentions, or in general, how to overcome akrasia) would already be a to-do included on the big to-do list called "achieving goal X".

In any case, if I understand it correctly, the question still is: how do people become capable of achieving big goals, including whatever system-1 manipulation, intention-setting, habit-forming, incentive-landscape-shaping, motivation-hacking, etc. is necessary to achieve these goals?

answer by Raemon · 2019-04-04T19:06:17.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

[WIP] Review of paper "On the value of Aiming High – The causes and consequences of ambition"

Link to PDF

Partial summary:

They discuss a bunch of ways they might define ambition, from a common sense or psychology standpoint. Eventually they define it thus:

Ambition is the persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment.
Ambition involves persistence and generality in that we do not expect that ambition ceases to exist once a certain level of attainment is achieved, nor do we believe that ambition is compartmentalized toward success in only a single sphere. Ambition also generally has been taken to reflect striving for position and wealth and not to indicate strivings for general well-being and socioemotional acceptance. In short, ambition is about attaining rather than achieving (though of course there is a certain relationship between the two).

This isn't quite the thing I meant, but seems relevant enough to be interesting and keep reading.


They go on to make some hypotheses:

Antecedents of ambition:

Hypothesis 1: Conscientiousness will be positively related to ambition.

2. Extraversion will be positively related to ambition.

3. Neuroticism will be negatively related to ambition.

4. General mental ability will be positively related to ambition.

5. Parents’ occupational prestige will be positively related to ambition.

Consequences of ambition

6a. Ambition will be positively related to the quantity of educational attainment.

6b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to educational attainment

7a. Ambition will be positively related to income

7b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to income.

8a. Ambition will be positively related to occupational attainment.

8b. Ambition will partially mediate a significant part of the relationship of the distal attributes to occupational attainment.

Will write up more as I find time.

answer by Alexei · 2019-04-05T18:21:59.748Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ruby recently wrote this, which seems relevant: [LW · GW]

answer by peer · 2019-04-04T21:04:29.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've been reading lesswrong on and off for about 7 years (hpmor is great). I realized today that I've never had Agency (My life has been a haphazard mess, but I'm lucky to be in an okay place). It's funny to see this question pop up today of all days.

A guess to an answer to your question: They'd need to realize that intelligence is a thing, they'd need to see from outside of themselves that the brain is this thing that thinks and does and is weird. Theeeen they would need some values or goals to pursue. Values like "self improvement" and goals like "I want to be able to afford the best food in the world 24/7"

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-05T18:18:36.535Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do people end up having plans (which they realistically expect to achieve) that affect at least thousands, and preferably millions of people?

The first thing is to realize that society makes this very difficult for very good reasons. If it was easy to affect thousands or millions of lives, then thousands or millions of people would constantly be affecting your life. This would be undesirable; without stability there can be no successful planning.

So I'd say Step 1 is: Realize that you are going to have to spend an incredible amount of effort to make even very modest changes to society, and that you are very likely to fail, and that that's as it should be.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by namespace (ingres) · 2019-04-04T19:49:48.767Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was about to write up some insight porn about it, and then was like “you know, Raemon, you should probably actually think about about this for real, since it seems like Pet Psychology Theories are one of the easier ways to get stuck in dumb cognitive traps.”

Thank you. I'm really really sick of seeing this kind of content on LW, and this moment of self reflection on your part is admirable. Have a strong upvote.

comment by moses · 2019-04-05T09:23:28.959Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I for one would love to read insight porn about your pet psych theory, aside from getting a literature review. I wouldn't worry too much about getting stuck in "cognitive traps"; insight porn is merely for entertainment and literature reviews are for getting the facts :)

comment by moses · 2019-04-05T09:05:28.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Clarifying questions:

  1. By agency, do you mean anyone who has the inclination to "think through plans"/"decide how to pursue goals", or only those who do these things correctly and consequently actually achieve something tangible? I'm asking because there's a world of difference between "how do people gain the inclination to behave 'agenty'" and "how do people actually achieve things".

  2. If someone has ambitious goals, but they don't yet have "plans which they realistically expect to achieve", because the planning part is really really hard (but they definitely view themselves as "this [big goal] is what I want from life" and they're emotionally committed to it), does that fall under what you mean by ambition? Or is the "plans" part necessary? Again, big difference between having grand visions for yourself and having a concrete set of steps to achieve them.

  3. Do you mean to imply that there is a relationship/correlation between agency and ambition? I.e., someone who has larger plans/goals is more likely to be self-motivating/decisive/etc. and vice versa?

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2019-04-05T11:46:07.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looking at the (unfinished) answer, it seems to me like most of the things listed there are useful for getting from the "emotionally committed to a big goal, but no specific plans and completed steps yet" stage to the "actually achieved something awesome" stage.

I mean, conscientiousness feels like an obvious answer to actually doing things; IQ is useful for choosing the right way; extraversion implies networking and cooperation; parents' status implies expectations for yourself; and neuroticism can slow you down or stop you. So I am curious whether these all will be found true.

(However, just in case they might turn out to be false, let this be the record that I have predicted that, too: obviously, extraverted people will be easier distracted from their goals, and conscientious people may be too busy doing what they were told instead of dreaming about achieving more. On the other hand, neurotics will never stop because they will never feel secure enough with what they have already achieved. Too high IQ makes one incompatible with the rest of the society, thus less likely to find cooperators, and more likely to achieve things the society doesn't care about. High-status people are likely to provide better environment for their children, which in turn feel less pressure to change things.)

