Mentorship, Management, and Mysterious Old Wizards

by Raemon3 min read24th Feb 202113 comments

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AmbitionEffective AltruismCommunityWorld Optimization
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Followup to Dealing with Network Constraints

Epistemic Status: I spent some time trying to check if Mysterious Old Wizards were important, and reality did not clearly tell me one way or another. But, I still believe it and frequently reference it and figured I should lay out the belief.


Three bottlenecks that the EA community faces – easily mistaken for each other, but with important differences:

Mentorship – People who help you learn skills, design your career, and gain important context about the EA landscape that help you figure out how to apply those skills.

Management – Within a given org or existing hierarchy, someone who figures out what needs doing and who should do it. This can involve mentorship of employees who are either new, or need to train in new skills.

Finally, what I call Mysterious Old Wizards – Those who help awaken people's ambition and agency.

I mention all three concepts to avoid jargon confusion. Mysterious Old Wizards are slightly fungible with mentors and management, but they are not the same thing. But first, let's go over the first two.

Mentorship and Management Bottlenecks

Mentorship and Management are (hopefully) well understood. Right now, my guess is that management is the biggest bottleneck for EA (with mentorship a close second). But this doesn't mean there's any obvious changes to make to our collective strategy.

The people I know of who are best at mentorship are quite busy. As far as I can tell, they are already putting effort into mentoring and managing people. Mentorship and management also both directly trade off against other high value work they could be doing.

There are people with more free time, but those people are also less obviously qualified to mentor people. You can (and probably should) have people across the EA landscape mentoring each other. But, you need to be realistic about how valuable this is, and how much it enables EA to scale.

A top-tier mentor with lots of skills and context can help ensure someone thinks through lots of relevant considerations, or direct them in the most useful ways. A medium-tier mentor is more likely to be misguided about some things, or missing some context.

A newcomer to the field who's just read the obvious blogposts might be able to help a newer-comer learn what to read, but there's going to be a lot of stuff they don't know.

A lot of EA content is subtle and detailed, and easy to accidentally compress into something misleading. (For example, 80k might write a nuanced article saying "You should focus on talent gaps, not funding gaps", but this gets translated into "EA is talent constrained", and then people repeat that phrase without linking to the article, and then many people form an inaccurate belief that EA needs "pretty talented people", rather than "EA needs very specific talents that are missing.")

I think the way to grow mentorship and management capacity involves longterm planning and investment. There isn't free resources lying around we can turn into mentorship/management. You can invest in mentoring people who grow into new mentors later, but it takes awhile.

I think there is room to improve EA mentorship. But it's a fairly delicate problem, that involves re-allocated resources that are currently being spent fairly carefully.

Mysterious Old Wizards

I'm looking for someone to share in an adventure

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins wakes up one day to find Gandalf at his door, inviting him on a quest.

Gandalf does not teach Bilbo anything. He doesn't (much) lead the adventuring party, although he bales them out of trouble a few times. Instead his role in the story is to believe in Bilbo when nobody else does, not even himself. He gives Bilbo a bit of a prod, and then Bilbo realizes, mostly on his own, that he is capable of saving lives and outwitting dragons.

In canon Harry Potter, Dumbledore plays a somewhat similar role. In the first five books, Dumbledore doesn't teach Harry much. He doesn't even give him quests. But a couple times a year, he pops in to remind Harry that he cares about Harry and thinks he has potential.

Showing up and Believing in You

Some people seem to be born ambitious and agentic. Or at least, they gain it fairly early on in childhood.

But I know a fair number of people in EA who initially weren't ambitious, and then at some point became so. And anecdotally, a fair number of those people seem to have had a moment when Someone They Respected invited them out to lunch, sat them down and said "Hey, what you're working on – it's important. Keep doing it. Dream bigger than you currently are allowing yourself to dream."

This is often accompaniment with some advice or mentorship. But I don't think that's always the active ingredient.

