Robin Hanson, interview
This conversation with economist and late bloomer Robin Hanson probably peaks towards the end, when we were bouncing ideas around, but the whole thing is highly interesting. Robin has a habit of rephrasing questions to make sure he is answering something specific, something I have seen in successful lawyers. Robin talked about his idea for a polymath department in universities, why desperation not inspiration was what made him change his life, how to talent spot late bloomers, and whether Robin might become lazy if he lived for ever (I don’t believe him). We also covered ems, the magic of motivation, signalling, and the importance of having a good spouse. Robin is a professor of economics, a former physicist and AI researcher, and the author of two books. He works at George Mason University and blogs at OvercomingBias. Although we didn’t cover it here, he is very interesting on the subject of aliens. This is a very selective description of what Robin does and you can and should read more about his work here. The page of wild ideas Robins thinks are true is especially good value. This is also a good summary of what drove Robin to change his life in his mid-thirties.
Henry Oliver: Did you always wanted to be an economist or are there versions of your life where you could have stayed in AI research?
Robin Hanson: I don't know. That is, my trajectory was one where I changed a number of times, and each time I wasn’t sure that I should change, I was making these guesses about what would be better, and then I guessed economics, but under alternative stars, I could have guessed different things or not made changes. A couple of years before I switched and decided to go into Econ, I applied to a bunch of graduate programs in Social Studies and Science, and I got accepted into some. And I even had told them I accepted their acceptance. And then a day later, I changed my mind. I decided not to do that. So I was on the borderline, I guess, of doing that.
Henry Oliver: And was that... Were you changing your mind for practical reasons or was there just deep uncertainty about what to do?
Robin Hanson: It was more, do I want to go into that world? Is that world going to be good enough or congenial for me? And I initially thought, yes, and then I guess let my subconscious tell me no.
Henry Oliver: So it was kind of instinct, you would just get a feeling and think, “Okay, don't go with it.”
Robin Hanson: Right, it was like... Part of it is about sort of the size of the world you could inhabit, so one of the nice things about physics where I started, and economics where I ended up is that you could just do a lot of things and call them that, and then there’s some other fields where you’re going to be pretty narrowly confined to things close to the prototype of that. And so science studies is more of that second sort, whereas economics is much broader, and physics was much broader as well. I think that I do well there. I think that’s done me very well to be in a much broader place where I can just do a lot of things and call it economics.
Henry Oliver: Do you think that one explanation of why there are late bloomers or how people become late bloomers could be that some people’s talents or interests are just naturally interdisciplinary or broad in the way you're describing, and that there are fewer maps for that kind of thing, and you just will get more late bloomers because it’s not straightforwardly specialized?
Robin Hanson: Well, so the question is, if you’re going to have a wider range, does that take longer training or longer time to recognize?
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: So, certainly, if most standard training is somewhat narrow, and if you’re going to have a broader range than that, then you’re deviating from the usual thing, and you might in fact need to do several things... So I guess somebody who’s just more uncertain about what narrow thing they want to do might similarly take longer, but somebody who’s just more inclined to have a wider range, that also just might take longer both to figure out that that’s what you want and to realise that the wider range just means you’re going to take longer training for the wider range.
Henry Oliver: So in one interview you said this, “Early in life you're a seller not a buyer.” Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Robin Hanson: Well, many people think about what career they want and what life they want, as if they are the main consumer of it, as if it’s about what they want out of it, and when you’re independently wealthy, say, then you could just decide what you wanted to do with your life based on what you liked because you can pay for it. If it’s a job or a career and you need a job or a career to survive, then you can’t just look at what you might want to get out of it, you’ll have to have other people get something out of it. And so that’s the sale that you’re selling yourself to other people. What can they get out of you? So you want to keep an eye on what you want to get out of it, but it isn’t enough, you know, if you decide, I love singing, so I’m going to be a singer. Well, that may not work if the world doesn’t love your singing, you’ll need to pay attention to what the world likes from you, for a while at least, and then if you get some idea of a range of things the world might be okay with from you, then you can start to think about which of those you prefer.
Henry Oliver: And this was the sort of thing you were realising when you worked at NASA?
Robin Hanson: So... I mean, honestly, for my early life, I really wasn't paying attention to buyers, I was just paying attention to what I wanted, and I would just change my mind about what I wanted, and then I would see if anybody else would let me do that, and if somebody else would, then I just switched. But I didn't try to become a singer or actor or something where it’s sort of known to be much more competitive, or Olympic athlete or something else, I wasn't trying to be those things, but I was maybe more on the edge of what I could get away with.
Henry Oliver: But you were doing something pretty competitive?
Robin Hanson: Well, initially, I was just being a grad student and applying to various grad student programs, and so I guess I was good enough to get into the grad student programs, and then I wanted to do computer research, and so I went, asked, applied for jobs and I got some jobs, and so it's more competitive than being a janitor, I guess but...
Robin Hanson: Not as competitive as trying to be an actor or a musician.
Henry Oliver: This is the sort of thing that people often advise you to do, so it’s like the Steve Jobs thing like, “Do calligraphy, do whatever you feel like, and it'll all sort of work out and you'll pull the threads together later,” but you seem to be saying, “Well, it’s one way of living a life, but it’s maybe not a good way.”
Robin Hanson: Well, you have to make a judgment of just how selective something is and how selective you are, right? It’s a matching thing, so I don't think... I mean, so I think it’s basically a brag to tell everybody that I always just did what I wanted. I mean, because some people can get away with that, and you’re basically saying, “I was good enough to get away with that, I could do that, I could pull it off, because I was in high enough demand, I was good enough.” And so I... It is a brag and it does apply to some people, but you have to realize, if you’re just taking it as some sort of inspiration and attitude toward life advice, it’s not going to work for everybody, and so... Now, you’ll have to ask just how good are you and how lucky do you feel punk, about how selective you can be. So, for most people, say, who might be listening to this, they don’t have to just take the first job that appears to them, right? They have some ability to select among jobs out there, and they should use that ability to think about which things they would like better, but they can’t just ask, “What does my heart love?” And just do that, regardless of what the world seems to offer or what abilities they seem to have, and so that it’s a compromise.
Henry Oliver: If you were talent spotting or recruiting, and someone came with a CV a bit like yours, and they said, “Well, I’ve just been doing the stuff I wanted to do,” would this count against them, would this count in their favour, like how would you assess that now?
Robin Hanson: So in some sense, the person I would be most able to assess would be someone who is very like me, that is, when I take a very unusual life path, I’m just going to be much worse at judging people who took other life paths, I’m not going to know who’s good or not in those other paths, someone who is near my path, I have a better shot at, and for people who look like that path, I guess the thing I would most be looking for is sort of how driven or passionate are they, because you meet a lot of people who switch between various things they want to do, and it seems almost like that they just don’t have much motivation or interest in anything, and they’re just sort of drifting past things that might grab their attention, and that wouldn’t inspire... That wouldn’t inspire much confidence in me. So somebody who just changes things a lot just because they’re bored or nothing seems to matter, nothing seems to interest them, that... I would be wary of that, they probably will switch yet again, they probably won’t put that much energy into whatever they do, but somebody who is... Whatever they’re doing, they’re really into it, and they’re really trying hard, but then they also have these other big things that target them and tempt them away, that would be more appealing.
