Alternate title: Always be working to replace yourself in whatever capacity people rely on you.

[CN: This post has some competing access needs, and I made a tradeoff in a particular direction. I intend this as an earnest, important suggestion, not a demand. If you have scrupulosity vulnerability you may want the opposite advice.]

If you're not building organizational capacity, you're burning it. If your community is not growing, it's probably shrinking. If the system works fine but it depends on you not getting hit by a bus (or getting bored, or burnt out, or attracted to a new interest, or moving across the country), than the system is not fine.

I wrote a bunch about this in Melting Gold. It's important.

But I'm about to write up a bunch of thoughts that are centered around the Berkeley community. And before I feel comfortable doing that, I wanted to draw attention a special case of this general rule.

Cautionary Tales

For years, I lived in NYC. The community there was one of the first strong rationalist centers. It predates Berkeley as actual-factual-honest-to-goodness community. This writeup about it still draws new people to it, as does Eliezer's Epistle to the New York Less Wrongians. People arrive, excited by the promise of a home.

Right now, NY is doing quite well, but it's been through several challenging periods. During the golden age of yore, several leaders left for the SF Bay area, one after the other. The first instance or two were recoverable. But it happened faster than the meetup could find or build new leaders.

Meanwhile, I know of other communities that are not doing as well.

Locally, it often makes sense for a new, excited agenty rationalist to move to Berkeley. It's where several organizations are and it's easier to get involved with The Mission. There are benefits to having lots of people in one place.

But the aggregate effect of this is that places like NYC are disincentivized from generating agenty people, since they often end up leaving.

By now, I've moved to Berkeley. I'm not going to pull a "do as I say, not as I do." The things that attract people shaped-like-me to the Bay are real – this is not a set of incentives and tradeoffs you can just coordinate away, even if you got everyone on the same page about it.

(I don't think you can even coordinate around "moving the rationalist hub somewhere cheaper" – there's a reason it's developed around Silicon Valley money and infrastructure).

But. Two things:

First, I think there's room for improvement over the status quo. The current level of churn is harmful both from the standpoint of local community health, and from the perspective of getting quality people to work at important organizations. From a "totally-selfish-Bay-wants-all-the-people" perspective, you still need local communities to thrive well enough to attract new blood.

Second... I think there is something like a missing mood, among at least some people moving, and many people encouraging others to move. It's sad when local communities deal with demoralizing churn, wariness of investing in friendships that have a good chance of getting disrupted. Maybe this is necessary. But it seems like we should at least be cognizant of this.

Local Efforts

A friend recently asked "is there something we can coordinate on, to help local communities who keep losing people?"

And I think the unfortunate answer is "almost all the work that can in principle be done has to be done by local people." People who live in the Bay could be more patient or encouraging of self-replacement, but ultimately either an individual community has structured itself for sustainability, or it hasn’t.

But, I do think there’s quite a bit that can be done.

Building Organizational Capacity

I took a year or so to actually move to Berkeley after deciding to do so. When I first decided to, the NYC community was fairly dependent on me. So I set a goal for the year of making sure that by the time I left, I'd have (at least) replaced myself, and ideally, changed the NYC community such that it wasn't the sort of place that could be critically damaged by one person leaving.

I think I succeeded – a year later NYC not only has regular meetups but has multiple organizers who take turns keeping things moving.

Some things I attempted, with varying degrees of success:

  • Work harder to encourage people to run individual meetups. Try to avoid running a meetup myself unless I absolutely had to. Generally try to change expectations such that, if you’re a longterm member of the community, it is expected that you will run at least one meetup a year (even if it’s something simple like board game night)
  • Meet individually with everyone who expressed an interest in helping the community improve. In some cases this resulted in people taking on more of organizer role. In other cases, it resulted in people finding things to do behind-the-scenes to keep things running smoothly.
  • Design events to foster the relevant skill growth. Run meetups that required additional people to stand up in front of the room and direct things. For example, a meetup discussing 5 blog posts, asking people to commit to both presenting the idea and running surrounding discussion.
  • Write up as much tacit knowledge as possible. I realized I’d gained a bunch of skills I hadn’t even thought about. I tried to get as much as possible out of my head and into an email, which later became a blogpost.

Something I didn’t do, but probably should have, was focus on streamlining and automating. Roger and Maia solved some similar problems by distilling their meetups into an easily repeatable format with automated postings. I think this is another important piece of the puzzle, although I think there’s still value in specifically getting people to commit time and effort to things, so that they are more invested in the community’s longterm success.

Ambient Value

There’s a lot of roles that make a community that aren’t about organizational work – they’re about being the kind of person that makes the community special.

In a rationalist community, this might include:

  • Being someone who is agenty, exciting and alive who inspires others to grow.
  • Being someone who knows skills well enough to teach them (not just explain them, but adapt that explanation to individual people and needs)
  • Being someone who contributes intelligence, rigor and/or curiosity to conversations.
  • Being someone who is fun, or funny.

