This is Part I of the Specificity Sequence
Imagine you've played ordinary chess your whole life, until one day the game becomes 3D. That's what unlocking the power of specificity feels like: a new dimension you suddenly perceive all concepts to have. By learning to navigate the specificity dimension, you'll be training a unique mental superpower. With it, you'll be able to jump outside the ordinary course of arguments and fly through the conceptual landscape. Fly, I say!
"Acme exploits its workers!"
Want to see what a 3D argument looks like? Consider a conversation I had the other day when my friend “Steve” put forward a claim that seemed counter to my own worldview:
Steve: Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little!
We were only one sentence into the conversation and my understanding of Steve’s point was high-level, devoid of specific detail. But I assumed that whatever his exact point was, I could refute it using my understanding of basic economics. So I shot back with a counterpoint:
Liron: No, job creation is a force for good at any wage. Acme increases the demand for labor, which drives wages up in the economy as a whole.
I injected principles of Econ 101 into the discussion because I figured they could help me expose that Steve misunderstood Acme's impact on its workers.
My smart-sounding response might let me pass for an intelligent conversationalist in non-rationalist circles. But my rationalist friends wouldn't have been impressed at my 2D tactics, parrying Steve's point with my own counterpoint. They'd have sensed that I'm not progressing toward clarity and mutual understanding, that I'm ignorant of the way of Double Crux.
If I were playing 3D chess, my opening move wouldn't be to slide a defensive piece (the Econ 101 Rook) across the board. It would be to... shove my face at the board and stare at the pieces from an inch away.
Here's what an attempt to do this might look like:
Steve: Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little!
Liron: What do you mean by “exploits its workers”?
Steve: Come on, you know what “exploit” means… Dictionary.com says it means “to use selfishly for one’s own ends”
Liron: You’re saying you have a beef with any company that acts “selfish”? Doesn’t every company under capitalism aim to maximize returns for its shareholders?
Steve: Capitalism can be good sometimes, but Acme has gone beyond the pale with their exploitation of workers. They’re basically ruining capitalism.
No, this is still not the enlightening conversation we were hoping for.
But where did I go wrong? Wasn't I making a respectable attempt to lead the conversation toward clear and precise definitions? Wasn't I navigating the first waypoint on the road to Double Crux?
Can you figure out where I went wrong?
It was a mistake for me to ask Steve for a mere definition of the term “exploit”. I should have asked for a specific example of what he imagines “exploit” to mean in this context. What specifically does it mean—actually, forget "mean"—what specifically does it look like for Acme to "exploit its workers by paying them too little"?
When Steve explained that "exploit" means "to use selfishly", he fulfilled my request for a definition, but the whole back-and-forth didn't yield any insight for either of us. In retrospect, it was a wasted motion for me to ask, "What do you mean by 'exploits its workers'".
Then I, instead of making another attempt to shove my face to stare at the board up close, couldn't help myself: I went back to sliding my pieces around. I set out to rebut the claim that "Acme uses its workers selfishly" by tossing the big abstract concept of “capitalism” into the discussion.
At this point, imagine that Steve were a malicious actor whose only goal was to score rhetorical points on me. He'd be thrilled to hear me say the word “capitalism”. "Capitalism" is a nice high-level concept for him to build an infinite variety of smart-sounding defenses out of, together with other high-level concepts like “exploitation” and “selfishness”.
A malicious Steve can be rhetorically effective against me even without possessing a structured understanding of the subject he’s making a claim about. His mental model of the subject could just be a ball pit of loosely-associated concepts. He can hold up his end of the conversation surprisingly well by just snatching a nearby ball and flinging it at me. And what have I done by mentioning “capitalism”? I’ve gone and tossed in another ball.
I'd like to think that Steve isn't malicious, that he isn't trying to score rhetorical points on me, and that the point he's trying to make has some structure and depth to it. But there's only one way to be sure: By using the power of specificity to get a closer look! Here's how it's done:
Steve: Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little!
Liron: Can you help me paint a specific mental picture of a worker being exploited by Acme?
Steve: Ok… A single dad who works at Acme and never gets to spend time with his kids because he works so much. He's living paycheck to paycheck and he doesn't get any paid vacation days. The next time his car breaks down, he won’t even be able to fix it because he barely makes minimum wage. You should try living on minimum wage so you can see how hard it is!
Liron: You’re saying Acme should be blamed for this specific person’s unpleasant life circumstances, right?
Steve: Yes, because they have thousands of workers in these kinds of circumstances, and meanwhile their stock is worth $80 billion.
Steve doesn’t realize this yet, but by coaxing out a specific example of his claim, I've suddenly made it impossible for him to use a ball pit of loosely-associated concepts to score rhetorical points on me. From this point on, the only way he can win the argument with me is by clarifying and supporting his claim in a way that helps me update my mental model of the subject. This isn’t your average 2D argument anymore. We’re now flying like Superman.
Liron: Ok, sticking with this one specific worker's hypothetical story — what would they be doing if Acme didn’t exist?
Steve: Getting a different job
Liron: Ok, what specific job?
