Nathan Hwang

Thoughts on My Tribe

Epistemic status: feelings and intuitions.

I’m an aspiring rationalist[1], and I count myself as a part of my local rationality interested community.

And it’s wonderful that the community is here! I can confidently say that if it weren’t, I would be less the sort of person I want to be[2]. It introduced me in quick succession to lots of intelligent people, a series of thoughtful ideas, and immersed me in an infectious self-improvement environment. In a more hands on way, it gave me valuable first lessons in people management when I found myself growing into the defacto leader of a rationalist group house. And, it gave me a people I could call my people[3].

But lately, the community has been dragging on my soul.

The drag is low-grade apprehension, because our defacto leader is leaving for that galactic attractor, The Great Bay Hole[4]. We’ve seen this story before[5]; one person steps up to run things, making sure that meetups happen and generally keeping up the community. Unfortunately, there are two ways this falls apart: first, the sort of person that becomes an energetic charismatic leader tends to reason themselves into a corner that requires them to move to The Bay so they can Save The World[6]. Or, if there’s something keeping them from moving to The Bay, then whatever that is can suddenly require more from them, so the person has to load shed, and leading the community will go out the window before whatever the Bay-Blocking Important Thing is. Either way, they end up leaving after a stint as the local community leader, leaving a vacuum of responsibility, which usually one person to steps up to fill…

This sort of arrangement can be sustainably unsustainable, if there’s enough new energetic people that stick around for a few years before abdicating their position. However, there isn’t currently a clear energetic charismatic leader candidate. The people with babies? The people that will have babies soon? The people busy with school? The people busy with work? The people with unfortunate amounts of anxiety? Me?

could talk at length about the different ways gardening[7] the community is a thorny proposition: I agonized over a few drafts of this post that were all about those difficulties[8]. However, most of the musing was quite abstract, and after thinking about it I realized that while most of my concerns were relevant, they weren’t ultimately important: they didn’t get at the heart of why I felt apprehensive.

The heart of my apprehension is a fear of ending up alone, becoming the sole person putting in non-trivial effort to keep the dream alive. If I pick up the mantle, then it becomes difficult to put back down; don’t I have a responsibility to the community that helped me so much? I should just suck it up and focus more and more energy on the management of the community. And then one day I’ll find myself muttering “somebody has to, and no one else will”, the same thing I internal monologued while burning myself out running the group house, and a phrase I firmly believe should be reserved for profoundly tragic figures, not your everyday run of the mill humans[9].

Yes, dropping responsibilities on the floor was/is/will always be an option: the global BATNA[10] has never been more amenable. But being the last one turning out the lights is sad, like I personally doomed my people to astronomical rents[11], horrific public transportation[12], a boring culture, and pleasant year-round weather. And when I consider the possible outcomes, it’s failure that weighs on my mind. Better to never try, instead of putting in a heroic effort and then seeing it all fall apart in the end anyways.

Well, when you put it that way the counter is obvious: don’t focus solely on the negative outcomes, duh. My counter-counter is wrapped up in the sprawling unpublished essay[13] on my expected cost/benefit for community gardening: high cost, potentially high reward with high variability. Against this uncertainty, I have a menagerie of personal hopes and dreams, a todo list the length of my arm with little of it directly tied to running a community. Is it worth it for me to step up into the energetic charismatic leader[14] role? To put it mildly, I’m uncertain, and it doesn’t help that even when I try to plug my ears, I still hear the doom and gloom rolling in over the community.

This story has a tentatively happy ending.

A recent[15] meetup tried to figure out what the group would be doing, and several people stepped up to take on temporary shared responsibility, with more people tentatively waiting in the wings if things fell through. We’ve tried a similar leadership sharing scheme before, which failed after a brief stint, but we haven’t tried it more than once and in this particular configuration, which makes this “an interesting experiment” and not “the definition of insanity”.

