Epistemic Status: Musing and speculation, but I think there's a real thing here.

I.

When I was a kid, a friend of mine had a tree fort. If you've never seen such a fort, imagine a series of wooden boards secured to a tree, creating a platform about fifteen feet off the ground where you can sit or stand and walk around the tree. This one had a rope ladder we used to get up and down, a length of knotted rope that was tied to the tree at the top and dangled over the edge so that it reached the ground. 

Once you were up in the fort, you could pull the ladder up behind you. It was much, much harder to get into the fort without the ladder. Not only would you need to climb the tree itself instead of the ladder with its handholds, but you would then reach the underside of the fort and essentially have to do a pullup and haul your entire body up and over the edge instead of being able to pull yourself up a foot at a time on the rope. Only then could you let the rope back down. 

The rope got pulled up a lot, mostly in games or childhood arguments with each other or our siblings. Sometimes it got pulled up out of boredom, fiddling with it or playing with the rope. Sometimes it got pulled up when we were trying to be helpful; it was easier for a younger kid to hold tight to the rope while two older kids pulled the rope up to haul the young kid into the tree fort.

"Pulling the ladder up behind you" is a metaphor for when you intentionally or unintentionally remove the easier way by which you reached some height.

II.

Quoth Ray,

Weird fact: a lot of people I know (myself included) gained a bunch of agency from running meetups.

When I arrived in the NYC community, I noticed an opportunity for some kind of winter holiday. I held the first Solstice. The only stakes were 20 people possibly having a bad time. The next year, I planned a larger event that people traveled from nearby cities to attend, which required me to learn some logistics as well as to improve at ritual design. The third year I was able to run a major event with a couple hundred attendees. At each point I felt challenged but not overwhelmed. I made mistakes, but not ones that ruined anything longterm or important.

I'm a something of a serial inheritor[1] of meetups.

Last year I ran the Rationalist Megameetup in New York City, which had over a hundred people attending and took place at a conference hotel. It's the most complicated event I've run so far, but it didn't start that way. The first iteration of the megameetup was, as far as I know, inviting people to hang out at a big apartment and letting some of them crash on couches or air mattresses there. That's pretty straightforward and something I can imagine a first-time organizer pulling off without too much stress. The first time I ran the megameetup, it involved renting an apartment and taking payments and buying a lot of food, but I was basically doing the exact same thing the person before me did and I got to ask a previous organizer a lot of questions. 

This means that I got to slowly level up, getting more used to the existing tools and more comfortable in what I was doing as I made things bigger. There was a ladder there to let me climb up. If tomorrow I decided to stop having anything to do with the Rationalist Megameetup, I'd be leaving whoever picked up the torch after me with a harder climb. That problem is only going to get worse as the Rationalist Megameetup grows. 

Projects have a tendency to grow more complicated the longer they go and the more successful they get. Meetups get bigger as more people join, codebases get larger as more features get added, companies wind up with a larger product line, fiction series add more characters and plotlines. That makes taking over the project more and more challenging. 

Worse, successful projects can inadvertently suck the air out of the space where new projects would grow and thrive. Take New York City Secular Solstice: there's usually only one per year, which means there's not a natural space for a new NYC organizer to slowly level up the way Ray did. You could run a small Solstice in your living room, but as you tried to grow it larger you'd compete more and more with the the bigger one. The existing solstice has pulled some of the rope ladder up behind it, which a newcomer might have used to climb the skill ladder.

It's not all negative, or even most! On balance I think NYC Secular Solstice has actually made things easier. It left a lot of tools behind; a new organizer would be able to reuse the existing songs and arc from the resources page, they'd be able to estimate attendance based on previous years, all of these are ways to leave a better ladder behind than things started with. Just the existence proof is a valuable rung in the ladder, since now people know Secular Solstice is a thing at all and many of them enjoy it.

Rationalist Megameetup now, that I need to write more resources for.

III.

I think about this dynamic and society at large sometimes.

I used to work adjacent to manufacturing and logistics, and the international supply chain is dizzying. How much would someone be able to learn from studying a modern cargo ship if they had to start from scratch? I learned web development back in the days when a pure HTML and CSS website could pass as the low-end of professional, and a little JavaScript and SQL could be added to my repertoire piece by piece. React, Angular, and Vue are more powerful, but I learned them on top of JavaScript! This pattern repeats itself all over the place.

The best excuse I have for more people spending more time in school is that many fields have gotten more complex over time. The simplest forms of many trades have been out competed by more advanced forms, such that you can't gainfully start with the simple version and work your way up. Blacksmithing and hand sewn clothes are a hobby, and congratulations to Etsy for maintaining a path for that hobby to get any income at all. This even feels true for games, though games have an easier time co-existing. LLMs might not be better than the best artists (yet) but they're better than the average artist I see on Patreon or offering commissions. 

