Taking Social Initiative

by Neel Nanda12 min read19th Sep 20201 comment

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(This is a post from a personal daily blogging project, on social skills, taking social initiative, and "networking without being a terrible person". And I think this is relevant to the interests of LessWrong readers!)

Introduction

A theme I’ve touched on pretty heavily in previous posts is agency. Not being passive, and actually doing things. Making it part of your identity, understanding the underlying biases and becoming able to take the first step. One extremely important instance is applying this to social settings - taking social initiative. I think this is something that most people I see are systematically bad at, and something I’ve deliberately improved at over time, and has been an insanely valuable skill. I estimate that at least 80% of my current friendships either wouldn’t exist or would be substantially worse without this. And this is an important component of how I find things I’m excited about and seek positive externalities

My goal in this post is to outline my model for why this is hard, how to become better at it, and how I’ve specifically applied this to friendships and to networking.

Health warning: The Law of Equal but Opposite Advice applies massively here. My guess is that most people reading this don’t take the social initiative enough, but there are definitely shameless people who take it far too much! My guess is that most readers are very unlikely to reach that point by accident.

Taking Social Initiative is Hard

It’s a well-documented psychological phenomenon that people systematically underestimate their abilities. This is what an insecurity is. And as I talk about here, I’ve found this mindset valuable for getting over my own insecurities. My goal is to have a true view of my abilities, and whether I’m good at something. And, empirically, insecurities are systematically biased against me - insecurity is a cognitive bias.

And I observe a similar thing when people consider taking the social initiative - organising events, meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, going to unfamiliar events. People focus strongly on the downsides, ways this could go wrong, think people will laugh at them, etc. It’s extremely easy to fall into the default path of doing nothing. And empirically, I think this is a cognitive bias. I have frequently observed people being insecure about something, going a bit outside their comfort zone, and being rewarded for it - bravery is admired, things go well, awesome things happen. And I have rarely observed people doing this and it going badly - most people aren’t jerks (and if they are jerks, those aren’t opinions I want to be listening to anyway!).

The true question I want to be answering is “is taking the initiative a good idea here?”, and empirically, my intuitions are not a good guide to the truth. And because I care about having true beliefs, I look past this. I’ve deliberately created a counter-bias within myself to notice when I’m borderline on taking initiative, and to make myself do it anyway - because when my thoughts have a systematic bias away from truth, crude rules like this will lead to systematically better answers. And I’ve found that this rule has resulted in much better outcomes, and made me a lot happier!

Further, there are other good reasons to expect people to take the social initiative systematically less often than would be optimal. Taking social initiative has positive externalities - other people benefit, as well as you, while they incur none of the costs. It’s not the default action, and there’s a strong bias towards loss aversion and doing nothing - nothing forces you to take the initiative. It’s easy to fear coming across as pushy, or failing, or embarrassing yourself, while you rarely get blamed for not taking the initiative.

Thus, the default state of the world is that people do not take the social initiative enough - including you.

Friendships

I’m now going to outline the areas of my life where this skill has been most valuable to me, and to try to give actionable examples for how you could apply this.

The first important area is with my social life, and friendships. A lot of my happiest experiences involve being around people I like and care about, and these things just won’t happen if nobody takes the initiative. There are major positive externalities to being the kind of person who can take the initiative with friends. And I’ve found that this is something that’s give me a lot of satisfaction - it’s really fun to see other people enjoy something I organised, and made happen!

I’ve outlined my thoughts on this over various previous posts in more detail/from different perspectives, but the main examples are:

