The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius

by Vaniver23rd Nov 201911 comments


CareersHamming QuestionsSocial & Cultural Dynamics
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Everyone knows that to do great work you need both natural ability and determination. But there's a third ingredient that's not as well understood: an obsessive interest in a particular topic.


There are some heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters. For example, it's more promising if you're creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates. It's more promising if something you're interested in is difficult, especially if it's more difficult for other people than it is for you. And the obsessions of talented people are more likely to be promising. When talented people become interested in random things, they're not truly random.

But you can never be sure. In fact, here's an interesting idea that's also rather alarming if it's true: it may be that to do great work, you also have to waste a lot of time.

In many different areas, reward is proportionate to risk. If that rule holds here, then the way to find paths that lead to truly great work is to be willing to expend a lot of effort on things that turn out to be every bit as unpromising as they seem.

I'm not sure if this is true. On one hand, it seems surprisingly difficult to waste your time so long as you're working hard on something interesting. So much of what you do ends up being useful. But on the other hand, the rule about the relationship between risk and reward is so powerful that it seems to hold wherever risk occurs. Newton's case, at least, suggests that the risk/reward rule holds here. He's famous for one particular obsession of his that turned out to be unprecedentedly fruitful: using math to describe the world. But he had two other obsessions, alchemy and theology, that seem to have been complete wastes of time. He ended up net ahead. His bet on what we now call physics paid off so well that it more than compensated for the other two. But were the other two necessary, in the sense that he had to take big risks to make such big discoveries? I don't know.

It goes on to note that if you try to abandon "probably not important" obsessions in favor of "plausibly important" ones, you may fail because you won't really be obsessed in the right way.

I think my overall takeaway here is:

  • Aim for 'meta-cultivation' of being the sort of person who pursues and makes time for interests.
  • Keep an eye out for interests that meet the "creation" and "you're plausibly differentially good-at" criteria.
  • If you find one of those, go for it (insofar as you can do so without, like, running out of food and dying)
  • If you can't... well, probably just don't orient your life around a high-risk/high-reward "try to be a genius" strategy. Instead, just find something you're pretty okay at that's pretty valuable.

(This space of strategizing feels related to Being the Pareto Best in the World)

Isn't "just the right kind of obsession" a natural ability? It's not that you can orient your 'obsessions' at will...

Gladwell also argues its' a function of your environment in Outliers. For instance, you can never get a chance to be obsessed with computers if you're never exposed to computers.

You can't orient them at all, which you can put yourself in situations which gives you the opportunity to develop new obsessions, or cultivate particular ones over other ones. I think there is some lottery-elements here, but it's at least under a bit of longterm control.

Given your starting "obsessions", how do you pick the good ones to invest time in?

It's not that you can orient your 'obsessions' at will...

And can you discover new ones? (Some methods for learning new subjects may work better than others.)

Please do not post links without any description or context. As an RSS subscriber I am unable to even see (or open) linkposts without opening the LW post in my browser. A description of the link (and ideally a repetition of the link in the post text) is very useful for helping readers understand why you linked it and who may wish to read it.

Huh, it seems likely that we should add the link to the top of the posts in RSS. Will make an issue for that. 

I've always liked Hamming's famous double-barrelled question: what are the most important problems in your field, and why aren't you working on one of them? It's a great way to shake yourself up. But it may be overfitting a bit. It might be at least as useful to ask yourself: if you could take a year off to work on something that probably wouldn't be important but would be really interesting, what would it be?

(emphasis mine)

Digging this paragraph. Not something I follow that often myself, but I have a lot of things that feel both very interesting and very important, so I'm doing that.

Choice of "bus ticket collectors" possibly a nod to William James Sidis?