Today's post, The Litany Against Gurus was originally published on 18 December 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


A piece of poetry written to describe the proper attitude to take towards a mentor, or a hero.

Discuss the post here (rather than in the comments to the original post).

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:28 PM

Eliezer_Yudkowsky wrote:

Robin, this verse is about following someone else - just following with intent to overtake, rather than following with intent to worship. When is it ever appropriate to do the latter?

I think it is often appropriate to do the excluded middle. I don't follow anybody to worship, but there are a core set of people that I don't really follow to overtake. I recognize that they have talents and abilities that exceed my own, primarily in thinking strategically and organizing the labor of others.

I have worked as an engineer/physicist in some fashion for 35 years. I always preferred "big ponds," working at Bell Labs (back when it was still Bell Labs), Caltech, and other good but not quite that stellar places. I CONSTANTLY worked around people who I could see to be superior in ability to me.

Having a discussion between "alphas" about following and its approriateness is interesting, but incomplete. It completely misses out on the much larger effect from the "betas."

Robin Hanson wrote:

.Are people biased on average to follow someone else, rather than to make their own path? It is not obvious to me. Yes, many great failings have come from groups dedicatedly following a leader. But surely many other failings have come from groups not dedicatedly following a leader.

"Biased ... to follow" ? Biased is a biased word! What if following someone else is a superior strategy in general than not following?

Even forming into groups randomly lininig up behind one random chosen leader, certainly in terms of survival is a great idea. Only the stupidest leader of 100 could fail to defeat "lone wolf" humans. A guy tried to build a toaster by himself, digging up the iron ore and smelting it, etc etc, and it took years and he couldn't. The central lesson of humanities success over other species is quadrillions of neurons working together, a quadrillion neurons inefficiently coupled wins over a trillion neurons almost every time!

Beyond that, what are the chances that my strategies will be the best in a given group seeking some sort of success? Consider my employment as a senior staff engineer. I am not the CEO I am not a president a VP or even a Director. Would I do better on my own? In this group, following a complex and large group of "leaders," I participate in a fraction of the success and it seems to me that fraction is in absolute terms gigantic.

I essentially KNOW that there are people that are simultaneously 1) Way better than me at almost anything I care to name and 2) simultaneouly really good (or good enough) at organizing other people. In my opinion, it would be irrational to seek to go off on my own, as long as they will have me.

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