I would want to see that it was a whole bunch of things, each of which they would love to do, but they are... Can’t be sure which one, but whichever one they pick, they will be into it and they will be really immersing themselves into it and pursuing it, then that would be better, and then of course, that... They are much more likely to be a good generalist or a wide range person. So some people call themselves generalists just because they can’t be bothered to get into anything very far, and I would want to distinguish a different kind of generalist. So I’ve had this idea for a while, I'll tell you, which is, you might say universities neglect generalists, right? So we reward people for being very specialised and knowing the best about some very narrow area, but a lot of great things have happened by people who have been in different areas, and so how could we reward and pick out generalists, and so here’s... So, a problem is a lot of interdisciplinary areas where you have more than one area, people look down on them, it looks like you’re being held to lower standards than you would in either the adjacent disciplines and that you’re trying to evade judgement by making it hard for people to tell how good your work is, and so people tend to think that people in the middle of a discipline are more reliable and higher quality work because they're being held to higher standards and it’s easier to judge them.
And so they think of people who are being interdisciplinaries kind of evading judgement, trying to slip by with making it hard to judge them, so my solution to that is to try to create a polymath department where we’re going to have higher, not lower standards. So my standard would be, let’s make a department and in order to qualify for this department, you need to persuade us that you would have qualified for tenure in two departments, and I’ve known people like that, and I might even qualify that way, it’s not necessary that you actually have to have tenure in two departments, but persuade us that you could have possibly gotten tenure in two departments, and two somewhat different departments.
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: Right? Not in Biochemistry and Chemistry or Biology.
Henry Oliver: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Robin Hanson: But, two substantially different things. So now, you see, this department would be the elite, you will have to meet a higher standard to be there, and now people might aspire once they have gotten tenure somewhere to, as a next level, become considered a polymath to have gotten to move up. And then I think this would go better in terms of, it would have more respect, it would be more acceptable, and it would then inspire more people to that level of generality by holding it as a higher, not lower, standard.
Henry Oliver: And you would expect maybe more of those people to be “late bloomers”, because they would have had to be... They're just doing more different things and not settling into something earlier on, right?
Robin Hanson: Maybe, I’m not so sure. I’m more sure that they would have to sort of just be inclined toward generality, so definitely a lot of people managed to focus enough to get tenure and then don't want to focus quite so much, and so we would be tempting those people to say, “Yeah, it looks like you got tenure in here but now you'd want to drift over there, well, that can contribute to what we're looking for.” Maybe even departments would be proud of their members who had graduated to the polymath division, and they would then support you in your efforts to broaden or to make that next step.
Henry Oliver: One of the models I have of different sorts of late bloomers is someone who has a double peak, so if you think about Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, he has a great career. By the time he’s 40, he’s done some original staff, he has a successful practice and whatever, but then by the time he’s 60, like it’s all dried up, he’s teaching apprentices, he’s not fashionable, the Great Depression is happening, he’s not getting any commissions, and then a few years later, he starts again, and he builds Fallingwater, and then in the last, I think, quarter of his life, he does more than half his work, including the Guggenheim and other major things. This could be something in the polymath department, like, it would encourage that view of a second career.
Robin Hanson: Although, in that case it might be, he didn’t actually go to a separate department, he stayed in his general area.
Henry Oliver: Sure.
Robin Hanson: We would still might want to wait to anticipate and celebrate that, so it’s definitely true that... I mean, I meet a lot of people who, maybe they’re 22 years old and they got a college degree and they said, “Oops, it was the wrong degree. My life is over, I wasted…”
No, your life... You're still at the beginning, you have a lot, you can just pivot and move over there, it’s not that much of a problem, you’re a little delayed compared to some of the other people who might have started their path before, but you’ve got plenty of time. And so I think a lot of people like... They have some sort of career path and they reach some sort of threshold like say tenure, and then they quit, like that’s enough for them, and they’ve achieved what they wanted, and... But they might be 30 years old or something, and in some sense, they’ve got a whole life ahead of them, they could try lots of other stuff.
Henry Oliver: So you went to get your PhD starting age 34?
Robin Hanson: Yes, with two children, age zero and two.
Henry Oliver: Oh my God. You’ve sort of talked about this, but I’m interested in what finally tipped the balance, and it sounds like it was a kind of gradual process and that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but was there a sort of conversity to that, like a moment of inspiration, a moment of, “You know what, if I don't do it now…”
Robin Hanson: It was more desperation I would think than inspiration.
Robin Hanson: So basically, I was a research programmer in a... Which is a low level position within a research lab, so research lab is a high level prestigious place, but a research programmer is kind of the bottom of the line, someone who is there to support the researchers in what they do, and I was decently paid and we had children, a stable life, and I just kept feeling itchy that I had this big potential in life and I wanted to realise it, and that just kept grating on me as more and more unacceptable. So now this is, I think, a somewhat common male scenario, I think, which is men are more primed to achieve glory in life and men are more primed to take risks to achieve glory in some sense, in the middle, good enough isn’t good enough, because glory calls, right? Something greater could be achieved, and the question is, will we try for it? And so I was torn there because my wife didn't want me to do that, she didn't want me to go back to school and quit my decently paying job, especially as we just had two kids, age zero and two, and she had a private practice as a therapist and she had a lot of clients in that area that if she moved with me to a different area, she would lose all her existing clients and her connections.
So it was a lot to ask. And at that point, I basically chose to ask for a lot by the argument that I’m desperate, so I had to sort of be unhappy, be unhappy with my life, and communicate that to my wife and associates to say, “Please understand, this is a strong drive. I’ve got to see if I could make it.” So, you’ll probably see... There’s a lot of movies or whatever, I don't know, Rocky or something, some ambitious boxer or something early in life, and their family might tell them like, “Somebody's offering you a sales job, somebody else wants you to work in a shoe store and why are you throwing this safe life away for some long shot that hardly anybody ever succeeds at.” Right? That's a classic story. There's a famous rock song, “Don't go chasing waterfalls”, by a woman telling the man, “Stop, just stay near like creeks and rivers nearby that are calm and safe, and stop trying to go for these large ones.”
Henry Oliver: It’s making me think of all those people... This is sort of a recurrent topic among my generation, like you have a good job, you’re a lawyer or a consultant or whatever, but you don't want that job, and you... For many people, the worst thing is to not reach desperation, because then the equilibrium is, “Well, I’ll stay, it’s not actually that bad. I’ll stay.”
Robin Hanson: But it’s rolling the dice, the desperation, you role the dice, and a big fraction of dice rollers fail.
Robin Hanson: You gotta put that into the equation. I got lucky, I'd say I didn't have any strong right to expect that I would succeed.
Henry Oliver: But did you think like that or did you think at the time, you know, “I’m just going to do it and make it work.”
Robin Hanson: I just thought, “I gotta see.”
Henry Oliver: So it was kind of scary?
Robin Hanson: Yeah, absolutely.
Henry Oliver: When did it stop being scary, at what point did you sort of start to feel like you were settling into something that had worked?
Robin Hanson: Well, getting a tenure track job offer was a relative sign of success, that is... Most people who get tenure track job offers get tenure, so that meant more than a 50-50 shot of reaching a successful end point, but most people who start a PhD program won't get a tenure track job offer, so starting the PhD program is the moment of taking this risk where the odds are against you.
Henry Oliver: You’ve said that you were lucky, what other factors played into you being one of the people who did get a tenure track job offer?
Robin Hanson: I mean, presumably some aspect of who I am and what I can do...
Henry Oliver: But I mean, did you work harder than your peers on the program?
Robin Hanson: So I think I did. So... I was, again, age 34, and I was around lots of 20-year-olds, 22-year-olds or whatever, and they just didn't work as hard, that as I just was a parent and a student and little else, and I realised how much was at stake and that I risked my family and my career... Financial security at least, to take this big chance, and so I was very motivated to work hard at it, and a lot of 22-year-old students it was just... They didn’t know what else to do, they just went to grad school instead of trying to go get a job, that’s often a common thing for students, they just want to keep on the path rather than switching, it sort of feels less risky for them to just stay on the path they’ve been on, but they're not that into it.