When I'm feeling pessimistic about government, I notice that nobody who built my government (I'm an American) is around anymore. Each generation added more than they took away, and now the version we're using is bigger than any one person can comprehend. Worse, since the states are more and more alike as the federal government does more and more, I suspect there's less room to practice and experiment on lower levels. 

The simple version of government that has been recreated countless times around the world is "Nobody kills anyone else or steals their stuff, or we all beat them up. If there's a disagreement we all tell Chief Bob what happened and what Bob says goes." I like modern American government a lot more than Chief Bob, but I notice if I me and my friends tried to start over with the Chief Bob version we will get thoroughly blocked by the established justice system. There is something like a path, where you run for Student Government in school and then Town Council in a small town and then maybe Mayor, so there is a ladder. I haven't climbed it, so I don't know how good it is.

Chief Bob's hearings might well be public, held before the whole tribe or at least include the Chief's heirs as an audience.. If that's the case, then the next chief might get to spend years listening to hearings and seeing how they turn out before taking Bob's place. In contrast, I don't think I've ever been present for an actual court case, just seen them on TV.

Sports leagues do this deliberately. Grade schoolers don't need to worry about competing with adults, and even college athletes have competitions sheltered from the professionals. In fencing, there were tournaments where people above a certain rank and skill weren't allowed to participate, which meant that my first tournament I was able to win a few bouts. These easier leagues are an important part of cultivating the next generation of athletes. I actually expect a grade school soccer league to benefit other sports as well; people might learn to enjoy being generally athletic in soccer before shifting to say, rock climbing or paintball. As Ray points out in the quote above, meetups can be a place to gain agency. Nothing says that agency has to keep being focused on meetups.

The bottom of the rope needs to be in easy arms reach. If there used to be some obvious first step, for some reason the advanced version makes the obvious first step not work, and there isn't a good path to figuring out the new version, then someone's gone and pulled the rope up. 

IV.

I think this dynamic is part of why new talent tends to show up in new fields. 

Why be a punk musician in the 70s and 80s? One reason is that Rock and Roll was dominated by established musicians. You might not be able to compete directly with them, and they'd plucked the low hanging fruit. Why did so many entrepreneurs start websites in the 90s and 00s? One reason is that you could make mistakes and learn how business worked without having immediate and experienced competition like you would if you'd started making automobiles. Why did I enjoy playing quidditch so much in college? One reason is that not many other people wanted to play; if I'd joined my college soccer team I'd have probably failed the tryouts and even if I'd passed I'd be up against much more competitive opponents, whereas with quidditch I got to be on the starting lineup. 

There can be many genres of music, and people can listen to adjacent and growing genres as well as the old and established tunes. There can be many fiction authors, and readers might go to the bookstore looking for their favourite and wind up picking up another book in the same section of the store. Those are places where the ladder isn't pulled up. Political parties tend to squelch nearby parties or split the vote, pulling the ladder up.

New social movements or groups are an opportunity for the ambitious and energetic. If you're the sort of person who wants to try running something, you may have a much easier time starting your own company rather than working your way up to CEO of an existing company. As Scott Alexander mentions in Can Things Be Both Popular and Silenced

"...with the institutional leaders sucking up all the status, it might be harder for some woman who’s just a very good writer and really in-touch with the zeitgeist to say 'Yes, I am the leader of feminism, everyone please care about me now'." 

This also explains some of the tendency for groups to fracture over time; the new and agentic find striking out with a splinter group more rewarding than working their way slowly up the chain of command.

One summary of LessWrong is that it started as a blog for a prolific and interesting writer, who spun off from another established blog. (OBNYC.) One summary of Slate Star Codex and Astral Codex Ten is it started as a blog for a prolific and interesting writer, who spun off from another established blog. (LessWrong.) One difference is that the software LessWrong was running on made it easier for someone else to write a lot and get noticed, in a way that the SSC/ACX comments aren't as suited for; even there though, Naval Gazing managed to start out as a regular in the SSC comment threads before spinning out into its own blog. If someone asked me for advice on becoming widely known and respected as a writer in the rationalist community, I might suggest starting on LessWrong but I wouldn't suggest staying there indefinitely. 

V. 

So how do you leave a rope ladder behind you, especially if you run something complicated that you might need to pass off?

The basic answer is to think of your starting point and try to see where past!you would get stuck if they tried to start now. That might vary based on the project and what you're like, so the following are answers for me.

