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.
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.
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.
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.
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.