I am not going to generalize from myself, only think aloud. I think I could feel comfortable as a sidekick, but it seems like in many situations I don't get this option.

Part of that is related to gender stereotypes: In the past, whenever I stopped being a leader in a relationship, my then girlfriend usually quickly replaced me with a guy who enjoyed that role. (I know there are also relationships with the opposite dynamic, but I never experienced one.) Another part is about money, which indirectly is also related to gender stereotypes: I feel a pressure to make a lot of money (maybe it's just in my head, but so far I haven't met any volunteer to pay my bills, so I treat it as real). Leaders make more money than sidekicks.

Sometimes I get into leading position by being the first one or among the first ones who care about a problem. If there are other people interested in the position later, they usually easily succeed to push me away, because I am not good at status fights and I don't enjoy them. Sometimes I am even happy that someone else took the role instead of me, although I may complain about some consequences later (such as completely losing the ability to influence things).

But this is all along one dimension. I would actually prefer a role of an expert: to be fully responsible for one aspect of the problem where I feel most competent, and leave other aspects to people who feel competent there. No a second-in-command, not a general-purpose assistant, but a domain expert: making decisions within my domain, and only providing suggestions elsewhere.

Unfortunately, it often doesn't work this way. I understand that even with domain experts, there needs to be a role of a leader: someone to make decisions outside of domains of all experts, someone to decide situations where two experts disagree, someone to choose project priorities and budget, etc. But, as Dilbert has shown us is various colorful ways, it often ends by the leader questioning all decisions of the domain experts, effectively wasting their contributions. In open-source programming I usually took the role of a translator, sometimes of an internationalization expert.

I think I am an egalitarian by nature. I am not professing a political opinion here; it's simply how I naturally behave unless forced to act otherwise. Sometimes it seems like people really don't understand this: they instinctively understand the roles of the master and of the slave. (Ironically, even people who publicly profess equality often have strict hierarchies; just different than their perceived enemies.) It's probably a very strong human instinct. And there are the few weird people where this instinct somehow fails; they passionately refuse to be slaves, so they are pattern-matched to masters, but they also fail to behave like real masters, which confuses and irritates the others. On the other hand, I suspect that egalitarianism doesn't scale well. So, my optimal role would probably be a member of a small group of equals; a specialist at some domain.

The Importance of Sidekicks

by Swimmer963 4 min read8th Jan 2015209 comments

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[Reposted from my personal blog.]

Mindspace is wide and deep. “People are different” is a truism, but even knowing this, it’s still easy to underestimate.

I spent much of my initial engagement with the rationality community feeling weird and different. I appreciated the principle and project of rationality as things that were deeply important to me; I was pretty pro-self improvement, and kept tsuyoku naritai as my motto for several years. But the rationality community, the people who shared this interest of mine, often seemed baffled by my values and desires. I wasn’t ambitious, and had a hard time wanting to be. I had a hard time wanting to be anything other than a nurse.

It wasn’t until this August that I convinced myself that this wasn’t a failure in my rationality, but rather a difference in my basic drives. It’s around then, in the aftermath of the 2014 CFAR alumni reunion, that I wrote the following post.

I don’t believe in life-changing insights (that happen to me), but I think I’ve had one–it’s been two weeks and I’m still thinking about it, thus it seems fairly safe to say I did.

At a CFAR Monday test session, Anna was talking about the idea of having an “aura of destiny”–it’s hard to fully convey what she meant and I’m not sure I get it fully, but something like seeing yourself as you’ll be in 25 years once you’ve saved the world and accomplished a ton of awesome things. She added that your aura of destiny had to be in line with your sense of personal aesthetic, to feel “you.”

I mentioned to Kenzi that I felt stuck on this because I was pretty sure that the combination of ambition and being the locus of control that “aura of destiny” conveyed to me was against my sense of personal aesthetic.

Kenzi said, approximately [I don't remember her exact words]: “What if your aura of destiny didn’t have to be those things? What if you could be like…Samwise, from Lord of the Rings? You’re competent, but most importantly, you’re *loyal* to Frodo. You’re the reason that the hero succeeds.”

I guess this isn’t true for most people–Kenzi said she didn’t want to keep thinking of other characters who were like this because she would get so insulted if someone kept comparing her to people’s sidekicks–but it feels like now I know what I am.

So. I’m Samwise. If you earn my loyalty, by convincing me that what you’re working on is valuable and that you’re the person who should be doing it, I’ll stick by you whatever it takes, and I’ll *make sure* you succeed. I don’t have a Frodo right now. But I’m looking for one.

