On scarcity and regionality

Tyler Cowen prompts us to ask what scarcity and being "a regional thinker" have to do with each other. Here's a speculative answer.

Start with an important puzzle about intellectual comparative advantage:

  1. It's driven by being really good at what you're best at. Dan Luu argues for this well and draws on examples from Hilbert to judo to video games. Practicing the thing you're fourth-best at is way overrated relative to practicing the thing you're best at. Really getting into some reading project is also underrated.

  2. Yet "multiplicative models" of high output are also often right. Tyler has argued for this in cases like Magnus Carlsen and Elon Musk. I suspect this has something to do with avoiding zero-output periods or fatal flaws more generally, which (despite being the ostensible aim of so much self-help material) is underdiscussed or at least rarely discussed well. So, practicing the thing you're fourth-best at is also way overrated relative to practicing the thing you're worst at.

If you don't want to deny either of these, and I don't, it's best to just accept that there's something important about being "T-shaped," actively sacrificing the middle for some combination of breadth and being as good as possible at what you're best at.

Here's my argument for T-shaped reading plans. Analogous study in programming also works well for me: e.g., with katas related to my strengths and Anki cards for concepts I'm weak in. And I remember the toughest poker opponents being ones with the best strengths and no crippling weaknesses.

Learning specific things is often analogous. Roughly once a year I think that I never before understood the Euclidean algorithm properly: something about lattice theory, abstract algebra, computational complexity, or whatever else presents itself. It's correct but misleading to say that I'm "finding new connections": rather, the Euclidean algorithm presents itself as a Platonic object needing further illumination from more and more fields and subfields. The "T-shaped" feeling comes from recognizing both the depth of the thing itself and the breadth of its connections to those fields and subfields.

And now I'm repeating, in a way, my previous notes on scarcity and context: things have subtle boundaries in high-dimensional spaces. What's intellectually scarce, especially in a world where definitions and facts are easy to retrieve, is the sort of understanding that comes from understanding many presentations of an idea in light of many adjacent disciplines.

Now: what does this have to do with regionality? If this is the shape of expertise, and more generally of intellectual distinctiveness, the question is whether regional background has some special connection to where your intellect best approximates this ideal. And there are reasons to think there is in fact such a connection:

  1. Your regional background is where you get your breadth. You did, after all, have to figure out how to live there!
  2. Your regional background is where you get your depth. After all, compounding growth tends to win, and the areas you've been compounding in the longest are the ones that stretch furthest into your (regional) background.

Knausgaard thought for decades about emotional abuse, mass culture, poetry, Naziism, masculinity, and so on. There seems to be one multifaceted thing he spends a few thousand pages articulating: one thing, but a multifaceted one. And it is totally inseparable from his being Norwegian. As I think through other cases, similar patterns emerge (though not always as tidily).

In short: the more one's intellectual contributions are defined by strengths, where those strengths also essentially depend on a broad base, the more your regional background is likely to shape your intellectual contributions.

P.S.: As I read the Socrates of, e.g., Plato's Republic and Theaetetus, he argues that things (i) have real explanations but (ii) domain-relative ones, though (iii) you really need to know the neighboring domains to have full understanding of something, and (iv) knowledge is really really hard (godlike!). So this whole line of thought points again to my conjecture that Tyler is a Platonist.

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