First, write down what you did. This is helpful for you (you'd be amazed how much you can forget if you're not being careful; think of surgeons and checklists) and would be helpful for someone new. Even having a list of things that need done with no instructions is useful, since otherwise someone might be totally ignorant of something that they were expected to do. (Ask me about the 2019 NYC Solstice Afterparty sometime if you want a minor ops horror story.) Publishing the list widely is nice, but even a private and unedited google doc you can easily share if someone asks you is nice.

Second, do it with people. Having someone around to shadow you is an undervalued method of transferring knowledge. Work in teams; even if the team members don't usually talk to each other they can if you need to step back, recreating much of what's going on. That doesn't mean you need to split decision making; apprentice/teacher setups get this benefit as long as the two talk to each other. 

Third, whenever possible look for the holes your project doesn't cover and point people towards them. Gaps in government can be filled by local community organizations, Winter Solstice need not be run by the same people as Summer Solstice, and many is the open source project that could have been a feature in a bigger project but instead is a tool the larger project can import while giving the newcomer experience in maintaining a repo.

On a larger scale, if you're shepherding some vast movement or field, my advice is to deliberately protect the minor leagues. Have forms and spaces where someone can get a little recognition or authority by stepping up and raising their hand, and watch what they do with it. Let them practice in zones that don't have a lot of competition from the established and expert people in the field.

More than any specific series of steps which are going to be poorly fitting for any number of object level projects or fields, I want to put the concept of the ladder in your head. Present rate no singularity, someone will want to climb the ladder after you and unless you are in a competitive business environment, you probably want them to be successful. Try not to pull the ladder up behind you.

  1. ^

    A topic I mean to write about more at a later date, but; Rationalist Megameetup, Boston regular meetups, ACX Meetup Czar, LessWrong Community Survey, plus partial credit for Boston Solstice and Berkeley ACX Everywhere. I didn't start it, I don't think I would have come up with the idea independently, but someone else stopped doing it and I raised my hand and now I've done it and I think done it decently.

New Comment
17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
[-]philh1614

Ask me about the 2019 NYC Solstice Afterparty sometime if you want a minor ops horror story.

Consider yourself asked.

Epistemic status: memories from five years ago where I was stressed and sleep deprived at the time.

So, the primary thing I thought the Megameetup did was have overnight space for the people who registered for overnight and space during the day for people who registered for the day. I closed registrations when I thought we had as many people as the space could hold, and made most of my calculations and planning based on the number of people who registered. (Mostly food, but I'd also been asked to check that certain people the community had had problems with weren't attending.) I knew Solstice was going on that weekend and had coordinated a little bit with the Solstice organizer, but mostly just to know the time and location so I knew when to send people over. 

During the weekend- if I remember correctly, this was in the early afternoon on Saturday, so about five hours before Solstice and while the Megameetup was in full swing- people start pointing out that with registration closed, people who just planned to go to the afterparty didn't know if they were supposed to just show up or what. I don't remember the exact conversation, but basically over the course of about fifteen minutes I realized that lots of people were assuming that the megameetup would host Solstice's afterparty, and that an unknown number of people were attending Solstice who hadn't registered at all with Megameetup but expected to go to the afterparty. 

I have five hours to prepare for an unknown number of people to converge on us, when we were already at what I thought was capacity for the venue with a little safety margin, while simultaneously trying to keep the event I knew I was planning on course. I could try and tell people not to, but lots of people including my co-organizers have been assuming obviously the afterparty is at the Megameetup and people who went to solstice can come, even if they didn't tell Megameetup they were coming, and if Megameetup isn't hosting this then someone else is probably going to have to try and plan the afterparty with a different venue and that's going to be even more complicated.

We pulled it off, in hindsight I think it was fine, I don't know if anyone who wasn't in the room with me when I found this out even realized I didn't plan on having extra people from Solstice, but I was wound tighter than a drum for the rest of the weekend and that's still the second worst thing that's happened when running a megameetup from my perspective.

The moral of the story is, leave margins when planning occupancy and capacity limits for an event, and check explicitly and clearly what the expectations are when inheriting an event someone else has run before you.

2019's Rationalist Megameetup was. . . special and stressful in many ways, actually.

that's still the second worst thing that's happened when running a megameetup from my perspective.

You can't just say that and not elaborate!

Attendee: knock knock Hey, is the organizer in there?

Me: Yeah, what's up?

Attendee: The fire department is here, and we think an attendee just left in an ambulance but we're not sure who or why.

Me: . . . I'll be right out.

And that's the most stressful thing that's ever happened to me as an event organizer.

