Complex value & situational awareness

by Milan_Griffes2 min read16th Apr 201916 comments



Epistemic status: theorizing.

Previously: EA jobs provide scarce non-monetary goods; It is really, really hard to get hired by an EA organisation

Here are two types of activity that (a) I genuinely enjoy and (b) seem quite useful:

  1. Adding complex value
  2. Maintaining situational awareness

Complex value

What does "adding complex value" mean?

It means all the efforts (often small, often done at the margin) that are difficult to automate / formalize, and are (in aggregate) crucial for pulling a project together.

Complex value is the grease that helps all the machine's cogs run together.


  • Establishing new linkages in the social graph by making introductions
  • Reviewing & giving feedback on drafts of writing, pre-publication
  • Reading & commenting on writing, post-publication
  • Having new ideas about things that would be good to do (especially things that would be good to do on the margin; big new ideas can be turned into standalone projects or companies)
  • Helping refine the pitch for a new idea; understanding and articulating the bear & bull cases for the idea
  • Pitching good new ideas to relevant people that are plausibly interested

Situational awareness

What does "maintaining situational awareness" mean?

It's all the reading & conversations that are undertaken to learn what's happening in the world, to keep your world-model up to date with both social reality & objective, physical reality.

Maintaining situational awareness dovetails nicely with adding complex value – the better your situational awareness, the more opportunities for adding complex value you'll see.


  • Lurking on twitter (especially with a well-curated feed)
  • Using various other social media (though the signal:noise ratio of other social media tends to be far worse than that of well-curated twitter)
  • Reading company & project slacks
  • Semi-formal "update" conversations with other actors in project domains you care about
  • Informal conversations with friends who happen to work in project domains you care about
  • Attending conferences
  • Gossip

Note that very different information sets flow through formal & informal networks. These sets tend to be complementary, so it seems important to be tapped into both.

Note also that situational awareness seems distinct from "learning about a subject." Probably the distinction cleaves on where most of the learning occurs – situational awareness focuses its learning on social reality ("who thinks what about who/what?"), whereas the locus of learning about subjects tends to be in physical reality ("how does this part of physical reality work?").

Stereotypical city for situational awareness: DC
Stereotypical city for learning about subjects: SF

Unfortunately, though both adding complex value & maintaining situational awareness are high-value, it's hard to earn a living by making them your main focus.

It is possible to do this, e.g. one way of understanding the original pitch for GiveWell is "create an institution in philanthropy that will aggregate explicit & implicit information sets, remain at the frontier of situational awareness, and identify leveraged opportunities for adding complex value in the philanthropic sector."

80,000 Hours is another example of this, aimed at the domain of "policy & research careers" rather than at philanthropy.

I'm still learning about how to successfully establish something like this. My current take is that (a) it's generally hard to do, (b) the base rate of success is very low, and (c) successful attempts leaned heavily on leveraging pre-existing reputation & social relationships.

Cross-posted to LessWrong and my blog. Thanks to Dony Christie for conversations that introduced me to the "complex value" meme, and to Aaron Tucker for conversations that introduced me to the "situational awareness" meme.


16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:32 PM
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Are there particular instances in which you think someone has generated a lot of value by "maintaining situational awareness"?

It's easy to think of examples of people generating complex value (any CEO), but I can't immediately think of a "situational awareness MVP" who didn't have some kind of formal job devoted to said awareness. (Journalists are a group of people paid in part to maintain this awareness, but I'm looking for examples outside of professions like that.)

Also I'm not confident you internalized this part of the post:

Maintaining situational awareness dovetails nicely with adding complex value – the better your situational awareness, the more opportunities for adding complex value you'll see.

Could be restated as: "situational awareness uncovers opportunities for adding complex value."

In some sense, "person was situationally aware" is upstream of all examples of adding complex value.

I think this is your strongest point, but the question remains whether you can specialize in situational awareness and adding complex value. Personally, I think you need to have a main hustle to really apply these abilities.

Any "strategic advisor" role is essentially specializing in this.

e.g. Jon Behar at The Life You Can Save; e.g. Howie Lempel at 80,000 Hours.

Also anyone doing "special projects" is essentially this.

But they have project projects as well as what you're describing.

A few thoughts on this since I'm used as an example:

1. Very much agree with Holly (strong upvote) that having a main gig is critical (essential?) for situational awareness. In my case, having run Giving Games over the years it’d be really weird for me not to have picked up some situational awareness along the way. I’ve had countless conversations with different EAs (there are hundreds of contacts in the GG CRM which isn’t close to comprehensive), so I’ve met a lot of people and gotten a sense how they think. I also get a sense of how they perform on the narrow task of planning and executing a GG, in an absolute sense and relative to other people/groups. My mental model would look enormously different if I didn’t have all this context.

2. Related to 1, I think it’s been valuable that my role naturally provided vetting opportunities that help me weight information (especially if I see a pattern of behavior). This suggests that if EA is vetting constrained, it’ll be less situationally aware. And for the EA community to become situationally aware, that vetting needs to be public. My personal vetting anecdata doesn’t help other people improve their mental models, GiveWell’s research does.

3. To the extent I’m good at situational awareness, a lot of it has to do with learned skills. “Keep your world-model up to date with both social reality & objective, physical reality” was a huge part of the work I used to do in finance. I spent years doing that specific kind of work, got trained by smart people, and trained other people (which helps you learn something deeper).

4. Milan, I think you’re probably reading too much into the situational awareness/strategic advisor relationship, as strategic advisor can cover a lot of different ground.

Re: (1), agree that doing object-level things is important for being able to add complex value. (Both because it builds up one's track record & because a lot of "adding complex value" cashes out into object-level projects.)

Totally agree re: (3).

You're probably right re: (4), I'll think about this more.

Some of Eli Tyre's work is also a good example of this. Details on this thread.

Are there particular instances in which you think someone has generated a lot of value by "maintaining situational awareness"?

Alex Chen is the archetype of "generating value by maintaining situational awareness"

(Among other things, he was the top question-asker on Quora for a long time, and perhaps still holds the record for "asked most questions on Quora")

He's an amazing networker, which is enabled by his situational awareness. (Really anyone who's a good networker is so because of their good situational awareness.)

I know Alex as a friend, but I don't really know what the outcome has been of his networking/Quora activity. Can you provide any concrete examples of value he's generated by doing what he does?

Unfortunately (and also related to some of the points of the OP), all the concrete examples that come to mind are confidential.

Actually, I've gotten a lot of personal value from being on a couple facebook messenger groups he curates. That's not confidential :-)

Not to be mean, but how much value has Alex actually generated? The size of his network is very impressive, but do we know that making it has had substantial positive outcomes?

(This is mostly a rhetorical question because I know Alex and his activities very well. I know my opinion but perhaps you will disagree. Also, he knows about my skepticism.)

I don't know enough to give an exhaustive account here.

I can say with high confidence that the 2019 Intercollegiate Psychedelics Summit at UPenn would not have happened if not for Alex's networking.

"Staying relevant is my long goal"

-- Alex Chen