Re: Competent Elites

by lsusr4 min read15th Jul 202141 comments


World Optimization

One of the major surprises I received when I moved out of childhood into the real world, was the degree to which the world is stratified by genuine competence.

[T]hese people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others' suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

Competent Elites by Eliezer Yudkowsky

This is 100% true.

The first time I felt like I was talking to cognitive equals was at the Y-Combinator interview pool when I met a pair of Nigerians (this is not a joke) who were attempting to monopolize the entire African financial system.

The second time was when I met someone on Less Wrong who runs his own hedge fund.

Advice for High School #2 by me

Differences between geniuses are hard for non-geniuses to measure. You can understand everything that's going through the head of someone dumber than you. When someone is smarter than you, you cannot tell if they're one level above you or fifty because you literally cannot comprehend their reasoning.

General intelligence, measured relatively against your age cohort, tends to be stable over a person's lifetime. I had a teacher take me aside and tell me "I'd cure AIDs or something" when I was nine. It was that obvious.

Isn't this a contradiction? I just said you can't tell if someone is smarter than you. Then I said that my teacher (who, while smart, was not a genius) could tell that I was off the charts.

Note the qualifier "relative to your age cohort". My 4th grade teacher could tell how smart I was because I could be much smarter than a class of 4th graders while still being dumber than him.

I have observed this phenomenon in a wide variety of contexts, especially job interviews. People dumber than me can quickly tell within two minutes of conversation I'm smarter than them but it is hard for them to figure out how wide the gap is.

I once hired a technician to solder circuits. He knew my brother and I were smart because we had started a consumer hardware company in our basement. The shock came when he heard us playing an impromptu puzzle game based on our knowledge of US history. That was when he realized we weren't specialists at consumer hardware. We are that good at everything.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public. This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.

Competent Elites by Eliezer Yudkowsky

The smartest people tend to be ambitious.

Ambitious people are rare, so if everyone is mixed together randomly, as they tend to be early in people's lives, then the ambitious ones won't have many ambitious peers. When you take people like this and put them together with other ambitious people, they bloom like dying plants given water. Probably most ambitious people are starved for the sort of encouragement they'd get from ambitious peers, whatever their age.

The Anatomy of Determination by Paul Graham

How do you find fellow ambitious people? Not randomly. Fierce nerds are too rare to bump into by accident.

There are three ways to meet these kinds of people.

  • Reaching out. This works better the younger you are (high school age is optimal) or if you have something else to offer.
  • Join exclusive communities. Prestigious colleges aren't exclusive enough. Also, their entry requirements are too easily gamed. Think "at least as difficult as Y-Combinator". One way to get into exclusive communities is by volunteering. This is one way Tim Ferris got contacts when he was starting out his career. (It wasn't his only funnel. He blogged too.)
  • Create media. Write a blog. Film YouTube videos. Record a podcast. Draw a webcomic. Compose your own songs. Art is my favorite for many reasons. It scales. It's humbling. It builds capital. It attracts serendipitous opportunities. It cultivates your credibility with strangers. Try out lots of different mediums. Drill down hard on whichever suits you best. The dumber you are the more you should compensate with artistic craftsmanship. The smarter you are the better you can get away with just a blog.

The best way is to combine all of these. Create art for an exclusive community. Reach out to others. Make it easy for others to reach out to you.


41 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:54 AM
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"Probably most ambitious people are starved for the sort of encouragement they'd get from ambitious peers"

This, I think, is one of the roots of smart people getting into weird stuff. Contrarians, contra-cultural types, conspiracy theorists (the inventors, not the believers) and the like are usually very smart, they just don't optimize their smarts in a good direction, so a newly minted smart person will feel attracted to them. The end result are very suboptimal communities of smart individuals going in all kinds of weird directions.

That's my case, mind. Finding the rationalist community has helped me put breaks on some of my weirdest aspects, but by no means on all of them. Which might or not be smart of me, no idea yet at this point.

I would VERY strongly argue this place also lacks brakes.

To clarify, does this differ from saying that this community-at-large believes things you don't believe?

Like, I could imagine someone saying this community "lacks brakes" on the subject of AI risk, because we take it seriously and encourage other people to take it seriously and sometimes to significantly change their life in response to taking it seriously. And how someone feels about that probably depends on whether they think AI risk actually is that big a deal or not. (I guess someone could say, like, "yes, that's the community lacking brakes, and in this case that's a good thing".)

Is that the sort of thing you mean, or?

