Monday, August 17, 2015

Sources of Power

You’re in high school, trying to get into a good college. You know what you must do: do well in classes, score highly on the SAT, and be active in extracurriculars — and do it better than everyone else.

Actually, I have a different suggestion: train with a friend for the USA Biology Olympiad, score highly in the first two rounds of exams, and qualify for the national training camp and then the national team.

Only a handful of people can follow that strategy. But anyone who could play the standard high-school achievement game and have a good shot at getting into MIT or Stanford could instead play the Olympiad game and have a great one. The USABO is disproportionately high-utility compared to how competitive it is. It comes with a free trip to a national training camp where you receive intense training in biology and bond with a few dozen other top high-schoolers. There are vast swaths of America, including lots of high schoolers studying hard for the SAT, who have never heard of USABO. And yet there are communities where training for Olympiads is such a well-known option that it barely counts as a strategy.

My friend who did this and got into all her colleges didn’t do so by playing the standard high school game better than her competitors, but by stumbling into a different game entirely. In doing so, she could do things the others couldn’t. I think this a fairly common pattern: a lot of what’s involved in making it to the top of anything is not being better at things than other people, but outright being able to do things they can’t. In business, they call it a “competitive advantage.” Peter Thiel calls it a “secret”. For personal life, I like to call it a “source of power.”

The “other people can’t” is the big part. As a source of power percolates into society, it loses its power as an advantage, although whether you should stop doing it depends on whether its value is external or innate. As an example of the former, 200,000 people compete in the American math Olympiad qualifier rounds each year, so training for the math Olympiad is not such a good move for most people. It’s prestigious, but only in proportion to how competitive it is. In economic terms, the free lunch has been eaten. Meanwhile, when Benjamin Franklin was working in London, saving up to open his own print shop, he found it easier than most to be frugal due to his insight that strong beer does not grant physical strength. They nicknamed him the “water American.” Nowadays, his insight is common knowledge, but that doesn’t make it less effective. Instead, it becomes the new bar.

As a warning, I found when writing this that a lot of examples of sources of power I used or wanted to use would strike a lot of people as weird, but it would take a lot of space to justify them. This is inevitable in retrospect: if it’s considered normal, it’s no longer a source of power. I also noticed while writing this that a lot of my examples focus around high school or college. I think that’s largely because life tends to diverge afterwards, and the examples become much more niche.

Discovering Sources of Power

How can you learn about new opportunities before other people suck them dry? How can you find ways of being better before they become background knowledge? While CEOs often spend much of their time looking for a leg up on the competition, I think there’s enough sources of power and few enough people looking for them that simply trying is enough. In fact, sources of power are sufficiently exploitable that there are many algorithms for finding them with high success probability.

Often, they’re hidden in plain sight, waiting for anyone to read. For a basic example, right now a degree in computer science is a ticket to a decent life. Right now, the meta-skill of “study things that are valuable and will be in demand” is sufficiently uncommon that you can raise your expected earnings (or, dare I say, life outcome) significantly just by following it. Look at the distribution of college majors if you’re not sure. I think the same further applies to specializing in hot-but-difficult subfields like natural language processing or security. Right now, CMU’s Plaid Parliament of Pwning is winning tens of thousands of dollars from application security competitions every year, while only a handful of other American universities have a team at all. More broadly, this idea also applies to entering STEM in general.

This is basically staying ahead of the demand curve. When it comes to personal skills, demand is slow to propagate, and you can gain a lot simply by being faster. Since knowing that you can raise your earnings by becoming a programmer or moving to North Dakota doesn’t cause everyone to instantly become a programmer or move to North Dakota, it will remain exploitable for anyone who wants for quite some time.

It’s interesting to think about trying to be even more ahead of the demand curve by making a big bet and training in what will be hot. This involves predicting the future. But, in life as in stocks, the winner is often not someone who knows what will happen, but someone who figured out slightly more than everyone else. And, for predicting the future, not many are trying. Along these lines, I was surprised when I learned that several prominent companies in the mobile space — in particular AdMob, acquired by Google for $750 million, and Flurry, whose software runs in over 100,000 apps — were actually founded in 2005 or 2006, before the iPhone’s announcement ushered in the modern mobile era. I think a lot of people knew the mobile revolution was coming, although perhaps not that it would be so fast. The people bold enough to actually act on that prediction were in a very good spot when it happened. I’m hoping to do something similar for program analysis.