Henry Oliver: Was there anything about having had a background in physics and computers that gave you a distinction or a difference on the program or helped you in any way?
Robin Hanson: So, I once talked with a Stanford professor about going back to school, and he said that older students are known for being different than younger students. So one way older students are different is that they are more driven and more organised, and they sort of put a higher priority and they work harder, that was a positive, but his opinion, the other side of the equation was, they are less pliable? They were coming with their own idea of what they want to do and what's important, whereas a lot of younger students are just willing to be clay-moulded by their advisors and just be willing to perform their priorities based on whatever somebody else around them says, and many professors prefer play.
Henry Oliver: Sure.
Henry Oliver: In your polymaths department, would you maybe have a PhD program where it’s like the Senate, you know you have to be 30 before you can apply?
Robin Hanson: I think I might rather just have advisor advisee relationships with, but not classes per se, I think, if you’ve gotten tenure somewhere and now you’re trying to get your second tenure such that you could be applied in, you’re well past the point where you need to take classes, but you’d still always be the mentor and advisor.
Henry Oliver: But I mean, not for those people, but I mean... But could your... Could your polymath faculty offer a PhD program, but rather... But unlike the specialized departments, you would have to be older to get on that program, is that something that would be marginally beneficial to academia? Like there used to be colleges just for mature graduate students, right? I think there still are.
Robin Hanson: I haven’t thought much about it, I guess the... I’m thinking of the difference between taking classes and just doing research, and thinking that, honestly, we only really need classes for younger people, that is by the time you’re older, you should be able to just sit down and do research, but you might very well want an advisor of some sort...
Henry Oliver: Oh, I see what you mean. Yep.
Robin Hanson: To look over what you’re doing and work with you, et cetera. But I do think the polymath department could offer classes that everybody could take where they emphasised sort of generality, the connections between fields, sort of broader topics that are being neglected by fields, I mean, that would be a fine thing to draw people’s attention to, and then they would have the authority to speak on that.
Henry Oliver: You mentioned Stanford, you used to go to classes there while you worked at NASA and you... I think you went without paying, so you've got the classes, but not the degree...
Robin Hanson: Right.
Henry Oliver: What did you learn from... Like, Why did you do that? What did you learn from that?
Robin Hanson: Literally, I learned the content of the classes.
Henry Oliver: What classes were they?
Robin Hanson: In that sense, so there were some econ classes, some computer science classes. Basically, I could just start to see what fields were like by sitting in classes and seeing what they taught, and also as a way to shop, see what fields you might want to go into to get a sense for what their issues were and how they did things.
Henry Oliver: Okay, and then you went to CalTech for the PhD. Why did you choose that school?
Robin Hanson: So I had a physics background, and then I went into computer science, but sort of with a physics perspective on Computer Science, if you will, and I started to learn more about social science, but my physicist basically trashed social science.
Physicists privately do not speak very respectfully of social science, they basically talk as if those people are just making stuff up, they don't know how to be rigorous and careful like we physicists do, and if we just bothered to quit doing physics and went over there for a few years, we could probably just clear them all out because we know how to do science and they don't, so that sets up in my mind this concern. I'm more interested in social science topics, but I'm wondering whether I can believe it. And then I came across this paper in Science magazine about experimental economics, people doing lab experiments to test various social science hypotheses and mechanisms, and that sold me in the sense that physicists trust experiments. That's legit. That's real. So that right there convinced me, oh, if I went and did that, then we would be learning real things, it would be real, it wouldn't just be made up, that would be solid answers, and I was interested in some institution designs and you could see how to directly test them with experiments.
Robin Hanson: So, how did different ways to say buy medicine or whatever, you could run a lab experiment and test your idea directly in a lab and see how it works, and so I could just more directly see things I wanted to do there, I wanted to do some experiments on the institutions I was interested in. So then, I looked up who does experiments, and I saw there was a group there at Calech. And Caltech is sort of known for being very techy and very respected by physicists, and so well, that looked like a good match, I would get... Go to Caltech, very well respected places for the hard sciences, where they are doing experiments in social science.
Now, just what I learned once I got there...
Was that they had this norm that you couldn’t just take an institution do a lab experiment, you could, but you shouldn’t. They weren't going to allow that. What you had to do is have an institution idea, then a game theory paper, a theoretical model of your institution, and then you could test the theoretical model, you weren’t supposed to just go test institutions without a model of it, and so that was an obstacle to my plan, because for many of my institutional ideas, I didn't have a model of them, I just had the mechanism.
Henry Oliver: What did you do about that?
Robin Hanson: Well, I learned how to make models, and I learned in that process that the people making models actually know a lot, that is, as a physicist, I might not have believed them from a distance, but as someone looking at the details, the details persuaded me. I mean, they had many experimental tests and very specific game theory models, but just more generally, it made sense, it worked. So I was willing to learn theory, and then in essence, most... My thesis work was basically all theory, I didn't do lab experiments as part of my PhD thesis in the end.
Henry Oliver: So as well as being a discipline change, it was also a sort of reasonably significant mindset change?
Robin Hanson: As have all my moves been. And so, what people who grow up in any one discipline don’t usually quite realise is just how different many different disciplines are in terms of how they think, what their tool kit is, how they define a problem, what’s a good enough contribution, those vary quite a bit across academic disciplines.
Henry Oliver: And there's no real way of teaching that kind of thing? Like undergraduates don’t get classes in, “By the way, this is how different areas think differently about similar things.”
Robin Hanson: I don't know of them, no. So mostly... So I have this observation that if somebody wants to have a conference, an academic conference about X and Y, the combination of X and Y, say law and economics, one strategy you could do is go look for the people who have most studied that intersection between X and Y, that's not what they do.
What they do is they go look for the most prestigious people in X that they can find, and the most prestigious people in Y they can find, and they put them in the room together, even when these people have not actually looked at the overlap much, that’s just the standard operating procedure in creating these things, because their agenda is to put the most prestigious people overall, and the people who look at the intersection are just generally not as prestigious as the people who have stayed in each discipline, and this is of course one of the reasons why interdisciplinary work often fails, this is where the failures come from, put people in a room who haven’t looked much at the other side and have them talk past each other.
Henry Oliver: Yeah, interesting. So now you’re at George Mason University, and I think you're part of... A sort of a “small group” of sort of peers and people who are sort of sharing ideas and so forth, and my impression, very much an outsider's impression, is that that small group is quite enabling of the work that you all do in the economics department.
Robin Hanson: So it's a basic question. What do your colleagues do for you?
Henry Oliver: Yeah.
Robin Hanson: Right. So in Academia, some colleagues are co-authors for example, or people on your same research project. And for them, it’s much clearer what they’re doing for you. You’re working together with them, on a particular project. But most academics don't co-author much with most people in their department. So, there’s a basic question, well, what are they getting out of each other? Now in some sense, they need, there needs to be a department there with people who teach different things. So all the different courses get covered so that, there can be a program, but that doesn’t mean they really need to talk to each other much, just means they need to be there, similar time and place to teach classes. Right? And in many departments, they don’t actually interact that much. That’s a sad secret about academia. In even most departments, most of the professors are not actually intellectually engaging each other much. They show up for class, they show up for seminars, ask them questions, maybe they’ll go to lunch. But at lunch, they mostly aren’t talking ideas, they’re talking gossip, politics, TV shows.