Steve: I don’t know, depends what their skills are
Liron: This is your specific story Steve, you get to pick any specific plausible details you want in order to support any point you want!
I have to stop and point out how crazy this is.
You’d think the way smart people argue is by supporting their claims with evidence, right? But here I’m giving Steve a handicap where he gets to make up fake evidence (telling me any hypothetical specific story) just to establish that his argument is coherent by checking whether empirical support for it ever could meaningfully exist. I'm asking Steve to step over a really low bar here.
Surprisingly, in real-world arguments, this lowly bar often stops people in their tracks. The conversation often goes like this:
Steve: I guess he could instead be a cashier at McDonald’s. Because then he’d at least get three weeks per year of paid vacation time.
Liron: In a world where Acme exists, couldn’t this specific guy still go get a job as a cashier at McDonald’s? Plus, wouldn’t he have less competition for that McDonald's cashier job because some of the other would-be applicants got recruited to be Acme workers instead? Can we conclude that the specific person who you chose to illustrate your point is actually being *helped* by the existence of Acme?
Steve: No because he’s an Acme worker, not a McDonald’s cashier
Liron: So doesn’t that mean Acme offered him a better deal than McDonald’s, thereby improving his life?
Steve: No, Acme just tricked him into thinking that it’s a better deal because they run ads saying how flexible their job is, and how you can set your own hours. But it’s actually a worse deal for the worker.
Liron: So like, McDonald’s offered him $13/hr plus three weeks per year of paid vacation, while Acme offered $13/hr with no paid vacation time, but more flexibility to set his own hours?
Steve: Um, ya, something like that.
Liron: So if Acme did a better job of educating prospective workers that they don't offer the same paid vacation time that some other companies do, then would you stop saying that Acme is “exploiting its workers by paying them too little”?
Steve: No, because Acme preys on uneducated workers who need quick access to cash, and they also intend to automate away the workers’ jobs as soon as they can.
Liron: It looks like you’re now making new claims that weren’t represented in the specific story you chose, right?
Steve: Yes, but I can tell other stories
Liron: But for the specific story you chose to tell that was supposed to best illustrate your claim, the “exploitation” you’re referring to only deprived the worker of the value of a McDonald’s cashier’s paid vacation time, which might be like a 5% difference in total compensation value? And since his work schedule is much more flexible as an Acme worker, couldn’t that easily be worth the 5% to him, so that he wasn’t “tricked” into joining Acme but rather made a decision in rational self-interest?
Steve: Yeah maybe, but anyway that’s just one story.
Liron: No worries, we can start over and talk about a specific story that you think would illustrate your main claim. Who knows, I might even end up agreeing with your claim once I understand it. It's just hard to understand what you're saying about Acme without having at least one example in mind, even if it's a hypothetical one.
Steve thinks for a little while...
Steve: I don't know all the exploitative shit Acme does ok? I just think Acme is a greedy company.
When someone makes a claim you (think you) disagree with, don't immediately start gaming out which 2D moves you'll counterargue with. Instead, start by drilling down in the specificity dimension: think through one or more specific scenarios to which their claim applies.
If you can't think of any specific scenarios to which their claim applies, maybe it's because there are none. Maybe the thinking behind their original claim is incoherent.
In complex topics such as politics and economics, the sad reality is that people who think they’re arguing for a claim are often not even making a claim. In the above conversation, I never got to a point where I was trying to refute Steve’s argument, I was just trying to get specific clarity on what Steve’s claim is, and I never could. We weren't able to discuss an example of what specific world-state constitutes, in his judgment, a referent of the statement “Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little”.
Zooming Into the Claim
Imagine Steve shows you this map and says, “Oregon’s coastline is too straight. I wish all coastlines were less straight so that they could all have a bay!”
Resist the temptation to argue back, “You’re wrong, bays are stupid!” Hopefully, you’ve built up the habit of nailing down a claim’s specific meaning before trying to argue against it.
Steve is making a claim about “Oregon’s coastline”, which is a pretty abstract concept. In order to unpack the claim’s specific meaning, we have to zoom into the concept of a “coastline” and see it in more detail as this specific configuration of land and water:
From this perspective, a good first reply would be, “Well, Steve, what about Coos Bay over here? Are you happy with Oregon’s coastline as long as Coos Bay is part of it, or do you still think it’s too straight even though it has this bay?”
Notice that we can’t predict how Steve will answer our specific clarifying question. So we never knew what Steve’s words meant in the first place, did we? Now you can see why it wasn’t yet productive for us to start arguing against him.
When you hear a claim that sounds meaningful, but isn’t 100% concrete and specific, the first thing you want to do is zoom into its specifics. In many cases, you’ll then find yourself disambiguating between multiple valid specific interpretations, like for Steve’s claim that “Oregon’s coastline is too straight”.
In other cases, you’ll discover that there was no specific meaning in the mind of the speaker, like in the case of Steve’s claim that “Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little” — a staggering thing to discover.
TFW a statement unexpectedly turns out to have no specific meaning
“Startups should have more impact!”
Successful tech founders would have far better lives and legacies if they competed for happiness and impact instead of wealth and users/revenue.
We need to change [the] model from build a big company, get rich, and then starting a foundation...
