How to put numbers on things even when you feel you don't know enough
Robert Long: So when you did the nuclear war report, and you came up with a Guesstimate model and probabilities, I’m sure as you input those, a lot of it felt extremely uncertain and it felt in some sense wrong to even be putting a number on stuff? How did you get over that feeling? And also, in retrospect, do you endorse having done that? I’m guessing you do.
Luisa Rodriguez: I felt very impostery. Like I felt like I should know more maths. I should know more probability. I should know more about how probability distributions worked. But basically, whenever I was like incredibly uncertain, I’d try a uniform distribution — which is basically where you put equal probability on all of the possible outcomes. And then I was like, “Do I really believe that’s true?” And if the answer was no, I’d try to add some probability to the things I think are more likely.
But plenty of my distributions are either very close to uniform — so, close to saying I’m just totally uncertain about which outcome it might be — or they’re like, I have one theory about how this works, and it’s something like, “Probability goes up over time.” Or like, “If we’re in the kind of world where we use this kind of nuclear targeting, then we’re also in the kind of world where we use this other thing, and so these things are correlated.” And so that would change some things about the distributions, but I rarely felt like I was putting numbers on things. And maybe you’d feel much better about a version where you were starting from uniform probability?
Even if your probability is still between 0 and 99, then that is something. And you probably will make it even narrower — and that is better than I could do on consciousness, so that would be information to me.
I think I was partly just very lucky that there was like actual concrete information for me to draw on — or like, not just lucky, but I am much more drawn toward projects with empirical data for this very reason. I think I’d find it way too uncomfortable to be like, “What’s my guess at the probability that this argument about consciousness is right?” That just sounds impossible to me.
Robert Long: Right. There’s even more — way, way, way more — model uncertainty in consciousness. I mean, I’m guessing there also is in the nuclear war case, right?
Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, eventually I’d get to some kinds of inputs that were super uncertain and weird, about like politics and game theory. And those made me incredibly uncomfortable. And I basically just, again, did my best to start from like, “Do I know nothing about this? No, I know something. So I should put more probability on something than just say it’s like a totally random guess.”
Forcing yourself to pursue a career you don't want
Robert Long: Yeah, I think a certain failure mode of otherwise helpful techniques — like cognitive behavioural therapy, and rationality tools of really considering the impact and stuff — is using that to bully the resistive parts, and not to like have a conversation with them about the bigger picture.
Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah. Oh man, that just sounds very familiar. Do you feel like you’ve been able to do that?
Robert Long: Yeah, I’ve been working on it. I think it helped that I did kind of realise I was doing what I’m describing. Like I was using CBT in helpful ways, but I think I had this internal narrative of the rational part that really needs to show up and tell everyone who’s boss. And going back to the brain, that’s just not that much of your brain. And a lot of people should do CBT and recognise distorted thinking, but there just is a limit to how much I think you should be really coercing yourself to do stuff. I think, as with all things, there is balance here. Like I’ve seen certain corners of Twitter and certain intellectual communities that seem to have this very strong belief that in some sense you should never be doing anything that looks like self-coercion. I think that’s just probably gotta be wrong. I would be very surprised if that’s true. But there’s some truth, and I think being very wary of stuff that makes you feel like you’re killing or locking away a core part of yourself…
Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I feel like part of my coming to terms with this is just realising that I think I had the belief that I could lock it away. And to make it more concrete, what is an example of a thing I’ve locked away? I think there was just a long time where I wasn’t considering what kinds of work I enjoyed in deciding what careers to consider.
Robert Long: Which I’ll add is, I do think counter to official 80,000 Hours advice. Like it should be a factor. I know they do say, correctly, don’t just follow whatever pops into your head as your passion. But anyway, just pointing that out.
Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. No, I agree. I totally oversimplified it. And I think it was because I was unrealistic. You know, they said, don’t follow your passion, consider your personal fit as one consideration. And I was like, “Well, it seems better if I don’t consider personal fit, and I just do the highest-impact thing, regardless of whether I enjoy it or not. And that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
And the mistake here was thinking that I could make that sacrifice. It turns out, I think I just literally cannot. And I thought maybe I’d do it and suffer, and that would just be like a choice I could make. But instead, the part that was like, “No, we want to do work that’s interesting sometimes” — or it’s not even interesting; I think I’ve always been very lucky to do interesting work, but to do work that scratches some other creative itch, or plays more to like things I naturally enjoy and find really stimulating and motivating — that part apparently just demands to be heard eventually.
And so I think for me, it played a role in bouncing between jobs a lot. And probably to some extent that’s meant I had less impact. Or, it’s a confusing question, but it totally seems possible that that kind of thing could happen. And I think it really boils down to the fact that I just was wrong about whether realistically I could make as many sacrifices as I thought I wanted to.
How accountability can help you finish neverending projects
Robert Long: One of my biggest weaknesses or bottlenecks has been something like long-term or medium-term plans and prioritising, “OK, let’s just take the next two months to finish this and then we’ll move on to the next thing.” So, again, life happens and I think everyone probably always feels like they’re not optimally segmenting and focusing stuff, and you know, you get five projects going at once and now they’re all blurring together. But yeah, I can definitely say I’ve made mistakes in not finishing stuff in the right sequence or at the right time.
Luisa Rodriguez: What do you think has made that hard for you?
Robert Long: I think one is sort of a natural disposition towards being interested in a lot of stuff, which I think is a great strength of mine in some ways, but it makes this process harder. I think some of it was lack of self-knowledge and not realising that that’s where the trouble was coming in and focusing more on the daily stuff. I think a lot of it is the environment and the nature of what I’m doing. You know, this probably wouldn’t be an issue in a job that has like quarterly deliverables, and you just have to have to hit them.
So as with other stuff, I think this can be fixed with a mix of better self-knowledge and also the right environment and the right management. And when I say the right management, I have you in particular in mind, because I brought you on board as my “What are you finishing this month?” accountability buddy. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that question.
Luisa Rodriguez: My sense is that, from my perspective, a lot of what was going on was you having an extremely high standard for what it meant for a project to be done. So there were other projects that seemed exciting to you, and it would seem good to me if you wrapped up the one you were doing and moved on to the next one. Like prioritisation seemed hard for you — partly because it didn’t seem like at least any of the solo projects you were working on were ever meeting your standards, were ever good enough to be done.
So I feel like a big part of the value I added was just being like, “Let’s set a delivery date. You’ve worked on this for several months now. From the outside, it seems like if you’ve worked on something for six to 12 months, it’s sensible to share it with the public, or to share it with whoever commissioned you to write this report. So we’re calling that date the end date. And we’re just doing what we can between now and then to wrap it up.” Whereas I think your kind of default perspective was something like, “It’s not done until I’ve solved it.” And that’s a really ridiculous goal that you could have probably tried to chip away at for like years and years and years.
Robert Long: Yeah. And I think it’s important that I knew, in some sense, that was not the goal. And I could have told you that and written that down. But I think by recognising that my brain was going to keep pulling me towards that, that’s when you need outside help — to have a sane friend just be like, “You’re doing it again.”
Luisa Rodriguez: Right, exactly. We had the same conversation so many times. It wasn’t like I was telling you things you didn’t know, or even like each time we checked in was troubleshooting a different problem. Very often, you were like, “I need to share this thing in two weeks.” Then one week went by and you were like, “I’m not going to do that. I’m going to share it in another two weeks.” And I was like, “Nope, you said you were going to do it in two weeks, which is next week. So you have to do that.” And we talked about the reasons we endorsed, and they made sense to you, and then you did it.