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: Not ideas, right? So what do you get out of colleagues? Now, one thing you can just sort of get is a set of consultants, right? If you ever come across some topic, not in your area, you can go ask somebody about it, right? Maybe they’ll answer some questions, but you could probably have done that with other people around the world. So, if you have some sort of like a style of doing things differently, then one big risk is you will feel just all alone in the world. Like nobody else there... Out there does things your way.
And so, just having a bunch of people near you who are doing something somewhat like you, just legitimises the idea that you could also be like them. And that seems silly [chuckle] or trivial even, but I think it’s true. I think you just need some other people around who are in your face, that real people you can see they’re not gods or anything, but they’re making a thing work that you could make work.
Henry Oliver: How significant is it? I'm sort of filling in some gaps, but how significant is it that before you got to George Mason, you didn’t have a group of like-minded people. Is that one reason why it took you a little longer to get to where you were going or no?
Robin Hanson: I don't know, but I think it’s somewhat lucky, but I think just when somewhat, some other people find each other and stick together and that helps them. But I also think some people, at least for a while, are just bullish and pig-headed enough, that they just hope that’ll happen eventually, but it doesn’t have to be true now, and they’re just going to plough ahead. And I often look... I look back on my younger self and I go, “He didn't seem so scared. [laughter] Shouldn't he have been more scared of what he was doing.”
“Shouldn't he even have more doubts about just ploughing ahead and doing his own thing his own way, when hardly anybody like ever did anything like that.” But in some sense, that’s something we humans are primed to do at times is to plough ahead in a somewhat arrogant, confident way in the absence of a lot of reassurance that it’ll work.
Henry Oliver: So you’re not sure that if you’d been part of a different peer group at that age, it would’ve brought you down to earth a bit as it were?
Robin Hanson: I don’t know. I still was pretty different from my colleagues there, even if they were more like me than most people. And in some sense, I might have been the most different among them, in terms of having a different set of research priorities. But I still think that eventually it’ll just wear down on you, if nobody around you isn't all like you. You need some sort of peers.
Henry Oliver: Yeah. What mentors have been important to you and where did... What stage of your career did they appear at?
Robin Hanson: I’ve definitely had people who helped me, and people who were senior relative to me, but I just don’t think the relationships rose to the, what people think of when they think of a mentor relationship. So, I’d hold the phrase mentor or the description mentor for a relationship, where someone is relatively close and you’re kind of modelling after them and they’re giving you a lot of advice. And I’m not, I’m not sure most supervisory relationships really are of that form. [chuckle] So, people will use the word mentor because it’s sort of an aspirational description of how they’d like the relationship to go. But, I kind of, honestly say that described me very well. So, I was a pretty independent, say PhD student, so I picked an advisor who didn’t mind very independent students and would give them more freedom, some PhD advisors don’t, they are very constraining of their students and others will give them a lot of rope to hang themselves. So I picked one like that. And in the past, I’ve also chosen bosses and superiors who were also more willing to let me go my own way and make me do it their way.
Henry Oliver: So you didn't want a mentor?
Robin Hanson: Well, of the strong sort, of the sort that... Make you into... Turn you into clay that reforms another copy of them.
Henry Oliver: Right. So now I have some questions kind of more about your ideas and how they might help us think about late bloomers. But you might say these are stupid questions, because this is a long way outside of my area. So you wrote a blog post saying that belief in the late bloomers is populist because it sort of allows people to think that the way we get allocated when we’re young could be wrong. And there’s something else out there for me, and that kind of thing. If we live in a world dominated by signalling, is it not rational to believe that there’s some significant subset of people who will be late bloomers because not everyone who is high potential is good at signalling or responding to signalling in the ways that help you climb a hierarchy or get noticed or whatever.
Robin Hanson: Well, that explanation seems to not need signalling to be part of it, as long as you have some initial path and people who look initially promising and not all of them turn out to be as promising as they looked, then you get the same effect here, whether it’s signalling or not that makes people look promising. You just need a difference between how promising they looked and how they turned out.
Henry Oliver: But one way that like whether someone actually is good, one way that we know that is that they know how to signal it to the right sort of people. Which is why you often get in any group of genuinely sort of, high-achieving people, there are some people who were are there based on...
Robin Hanson: So I would say most signalling in the world is signalling of correlate features and not usually of the direct feature of interest. So an educational degree, for example, will show that you’re smart maybe and conscientious and can do some work, but they know that’s correlated with success, but doesn’t directly imply success. And many other kinds of things that we use to signal. I mean, I could flash my rich... My expensive watch. It might mean I’m rich, or it might mean I just spend a lot on an expensive watch.
Robin Hanson: Most signals we have are correlates, they... All else equal, they indicate something that is not necessarily that strong a connection. So I know honestly, when we directly see how good somebody is at something, we don’t call that the signal, we call that the thing. Right?
Henry Oliver: And it’s not always easy to see how good someone is at something, is it?
Robin Hanson: Sure. But if somebody says an artist and they have a portfolio and they’ve got three things in their portfolio but both of them look pretty good to you, then you're thinking, “Well, this guy may well produce more good stuff in their portfolio”, but it’s kind of a noisy signal, it’s just three things there. And maybe they just got lucky. But you wouldn’t... But you still wouldn’t think of it as a signal so much as well, that was their actual performance, here’s their things, here’s what they did. Whereas, you might have a signal of somebody being an artist in terms of what they... An award they got or some school they graduated from, or some letter of recommendation from somebody, those would be more indirect signs.
Henry Oliver: In a world of ems, would we have any reason to expect more or fewer late bloomers or would it have no... Would this idea of late bloomers have no sort of relationship there?
Robin Hanson: So a striking feature of the world of ems is you would have billions or trillions of ems, but they would mostly be copies of the few thousand most productive original humans. So that means on average each emulation would have billions of other copies out there who are very similar to them, much more similar than we are to each other. So that means once you get a track record for how this em performs at in a range of jobs, you have a much better idea of how they will perform at in future jobs, a much closer connection. So it’s like, we might not be sure how good of a physicist Einstein’s children would be, but we think if we actually had saved a copy of Einstein when he was 18 years old and revived that copy again, we have more confidence that that copy could be a good physicist. It’s at that level of similarity of basically going back to the same person and rewriting their life a little differently. And because of that, they would just know much better what these people are likely to be able to do.
Now, no, that does depend on them having a large enough clan that they have a larger history of them having done a wide range of things. So if you’re a clan of only... Well, there have only been 100 of you so far, well, we know more than you would of a human, but still there’s a lot we don’t know. Once we’ve had a billion of you, now it would depend like, okay, across how many different careers do we have the billion of you? If most of those billion were plumbers, then we really know well how good of a plumber you would be, but if now you’re trying to ask us to consider you for a management role or something, we’ll have to ask well, yeah. But how many of those billion were managers? And if that was only 100, now we’re back to the other situation of still not knowing a lot. But it does mean that there’s a lot less attention to what in our world is sort of early life signalling. So in our world, because each person is so unique, you have to make them jump through a lot of hoops whereby they produce standardised signals we can compare to each other, and then we’re still pretty uncertain about what they’re going to be like and their abilities. ems again, because millions of copies of the same one, we just got a lot more better stats.
Henry Oliver: Okay. There is a view, a sort of quite commonly held view that in the hard sciences, especially physics and also in Maths, there are just very few, if any, late bloomers, and that most of the work is done by people in their 20s, maybe in their 30s, what do you think of that?
