Fuck Your Miracle Year
Dwarkesh Patel’s essay “The Mystery of the Miracle Year” just went COVID-19-level viral (woah, too soon). Fucking Jeff Bezos read the article at tweeted at him (and Marc Andreessen and Paul Graham).
I’ve appeared on Dwarkesh’s podcast and he has given me feedback on some of my writing before. I like Dwarkesh and think he’s super smart and deserves every bit of attention and praise that is coming his way. But I do have a bone to pick, not with him or the essay per se, but with this kind of essay and the growing obsession with what I call “innovation porn”.
In the essay, Dwarkesh attempts to explain the annus mirabilis phenomenon, the extraordinary career-defining year of productivity found in the lives of various scientists, inventors, and creatives.
Einstein had his annus mirabilis in 1905. While he was still a patent clerk, he wrote four papers that revolutionized our understanding of the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and special relativity.
He briefly discusses a few possible explanations—the right problem at the right time (i.e. luck), youth and freedom (“Perhaps there’s a brief window in a person’s life where he has the intelligence, curiosity, and freedom of youth but also the skills and knowledge of age”) and the obligations that success brings (as a reason why these remarkable periods of creativity tend to fizzle out). The article ends with a forceful conclusion:
Given how many of the great scientific discoveries have come about during miracle years, we should do everything we can to help smart 20-somethings have an annus mirabilis. We should free them up from rote menial work, prevent them from being too exposed to the current paradigm, and give them the freedom to explore far fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time consuming obligations. It’s a bit depressing that I have just described the opposite of the modern PhD program.
My first criticism, one that is often discussed in these kinds of debates, is the whole “ideas are getting harder to find” thing. As Dwarkesh points out, miracle years tend to happen in your 20s (Einstein was 26 during his). Newton, another miracle-year-haver (1665, age 22), famously remarked that if he has seen further it’s because he has stood on the shoulders of giants. Well, the giants are a lot taller nowadays. The most recent example of a scientific annus mirabilis that Dwarkesh discusses is Einstein—why has no one had a miracle year in the last 100 years? Because now people have to spend their 20s learning about the discoveries that others made during their miracle years (the so-called “burden of knowledge”).
If knowledge accumulates as technology advances, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate through lengthening educational phases and narrowing expertise, but these responses come at the cost of reducing individual innovative capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity—a greater reliance on teamwork—and negative implications for growth.
Analysis of Nobel Prize winners supports the notion that it is getting harder and harder to innovate in your 20s.
Data on the distribution by the age of 647 Nobel prizewinner in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics and literature and time dynamics of the age during 1901-2003 are presented in the paper. The mean survival and the expected life span of the prizewinners was also calculated. The mean life span of the Nobelists in natural sciences steadily increases from the first to the fourth quartile of the 20th century. The rate of the prizewinners selected at the age of 61 and more years increases from 23% at 1901-1925 to 53.1% at 1975-2003, whereas the rate of the winners selected before the age of 40 years decreases from 19% to 2.7% during the same period. (source)
I don’t think the growing burden of knowledge means that it is now impossible for 20-somethings to make breakthroughs or have miracle years, it just might be a little harder than it was in the past. So ultimately I agree with Dwarkesh that we should be doing more to help young people have miracle years, that we should give more young people “the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time consuming obligations”. Or at least I think I agree with him. It certainly gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to come out in favor of intellectual *~freedom~* and *~creativity~* and *~innovation~*. But when I think about it a little more, when I consider my experiences as a current high school teacher and former biology graduate student, I get much, much more cynical. What will high school students and college students do when given the freedom and resources to chase their biggest, boldest ideas? They will do shit like this:
They will make apps and found tech companies. They will build “communities”.
They will become obsessed with *~innovation~* and effective altruism and long-termism and X-risk and all of this other shit that is just catnip for nerds.
One of the privileges of reading Emergent Ventures applications is that I get a cross-sample — admittedly a skewed one — of who and what is actually influencing people.
