Beware Invisible Mistakes

post by kuhanj · 2022-05-04T19:34:52.729Z · EA · GW · 5 comments

Some kinds of mistakes are very visible/salient. Mistakes in execution are often salient. When you organize an event and very few people show up, it’s pretty clear that you didn’t do enough advertising, or that your advertising was ineffective, or the thing you were organizing an event around wasn’t interesting enough to other people in the first place (or something else, gotta hedge :D). Mistakes that are publicly visible (or at least visible to some others) are also (way) more salient. I have spread myself too thin, and overpromised and underdelivered - and have let others down. Other people knowing the mistakes I’ve made makes them quite salient.

Other kinds of mistakes are harder to notice, sometimes so much so that we don’t even realize they’re mistakes. These often relate to opportunity cost, which is the difference between the thing you did, and the best thing you could have done instead. When I waste a few (high energy/high-focus) hours, or sometimes a whole day (rip) on Youtube, the opportunity cost of what I could have done with that day is often not very salient. (This specifically is no longer an issue, thanks Cold Turkey!) It’s really sad to think about how much more good I could have accomplished with all the time I spent watching tennis and Youtube, or how much more effective I’d be if I’d sufficiently invested in my productivity habits and mental/physical health at a younger age. 

Strategic mistakes are often not salient (h/t Nate Thomas).  It might not be very clear that you’re making a mistake if you’re doing something really well, but are focusing on the wrong thing entirely - e.g. getting really good at performing surgeries for Kaposi’s sarcoma instead of optimizing education about HIV/AIDS for high risk groups (see here for more). (Yes, this is also an example of opportunity cost).

Doing things is hard. When you do things, you often subject yourself to lots of potential scrutiny. If you try and fail, your failure is salient, and often visible to (some subset of) the world. If you don’t try at all, no one blames you for not trying. I’d love for us to be more cognizant of strategic mistakes/opportunity cost/other low-salience things, and hold ourselves to higher standards. Though this post is focused on mistakes and correcting them, we shouldreward each other for pushing ourselves (which can look like running experiments to find out how to optimize our productivity, determining how much and what kinds of work we can do sustainably, getting coaching, etc), and for actually trying, even if we fail.

So how can we make these invisible mistakes more salient, and integrate these ideas into how we spend our time and make decisions?

Thomas’ post [EA · GW], and Alkjash’s Pain is not the unit of Effort [LW · GW] are also helpful for reminding myself that making the most of my time is not the same as working myself to the brink of burnout. I really like Alkjash’s definition of “actually trying” from the aforementioned post: “​​using all the tools at your disposal, getting creative, throwing money at the problem to make it go away” and importantly, not “subjecting yourself to as much suffering as you’re able to endure to prove to yourself and others that you’re a virtuous studious workhorse.”

Doing good sustainably is important, but given the stakes of the problems we’re trying to solve, it really seems critically important to push ourselves to our (long-term, sustainable) limits, and be as strategic as we can to do the most good.



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comment by CarolineJ · 2022-05-05T11:59:35.640Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also think that having friends, colleagues, and coaches who are very honest with you is extremely important because invisible mistakes are sometimes especially hard to spot. Maybe you got a very fancy-looking new position, but it's way "less good" than you doing a more hidden but higher impact job. The rest of the world will tell you that it's great; so you need transparent friends and be in a sufficiently good mental space to receive this feedback.

Reviewing your decision on your own every X months and trying to make predictions about what "really good impact" looks like may be a good idea.

comment by Miranda_Zhang ( · 2022-05-05T00:23:07.703Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for synthesizing a core point that several recent posts have been getting at! I especially want to highlight the importance of creating a community that is capable of institutionally recognizing + rewarding + supporting failure.

What can the EA community do to reward people who fail? And - equally important - how can the community support people who fail? Failing is hard, in no small part because it's possible that failure entails real net negative consequences, and that's emotionally challenging to handle.

With a number of recent posts around failure transparency (one, two, three), it seems like the climate is ripe for someone to come up with a starting point.

comment by DavidXYu · 2022-05-04T21:26:04.771Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate a lot what this post is driving at.

Adding on to what you're saying, even instrumentally speaking, a human working so hard they are edging (or past) burnout, is not nearly as effective in being able to assess their own landscape (i.e. see less visible mistakes). Especially because the stakes of the problems we are trying to solve can be so extraordinarily high, doing good sustainably becomes so critical as a basic practice. Helping each other do better can be a thing we learn to do better too.

A culture that emphasizes being a workhorse can be liable to create the "invisible mistake" of incentivizing people within that culture to make more "invisible mistakes". The more we can point this out to each other (like what this post is doing), the more we can preserve/restore our capacity to zoom in and out flexibly and do our work well!

comment by PaulCousens · 2022-05-05T23:53:31.002Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I recently listened to the podcast Life Kit on NPR in which Dr. Anna Lembke said that going cold turkey from an addiction (if that is safe) is an effective way of reorganizing the brain. She said this is true because our brains have evolved in environments with much scarcer resources than we have today and so are being overloaded with too much dopamine and pleasure by everything we have around us nowadays.

Daydreaming itself may not be counterproductive. Daydreaming can be a way to adaptively take a break. It may enable more productive work by avoiding burnout. 

I constantly feel attuned to how well my time is  being spent. Because there are so many things to keep track of during the day, and I feel my consciousness is not at its peak all day, I apprehend misuses of my time snowballing out of my control.

Spotting an invisible mistake might be more advantageous than realizing a visible mistake because spotting an invisible mistake entails intrinsic motivation, while realizing a visible mistake might entail public pressure which can lessen the effectiveness of outcomes (by involving shame, tendency to conform, etc.).

An invisible mistake that I have done recently is not utilizing a means of doing something that is obvious and the easier/faster/more efficient means.

This post made me think about the idea that we are unknowingly committing a moral catastrophe. Invisible mistakes would seem to me to be what would be the support structure of a moral catastrophe taking place. Because they would be invisible to society, they would have free reign to move society in this or that direction. In that case, focusing on invisible mistakes should probably have much more priority than visible mistakes.


Replies from: PaulCousens
comment by PaulCousens · 2022-05-06T20:26:44.461Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Other invisible mistakes I make are poor planning (which involves a vague vision of my plan which doesn't account for everything, which can lead to it not turning out exactly as I expected to or failing in some way in the long-term after it is implemented because of factors that became relevant later on), overestimating my endurance for some manual and automatic task (such as driving somewhere) or my ability to tolerate a certain condition (like going without food for a while), and overworking myself at the unintended expense of accuracy.