A lot of times, communities lose or change their character when people who were filling those roles depart.

This is harder to replace. This either requires longterm growth on community member’s part, or actively recruiting those kinds of people, or at least actively making the community a good home for them when they come.

There’s a bit of a critical mass problem here, where if the number of high quality conversationalists drops below some threshold, it’s hard to get others to come regularly. So this is something you need to focus on well in advance.

If you’re one of those people and you’re leaving… well, it’s hard to replace yourself in this capacity on short notice. But I think this is worth being conscious of.

In Summary...

Be aware of the value your local community is providing to the overall rationalist ecosystem.

Be aware of the value you're providing to your local community.

Be aware of ways (explicit and subtle) that people are depending on you. Generally try to help the people and community around you grow such that they can thrive even if something happens to you. Do this not at the last minute, but as part of an ongoing effort that's baked into the organizational process.

In particular, if you're going to move to the Bay, or encourage others to do so, please think about all that as part of the cost of moving. The cost might not get paid by you, but it gets paid by someone.

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(For additional context on this comment you can read this FB status of mine about tribes.)

There's something strange about the way in which many of us were trained to accept as normal that two of the biggest transitions in our lives - high school to college, college to a job - get packaged in with abandoning a community. In both of those cases it's not as bad as it could be because everyone is sort of abandoning the community at the same time, but it still normalizes the thing in a way that bugs me.

There's a similar normalization of abandonment, I think, in the way people treat break-ups by default. Yes, there are such things as toxic relationships, and yes, I want people to be able to just leave those without feeling like they owe their ex-partner anything if that's what they need to do, but there are two distinct moves that are being bucketed here. I've been lucky enough to get to see two examples recently of what it looks like for a couple to break up without abandonment: they mutually decide that the relationship isn't working, but they don't stop loving each other at all throughout the process of getting out of the relationship, and they stay in touch with the emotional impact the other is experiencing throughout. It's very beautiful and I feel a lot of hope that things can be better seeing it.

What I think I'm trying to say is that there's something I want to encourage that's upstream of all of your suggestions, which is something like seeing a community as a real, living, breathing entity built out of the connections between a bunch of people, and being in touch emotionally with the impact of tearing your connections away from that entity. I imagine this might be more difficult in local communities where people might end up in logistically important roles without... I'm not sure how to say this succinctly without using some Val language, but like, having the corresponding emotional connections to other community members that ought to naturally accompany those roles? Something like a woman who ends up effectively being a maid in a household without being properly connected to and respected as a mother and wife.

I thought about this comment for an hour after I read it, and think this perspective is actively bad advice for community/institution building, at least applied naively, and I also expect applied at the level at which you are thinking about it. I think mentally anthropomorphizing communities of our size (i.e. anything above ~100) gives rise to really bad heuristic, and I think will cause you to waste the waste majority of your effort, and get critical questions like the ones discussed in this article wrong. I expect starting to do it will initially give you some small boosts, but ultimately cause you to be in a rut in which you feel lots of frustration and can't make progress anymore on improving the community, for mostly the obvious reasons (i.e. social heuristics don't scale well beyond systems that are larger or systematically different than ancestral environments). I generally think taking a more "first-principles" approach to community building is the right way to go.

Happy to double crux about it sometime and follow up with more detailed thoughts. Sadly don't have time to write down all my thoughts right now, but happy to do so if there is interest.

I appreciate the thought. I don't feel like I've laid out my position in very much detail so I'm not at all convinced that you've accurately understood it. Can you mirror back to me what you think my position is? (Edit: I guess I really want you to pass my ITT which is a somewhat bigger ask.)

In particular, when I say "real, living, breathing entity" I did not mean to imply a human entity; groups are their own sorts of entities and need to be understood on their own terms, but I think it does not even occur to many people to try in the sense that I have in mind.

Sure, let me give it a try:

My model is that you are recommending to think about communities in a way that I would describe as "using your emotional modalities" and encouraging people to try to connect the consequences of their actions, to have a direct emotional impact on their experience. The most straightforward way to do this, is to try to increase the level of empathy you have for the people in the community. One way I would expect one could achieve that concretely, is by imagining you taking an action, such as moving to the Bay Area, and then going through a meditation in which you try to experience the consequences of your actions from a randomly chosen group of people in the community that are affected by it.

So you might spend 2 minutes trying to experience the situation from the perspective of a friend you leave behind, 2 minutes from the perspective of a new friend you make in the Bay Area, etc. After doing this for a bit, the hope is that you would build up some kind of internal emotional model that connects the health of the broader community directly to your emotional experience.

I don't think this is the only way one could achieve this, but my model of you suggests that if someone did this specific thing, you would think that they would have at least gone in the direction that you are encouraging people to go into.

