Articles are invitations

by AllAmericanBreakfast3 min read17th Mar 20211 comment

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Reading articles is too damned easy. It's a click away. And there's so much knowledge jam-packed into articles, that it's got to be the best way to learn, right?

The one downside of articles is that they're dumb. As in, they're a piece of paper, or pixels on a screen, and they can't talk to you, get to know you, figure out what you need to know right now, and emphasize it appropriately. The way we choose articles, via classroom assignments or Google search results, is slightly better personalized.

And there's vastly more out there to read than you can ever achieve, too much you could be doing, so it's much more important to read and remember the right information than to absorb the most information.

Cultural transmission of knowledge is the secret to our success. And until we get that superintelligent friendly AI, the very smartest thing in the known universe is another human being.

What's so good about contacting the authors of articles you like and trying to build a relationship with them?

  1. Mutual understanding. Writings are, first and foremost, a way to understand the mind of another person. They might be right, wrong, or somewhere in between, but they show you how the author was thinking at the time. It also demonstrates that they wanted other people to know, primarily the people - like you! - who they expected to come across it. And they probably wanted to discuss it further. That's not always true, but it often is, and there is vastly more value for you and the world in assuming that they're excited to have a conversation and start exploring a relationship with you than assuming they don't.
  2. Tailored real-world help. They have the ability to carefully fit their recommendations to your interests. They can recommend not just articles, but bits of articles or broad concepts, as well as people you should talk to. They can show you how to do physical things. They can give you resources. They can make introductions. They can show you they care.
  3. Finding a team. When we collaborate, we get practice, we learn things, we show our skill, and we form relationships. Teamwork is both necessary for most forms of object-level work, and crucial for planning the next project. The success of a startup or a nonprofit isn't just about the value of the product or service, although that's very important. It's also about the quality of the team.
  4. Focus. The articles people publish, the books they write, and even the ones they reference or cite, give you a basis for a much more focused conversation with that person. Over the last few years, I've cold-emailed so many people that I've completely lost my fear. Before I do, I look up their web presence and read through at least part of their recent written output, which I use to decide who to talk to and what to talk about with them.
  5. Mutual aid. Relationships are, crucially, a chance to exchange information about each others' competencies, including on a social level, and also about our preferences and goals. And if we're both going around networking and building relationships, we can help each other network in the future, by making introductions. When somebody is willing to talk to you, they're expressing that they believe that the conversation is the most useful thing they could be doing with their time.
  6. Refining your reading list. In Scrum, you have to constantly refine your product backlog. Article-based conversations are a great way to refine your tsundoku. Since there's so much more to read than you ever possibly can, it's much more important to avoid reading unnecessary things than to read more. There's also more people out there than you can ever possibly meet, but tell me truly: is it conversations with new people, or article-reading, that you need more of in your life?

PM your favorite EA article authors and ask to talk about your ideas and aspirations. Write a post about who you are and what you're trying to do in your life. I did that here, and developed a wonderful and productive collaborative friendship with Vaidehi Agarwalla. Contact a teacher at a community college, or an administrator at a nonprofit, and ask them for an hour of their time to talk about the problems they face in their work.

Articles are invitations. Why aren't you accepting them more often?

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In my experience, when I Facebook message or email EAs I have met in person, bringing up conversation topics I think are substantially higher value than the median topic we would probably wander into during casual chitchat at a party, my message is ignored a large fraction of the time. I don't think this is specific to EAs, I think people are just really flakey when it comes to responding to messages. But it is demoralizing and IMO it destroys a lot of the value of the EA network.

I guess what I'm saying is, maybe keep your expectations low for sending people cold emails and cold messages...

And err on the side of responding to messages that people do send you. It's quick & easy to reply and say something like "Sorry, I'm not interested", which increases the probability that the person will send you another message later that you are interested in later (as opposed to deciding that "it would be awkward/humiliating to message Person X again since they ignored my last message, so I will refrain from doing so even though this new message might be really important for them to read.")