Max talked about return on investment for learning. E.g. at 1% improvement per day, you can double your skill in 70 days. It’s around 2 years for 0.1%. If you always spend half your time learning instead of working, then your productivity (stuff accomplished per day) will be ahead once you double your skill.
I want to talk about some problems with that linear skill model. I think it’s misleading and understates the value of learning.
Learning Is Non-Linear
There are non-linear jumps in performance when learning. It’s like jumps to universality. There are discontinuities.
Put another way, some learning crosses an important breakpoint and results in a major jump in performance. And some doesn’t.
If you don’t make some kind of significant breakthrough, Max’s simplified model may overestimate the effectiveness of learning. But a single breakthrough can be worth a ton of effort.
Also, people often fail at things. One of the results of learning is more ability to succeed rather than fail. Learning more can often make the difference between success and failure. There are lots of things you just can’t do successfully unless you learn enough. Learning reduces errors.
Not a Matter of Speed
David Deutsch said:
The thing that people call intelligence in everyday life — like the ability of some people like Einstein or Feynman to see their way through to a solution to a problem while other people can't — simply doesn't take the form that the person you regard as 'unintelligent' would take a year to do something that Einstein could do in a week; it's not a matter of speed. What we really mean is the person can't understand at all what Einstein can understand.
This is related to non-linearity again. You can’t just take 100 people who did less learning and have them do the same work as 1 guy who learned enough to be 100x as effective. Even if you set aside the overhead for coordination between the 100 people, it still doesn’t work. You can’t replace an Einstein or Feynman with even a million ordinary people and get the same work accomplished.
The 100 people have some advantages too. Learning doesn’t give you a big effectiveness gain at all work. The advantages from learning are unequally distributed. This is often mitigated by helpers. A genius can hire help or work at a company with a bunch of other manpower.
But if you imagine the genius alone on a desert island, and then imagine a second desert island with 100 average people, you’ll see some advantages and disadvantages for each island. (The desert island scenario prevents the genius from having any helpers.)
IMO, it’s pretty hard to go wrong investing in learning if:
- your learning is effective
- you’re reasonably young
- you’re learning general purpose stuff
Learning stuff that’s only useful for a few purposes is more risky. You might stop using it later. And failing to learn or getting stuck or learning wrong ideas are common problems. And you probably shouldn’t learn to code and try to switch careers when you’re 90.
Learning effectiveness is the condition that concerns me the most. Lots of times people try to learn stuff and it doesn’t work. This is especially true for more general purpose stuff like philosophy. Learning really specific skills is more reliably successful. But most people aren’t very successful at learning about epistemology. (That’s a problem I’ve been working on.)