  • Meeting new people
    • One of the most valuable skills I’ve ever developed, is the skill of noticing when I meet somebody new and interesting who I get on with, and trying to become friends with them. Showing that I enjoy their company, inviting them to coffee (or nowadays to have a call),
    • I’ve even had good success with doing this without meeting them first - asking mutual friends for introductions, cold messaging people I don’t know. A lot of people are friendly, and enjoy
    • Health warning: This one has downside risk, if the other person doesn’t like you. Empirically, people systematically underestimate how often other people do like you, so I wouldn’t stress too much about this. My main solution is to make it as easy as possible for the other person to say no, and to give them as much agency as possible - offer an out like “if you have the time”, send them a Calendly link that they’re free to ignore, etc
  • Organising events - throwing parties, organising group calls, suggesting you do things as a group
    • During more normal times, I find that inviting a bunch of my friends to my room is a hilariously low effort way to throw a party
    • I have a similar mindset behind organising talks
    • Generally, there are a lot of things that should exist, but nobody organises them - this is a great way to practice social initiative! Eg, If there’s a hard course people are struggling with, organise a peer-support group
  • Keeping in touch
    • It’s really easy to lose touch with friends, especially if you aren’t near each other (or are both social distancing)
    • And if you both enjoy each other’s company, keeping in touch is a mutual win!
    • But I find that often I just lose touch with friends if I don’t put effort in, so I have systems set up to ensure that I regularly remember to reach out to people and schedule a call, or meet-up
    • One point of difficulty - I find the bit that takes the most energy is making reaching out feel justified. If I haven’t spoken to a friend in a while, I feel more resistance to reaching out, because it feels weird that I hadn’t reached out before. This is very obviously dumb, but difficult to overcome with sheer force of will
      • My main solution is to create a justification - even having a tenuous one makes this much easier. COVID was an excellent justification - now everything was remote, reconnecting with people far away makes perfect sense!
      • Even just “I was thinking about old friends, and realised we haven’t spoken in a while, want to catch up?” works!
  • Introducing friends to each other
    • One of the hardest parts of meeting new people is filtering. But you know your friends well. And so a really valuable thing you can add is introducing friends to each other, if you think they’d get on!
    • Good friendships are incredibly valuable, so I try to make a point of doing this - I think it’s one of the most effective ways to make the lives of my friends better
      • Note - Some people aren’t super interested in forming more friends, or are very busy, so this advice won’t apply universally. Check first!
    • If you know me well enough to know who I might get on with, and you think I’d click with a friend of your’s, please let me know about it!
  • (Less central, but important example) Putting yourself out there - beyond just organising events, do things that can add value to other's!
    • Start a blog! Great way to clarify your thoughts on interesting ideas, and to actually make something you’re proud of.
    • Publish notes or flashcards you make - they don’t have to be high-quality for this to be worthwhile
    • I find this a powerful source of motivation!
    • It’s easy to get anxious about telling other people when you do things like this - fearing judgement, anxiety about self-promotion.
    • A useful mindset - putting things out there is strictly better than not - you’re just giving other people opportunities that they’re free to ignore. And self-promotion can be valuable - most people can ignore it, the few who enjoy it will benefit a lot. If you get positive feedback on what you make, self-promotion + publishing is genuinely altruistic, not selfish!
      • Note - it’s totally possible to go too far here, but my guess is most people err way too hard against, which is why I’m giving this advice. If you get feedback that you do this too much, I recommend listening to that.

A core difficulty in all of these is that things are uncertain and have downside risk. In situations like this, not taking action has invisible opportunity costs, while taking action has visceral and scary costs. But this is a fact of my mind, not of the world. I find it valuable to imagine a world where the action does pay off well - this makes the opportunity costs more concrete, and helps to break the illusion of doing nothing.

Overall, good friendships and people I care about are an incredibly important component of my life happiness and mental health. And cultivating the skill of creating and maintaining these is one of the most valuable investments of effort I’ve ever made - being good at taking initiative directly led to existence of the vast majority of my current friendships.

Networking

(Note: Much of my networking advice is based on my experiences networking with Effective Altruists, who are unusually nice people - this may not perfectly generalise)

I find networking a pretty interesting concept, and it’s added quite a lot of value to my life. Most people I talk to consider it a bit of a dirty word - associated with LinkedIn profiles, investment bankers, and scummy, insincere people. I am pretty strongly opposed to this kind of shitty networking! But I started using the word networking ironically to describe what I actually do, and it accidentally stopped being ironic. So I now have a pretty positive association with it now. And this forms my attempt to reclaim that word! And I’ve found that the ability to take social initiative is a pretty key sub-skill here.

I’m roughly defining networking as getting to know people who have skills and experience that I find interesting and could learn from, people with help they could give, connections they could share.

