Beware Invisible Mistakes

Some kinds of mistakes are very visible/​salient. Mistakes in execution are often salient. When you organize an event and very few people show up, it’s pretty clear that you didn’t do enough advertising, or that your advertising was ineffective, or the thing you were organizing an event around wasn’t interesting enough to other people in the first place (or something else, gotta hedge :D). Mistakes that are publicly visible (or at least visible to some others) are also (way) more salient. I have spread myself too thin, and overpromised and underdelivered—and have let others down. Other people knowing the mistakes I’ve made makes them quite salient.

Other kinds of mistakes are harder to notice, sometimes so much so that we don’t even realize they’re mistakes. These often relate to opportunity cost, which is the difference between the thing you did, and the best thing you could have done instead. When I waste a few (high energy/​high-focus) hours, or sometimes a whole day (rip) on Youtube, the opportunity cost of what I could have done with that day is often not very salient. (This specifically is no longer an issue, thanks Cold Turkey!) It’s really sad to think about how much more good I could have accomplished with all the time I spent watching tennis and Youtube, or how much more effective I’d be if I’d sufficiently invested in my productivity habits and mental/​physical health at a younger age.

Strategic mistakes are often not salient (h/​t Nate Thomas). It might not be very clear that you’re making a mistake if you’re doing something really well, but are focusing on the wrong thing entirely—e.g. getting really good at performing surgeries for Kaposi’s sarcoma instead of optimizing education about HIV/​AIDS for high risk groups (see here for more). (Yes, this is also an example of opportunity cost).

Doing things is hard. When you do things, you often subject yourself to lots of potential scrutiny. If you try and fail, your failure is salient, and often visible to (some subset of) the world. If you don’t try at all, no one blames you for not trying. I’d love for us to be more cognizant of strategic mistakes/​opportunity cost/​other low-salience things, and hold ourselves to higher standards. Though this post is focused on mistakes and correcting them, we shouldreward each other for pushing ourselves (which can look like running experiments to find out how to optimize our productivity, determining how much and what kinds of work we can do sustainably, getting coaching, etc), and for actually trying, even if we fail.

So how can we make these invisible mistakes more salient, and integrate these ideas into how we spend our time and make decisions?

  • Internalizing the concept of opportunity cost and the extreme importance of time has made the cost of wasting my time much more salient to me. Estimating (with lots of uncertainty) how much good I can do per hour (e.g. in terms of lives saved, OpenPhil dollars spent, etc) has had a similar effect.

  • Thomas Kwa’s post Effectiveness is a Conjunction of Multipliers makes the importance of strategic mistakes quite clear. Brief summary: Not considering one 10x multiplier, even when I correctly identify five others, means only having 10% of the impact I could’ve had if I had considered it. Perhaps the most important examples of how thinking about strategy has been important for me have been:

    • Reading, talking to people, and thinking a lot about cause prioritization, and Regularly asking myself “What might be 10 (or 1000) times more impactful than what I currently work on?”.

  • Figure out ways to spend your time and resources more effectively. Figure out which kinds of work you can excel at (I recommend checking out this post for ideas). Figure out what productive activities you can do while tired (e.g. some people get energy from and enjoy talking to people, which can be quite valuable, or naps/​walks instead of internet binges). Figure out which of the things you spend time on can be outsourced, or take much less time (e.g. Instacart vs. buying groceries, delivery vs. cooking, Ubers vs. walking/​public transit, etc).

Thomas’ post, and Alkjash’s Pain is not the unit of Effort are also helpful for reminding myself that making the most of my time is not the same as working myself to the brink of burnout. I really like Alkjash’s definition of “actually trying” from the aforementioned post: “​​using all the tools at your disposal, getting creative, throwing money at the problem to make it go away” and importantly, not “subjecting yourself to as much suffering as you’re able to endure to prove to yourself and others that you’re a virtuous studious workhorse.”

Doing good sustainably is important, but given the stakes of the problems we’re trying to solve, it really seems critically important to push ourselves to our (long-term, sustainable) limits, and be as strategic as we can to do the most good.