What kind of brakes would you want?

I can easily picture how this community could put brakes on one person and, at the same time, totally remove them for someone else.

It can even do both in different areas for the same person! (N-not that I would know...)

Signaling. Any idiot can believe things that are obviously true, or mainstream truths that are already in the textbooks. And it takes time for a smart person to become an expert at something actually useful.

Doing difficult weird stuff is the obvious shortcut. The problem is, if you take this shortcut, you quite often get lost in the woods.

Ouch. Your comment hits close to home.

"Probably most ambitious people are starved for the sort of encouragement they'd get from ambitious peers"

If you were to substitute "intelligent" for "ambitious", I would agree. Some kind of dialog is needed to flourish, and a dialog between equals is strongly preferred. Or said another way, when training, it makes no sense to train with to little weight.


The smartest people tend to be ambitious.

I strongly disagree. Assuming a certain bias regarding the selection of examples, this is just a tautology: Highly visible people are highly visible. Successful people are visible. Stupid people are on average less successful. Non-ambitious people are less visible. Some counterexamples would be Grigorij Perelman, or Steve Wozniak (I know basically nothing of these people, and am willing to be proven wrong)

The smartest people tend to be ambitious.


If this is anecdotal, wouldn't it be easily explained by some sort of selection bias? Smart ambitious people are much visible than smart, definitely-not-ambitious people (and by definition of "smart", they have probably better chances at succeeding in their ambitions than equally ambitious less smart people).

Anecdotally, I have met some relatively smart people who are not very ambitious, and I can imagine there could be much smarter people one does not meet except by random chance, because they do not have much ambition. Also anecdotally, I would not be surprised if not-so-ambitious smart people would be content with a "default", probably mildly successful career path and opportunities for a person like them tend to find.

When someone is smarter than you, you cannot tell if they're one level above you or fifty because you literally cannot comprehend their reasoning.

I take issue with this claim, as I believe it to be vastly oversimplified. You can often, if not always, still comprehend their reasoning with additional effort on your behalf. By analogy, a device capable of performing 10 FLOPS can check the calculation of a device that can perform 10 GFLOPS by taking an additional 10^9 factor of time. Even in cases of extreme differences in ability, I think there can be simple methodologies for evaluating at levels above your own, though admitted it can quickly become infeasible for sufficiently large differences. That said, in my experience I think that I've been able to evaluate up to probably 2-3 std deviations of g above my own. That said, I admittedly haven't taken the effort/social cost of asking these individuals their IQ as a proxy to semireliably validate my predictions.

Also coming up with a clever idea is much more difficult than evaluating if a clever idea is good. For example It's hard to find a proof for a theorem, but easy to check if a proof is correct. Likewise you can evaluate someone's intelligence even if he is way more intelligent than you.

Agreed. The difference is more pronounced in live social situations, and quite easy to quantify in situation such as a proof-heavy mathematics class in college. Many students who have done their work on the problem sets can present a correct solution and if not, usually follow the presented solution. For some, completing the problem sets took more time. Likewise, some people get more out of any spontaneous discussion of the problems. Some relatively rare people would pull out the proofs and points seemingly from thin air: look at the assignment, made some brief notes, and then present their solution intelligibly while talking about it.

Too much self praise.

What is the correct amount of self praise? Do you have reasons to believe Isusr has made an incorrect evaluation regarding their aptitude? Do you believe that even if the evaluation is correct that the post is still harmful?

I find it quite reasonable that the LessWrong community could benefit from more praise, self or otherwise. I don't have strong signals as to the aptitude of Isusr other than having read some fraction of their posts.

I worry your response comes as an automatic social defense mechanism as opposed to reflecting "real" beliefs and would like to understand what many upvoters find the issue to be.

I don't think that Isusr has made an incorrect evaluation necessarily as I don't personally know them and have no evidence to prove that it is incorrect.

I take issue with the fact that the piece to me seems to me to be an anecdotal explanation of the Dunning–Kruger effect written to place specific focus on the alleged aptitude and general intelligence of the author.

Rationalism is an eternal struggle between Dempster-Shafer and Dunning-Kruger. 

To offer a deeper explanation, I personally view the piece as doing the following things:

  1. Explain some aspects of intelligence that people don't normally like to hear about (really just some basic expounding of the themes in Competent Elites)
  2. Make an interesting observation about how individuals can evaluate intelligence of others (specifically, evaluate them when they are younger than yourself)
  3. If you find yourself starved for intellectual partners, advice on how to find them.

