why don't we have more good things?
because someone has to do them, doing them is hard, and 10 more reasons
If you have any imagination at all, you can see dozens of things could be improved upon. Everyday, in every way. Ways that it could be better and better.
Unfortunately enough, getting these cool things usually involves someone, somewhere, to…actually start doing them. That’s where good things come from, just some guys who choose to do them.
Some folk love to complain how actually, other people stopping them from doing stuff is the problem. This has some truth to it, the world has lots of stupid rules and blankfaces working very hard to keep those rules alive and annoying. But that’s just how things are sometimes.
Even within the subset of things that are limited by laws and regulations, ¡getting them done is not impossible. Step 1 just looks like “get those rules changed”. This is difficult, but possible. Again, all it takes is people deciding to do something about it, and the side that does it better wins. It’s how we got rid of smallpox, slavery and, uh, the holes in the ozone layer.
So why don’t people do more good things?
1. New things are weird.
In some sense, all good things are new. “Good things” just means “things that are better than the current not-so-good things”, and this involves doing something else . This is not the easiest of choices to make, to bring a new thing into the world like that while being uncertain of how people will react.
At first, the thing doesn’t exist, and then it does. That’s weird as hell. It wrecks a bunch of equilibriums and turns most people’s expectations of how things work upside down.
If that wasn’t daunting enough. Doing weird things is also just intrinsically hard. Risky. Foolish, even. There’s so much other (equally important!) stuff you could be doing instead. Like reading, or stamp-collecting. Or career-maxing or credential-stacking. Or just being a chill dude.
2. Optimisation says “don’t do it”.
Thanks to the inherent risk and weirdness of doing new things, the payoffs are often ridiculously tiny compared to almost anything else you could be doing. This is especially true if you’re someone who’s able to really impressive stuff. The market will offer you much more to do the most directly profitable thing instead of whatever silly plan you dreamed up.
Taking this utility calculation too seriously leads to a way of living that only allows for things that fit within the easiest possible measure of good. Because outside this system, things get messy again, and payoffs fall off. There seems to be a general rule that new things are hard and risky, or don’t have much of a payoff for you personally (although they still might be great for the people you try to help).
3. Efficient markets fallacy.
It’s funny. Nobody I know actually believes things are as good as they can be. If you ask them, they can describe exactly the way in which they’re broken, and how the world would look like if they weren’t. And yet, somehow, this brokenness is talked about like an unavoidable reality instead of something that we let happen by choice. It’s surprising, and downright concerning, how far this view is taken.
Yeah, I know. TLP would say it’s used to justify inaction, not to actually think about why something doesn’t exist yet. It gives you permission to not try. It lets you pull out the “good enough” excuse whenever you feel like it. And that is often exactly how it’s used.
Despite being quite good at it, sometimes people really just can’t imagine that things could be better.
4. No imagination.
The space of all possible good things is really, really large. And yet, the vast majority of people choose to…close their eyes and look away from it?? I’m not completely sure why this is, my current guess is that it’s some combination of inherent boringness, guilt, conditioning and fear.
Some people have what I call “childish imagination”, the ability to see into an alternate reality, but not care about how it would ever actually come to pass. This is by no means a bad skill to have, sheer variety of ideas is valuable in its own way. But when it comes to turning those ideas into good things, you need a slightly more grown-up, pragmatic sort of creativity.
5. Things take a while.
Like, a long-ass time. By the same kind of logical utility calculations I mentioned in the second reason, this makes it not worth doing the thing if your personal discount rate is high enough.
A longer time period also means there’s more chances for things to go wrong. You get an immense advantage just from sticking around, because most people die out. But there’s also the chance that one of those people might just be you, and after years of trying.
6. People fall off, things break.
One of the thing that most surprises me about the world (and my life), is that anything even works at all. At any moment, I could like, fall really, really sick. Or lose an arm, or my liver functions. Sure, my age and health stats say that this is unlikely, but if it did happen, none of those numbers matter. I’ll be broken anyway.
It’s the same idea for computers, power grids, cars and anything else that’s even slightly complex. How many bit flips does it take for my Mac to just die on me? Why don’t power lines just give up and send entire cities into blackouts? Why aren’t people crashing their cars more often?