Anyway, I'd like to know more about how to get from "living a life of meh" to "being emotionally committed to a big goal". I wonder if there will be a research-supported answer to this. (Maybe the relevant things are harder to quantify?) I have a few pet theories, but I could also argue against any of them. (For example, having experienced different levels of wealth or social status in the past could make one feel that these things are changeable. Or it could make them feel that these things are beyond their control. Fictional evidence, such as science fiction or Kiyosaki might ignite one's ambition... or daydreaming.)

comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-05T18:20:01.977Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do people end up having plans (which they realistically expect to achieve) that affect at least thousands, and preferably millions of people?

The first thing is to realize that society makes this very difficult for very good reasons. If it was easy to affect thousands or millions of lives, then thousands or millions of people would constantly be affecting your life. This would be undesirable; without stability there can be no successful planning.

So I'd say Step 1 is: Realize that you are going to have to spend an incredible amount of effort to make even very modest changes to society, and that you are very likely to fail, and that that's as it should be.

Replies from: moses, moses
comment by moses · 2019-04-05T20:36:53.155Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So interesting—I have the exact opposite intuition: it is technically relatively easy to have a large impact, if you are the kind of person naturally inclined to do so (i.e., very roughly speaking, high in the achievement/industriousness aspect of conscientiousness, probably?), but almost nobody is naturally inclined to do so (I blame the ancestral environment).

If it was easy to affect thousands or millions of lives, then thousands or millions of people would constantly be affecting your life.

…How, in Lord's name, is this not precisely the case? Every major entrepreneur, artist, musician, public intellectual, celebrity, politician, athlete, scientist, engineer, activist, etc., etc., there's millions of people who affect millions or more lives constantly.

Replies from: jay-molstad
comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-05T23:36:36.813Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It depends on what degree of effect you're striving for. If you're content to change the world by playing Batman in a way that is somewhat different than Batman has been played before, or to write a pop song that millions of people will be vaguely aware of, then those are ... actually very difficult dreams to achieve, that only one in tens of thousands ever will. But thousands of people manage that level of impact. If you want to stop global warming, then the difficulty increases by several orders of magnitude.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-04-05T23:51:23.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The bar I set in the OP was "have a plan that could plausibly impact thousands and preferably millions of people".

The motivating example was my own experience of becoming ambitious, wherein I (for a couple years), had plans to take Secular Solstice to a level where it was "at least as commonly celebrated as Kwanzaa". I eventually abandoned those plans, because, indeed:

  • It was going to be a lot of work, and would take at least 5-10 years of solid, socially difficult work.
  • It didn't seem like that actually was the most valuable thing for me to be spending 5-10 years on, with AI timelines seeming to be what they were and it seeming plausible that I could actually be relevant to them.
  • I updated that Fandom is actually the correct Secular Religion for the Masses, and that New Humanism was fairly doomed (possible exception of Politically Motivated Humanism, which didn't seem doomed but which I was wary of), and meanwhile it seemed better for Solstice to just focus on the rationalist community where it could maintain it's soul.

(it matched the claim that ambition requires both conscientiousness and extroversion)

Nonetheless, I did have a fairly clear idea of how to go about it, and I took serious actions in that direction for a couple years, and the process of doing that meaningfully changed how I look at the world. Which has output the question "what is necessary to scalably give people that experience?"

Replies from: jay-molstad
comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-06T00:30:06.259Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

take Secular Solstice to a level where it was "at least as commonly celebrated as Kwanzaa"

I'd say that's maybe a 1 in a million level of impact. Equivalently, I'd say that's the level of cultural change that America sees maybe 330 times a year (there are about 330 million of us).

Some levels of impact are relatively easy. If you want to teach high school for 40 years, you can (with high probability) impact a thousand people over the course of a career. But the difference between the classes you taught and the classes that would have been taught without you would probably be slim, and rather few of the students would remember you ten years later. A lifetime of work will get you a high probability of marginal impact at a modest scope, or a correspondingly lower probability of higher impacts at larger scopes.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2019-04-06T00:59:49.632Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can't tell to what degree we have a serious disagreement. (I wouldn't be that surprised if I was fairly deluded about have a >10% shot at being "about as popular as Kwanzaa", but I also was basing that on an assumption that Kwanzaa is not actually all that popular)

Replies from: jay-molstad
comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-06T01:41:41.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think we actually do have much of a disagreement. I'm just trying to point you in the direction of doing Fermi estimates of how changeable society is on any particular point. I think by most reasonable estimates, >10% is going to be a fairly delusional probability for any but the most marginal impacts, but YMMV.

comment by moses · 2019-04-05T20:46:51.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Realize that you are going to have to spend an incredible amount of effort to make even very modest changes to society, and that you are very likely to fail

I think this is roughly correct, though. Or, to put it better: To the degree that you are low in conscientiousness, this is true for you. To the degree that you are high in conscientiousness, you're not reading this comment, because you have better things to do with your life.

Replies from: jay-molstad
comment by Jay Molstad (jay-molstad) · 2019-04-05T23:29:31.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that low conscientiousness is probably a showstopper, but conscientiousness alone isn't nearly enough. You also need 1) a workable plan 2) that enough people can be convinced to endorse, plus 3) the skills to effectively convince people of the virtues of that plan, 4) the leverage to overcome the opposition it generates (which it will), 5) the timing to be there with a solution when society feels the need for a solution and 6) the luck not to have unexpected events make you irrelevant. Most people lack any of those things, and you will need all of them. Otherwise you wind up like Hillary, a talented woman who worked her whole life for a one-sentence mention in the history books.