The core elements are:

  • The wizard is someone you respect. They clearly have skills, competence or demonstrated success such that you actually take their judgment more seriously than your own.
  • The wizard voluntarily takes time out of their day to contact you and sit down with you. It might only be for an hour. It's not just that you went to them and asked "do you believe in me?". They proactively did it, which lends it a costly signal of importance.
  • They either tell you that the things you are doing matter and should invest a lot more in doing them. Or, maybe, they tell you you're wasting your talents and should be doing something more important. But, they give you some sense of direction.

Network Bottlenecks

I think all three types of are in short supply, and we have a limited capacity to grow the resource. But one nice thing about mysterious old wizards is that they don't have to spend much time. Mentorship and management requires ongoing investment. Mysterious Old Wizards mostly make you go off and do the work yourself.

In my model, you can only mysterious-old-wizard for people who respect you a lot. I wouldn't go around trying to do it frivolously. It ruins the signal if it turns into a formality that people expect you to do. But, I do think people should be doing it more on the margin.

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My experience of attending a CFAR workshop was that Mysterious Old Wizardness was its primary function. Yes, there were various skills and techniques taught, but that they were tools for making you see that hey, you can actually improve your life and Think Big.

Though maybe that was just the message that happened to resonate the most for me, whereas others had different takeaways? Curious to hear thoughts about that.

+1 I went a CFAR camp for high schoolers a few years ago, and the idea that I can be ambitious and actually fix problems in my life was BY FAR the biggest takeaway I got (and one of the most valuable life lessons I ever learned)

Michael Nielsen calls something similar "volitional philanthropy", with some examples.

I really like this!

I got “permission” to be ambitious from Paul Graham’s essays. He definitely seemed like a mysterious old wizard but he also didn’t have to spend any time on me then (though I did eventually get some of his time, many years later in Y Combinator).

Dunno if this helps or hurts your theory.

I think a lot of people get at least somewhat activated by writing. (i.e. reading HPMOR activated me vis-a-vis "I'm allowed to care about things as ambitious as 'eliminate death forever'). But I think there's an additional benefit to them literally sitting down with you and telling you they believe in you. (Imagine Paul Graham literally did that for you, earlier in your career. Do you think that'd have improved your trajectory?)

Hmm, interesting. I suppose it would have, but it is hard to imagine what he could have told me in particular that goes beyond his essays. Maybe looking at the way I think and saying "you seem like the type to be a good startup founder".

This did prod me to remember a wizard-experience I had in 8th grade. It was with my science teacher. I was one of the better students in his class (possibly the best), and I was at one point crowding him before class, very eager to see the results of a test. He took me aside and said something like "why are you spending so much mental energy on this? You're smart enough that you'll always do okay. You don't need to get all As to be successful" (I don't remember the exact words). This was enormously impactful on me -- I think it immediately reduced my GPA, reduced my stress levels and increased my happiness & life satisfaction.

IMO the Mysterious Old Wizards are spending time, but it's in tracking people and understanding them, and tracking problems and understanding them. It's said of Erdos that he was exceptionally good at matching people with problems that were just at the edge of their ability--a less skilled Erdos would have given too many people quests that didn't cause them to grow, or quests that they failed at.

Now, maybe your response is that I'm focusing on someone who wasn't really a MOW, and was more of a manager. There's a form of wizardry that involves giving quests, and there's another form of wizardry that focuses on making heroes, and while they're related you're interested in the second one.

I guess I'm... less convinced that the second one works through these sorts of interactions, or independently of the management aspect, or so on. The various times in my life where I've been a MOW to people (maybe?) I think they all involved actually being familiar with the people involved, and having a specific vision of a strength they could develop to meet a challenge that I could see.

I definitely think MOWs need to be familiar and targeted. I also think when they're combined with mentorship and management they're more powerful. But I definitely got my initial boost from someone who didn't do any managing of me.

(I indeed am not sure how common my story is, hence why previously I tried to get some kind of more general query of of "how do people become ambitious", and if you haven't seen people become ambitious without management that's an update for me)

I disagree with your interpretation of what happened with respect to talent constraints. In addition, I have a meta-critique. In your hypothetical people talk about 'talent constraints' without citing any articles. But you don't cite any articles either! 