A history of the NYC Rationalist Megameetup is in my drafts. Someday I hope to finish it, ideally around when I announce 2024's iteration.

I, too would like to know about this

Nice post! I like the ladder metaphor.

For events, one saving grace is that many people actively dislike events getting too large and having too many people, and start to long for the smaller cozier version at that point. So instead of the bigger event competing with the smaller one and drawing people away from it, it might actually work the other way around, with the smaller event being that one that "steals" people from the bigger one.

Thank you! You're right, "nobody goes there, it's too crowded" is an effect that keeps the ladder unfurled, as is a kind of cohort dynamic I don't have as good a conceptual handle for[1]. This post is mostly talking about meetups because they're on my mind a lot and I had the examples handy. Ideally, the big and the small and the old and the new can reinforce and help each other, and sometimes that works. Other times, we get the pulled up ladder. 

  1. ^

    at a first pass description, sometimes there's no public meetup so someone starts one, meets a bunch of new people who don't have connections, makes friends, start having their friends over for dinner or going to museums and they're too busy to run the public meetups and don't need to because they have their social needs met. Then after a year or two of no public meetups, someone new starts one, and the cycle repeats, so you have multiple groups that don't intermix as much as one might hope. 

Promoted to curated: I liked this post. It's not world-shattering, but it feels like a useful reference for a dynamic that I encounter a good amount and does a good job at all the basics. The kind of post that on the margin I would like to see a bunch more off (I wouldn't want it to be the only thing on LessWrong, but it feels like the kind of thing LW used to excel at, and now is only dabbling in, and that seems quite sad). 

In less serious (but not fully unserious) citation of that particular site, it also contains an earlier depiction of literally pulling up ladders (as part of a comic based on treating LOTR as though it were a D&D campaign) that shows off what can sometimes result: a disruptive shock from the ones stuck on the lower side, in this case via a leap in technology level.

On the politics part : one thing I like very much with the Roman republic system was the concept of the "cursus honorum". Basically if you wanted to go for a politician career you had to start at the bottom, get elected to a first position, do well, get elected to something more prestigious, etc. And it worked very well - a significant part of Roman success was that their government (and generals) were way better than competing powers, in this was mainly due to having a lot of experienced, competent politicians and generals with somewhat well aligned incentives.

Interesting - I was thinking it was going to be about the analogy with collapse of civilization and how far we might fall. Because I am concerned that if we have a loss of industrial civilization, we might not be able to figure out how to go back to subsistence farming, or even hunting and gathering (Secret of Our Success), so we may fall to extinction. But I think there are ways of not pulling up the ladder behind us in this case as well (planning for meeting basic needs in low tech ways).

Yeah. Zoomed way out, has human civilization made it easier or harder for hunter/gatherers to build back up to a highly technological point? It's easier in some ways (our artifacts are lying around, showing it can be done and providing a point of study) and harder in others (we probably mined all the easily mined coal, though maybe the fact that we left mineshafts with the dregs helps?)

I don't really have an actionable solution there, so I'm using the civilization wide version to point at things closer to human scale.

Chief Bob's hearings might well be public[...] I don't think I've ever been present for an actual court case, just seen them on TV.

This seems to me like an odd example given that you're contrasting with American government, where court hearings are almost entirely public, written opinions are generally freely available, and court transcripts are generally public (though not always accessible for free). I guess the steelman version is that the contrast is a matter of geography or scale? Chief Bob's hearings are in your neighborhood and involve your neighbors, whereas your local court might be across town during the business day and involve disputes between people you don't know. But the American judicial system is a lot more accessible than it plausibly could be while still fulfilling its core function.

Yep, it's accessible. I haven't gone. 

This ties into a point I don't think I made very well in the original post, which is that doing all the work yourself and letting people feel like it's handled is tugging the ladder up at least a little bit. Imagine someone growing up in a household where their parents always cook all the meals, then they move out and abruptly realize they don't know how to fry an egg. It was always possible to watch the meal preparation, but why would they do that if they don't think ahead and realize someday they're going to have to do it themselves? 

There's a hazard in taking care of a problem too completely and too seamlessly, especially if you might someday stop. The American government is not what most people would call complete and seamless, but it has managed to let people not really pay attention to how it works most of the time.

Chief Bob's hearings are in your neighborhood, involve your neighbors, and you're expected to go and watch the proceedings because everyone else is. I'm not saying that's better overall- policy debates are not onesided.

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2025. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year.

Hopefully, the review is better than karma at judging enduring value. If we have accurate prediction markets on the review results, maybe we can have better incentives on LessWrong today. Will this post make the top fifty?