Robin Hanson: So there's this famous distinction that I think makes sense, I can't remember the author who drove it, but between areas where an excellent performance will be some sort of breaking out of other traditions versus areas where excellent performance is going to be a synthesis of a lot of things all pulled together. And so that’s a correlate of when people peak. So, in places where the distinctive thing you do when you’re excellent is to sort of just have a whole distinctive new style that breaks away from previous styles, that’s the sort of thing that blooms earlier. And if what you need to do to really achieve something great is to sort of just have a lot of stuff you pull together, then that tends to correlate with being a late bloomer.
And of course, that would also be true of a generalist, [chuckle] that is if a generalist is someone who knows many different areas and then can pull them together and integrate them, well, then a generalist will also be a late bloomer in that sense. Whereas you might have thought, maybe there’s a different kind of generalist, a generalist is just somebody who comes up with a whole new general way of thinking about things, in which case, you would expect them to be in the first group. So, this class distinction is often applied to math and physics, at least some areas of physics, where you say the people who had the biggest contributions are just people who could find a different way of thinking about things in math or physics and therefore they tend to be the earlier bloomers. But I think there was a recent... The last couple of years, some study I blogged basically asking when during your life is your biggest contribution most likely to happen? And the basic result was pretty uniform across your life.
Henry Oliver: Oh, that's Sinacra.
Robin Hanson: I don't remember the author. But basically, that suggests that you shouldn't get so obsessed about no longer being a 25-year-old, no longer making the 25-year-old big contribution, if they are. You should just keep trying, because every year you get another lottery ticket on whether you’re going to do your biggest thing.
Henry Oliver: Why is it that there just are fewer people in their 50s who’ve done big work in physics and maths, even though the continuous probability of success seems to be true, there just also seem to be fewer people over the age of 50 doing these things.
Robin Hanson: So, there’s a lot of things going on and it’s hard to tell how important each one is. But I think the following seems to be pretty important: the more you know, the more that you can target your efforts to be close to what is likely to be successful in your area. So, if you’re a 50-year-old, you know a field pretty well. And so now you can pretty well judge what’s likely to be popular or fashionable in the near future in that area, and what tools it will require. And you’ve already invested in a certain set of tools and you’re going to be more likely to just do something that builds on the tools you’ve invested in. When you’re really young, you just don’t know the lay of the land very well, you don’t understand the difference between what’s promising and what’s not very well. And so, you’re just being a lot more random because you have to be, you just don’t understand it very well. And that randomness is going to show up as creativity when you’re lucky, that is, there’s just going to be things you're going to try that a 50 year old wouldn’t try. Not because you think it’s a good idea, it’s because you just don't know the difference.
The 50-year-old is going to just be much better targeted at what they’re trying to do, and you’re just going to be much more random. So, if one of your random forays happens to be lucky, then that’ll happen and you’ll do it and the 50-year won’t because they were smart enough not to even take that long shot chance, but you, the 20-year-old, you don’t know the difference. You just ended up taking a lot of chances, not because you are creative or ambitious, just because you're random.
Henry Oliver: Yeah, people... Well, first of all, how many other people do you think that might be out there who could be future Robin Hanson’s and make a big risky change in their life at a time when it’s like financially inopportune or difficult, but they’re not doing it, but we might want to encourage to do it. Do you think it’s a big sub-group or do you think it's not a major group?
Robin Hanson: So, the question is, how to distinguish the people you want from the people you don’t? So, this is a common observation that I think is roughly right. When somebody says, “Should I try to be an actor or a singer”, or something like that, right? Should I take the chance? Am I good enough to take that chance? And the advice is often of the following form, only do it if you can't, not do it. That is, if this is just such an important thing that you're just so driven that you just can’t not do it, you’re going to be doing it one way or another, somehow, it’s just like you’re really just driven to do it, then we might say, “Okay, fine, do it.” Because if there’s enough of those people doing something, then the rest are going to be at a pretty big disadvantage if they’re not that obsessed with it and maybe there's already going to be plenty. So I think, I guess it’s related, but I think I, like some trumpeter or something. I think it was a trumpeter who was talking about the secret of their success or something, they just said, “Well, I knew that I wasn't as good as the other people. So I was going to have to compensate by just practising more hours a day.” And that they just knew that they could push themselves harder than other people could, to just go for more hours.
And that seems sad to me, [chuckle] but there’s some truth to that. That is, a lot of the variation in success is just about how much energy people put in, which is a combination of just how driven they are into it and just how much stamina they have. And so, actually, a neglected area of who succeeds and who doesn’t, that people don’t really talk about is just raw stamina. Some people don’t need as many hours of sleep. [chuckle]
Some people don't need as much free time. They can just drive themselves to work more often. And honestly, of the people I’ve seen who are the most successful, there’s an awful big correlation with they, they just have more stamina. And, of course, often it’s they have a spouse who’s willing to like let their profession be their life. And that’s another big thing that’s made a big difference in many people’s life, is they have some very supportive spouses.
Henry Oliver: Right. Because one thing that you... Like, I like this explanation, but if there are people out there who are in your position, but their wife says, “What? Are you crazy? This is never going to happen. We have these children. We need money. Like, I’m not giving up my practice.” Those people end up, like there’s only so much they can do, they can have the stamina, they can have the obsession, but they can’t do the PhD. Right? They’re on...
Robin Hanson: So here’s another ground. So maybe this will help. I’ve worked in a lot of different areas, right? So I’ve allowed myself to adapt with a lot of different topic areas. And after a whole while, I’ve decided to hold myself to the following standard of when going into a new area was a waste of time or was justified. And my standard is this; if I go into an area, I need to spend long enough there and understand it well enough to publish something there that meets the standards of the locals. Or at least I could, that is I can contribute to it. And so that standard will cut out a lot of wishful thinking and still dilettante.
That is as you say, “Sure. You want to study this other area? You boarded these things? Fine. But this is the standard you’re going to hold yourself to. You're going to study this for long enough and come up with an idea and then, execute it such that at the end of that, you've got a contribution, to this area, that people of this area would recognize as a contribution. And if you do that, then I say, fine, I approve. In retrospect, if having done that, I’m going to see a track record of you, each time you went a new area, you did that, I will say, okay, that was good enough.” Now from the point of view of, maximizing sort of your world reputation, this is not maximum in the sense that the world doesn’t give as much credit or attention to people who just come in and do one or two things then go onto another area. They much more rather that you stick around and fight for your reputation and join coalitions that will fight against other coalitions, et cetera.
So they’re not that eager to support people who just come in and do one or two things. Okay. But nevertheless, they still might acknowledge that you did one or two things. Those were real things. And they were really contributions to the area. So, I mean, I might say that I was holding myself to that standard in the sense that I had already done several things. And in each area I was able to make a contribution and I could see how much work it was to make a contribution to a new area. And then I could ask myself, “Am I willing to try that again?”
Henry Oliver: And I guess if we were trying to distinguish between people as well, like someone who’s gone to Stanford and done the classes, just for doing them, that's a good sign. Whereas someone who says like, “This is really what I want”, but they haven't done something of that sort. That's more difficult to say, “Well, how much do we believe in this person?”
Robin Hanson: So, here’s a different set of issues that you, might be important. My father and my parents always had projects. So they generated their own projects and then they executed them in various ways. My dad was into finance and then he was a pastor and they were missionaries and then my mom wrote books, et cetera. And so, there was this idea of like generating your own project idea and then executing it. And I did that in school too. So I don't know if you know the story that like as an undergraduate, the first two years of physics were going over a standard set of topics. And then the next two years of physics were going over the same topics with more math. And at that point I wasn't happy with that. And I decided to just roll my own curriculum, in the sense that I would study the subjects my own way, by playing with the equations, I wouldn’t do the homework. I would just ace the exams, which I did. And then I would let other people decide what grade to give me on the basis of seeing that I aced the exam even if I didn’t do the homework. And I had a series of projects that I defined for myself and then would execute myself, or I would just get the idea that this was an interesting thing to do, and then go figure out how to do it and go do it, without supervision or advice or anything like that.
