The Case for Low-Cost Ambition
Lots of people I admire have made the case that most people can do more good by being extremely ambitious. The argument is this: a bet on an outcome with a very small probability of occurring can still do a huge amount of good if the upside (the outcome if things go extremely well) is high enough. Here’s a quote from the 80,000 hours post on why you ought to be more ambitious:
There’s a chance you could achieve something amazing. Maybe you can start an important new charity, or run a media campaign that shifts people’s views of a crucial issue. Maybe you could even win a Nobel Prize, be elected to Congress, become prime minister, found a ‘megaproject’ nonprofit, or become a billionaire. If you go in with a firm commitment to doing good, any of these wild achievements could allow you to have an outsized impact.
There are obvious examples where this has worked out very well. Sam Bankman-Fried is an Effective Altruist who left his job at the trading firm Jane Street, and proceeded to make millions of dollars from arbitraging bitcoin, and then went on to make billions from starting the cryptocurrency trading firm FTX. He is now one of the biggest names in Effective Altruism, and plans to donate most of his wealth to effective causes. And Bankman-Fried has talked about why he chooses to do good specifically in terms of expected value. You can read through his thoughts on the relevant expected value calculations here.
But I think there’s a slight problem with this case for being more ambitious. While it might make sense that taking extremely low probability bets is the correct way to think if you’re only interested in maximising the amount of good you do, most EAs choose their careers on the basis of a function that includes both the total amount of good done and the happiness of the person making the decision.
And then taking extremely low probability bets often seems much less likely to maximise the expected value of your own happiness, because of the diminishing marginal utility of money. If you do end up becoming a billionaire, you’re probably not going to be that much happier than if you just did some alternative stable job, but there is a much lower probability that you actually achieve your goals. The crude self-interest EV calculation is probably going to lead most people to conclude that making extremely small probability bets is not worth it, unless they place a very low value on their own utility (as is probably the case with Bankman-Fried) and essentially only care about doing good.
I still think there’s a case to be made that it’s in most peoples’ long-term interests to take extremely low-probability bets and go and launch a start-up or whatever it is. My hunch is that both the worst-case scenario and the median result of starting a new company is probably much better than a lot of people think. Depending on your life circumstances, being the founder of a start-up might have a better median outcome than pursuing a conventional career (because you can gain a lot of connections and knowledge from launching a start-up even if the start-up ends up failing).
But the more marketable form of ambition is the case for side projects or hobbies that have the potential to change your life if they go better than you might forecast. There’s a cliche among tech people that everyone has some eye-roll inducing side project (see the above meme from the /r/ProgrammerHumor subreddit), but I haven’t encountered many people in my personal life with a high-upside side project, probably because I don’t really know any tech people, and maybe you haven’t started your side project either.
Let’s be clear about what I mean by side project with the potential to go extremely well. I don’t necessarily mean starting some small business and trying to make money on the side of your normal job. What I’m really referring to is engaging in some kind of hobby or project (that may or may not make you any money to begin with) that seems like it could result in something extremely good happening, and there is virtually no risk if the project fails to gain any traction or if you get bored with it. This also seems less demanding for people with kids and a mortgage - you’re probably not going to quit your job at 45 to found a new company, but it’s possible you have the time to take up some new hobby that could end up being a huge success.
Here are some examples. In the late 2010s, I began a blogging website with friends where we all wrote about politics. My writing got a lot better, and one article I wrote went slightly viral among people interested in politics in the UK, leading to an editor from a national newspaper getting in touch and asking if I wanted to write an op-ed for them. I ended up writing a few op-eds, and they still look good on my CV today. Even though we abandoned the website after half a year or so, I think everyone involved in the website gained something from it, and the only costs were the associated opportunity costs, which weren’t particularly high.
Samstack is a similar side project - I started writing seriously in November of last year, and got a shout-out for one of my first pieces on Marginal Revolution, had a few pieces hit the front-page of Hacker News, had a shout-out in the FT from a writer I’ve admired for years, and won $1,000 in a blogging prize. I also started forecasting on a whim in late 2020, not expecting much success. Now I get paid to forecast, I’ve improved my CV, and have also made a few friends from it. For young people especially, just saying ‘fuck it, why not?’ often leads to good things happening.