The fact that things still work despite everything that could go wrong? That’s crazy.
Even without facing actual disaster, it’s still hard to stick to the long game, even when you really wanted to. Most of us are pretty flaky humans, and that means we’re not very good at getting the many past good reasons to give up.
7. Not everyone is good at doing things.
I like to pretend like I am good at doing stuff. It’s a useful bit of fiction, because it means I find it easier to actually start doing stuff because, hey, this is what I do. Sometimes, other people begin to believe this too, and that also helps keep the fiction going.
But it still is mostly fiction, because at any given moment, I could stop. I could get bored, tired, disillusioned or side-tracked. If I’m stuck badly enough, there is no unshakable sense of discipline that exists to keep me going, even if I care about doing so. And lots of people don’t even care! They don’t have the force of “man, I love this thing” keeping them coming back to it. They can just leave, drop out, move on. It’s so easy to quit.
Assuming, of course, they’re the kind of person with the abilities that let them do good things in the first place. Earning those abilities is a while different process in itself.
8. They don’t have other people helping them.
In the Problem of Too Much Money, I wrote about why money doesn’t really ensure that you get everything you want. What I’m trying to get at here is something like “the problem of too much drive”. That alone isn’t anywhere close to enough.
Some things are easier to do on your own than others, like writing on the internet, or baking, or going to the gym. But most large projects need to be tackled by a collective, there’s just too many different things to do for one person to know how to do, let alone actually getting it done. Having people with you is also good for longevity, sometimes all it takes is one person from the group to push the others to continue working on it, and to know you’ve got other people who care about it too. t
And even the former, simpler projects are still underratedly hard to do on your own. It’s kinda miserable to put out blog posts knowing that you don’t have dozens of friends ready to read them. Baking is more fun when you can share the output, and the gym is easier when you have a group chat full of people who are doing the same thing.
The myth of the myth of the lone genius makes a lot of good points, especially around the kind of solitude that’s necessary for truly original intellectual work. But when it comes to doing things in the real world, and doing them in a way that matters, you’re going to need to find some sort of a team.
9. Coordination is hard.
Even with like, yourself in two weeks from now. The amount of effort it takes to set things up for them to continue working, to come to an agreement about who should do what, to pick the best thing to do, is non-trivial. And that’s without making sure they actually following through on any of the plans. Now add other people and all their idiosyncratic preferences to the mix. Suddenly, you need someone to act as a manager for more than just themselves, and to be good at it too.
10. It’s a Thing.
With a capital “T”. It’s a big separate object that takes up space in concept land. It has a name and face and it haunts your dreams and every waking hour. When you talk about it, you use a name that encapsulates it as “that thing”.
Being a Thing, it is possible to fail at it. It is also the case that you are afraid of failing at it, because it’s a Thing that has two endings: winning and losing.
Having clear outcomes like that is great when it’s very important that you do win in a well-defined manner. Like when you’re running a company, or planning to qualify for the Olympics. But most good things are not like that, you’re allowed to just do them.
Imagine if more things were just something you did with less thought towards outcomes, projects with no start or end, no solid shape that could float into your vision. Things that you picked up and put down when you felt they should be.
I have a feeling like these kinds of things are the ones that stick around.
P.S: The idea for this entire post came from me talking to Telt, who had some ideas around trying to grow the amount of high-quality writing online. Near the end of the conversation, he asked something like “why aren’t other people already doing this?.
My answer was “they’re employed, or find other things to do. It’s a rare kind of person who seriously considers projects that other people would see as frivolous”. It was only like, 5 minutes after the call that I realised that is probably incredibly rude thing to say to someone with a very real job.
But my point was that many things that fall into the realm of “frivolous” are things that are very much worth doing. They just happen to be slightly harder to justify than everything else. Why try to make something new, when you can just spend the extra hours doing something else? Like maximising expected earnings, or hanging out with the homies.
It takes something of an unusual psychology to be the person who gets around all of these problems and actually does the thing. I hope there are a lot of you out there.