Valuable Work

The question of what to work on.

This is my third time writing about more or less the same idea, although in a different way ( the first was here, and the second here). Perhaps I keep changing my thoughts, perhaps it’s a complicated topic, or perhaps I just don’t understand it very well.

Why is it, that the best and brightest people – or the ones who appear to be the best and brightest -always seem to work on the grandest, biggest problems? It’s something I’ve wondered about several times.

Maybe I think about it because I fear it might reflect on me, given that I definitely don’t work on any grand, big problems. Quite the contrary, I work on the smallest, most routine, and you could say mundane of things. Why some schools don’t have toilets or benches, why someone is sitting on the benefits due to someone else, and more along those lines. The usual stuff one calls governance. But I’ll push aside my own motivations for the moment.

You have people shitting on the streets, people living on the roads, people shooting up drugs, but -exceptions (Boyan Slat of Ocean Cleanup fame comes to mind) notwithstanding – you’ll find who are supposed to be the smartest people attracted more to finding the cure to death or conquering other planets or creating superintelligence.

Why is that, I wonder? Is it because minds naturally gravitate towards problems at their own level? Perhaps just as an ICBM would loathe being used where a pistol would suffice, maybe people wouldn’t want to work on what they believe anyone else could do as well in their place. I’m sure there’s some truth to it, in that at least some of the people at cutting-edge companies choose to be there rather than anywhere else because they’re drawn to the problems they work on. In that case, do the things you work on say something about you, and about what you’re capable of? Quite an uncomfortable thought.

But just as much, I wonder, if the supposedly unimpressive problems were so easy to solve, why are they still around after so long? One explanation is that, although they may not sound as impressive as building AGI or humanoid robots, things like homelessness or crime or traffic or keeping streets clean are not insignificant problems that can be solved easily.

Replaceability & Utility

And shifting the frame, you could question whether the impressiveness of something is really a function of its complexity or difficulty – which comes down to replaceability, who can do it – or of its utility. By replaceability I really mean – how easy is it to do? Could anyone else in my place have done it? If what you do can easily be done by anyone, can it ever be impressive? And by utility I mean – does it really make anyone’s life better in any way? Would anyone ever actually want whatever you’re doing to be done?

So is say, being one of many cogs working on a small button of one random product of a tech giant more impressive than say, working on addressing sanitation problems in a small district in the back beyond somewhere? It’s better paid, certainly – which is to say the market rewards it more highly. It’ll be used by more people, perhaps even billions. It’s more technical, in that it’s slightly harder to replace the person doing it, definitely. Which means it might impress more people, but I still wonder – is it more useful? Does the market clearing price of something reflect its ‘value’?

It helps to pick examples at opposite extremes to appreciate the difference between utility and complexity as metrics of impressiveness. At one end you could have an academic conducting original research in a field like anthropology (to take an example, I’ve nothing against anthropology in particular). Is it impressive even if it’s entirely original but totally devoid of any use to anyone? It’s nice to pretend that nothing is useless and everything has some originality, but I’ll bet, at the risk of sounding cynical, that many works fail these two criteria. It’s the sort of negative NPV lofty work that someone can do only because someone else foots the bill, that reminds me of Rakitin’s words from The Brothers Karamzov. ‘You’d better think about the extension of civic rights, or even of keeping down the price of meat. You will show your love for humanity more simply and directly by that, than by philosophy.’ It’s not true for all philosophy or research – some of it is worth more than its weight in gold – but I think it’s true for a vast majority.

And at the other end you have grunt work like digging latrines, planting trees, teaching little kids. It’s highly replaceable (and hence low paid), but it is of at least some use to someone, though it’s hardly the sort of work you’ll feel puts your education to great use. The kind of work a person fetishizing complexity would feel doesn’t do justice to him, the way an ICBM might feel about doing a job a pistol could do.

You wonder then, is it more satisfying to enjoy exercising your intellect on often abstract problems, even if they’re unlikely to ever be of any ‘use’? Or to do things that you can see do have some utility for someone, even if your brain might eventually, unless otherwise stimulated, turn to mush? Perhaps it’s when you do either of these that you realize the value of the other. Exercising intellect without utility breeds futility, creating utility without stimulating the intellect begets dullness.