When it comes to smart and many of the very smartest young people, the influence of Effective Altruism on their thought is radically underreported and underrepresented. (Tyler Cowen)
They will write blog posts about how we can develop more geniuses, about how “institutions are broken”, about how we can “fix” science (or how we can’t), about how we can most effectively do good in the world by giving money to this or that cause or by getting rid of this or that policy, about how we can reduce our chance of extinction by 0.000001% and how even that small difference matters Much More Than You Think It Does. They will attempt to become champions of the epistemic minor leagues, desperately trying to find that one novel insight or provocative argument that will get motherfucking Jeff Bezos to follow them. They will intellectually masturbate to innovation porn over and over again until their dick is limp and their balls are dry.
And yes, I am doing the exact same thing here—it’s why I named this article “Fuck Your Miracle Year” instead of something much more reserved like “Reflections on The Mystery of the Miracle Year”. It’s why I’m writing in this excessively combative tone that doesn’t totally reflect how I feel. It’s why I, too, write articles about how we can cultivate more creativity in science. I want motherfucking Jeff Bezos to follow me. Jealousy is the ugliest emotion and it’s coursing through my veins. I feel it corrupting my mind like a zombie virus.
“Maybe you should write something about geniuses again. Erik Hoel also got a lot of attention for his post on developing geniuses through aristocratic tutoring. Scott Alexander even wrote a response to it. Doesn’t that Rohit the Strangeloop Canon guy also write about geniuses and patronage and stuff like that? He’s got 5,239 twitter followers (and counting) and you only have 400 so he must be doing something right. Remember when you wrote “The Myth of Myth of the Lone Genius” and Scott Alexander linked to it and then Steven Pinker re-tweeted it? What a high! It felt like you were finally being recognized for being a Deep Thinker with Deep Ideas, the only thing you ever really wanted in life. But wait, didn’t you also just write this:
“Progress Studies is a waste of time. Most of what we have learned and could even possibly learn is either obvious (we already have good intuition about what policies and organizational structures stifle creativity and innovation), of highly limited value because it is idiosyncratic to specific domains, cultures, or time periods, or essentially impossible to act on in a meaningful way (scientific/technological ecosystems are so complex that interventions will either be ineffective or actively counterproductive). People who spend their time writing essays about how we can fix science and foster innovation are just trying to make themselves feel better about the fact that they are incapable of making any actual contribution to “progress” (and yes I’m talking about myself here). Progress Studies (and effective altruism and AI safety for that matter) have become so popular because they fill the religion-shaped hole in the hearts of frustrated nerds who are desperately searching for something to make their lives feel meaningful.”
“Hmmm, yes, yes I did. But Erik (my real name), let’s be pragmatic here. You want the attention and the respect, you want patronage or a grant that will pay you to sit around and think and read and write, the only things that your useless ass is good at (and even that is highly debatable). You want to be a public intellectual like Sam Harris or Tyler Cowen or Scott Alexander. Shit, you’d even settle for being Erik Hoel. Didn’t he just get a grant from the FTX future fund for his blog? Man, that would be pretty cool. Remember when you wrote that predictions for 2050 post and he wrote about one of your predictions? Yeah that was pretty cool too, brought some good attention to your blog. I know you really wanted to write that short story about that guy who becomes obsessed with plants and in a fit of madness convinces himself that plants are manipulating humanity into destroying themselves and all animal life so that they can have the planet for themselves, but let’s be honest it’s probably going to suck and no one is going to read it (it sounds a lot cooler in my head, I promise). Just write some more progress porn, maybe something about how we can improve science by changing the way we fund it. Or maybe write something about how changing incentives can save science (or how new incentives will not save science), people love that shit.”
Phew, sorry I got a little carried away there. Where was I?
Look, no one talked about how we can engineer miracle years when miracle years were actually still happening. This modern obsession with progress is just a sign of our decadence, of our creative exhaustion and inability to innovate in any meaningful way. Einstein wasn’t reading fucking blog posts about geniuses and he definitely wasn’t writing them. He was thinking.
