What is a better use of time: improving the world, or improving your ability to improve the world?
The best model I’ve found for thinking about this question is in Alyssa Vance’s 2011 post, Levels of Action.
When you use your existing skills to do direct work, you are taking a “Level 1 action”:
Suppose that you go onto Mechanical Turk, open an account, and spend a hundred hours transcribing audio. At current market rates, you’d get paid around $100 for your labor. By taking this action, you have made yourself $100 wealthier. This is an example of what I’d call a Level 1 or object-level action: something that directly moves the world from a less desirable state into a more desirable state.
When you invest time in improving your skills, you are taking a “Level 2 action”:
[…] suppose you take a typing class, which teaches you to type twice as fast. On the object level, this doesn’t move the world into a better state—nothing about the world has changed, other than you. However, the typing class can still be very useful, because every Level 1 project you tackle later which involves typing will go better—you’ll be able to do it more efficiently, and you’ll get a higher return on your time. This is what I’d call a Level 2 or meta-level action, because it doesn’t make the world better directly—it makes the world better indirectly, by improving the effectiveness of Level 1 actions.
What is the use in categorizing actions in this way? For one thing, it helps you to understand whether you are overweighting actions of a certain level. As Vance points out,
The most important difference between Level 1 and Level 2 actions is that Level 1 actions tend to be additive, while Level 2 actions tend to be multiplicative. If you do ten hours of work at McDonald’s, you’ll get paid ten times as much as if you did one hour; the benefits of the hours add together. However, if you take ten typing classes, each one of which improves your ability by 20%, you’ll be 1.2^10 = 6.2 times better at the end than at the beginning: the benefits of the classes multiply (assuming independence).
If you only ever take Level 1 actions, you will never improve your throughput. However, if you only ever take Level 2 actions, you will never accomplish anything, since even the largest number multiplied by zero is still zero.
There is no simple answer to how much you should prioritize each level of action, but there are a few helpful heuristics.
One is to get “both the benefits of Level 1 and Level 2 actions […] by going out and doing Level 1 things that one hasn’t done before.”
The first time I took public transit on my own, in grade 8, I stood at the wrong stop for 45 minutes, trying to flag down express buses as they soared past me. When I was finally picked up, I had no clue how to alert the driver of my stop, so when the time came I nonchalantly walked up to him and said, “this is me.”
The more of a beginner you are at any given task, the more you’re in Level 2 when doing that task. But I still made it to swim practice! As educational as the experience was, I accomplished a Level 1 action.
Nowadays I think about this in my professional life: which useful tasks could I complete at work that I’ve never done before? Usually the first thing a programmer learns to do is print the phrase “hello world.” What is the ‘hello world’ of conducting interviews? Of project management? Of graphic design?
Another heuristic is to focus more on Level 2 actions early in life, and gradually shift to Level 1 as you get older. It makes sense that most people go through vocational training as young adults rather than after retirement: the earlier you multiply, the larger the total sum.
Consider also that Level 2 isn’t the highest level of action, since there are actions you can take which improve your ability to improve your ability to affect the world—meta-meta-level actions. Vance illustrates this point well (with a bit of a nasty jab):
Witness the hordes of lawyers who spend thirty years on the Level 1 action of working at a law firm, three years on the Level 2 action of getting a law degree, and three minutes on the Level 3 action of deciding what to do after college.
Some questions I’m reflecting on as I consider the ideas in this post:
- What levels of action do I tend to spend the most time in?
- What levels of action should I spend more or less time in, given my stage of life?
- What are some actions I could take that would span multiple levels?