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Startups aren't good for learning

I fairly frequently have conversations with people who are excited about starting their own project and, within a few minutes, convince them that they would learn less starting project than they would working for someone else. I think this is basically the only opinion I have where I can regularly convince EAs to change their mind in a few minutes of discussion and, since there is now renewed interest in starting EA projects, it seems worth trying to write down.

It's generally accepted that optimal learning environments have a few properties:

  • You are doing something that is just slightly too hard for you.
    • In startups, you do whatever needs to get done. This will often be things that are way too easy (answering a huge number of support requests) or way too hard (pitching a large company CEO on your product when you've never even sold bubblegum before).
    • Established companies, by contrast, put substantial effort into slotting people into roles that are approximately at their skill level (though you still usually need to put in proactive effort to learn things at an established company). 
  • Repeatedly practicing a skill in "chunks"
    • Similar to the last point, established companies have a "rhythm" where e.g. one month per year where everyone has a priority of writing up reflections on how the sales cycle is going, commenting on each other's writeups, and updating your own. Startups do things by the seat of their pants, which means employees are usually rapidly switching between tasks.
  • Feedback from experts/mentorship
    • Startup accelerators like YCombinator partially address this, but still a defining characteristic of starting your own project is that you are doing the work without guidance/oversight.

Moreover, even supposing you learn more at a startup, it's worth thinking about what it actually is you learn. I know way more about the laws regarding healthcare insurance than I did before starting a company, but that knowledge isn't super useful to me outside the startup context.

This isn't a 100% universal knockdown argument – some established companies suck for professional development, and some startups are really great. But by default, I would expect startups to be worse for learning.

All the things you mention are skills too though: knowing how to handle tasks that are too hard or just tasks you've never done before, prioritising between many easy and hard tasks, being able to work without oversight or clear rhythm, working in fast-paced environment, knowing how to attract people to work with you, etc.

I lowkey feel these skills are less common and more valuable to society than many other skills. Guess it depends which skills you wish to pick up.

Thanks! I'm not sure I fully understand your comment – are you implying that the skills you mention are easier to learn in a startup?

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with that view :)

Yes, I was implying these skills are easier to learn in a startup.

I'd be keen to know your view. Where do you feel is a better place to pick up such skills?

Working for/with people who are good at those skills seems like a pretty good bet to me.

E.g. "knowing how to attract people to work with you" – if person A has a manager who was really good at attracting people to work with them, and their manager is interested in mentoring, and person B is just learning how to attract people to work with them from scratch at their own startup, I would give very good odds that person A will learn faster.

If person A has a manager who was really good at attracting people to work with them, and their manager is interested in mentoring

Can you give some advice about the topic of attracting good people to work with you, or have any writeups you like?

Thank you, that makes sense. So - being a cofounder / early employee could work? (Assuming the founder has these skills)

Yeah definitely. I don't want to claim that learning is impossible at a startup – clearly it's possible – just that, all else equal, learning usually happens faster at existing companies.

It depends on what you want to learn. At a startup, people will often get a lot more breadth of scope than they would otherwise in an established company. Yes, you might not have in-house mentors or seasoned pros to learn from, but these days motivated people can fill in the holes outside the org.

I think I agree with this. Two things that might make starting a startup a better learning opportunity than your alternative, in spite of it being a worse learning environment:

  1. You are undervalued by the job market (so you can get more opportunities to do cool things by starting your own thing)
  2. You work harder in your startup because you care about it more (so you get more productive hours of learning)

It depends what you want to learn

As you said.

  • Founding a startup is a great way to learn how to found a startup.
  • Working as a backend engineer in some company is a great way to learn how to be a backend engineer in some company.

(I don't see why to break it up more than that)

Longform's missing mood

If your content is viewed by 100,000 people, making it more concise by one second saves an aggregate of one day across your audience. Respecting your audience means working hard to make your content shorter.

When the 80k podcast describes itself as "unusually in depth," I feel like there's a missing mood: maybe there's no way to communicate the ideas more concisely, but this is something we should be sad about, not a point of pride.[1]

  1. I'm unfairly picking on 80k, I'm not aware of any long-form content which has this mood that I claim is missing ↩︎

This is a thoughtful post and a really good sentiment IMO!

When the 80k podcast describes itself as "unusually in depth," I feel like there's a missing mood: maybe there's no way to communicate the ideas more concisely, but this is something we should be sad about, not a point of pride.

As you touched on, I’m not sure 80k is a good negative example, to me it seems like a positive example of how to handle this? 

In addition to a tight intro, 80k has a great highlight section, that to me, looks like someone smart tried to solve this exact problem, balancing many considerations. 

This highlight section has good takeaways and is well organized with headers. I guess this is useful for 90% of people who only browse at the content for 1 minute.

Thanks for the push back! I agree that 80k cares more about the use of their listener's time than most podcasters, although this is a low bar.

80k is operating under a lot of constraints, and I'm honestly not sure if they are actually doing anything incorrectly here. Notably, the fancy people who they get on the podcast probably aren't willing to devote many hours to rephrasing things in the most concise way possible, which really constrains their options.

I do still feel like there is a missing mood though.

An EA Limerick

(Lacey told me this was not good enough to actually submit to the writing contest, so publishing it as a short form.)

An AI sat boxed in a room 

Said Eliezer: "This surely spells doom! 

With self-improvement recursive, 

And methods subversive 

It will just simply go 'foom'."