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Over the last year, I have turned from somebody with a lot of time and relatively few social contacts to maintain into someone quite busy and well-networked. I'm by no means close to the top of the busyness hierarchy. But, I've climbed high enough to learn some lessons that I wish I knew before, when I had a lot of time and even more unearned confidence.

So here you go for what I've found, so that you shall make wiser life decisions than my younger self.

Note: The intended message of this post is not "Don't reach out to busy people!", but "Do reach out, and have these things in mind to make it more likely to get a response/if you don't get one."

1. The time and attention of central information nodes is more valuable than ours. Let's not waste it.

This is the one rule to rule them all - everything else I write here is just variations on it.

For example: Let's assume world-leading AGI alignment researcher Paul Christiano has put extensive research into finding the optimal soap dispenser, not only in regards to functionality and aesthetics, but also in regards to price. I still shouldn't ask him which soap dispenser to buy.

For even if he was the world-leading expert on buying cheap high-quality soap dispensers, it would be very unwise of me to waste one of his afternoons on a soap dispenser shopping tour. He is not the only one who could help me with that. And, the question which soap dispenser to pick for my bathroom is not very important in the first place. It would be unfortunate if we were to live in one of the branches of reality where humanity goes extinct because I wasted Paul Christiano's time on soap dispenser advice.

And, I hope that Christiano thinks the same and would never talk to me again if I were to make such a request. For I, too, care about the survival of humanity, and would prefer others to stop me if I threaten it.

2. Be swift and clear in your requests.

In my undergrad years, I studied continental philosophy and classical philology and was very, very proud of the aesthetic quality of my writing. Thus, I annoyed many a professor with way too flowery and way too long walls of text that could have been one sentence. Some professors found me adorable, others didn't quite appreciate me eating pieces of their time that they could have spent on, say, Wittgenstein instead. So don't be me, keep things as concise and clear as possible.

The complementary failure mode to sending busy people walls of text is giving so little info that they don't know why you reach out in the first place. I usually at least read long messages, though I may not respond. However, I tend to procrastinate responding to "Hi. How are you?" until I forget about it. I usually don't want to expend time on the dance of politeness before you tell me what you want, and it would feel too awkward to respond with a bold "What do you want?" Thus, I'll usually not respond at all and never even get the opportunity to decide whether I can make time for your request.

3. In case of doubt, ask for resources and introductions, not opinions.

One of the perks of being around for a while in any field is that over time, you get to know a ton of people, and that these people give you quick summaries of their favorite writings. So, I know a ton of people I could point you towards for all kinds of stuff, and I can recommend orders of magnitude more books to you than I have read myself. Writing lists of names and book titles is quick and easy, writing down my own opinions takes time and effort I, in case of doubt, can't and shouldn't afford.

So, busy people are way more likely to respond positively if you ask them for a reading list or introductions than for other types of favors. Plus: Others judge us by the quality of the introductions we make. If you filibuster me with lengthy texts, or demand favors from me I can't really squeeze into my schedule, I might be very weary to introduce you to someone who would be useful for you, but whose time you might disrespect - because then, I'd lose standing with that person and they'd be less likely to make time for other people I send their way.

4. Prepare.

If you have a call or a conference 1-on-1 with someone more senior than you, make sure that you know what you want to ask - and what you should rather not, because someone more junior might answer it just as well. 

5. Don't take "no"s or long response times personally.

As a 20-year-old edgy hippie, I sometimes struck up conversations with tipsy beggars. (Or they with me, because my ascetic environmentalist uniform at times had me fit the crowd quite well.)

I loved that: It gave me tiny glimpses into worlds so different from mine. I learned a bunch of things about the human condition from these exchanges that my peers who liked to stick to their bubbles will never experience. Yet, I don't really make time for conversations with tipsy beggars anymore, because there are dozens of conversations I could have at any moment, and those with tipsy beggars are rarely the most valuable ones anymore.

So, if I don't make time for you, or don't even respond, that doesn't mean that I disregard you as a person. It means that my inbox is overflowing and I have to prioritize, no matter how much I'd like to give you all the care and attention you deserve.

6. Make saying "no" easy.

The more central you grow in any field, the more requests you get, and the more often you have to say "no". And many humans are not very comfortable with letting others down. So, you can make things easier for us by explicitly encouraging a "no" in your messages:

  • "No need to respond if you're busy."
  • "Of course, no worries if not."
  • "[Non-urgent] Hey Anna, how'd you feel about..."
  • ...

If you get a "no" from us, responding with something like "Good that you prioritize. :)" can save us a lot of heartbreak, and surprise us positively in a way that makes it more likely we'll respond positively in the future.

7. Don't self-censor, let us decide whether something is worth our time.

If you make your request swift, transparent, and a "no" easy, I think no busy person ever will feel annoyed by it, even if they don't respond. So - if you heed this advice, please have a strong bias towards reaching out over not doing so. I suspect that way more value gets lost by people under- rather than overcommunicating, both with acquaintances and strangers.


And thus, I solemnly apologize to everyone whose time I wasted while I was still learning these lessons. Just so you know, I think you were right to prioritize other things.





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:38 AM

I think there is a bit of a problem with the "favor" mindset and too much of the onus is put on the person seeking help.

People with power, money, connections, and influence, to the extent that they are EA, should use these capabilities for good, and often this can be through helping other EAs (or people, for that matter). Such big people are extremely busy, but this probably means that they should have systems in place to help them deploy their capabilities to effective uses. If this means hiring someone or referring someone else to screen requests, this might be necessary.

If Big EAs are not responsible with the use of their capabilities on behalf of other EAs, we will probably only reach a fraction of our capacity for doing good.

Strong upvote!

I'm constantly putting some effort into automatizing information flows.

