A small pile of thoughts on psychology of entrepreneurship

by quinn6 min read23rd Dec 2020No comments

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status: nervous about posting this because there's definitely a class of people out there that will read this as condescending. That class of people is anyone who is conflicted about starting something for object level reasons but doesn't have upstream psychological barriers. And then it gets extremely complicated because how do you really know the difference between good object level reasoning and rationalization for something meta? etc. I'm also fully aware that my object level example/experience is very low stakes, and it's possible that this whole situation qualitatively changes at higher stakes. 

I just advised a friend to take an idea and execute on it for practice, and to decline the analysis paralysis of thoughts such as "but this wouldn't be high impact".

Is this good advice? 

Before I was an EA, I was a film producer. I grew up with the privileges of friends with cameras, time, and self-esteem, so to me it was obvious that I was writing scripts and obvious that I was trying to film them. Many years later, as soon as it occurred to me that no one was doing a podcast to help computer scientists help people digest their papers, I sent out the first cold email to do it myself. It was a simple calculation of "there is a hole that's easy enough for me to fill", so it barely occurred to me not to do it. 

What didn't I do? I didn't draw up an explicit impact estimate, and I didn't ask anyone for advice. 


While you should read Nate Soares on the dubious virtue of recklessness, we're not talking about the same thing. I'm talking about, overstated slightly, caution and planning are orthogonal to the energy and self-esteem it takes to start something. Nate is talking about energy and self-esteem, but not saying anything about caution and planning. 

the first rule of starting something is don't ask for permission. 

Denise Melchin writes

When I thought about how I want to do the most good in my life, I prioritised being cooperative and loyal to the EA community over any other concrete goal to have an impact. I think that was wrong, or at least wrong without a very concrete plan backing it up. I put too much weight on what other people thought I should be doing, and wish I had developed stronger internal beliefs. Because I wanted to cooperate, I considered a nebulous concept of ‘the EA community’ the relevant authority for decision-making. Around 2015-2019 I felt like the main message I got from the EA community was that my judgement was not to be trusted and I should defer, but without explicit instructions how and who to defer to. I did plenty of things just because they were ‘EA’ without actually evaluating how much impact I would be having or how much I would learn.

I'm not saying to do what I did and skip explicit impact estimates and skip getting peoples' advice. I'm warning against a psychological effect where your impact estimate is a proxy for community approval, where asking people for advice is a proxy for seeking their approval. 

Explicit impact estimates are probably good. I'm saying I had too much energy to just get on with the project to do them. 

Asking people for advice is probably good. I'm saying I had the self-confidence to just blow past that step. 

It's messy: I could be sabotaging the quality level of my project! But it'll be easy enough to iterate and adjust course once I've gotten going, the point I'm making is what gets past step one, which is starting.

Why do people not start stuff? 

For one, either they don't have ideas or they're not taking their ideas seriously. There are probably valuable exercises to help people in the first camp generate ideas, but I don't want to talk about that. I want to talk about the second camp. 

Why might people not take their ideas seriously? It's either because they don't think the idea is good or they don't think they're well-suited to execute on it. 

The idea isn't good enough

You're looking at the expected impact, maybe just informally because you haven't done a rigorous study of it, and it doesn't measure up to E2G at your boring job or it doesn't measure up to EA direct work at already existing organizations. I'll return to this later when I discuss why you might want to do it anyway! 

I'm not well-suited to execute on it

I would decompose self-esteem droughts as follows

  1. Inability or reticence to write stories of yourself doing awesome things. Sam Altman said something along the lines that every founder he invested in came from a stable, loving home. 
  2. You're socially exposed to too many performant, excellent people and you end up feeling beaten down by thoughts such as "doing amazing things is for them, not for me". Saffron Huang suggests that this effect drives ivy league undergrads into boring and useless firms.

The first is a hard problem and I don't know of anything to say about it. It has something to do with child-rearing and societal complexities outside the scope of this post. 

The second might not be as simple as an information diet or environment adjustment, because it could install downstream effects in your mind that don't get rooted out easily. It certainly wouldn't help if this effect was happening parallel to the "gaining experience makes you less ambitious because you get a feel for how difficult things are" effect (which I can't think of a hyperlink for). Still, compared to the first, this may be remedied by an attitude adjustment. I'm curious: if you feel beaten down by how amazing everyone else is, but you had the kernel of self-confidence somewhere in your history, can you try just deciding to not care about how amazing everyone else is and report back to me, for science? 

You're probably thinking that these are all meta-level, psychological reasons. You might have good object level reasons why you're not well-suited to execute, I don't want to gaslight you with the following but you should consider the possibility that your object-level reasons are proxies for meta-level psychological reasons, that you're rationalizing to cover for upstream psychological sensations. 

addendum: stealing ideas

It is of course also important to consider executing on an idea that isn't strictly yours! Ideas are like babies: your motivation to ensure its welfare is more intrinsic when it's your own, even though you abstractly care about the welfare of all babies. There may be a challenging step in the process to get fully invested in an idea that isn't yours, but you should do your best to put it on the table! I think this comes down to individual differences in motivation, some people will be able to get fully invested in a stolen idea and some won't. Notice that it doesn't matter if the idea is novel or whatever, it only matters if the idea presents itself to you with the sensation of originality. I'd like to point out what Linda Linsefors wrote about this


I also don’t want you to worry too much about having novel ideas. Novel meaning new as in no one else has thought about that before. Instead try to focus on having original ideas. Original meaning that the idea originated in you. If you generate an idea, it is still your original idea, even if it was someone else's original idea first. If you can generate original ideas, it is just a matter of time before you generate one that is also novel.

Finally: is it good to advise people to execute on ideas to practice executing instead of thinking about impact? 

Besides the psychological lessons surrounding taking yourself seriously, executing on an idea teaches numerous object-level lessons dependent on the idea in question. Both classes of lessons could be valuable assets later in your career. 

Is a disappointing impact estimate standing in the way of you seizing those lessons? What if 10 years from now there's a hole in the altruism market that has your name on it, but when you get there you find that it could be better served by someone with entrepreneurial experience? 

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