To build a big company, get rich, and use the company's reach and power to make the world a better place.
When I first read these tweets, my impression was that Michael was providing useful suggestions that any founder could act on to make their startup more of a force for good. But then I activated my specificity powers…
Before elaborating on what I think is the failure of specificity on Michael’s part, I want to say that I really appreciate Michael and Y Combinator engaging with this topic in the first place. It would be easy for them to keep their head down and stick to their original wheelhouse of funding successful startups and making huge financial returns, but instead, YC repeatedly pushes the envelope into new areas such as founding OpenAI and creating their Request for Carbon Removal Technologies. The Y Combinator community is an amazing group of smart and morally good people, and I’m proud to call myself a YC founder (my company Relationship Hero was in the YC Summer 2017 batch). Michael’s heart is in the right place to suggest that startup founders may have certain underused mechanisms by which to make the world a better place.
That said… is there any coherent takeaway from this series of tweets, or not?
The key phrases seem to be that startup founders should “compete for happiness and impact” and “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”.
It sounds meaningful, doesn’t it? But notice that it’s generically-worded and lacks any specific examples. This is a red flag.
Remember when you first heard Steve’s claim that “Acme exploits its workers by paying them too little”? At first, it sounded like a meaningful claim. But as we tried to nail down what it meant, it collapsed into nothing. Will the same thing happen here?
Specificity powers, activate! Form of: Tweet reply
What's a specific example, real or hypothetical, of a $1B+ founder trading off less revenue for more impact?
Cuz at the $1B+ level, competing for impact may look indistinguishable from competing for revenue.
E.g. Elon Musk companies have huge impact and huge valuations.
Let’s consider a specific example of a startup founder who is highly successful: Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, currently valued at $33B. The company’s mission statement is proudly displayed at the top of their about page:
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
What I love about SpaceX is that everything they do follows from Elon Musk’s original goal of making human life multiplanetary. Check out this incredible post by Tim Urban to understand Elon’s plan in detail. Elon’s 20-year playbook is breathtaking:
- Identify a major problem in the world
A single catastrophic event on Earth can permanently wipe out the human species
- Propose a method of fixing it
Colonize other planets, starting with Mars
- Design a self-sustaining company or organization to get it done
Invent reusable rockets to drop the price per launch, then dominate the $27B/yr market for space launches
I would enthusiastically advise any founder to follow Elon’s playbook, as long as they have the stomach to commit to it for 20+ years.
So how does this relate to Michael’s tweets? I believe my advice to “follow Elon’s playbook” constitutes a specific example of Michael’s suggestion to “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”.
But here’s the thing: Elon’s playbook is something you have to do before you found the company. First you have to identify a major problem in the world, then you come up with a plan to start a certain type of company. How do you apply Michael’s advice once you’ve already got a company?
To see what I mean, let’s pick another specific example of a successful founder: Drew Houston and Dropbox ($11B market cap). We know that Michael wants Drew to “compete for happiness and impact” and to “use the company’s reach and power to make the world a better place”. But what does that mean here? What specific advice would Michael have for Drew?
Let’s brainstorm some possible ideas for specific actions that Michael might want Drew to take:
- Change Dropbox’s mission to something that has more impact on happiness
- Donate 10% of Dropbox’s profits to efforts to reduce world hunger
- Give all Dropbox employees two months of paid vacation each year
I know, these are just stabs in the dark, because we need to talk about specifics somehow. Did Michael really mean any of these? The ones about charity and employee benefits seem too obvious. Let’s explore the possibility that Michael might be recommending that Dropbox change its mission.
Here’s Dropbox’s current mission from their about page:
We’re here to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working.
Seems like a nice mission that helps the world, right? I use Dropbox myself and can confirm that the product makes my life a little better. So would Michael say that Dropbox is an example of “competing for happiness and impact”?
If so, then it would have been really helpful if Michael had written in one of his tweets, “I mean like how Dropbox is unleashing the world’s creative energy”. Mentioning Dropbox, or any other specific example, would have really clarified what Michael is talking about.
And if Dropbox’s current mission isn’t what Michael is calling for, then how would Dropbox need to change it in order to better “compete for happiness and impact”? For instance, would it help if they tack on “and we guarantee that anyone can have access to cloud storage regardless of their ability to pay for it”, or not?
Notice how this parallels my conversation with Steve about Acme. We begin with what sounds like a meaningful exhortation: Companies should compete for happiness and impact instead of wealth and users/revenue! Acme shouldn’t exploit its workers! But when we reach for specifics, we suddenly find ourselves grasping at straws. I showed three specific guesses of what Michael’s advice could mean for Drew, but we have no idea what it does mean, if anything.
Imagine that the CEO of Acme wanted to take Steve’s advice about how not to exploit workers. He’d be in the same situation as Drew from Dropbox: confused about the specifics of what his company was supposedly doing wrong, to begin with.
Once you’ve mastered the power of specificity, you’ll see this kind of thing everywhere: a statement that at first sounds full of substance, but then turns out to actually be empty. And the clearest warning sign is the absence of specific examples.
Next post: How Specificity Works