Min, max, and 10x people

What things do scale?

Announcements

Shorter issue this month since I’ve been slammed at work #someonesaveme. More interestingly, I’m trying an experiment! I’ve been getting more requests to edit pieces lately, and wanted to open that up to the community as well.

If you’re writing something and want my feedback, either:

  1. Reply to this email directly with a link to your doc

  2. Reply in the comments with a link

If there’s enough interest I might even set up office hours or do some live stream, but that really depends on what people want. If you can see this announcement, the offer still stands.

Takeaways

Some skills in life have dramatically larger variance than others, which is helpful to know when deciding how much more effort to put in on the margin.

Skill ceilings in life

I played a lot of role-playing games (RPGs) on the PC when I was younger 1. In RPGs, you control a character that grows in strength over time as you complete quests. Some popular ones include Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, or Guild Wars 2.

There's a common style of gameplay known as min-maxing, where players customise their characters to get the maximum performance at minimum cost. You would read all kinds of guides on the "optimal" way to play the game, such as the best pokemon team or the right time to level up your Diablo skills 3. I might have spent more time reading guides than actually playing games.

How would we apply this to the real world? If you wanted to maximise life, what areas are worth spending time on, and what areas are not?

There's many ways to define the problem:

  • Maximise your happiness, in some form of utilitarianism

  • Maximise impact on others, in some form of effective altruism to maximise help at minimal cost

  • Maximise some skills that have high reward vs effort ratio

I want to explore that last option today.

There's a popular concept in tech of the 10x engineer, either satire or serious business depending on who you talk to. A 10x engineer, so the legends go, is someone who is 10x better than their peers.

Whether myth or reality, I want to use that framework for our maximisation problem. Let's find places where we can be 10x better than the average, or even 1,000x better. If the top performer is vastly better, there’s more room to grow, and likely a higher reward to effort ratio.

For simplicity, we'll first rule out areas that are measured more subjectively. My lovely cousin (happy bday btw) might think my newsletter is 10x better than others, but somehow I get the feeling she's biased. We'll leave broad fields such as art, performances, food for someone else to analyse 4.

We'll start in the realm of physical sport. Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, and he's figuratively 10x better than any of us. However, if we actually translate his speed vs that of the average human, he ends up being only ~2x faster. It requires much more hard work and luck to become as good as he is, and he's rewarded richly for it, but the objective difference isn't that large, implying the marginal return to effort is low.

The high jump record of 2.45m was set by Javier Sotomayor. I don't have a figure for the average person, but just tried jumping onto my bed, and am going to use 1m as a conservative estimate. Still not 10x.

The deadlift world record is held by Hafthor Bjornsson, popularly known as the Mountain from Game of Thrones, who lifted 1,104 pounds. That sounds like (and is) a lot, but is only ~3x heavier than the average trained male.

So much for faster, higher, stronger.

Just for fun, I wanted to see if we could find experiences that gave us 10x more happiness, in some biological or chemical way.

It's hard to objectively measure happiness, and I'm going to use dopamine as my objective metric. Dopamine is a chemical that is associated with pleasure; the more dopamine released the more pleasure felt 5.

I tried to look for events that cause high dopamine spikes, which I assumed would be drug induced. It was difficult finding the pleasure potential of narcotics on humans online, almost as if people don't want you to do drugs or something. What I did end up finding was a study of rats on heroin, showing a 4x increase in dopamine when doped up 6. That's high, but lower than I expected and still not the 10x we want 7.

We end up having to leave our realms of physics, chemistry, and biology, and instead go into areas that are more abstract 8.

Can someone be 10x more influential than another person?

I looked at book sales, twitter followers, and instagram followers as a way of quantifying influence. They're imperfect measures, but should give some sense of scale.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has sold 120mm copies, compared to the average author's sales of ~250.

Obama has 129mm twitter followers, compared to the average twitter user's follower count of ~1,000.

Ronaldo has 264mm instagram followers, compared to the average instagram user's follower count of ~200.

