Complex value & situational awareness

post by ioannes_shade · 2019-04-16T18:46:22.414Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 1 comments

Epistemic status: theorizing.

Previously: EA jobs provide scarce non-monetary goods; It is really, really hard to get hired by an EA organisation

Here are two types of activity that (a) I genuinely enjoy and (b) seem quite useful:

  1. Adding complex value
  2. Maintaining situational awareness

Complex value

What does "adding complex value" mean?

It means all the efforts (often small, often done at the margin) that are difficult to automate / formalize, and are (in aggregate) crucial for pulling a project together.

Complex value is the grease that helps all the machine's cogs run together.


Situational awareness

What does "maintaining situational awareness" mean?

It's all the reading & conversations that are undertaken to learn what's happening in the world, to keep your world-model up to date with both social reality & objective, physical reality.

Maintaining situational awareness dovetails nicely with adding complex value – the better your situational awareness, the more opportunities for adding complex value you'll see.


Note that very different information sets flow through formal & informal networks. These sets tend to be complementary, so it seems important to be tapped into both.

Note also that situational awareness seems distinct from "learning about a subject." Probably the distinction cleaves on where most of the learning occurs – situational awareness focuses its learning on social reality ("who thinks what about who/what?"), whereas the locus of learning about subjects tends to be in physical reality ("how does this part of physical reality work?").

Stereotypical city for situational awareness: DC
Stereotypical city for learning about subjects: SF

Unfortunately, though both adding complex value & maintaining situational awareness are high-value, it's hard to earn a living by making them your main focus.

It is possible to do this, e.g. one way of understanding the original pitch for GiveWell is "create an institution in philanthropy that will aggregate explicit & implicit information sets, remain at the frontier of situational awareness, and identify leveraged opportunities for adding complex value in the philanthropic sector."

80,000 Hours is another example of this, aimed at the domain of "policy & research careers" rather than at philanthropy.

I'm still learning about how to successfully establish something like this. My current take is that (a) it's generally hard to do, (b) the base rate of success is very low, and (c) successful attempts leaned heavily on leveraging pre-existing reputation & social relationships.

Cross-posted to the EA Forum & my blog. Thanks to Dony Christie for conversations that introduced me to the "complex value" meme, and to Aaron Tucker for conversations that introduced me to the "situational awareness" meme.


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comment by Dagon · 2019-04-16T23:48:55.200Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Both are highly valued by many organizations, but incredibly hard to measure or see, so don't make very good primary job descriptions. You usually need to produce more conventional work product for quite some time before your contributions on these dimensions can be trusted enough for it to be most of your energy.