And I think that sort of a self-directed project orientation, is just something that sets you up well for a life of being a loner researcher who's not what the whole group was going to tell them what to do, but is going to be able to just go into an area and define a project and execute it without a supervisor or a co-author, or a class that you're taking, or something like that.
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: And so I've learned over time that this is an unusual feature. Most people in school… I mean... So a lot of students say, “I want to learn something, what classes should I take?” And I say, “Why do you need to take a class, just go learn it.” And for a lot of people that doesn’t make sense, they don't know how to learn anything if they don’t take a class.
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: And for a lot of students they just don’t know how to direct their own life, in this literal sense of deciding what to do and then just doing it without some supervisor, advisor, curriculum telling them what to do. So I think if you’re going to be a generalist, i.e, you’re going to be someone who goes into an area without precedent, at least local social precedent or people telling you how to do it or what to do, you do need to be somewhat more self-directed. You’re going to have to be able to do it yourself.
Henry Oliver: You said your parents were missionaries?
Robin Hanson: At one point, yes.
Henry Oliver: Are you religious?
Robin Hanson: No, but most of my family has been quite religious. And so some people, perhaps correctly, accuse me of giving a religious style an aura to many things that I do, even if I’m not formally religious. So that’s a different issue.
Henry Oliver: Do you think that's true or you do not agree with that, about yourself?
Robin Hanson: I certainly think that I assimilated a religious worldview when young, in the sense of growing up in a religious world. And even if I reject formally the religious dogma claims that I inherited, I still inherited a way of thinking about the world and a way of framing the world that I’m then going to project onto everything else I see.
Henry Oliver: Like a lot of what you’ve said is very consistent with the parable of the talents, for example. That it's a sin not to use your abilities, and you shouldn’t wait to be told, you should just go and be using them.
Robin Hanson: But I guess that’s not how I think, in the sense of it’s... That also seems silly.
It’s about getting something done. Your motivation should be a thing you want to get done. Just using your abilities, that seems stupid. I don’t want to just use my abilities just to make sure they get used, like stretch my legs because I haven't stretched my legs in a while, but...
Henry Oliver: Well, no, the parable of the...
Robin Hanson: I haven't played chess in a long time. My chess abilities have gone down a few, but I shouldn't keep playing chess periodically just to make sure I have those abilities. I should only practise those abilities if they're useful for something.
Henry Oliver: Yeah, I think the parable, it means that everyone is... Everyone’s good at something, as they say, and if you’re not using that, if you go home and you just watch Netflix all night rather than doing something useful that you could... Like you say, your parents always had projects and stuff, then some people would draw a moral distinction between that. And it’s a similar thing. Well, this is the reading of your career, right? There were other things you could do, you had those abilities, and if you hadn’t gone off and done that PhD and tried to make use of those talents, in this reading that would have been wrong of you not to try and use those talents, because you were sitting on that capability and that would have been a waste.
Robin Hanson: So when I try to model other people’s behaviour, I am inclined to model their behaviour in terms of drives or motivations about showing off and showing the world that they are good. And so I have to, in the abstract, believe that that must drive some of my behaviour as well. But, in my head, [chuckle] in terms of what I’m consciously focused on, I feel that it’s important to be mainly focused on the thing I want to do. If there’s not a thing I want to do, then I don’t see it as such a bad thing to laze around. The reason I do not laze around is because there’s stuff to be done that’s glorious and interesting and spectacular and has an honest potential. So, in my mind... So, early on, I think I chose, say, Einstein as a model, career model. So I think it’s a basic fact that people like to pretend they don't care what other people think, but in fact they do, and you can’t much change yourself to not care what other people think. But what you can do maybe is to change who it is that you’re trying to impress. To put in your mind the person that you are imagining judging you and wanting to live up to their standards.
And so, early on, I chose people like Einstein as my model. That is, somebody who saw a big potential and went for it and tried to realise a big interesting insight. And that’s the sort of thing I always wanted to do. Now, if I had not found such things, that would have just been this abstract hypothetical. Some people are motivated to go find dragons, right? I have no idea where a dragon is, so it doesn't motivate me much, I have no idea where I would go searching for dragons. Right? Well, I have come across enough big, interesting ideas that seem to me unexplored or insufficiently explored, that I've got this long list of stuff that's worth doing.
Henry Oliver: Are you saying...
Robin Hanson: And so that’s what pulls me. That’s... And I would most respect somebody else who was pulled by the things they want to do, as opposed to feeling some obligation to use their talents.
Henry Oliver: But if... Let’s say we could make you live forever, or for an extraordinarily long time and you...
Robin Hanson: That would be nice, please, thank you.
Henry Oliver: Sure. But then maybe you would run out of things to do. There would still be work to be done in the world, but you would run out of things that interest you. Are you saying you would then spend an eternity like gardening and watching...
Robin Hanson: I might. I mean, I don’t know... In that situation, it’s an open possibility. Yeah, so in my mind, yes, actually, I do actually believe that there is a limited amount of big, interesting, intellectual stuff to be found and eventually our descendants will have found most of it and they’ll have to live in a world where most of the interesting stuff is known and has been found. That's the kind of world our distant descendants will have to accept and deal with. And, I’m not in that time, I’m at a time where there are great, huge, new interesting things to be found. We suffer because of that, but as our world is impoverished and has war and all sorts of things going wrong because there are all these things we don't know, but at least on the positive side, there’s things to find, interesting things to uncover. So, I can be motivated to do this. But yeah, once they’re all found, yeah, there’s not... Maybe I’ll enjoy gardening.
Henry Oliver: So, this doesn’t limit your appetite for living forever?
Robin Hanson: Well, living forever, if you just reframe it as, every day you want the option to go on. And now, that’s a much more manageable thing. Every day I have that choice. Do I want the option? Sure. Or as opposed to not having the option. The other alternative is, there’s a day when you don't have the option, you die. That day, you die, you don’t have the option to keep going. If you were to say, “On that day, would I rather have the option to keep going?” Sure. On reflection, I might choose that option, but I want the option.
Henry Oliver: Okay. So, you don't want to live forever, you want the option?
Robin Hanson: I want the option everyday, to go on or not.
Henry Oliver: And there’s a good chance that when the world runs out of interesting things, you will take that option and not do very much with it.
Robin Hanson: The fun thing about options is, you don't have to decide ahead of time what you’re going to do with them.
Henry Oliver: Fair enough. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that I should have done? Or do you have any other views on late bloomers?
Robin Hanson: I think it’s interesting, since you’re studying late bloomers, I’m more interested in probing what you think, or what you know.
Henry Oliver: Sure.
Robin Hanson: So I describe this idea of the way by, late bloomers might be seen as a certain egalitarian pitch, right? There’s some other way in which... Is there another way in which late bloomers are admirable? Because I feel like people are trying to pitch late bloomers as being admirable and you might think, “Well, it’s all equal, it would have been better if you had bloomed earlier. I mean, sure, we’ll take your bloom later if we’re going to get it.” But why not? Why is blooming late, admirable?
Henry Oliver: I don't know whether it’s admirable or not, but I think it’s real. I don't think it’s always the result of delay or imposition. So, one thing that people... It’s very implied, but people tend to believe, I think that if you’ve bloomed late, something got in your way. And can we solve that problem? Whereas I think a lot of the late bloomers I'm studying...