Sincerity

I think my most important perspective shift with networking is to be sincere. Try to talk to interesting people because I enjoy talking to them, not because I want something from them. Try to be interesting and pleasant myself. Building relationships with people, because it makes me happy that those relationships exist, not because I think it’ll be useful to me. And conveniently, the people most worth knowing also tend to be the people I intrinsically want to know!

This is an important and subtle point - the mindset is not about trying to seem sincere because it’s the best way to achieve your goals, it’s about genuinely being sincere. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your decision making process is completely separate from the decisions you make, but this is rarely true. Humans are social creatures, and we have very developed senses for inferring the intentions of the people we talk to. It’s not hard to tell when the person you’re talking to has an ulterior motive, and it’s far less fun to talk to someone like that.

And you can also have ulterior motivates! Wanting to know cool people because they’re fun to be around and useful to know is fine, and rarely the kind of thing that bothers people. But the ultimate goal is for knowing interesting people to be something you feel excited about.

Ask questions about the things you find genuinely interesting! Keep in touch with the people whose company you enjoy! Share things you find cool and talk about your experiences, not because you’re trying to show-off or impress, but because it makes for a better conversation. Be enthusiastic and excited, rather than striving to be professional. Offer to do favours and be helpful, not because you expect reciprocation, but because that’s what you do for people you like.

I’ve found that the underlying intent massively shifts what the interaction is like, far more than it seems like it should. And it’s far more fun - I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to be boring and soulless to network, because that’s the “done thing” - if you do this, nobody is having a good time. And, at the end of the day, by following this strategy, I have a pretty great network of cool people I know. And this is useful, but it’s also awesome for its own sake! Most people aren’t jerks, and are happy to help out others who are nice and pleasant to be around.

Be pleasant to help

Another sub-skill is trying to make helping you as pleasant and easy as possible:

  • Develop the skill of asking good questions - follow the things that most interest you and try to learn, rather trying to ask the questions you “think you should”
    • Figure out exactly what you want help with in advance, and come up with questions to that end
      • Figuring out what to say and how to structure advice is cognitive labour. Things are more fun for the other person if you do as much of that for them as possible
      • These don’t have to be perfectly comprehensive and specific, but everything you can do helps! Eg “I’m pretty confused about this area” or “I don’t understand this topic very well. My current understanding is ___ is that missing anything important?”
      • Generally signal what you want from the conversation - specific career advice, introductions, general knowledge, life advice, etc. People like being helpful, so make it as easy as possible!
    • This also makes the conversations more varied, and thus more interesting for the other person! If they always have the same conversations with people in your reference class, everyone has more fun if it’s unusual. Being asked really good questions can clarify their thoughts, and is a good goal to aim for.
  • Be a fun person to be around
    • Be polite, but treat them like a normal person, rather than being highly formal, or caught up with awareness of status
    • Give sincere compliments
      • Note - sincere is important, flattery tends to be easy to see through
      • Explicitly say when things they say are helpful - be specific, and say how it helped you
    • If what they said helped you later on, send them a message of thanks! Be as specific and concrete as possible - this is a good signal of sincerity over flattery because it’s harder to fake. It’s really satisfying to receive these, especially if you can point to concrete actions or successes you had as a direct consequence
  • Giving advice is fun! It’s nice to feel as though you’re helping somebody else. So try to be clear about exactly how this is helpful to you!
  • Respect their time, and be as convenient for them as possible - I like to send people a Calendly link and be otherwise flexible.
  • Be helpful
    • Think about things you could offer them - people you know and could introduce them to, good resources and articles, interesting insights and perspectives.
      • This one gets easier the more people you know!
      • Note - this can be embarrassing if done wrong. Always broach it as a question, eg “have you heard of ___”, or “do you know ___”. Keep the initial question short, so that if they do already know about this, it’s not awkward

Present opportunities

Another helpful mindset: people can just say no. Thus, other than the cost of saying no, reaching out is presenting them with an opportunity. And receiving opportunities is pleasant! It gives them more option value. I find this mindset super useful for overcoming insecurity about bothering people, or looking silly.

