Examples are totally worth digging into! Yeah, I actually find myself surprised and slightly confused by the situation with Einstein, and do make the active predictions that he had some strong connections in physics (e.g. at some point had a really great physics teacher who’d done some research). In general I think Ramanujan-like stories of geniuses appearing from nowhere are not the typical example of great thinkers / people who significantly change the world. If I’m I right I should be able to tell such stories about the others, and in general I do think that great people tend to get networked together, and that the thinking patterns of the greatest people are noticed by other good people before they do their seminal work cf. Bell Labs (Shannon/Feynman/Turing etc), Paypal Mafia (Thiel/Musk/Hoffman/Nosek etc), SL4 (Hanson/Bostrom/Yudkowsky/Legg etc), and maybe the Republic of Letters during the enlightenment? But I do want to spend more time digging into some of those.
To approach from the other end, what heuristics might I use to find people who in the future will create massive amounts of value that others miss? One example heuristic that Y Combinator uses to determine who in advance is likely to find novel, deep mines of value that others have missed is whether the individuals regularly build things to fix problems in their life (e.g. Zuckerberg built lots of simple online tools to help his fellow students study while at college).
Some heuristics I use to tell whether I think people are good at figuring out what’s true, and make plans for it, include:
Does the person, in conversation, regularly take long silent pauses to organise their thoughts, find good analogies, analyse your argument, etc? Many people I talk to take silence as a significant cost, due to social awkwardness, and do not make the trade-off toward figuring out what’s true. I always trust the people more that I talk to who make these small trade-offs toward truth versus social cost
Does the person have a history of executing long-term plans that weren’t incentivised by their local environment? Did they decide a personal-project (not, like, getting a degree) was worth putting 2 years into, and then put 2 years into it?
When I ask about a non-standard belief they have, can they give me a straightforward model with a few variables and simple relations, that they use to understand the topic we’re discussing? In general, how transparent are their models to themselves, and are the models general simple and backed by lots of little pieces of concrete evidence?
Are they good at finding genuine insights in the thinking of people who they believe are totally wrong?
My general thought is that there isn’t actually a lot of optimisation process put into this, especially in areas that don’t have institutions built around them exactly. For example academia will probably notice you if you’re very skilled in one discipline and compete directly in it, but it’s very hard to be noticed if you’re interdisciplinary (e.g. Robin Hanson’s book sitting between neuroscience and economics) or if you’re not competing along even just one or two of the dimensions it optimises for (e.g. MIRI researchers don’t optimise for publishing basically at all, so when they make big breakthroughs in decision theory and logical induction it doesn’t get them much notice from standard academia). So even our best institutions at noticing great thinkers with genuine and valuable insights seem to fail at some of the examples that seem most important. I think there is lots of low hanging fruit I can pick up in terms of figuring out who thinks well and will be able to find and mine deep sources of value.
Edit: Removed Bostrom as an example at the end, because I can’t figure out whether his success in academia, while nonetheless going through something of a non-standard path, is evidence for or against academia’s ability to figure out whose cognitive processes are best at figuring out what’s surprising+true+useful. I have the sense that he had to push against the standard incentive gradients a lot, but I might just be false and Bostrom is one of academia’s success stories this generation. He doesn’t look like he just rose to the top of a well-defined field though, it looks like he kept having to pick which topics were important and then find some route to publishing on them, as opposed to the other way round.
For scientific publishing, I looked into the latest available paper and apparently the data are best fitted by a model where the impact of scientific papers is predicted by Q.p, where p is “intrinsic value” of the project and Q is a parameter capturing the cognitive ability of the researcher. Notably, Q is independent of the total number of papers written by the scientist, and Q and p are also independent. Translating into the language of digging for gold, the prospectors differ in their speed and ability to extract gold from the deposits (Q). The gold in the deposits actually is randomly distributed. To extract exceptional value, you have to have both high Q and be very lucky. What is encouraging in selecting the talent is the Q seems relatively stable in the career and can be usefully estimated after ~20 publications. I would guess you can predict even with less data, but the correct “formula” would be trying to disentangle interestingness of the problems the person is working on from the interestingness of the results.
(As a side note, I was wrong in guessing this is strongly field-dependent, as the model seems stable across several disciplines, time periods, and many other parameters.)
Interesting heuristics about people :)
I agree the problem is somewhat different in areas not that established/institutionalized where you don’t have clear dimensions of competition, or the well measurable dimensions are not that well aligned with what is important. Loooks like another understudied area.
 Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact, Sinatra et.al. Science, http://www.sciencesuccess.org/uploads/1/5/5/4/15543620/science_quantifying_aaf5239_sinatra.pdf
I copied this exchange to my blog, and there were an additonal bunch of interesting comments there.