After thinking a bit more about it, I actually agree with you that the ultimate state of understanding should flow through experiencing the community as a "real and breathing" entity, but that the vast majority of ways of making yourself experience a community that way, will backfire, and that seeing someone trying to understand a large community that way, is evidence that they are going to be worse than average at modeling it.

I have a similar model for the Trolley problem. If you want people to make the correct choice in the Trolley problem, it is going to backfire if they try to model each of the 6 people on the track as fully alive and rich human beings. They will basically try it, notice their senses being overwhelmed with one already, not notice a difference between one and five lives, and decide not to act. For most people, the correct choice in the Trolley Problem is to disassociate and do the math.

Though I do think that after encountering a bunch of Trolley Problems in a row, and after you've had a few months to deeply introspect on the consequences of trading off people's lives against one another, that you could come to build a living and breathing model of the people on the tracks, in a way that wouldn't immediately be overwhelmed in a situation like that. But I think it's another order of magnitude harder to do this for a large community of hundreds of people, and starts being basically impossible when trying to model things like "the economy".

Thanks for the mirror! My recommendation is more complicated than this, and I'm not sure how to describe it succinctly. I think there is a skill you can learn through practices like circling which is something like getting in direct emotional contact with a group, as distinct from (but related to) getting in direct emotional contact with the individual humans in that group. From there you have a basis for asking yourself questions like, how healthy is this group? How will the health of the group change if you remove this member from it? Etc.

It also sounds like there's an implicit thing in your mirror that is something like "...instead of doing explicit verbal reasoning," and I don't mean to imply that either.


I think there is something interesting here. I can see how I might be missing a perspective or modality that allows you to model small groups of people more directly, which is something I sometimes get hints of, but usually don't do too much (i.e. I don't participate in lots of group flow-states, communal dancing, most forms of circling, etc.). I could see how you could use that perspective to build high-level models of a community, though I am still not sure whether that's actually a good idea. But it seems worth a try.

Just wanted to I appreciated this exchange a lot, and I think got more insight into both of your viewpoints

I wonder if we are past the tipping point. If someone's main social group is rationalists I am not sure it makes sense not to live in the Bay. You will lose too many friends over time. And maintaining long term social connections is very important. I think the unfortunate situation is that non-Bay communities have to be be staffed by people who dislike the bay culture, dont consider rationalsits their primary social group or have strong reasons for living in a particular city (for example they work in finance and alot of the jobs are in NYC). I think this situation is problematic, mostly for reasons you outlined. But there isn't going to be a coordinated effort to reverse the trend of people moving to the Bay. And there are certainly benefits of having people concentrated. I also agree that the schelling point had to be the Bay, the silicon valley money was too important given the communities goals and deamgraphics.

This sort of concern is why I didn't advocate an actual coordination effort in the opposite direction, but I think the advice of "build robust communities that have 'train successors' baked into the DNA" is important advice regardless, which meanwhile helps with the problem in (I think) a basically pure-positive way. (It's harder for a new organizer to do, esp. if no one else is showing much signs of agency, but I think generally worth the effort).

tl;dr: Never run events alone - always have a co-organizer.

One of the easiest (and most fun!) ways to make sure you're replaceable is to never run a meetup alone. If you organize a meetup, find a co-organizer and split the responsibilities with them. This helps avoid burnout, plus it's a great way to strengthen your friendship.

My friend Will and I organized the Austin Effective Altruism meetup together for a year. When one of us got busy with life, the other was able to keep things going. And when I moved to Berkeley, the meetup just automatically kept going - I didn't even need to appoint a successor, there already was one.

I follow a similar model running Authentic Relating Games at REACH. I try to always have a co-facilitator - it's way more fun, takes some of the pressure off, and it's an easy way to train potential replacements for myself.

If your community is growing, it's probably shrinking

I think while observations in this space might be slightly anti-inductive, I don't think they are that anti-inductive. You probably forgot a "not" there.

Can I bid for the name of this post to be changed? I have been recommending it to people recently and I think the title is misleadingly specific. (And you even already have an alternate title written at the top of the post!)

Reasoning: I think the 'Berkeley brain drain' thing is much less of a thing now than it was before the pandemic. It's plausible that it will become a thing again, but for now, when I'm seeing organizers move away, they're just moving for jobs; none of them are moving to the Bay. And people also step back from organizing more or less permanently for other reasons, e.g. they have their first child. Or they just worry about what will happen if they burn out. Since the post can be applied to be any and all of these cases and the brain drain one isn't even that common anymore, I think it no longer makes sense for it to mention that case in the title.


(What was the prior title?)

"Replace yourself before you move to the Bay."

(read the title, thought it was something like "you know you can do better, so if there are obviously novel challenges, just replace yourself with the better version of yourself and don't fuss :) )