I don't see any mention of confidence in the article, so I'm having trouble seeing how the Dunning-Kruger effect is related.

More importantly for me, I would like to take for granted what you believe the piece to be about so that we can focus on a specific question. So, Isusr is focusing on their own intelligence in this post, why do you find that problematic?

What is the correct amount of self praise? Do you have reasons to believe Isusr has made an incorrect evaluation regarding their aptitude? Do you believe that even if the evaluation is correct that the post is still harmful?

I don't know if the post is harmful, but in general, "too much self-praise" can be a  failure mode that makes argumentative writing less likely to succeed at convincing readers of its arguments.

It’s interesting to read posts like this and “Fierce Nerds” while myself being much less ambitious/fierce/driven than the objects of said essays. I wonder what other psychological traits are associated with the difference between those who are more vs less ambitious/fierce/driven, other things being equal.

Anxiety. Lack of slack. Natural amphetamines.

If the natural amphetamines correlation is true then that gets us a whole basket of correlations including low appetite, skipping meals, high energy, high NEAT (non-exercise automatic thermogenesis) and difficulty sleeping.

Correlation is arguably, at odds with other things being equal.

Sorry if I was ambiguous in my remark. The comparison that I’m musing about is between “fierce” vs “not fierce” nerds, with no particular consideration of those who are not nerds in the first place.

Differences between geniuses are hard for non-geniuses to measure. You can understand everything that's going through the head of someone dumber than you. When someone is smarter than you, you cannot tell if they're one level above you or fifty because you literally cannot comprehend their reasoning.

Whether or not you can understanding everything going through the mind of someone dumber then you depends on whether you have access to the mental models that they use. If a person has professional expertise in a subject for which you have no expertise there's  a good chance that you won't be able to follow all their thoughts even if you are smarter. The same goes for cultural differences. 

Quite practically, I do have an example where someone who professes to have a much lower IQ then me (had it tested 40 years ago in childhood as significantly under 100) is able to say things that take me three months to understand. 

On the flipside plenty of thinking that comes easy to people with a high IQ just takes more effort to follow for people of a lower IQ but isn't impossible. On person in our local rationality group from time to time says that they their intelligence limits them to follow arguments. That mostly based on their ability of have complex arguments in their head. It doesn't make it impossible for them to think through individual parts of the argument in pieces and then come to the same conclusion. It just makes things more difficult.

The smartest people tend to be ambitious.

There are plenty of smart people who are ambitious but if you look at Mensa there are plenty of people in Mensa that aren't ambitious.

One thing I've noticed is that the really smart people actually don't tend to act like they are. They don't spend a lot of time trying to convince those slower than they are about things -- they don't really "argue down" as it were.

Parsimony wept ... way to rediscover the Dunning/Kruger effect. 

That's impressive, considering D-K isn't real.

The following blog post might be of interest to anyone who either claims Dunning-Kruger means that low-skill people think they are highly skilled or claims Dunning-Kruger is not real:

The author presents the case how D-K is misunderstood, then why one might suspect it is a mathematical artifact from measurement error, but then shows with a model that there is some evidence for Dunning-Kruger effect, as some observed data are reliably explained with an additive perception bias + noise effect (or a non-linear perception distortion effect).

This sounds to me like a claim that lsusr isn't as smart as he thinks he is. If it is, what's your 90% confidence interval for lsusr's IQ? (so how smart do you think he actually is)

Simply that 90% of smart people understand the DK effect and basic humility.

And the fact that some of the dumbest people I've ever met love to crow about their IQ.

You have a point, but you are taking it too far.

For an actually smart person with high IQ, there needs to be a moment when after correcting for DK and applying basic humility, the result still says "I am smarter than average". Otherwise, how would they e.g. make the career choices?

If it is known that only smart people can succeed at some school or job, then following this rule only the dumb people should ever apply, because the smart ones would say "eh, everyone says that I am smart, and I even achieved a few awesome things and won a few competitions, but I also know that I am not perfect, there are many things I don't understand, and stupid people are known to be overconfident... so, all things considered, I am probably just an average guy, so I don't have a chance."

This feels very much like a piece to simply pat yourself on the back.

A curious focus on IQ in your previous post, some narrow definition of intelligence, and labeling binary superiority between people as a result of those things. This strikes me as strange and shallow with strong egotistical motivation.

Welcome, and please try again under a different post with a different kind of comment!