← Back to Kevin's newslettersPublished: 2021 Jan 10

Hi friends,

As long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed creating things: Playing with blocks as a child, building worlds on the computers as a teenager, a spot of residential design/construction in my 20’s, and most recently crafting bespoke consumer electronics. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the joy (and struggle!) of understanding some physical or logical system enough to shape it; to create something from nothing, whether in code, music, wood, etc.

Most of the time I’m quite happy with this state of affairs — it’s absolutely wonderful to make little robots, luxury keyboards, and esoteric programming languages to share with like-minded Internet friends. If the topical variety of my past newsletters is any indication, I could easily spend the rest of my days romping around fun new technical domains.

And yet, I know I’d ultimately regret living a life full of such trivialities, matter how intellectually amusing or artistically fulfilling they might be.

Doing important work

In college I came across Hamming’s famous You and Your Research talk, where he recalls trolling his colleagues:

I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with!

Since then, Hamming has occasionally dropped by my mental lunch table, and lately I’ve found it to be increasingly uncomfortable. Sure, by engaging self-directed problems at the limits of my expertise I’m pushing myself to grow and otherwise sharpening my metaphorical tools. But such tools are only useful once they’re put to actually doing the important work.

And if the pandemic has made anything clear to me, it’s just how much important work needs to be done — not just in America and its institutions, or even the West more broadly, but for human civilization as a whole.

I’m not sure whether I’m feeling noblesse oblige or just trying to live up to my teenage hubris — either way, something in my gut is increasingly convinced that I, a childless 1%-er in their 30’s, really ought to start taking risks to make the world a better place.

The question for me now is, well, what should I actually work on?

Don’t worry — although I’ll entertain such a grandiose question, I haven’t convinced myself I have anything close to resembling an answer. So far, what I have instead is a rough criteria to help me think about what might be worth pursing. I’m sharing it in the hope that:

  1. It might help you conceptualize the important work in your life, or
  2. Y'all might either nominate important work to be done (or reveal some flaw in how I’m approaching all this entirely)

Characteristics of important work

I’ll take the first two characteristics of important work directly from Hamming:

  1. Important work is general: “You should do your job in such a fashion that others can build on top of it”. Studying planets is cool, but developing calculus to do it is cooler. This principle extends beyond just abstract ideas: Better to improve an electric motor instead of just a blender, since the former improves the latter in addition to many other things. Better still, work on making cheaper, more portable electricity, as that would improve motors (blenders) and the many stationary things that use electricity.

  2. There’s an approach: “We didn’t work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack.”

To Hamming’s criteria I’ll add two of my own:

  1. Failure is survivable. Important work is hard, so the day-to-day experience will consist of setbacks and failures. That situation shouldn’t exactly be comfortable (lest you kick back and relax), but it also shouldn’t be crushing. The nature of the work should be such that constant failure won’t lead to anguish and burnout (which, of course, will prevent the work from ever getting done), but rather something closer to the empowering stress of Bus Factor 1.

  2. The work is actually used. I find it unsatisfying to give a talk or write a publication that leaves the reduction to practice as “an exercise for the reader”. Doing so feels like an abdication of my responsibility to actually deliver value, and no amount of applause, retweets, or allocated investment capital can convince my cold, experimentalist heart that something (much less an idea) is useful — the only evidence it accepts is that of disinterested persons actually, well, using the thing.

Under this criteria, the scope of a problem may change substantially. The technical problem of making the first dose of COVID vaccine, for example, can be solved in a weekend in January. Getting permission from the government to distribute that solution takes 10 months (and them allowing people to actually do that work, well…)

These four criteria aren’t comprehensive, but feel to me a reasonable set of lenses through which to evaluate possible work. In addition to Hamming’s excellent lecture, see also this guide from the non-profit 80,000 Hours.

I’ve been collecting proposals various mainstream, contrarian, and galaxy-brain important work to be done. But before publicly enumerating them, I ought to maximize the diversity of opinions under consideration. As such, what do you think is important work I ought to pursue?

Something important and upstream, to which I (we?) have a plan of attack for solving technically, reducing to practice, and not losing our minds as we spend years failing at it first. Looking forward to getting this all sorted in the next few newsletters, love y'all!

(p.s. don’t worry, before saving the world we’ll also get some product design closure and run experimental auctions in the luxury mechanical keyboard market.)

Misc stuff