I think quite a lot of the basis for 'EA is talent constrained came from the 80K hours surveys. 2017 2018. Both surveys were quite detailed and cannot be quickly summarized. But the 2017 report literally says the following: 

  • On a 0-4 scale EA organisations viewed themselves as 2.5 ‘talent constrained’ and 1.2 ‘funding constrained’, suggesting hiring remains the more significant limiting factor, though funding still does limit some.

'EA is talent constrained' was definitely not just a mistranslation, the explicit concept of 'talent constrained' vs 'funding constrained' was used on official surveys as recently as 2017. The surveys also make it clear that organizations considered keeping their recent hires to be worth seemingly incredible amounts of money. They were asked:

For a typical recent Senior/Junior hire, how much financial compensation would you need to receive today, to make you indifferent about that person having to stop working for you or anyone for the next 3 years?

Responses in 2017 and 2018 respectively for Senior/Junior hires:

Senior   $8,200,000    $7,400,000.00
Junior   $1,300,000     $1,050,000

80k Hours explicitly agrees the surveys were misleading for many readers and they will try to do better in the future. So there is no need to harp on them. But the meta point seems important here. 

you don't cite articles either!

Oh, whoops! I totally meant the post to directly link to this post:

https://80000hours.org/2015/11/why-you-should-focus-more-on-talent-gaps-not-funding-gaps/

Which I have now properly edited in.

Not sure that that changes the thrust of your critique but that was a straightforward error on my part.

I probably agree with (or at least, would not be surprised if), 80k or CEA had also communicated poorly in contexts other than the initial post. (I also think there's still plenty of room for the initial post to have been more clear).

FWIW I also think your summary of the 2015 article is inaccurate.  For example, "EA needs very specific talents that are missing." isn't consistent with the section titled "Less Earning to Give", which states very clearly that more than 20% of EAs, total, should be doing direct work.  "EA needs lots of generally talented people" is a much better fit.  My own experiences are consistent with that:  the people I know who got career advice from 80k or other EA thought leaders in that era were all told to do direct work, typically operations at EA orgs.

Normally this wouldn't be worth talking about; who really cares whether an article from 2015 was unclear, or clearly communicated something its authors now disagree with?  Here I think the distinction matters, because it's a load-bearing part of the argument that mentorship is a bottleneck for EA specifically.  People who got top-tier mentorship in 2015 were told things we now agree aren't true, but that were consistent with the articles available at the time.  People who got top-tier mentorship in 2020 got different advice (I assume, I haven't kept up since covid started),  but how much better was it, in terms of knowledge, than the articles available?

I could definitely buy that EA has a shortage of mysterious old wizards, though.

Here I think the distinction matters, because it's a load-bearing part of the argument that mentorship is a bottleneck for EA specifically

I intended that more as an illustrative example than the key piece of evidence. (I think I've gotten tons of advice that was nuanced and wasn't well written up in the EA sphere, and depended on someone correcting my misunderstandings)

I think there's generally a lag time of 2ish years between someone having a clear sense of the advice they give people, and that advice getting written up. For example, my previous post here:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/HBKb3Y5mvb69PRHvP/dealing-with-network-constraints-my-model-of-ea-careers

That's basically the advice I'd have given someone for 1-2 years prior to posting it. Meanwhile at the time I posted it I also had the Mysterious Old Wizard bottleneck formulated in my head, but didn't publish for another 1.5 years.

Then there's a post like this:

https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/HnC29723hm6kJT7KP/taking-ai-risk-seriously-thoughts-by-critch

(possibly out of date now, not sure if Critch still endorses it), which I was able to write because Critch and I were in a shared social-context at the time, and I got to overhear him saying things. But he would never have gotten around to writing it on his own. And it still took me maybe 7 months to go from "oh I could have written this up in a blogpost" to "it's actually written up." And then the post is still optimized for addressing my particular misconceptions, which actually involved a lot of back-and-forth at the time.

And I think the world is actually changing fairly rapidly, and our best understanding of what-people-should-do changes with it, so being 2 years out of date is pretty bad.