Robin Hanson: They couldn't have bloomed earlier, their kind of field doesn't bloom early.
Henry Oliver: Well, they don't bloom early, they might be in a... Like novelists, Jane... You could be Jane Austin and write Pride and Prejudice, when you're 19, or you can be Penelope Fitzgerald and start writing when you’re 60. They're both great novelists. I don't think there’s any guarantee that if Jane Austin had lived a long life, she would have kept getting better. And the normal explanation for Penelope Fitzgerald is, she had a terrible marriage, she had a chaotic life, her husband was a drunk. But I think if you look at the... Look at her until she’s 34, when she has children, she’s not writing. She does spend a whole life learning, learning languages, going to places and this all comes out in the fiction later. And I think some people just run on that time table, so I’m interested not in like, is it admirable? But it is real. Some people bloom later and that’s okay.
Robin Hanson: So I would say, there's a sense in which, it’s more admirable. In the sense that, if you bloom early... So, there’s two things you get out of blooming, one is you get to accomplish whatever you were accomplishing and the other is, you get the celebration and adulation of people noticing your accomplishment.
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: The people who bloom early, not only do they get to accomplish-ing, then they get to spend the rest of their life as the celebrated accomplisher, who is known for having accomplished, they get better mates and better associates and better invited positions, they get to give talks or whatever... Right? And a late bloomer, even for the same accomplishment, they will instead, having to spent most of their time in obscurity, not being celebrated, having to hope that they would eventually accomplish, having to resist the people looking at them deciding they were failures and to persist with their hope that they would succeed and then they eventually succeed, but they don't get to spend much time in the limelight, once they do succeed. Because they’ve spent most of their life, not. And so, as sort of a matter of compensation, we might think, “Well, once we notice somebody is a late bloomer, let's give them a little more celebration.” [chuckle]
Henry Oliver: Also succeeding young can set up this thing where the rest of your life is like, slightly disappointing because you’ve done it now and... Like, I don’t know how happy Einstein was when he was old.
Robin Hanson: But still, if you’d take the mid... Their mid-career person and you give somebody a choice, “Would you rather at this point be past your peak and be celebrated, but now it's downhill? Or would you rather be in obscurity, hoping that you will eventually succeed but not being very sure of that? Which would you rather choose?”
Henry Oliver: I think more people should choose obscurity. I think that's one of the problems we have.
Robin Hanson: They should choose but which would they choose?
Henry Oliver: Oh, they all choose to peak early.
Robin Hanson: Okay, see? Well then, from a point of envy then. The first person isn’t deserving of much envy... I'm sorry, of sympathy for their... Feeling sorry for themselves, because they would rather have that than the alternative.
Henry Oliver: Yeah. And well, and also because it’s low risk. Like “I just want my success now, and then I've had it. And whatever happens to me, I can say, I made that success.” Whereas if you choose the obscurity path, it’s higher risk, as you were saying about your PhD. And in a way, it’s a symbol of the lack of risk appetite in modern culture that we don’t view late blooming in that way. We more often view it as one day I’m going to wake up and I'll discover that I'm a genius. You know what I mean? It’s not like I'm going to toil in obscurity for 20 years and then it’ll happen. It’s, “Oh, I'm going to work out, I'm going to wake up and I'll be Toni Morrison in the morning,” [chuckle] which is just... You know what I mean? It’s this fairytale idea. And that I think is wrong, and I think that’s a...
Robin Hanson: Yeah. Honestly, in order to have hope that you will be a late bloomer, I think you need to have had shots that you thought could have gone on goal.
Henry Oliver: Yeah.
Robin Hanson: Right. They didn’t go on goal, but they had a plausible shot, like you have a whole, you’re just a whole lifetime of taking shots at things that don’t quite work out, but they had a chance. And then you have an expectation that maybe one of those eventually will go in the goal and you’ll finally succeed. But if you aren’t even taking shots, then...
Henry Oliver: There are people who don't take shots who then come out really strongly later on. Do you know Sister Wendy, the art historian, TV presenter. She was an actual hermit. She lived in a trailer, in a forest and she studied art. She didn’t start studying it until later on. And she was, she took her annual trip to some small Norfolk art gallery and happened to be seen by a TV producer who realized that having a very, very sort of old-school Catholic nun on the TV being hugely enthusiastic about erotic art was a winning formula [laughter] and she...
Robin Hanson: I can see that.
Henry Oliver: She totally... I mean, she’s amazing. It’s Julia Child. She was a superstar, but she had made no shots on the goal, partly because, you're not allowed to, you’re a hermit. Right. And Penelope Fitzgerald, the same.
Robin Hanson: Good point.
b: I think, if you're looking for a late bloomer who’s more in the middle of their life, I agree. They need to show some like something that they;ve done, but there are people, I don’t know whether it's a midlife crisis or the menopause or grief, those things that can happen after 50, that can sort of...
Robin Hanson: Right.
Henry Oliver: Tip your life upside down a bit. Some of those people suddenly come out and you are, “Oh wow. You're a whole new person now.” I don’t...
Robin Hanson: Right. I should revise my views. I might more say, if you are constructing yourself, methodically, steadily over a lifetime and improving yourself in ways that you can see, at least you are working at something and building something in yourself, your insight, your observations, your self control, whatever it is, then you might have a plausible hope that this self you’ve constructed will eventually be useful for something.
Henry Oliver: Yes. And I...
Robin Hanson: And people will find a place for it. But you can see that it’s a real thing. This yourself, you’ve constructed, you have better judgement. You can figure things out. You can plan, you can put off gratification. You've become a person who is a solid construction.
Henry Oliver: But often I think these people are not good at knowing how to match themselves to... Because these are the people who can’t fill out a mortgage application. It's not that they’re idiots. They just cannot navigate the world.
Robin Hanson: But there’s something about them, they’ve been paying attention to and making well. And then of course, it could well be that most people that never get framed as a late bloomer because we never find the right way to use them.
Henry Oliver: I think that’s right. And I think it’s... There’s potentially a lot of people out there who need some sort of push or some sort of link up or just good luck.
Robin Hanson: I would love somehow to sort of just give those people a little more confidence in themselves in the sense that, we have a world that celebrates people who go through some early success path. And they go to the right schools and then they get the right job. And then, anybody who doesn’t go along that path, we’ve got this, “Oh, you're a failure, sorry.” That's this path to success and you didn’t go to an Ivy League school and you didn’t get a job at McKinsey. And then, sorry, you’re just... I wish we could sort of give more people the sense that there are just so many ways, if you will just methodically learn and build yourself that we may be able to find a great use for you later. And then put more work into finding those people and trying to match them.
Henry Oliver: And that’s why I'm writing this book. Because I think that there are people out there. My mother was one of those people and people like that need something... They need to be able to pick something up that says on its cover, “There are people like you and they've done it and this is how they did it. And you should keep going.” Like Margaret Thatcher, right? When she’s in her 30s, late 20s, early 30s, she writes to the Conservative party and says, “I’m not going to do this politics thing anymore. It’s too much. I’m not... It’s not working. I'm just going to be a lawyer.” And then just over a year later, she writes back and says, “Okay, no, I am going to do it. But only put me down for safe seats,” because she obviously just can’t go through anymore...
Robin Hanson: Trauma.
Henry Oliver: And they write back, this is Margaret Thatcher and they all know she’s good, but they obviously don;t know who she is. They write back and they say, they basically say, “Yeah, no, we'll bear you in mind.” And it’s like, what if they, what if that hadn’t lucked out. Like what if she’d just been one name further down the list, or you know? Like that’s crazy. We’ll bear you in mind.