Dwarkesh’s essay is really good. “90% of everything is crap” (Sturgeon’s Law) but I think it falls into the 10% of things that are decidedly not crap. But I still have to wonder what the point is, because it’s not going to help anyone have a miracle year or achieve anything that actually helps people become more creative/productive. What it’s going to do is spawn an army of copycats who write articles about geniuses because they desperately want to win The Blog Prize, a Thiel Fellowship, an Emergent Ventures grant or some other award/fellowship/grant that will finally give them the freedom and support they need to have their One Big Idea that will revolutionize science or save the world or save the whales or whatever. I also refuse to believe that Bezos gives a shit about any of this—it’s just virtue signaling for nerds. If he actually cared he would put his money where his mouth is and start a program that sponsors countless would-be miracle years, but instead his cheapskate ass has only donated 1% of his wealth while his ex-wife has donated 18%.
I’ll make a prediction, one that I really hope I’m wrong about: Dwarkesh will never have a miracle year.He will continue to chase the high of having Jeff motherfucking Bezos follow him (better than heroin some say, we’ll have to ask him because we’ll never know). He will spend more time blogging and podcasting and promoting his work on twitter. He will talk and write about how we can make *~progress~* and encourage *~creativity~* and use *~rationality~* to effectively do good, all things that no reasonable person could possibly be against, right? Right?!?!?
In his article “America is running on fumes”, Derek Thompson, another purveyor of progress porn par excellence, hypothesizes that the internet is the real culprit behind our lack of new ideas.
The world is one big panopticon, and we don’t fully understand the implications of building a planetary marketplace of attention in which everything we do has an audience. Our work, our opinions, our milestones, and our subtle preferences are routinely submitted for public approval online. Maybe this makes culture more imitative. If you want to produce popular things, and you can easily tell from the internet what’s already popular, you’re simply more likely to produce more of that thing. This mimetic pressure is part of human nature. But perhaps the internet supercharges this trait and, in the process, makes people more hesitant about sharing ideas that aren’t already demonstrably pre-approved, which reduces novelty across many domains.
This is the sad truth. The double-edged sword of the internet is cutting us much, much deeper than we realize. It makes Dwarkesh and countless others like him (myself included) waste their time writing about geniuses and how we can best foster innovation (a very safe, pre-approved topic—who doesn’t want to be innovative?), which as I said before is essentially just virtue signaling for nerds. It makes it so, so difficult for us to do something for ourselves (for love, for curiosity, for beauty, for pain) and ourselves only, not for college applications or resumes or followers (and this is the real reason why ideas are getting harder to find).
Do you really want to have a miracle year?
Delete the draft of that blog post you were writing. The post sucks and no one was going to read it anyways.
Stop gorging yourself on the internet and its endless buffet of information. Stop masturbating to innovation porn and (effective) altruism porn. Stop reading my blog. Stop masturbating to sex porn while you’re at it.Use your imagination, just like they did back in Einstein’s day.
This seems like the perfect time to announce that I will be deleting my substack and my twitter account forever. Just kidding—please like, share, and subscribe, and if anyone reading this would like to fund me or knows anyone who would be interested in doing so please contact me because I’m about to quit my teaching job and I’m really scared that I’m making a terrible decision and that I’m just going to waste a lot of money and feel like a complete failure :)
Obviously I’m being super dramatic here and I hope Dwarkesh or anyone else reading this doesn’t take this as an insult, far from it (not having a miracle year puts him in good company with basically everyone else who has even lived). I think Dwarkesh has incredible potential and I’m really making this prediction as more of a challenge to keep working hard and not let success get to his head (which I know he won’t).
Also, stop meditating and trying to optimize your mental and physical performance. Has anyone who’s ever had a miracle year cared about any of this shit?
Hahaha! I feel you in my bones. It's ok, we can start a new "community" of people who "don't fucking have miracle years" ;)
I am loving your increasingly violent contrarianism so much.
Simultaneously: I'm in this post and I don't like it.