From Who You Know to What You Know

A lot of the above could perhaps be summarized to find ways to be effective. The interesting part is how people find sources of power. One way is to invent it yourself, whether by finding a loophole, noticing a trend, or doing science. While there are a few places where it’s clear that investigating it may result in disproportionately better capabilities, this can run out of steam pretty fast. It may be possible to gain vitality by eating better, but the reward curve of doing nutrition research probably more resembles climbing the corporate ladder. Most often, the way to find a source of power is to hear of it from other people.

I think it’s a pretty simple effect. People with similar interests like to cluster, but people who also really care about improving will cluster further. They might be able to invent one or two sources of power on their own, but then they share it with the people around them — who also have a secret or two. The effect compounds, with the benefits from sharing ideas dwarfing the loss of exclusivity. Just as IBM found their above-average testers becamedozens of times better when grouped together, what you get are communities that collectively have and share the best ways of doing things. So the way to get good at something is to simply find the right community and join it.

So, for example, you’ve probably heard weight-loss advice from everyone from talk show hosts to your neighbor. This suggests that you can do better by talking to bodybuilders, who can control exactly which day they’ll hit their goal.

But this strategy can be easier said than done. The problem is not the joining: these communities are rarely exclusionary. The problem is the finding: every community wants to seem like them. They get drowned out in the noise.

In 9th grade, I attended a local programming contest. I spent a morning running floppy disks to the judges, and left with a full belly and $500 — I had won by a sizable margin. I immediately went home and Googled for more high school programming contests. I found a pen-and-paper competition in which you answer multiple-choice questions about the BASIC programming language.

I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had instead discovered the USA Computing Olympiad.

For another example, it’s well-known that to get stronger you need to push your muscles to their limits — and specifically their strength limits, rather than their endurance limits. There are vast swaths of the Internet where everyone understands what implications this has for training, with plenty shouting it at the top of their lungs. But if you look around for advice on “how to get fit,” you’re perhaps more likely to find advice to do lots of crunches, or warnings that weights might make you look like a steroid junkie. One journalist described crossing this gap as “I somehow bumbled my way into a parallel universe of American fitness, one in which men know exactly how to get strong.”

Passing It On

As we’ve seen, while sources of power with intrinsic value may merely descend from insight to platitude over time, the externally-valued have a shelf life. Perhaps the big warning from this is for those wishing to help others be successful, especially parents. As Paul Graham wrote, parents are like generals always fighting the last war. I remember seeing a teenager on CollegeConfidential complaining that their parents wanted them to stay home all summer and study for the SAT. Perhaps that would be a rational choice in their home countries, where college admissions were and still are based on grueling exams. Yet here the most advanced standardized math test for college admissions is the Math SAT Subject Test, where it’s possible to miss 7/50 questions and still get a perfect score. Meanwhile, my own mother had occasional aspirations of being a “white tiger,” and would often cajole me during my hacking sessions to “stop playing Java” and go study for the SAT.

This realization — that all these secrets and sources of power I’ve spent so much effort finding might backfire when I try to pass them on — is what scares me. I imagine becoming a parent telling my children to train for Olympiads, not knowing that that’s become advice about as good as spending a summer studying for the SAT.

I think the defense is to recognize the phenomenon but go a meta-level up. Why are people at the top of one field often very good at another? Is it merely grit and intelligence? Just as there’s a meta-skill of finding sources of power, I think there’s a skill of finding and recognizing the people with the genuine secrets, versus the posers and people out to get your money. I believe there’s a way to recognize genuine competence that transcends fields (related concept). That’s a topic in and of its own.

So, find your sources of power, but pass on the meta-skill of finding them. To get your children into college, help them find the new secrets.

And, of course, that’s assuming college admissions are still worth obsessing over.

Thanks to Jonathan Paulson, Amy Quispe, Jessica Su, and Nancy Hua for comments on earlier drafts of this post.