To Match the Greats, Don’t Follow In Their Footsteps
People who dream of being like the great innovators in history often try working in the same fields - physics for people who dream of being like Einstein, biology for people who dream of being like Darwin, etc.
But this seems backwards to me. To be as revolutionary as these folks were, it wasn’t enough to be smart and creative. As I’ve argued previously, it helped an awful lot to be in a field that wasn’t too crowded or well-established. So if you’re in a prestigious field with a well-known career track and tons of competition, you’re lacking one of the essential ingredients right off the bat.
Here are a few riffs on that theme.
The next Einstein probably won’t study physics, and maybe won’t study any academic science. Einstein's theory of relativity was prompted by a puzzle raised 18 years earlier. By contrast, a lot of today’s physics is trying to solve puzzles that are many decades old (e.g.) and have been subjected to a massive, well-funded attack from legions of scientists armed with billions of dollars’ worth of experimental equipment. I don’t think any patent clerk would have a prayer at competing with professional physicists today - I’m thinking today’s problems are just harder. And the new theory that eventually resolves today’s challenges probably won’t be as cool or important as what Einstein came up with, either.
Maybe today’s Einstein is revolutionizing our ability to understand the world we’re in, but in some new way that doesn’t belong to a well-established field. Maybe they’re studying a weird, low-prestige question about the nature of our reality, like anthropic reasoning. Or maybe they’re Philip Tetlock, more-or-less inventing a field that turbocharges our ability to predict the future.
The next Babe Ruth probably won’t play baseball. Mike Trout is probably better than Babe Ruth in every way,2 and you probably haven't heard of him.
Maybe today’s Babe Ruth is someone who plays an initially less popular sport, and - like Babe Ruth - plays it like it’s never been played before, transforms it, and transcends it by personally appealing to more people than the entire sport does minus them. Like Tiger Woods, or what Ronda Rousey looked at one point like she was on track to be.
The next Beethoven or Shakespeare probably won’t write orchestral music or plays. Firstly because those formats may well be significantly “tapped out,” and secondly because (unlike at the time) they aren’t the way to reach the biggest audience.
We’re probably in the middle stages of a “TV golden age” where new business models have made it possible to create more cohesive, intellectual shows. So maybe the next Beethoven is a TV showrunner. It doesn’t seem like anyone has really turned video games into a respected art form yet - maybe the next Beethoven will come along shortly after that happens.
Or maybe the next Beethoven or Shakespeare doesn’t do anything today that looks like “art” at all. Maybe they do something else that reaches and inspires huge numbers of people. Maybe they’re about to change web design forever, or revolutionize advertising. Maybe it’s #1 TikTok user Charli d’Amelio, and maybe there will be whole academic fields devoted to studying the nuances of her work someday, marveling at the fact that no one racks up that number of followers anymore.
The next Neil Armstrong probably won’t be an astronaut. It was a big deal to set foot outside of Earth for the first time ever. You can only do that once. Maybe we’ll feel the same sense of excitement and heroism about the first person to step on Mars, but I doubt it.
I don’t really have any idea what kind of person could fill role in the near future. Maybe no one. I definitely don’t think that our lack of return trip to the Moon is any kind of a societal “failure.”
The next Nick Bostrom probably won’t be a “crucial considerations” hunter. Forgive me for the “inside baseball” digression (and feel free to skip to the next one), but effective altruism is an area I’m especially familiar with.
Nick Bostrom is known for revolutionizing effective altruism with his arguments about the value of reducing existential risks, the risk of misaligned AI, and a number of other topics. These are sometimes referred to as crucial considerations: insights that can change one’s goals entirely. But nearly all of these insights came more than 10 years ago, when effective altruism didn’t have a name and the number of people thinking about related topics was extremely small. Since then there have been no comparable “crucial considerations” identified by anyone, including Bostrom himself.
We shouldn’t assume that we’ve found the most important cause. But if (as I believe) this century is likely to see the development of AI that determines the course of civilization for billions of years to come ... maybe we shouldn’t rule it out either. Maybe the next Bostrom is just whoever does the most to improve our collective picture of how to do the most good today. Rather than revolutionizing what our goals even are, maybe this is just going to be someone who makes a lot of progress on the AI alignment problem.
And what about the next “great figure who can’t be compared to anyone who came before?” This is what I’m most excited about! Whoever they are, I’d guess that they’re asking questions that aren’t already on everyone’s lips, solving problems that don’t have century-old institutions devoted to them, and generally aren’t following any established career track.
I doubt they are an “artist” or a “scientist” at all. If you can recognize someone as an artist or scientist, they’re probably in some tradition with a long history, and a lot of existing interest, and plenty of mentorship opportunities and well-defined goals.3
They’re probably doing something they can explain to their extended family without much awkwardness or confusion! If there’s one bet I’d make about where the most legendary breakthroughs will come from, it’s that they won’t come from fields like that.
(Footnote deleted) ↩
He's even almost as good just looking at raw statistics (Mike Trout has a career average WAR of 9.6 per 162 games; Babe Ruth's is 10.5), which means he dominates his far superior peers almost as much as Babe Ruth dominated his. ↩
I’m not saying this is how art and science have always been - just that that’s how they are today. ↩
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