Forests and Trees

And you might wonder too, how much of the apparent impressiveness is really a property of the work, and how much is simply hype, or marketing, or more plainly, bullshit? Because there’s this ability to make problems seem exciting. Not simply teaching, but ‘revolutionizing’ education; not simply making videos or writing books but ‘transforming’ lives, ‘mentoring’ and ‘motivating’ people.

One form of impressiveness is simply taking the helicopter view or high level view, seeing forests and ignoring trees. There’s a huge difference between a high level view and a low level view. The same earth we see all the time without thinking about it looks oh so beautiful from space.

At the high level, in governance, for instance, you’re improving learning outcomes, you are attracting investment and encouraging business, you are raising health indicators and enhancing health facilities, you’re making a place more livable. That sounds impressive. In business, it’s even cooler. You are ‘building’ something if you work in product, or ‘growing’ something if you’re in growth. Talking to users. Improving people’s lives, making things they need and want.

At a low level, it’s quite different. A lot of what is apparently impressive – ‘increasing investment’, ‘creating job opportunities’, ‘improving educational facilities’ translates into repeatedly telling people – often quite uninterested and indifferent if not incompetent people – to do what they should already have done, whether it is processing loans or building toilets or injecting vaccines or cleaning trash. Just as ‘product’ might translate into A/B testing whether a rectangular or a round button gets more people to click it in less time, or ‘growth’ whether more people click on your ad on Facebook if it’s positioned at the top versus on the right.

Talking at a high level certainly makes something that would otherwise not be impressive seem impressive. In one sense then, the high level view can simply be a comfort mechanism to delude yourself by drinking the Kool-Aid, as, for instance, the janitor supposedly putting a man on the moon.

But it’s more than that. It helps to connect to the big picture. Reduce every work to an isolated, independent task and you’ll almost certainly question the utility of it, unless you belong to the ‘ours not to question why‘ brigade. Without it, you lose yourself in trees, never seeing a forest.

And if it is a delusion, then maybe the low level view is just as much a delusion, albeit one in the opposite direction. ‘Putting boxes on a page‘, you could say, at a very low level, about a developer at a tech startup, or ‘changing the way humans communicate’ at a very high one. Which, if any, or even both, of these is ‘true’, is hard to say; perhaps all that matters is which feels true to the one asking the question.


So impressiveness might lie in complexity, in how difficult it is to do something, or in high level abstractions, the big picture you’re supposedly working towards. And it might also lie in scale. To take a particular example, training a single teacher doesn’t scale easily – at any rate, it’s far slower than software. But a large part of impressiveness is scale. If you improve learning outcomes in one school, no one really knows, or even cares, about it, though it doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a good thing, that it’s extremely difficult, that it is in fact very impressive, even if no one recognizes it. But it’s just one school, or maybe, if you push really hard and you’re lucky, it’s one block, or, stretching our luck further than we perhaps ought to, maybe even one district. It’s hardly a very grand thing to work on.

But if you raise a few million dollars to ‘teach’ kids (or what seems more accurate, ‘train to crack exams’) – notwithstanding the fact that millions are already doing exactly that – you can impress people, and even yourself. Scale induces awe, and tech brings scale; thus tech induces awe (the financial counterpart of tech would be assets under management, how much money you move). Because what you’ve made once is easily accessible to anyone anywhere, whereas that teacher you trained is just one teacher, or, if extraordinarily committed enough to pass the torch, a few teachers. Now it does seem a big problem to work on, and not surprisingly, is much better rewarded by the market.

Though you can question this, obviously. Is teaching a million kids a topic better than teaching a thousand topics to a thousand kids? Is doing a tiny bit of good for a lot of people better than doing something that really improves the life of a few? Is an actor entertaining millions more impressive than a doctor or teacher radically improving a few lives? Taking that old example – is building a spec of a tiny feature of a random application for millions of users better than building a toilet for a few people?