E.g., I asked an EA Berlin community member to write a how-to on finding housing in Berlin, because I get that question at least once a month.

If you have more ideas for how to automatize such things, I'd be excited to read about them.

You say "The intended message of this post is not 'Don't reach out to busy people!', but 'Do reach out, and have these things in mind to make it more likely to get a response/if you don't get one,'" but then your first example is:

"Let's assume world-leading AGI alignment researcher Paul Christiano has put extensive research into finding the optimal soap dispenser... I still shouldn't ask him which soap dispenser to buy... And, I hope that Christiano thinks the same and would never talk to me again if I were to make such a request."

Even putting aside that these points are at odds with each other, EA really—and I cannot emphasize this enough—needs to cut the hero worship that posts like this reinforce. Successful people would not be where they are if people around them hadn't put thousands of hours into parenting, supporting, and mentoring them. It would be dumb to waste literally anyone's afternoons on "a soap dispenser shopping tour," but also, ~no one successful would ever agree to do this, and ~no one would ever ask. It's not a real example. The more realistic example is probably something like: a computer science PhD student at a top university is on the fence about reaching out to ask for a 30-minute Zoom because they don't want to waste Christiano's time.

My sense is that people strongly err on the side of not reaching out to people they should reach out to because they're intimidated, or think they're too unimportant, or are worried about wasting others' time. This is actually quite bad, because there are probably a dozen smart, hardworking people who are under-mentored for each person who is over-mentored. Most of these people are not going to realize their full potential, and that threatens the survival of humanity.

As you ultimately note, people who are busy and important are typically quite good at managing their own time. (I once co-authored with another graduate student a formal, three-paragraph email proposing a research project to a famous professor and got the iconic response: "Zthanks but I don’t have time. There are others who could do it." Our email probably took 1.5 hours to write and edit; he probably took 15 seconds to respond.) Busy people can make their own decisions about how to allocate their time.

No hero worship at all intended, sorry if it came off like that. I agree with you that way too much of that happens in EA. Rockwell's "On living without idols" is with quite some distance my favorite piece on the EA Forum, and one of my favorite texts on all of the internet.

I'm one of the ~1% of EAs who have a natural tendency to ask for favors too leniently rather than too cautiously, so I would have appreciated knowing these things earlier. The core target audience of this post is people like me.

However, I do think the things I write here might be useful for people outside this group as well: In my understanding, a significant number of people outside my specific subset of neurodivergence tend to just pick up the meme of "better not waste central peoples' time and attention!" without ever putting much explicit thought into why things are generally done that way. So, I wanted to make explicit the practicalities behind that intuition, to demystify it and make reaching out to busy people more actionable.

I may have failed in that, I'm still in the process of learning to cater my writing to all the different sub-audiences within EA at once. Thanks for pointing out that the intended humor in my exaggerated Christiano-example wasn't apparent.

Just a note: this post could have opposite advice for people from guess culture rather than ask culture. See https://ask.metafilter.com/55153/Whats-the-middle-ground-between-FU-and-Welcome#830421

I.e., someone from ask culture might need to be warned not to bother people so much. Someone from guess culture might need to be told that it is ok to reach out to people once in a while.

Thanks! Yep, that is totally in line with the fact that the Karma score of the post here is much more mixed than on LessWrong, which definitely is an Askier sphere than EA.

I once made a related mistake:

At uni, I needed to to interact with my supervisor multiple times. They were very busy. I had to discuss a problem with them, that would take, say, 15 minutes of their time, but also their attention. But 15 minutes was way too much to ask! So I shortened to 1 minute, and this one 1 minute conversation did not solve the problem. I was still stuck and had to return with a very similar question later. In the end, I took more of their time, rather than less.

I would have wasted much less of their time if I had literally said to them: "I have a problem. Could we sit down for 15 minutes to discuss? Do you have a moment that works for you? It doesn't need to be soon."

Guess how much of my own time this would have saved...

A point I'd add, or perhaps a variation of point 2, is: 

Provide the necessary context: introduce yourself in a way that lets them know enough to get an idea of who you are in relation to them, explain the reason for your message concisely and be explicit with what action is required so that they can target the best response. 

It's better to write an additional paragraph in order to provide context, than to send a series of concise questions you need answers to without letting them know why they should care about replying in the first place.

Side note: I've read the post on pocket first, and it simply omitted section 7 without any hint of its existence. Wonder if that happens more frequently.

As for the post itself, I do agree with most of it. I think though that it (particularly point 1) has some risk of reinforcing some people's perception of reaching out to well known people as a potential status violation, which I think is already quite common in EA (although I know of some people who would disagree with me on this). I would guess most people already have a tendency to "not waste important people's time" (whatever "important" means to them) and rather err on the side of avoiding these people and e.g. not ask for a 1-1 at a conference even though they might benefit greatly from it. To make it short, I agree quite strongly with your point 7, but not so much with (the general vibe of) point 1.

Thanks! Yep, I'm definitely an outlier in EA regarding how much I don't care about authority.

I added section 7 a couple hours after publication to account for feedback on the lesswrong side of this post. Now also added a disclaimer at the start:

"Note: The intended message of this post is not "Don't reach out to busy people!", but "Do reach out, and have these things in mind to make it more likely to get a response/if you don't get one." "

An underrated solution here is for the busy person to simply charge for their time. Some professionals already do this - my coworker recently paid a few hundred dollars for an hour of time from someone who built a successful social media app.
It can be as easy as turning on the Stripe integration on your Calendly.

Helps in some situations, yea.

At the same time, in EA, having access to spare cash and potential for impact are not necessarily highly correlated. So, if this becomes the only solution, it might make a bunch of extremely high EV conversations just not happen.