Ben Kuhn Profile picture
30 Mar, 14 tweets, 5 min read
Hot take: the outside view is overrated.

(“Outside view” = e.g. asking “what % of startups succeed?” and assuming that’s ~= your chance of success.)

In theory it seems obviously useful. In practice, it makes people underrate themselves and prematurely give up their ambition.
One problem is that finding the right comparison group is hard.

For instance, in one commonly-cited statistic that “90% of startups fail,” (…) “startup” meant all newly-started small businesses including eg groceries. Failure rates vary wildly by industry!
But it’s worse than that. Even if you knew the failure rate specifically of venture-funded tech startups, that leaves out a ton of important info. Consumer startups probably fail at a higher rate than B2B startups. Single-founder startups probably fail more than 2-founder ones.
OK, so what you really need to do is look at the failure rate of 2-founder B2B startups, right?

The problem is that *nearly all the relevant information* about whether your startup is going to succeed *isn’t* encoded in your membership in some legible subgroup like that.
Instead, it’s encoded in things like: How likely are you to break up with your cofounder? How good will you be at hiring? How determined are you to never ever give up?

Outside view fans anchor far too strongly on the base rate, and don’t update enough on inside views like these.
“If only 10% of startups succeed, how could I claim a 50% chance? That’d imply I’ve observed evidence with a 5:1 odds ratio! How presumptuous!”

Actually, evidence *way* stronger than 5:1 is everywhere:

(It’s rarer for startups than for names, but still.)
The outside view works best when you don’t have access to that kind of inside-view info. That’s why it’s so useful in e.g. forecasting tournaments, where you’re predicting the outcome of public events you’re not involved in. Legible group memberships are all you have to go on.
But if you’re, say, planning your career—then overusing the outside view will just make you ignore all the ways you’re non-average.

I’ve seen a depressing # of exceptional people look at the outside view, assume they’ll do an average job at something, and give up without trying.
If you’re making a decision where you have a lot of illegible information, you need a different toolset:
1. Build gears-level models (…)
2. Try things to gain information, and update quickly on the results
3. Think real hard (
Related reading:
1. Applied Divinity Studies argues that rationalists are less successful than you might expect because they put lots of weight on outside views:…

(I think ADS isn't convinced this is a mistake, but I am)
2. Me elaborating on this in an interview with @alexeyguzey:
• video:
• transcript:…
3. @ESYudkowsky explains why/when he doesn't take outside views seriously, by example of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality:…

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More from @benskuhn

28 Mar
A lot of managers (including me!) find it hard/scary to give critical feedback.

I realized recently that this is often downstream of a less obvious blindspot—giving people enough *positive* feedback! If you've done that, critical feedback "magically" becomes much less fraught.
Basically, the hard part of giving people critical feedback (at least for me) is worrying that it'll make them feel bad (as opposed to motivated to improve). The biggest thing that makes people feel bad is worrying that their manager thinks they overall suck at their job.
So you need to give positive feedback not just for things that are *surprisingly* awesome (which I think is many managers' default), but frequently enough that the positive:negative ratio accurately reflects how good they are at their job.
Read 9 tweets
26 Mar
This is another great takeaway from last thread, which I *should* have learned from changing jobs, but actually took ~20 more cycles on the motivation roller coaster to realize.

For me, bad focus was ~always a response to circumstances, even when I wasn't consciously aware!
My first years at Wave, I repeated variants of the following ~monthly:
- notice I'm stressed/unfocused
- "huh, having an off day"
- go climbing, read books, etc.
- still stressed
- gripe to boss eg "accounting sucks"
- boss helps fix accounting problem
- ✨happiness returns✨
Eventually I started interpreting stress/unfocus as a sign, not that I was having a bad day, but that I was working ineffectively or on the wrong thing. Eg, I'd know I needed to be hiring faster, but kept getting distracted by other, less important, more urgent projects.
Read 6 tweets
24 Mar
One thing that surprised me when I switched plans from "earn lots of $ and donate" to "build important things," is how much more productive I became.

I thought if I was earning the $ by doing intellectually interesting work I'd stay motivated. Turned out that wasn't true!
Actually, it was even worse—I *thought* I was motivated while I was doing plan A, and only when I switched did I even realize *how motivated it was possible to be.*

Several friends had this experience as well. Makes me wonder how many people are stuck in that state.
(For example, I never thought I'd be pumped enough about work to live for 1+ yr in a country where I didn't speak the language! Or to have the stamina to spend 20+hr/wk on the phone with an accounting firm. Or etc.)
Read 11 tweets
17 Mar
People ask me for a lot of advice on what to do about technical debt. Here some things I’ve learned about how and when to prioritize fixing bad code:
1. Distinguish global vs local problems.

Local problems are things like a poorly-implemented module—it slows you down if working on that module, but is fine otherwise. Global problems are things like “we use database transactions wrong” that infect everything.
2. Fix local problems the next time they get in your way.

(i.e. trust that they’ll get solved eventually by a “make the change easy, then make the easy change” process.) Leave TODOs in the code, deprecate methods, etc. as breadcrumbs for anyone else who might want to fix.
Read 10 tweets
16 Feb
I just finished *Creative Selection* by Ken Kocienda, which is largely the story of how he came to build the iPhone keyboard.

It’s a great example of how many twists and turns it can take to come up with something that seems so incredibly normal!

v1 started out looking like...
some wacko phone-keypad variant, because the developers were super worried about touch targets being small. The input method for this was: tap to get the top letter, swipe left/right to get the bottom letters.
Except instead of the letters being organized like a phone keyboard, they’re jumbled up. (Presumably to make sure that common letters were taps, not swipes? But that plus the gestures seems impossible to learn.)
Read 16 tweets
15 Feb
People sometimes ask me whether Wave has any plans involving crypto, presumably because of the narrative that crypto is supposed to help with financial inclusion.

Unfortunately, in reality it doesn’t and we don’t. Crypto does not solve any hard financial inclusion problems.
Wave needs to solve, roughly, 3 problems in order to financially include someone:
1. track their balance
2. comply with regulations
3. convert balance to/from cash

Crypto is a very exciting solution to 1, but Postgres is a boring solution to 1 that is much faster.
People sometimes think crypto helps with 2, because it’s *technically* not currency. This is... not a great assumption about how governments/regulators work. It turns out that if you follow the letter but not the spirit of the rules, people eventually notice and tell you to stop.
Read 8 tweets

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