Robin Hanson: So there’s a key trade-off here. So in a world, say, of class hierarchy where everybody is in their place, right, you don’t have any uncertainty about your future, you just know right where you are, and if you’re not at the top, then that's just who you are really. But like, you don’t have to feel guilty about it, you never had any choice. There was never anything you could do about it. Well, that was just where you were slotted, right? Now, in a world where we’re uncertain about who can be where and there’s a lot of ferment and a lot of possibilities, you can have hope that even if you're low now, you could be high later. But you could also now feel guilty that if you aren’t high it’s your fault and you should be blamed. So it is a... By giving people hope, we’re also letting them feel guilty and blamed for not doing things.
Henry Oliver: I have no way of proving this, but I do believe that a lot of people instead of reaching your position, which is like, “It’s desperation, so I’m just going to do it.” The desperation is expressed more as, “Well, look, I failed.”
Robin Hanson: Right, and that set it aside and chuck it off, and now you don't have to try anymore.
Henry Oliver: And it’s... I don’t know. It’s difficult to believe that if you were that driven, that you would ever be able to give up, but I’m sure people do.
Robin Hanson: I'm sure they do. That’s not so crazy to me. I think it’s just more some randomness of your emotional configuration at the moment, which way might seem to be the easiest way out.
Henry Oliver: Right. Your personality... You’re sort of a victim of your personality in that sense.
Robin Hanson: I guess... I think an awful lot of how the world goes for people is in terms of just how they emotionally manage the threat of sort of people accusing them of failure or people accusing them of not trying hard enough or not succeeding enough. And it’s just a really emotionally wrenching thing to even think about, and people just have these random ways they adapt to it depending on context and it makes it a whole big difference in various things that is a lot of people don’t try to succeed because it would feel much worse to fail after they tried to succeed than if they just never try.
Henry Oliver: Yeah. I think they...
Robin Hanson: And they're more comfortable never trying.
Henry Oliver: Maybe because it’s a slightly kooky concept, or like a religious or spiritual concept or whatever, so we’re slightly... We’re uncomfortable with it, but inspiration is quite important. Right? A lot of late students study...
Robin Hanson: It's really a lot important just having people around you who are robots. So it’s a classic story, it seems trite, but it is true. If you’re in a world who's nobody has ever been a doctor, then you think, “How dare I think I should be a doctor? I could be a doctor. Who am I to think that if nobody around me has ever done that”, right? If two of your parents are doctors, now you might think, “What a shame... How dare I not be a doctor? They’ll be so ashamed of me.” People’s expectations are changed by just people they personally know who did various things, and that seems somewhat sad because it means there’s all this randomness and who does what then?
Henry Oliver: Do you know Chris Gardner from the movie The Pursuit of Happyness? It's like a Will Smith movie.
Robin Hanson: I probably have seen it, but I can't remember it at the moment.
Henry Oliver: He's a real guy, he's got his own stock broker firm, and he’s very successful, but he had this... They had this awful childhood, but he was good at school and he went into the Navy, but he didn’t have a degree and in this X, Y, Z. He ends up as a medical technology salesman. But he’s a very high potential guy... He had been heavily mismatched. And when he’s 27, he’s walking along and he’s got a kid and he hasn’t got any money and he's just in that kind of phase. And he sees a Ferrari and something about this, the way he described it, it is like...
Robin Hanson: I could use do that?
Henry Oliver: Yeah. But it's a real road to Damascus moment for him. Like he actually stops and says, “Oh my God.”
Robin Hanson: “Why don't I have that?”
Henry Oliver: Yeah, and he goes up to the guy and he’s like, “What do you do?”
And this guy gets him an interview and he’s 27 with none of the background that a stock broker would have in the '80s, but he works his way in and he makes it. And it’s like if he didn’t have that inspiration, which... That’s very like Saint Augustine. It’s very... How do we give more people those moments of the penny drops, if you like? That’s another question.
Robin Hanson: So the closest thing to magic in our world is motivation. Motivation just appears or it doesn’t. There’s these various magical incantations and formulas you try to do to make them appear to go away your way, and they just have this enormous power, they are this magical power, some people are just motivated and then just do stuff. And other people are not motivated. And I think we still just hardly understand what makes that difference.
Henry Oliver: I think more grown-ups, for want of a better word, should experiment with finding out young people’s motivation. There’s a great line in David Ogilvy’s memoir where he says... He says, “I didn't study a single minute when I was at Oxford. And then I go and get a job and I realised that if you work, you get money.” And he said “If they'd paid me to study at Oxford, I would have been the Regius Professor of History.”
Because he'd never found his motivation. But once he got it, he becomes David Ogilvy.
Robin Hanson: Almost everybody, when you have your motivation, you look at it and it feels obvious. Like but it's just hard to realise that if you didn’t have it, it wouldn’t be there and it wouldn’t be obvious.
Henry Oliver: But in a way, the university should do more of that, right, it should do more of like just let's find your motiva... Is it money? Is it status? Is it, “I want to sit in the library.”
Robin Hanson: Well, except, a standard story about what school is for is exactly to train you to do stuff when you don’t feel very motivated. That is the story...
That’s the story, that is, the modern workplace is mostly full of jobs that people aren’t that into. And the whole point of school is to find the people and train people into this habit of, you’re in a classroom, somebody tells you the assignment, you do the assignment, even if you're not that into it, because that’s just what everybody does, and that’s the practice that school is setting you up for, and the selection is to find the people who will do that, and that’s what modern workplaces are looking for, people who will in fact do the job when they’re not very motivated or not very immediately directly motivated. We could say, that is the point of school.
Henry Oliver: But it can work the other way around, right? Like Ray Kroc, who made McDonald’s into McDonald’s, and made it global and everything. His memoir is called Grinding It Out, he ground it out until he was like 55 and a job he didn't want, but he kept going because he wanted to find his success, he want... And he had a string of failures, and he sold everything and he... You can flip that and say, “Well, we're going to give you your motivation and that will help you... That will get you to do all the stuff you don't want to do because you’ll still be working towards your motivation.”
Robin Hanson: I think in a world without school, people just have a much wider random range of motivations, and some of them are really into things that a lot of them aren’t and it’s just harder to more reliably get people to do stuff. That is... That’s...
Henry Oliver: Okay. Yeah.
Robin Hanson: And so, if you're an employer looking for, to fill a lot of slots with people who will mostly do them, if you could go to a place where people are sometimes really lazy and even destructive and other times they’re really motivated into things. Would you rather choose from that pool or would you rather choose from the pool of people who mostly just do what they're told and not very inspired?
Henry Oliver: But another way of framing it is, employers always say, “We want people who have researched the company and really want to come here.” But I would always look for people where it’s like, “No, I want someone who really wants whatever they want, and is going to come and use me for a couple of years, because that'll be two great years, someone who’s compliant, could be two great years, could be 10 years of, ‘Oh my God, nothing changes with this guy.’” [chuckle]
Robin Hanson: In some sense, just more fundamentally, you and I might agree that the thing we’re most often looking from people is just, are they motivated by anything?
Henry Oliver: Right.
Robin Hanson: Right. Whatever it is, just, is there something that’s driving them, that’s pulling them along, that’s just the focus of their attention that they want? Just anybody with that sort of a thing is interesting, and then you could look for the match for whether what’s driving them can match what you’re interested in, but somebody who doesn’t have that is just a whole different category of person.
Henry Oliver: Yeah. I think it’s very underrated right now, in selection. Robin, this has been great, thank you very much for your time.
Robin Hanson: Nice talking to you. Good luck with your book.
Henry Oliver: Yeah. Thank you.
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