Epistemic Status: Playing the odds
Originality Status: Very low. These are not unique views and this has been said many times before, so apologies if you’ve seen it many times before, but the message never gets through, so we keep trying.
The rationalist community can be intimidating. It is especially intimidating to those who are most suited to contributing. It is exactly those people who understand the need for high epistemic standards, who worry whether their writing skills are good enough to post, who worry if their thinking is good enough or their ideas original and interesting. Less Wrong, or even a person’s personal blog, can feel like a sacred space that one is loathe to profane with their unworthy presence.
That instinct is good! Those high standards, that sacredness, are what keep quality high, and make actions like ‘read the entire Less Wrong discussion section once a week and large percentages of the comments sections’ reasonable things to do. Our self-imposed standards allow us to almost skate by without any need for moderation. I am all about self-imposed high standards.
The problem is that our calibration is bad. The Fear has gone too far, and is keeping too many people quiet too often. Calibration is hard, and calibration of your own skill level is very hard. It speaks well of us that we would rather think of ourselves a level below where we are, than think of ourselves as a level above, but getting it right would be better still. We also are too afraid of trying to go one level too high, and not afraid enough of false humility. I am going to suggest that everyone adjust accordingly.
Consider levels on the following (0-5) online scale: Absent-Lurker-Commenter-Poster/Blogger-Organizer-Leader. You could have a similar offline scale: Absent-Silent-Talker-Presenter-Organizer-Leader.
My rule of thumb would be: Assume that you are ready to be one level higher than you think you are ready for.
If you are absent, you presumably are not reading this, but in case you are or someone can pass this advice along, I say that if you are interested in the ideas being discussed, go ahead and lurk. Show up to a meeting and listen; read some blog posts. Some of it won’t make sense. So what? Many of the times I have learned the most are in places where a lot of things did not make sense to me. Slowly, more and more of them did, and if some of it goes over your head permanently, perhaps you gained less, but you also did not lose.
If you have been lurking and observing for a while, but do not feel qualified to start commenting or talking, there is a good chance you are wrong. You are afraid people will point out your mistakes or make you feel stupid. I wish it was easy to say that this simply isn’t a big deal and you shouldn’t worry about it, but it isn’t a big deal and you shouldn’t worry about it. If you ask questions, we don’t think you’re stupid – we think you’re curious and want to learn (sure, some might not, but seriously, screw those people). You should pick your spots carefully, especially if you worry about such things, but you should pick some spots.
It is worth noting that the views to comments ratio on posts I write on my blog, or articles I post on Magic: The Gathering, seems to be about a thousand to one. So if someone looked at three of my posts a day, they would comment about once a year. I would write an article behind a paywall, get five thousand views, and three comments. Even if most people don’t finish reading the article, that is insane. Especially since a few people offer up most of what few comments we do get! You certainly have something worth mentioning, or something worth asking, say, one time in a hundred. In fact, I bet you have something worth saying one time in ten!
I have been there. In the early days of Less Wrong, I was afraid to comment. I felt like I was not up to the level of intellectual discussion taking place on the site. Posting the occasional small comment felt like an act of huge courage. When I attended the first New York meetups in a bake shop on 81st Street, I barely talked, especially when Michael Vassar was there. I felt outclassed. Eventually, I realized I was wrong.
If you have been commenting or talking for a while, especially if it has been years, and you would like to do more, but you do not consider yourself qualified to lead a meetup or write your own posts or your own blog, then you are probably mistaken. It is time to step up!
If it is online, write what you are interested in, and write what you know. The way to get better at writing is to write. That is why we have a national book writing month where (almost) all the books that do get written get permanently put into dark drawers. I look back at my early Magic writing, and my lord is a lot of it awful. Seriously, there is good strategic content there, but a lot of the writing is cringe-level bad. I remember that I was writing for The Dojo while going to college, and my Logic & Rhetoric essays kept getting C+/B- level grades. I now understand that this was because the grades were an accurate assessment of my skill level (although, in a tale for another day, not an assessment at all of the actual essays), but at the time I assumed the grades were dumb, so I kept writing, and slowly I got better. By contrast, I always wanted to write fiction, never did, so I never got any better and don’t think of myself as good enough to do it. Maybe I should start (and if I do, even if I post it here, you are under no obligation to read it or pretend it is any good).
We will respect the attempt. Yes, a lot of the explicit feedback will be negative; the community and the whole internet are like that. Try to not let that get to you, and keep at it, and you’ll improve and learn what works. Advice past that point is beyond scope here, and I am not confident I am worthy to give such writing advice which is how bad the ‘not worthy’ problem is, but I hope at some point soon to do it anyway.
Doing presentations and leading or organizing meetups is also, in my experience, far easier than people think. It is not easy to do perfectly, but it is surprisingly easy to be pretty good and provide people with value. If the logistics are a solved problem, and you already have a place to go and an email list to message to get the word out, the hard parts are coming up with an idea, and deciding that the idea and yourself are good enough to go ahead and do it. If the logistics are not a solved problem, you need to start an email list and pick a location, but in a pinch any public place that will allow people to hang out will work so long as it is in the general area you want, if you can’t do better. Email lists are known tech.
How to come up with good topics is a good question, and when I led the NYC group more actively, what that mostly meant was thinking hard about what topics did and did not work, and coming up with one every week – that was the hard thing and over time it can get harder. It continues to be hard for the same reason that picking a movie or making conversation is hard. You get good ideas, but then you use those good ideas until your idea space is no longer so good, and it takes time to replenish it. If you ask me to pick a movie for someone exactly like me except they have never seen movies, I can make a pretty great list. For myself, not so much.
If you have been providing help with meetups or posting original content for a while, but not doing any organizing or providing leadership because you do not think you have enough status to do that, or you aren’t smart enough, or it is scary, but it appeals to you, you should go ahead and do it. Yes, Raymond observes correctly that The Bay has too many cooks starting too many projects and not enough helping, but that problem is unique to The Bay (and inherent in the incentive structures there) whereas places like New York have the opposite problem of not enough people to step up to start new things. Even where we have too much eagerness to start new things versus helping with other people’s things, there are leadership roles and projects to do that are supporting others and that need your help.
The important thing to know is that you are likely still underestimating your status and skills and ability to provide leadership, even when you are contributing on a lower level. It is also important to tell people that they do not need to be the best, or even especially great, at rationality relative to the group, in order to step up in this way. There are many skills, there is much need, and willingness to put it in the time goes a long way. Our leaders do not need to be the best of us in every way, as different people have different skills and different interests and availability.
Everyone else is thinking what you are thinking. I still think it all the time – I’m not that great at this. I thought it every step of the way. I was afraid to comment at all. Then I was afraid to initiate posts or meetings; even when I was leading the NYC group, I was still scared to post to Less Wrong. I didn’t think I had the chops to talk to key members of the community. And so on. Even with my Magic writing, it got started by accident because I did not dare start writing publicly on purpose! Instead, the publisher of the leading Magic website somehow started getting CCed on all my team’s emails, and started asking if he could publish some of mine. I have no idea if I would have ever stepped up if that hadn’t happened.
I will end with a pledge. If you contact me and let me know that you wrote stuff because of reading this, I will check it out. If it’s good, I’ll keep reading, and I’ll let people know.