Advice I'd Give 15 Year Old Me

Two things I’d try to convince 15 year old me about are exploring better and doing harder things.

Exploring better

By 15, I knew that I wanted my work to be focused on helping people. I’ve tried various strategies over the last decade for doing that, and at each point in time felt that my strategy from the previous couple of years was pretty dumb. For example, I spent several years doing standard non-profit-type things like running tutoring programs, and now think that almost always, those are not effective at improving student’s lives. Additionally, I’ve thought the periods focused on exploration were some of the most valuable (my first couple months at college, the couple months I drove across the country interviewing nonprofit founders, the first couple months in the effective altruism community). Together, those two things suggest to me that I needed a much larger meta-update that I should spend more time exploring and thinking hard about different ways to have an impact.

Another aspect of this is that 15 year old me (and 20 year old me to a lesser extent), had more trust in the standard ways of doing things. I thought that standard nonprofit approaches were more impactful than I do now, that schools were better at helping people learn useful things, and that governments and organizations were better at addressing large problems than they are. While it takes time to figure these things out, it would have been useful to pay more attention to the evidence against these things earlier.

So, do I explore enough and think hard enough about how to have an impact now? I think I’ve definitely gotten better at it, but I’m pretty confident that within the next 2-5 years I’ll have some big updates about good ways to have an impact. I think the effective altruism community overall, and especially specific thoughtful people within it, are much, much better than the rest of the world at thinking hard about the right things to work on. So I’m hopeful that being a part of the community will help me continue to question my assumptions. I also try to read more now and to spend more time thinking about the core assumptions that my work rests on.

I think that most people that want to make an impact could benefit significantly from spending a bunch more time exploring and thinking about the best ways to have an impact. Since most people don’t do that, it leads to complacency. We (myself definitely included) think we’re being objective and thoughtful in the moment, but really things like “I feel more thoughtful than the other people in my community” make us feel thoughtful, and we don’t spend enough time thinking about “is everyone in my community confused about how to have an impact?”

Doing harder things

Doing hard things is a great way to learn things, as by definition, you view them as hard and therefore at the edge of your ability to execute on them. There’s also this interesting thing where as people develop more skills and have more successes, they gain more confidence in their ability to do even harder things.

I think people also systematically underestimate what they’re capable of doing. For example, my dad convinced me to tryout for soccer teams where I would be the worst one on the team. I definitely wouldn’t have tried out if he hadn’t pushed me to do this and convinced me to keep going at the times when I wanted to quit. I got cut from several of these teams over the course of several years. But on the two year timescale, I also got a lot better at soccer, to the point where I was better than the average person on those teams. I’ve had similar experiences where I’ve felt over my head in other domains, e.g. starting things or leading teams of engineers, but I had the ability to take these harder steps even though they seemed very hard to me as I took them.

I think teams / organizations are a key ingredient for getting people to take these “harder than they think they can” steps, and maybe especially so for me, as I really hate letting people down. Another important part about doing hard things is that it helps connect you with other people that want to do hard things, which helps both on the motivation and doing-the-right-thing axes.

It also seems like people’s willingness and ability to do hard things continues to increase over time for most people, such that I expect 35 year old me to have enough skills, and perhaps more importantly enough confidence, to do things that I wouldn’t consider doing now.

So not only would I tell 15 year old me to try harder things, I would also tell 15 year old me to take even larger steps on the hardness scale (e.g. after succeeding at starting a tutoring organization, trying something that is several times harder than that instead of something that is just a little harder).

I think that most people that want to have a positive impact would also benefit from trying harder things. As hard things go, people could fail, but I think that it’s useful for people to develop models for what types of hard things to try and for how to more quickly test their assumptions so they don’t spend a long time failing.

Given that I believe that most people are not pointed in the right direction, I’m not sure if it’s good advice to tell most people to try harder things, but I think it’s good advice for people that seem headed in the mostly-right-direction. Because I think I was pointed in not-quite-right directions, I think most of the hard things I’ve done in the past haven’t done much good for the world, but I am glad that I did them for the personal learnings.