If you’re looking for a job or internship, if that’s successful, everyone wins. That’s a great opportunity for all involved! Thus presenting people with something like that is hardly high cost.

If you want advice from somebody, that can often be fun to give! An opportunity doesn’t have to directly benefit them. I know I personally have gotten a ton of useful advice from people in the past, and I can hardly pay them back. So it’s satisfying to be able to pay it forwards, and give advice to people like my past self.

And it’s satisfying to help somebody else succeed! Especially within the Effective Altruism community - if your goal is to make the world a better place, people actively want to help you succeed. Because you’re all on the same team - if you can do more good, then everyone wins.

Minimise costs

The main cost to them of you reaching out is if they have to say no - this is emotional labour. I try to ensure I give them out’s eg “no worries if you’re busy”. Sometimes I send an obviously copied and pasted message, if I want to signal “only say yes to this if it feels fun to you”

Further, be OK with hearing a no. This isn’t a rejection, or a sign that you’ve bothered somebody - you’ve presented them with an opportunity they weren’t interested in. They still benefited from the option value, and this isn’t a personal attack on you - often people are just busy! I see this as a very stochastic process - you contact a lot of people, and a few are interested. And if everyone benefits in those few connections, then the original opportunity was valuable!

A useful framing - the busier and higher status somebody is, the better they are at saying no to things! You fundamentally can’t be busy and high-status without developing the skill of prioritising and saying no, there are just too many things to do. And thus, the higher status they are, the lower the cost of reaching out - I find this framing pretty insightful and unintuitive. And this goes all the more for reaching out to a company rather than a specific person - it’s less personal and thus even lower emotional effort.

Taking action

So, how to actually act upon all this? As with most forms of taking the initiative, this is hard, and subjective, and will depend heavily on your personal circumstances. A few thoughts:

  • If you already know somebody who could help you, get over your reluctance and ask
  • If you meet interesting people at events, keep in touch!
  • If you vaguely know somebody, and they could help you with something, reach out and ask!
  • Ask friends for introductions - even if you just have a general kind of person in mind, ask if your friends know anyone who could help with that
    • And if your friends are in need of advice, see who you might be able to connect them with! People respond pretty well to messages like “a friend of mine needs help with ___, would you be interested in chatting with them?”
  • Cold message people on LinkedIn
    • A friend of mine has had a surprising amount of success with messaging people in fields he wants to enter, and asking for advice and mentorship.
  • Cold email people whose work you admire - academics with interesting papers, people who make content you enjoy
    • Reaching out to academics with specific comments and thoughts on their papers can go down super well! It’s nice to see other people meaningfully engage with your work, and to see that they’re sincerely interested in you, rather than just blindly spamming people.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, I think taking the social initiative is good and something people should do more often. And that it’s a skill which is very widely applicable in daily life. I’ve found that setting a rule of systematically doing it more often has been a major life upgrade. Of course, this is an empirical claim, and isn’t obviously true. And it’s hard. So I imagine a good amount of those reading this will kinda buy my arguments, but not feel convinced on a gut level, and be storing this as “an interesting idea I’ll never act upon”.

That feeling is the feeling of uncertainty. This is an important question, and an important empirical claim. If you are systematically biased against taking the initiative, are systematically missing out on valuable opportunities, and could learn to be better at it, then that’s incredibly valuable information. The value of that information vastly outweighs the costs of trying it a few times, and potential failure. And when there’s valuable information you lack, the solution is to run an experiment and try it! From that perspective, failure ceases to be a meaningful concept - whatever happens will reduce your uncertainty, and that is the true victory.

Further, taking the initiative is habit forming. The activation energy required goes down massively once you’ve tried it a few times and it’s gone well. And with time, taking the social initiative can become part of your identity, and something you feel excited about. Most of the energy goes to overcoming your intuitions, and intuitions come from your experiences. So if you’re reading all this, and this feels compelling, but a bit outside your comfort zone, I urge you to think about how you could take the first step. Because the first step is by far the hardest.

What are the things you want to do, but aren’t brave enough to start? What opportunities are you currently missing out on? What could you do, as the first step to becoming the kind of person you want to be?

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