Increasing the pool of people with outstanding accomplishments

Cross-posted from Less Wrong

In How can Cognito Mentoring do the most good? I included a section on our potential social value. I want to flesh out what we hope to achieve.

Consider the following people:

  • Scott Alexander. One of Less Wrong’s major contributors, and writes Slate Star Codex. His articles regularly get hundreds of Facebook shares.
  • Bryan Caplan. GMU economist, blogger at EconLog, inspired the creation of Open Borders.
  • Alex K Chen. Quora celebrity who has asked 20k+ questions and ~2k answers. One of our adviseesreported to changing his major based on some of Alex’s Quora answers.
  • Paul Christiano. Shifted away from doing pure math and theoretical computer science exclusively, and has played a major role in the effective altruist community, doing research for GiveWell, MIRI and 80,000 Hours, and is involved in a miscellany of other related projects.
  • Anton Geraschenko, Scott Morrison and David Zureick-Brown. They started MathOverflow, one of the first and largest online communities for academic researchers to discuss research-level questions.
  • Elie Hassenfeld and Holden Karnofsky. Started GiveWell, which moved ~$17 million to its recommended charities last year, with the money moved growing exponentially over time.
  • David Jay. Founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network which has 70k registered members.
  • Paul Niehaus. An UCSD economist who foundedGiveDirectly. GiveDirectly appears to be much more cost-effective than most charities that work in the developing world. It’s one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities, and is perhaps the first organization of its kind.
  • Richard Rusczyk. Founded Art of Problem Solving, which offers ~50 classes at a given time for high potential math students, and which hosts forums that have 144k registered users.
  • Peter Singer. A philosopher who may be the most pivotal figure behind the animal welfare movement and theeffective altruism movement.
  • Ted Suzman. Cofounded Graffiti Labs while in college, the first product of which of has over 1.5 million monthly users, and is earning to give.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky. He started MIRI, which could appreciably reduce the risk of extinction from artificial intelligence. He started Less Wrong, which has 8+ million page views per year, has given rise to communities around the world, and which people have described as substantially improving their rationality. He’s writing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which has high consumptive value and which has raised awareness of MIRI and principles of rationality).

Some of these accomplishments are more impressive than others, but all of them are impressive, and most of the people listed are quite young, and will plausible do more impressive things along similar lines as they get older.
Some common threads that I see in these people are:

  • They’ve all taken an unconventional path, doing something that they would not have done if they were making their decisions by mirroring the behavior of the people around them.
  • They’ve contributed much more than have people of their ability level who take more conventional paths. In some cases, the factor by which the value of their activities has increased is perhaps ~2x, in others it may be more like ~100x.

Unconventionality isn’t necessarily a path to success, and there are plenty of people who adopt unconventional paths and don’t get much done at all, but when executed well, it’s possible to pursue an unconventional path with relatively little risk and high potential upside.

We think that we can enable more people to engage in activities like the ones above. Many of those who are well-suited to them are already engaged in them. But there are others who have most of the relevant traits for whom there are only one or two limiting factors. Some ways in which we think that we can remove the limiting factors are as follows

  • By connecting people with better learning resources and raising awareness of the benefits of learning particular subjects, we can help them pick up relevant subject matter knowledge.
  • By encouraging meta-cognition, we can help people become more goal-oriented, recognizing when their life aspirations may be better served by departing from conventional routes.
  • By raising awareness of the sorts of impactful side projects and entrepreneurial efforts that others can engaged in, we can help them get into the mindset of seeing opportunities, and judging when they’re promising.
  • Through networking, we can help our advisees find collaborators.

According to student feedback we’ve had some success on the first two fronts. We’re continuing such efforts, and are in the process of working on the latter two.

By moving people in the directions suggested above, we hope to tip more people into the high achieving pool that has the above as representative members. We expect that we can enable an average of one additional person per year to get into this achievement range, with the benefits accruing throughout their lives.

Concerning the feasibility of this: The number of people with the requisite traits is not very small. As above, the people on the list have in some cases achieved far out of proportion with their ability, so there are a fair number of people of the same ability level who don’t. So far we’ve had a number of advisees who probably have similar characteristics to people on the list above at the same age. So it’s not necessary to influence a huge number of people to succeed (though we’re casting as wide a net as possible.)

Assuming the estimate here is correct, we get a lower bound on the social value generated by Cognito Mentoring. We have other sources of social value, which we touched on in our earlier post and might elaborate in later posts.

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