These aren’t examples of earth-shattering successes - the blogging site I started as a teenager was pretty much an abject failure in that it shut down so early, except for the fact that I gained a lot from it and lost nothing. This blog has only been a modest success so far, but the best case scenario (being able to live comfortably from writing and spreading ideas I find interesting) is extremely attractive, and there is essentially no situation in which I regret the existence of Samstack. It’s also worth noting that a ton of extremely successful start-ups began as side projects (see list here). Ben Kuhn has made a similar point - if you just do loads of random things that seem somewhat appealing, you’ll probably end up with a few things that worked out extremely well, with very little cost. Through just trying a ton of random clubs at college, he discovered a hobby that he ended up loving (contra dancing). He writes:
At a guess, the reason doing lots of different things is so important is that it simply exposes you to more potential random “strokes of luck”. When you do a thing, often lots of the exposure to luck comes from the first relatively small bit of effort you put in. For instance, if I turned out not to like contra dancing, I could have stopped going, so it was a pretty small cost for a large potential upside.
One antidote to Cheems Mindset is just to do ambitious things that have extremely low downside risk. I can see why you’d be afraid of starting a company with your life savings, even if the expected value is high. But I can’t really see why you’d not start the blog you’ve wanted to for a while - the most likely bad outcome is that you get bored after writing a few articles, and give up. But the best outcome is that you become Ezra Klein or Scott Alexander or whichever blogger you most admire.
Side projects aren’t the only form of low cost ambition that seem worth pursuing. Applying for jobs that you really want but you’re fairly certain you won’t get also seems like a good idea. Simply, the cost of applying for a job you really want but think you probably won’t get is low, but the upside is very high. I also have a hunch that a substantial portion of the population consistently underestimates how likely they are to be successful. A small piece of supporting evidence: I used to forecast the chance of getting a first or distinction in various essays and exams, and was consistently very underconfident (despite being slightly overconfident in forecasts unrelated to my personal life). I don’t remember the exact figures, but I would guess that if I forecast a 50% chance of getting a first or distinction in an essay, I actually got the grade about 80% of the time.
While there are probably some people who are consistently overconfident, if you read this and think ‘Hey, I usually assume I’ll do worse in things than I end up doing too!’, you should apply for jobs you think you won’t get. Or start a side project. Or apply for Emergent Ventures. Or the Blog prize. Or a writing job. Fuck it, why not?
This article was written as a submission to the Blog Prize’s June mini-prize. Go and check out the Blog Prize and start a blog if you haven’t already!
ok Im inspired.
Two articles (and a small comment reference) that extends on the idea:
It is better to have some high-ambition dense-control smart gambles and large amount of low-ambition sparse-control "routine work", but never mid-ambition and insufficient-control projects https://swellandcut.com/2018/09/26/in-plain-sight/
It is always best to find ways to mix asymmetric gambles with hyper-conservative minimal footprint habits, but not some feel-good "self-help" behaviors that leaves people vulnerable https://dwarkeshpatel.com/barbell-strategies/
There is extreme "exception to the rule" and "cognitive dissidence" at play for those have ambition but don't listen, also a lot of intellectual dark matter (unspoken rules) to observe. https://luttig.substack.com/p/timeful-advice/comment/6924003
Question 1: how does one visualize the ambition-control matrix? https://www.thecuriosityvine.com/post/our-investment-barbell-strategy
Question 2: Is the ambition-control matrix congruent to the reward-risk (or RR-complexity) matrix? https://www.bill4time.com/blog/ultimate-guide-virtual-assistants-law-firm/ https://expertprogrammanagement.com/2011/07/risk-and-reward-analysis/ https://www.coindesk.com/markets/2020/12/16/crypto-is-a-low-risk-high-reward-career-move-these-days/