That's definitely more than 10x, even if you discount heavily. I've plotted these new areas against the physical ones, using a log scale to account for the huge differences in magnitude; each line represents 10x increase. See footnotes for sources 9.

We've found some avenues where our efforts can scale, and the diminishing marginal returns don’t diminish as quickly. The ceiling is much higher in such an area, and we get a higher possibility of differentiation compared to the average.

People desiring to become influencers implicitly realise:

  1. It's practically possible to be dramatically different from the average. Recalling what we discussed about relative differences, not absolutes, mattering more, this is one way to visibly signal a high status to others.

  2. Although the probability is small, the payoff when you've "made it" is magnitudes larger compared to cost. It's a gamble, but who doesn't love gambling? No wonder we're all addicted.

I also plotted the wealth of the richest person against mean household wealth, and it's a similar 100,000x difference. Financial rewards are also something that do not have a ceiling.

Many such "scalable" areas have been assisted by technology. Tech has abstracted away the physical layer of effort from many things, transforming what were once variable costs into fixed costs. By flattening the growth of costs, tech has enabled the growth of reward.

In the distant past, if you wanted to spread a new idea, you were limited by how many places you could visit. With the invention of the printing press, life got easier, but you still incurred costs for every physical piece printed, limiting your reach. Now, you can send ideas for free, to anyone, instantaneously. It’s far easier to get runaway growth than before.

Faster distribution, higher growth, stronger outcomes.

Some of you might relate this to power laws, and how networks can have parts that are dramatically more important than others. There's some debate over whether power laws exist in real life, but it's indeed the same concept - there are systems where people, things, or parts are vastly more significant 10.

To be clear, I'm not saying that all there is to life is to min-max your influence or wealth. However, knowing the potential upper bound of an area is helpful for figuring out how much effort you might want to put in, and where to stop. Being 10x better usually involves moving away from the physical and into the technological.


Shoutouts

  1. A friend at Stripe is hiring sourcers for her Business Recruiting team; feel free to email me if interested

  2. I spoke with the community manager at Fiveable, check them out if you're looking for high school interns


Other

  1. The first 10 years of Stripe payment APIs

  2. How to read economics papers: randomised controlled trials

  3. Learn your attachment style to become a better parent

  4. Introducing 'Food Grammar,' the unspoken rules of every cuisine

  5. Salastina’s Happy Hour brings you live musical performance every Tuesday; includes an upcoming session by Disney composer Alan Menken, one of the few EGOT winners in the world

1

Surprisingly, this post was not inspired by the Diablo 2 remaster news; I've been mulling over the concept for a while now.

2

I'm grouping many styles of RPGs together here for convenience, yes I know WoW is an MMORPG and that's such a different type of game you can't even believe I lumped them together now get off my lawn.

3

There were some reasons to do so in D2, given the skill tree; I believe breakpoints might also have been a reason.

4

I do feel I've viewed art, seen performances, and eaten food that is indeed 10x better than average, but we need to limit our scope here and I have an article to write.

5

This is an oversimplification, as always. Research has come to believe that dopamine plays a role in both motivating and demotivating behaviours. "These data, along with other reports, support a considerably more nuanced view of dopamine neuron function, wherein accumbal dopamine release is differentially modulated by positive and negative affective stimuli to promote adaptive behaviors."

6

I also found a study of rats on coke but can't interpret the results. I believe the numbers I want are in figure 4, if anyone cares to look.

7

I had this figure in my head that drugs caused a 100x increase in pleasure, but can't find the number or a source anywhere. Also, I'm just counting peak here, rather than treating an event 10x longer in duration as being 10x better.

8

We could say that biological growth of generations does follow a 10x or more scale. For example, the descendents of a person could number in the millions. I'm restricting to just single lifetime events here.

9

Sprintshigh jump, deadlift here and here, book sales here and here, twitter here and here (I rounded the follower count up given the date of article), instagram here and here, wealth here and here. I wanted to do tik tok counts as well but couldn't find a good source of data.

10

Whether you're a power law, log normal, or other distribution, there's some data point that is much larger than the others, and that's the main point I'm trying to make.