I went for lunch with Vinay Gupta during my second week in London. He is one of the most inspiring doers and thinkers I’m familiar with. I’ll be writing a full primer on his ideas soon. For now, in the spirit of writing conversations down, here are some notes from then.👇
A Quick Note on Emotion + Vibe:
As of writing this, I’ve been in London for three weeks. I’ve met tons of exciting people, visited some great institutions, and witnessed some amazing things. My conversation with Vinay easily fits in the top three things about my experience here so far.
The intellectual and emotional energy of the entire conversation felt like I was being let in on a series of secrets that were previously hidden from me. Perhaps an appropriate title for the conversation could be imported from Rene Girard’s book:
The conversation acted as a serious aspiration-raiser and has influenced several big decisions already (I’ll mention them alter). This quote from Tyler Cowen is relevant as a description of the conversation:
At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.
This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.From Marginal Revolution.
Local Maxima Everywhere. What future for optimisation?
This is a point that Vinay hammered really hard.
Almost every system that makes up our world is a function of evolutionary forces. There’s some tinkering, occasional diffusion of innovations, changes in the environment, and selection effects. All of these forces mean that change is incremental and conservative. Most institutions put their pants on with one foot at a time.
I’d describe the paths of these systems as satsificing: they embody protocols that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal (normally survival of the instutution and some minimal viable functionality).
Venkatesh Rao describes our everyday systems as constantly evolving down the path of ‘minimal cognitive energy’. Think about most fake news faux-solutions. They are just too cognitively expensive in most contexts. Twitter is popular precisely because of the lack of cognitive energy required per unit of input.
Vinay described all systems as suffering from local maxima; as a function of the forces described above. This is actually a tremendously exciting observation because it means there’s tons of room to improve; and tons of space for folks to innovate by bootstrapping a move from one hill to another:
Three piece’s worth reading on this topic are:
- Climbing the wrong hill – Read this to get an insight into how hill-climbing and local maxima/minima pervade the paths you take in life.
- Tell me who you are, by Vinay Gupta – This is a great case study of ‘local minima/maxima’ in action. It’s a history of critical adoption decisions regarding identity systems, as well as an exploration of possible futures.
- My tweetstorm on Skills Debt:
Everything is a scam. Learn to act accordingly (most don’t).
One of Vinay’s axioms is the same as Riva Tez’s (and, I’m guessing, many other people I admire). It’s that everything is a scam.
Here are the related ideas/observations that cropped up when he was describing this worldview:
- There are serious limits to human knowledge.
- Most fields + institutions fail to acknowledge those limits. They believe in a faux myth of competence. Consider the certainty the World Bank has that their policy prescriptions will work. The presecribe the same types of policies
- A shockingly high amount of institutional activity goes towards recovering from errors, rather than mitigating them. Many institutional activities tend to be wrong by default and stay that way; as opposed to having lean experimentation. Samo Burja says that most organisations spasm and satisfice in a general direction, versus moving swiftly to accomplish certain functions. Vinay would agree.
- We can never get perfect input, not perfect functions for prediction on most important things. Once we internalise this fact, we can begin to play a different game.
- We haven’t seen a full diffusion of the insights from chaos theory and complexity sciences into the real world. Our decision making still portrays an implicit belief in the Newtonian Worldview.
BTW, if you’re looking for a primer on Chaos Theory, you won’t do much better than this wonderful lecture from Robert Sapolsky:
This perception very much echoes Nassim Taleb’s work with Incerto.
Like Taleb, Vinay describes the implications for viewing the world as uncertain and more risky than we typically assume. His advice is:
- Treat your decisions as a portfolio. The default for most decisions is failure.
- Failure isn’t personal. It’s the natural state. Persist anyways.
- Acknowledge the difference between what you can and can’t know. Choose where to put your conviction.
- If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. (Completely contrary to the VC-ification of life advice; ‘be the best at what you do, don’t do other things’).
Learn Disciplines When They’re Young:
When I asked Vinay about his personal intellectual development, one piece of advice really stuck out. He recommended reading the earliest publications in a field. When a field is just starting out, everyone’s an amateur, so it’s easier to understand. Also, you get a far better overview of the roads not taken and why.
I’m yet to put this into practice, but I’ll likely give it a try by reading some stuff from the early homebrew club days, or early biology/psychology studies.
What does it look like when a discipline actually diffuses effectively?
There are tons of latent, untapped insights from various disciplines. Governments are only just starting to adopt software-driven practices like ‘lean’, ‘agile’, and ‘design thinking’. What would the diffusion of complex systems thinking result in, in terms of political policy? What would it look like if science grant givers thought more like VCs, or VCs were able to think like scientists?
Concentrated Human Willpower & Elon Musk.
The best one liner I heard from Vinay was: ‘concentrated human will can manipulate probability, time, and space into the direction it desires‘. I love this because it’s a prompt for turning any human ambition into something more concrete. Similar to – ‘If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it’.
The second best one liner was: ‘The best way to think about Elon Musk is that he’s an Avatar. The archetypal engineering entrepreneur; able to juggle his dreams with many hands and godly powers’.
Core Architecture of Human Society:
What is the core architecture of human society? How should that shape what I pursue? In more Burja like terms, you might frame the question as: What’s my theory of change/history? What should I do as result?
I don’t have an answer right now (although I will tackle it another time), but this was one of the underlying themes of the conversation which I really enjoyed.
Time Horizons & Advice:
I asked Vinay for some advice towards the end. The core idea behind his advice was that I’m young and should focus on the sub-set of things that I won’t be able to do later on + activities which will positively compound over time. Specifically:
- Get physical! An underrated pattern that Vinay mentioned was that most folks who are able to do great things later in their life have the physiological infrastructure to do so. Many Fortune 500 CEOs were atheletes in school, etc. His specific recommendations was:
- Learn to fight.
- Pick up Judo to learn how to fall properly. Ingrain that in your muscle memory because a bad fall in the future can be near impossible to recover fully from.
- Pick up a standing fighting discipline; Boxing or Tai Chi. If you are in a ‘black swan’ event where fighting is needed, this can be paramount to exit that situation.
- Learn to fight.
- Become a neural network by creatively practising + exploring people and cultures. Specifically, learn about the histories of different cultures, then spend time with people from those cultures. Figure out what their nation’s history says about their worldview and test your theses. I’m in London which is quite international so I’m excited to do that!
- Languages → Now is the time to pick up a new one. It has a high upfront cost, low maintenance costs, and huge rewards over time.
- Re-iterating from above. Think of your decisions + directions as a portfolio of bets. Have several bets going on at a given time.
Now, I plan on joining a judo society, restarting my learning of Hindi, reading a bunch of Wiki articles as an entry point to the world’s cultures (+ this course), investing time in meeting people from those cultures, and look forward to learning more. The entire conversation was hugely inspirational and I’m grateful 🙂
If you liked this, let me know. Happy to continue the conversation via Twitter (DMs open!).