Yes, really, the fact that I physically saw a handful of people willing and able to help, not including myself, really upped my probability[16] that things could keep functioning, and not on Ye Olde Single Energetic Leader model we’ve been chugging forward with. I know from my experiences with the group house that foisting everything on one person produces less work overall, since there are no communication costs. However, not paying the initial costs to make sure people can provide extra capacity means any bump in workload is really a bump in workload for one person, who can’t delegate because the scaffolding isn’t in place. Plus, there’s no redundancy. Therefore, it’s worth the upfront costs to spread the work around, which makes this shared responsibility scheme exciting[17].

It’s not “everything is easy now, and nothing could possibly go wrong”; there are still real costs, and the problems to overcome are still difficult[18]. It’s more about putting to rest the feeling that “I’m the last line, and here I will make my stand alone” and transmuting it into “if I’m part of a last line, then at least I won’t be alone”. Which isn’t the sort of thing you don’t alieve[19] until you see it moving into action, with the ideas and commitment rolling in.

Maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit. We’ll keep flying this plane, and with a little elbow grease, maybe we’ll fly it into the last sunset.

[1]  If you’re not familiar, it’s the sort of new wave rationalism original based out of LessWrong (notably a shadow of its former self now), not the sort of enlightenment rationalism that insisted the world had to make sense, and damn it humanity had a duty to change the world if it didn’t conform. As it turns out, this old-school worldview runs into problems, which we hope to avoid.

[2]  Keeping in mind that being part of the community has most certainly altered my idea of what an ideal version of myself looks like.

[3]  Scott Alexander just recently talked about this, explaining it’s his karass, and I’m sure it’s my karass as well well.

[4]  The global community started with an unusual number of people in The Bay, and because we’re not really on board with inefficiencies, obviously moving to the place with all your online friends makes sense. Once you’ve moved, it makes even more sense for your friends to move to The Bay…

[5]  Simplified account is simplified.

[6]  If it’s not Save The World, it might even be as simple as “it’s easier to run my startup there” or “all the people I want to collaborate with are there”.

[7]  “Gardening a community” is a nice way to formulate community growth, which I’ve stolen from Scott’s “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization”.

[8]  In abbreviated form, what I think makes gardening the community hard: our standards are high, so putting together content is daunting. We’re concerned about using rationality instrumentally, but our interests are varied, so it’s hard to get enough people together to put things to practice on the same target. Doing original work is difficult, since a lot of the low hanging fruits have been picked. We’re drawn from contrarian-heavy populations. Relatedly, we value truth over conformity, even if it makes things more inefficient. Generally, the modern community BATNA means it’s easier to leave groups with difficult problems, even if they are also important problems. Management of a community is not the same thing at all as dealing with whatever the community is focused on, so management is a chore instead of something that comes naturally. Personally, I have truncated social needs, so I would be okay as a Seder/Solstice rationalist (analog with Christmas/Easter Christian). I also think I’m missing a formative experience of exploratory collaboration that the community facilitated, which would help me feel that the community is important.

[9]  There are things worth doing this for, like challenging hell, but no matter how you cut it “running a meetup” is not in the same reference class.

[10]  Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). It’s never been easier to simply leave; there’s are groups looking for members everywhere, and you’re not stuck in one village your entire life.

[11]  I recognize that saying this from the NYC metropolitan area is lol worthy, but at least we have a proper city.


[13]  The aforementioned first drafts of this post are basically that essay.

[14]  I’d have to work on the charisma. And the energetic also, probably. And, well, if we’re being honest, the leader part too…

[15]  It’s not-so-recent by this point; this post is like 2-3 months on a timely issue, which doesn’t really work. Well, something for me to works towards.

[16]  I was also surprised by the extent to which I was moved by the social proof of people earnestly discussing things in a room.

[17]  I also recognize that if I have too much of a hand in designing this sort of organizational scaffolding, I’d probably be prone to second system effects. Something to watch out for.

[18]  We’re not even talking about the really hard sorts of problems, like solving climate engineering, nuclear proliferation, or intelligence foom scenarios. They’re much more mundane, like “what should we talk about next week?” or “how many game nights per month is too much?”. Solving the mundane problems will hopefully help progress on the harder problems, but we’ll have to see how that pans out.

[19]  Useful concept alert: you know something, you believe it. But do you feel it in your gut, do you alieve it?

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