Sometimes I hear people say ‘how can make a big difference to the world, when I can’t make a big difference to that pile of dishes in my sock drawer?’ How can I improve the sustainability of world energy usage when I can’t improve the sustainability of my own Minecraft usage? The basic thought is that if you can’t do ‘easy’ things that humans are meant to be able to do, on the scale of your own life, you probably lack general stuff-doing ability, and are not at the level where you can do something a million times more important. 

I think this is a generally wrong model, for two reasons. One is that the difficulty of actions is not that clearly well ordered—if you have a hard time keeping your room tidy, this just doesn’t say that much about whether you can write well or design rockets or play the piano.

The second reason is that the difficulty of actions doesn’t generally scale with their consequences. I think this is more unintuitive.

Some examples:

  1. Applying for funding for a promising new anti-cancer drug is probably about as hard as applying for funding for an investigation into medieval references to toilet paper (and success is probably easier), but the former is much more valuable.  
  2. Having a good relationship with your ex Bob might be about as hard and take about the same skills as having a good relationship with your more recent ex Trevor, but if you have children with Trevor, the upside of that effort may be a lot higher.
  3. If you have a hard time making a speech at your brother’s birthday, you will probably also have a hard time making a speech to the UN. But, supposing it is fifty thousand times more important, it isn’t going to be fifty thousand times harder. It’s not even clear that it is going to be harder at all—it probably depends on the topic and your relationship with your family and the UN.
  4. Writing a good book about x-risk is not obviously much harder than writing a good book about the role of leprechauns through the ages, but is vastly more consequential in expectation.

My basic model is that you can have skills that let you do particular physical transformations (an empty file into a book, some ingredients into a cake), and there are different places you can do those tricks, and some of the places are just much higher leveraged than others. Yet the difficulty is mostly related to the skill or trick. If you are trying to start a fire, holding the burning match against the newspapers under the logs is so much better than holding it in the air nearby or on the ground or at the top of the logs, and this doesn’t involve the match being better or worse in any way.

In sum, there isn’t a clear ladder of actions a person can progress through, with easy unimportant ones at the bottom, and hard important ones at the top. There will be hard-for-you unimportant actions, and easy-for-you important actions. The last thing you should do if you come across a hard-for-you unimportant action is stop looking for other things to do. If you are bad at keeping your room clean and room cleanliness isn’t crucial to your wellbeing, then maybe look for the minimum version of cleanliness that that lets you live happily, and as quickly as possible get to finding things that are easier for you, and places to deploy them that are worthwhile.


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I'm having a hard time squaring the right thing to say here. On the one hand, I do think that making big, decade long plans that work and achieve your goals is a continuation of the parts of me that makes plans that work on a day-to-day basis. When I'm exerting forces to figure out how to learn some math deeply, or make plans to make sure progress happens in alignment research, this is the same force that I personally use when making sure I do focused work in the LW offices, or indeed tidying my bedroom.

One the other hand, I think people have classes of areas where they're able to make plans that work, and this sometimes interacts in funny ways with tasks people think of as 'basic' such as cleaning the dishes and not playing too much minecraft. Now, I actually don't think that this is quite the right carving of reality. For example, I think that there are many ways of having a tidy house / bedroom. One way is the extension of the skill required to design environments and buildings generally, being able to think about how people interact with their environment, build natural affordances into it (e.g. at my house all the drawers and cupboard have a little label with what's in them, making it easy for all of the housemates and guests to return things). Another way is have a broadly minimalist approach (I own relatively few things, making it harder to mess them up). There are other ways. Several of these skills just don't overlap with other important skills, such as taste in mathematical proofs, or the skill of judging papers in a way that lets you do efficient literature reviews with google scholar.

I am not sure how to resolve these two perespectives I have. The model you lay out in the post is helpful, and I agree with your last paragraph.

Y combinator is super into this. It's easier to solve a big problem than a small one, mostly because there is more motivation, excitement, and it's easier to get people on board.

Yes, if you can't do an unimportant thing X, I can't judge whether you'll be able to do important thing Y, because I don't know what the relationship in difficulty is between X and Y.

But if you can't do an easy thing, surely I can judge that you'll have even more of a problem doing a difficult thing.

And there aren't going to be many things in the world easier than cleaning your room or loading the dishwasher, right?

This feels very much like typical mind fallacy. Sure, for me, cleaning my room and loading the dishwasher are extremely easy, mindless things. But I know some people - my boyfriend, for instance - for whom household chores take up an undue amount of mental energy and are near-physically painful to do. On the other hand, he can happily spend hours trying to figure out a complex physics problem (while for me, this takes an undue amount of mental energy and is near-physically painful). Perhaps a more widespread example is reading books. Some people find it relaxing and do it all the time; other people have to exert a lot of mental violence to do it.

So, forcing my boyfriend to do 'easy' things like doing the laundry or reading a novel is going to be an uphill battle, but it could well be the case that doing AI safety research would, to him, feel like an endless stream of fun. I think that's the point Katja's making. Everybody's different.

This presupposes that you know what the difficulty level is for the person in question. It also ignores a ton of stuff that can get between "easy thing" and "actual doing", like what their priorities, interests, and abilities are.

Let's say Bob has a really important project he needs to work on. He's stuck and obsessed with it. Meanwhile, his room goes uncleaned and his dishwasher unloaded. He's not accomplishing anything, but he's not doing those simple things because he's pouring energy into something else.

Now let's consider Alice. Alice is a blind paraplegic computer programmer, who runs rings around her peers when it comes to coding. Programming for her is super easy, barely an inconvenience. But cleaning up the room or loading the dishwasher are not exactly her strengths.

And then there's Carl. He spends hours playing video games at insanely high difficulty levels that nobody else can match. But putting away dishes is boring, and doesn't get him that sweet sweet cred... or endorsement deals and advertising revenue. He'll do it tomorrow, for sure. Maybe. Or maybe his mom will.

None of these people's rooms are getting cleaned or dishwashers loaded, but that fact by itself tells you very little about what that person can accomplish. (After all, Bob could easily be a successful best-selling author who lets his place go to hell when he gets stuck in the middle of a book project.)

Those are all people who don't really consider cleaning their room important (Alice, if she considered it important, could easily hire a cleaning service with her programmer salary).

I'm not talking about people who don't clean up because they're "pouring energy into something else" or because "putting away dishes is boring" or because they have a physical disability. I'm talking about the people from Katja's post:

‘how can make a big difference to the world, when I can’t make a big difference to that pile of dishes in my sock drawer?’

This sounds to me like someone who wants to load the dishwasher, but finds themselves unable to. Like someone who's frustrated with themselves; not someone who's happy with the state of the affairs because they have better things to do.

In this case, I would expect this to be a pretty good predictor of not being able to do things that are more difficult (for an able-bodied person) than loading the dishwasher. And while there will not be much of a correlation between difficulty and importance, I would still say that virtually all non-trivial accomplishments in the world will be over the "loading the dishwasher" threshold of difficulty.

Does that make sense?

You're overloading "want" here. If all of your sub-agents want to load a dishwasher, then surely you will load the dishwasher. If some of your sub-agents want to load a dishwasher, but need to get other sub-agents on board in order to do so, then you might not. It depends on how good your dishwasher agent is at recruiting the other agents. But this recruitment problem is not a subproblem of every other task you might care about.

The last thing you should do if you come across a hard-for-you unimportant action is stop looking for other things to do.

I think you can go even more general and say, "don't do unimportant things".