It then turned out that quite a lot of other people recognized this, so I shifted from “this is a weird thing about me” to “this is one basic personality type, out of many.” Notably, Brienne wrote the following comment:

Sidekick” doesn’t *quite* fit my aesthetic, but it’s extremely close, and I feel it in certain moods. Most of the time, I think of myself more as what TV tropes would call a “dragon”. Like the Witch-king of Angmar, if we’re sticking of LOTR. Or Bellatrix Black. Or Darth Vader. (It’s not my fault people aren’t willing to give the good guys dragons in literature.)

For me, finding someone who shared my values, who was smart and rational enough for me to trust him, and who was in a much better position to actually accomplish what I most cared about than I imagined myself ever being, was the best thing that could have happened to me.

She also gave me what’s maybe one of the best and most moving compliments I’ve ever received.

In Australia, something about the way you interacted with people suggested to me that you help people in a completely free way, joyfully, because it fulfills you to serve those you care about, and not because you want something from them… I was able to relax around you, and ask for your support when I needed it while I worked on my classes. It was really lovely… The other surprising thing was that you seemed to act that way with everyone. You weren’t “on” all the time, but when you were, everybody around you got the benefit. I’d never recognized in anyone I’d met a more diffuse service impulse, like the whole human race might be your master. So I suddenly felt like I understood nurses and other people in similar service roles for the first time.

Sarah Constantin, who according to a mutual friend is one of the most loyal people who exists, chimed in with some nuance to the Frodo/Samwise dynamic: “Sam isn’t blindly loyal to Frodo. He makes sure the mission succeeds even when Frodo is fucking it up. He stands up to Frodo. And that’s important too.”

Kate Donovan, who also seems to share this basic psychological makeup, added “I have a strong preference for making the lives of the lead heroes better, and very little interest in ever being one.”

Meanwhile, there were doubts from others who didn’t feel this way. The “we need heroes, the world needs heroes” narrative is especially strong in the rationalist community. And typical mind fallacy abounds. It seems easy to assume that if someone wants to be a support character, it’s because they’re insecure–that really, if they believed in themselves, they would aim for protagonist.

I don’t think this is true. As Kenzi pointed out: “The other thing I felt like was important about Samwise is that his self-efficacy around his particular mission wasn’t a detriment to his aura of destiny – he did have insecurities around his ability to do this thing – to stand by Frodo – but even if he’d somehow not had them, he still would have been Samwise – like that kind of self-efficacy would have made his essence *more* distilled, not less.”

Brienne added: “Becoming the hero would be a personal tragedy, even though it would be a triumph for the world if it happened because I surpassed him, or discovered he was fundamentally wrong.”

Why write this post?

Usually, “this is a true and interesting thing about humans” is enough of a reason for me to write something. But I’ve got a lot of other reasons, this time.

I suspect that the rationality community, with its “hero” focus, drives away many people who are like me in this sense. I’ve thought about walking away from it, for basically that reason. I could stay in Ottawa and be a nurse for forty years; it would fulfil all my most basic emotional needs, and no one would try to change me. Because oh boy, have people tried to do that. It’s really hard to be someone who just wants to please others, and to be told, basically, that you’re not good enough–and that you owe it to the world to turn yourself ambitious, strategic, Slytherin.

Firstly, this is mean regardless. Secondly, it’s not true.

Samwise was important. So was Frodo, of course. But Frodo needed Samwise. Heroes need sidekicks. They can function without them, but function a lot better with them. Maybe it’s true that there aren’t enough heroes trying to save the world. But there sure as hell aren’t enough sidekicks trying to help them. And there especially aren’t enough talented, competent, awesome sidekicks.

If you’re reading this post, and it resonates with you… Especially if you’re someone who has felt unappreciated and alienated for being different… I have something to tell you. You count. You. Fucking. Count. You’re needed, even if the heroes don’t realize it yet. (Seriously, heroes, you should be more strategic about looking for awesome sidekicks. AFAIK only Nick Bostrom is doing it.) This community could use more of you. Pretty much every community could use more of you.

I’d like, someday, to live in a culture that doesn’t shame this way of being. As Brienne points out, “Society likes *selfless* people, who help everybody equally, sure. It’s socially acceptable to be a nurse, for example. Complete loyalty and devotion to “the hero”, though, makes people think of brainwashing, and I’m not sure what else exactly but bad things.” (And not all subsets of society even accept nursing as a Valid Life Choice.) I’d like to live in a world where an aspiring Samwise can find role models; where he sees awesome, successful people and can say, “yes, I want to grow up to be that.”

Maybe I can’t have that world right away. But at least I know what I’m reaching for. I have a name for it. And I have a Frodo–Ruby and I are going to be working together from here on out. I have a reason not to walk away.


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