Commodities are Replaceable

What’s funny about this is also that this is precisely a problem that software was supposed to solve. If the best teacher’s lectures are online, then, market forces being what they are, given that the marginal cost of distributing them is virtually zero, everyone should go for the best. All your other sub-optimal teachers should theoretically be out of business, because if I can study from the best, why would I go to anyone else?

There are plenty of objections, and I don’t want this to be about a specific example, but it’d be superficial to avoid responding to at least some of them. It’s very reasonable to believe there isn’t really a single ‘best’ teacher – different students respond differently to different teaching styles. In other words, there are niches in the market, it’s not homogeneous. And sure, that’s definitely true, but I don’t think anyone would honestly claim that every, or even most, businesses are really differentiating themselves or tailoring their products to target particular segments.

The next question is – who the **** are you to decide what someone should or shouldn’t do? It’s the old socialist mindset at work, the one that says we don’t ‘need’ fifty brands of toothbrushes or five thousand education companies solving the same thing. Why should any one person decide that? Let the market answer the question itself, rather than an apparatchik or mandarin imposing a sub-optimal solution.

And the response to that question is that this is definitely not about how people should not try to work on problems that others are already working on. In the first place, it’s probably not possible for each of over eight billion people to tackle untouched problems, or even tackle already touched problems in a new way. And secondly, it’s only through such competition that you can ever hope for progress, as new entrants overthrow entrenched victors.

What this is about is objectivity, to be able to see and accept what one is really doing, shorn of all the grandstanding and impressive hyperbole of changing the world and revolutionizing X and disrupting Y and going from zero to one.

For instance, you often find entire lanes dedicated to a particular category of store or shop. You’ll find clothes stores congregated together, toy stores together, jewelry shops together. Some businesses of which are slightly differentiated, though nevertheless significantly eating into each others’ business. Others are commodity businesses – they don’t differentiate, and sell the exact same thing. In college, for instance, I would see all the fruit-sellers together, all the juice-sellers together, all eating into each others’ business. A similar thing happens virtually, the digital equivalents of local stores. You’d probably write off a local storeowner as dangerously deluded if he claimed to be changing the world or disrupting anything. But if he built an app and someone gave him money for a share in his business, that might change things.

And this in fact ties back to the original point about complexity, how easy it is to do something, whether anyone else in your place could do what you’re doing. That’s what is not being a commodity, the same as everything else. One reason your local storeowner seems unimpressive is that there are dozens just like him within a few miles of him. His digital counterpart might be just as commonplace in the virtual world, but it’s not that easily apparent, and hence he’s shielded from some of the contempt familiarity breeds.

At the risk of seeming unambitious, I think it’s an unrealistic standard to expect to be able to do absolutely unique work (though you can spin a lot of things to make them seem that way), a standard that sets a person up for disappointment. But that’s not to say that the other end of the spectrum – being an absolutely undifferentiated commodity – is the only alternative. I remember a friend once proposing to make workout videos for a fitness channel, and all I could think of was, Why would I ever want to do that? Making yet another back workout routine to add to the millions already in existence – what possible value would it add? As if there weren’t enough already, what could I possibly add that isn’t already there? Nor is it that I have something unique in that department to showcase. And doing the same thing, except worse, that other people are already doing seems pointless. It’s for similar reasons I try to avoid the exam prep bubble; enough people are already saying the same thing I’d have said.


All of this, of course, presumes that a person has the luxury of thinking about and to some extent choosing what they work they want to do. That’s not true a lot of the time; simply getting to work is in many cases a big deal.

And it also presumes that you care significantly about what work you do – care enough to think from first principles from that – otherwise it’s hardly the way you’d want to go about it. Most people would care, given that a huge chunk of their lives goes there, but it often plays second fiddle to something else they care about more. So someone who most highly valued money, or time, or other pursuits and hobbies (which presumably require time or money), or status and what people thought of them, would be better off thinking through their own first principles. But if you don’t know what you’d do with money or time if you had lots of it, and have no use for status, and don’t value power for itself, then you might just wonder about the work you do.