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Below are my notes regarding Alex Lawsen's article Know what you’re optimising for, which are essentially structured transcriptions. Any errors/misinterpretations are my own.

There is (sometimes) such a thing as a free lunch

  • You live in a world where most people, most of the time, think of things as categorical, rather than continuous.
  • In my view, one of the central ideas of effective altruism is the realisation that ‘doing good’ is not such a binary.
  • If most people don’t see huge differences between options that you do, you can concentrate on the very best options and face little competition from others.
  • Sometimes the converse is also true: people may treat something as continuous, and work hard at it, despite the returns to working harder actually being very small.
  • Two ideas that frequently appear in the advice I give:
    1. Try optimising for something.
    2. Know what you’re optimising for.

Idea #1: Consider optimising for something

  • You are allowed to try really hard to achieve a thing you care about, even when it’s a thing not that many people try hard to achieve.

Idea #2: Know what you’re optimising for

  • This idea is about being deliberate in what you’re trying hard to achieve. 
  • It’s about trying to ensure that the subject of the majority of your effort is in fact the most important thing.

People often optimise for the wrong thing

  • There’s a difference between doing things that are somewhat correlated with things you want (or even doing things that you expect to lead to things you want), and trying really unusually hard to actually get what you want.
  • Relevant example is that I often see (usually young) effective altruists optimising for impact per unit of time, rather than for the total impact they expect to have over their career.
  • The law of equal and opposite advice applies in many places, and this is one of them.

Trying to optimise for too many things can lead to optimising for nothing in particular

  • This typically plays out in one of two ways:
    • People try to optimise for so many things that they don’t end up making progress on any.
    • People just don’t optimise at all — because when so many things seem important, where do you even start?
  • In both cases, this often ends up with people trying to find an option that looks at least kind-of good according to multiple different criteria.
  • This often leads to only one option being considered… and that option not looking great.

What might this look like?

  • When facing a situation with multiple potential sources of value, you might be able to get outsized gains by just pushing really hard on one of them.
  • Picking one thing forces you to be deliberate about which thing you shoot for, and it makes it seem possible to actually optimise.
  • But I actually suspect that something even stronger is true: often just having a single goal is best.
    • The intuition here is that when you value things differently to the population average, your best options are likely to be skewed towards the things you care relatively more about.
    • If your preferences are in some way different from the average, some of the best places to look to exploit the differences are the extremes.

When do I expect this not to apply?

Multiplicative factors

  • Sometimes though, success looks more like a bunch of factors multiplied together than a bunch of things added together. 
  • When this is the case, it becomes really important that none of those factors end up getting set too low, which can be catastrophic.
  • In my view, the most important example of something that can be a multiplier on everything else you’re doing is personal health and wellbeing, especially when it is in danger of dropping below a certain level.
  • I care most that you take care of yourself as your number one priority.

Very good might be good enough

  • You’ll often find that as you keep trying to push the envelope further, it gets harder and harder to make progress.
  • It could be that you are in fact now making much fewer mistakes in your efforts, and the fewer mistakes you make, the harder it is to catch and eliminate them.
  • Whatever the reason is, there’s a chance that this is the time to pick a second thing, and push on that too.
  • In particular, when it comes to personal skill development, not only can it be easier to get extremely good at two things than truly world-class at one, in this case your skillset might look quite special.

Next steps

  • People who know what they are optimising for might ask themselves things like:
    • Is what I’m trying to achieve in this situation the right thing?
    • Am I trying to achieve multiple things at once? Is that the best strategy?
    • Does the thing I’m trying to achieve actually lead to something I want?
    • What would it look like if I focused on the most important thing and dropped the others?
  • It might be worth thinking about some aspect of your life, and ask yourself those questions now.
  • After reading this article, you may well think that this kind of mindset isn’t well-suited to the way you think. If that’s the case, that’s fine! Hopefully you now at least have a different perspective you can look at some decisions with.





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